Writing, nostalgia and details

My article on diving Malaysian Borneo is up on Matador Networks. Enjoy.

Writing this piece was at once cathartic (the first draft exceeded 3000 words!) and nostalgic. I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of becoming a divemaster (Nov 30) and starting work at Scuba Junkie (December 10, I think). Last year at this time I was a newbie DM sharing a shitty little room with Rob, a sweet guy who helped me build up my confidence as a DM. Thanks, Rob!

Just a few weeks later I was a badass DM, guiding freshly-minted divers at Sipadan on Xmas day wearing a Santa hat.

Pulling together the info for this piece and the others I’ve been working on has only reinforced a lesson I learned from James Sturz during a travel writing course I took at MediaBistro a few years back: Great writing is about details. You must write travel pieces immediately, or you’ll forget all the important colorful stuff. You’ll lose immediacy. It’s better to know what story you will write *before* you go somewhere, so you know what details to take down. Etc. Etc.

I’ve discovered that I’m not delighted with what I write from my pitiful notes and memory. It isn’t bad, but it’s not as great as I want it to be.

All this makes me want to go back out into the world again.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to this weekend’s snowstorm. If it’s going to be freezing cold, we might as well have snow!

Sliding into home

I finally have a day off and some time and attention and energy to write about my trip to Thailand.

It starts with a sleep-deprived stream-of-consciousness from KL airport, which I find funny and random. Enjoy!

Feb 23

Back in KL airport again.

I’m sucking on grape Mentos in the unenthusiastically air conditioned food court, where the the enticing food posters (“Asian fusion!”) have nothing to do with the workaday, ready-to-eat fare on offer. I’m lazy and bloated on cheap, spicy food-court food.

Outside, idling airport buses spew exhaust in elephantine bursts. The chunky, turned-over earth around the landscaped flowers look like chicken rendang.

I’m achey from the early-morning taxi ride to the airport and the window seat that got me here from Borneo. My mind is cottony from last night’s beers and a short, listless sleep. “satu lagi!” calls my brain. Though I don’t know what it wants “one more” of.

I’ve got four hours to kill before my flight to Bangkok. Thank gawd for spider solitaire.

I’ve got the Olympics on my mind. I haven’t watched a second of coverage. “Single-minded focus,” I can hear Bob Costas’ voice intone. “Overcome adversity.”

Abruptly I’m transported back to primary school, during one of our periodic choral performances for our parents. “Give me a smile, with everything on it,” sings my consciousness, “And I’ll pass it on!”

Too little sleep, too much caffeine and sugar.

today

“We’re going home tomorrow,” I said to Mike about 10 days ago. We were sitting on my balcony in the Marina bungalows on Koh Lanta, Thailand. I rocked in my hammock and he squirmed on the less-comfy wooden chair chair as we played the last fierce games of our 240-game backgammon tournament.

I gasped. I had just referred to Semporna, Malaysia, as “home.”

A slip of the tongue. But indeed, I’m back “home” in Semporna.

Thailand was what I had hoped for. I spent the first few days in Bangkok hanging out with PC and Tat, Tat’s mom Angelika, and her cousin Joana. Our first day we took a longboat ride up the Chao Phraya River, taking in the hot, sticky filth of the polluted river and stopping for hours at a market. Tat, her cousin and mom shopped like crazy for tschotchy presents while PC and I sweated and chatted.

At lunch he and I had a rather intense 10-minute conversation about American politics. I haven’t had such a conversation in ages, and it felt good.

One night PC and I went to see a Muay Thai tournament – Thai kickboxing. We were accompanied by Shiva, Angelika’s Brazilian-embassy driver and a former Muay Thai competitor.

We whitefolk paid 1500 baht each for the farang (foreigner) tickets. Shiva paid 400 baht and had to talk his way into the near-empty farang section, explaining that he was our guide. Entry to the sections was strictly controlled by the same cagelike turnstiles you find at unmanned entries and exits to the subway. The sinister architecture continued in the stadium itself. Above us in the rafters, separated by floor-to ceiling metal fencing that called to mind the worst European football matches, sat the poorer locals. Ringside, below and separated from us by a concrete wall, sat lumpy white farang in khaki shorts and collared shirts, clutching ticket stubs arranged by their hotel concierges.

We sat in between, on wide concrete platform stairs that constituted the cheap farang seats. To our left, in the next section over, sat a huge crowd of betting locals – the expensive local seats. This crowd consisted mostly of middle-aged men with thick bulges of baht in their front pockets.

Before each fight the competitors entered the ring Рalways over the top rope, never between. They each wore a shiny, almost lam̩ cape, a ribboned crown, and a lei. Their shorts were short, satin and either blue or red. Together in the middle of the ring they performed a pre-fight ritual that seemed half-dancing and half-stretching. Eventually they retired to their corners, their trainers removed their cape, crown and lei, and the fight began. Each round was accompanied by a small band in the corner of the stadium, who beat drums, rang bells and rattled chimes in ritualistic beats.

