On the bike with Wes and Stu

Yes yes it’s been ages since I posted. Beyond my well documented laziness, Laos somehow fails to inspire writing. I’ve been surrounded by beautiful nature, charming old colonial towns, bamboo villages clinging to hillsides, and hundreds of half-naked children shouting “sabaidee!” (hello!) as I go by, yet none of that seems create anything to write about. The joke about Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is that the PDR really stands for “please don’t rush.” While that attitude does translate into a wonderfully relaxing, mañana-time country, it also means that nothing much ever seems to happen.

Until I met up with Wes and Stu.

If you recall, I met Wes on a bus in Vietnam, bouncing from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the border. We kept in touch to see if our paths would again cross, and as it turns out we both wanted to hire motorbikes and tour the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. So I headed south from Luang Nam Tha, stopping for a few days each in Luang Prabang and Ventiene, crossing over to Nong Khai, Thailand, to renew my Lao visa, then back into Laos at the town of Tha Khaek. Finally, I caught a bus that took me 15 hours south to Pakse, where I was due to meet Wes. Wes was bringing along Stu, an Australian and avid biker he met in Vang Vieng. After traveling (mostly in Africa) for the past 8 years, Stu’s making his way home for his mom’s 80th birthday.

Due to the vagaries and delays of Lao internet, I missed Wes & Stu in Pakse – they left about an hour before I got Wes’s email. But they agreed to wait for me in the riverside village of Tadlo, about 85 km north of Pakse. Tadlo should be a backpacker’s paradise: cheap bungalows by a waterfall, friendly and tiny town, relaxed all around. Yet oddly, the place was empty.

How empty? The day I arrived the three of us went to find lunch. Our guest house restaurant was closed – the whole staff was asleep or watching TV. We wandered down the one road in town, and were rebuffed at two other restaurants. Finally one old woman agreed to take our order: three Beer Lao, one grilled pork, one chicken with basil and one beef with basil. About 2 minutes later we watched mama’s son run off with three warm beers – off to the shop to trade them for three cold ones. As we giggled over that, mama came back out to check our order: chicken with basil, right? (“Looks like I’m getting chicken, too,” said Wes.) Off she went, returning 10 minutes later with two frozen chicken breasts in her hand. (No, not in a bag. In her bare hand.) We sipped our beer and laughed. Minutes later, a disgruntled teenage girl arrived by motorbike, bringing with her a wrapped package of frozen pork. Finally, the girl was sent off again, this time returning with a bouquet of basil. Clearly the restaurant with the fewest resources – no ice box, no ice, nothing at all in storage – was the one that most needed our money, and was therefore most willing to piece together a meal for us.

This just-in-time system is reflected in many aspects of Laos. The small shops attached to most every house in town are thick with hanging vines of one-serving packets shampoo, laundry detergent, and other sundries. I can’t explain this aversion to stocking up – is it a lack of money? Storage space? It’s not like shampoo goes bad. Maybe it’s just that subsistence living is deeply ingrained in the Laotian psyche.

The next morning we set off late, sporting Laolao (rice whiskey) hangovers, for Sekong, a provincial capital about 140 km further east. We were meant to take a smallish road to the town of Thateng, and then carry on on the main road to Sekong. Imagine our surprise, then, when a couple of hours after leaving the Thateng market we arrived in a large town that was not Sekong. Confused, we pulled into a dirt track and asked a young man on the side of the road. “Sekong?” asked Wes, pointing down the road. He shook his head. “Sekong!” he said, pointing back the way we had just come. Impossible. “Where are we?” I asked. He shrugged – no English. This time I pointed at the ground. “Sekong?” He shook his head again and pointed down the road. “Sekong.” Impossible.

Now, in Laos you learn quickly that every place has at least two names, often many more. And like the Westwoods in Mass, New Jersey and California, towns with the same name can coexist in other provinces. So we tried to figure the directions of other towns in the area. We had already established the way to Sekong. “Attepeu?” I asked, pointing down the dirt track. He nodded. I pointed to the ground. “Where?” “Paksong!” he replied gleefully. Again, impossible. Paksong is another town, at the top of the plateau, where we would arrive in about 5 days. “Paksong?” I asked, pointing at the ground. He nodded. “We’re in fucking Paksong!” I said to Wes and Stu. “How the hell did that happen?”

