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!

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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.”

Life as a DMT in Semporna

I’m sitting in the Mabul Cafe, a cheerfully lit restaurant overlooking Semporna’s harborside drag that boasts mediocre food and sluggish service. I’m here only because it’s the only place in town with decent WiFi internet connection.

It’s a good thing that my DMT (divemaster trainee) activities keep me busy as hell from 6 am – 8 pm, because Semporna is not a place one seeks to linger. It’s rancid, rat-infested and characterless – unless you count the man who called out to me as I passed his window, “Can I touch your breasts?”

The tourism industry – all dive-based – has taken off in the past few years. Suddenly scores of salty-haired white people in board shorts visit the local shops, seeking scarce fresh vegetables or sun cream or mosquito repellent that actually works.

The locals seem to still be bewildered by us and our questionable morals: There’s a sign in the Scuba Junkie shop, entitled “Boobie’s and Bums,” that asks female patrons to please cover their bikini tops and bottoms when they leave the premises. It’s nearly impossible to get any alcohol here – Sabah’s population is predominantly Muslim – so there’s an illegal-but-tolerated trade in cheap rum, gin and beer smuggled in from nearby Philippines. It’s all very 17th-century pirate-y.

There are two bars in town, both attached to dive shops. Tuesdays and Fridays are the Big Nights at Scuba Junkie’s bar, because that’s when the band plays: Five remarkably gifted local musicians play covers from The Eagles, Nirvana, Metallica, and everything in between.

In the evenings the local young people cruise around in their tricked-out cars, deafening pedestrians with dance music and hip-hop blaring from their stereos. About half the women wear head scarves – some with chaste long skirts and others with tight jeans.

Packs of pre-adolescent street urchins troll the garbage bins seeking large plastic water bottles, which they sell to fish farmers for 3 ringgit per kilo. Once a kid must have hit the jackpot, because he yelped with glee and called to his friends, to hurried over to help gather the treasure which he had unceremoniously dumped from the bin into the street.

Yes, Semporna is a classic filthy harbor town: the stink from the festering harbor mingles with the scent of fresh fish and gently rotting fruit from the market. But the tourist money seems to be having some effect, judging by the shiny new cars and monster pickups driven by many of the older locals. It’s a town about to boom – they’re building two new malls/markets near the harbor, which is where all the tourists huddle, mostly afraid to venture into the scruffy main part of town.

Despite its lack of charm, though, there’s something about Semporna that I like. I like that the town has yet to give itself over as a fancy tourist destination – there’s only one marginally upmarket hotel in town. The richer divers attracted by the spectacular diving all stay at the resorts on Mabul and Kapalai, two nearby islands surrounded by coral reef.

OK, that’s all on Semporna for now. More about my own life here…coming soon!