Each fight lasts five three-minute rounds. The first two rounds are relatively slow, as the competitors try to discern each others’ weaknesses and score a few easy points. Likewise, the crowd is fairly silent during the early rounds, as they individually calculate odds and plan betting strategies.

The third round is the fulcrum, both numerically and practically. At bell-ring the hands of the betting crowd shoot up and start making elaborate gestures and signs, communicating odds, bet amounts and agreements using a language as complex and amusing to watch as that on an old stock-trading floor. If one competitor is clearly stronger than the other the betting is frenzied as the crowd tries to find a way to make *some* money off the fight. If it’s a close match, the fight becomes frenzied, as each competitor tries to gain the upper hand.

The fourth round is a more-intense version of the third, when the betting, cheering and fighting reaches its height. Underdogs might start to fight back, prompting their formerly silent fans to start cheering support – tentatively at first but taking on brashness with each connection of fist or foot. Panicked bettors begin desperately flailing at each other, trying to hedge their bets. Each blow is met with an appreciative roar from one section or another of the crowd.

The tone of the match is solidified during the final round. If it’s a blowout, the weaker fighter spends 90 seconds desperately trying to score points. If he’s unsuccessful, a sign from his trainer tells him to stop fighting and the competitors dance around each other in a mock spar for the last 90 seconds. It’s like running out the clock in the final seconds of an American football or basketball game.

But if the match is close, the final round is fierce yet careful to the closing bell, at which point both competitors raise their arms in mock-confident victory and are welcomed as champions in their respective corners. It’s only once the referee tallies the points from the three judges that a winner is festooned with a flower wreath and fistfuls of bills are peeled off and traded in the stands.

I loved it – The fluorescent-lit atmosphere, the elaborate ritual, the familiar rush of excitement from watching any sport.

I even liked it better than our entertainment the following night: the Calypso Cabaret, a ladyboy show featuring glitz, new tits and old packages bulging from polyester briefs.

The next day I flew south to meet Mike in Krabi. His flight landed before mine, so he bought two beers, set up the backgammon board on the floor of the arrivals hall, and waited. Alas, my flight was delayed two hours, so by the time I arrived the beers (plus a few more) were in his belly and the backgammon board tucked back into his luggage.

Never mind – we jumped into a taxi van for the two-hour ride to Lanta.

When we arrived we partook in the local intoxicants, went for a pork-laden dinner, and retired to my balcony with a few beers to play backgammon late into the night. That set the basic daily pattern for the next few weeks: wake up, get silly, go for breakfast, get silly, play backgammon, get silly, go for lunch, get silly, play backgammon, get silly, watch the sunset, go for drinks/dinner, get silly, play backgammon.

I could write more about Lanta, but I’m not feeling it at the moment. Suffice it to say that I gained about 10 pounds in bacon, cheese and sloth and left happy…and a winner (by just 2 games!) of the backgammon tourney.

repetition, boredom and paranoia

Greetings from Semporna, where I’m counting down the days (5) until I fly to Thailand for my visa run. My first stop will be Bangkok to be a tourist with PC and Tat. We’ll occupy ourselves visiting temples, watching kickboxing, drinking beer and whiskey, and singing karaoke. But I’ll be happy just to see their faces and get a big hug or two from PC…who, by the way, gives the best hugs ever. Try it sometime.

Next I’ll fly down to Koh Lanta to meet up with Mikey. We’ll sit in hammocks, play backgammon, eat pork and cheese until we’re sick, drink red wine, go on the odd dive, read books, and probably drink too much on more than a few occasions.

But until then, it’s diving diving diving.

At least once a week someone asks me how long I’ve been here (4 months!) and if I get sick of diving the same sites all the time. Don’t I get bored? The answer is no, for two reasons.

First, though on occasion there are not-great dives, my “annoying optimism,” as one customer jokingly put it, tells me there’s always the *chance* that something phenomenal will turn up. The fun is in the looking. I’m not a museum guide, after all, trundling bored schoolkids through rooms of the same paintings and sculptures every day. Fish move, they try to hide, they act unpredictably, and there are so *many* of them…whose names and habits I’m still learning.

Second, there are the customers. They are even more unpredictable than the fish. At times they are entertaining, assholes, awed, impatient, indifferent, fascinated. They ask the oddest questions, tell great stories, confess being nervous, thank you profusely, shrug you off. You never know what you’re going to get.

It’s exhausting, trying to keep people you’ve just met happy. That’s why long-term customers (a week or more) are a comfort, even if they’re mediocre divers. At least you know what to expect from them.