As it turns out, we had taken a wrong turn (or, more specifically, not taken a turn at all) in Thateng and had ridden 40 km in the wrong direction. By then it was mid-afternoon and none of us relished the idea of rushing through another 80 km before dark – not on potholed, unfamiliar roads. Instead we checked in to the Green View guest house, had lunch, purchased a bottle of Laolao and settled in for the evening. Directly next door to our guest house was the main karaoke bar in town, so as we sat on the balcony watching the lightening in the darkening sky, we were serenaded by the atonal screeching and yowling that is karaoke heard from a distance. At least there’s an 11:30 curfew.

In the morning we stopped at a coffee bar/free Wifi place – the only one we found on the Bolaven Plateau – run by an odd, talkative Dutch guy and his sprawling Lao family. We studied the map and Lonely Planet and decided to skip Sekong and head straight for Attepeu, an interesting-sounding town at the confluence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers. Unlike what we had ridden so far, the road to Attepeu was unpaved clay, which can turn into mud pretty quickly in the rainy season. I probably wouldn’t have tried it alone, given my riding inexperience, but it was a no-brainer with Wes and Stu along.

But first we had to see the Ancient Rock. Yes yes, it’s true that all rocks are, in fact, rather ancient. But there was a giant faded billboard in town promoting the AR, which is clearly a must-see, as well as a couple of waterfalls. We’d visit the rock, pay our respects, and hit the road to Attepeu.

The road to the rock started as a wide, flat dirt track, passed through a couple of villages, and quickly deteriorated. A few km from the Ancient Rock we came to the top of a steep hill unevenly covered in rough, loosely packed stones. Stu started down. Wes stopped at the top and said what I thought was, “We should just walk down.” “Yeah, there’s no way I’m riding down that hill,” I replied. But Wes had really said, “We should walk ’em down” – meaning the bikes. Now, given that this was the beginning of my third day ever on a non-automatic motorbike, and my first day ever on non-paved track, you could correctly surmise that my ride down was a bit troublesome. Added to that, we weren’t on dirt bikes – We were riding 100 cc street bikes with mostly treadless back tires. I had to keep the foot brake slammed down to keep from rolling too fast, but occasionally I’d come to a pile of rock that required me to hit the gas…and then slam on the breaks to stop from flying down the hill. To make things worse, I was in second rather than first gear, yet was too scared to try changing gears on such a slant. It took about 10 minutes to go about 10 meters, but I made it. And I didn’t break my leg. Bonus.

After the stones – what Wes termed “the hill of death” – came the mud. Big, thick, slippery puddles of wet clay that we avoided by veering halfway into the brush, over tree roots and across rotting planks of wood. At last we rolled through a narrow mud track and stopped in front of a large Buddha tucked under a rock overhang. A sign in Lao pointed down a narrow, steep trail through the jungle to…something, 800 meters away. Another sign pointed up some rickety wooden stairs leading to the top of what turned out to be the Ancient Rock. My flip-flops weren’t really appropriate for the jungle trail, so Wes and I climbed the rock while Stu went to see what was in the jungle.

Wes and I wandered along a trail that crossed wide, smooth rocks bearded with moss. We came upon two sculptors sitting under a blue tarp, eating a sticky rice lunch next to half-finished Buddha statues. It started to rain, so we joined them under the tarp and worried about our bags, sitting on our bikes in the rain. We offered them cigarettes and they showed us how we could make an offering to Buddha, by sliding a 1000-kip note into a hole in the back of the hollow statue.

The more social of the two pointed down a path and mimed “waterfall,” so when the rain let up we followed the steep, muddy trail to the top of the waterfall. The fall itself wasn’t visible – we’d have to follow an even narrower, steeper trail to get to the bottom – so after sitting out another shower in a rotting wooden shelter, we clambered back up the hill. A cloud had rolled in, shrouding the hill in mist. One more shower ensured that we were nicely soggy by the time we climbed back down the stairs to meet Stu.

Our bags, miraculously, had been moved to a dry area under the rock overhang. There was no one else around. “Buddha moved our bags!” we decided, glad we had made an offering. We dried off as best we could, climbed on our bikes and picked our way back to the main road. Considering the tough riding conditions and my extreme lack of experience, I was feeling quite proud of my motorbiking performance. I made it up the hill of death with no problem. At the top I remarked, “Coming back up is so much easier!”…and promptly dropped my bike in the mud. Hubris, paid.

By then it was too late to ride to Attapeu, so we decided to check back in to our hotel and go to karaoke instead. You should know, first of all, that in most of SE Asia, “karaoke bar” really means “bar with party girls and convenient rooms upstairs.” This place was no exception.

It was Saturday night, so the place was fairly full. We were seated near the stage. The singers were accompanied by a man with a drum machine and keyboard. Occasionally the “couples,” who were seated at a long table behind us, would get up to dance. To karaoke. This so-called dancing consisted of awkward white-man shuffling counter-clockwise around a post in the middle of the dance floor. We just drank our Laolao.

A drunk soldier left his consort and introduced himself to us. He wedged himself between me and Wes, his beery breath suffocating, his rapid, nonsensical English dizzying. He offered to sing a song for me – “You know ‘Take Me to Your Heart?’,” he belched into my face. As his annoyed, miniskirted date glared on, he took the stage and began to sing. He only knew the refrain, so in between he would babble to the music: “I don’t speak English well. I don’t know all the words. But I want to sing this for my friends from America…” Finally he was kicked off stage by the main singer, much to everyone’s delight.

At a nearby table, a group of young men were (I imagine) waiting their turn with the girls (who were occupied with a vanful of Thai sex tourists, believe it or not). The bravest of them came over, offered me a glassful of beer, and asked me to dance. What could I say? As we joined the other couples for our round-the-pole shuffle, two other men asked Wes and Stu to dance. This was, by far, my favorite awkward moment of an evening full of them. Two middle-aged, white, straight men shuffling around a pole with two young Lao…gay men? Wes and Stu think they were gay, but honestly I’m not convinced. I think they were just trying to be polite.

The night ended fairly early and without incident. We did meet some of the Thai sex tourists outside the bar, as they handed out “tips” to the girls and piled back into their van.

ed note: Read Wes’s hilarious version of the night’s events here!

———————
Next up: The Road to Buffalo Shit

NOTE: I’ll post the second half of our journey once I’ve written it. We three have been sitting in Champasak, south of Pakse, for 6 days, watching the Mekong slide by. Today Stu and I are going to Thailand – probably all the way to Bangkok, if we can make our connections. So my next post’ll be from my last stop…

Enemy territory and the no-fly list

I’m in Ubud, Bali – deep in enemy territory.

On the surface it’s pleasant enough – rice fields, jungle, good eats, friendly Balinese. But it’s also the scene of the final, most sickening section of my nemesis: Eat Pray Love. And evidently, according to the Lonely Planet, since the publication of “that damned book” hordes of “women of a certain age” have been flocking here, hanging around in the local cafes, opening their chakras at the dozens of yoga classes on offer, picking through (from what I’ve seen so far) shockingly awful Balinese “art,” seeking the services of various “healers,” and generally hoping to meet their own rich, sexy Brazilian who will fuck them silly for a month and then marry them. Jeezis.

Ironically, as I write this I’m waiting for Miro, a rather cute German guy I met yesterday, to pick me up. We’re going to yoga together this morning at the Intuitive Flow yoga studio, situated on a hill overlooking rice paddies. I wanted to do some yoga anyway – all those days of sitting around doing nothing with Mike have taken their toll – but Miro says that this particular class is taught by a Balinese shaman. So of course I have to go. It’s research!