For the past two weeks or so we’ve had a customer called Alex – an opinionated, hilarious, stubborn-yet-agreeable German dive instructor. He could go on for hours about what makes a good DM, where to find the best diving in Egypt, what equipment is overrated, and on and on. Between dives we’d sit on the front of the boat, sunning ourselves to warm up and dry off and listening to his harangues and monologues. A blast to have on the boat every day. I’m sad he’s gone.

Also in the past month we had a couple from…Holland I think? They came a few weeks ago – he’s an experienced diver and she needed a refresh course (which I conducted). They stayed about a week, went traveling in Borneo, and then changed their plans to come back to dive some more. But in all the time I spent with them, I never heard them say anything truly positive about the diving.

“How were your dives today?” I’d ask, seeing them on the jetty and wanting to be solicitous. He would always be the one to answer. “Well, it was OK. Not great,” he’d frown. “The coral is not so nice, and the visibility is awful.” In all they spent about *two weeks* diving here.

I used to take the negative comments personally. I was paranoid that my inexperience showed, that I would be called out as a fraud. But the thing is, I’m good at this. Not the best, for sure. But pretty damned good, and getting better every day.

Semporna snoozing

I’ve been back from Mabul for two weeks. It’s a testament to my laziness that I’ve only now found the will and energy to post anything. But after getting a couple of not-so-subtle hints from dear Lis (“post to your blog!”), here we go….

Life on Mabul was like a vacation: short hours and a resort atmosphere. The staff rooms line a long shared balcony, where we’d sit and sip beer in the afternoons before dinner. After dinner we’d move up to the bar for music and drinks, or else Mike and I would sit on the balcony outside his room and play backgammon late into the night. Good times.

Most of the SJ staff is coupled off, so my first week in Mabul was The Week of Couples. It was nice, but a bit dull: No matter how hard they try, people in couples just don’t have the same carefree vibe as single people. I say that hoping that some day a miracle will occur and I, too, shall lose that carefree vibe.

About a week into my stay Mike, one of my DM instructors and my closest friend here, and Paul, an entertaining Scotsman nicknamed “Pooey,” rotated out to Mabul and late-night raucousness ensued. We drank plenty of Tanduay and Coke, shared silly but honest conversations, and occasionally sang or (in Pooey’s case) climbed down drainpipes to keep ourselves occupied.

On Mabul island there’s a village populated mostly with Filipino legal and illegal immigrants. Unlike the sea gypsies who live on surrounding islands, they live in fairly solid wooden houses on stilts, either along the beach or over the water. A maze of precarious, rotting wooden walkways connect the houses. The walkways and beach serve as a playground for countless throngs of half- or fully naked children who appear to have run, shrieking and laughing, out of a Gauguin painting.

But alas, the time came for me to leave this minor paradise and return to the dank, noisy wonderfulness of Semporna. The best thing about being back, other than the internet, is band night at our bar. It’s nice to see a wider variety of faces, and to dance up a sweat Van Halen and the Black Eyed Peas.

As a matter of fact, it’s an extra-special band night tonight – one of our instructors is leaving on Monday, and another instructor (Sara) is celebrating her birthday. We plan to give out adult diapers at the door (Sara turns 30) and supply markers, scissors, etc. so that people can customize them. Should be interesting.

With that I’ve got to run. I promise to post more soon – I’ve been a lazy bum but I’ll change my ways.

A new year

Happy New Year!

I spent New Year’s Eve at the Scuba Junkie party, dancing up a sweat, drinking pints of Tanduay and Coke and placing bets on who would hook up with whom. The night ended around 4 am, when Paul, another DM, kicked down the door to my room because Rob, my roommate, lost the keys. (We found them the next morning, sitting right on the floor behind the bar, where we had been looking for them. Ahhh, Tanduay sight.) Good times.

On New Year’s day Rob and I woke up simultaneously at 12:30. Seriously – we sat up in our respective beds at exactly the same moment. Weird. After a roti breakfast I went to the dive shop, where most of the staff was taking a bit of the hair of the dog, floating in a dunk tank filled with ice and wearing dark sunglasses. We sang Auld Lang Syne and discussed car crashes, crushes, and other hangover topics.

Today I had another day off, which I spent a bit more productively. I booked tickets for my visa run to Thailand in late February. I’ll spend a bit more time in the country than the 20 minutes I took last time I did a visa run: First to Bangkok to see PC and Tatiana (yay!) and then down to Koh Lanta for a two-week “holiday” with Mike, another Scuba Junkie. Mike and a few other SJ staff used to work at Lanta Divers, so I’m certain we’ll have a great time. He promises great food, great diving and beach parties. Life’s hard.