Adding to my EPL reenactment, Miro is currently studying cranio sacrotherapy – a new-agey, sort of energy-based healing technique that sounds like reiki to me. Ominously, he couldn’t really explain exactly what it is and how it works. I’m going to Google it later. In any event, I’m all set to have a mystical couple of days in his company.

But let’s go back to last week, when I was hundreds of kilometers to the east, diving Komodo aboard the Jaya. I had heard about the trip because my friend and ex-SJ mate Jeremy works as “cruise director” and primary dive guide on every second Jaya trip, which all leave from Gili T. So on June 21, at sunset, one Dutch and three Swiss women, an American guy, a young Russian couple, a totally New Yo-wak couple in their late 50’s, and I settled onto the deck of the Jaya, carefully guiding spoonfuls of vegetable soup into our mouths. The sea that first night was rough – we were all staggering around like, well, drunken sailors.

Despite the rough seas, that night and every night of the trip all of us slept on pleather mattresses on the covered deck. The cabins were hot, stuffy, cramped, noisy (mine was right next to the engine room) and smelly from exhaust fumes. Truly horrible. But sleeping on deck was as amazing as it sounds: moonlight reflected on open-sea waves, the sky painted with stars after moonfall, salty air (and occasional spray), and then waking up to the sun peering over the horizon.

I won’t talk much about the diving, since most of you don’t dive. I’ll just say that while it was indeed beautiful – the variety of healthy coral, the giant schools of fish – I was expecting more. I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen before (other than a pygmy seahorse, which I fully expected to and did see plenty of thanks to Jeremy’s pygmy obsession). I think Mabul/Sipadan has spoiled me. (To be fair, the current wasn’t as ripping as it should have been, given that the trip happened during a full moon. And no current means not as many sharks, not as much action. But still. No mantas for me either time we did the manta dive, on which the last trip saw *30* (though I did see one from afar at another dive site), no hunting sharks, no dolphins (OK, I wasn’t really expecting that), and not even many insane, rip-you-off-the-reef-or-plunge-you-to-100-meters currents that Komodo is famous for.) Heh heh. So much for not talking about diving.

Eff all that. Let’s go back to the deck of the Jaya. It’s the end of day 5 – the day I saw a manta at Batu Balong. After watching the boat boys, Harry and Dunker, wakeboard behind the dinghy at sunset, we ate a dinner of rice, veggies and fish. Ryan the American plugs his iPod into travel speakers, because the Swiss girls want to hear Tom Petty. We’ve all had a few arak-and-Sprites, or other intoxicants of choice. We’re moored for the night in the calm bay of some sparsely inhabited island in the Flores Sea, off the north coast of the Indonesian archipelago. In the moonlight I watch a half-dozen wild goats pick their way down a steep rocky slope to the cover of some scrub pines near the beach.

Where else would I ever want to be?

A few mornings earlier we visited Rinca, an island near Komodo where ironically it’s easier to see more Komodo dragons than on Komodo itself. And we did see plenty of these split-tongued reptilian creatures as they warmed themselves in the morning sun. Komodo dragons are dangerous. They will hunt animals many times their own 1/5-2 meter size, including wild buffalo. They are hunt-and-ambush predators with poisonous bites. The venom slowly kills the prey over a few days, during which the dragon follows the dying creature until it succumbs. The dragons then eat every part of the animal except the skull, including all other bones.

Our protection from these beasts were two adolescent boys from the park service carrying long sticks with a forked end, presumably to hold back a dragon should it attack one of us. And despite their age they took their job quite seriously, reprimanding us when we strayed from the path or got too close to a dragon in pursuit of the perfect picture.

Other land-based adventures included a Big Night Out pizza night in Labuan Bajo, the main town on the island of Flores; a visit to a lake with one of the simplest ecosystems on the planet, consisting of one species of fish which eats the one species of snail which eats the one kind of algae which lives off the decomposing bodies of dead fish and snails; and an impromptu visit to a more-remote village on another island.

The last was my favorite, as I somehow became the group guinea pig. During our 30-minute visit I was compelled to chew betel nut in various forms, sprinkle my tongue with some sort of white powder that I feared was cocaine but ended up tasting like baking powder, and stick a giant wad of chewing tobacco under my top lip. I was also asked if I wanted to buy a chicken. The woman who had offered me all these treats then invited me to sit next to her, laughed at my big butt and slapped my hips in delight, stole my sunglasses, and insisted on having her picture taken with me…while the village grandma stuck her hand into my shorts pocket to try to get at my mobile phone. Good times.

At the end of the trip, as Gili T came into view, we all said how weird it would be to come “back to reality.” Which got me thinking about levels of reality. We had just spent 8 days stuck with the same people on a not-giant boat, doing the same thing every day. It was like reality tv. The so-called reality we returned to was Gili T, a tropical party island with OK diving, no cars or motorbikes, and plenty of people willing to sell you weed or “fucking fresh magic mushrooms that will send you to the moon.” Not exactly mundane reality. The next day I would be going to Bali – a larger island with more people leading normal lives, but still connoting a holiday paradise. And then I booked my ticket to New York, for so long my reality but where the contours of a real life never solidified for me.

Not that I want to go, but can someone please tell me where reality is, and how to get there?

——————-

Oh – didn’t I mention that I’m coming to New York? Heh heh. For those who have not yet heard, I arrive in NYC on the evening of Sept 25, a day before my bro’s birthday. Never fear, fans of therangelife – I’m just coming for a visit, to meet my new niece or nephew (any day now!) and Sydney’s new brother, to drink martinis with the Guineys and wine with the grrrlz, to watch some effing Red Sox baseball with the Sue’s and their spouses…and to witness my eclipse-watching buddy and NASA astronaut Al Drew as he hurtles into space aboard the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission. Wow!

I’ll stay in the US for about two months. Then either to Central Asia (unless the region devolves into sectarian wars) or Central/South America. TBD.

In the meantime, on Monday I fly from Bali to Bangkok, where I’ll stay long enough to secure a visa to Vietnam. Then it’s Vietnam/Laos/maybe Cambodia for about three months. Then back to Bangkok to catch my flight on Kuwait Airways (should be interesting) to New York via Kuwait City and London. (I was thinking today that I booked a one-way ticket on Kuwait Airways. TSA no-fly watch list, here I come!)

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 – always over the top rope, never between. They each wore a shiny, almost lamé 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.

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…

Back in Bangkok, on my way home

Greetings from Bangkok, my 24-hour stopover on my way home. I’ve decided to spend the day in the cool confines of the various shopping centers and internet cafes near my hotel, in Siam Square, rather than brave the ridiculous heat and dirt of normal Bangkok. On this, my third time in Bangkok during this trip, this city is starting to grow on me. But the noise! The heat! The pollution! The crowds! It’s too much to bear before a 23-hour trip home. (Environmental note: The proprietor of the internet cafe is eating his lunch, smacking his lips remarkably loudly and sort of glaring at me. Thailand: The Land of Smiles!)

Since I’m on my way home, naturally I’m sort of reviewing my trip in my mind. It’s only been two months, but my days in Chiang Mai during the watery Songkran festival now seems like a lifetime ago. Yes, I’ve seen many things, had some crazy and fun experiences, met hundreds of people, and generally had the normal travel experience. But my mindset has changed dramatically as well. When I left New York I was feeling oppressed by the fairly basic life choices that I face: Where should I live? What should I do? But two months later I feel like I’ve gained some clarity – or at least some much-needed perspective, outside of the four narrow walls of Manhattan.  In a day or so, when I’m sitting comfortably in a yellow cab heading towards the city…it’s going to be strange to see the Manhattan skyline again. Either I’ll feel nostalgia and that I’m coming home, or I’ll feel oncoming oppression of being back in my “old life.” We’ll see!

But enough navel-gazing. It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about my time on Gili Trawangan. There isn’t a tremendous amount to write about my activities there: Basically it was wake up, dive, eat lunch, dive, watch the sunset, shower, eat/drink, sleep, repeat. It’s the people I met who made it great.