After booking my tickets I went for a wander around Semporna. I realize I haven’t really absorbed the place yet; I’ve been so focused on my DMT and work that I never looked up, looked around. An aberration. New Year’s Resolution (the only one I’ll make): Start noticing things again, dammit!

But Semporna will have to wait. In a few days (the 6th or 7th) I’m being transferred to our resort on Mabul island for two weeks. There’s no cars, a later wake time, no 45-minute morning “commute,” better food, palm trees and white sand. And, alas, no internet. So if you want to talk before the end of January, speak up!

I wish you all a new year full of delight and delightful surprises. For the first time in a long, long time I feel truly optimistic about the year to come…despite the fact that editors are still ignoring me. Bastards.

Life as a DM in Semporna

Well it’s official. I’m a divemaster.

My course ended on Monday – in the morning I led my instructor on a guide, and then I endured the “equipment exchange,” aka the stress test.

During this test, my buddy (Heath, another DMT) and I kneel on a sandy bottom at about 5 meters, buddy breathing (only one source of air, so we each take two breaths, passing the regulator back and forth), and exchange our masks, fins and BCD (the thing that holds the tank). Stressful enough, right? But at the same time, Rohan (my instructor) and various others threw sand in our faces, free-flowed their regs so we couldn’t see through the bubbles, ripped off our masks and weight belts, tied up our hoses, etc. It was fun in hindsight, but I never want to do that again!

That evening Heath and I stayed at the SJ resort on Mabul Island. I went for an 85-minute night dive off our jetty, grabbed a quick dinner, and then did my first snorkel test (video coming soon). I killed it – Rohan says I put all previous DMTs to shame with my ability to inhale large quantities of alcohol very quickly. One of my many talents.

I took the next day off, in anticipation of my *second* snorkel test back in Semporna. This one was administered by Mike, the instructor who took over my course while Rohan was on holiday. I killed that one was well, though not quite as elegantly as my first (my trousers were soaked with booze).

Finally, today I woke up and packed for the first time in 5 weeks. It’s weird to be leaving, to go traveling again. I have more to write about this, but I’m too hung over to think particularly clearly.

I’m off to KL tonight to meet up with DrC and travel around peninsular Malaysia for a while. I *might* be coming back here, if SJ needs staff later this month. It’d be good to get some experience at a place I know and with people who know me. But if that’s not possible, I might go to Thailand, where it’s fairly easy to get a DM job. I also need to spend a bunch of time writing a backlog of stuff that’s been simmering unwritten in my brain while I’ve been busy here.

That’s the update from here. More (and more interesting) stuff soon…

Life as a DMT in Semporna – II

I’m stealing a moment during the hour free time I have between returning from diving and evening check-in at the dive shop for another quick post.

So, what’s a typical day like?

I wake up at 6ish, get my gear together and walk from Lee’s Rest House, which is situated in the center of Semporna, to Scuba Junkie, about 5 minutes away. I grab breakfast at SJ – usually egg, toast and watermelon washed down with bitter brown water they pass off as coffee – and head across the street to the dive shop to set up the boats for the day.

Customers start to trickle in around 7:45, and by 8 we divide ourselves up among the 2-3 boats and take off. Most boats first go to Mabul, an island that’s a 45-minute speedboat ride away, where SJ runs a resort and a second dive shop. We pick up more customers there, drop off others, then the boats scatter to the various dive sites in the area.

About half the time I stay on Mabul, reading theory, taking exams and practicing skills. Other times I might be assisting an instructor, shadowing a divemaster (to learn by seeing), or (very rarely) just fun-diving (to learn the dive sites and practice my fish-ID).

So what, exactly, does a divemaster do? We guide certified divers around dive sites. We give a briefing about the site (general layout, depth, bottom composition, marine life you can expect to see) and remind divers about diving practices (bottom time, what to do if you’re lost, hand signals for communicating under water, etc.). Then the group jumps in – max of 4 divers per DM – and we dive. The DM leads the dive, pointing out interesting marine life, keeping everyone safe, and keeping shitty divers off the coral (!). Most of the time we do three dives a day – two in the morning and one after lunch.

Around 4 the boats leave Mabul back to Semporna, where we take the gear of the boat, rinse it and put it away. Once that’s done we’re free for an our or (if we’re lucky) two, which gives me a chance to rush back to Lee’s take a quick shower, and return to the dive shop by about 7 to greet and kit-up new divers for the next day.

The shop closes around 8 – the end of my day! I sometimes have dinner at the SJ restaurant/bar, but most of the time it’s cheaper and tastier to eat at the Chinese or Indian places that have become my staples. If it’s band night or if I’m not too exhausted, I hang out in the SJ bar playing pool and having a few Tanduay (rum)-and-mangoes…then it’s back home to bed. Diving takes a lot out of you, so the nights are rarely long – midnight is a late night.

Gah – time’s up…gotta go back to “work.”