As I said, I dove with Blue Marlin, a fairly well-run dive shop/guest house/restaurant owned by Simon, a Brit with a Napoleon complex. The place was managed by a middle-aged couple: Peter, a blandly cheerful American, and his wife (can’t recall her name), a loud Dutch woman with the thick athleticism of a Bulgarian Olympic gymnast.  My fellow Rescue Diver student was Ginni Golden, an American from DC. Ginni works for an internet advertising agency, of all things. We bonded over stupid clients, internet egos, and neurotic/psychotic people we’ve had to manage (Hi Mark! Heh heh just kiddin’). She’s on a 3-month leave of absence, the lucky thing. She stayed on and is doing her Divemaster training right now.

I’ve already written a bit about Luis, our instructor. He’s been on Gili T for 8 months and plans to stay for the season – until around October. For the like 2 of you who know who I’m talking about: he reminds me a lot of Brian Thistle. He’s quietly smart in that he almost tries to hide his intelligence> As a teacher he’s calm, serious and thoughtful. When he’s done with Gili T he’s going to travel a bit and hopes to end up in Brazil, where he plans to open a guest house/restaurant.

Then there’s Nicola, or Nico (“NOT Nick or Nicolas!” Did I mention he’s very French?). Nico is a heavily tattooed, charming character who defies categorization. He’s approachable yet reserved, social yet secretive, carefree yet serious. He’s been on Gili T about the same amount of time as Luis. He’s trying to save up enough money to move on to Australia: If he gets enough by the end of the season, he’ll leave. If not, he’ll stay another year. But he’s anxious to move on. “I’m a traveler who dives,” he says, “not a diver who travels.” I have to admit, when I left I had a tiny crush on him. (On a Frenchman, can you believe it?) The last thing he said to me (after hugging me goodbye) was, “You smell very nice.” 

Yipes gotta run to check out of my hotel (noon checkout!). Probably more later. After all, I have nothing much else to do!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One night in Bangkok

I know, I know. You’re thinking: “You just *had* to pull out the ‘One Night in Bangkok‘ thing, right?” Well sorry. I just got back up north, having spent the last 5 nights either sleeping in a coffin-like bunk on a dive boat or on a bus during a 12-hour overnight trip back north from Khao Lak. And when I finally checked into the dingy but cheap Rainbow Guesthouse and went to a nearby cafe for the first proper coffee in a WEEK, a leaky ceiling dripped into my mug. So PARDON ME for being sleepy and under-caffeinated.

I’d be cranky as hell except for the fact that I just went on 15 dives in 4 days. Everything is at it should be. The diving in the Andaman Sea was exactly as advertised: varied dive sites, varied aquatic life, and great people. I really wish I had an underwater housing for my camera so I could have taken some pics. A bunch of others did take photos, though, so I’m hoping to get a few. Stay tuned. But in the meantime: wow. Three different Manta rays (all at the same site on Koh Bon – two in one dive!), a couple of leopard sharks, a sea horse, a sea snake, and tons of moray eels, lionfish, angel fish, parrot fish, etc etc etc. (YOU Google ’em!) The variety was crazy. And in the middle of all this nutty diving I managed to finish my advanced open water course, too. Next PADI certification on my list: Rescue Diver.

The fantastic folks at Similan Diving Safari ran a perfect trip: it was tight and serious when it needed to be (safety, protecting the reef, etc.) but laid back and fun all other times. And only a little Bob Marley.

The food, cooked by these tiny Thai women in the tiny onboard kitchen, was amazing. The Thai “boat boys” did everything: from filling our air tanks to helping us on with our fins to mincing meat for the kitchen staff to attaching us to moorning lines. Everyone was always smiling and goofing around and having a good time. One noteworthy feature that I imagine keeps the Thai staff happy: The owner of the shop lets the Thais provide soda and beer for purchase, and they get 100% of the profits. You can imagine that most other shops would keep beer – a surefire profit center where divers are concerned – to themselves. Just one reason I felt good diving with them, and would absolutely do so again.

There were 21 customers, but enough dive guides so that the maximum # in a group was 4 customers/guide. Customers and staff were from the US, Canada, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Argentina, South Africa, Scotland, England, and one Australia/Singapore/various mix. I met an English woman who lives in Siem Reap, which is one of my destinations. So I’ll have a local connection when I get there. Yeah.

Another great tip I got from a few of the expat dive crew is to NOT go diving in Koh Tao. they say it’s tailored more for newbie divers, and that it’s crowded. So they’ve convinced me to go to Bali or the Gili Islands in Indonesia instead. Heh heh. Thank goodness for Air Asia, the low-cost airline. It won’t cost me any more money to go to Bali as it would to get to Koh Tao. Amazing! Plus, one more stamp in the old passport. (Thank god for the new pages I got put in.)

So anyway, during my one day in Bangkok before I head off for Burma tomorrow, I have to
1. finalize my flight home (gah)
2. buy a rain-cover for my bag (I forgot about rainy season in Burma)
3. upload all my pics and then back them up
4. buy more dollars (don’t ask – it’s too depressing)
5. investigate flghts to/from Bali

Lots to do.

the land of smiles?

In a few hours I leave for my dive trip. This morning I got my gear sorted out and met my instructor for the advanced open water diving course I’ll be taking. It’s funny – Stephan, the guy at the desk at Similan Diving, asked me where I was from. “New York,” I said (sorry Boston). “Oh!” he replied. “I’ll see if one of our American instructors is available.” Either it’s a language thing, or he thinks I’d be more comfortable with one of “my people.” (Of course, I originally got PADI certified in Spanish in Costa Rica, taught by a Colombian and an Argentinean. But that’s beside the point.) So my instructor is Seth, a native Vermonter.

Last night during dinner I experienced my first monsoon-like rain here. Dark clouds had rolled in over the hills in the late afternoon, and soon after the lightening started. I decided against an evening swim. I showered, went to dinner, and after I got my meal (spicy Thai salad with fish and prawn) a few drops started coming down. Everyone grabbed their plates and ran inside…and 2 minutes later the rain really started. It was like someone poured an enormous, bottomless bucket of water over Khao Lak. There was no space between the drops – or rather, the streams of water that fell from the sky. (I tried to take a photo, but it just doesn’t do it justice.) After I finished my salad I ordered (of all things) a Long Island Iced Tea (150 baht – around $3) to sip while waiting out the storm. I ended the night sitting on the covered balcony of my room, watching the lightening in the sky and sipping Sang Thip, ridiculous Thai whiskey that tastes a bit like Southern Comfort. Yuk, but still interesting.

I’m still trying to figure out Thai people. Some people are instantly and genuinely friendly, giving credence to the official Thai tag line as “The Land of Smiles.” But other people seem completely uninterested and sometimes even hostile – even outside of Bangkok (where you’d expect less openness). For instance, the entire staff at the Happy Lagoon acts put out and even annoyed by the guests. Ordering breakfast involves gesticulating wildly to the waiter (who is more interested in surfing the Net on the computer behind the desk). And this morning, as I was packing to leave, the maid came up, leaned on the door frame picking her nose, and said, “Checkout?” She clearly had the attitude that I was just an inconvenient object stopping her from finishing her cleaning early (I was in the last room). I told her I’d be out by the noon checkout time as a way to ensure that she wouldn’t stand there watching me pack. So she said something sarcastic-sounding to her fellow maids and dragged her feet away. As I said, many people are exactly opposite. But it’s annoying to feel like you’ve overpaid to stay at a guest house whose staff is also rude.

And then there’s this internet cafe, where the connection is painfully slow (I may not get to upload all my pics) and the proprietor shows you which computer to take using the “hostile point and glare” method.

But whatevahs. I’m going underwater! I’ll be back online from Bangkok on the 28th after taking an overnight 12-hour bus ride from here).