How Not to Be a Travel Writer, Episode 97

I should have known that ten days off-the-path eclipse-chasing in East Indonesia, followed by a night at home, two days on the Gilis learning to freedive, a night at home, and then straight off to China by way of Malaysia and Hong Kong would be what we travel experts call “A bit bloody much, you complete mentalist.”

Not least because much of my work requires sitting still in one place with reliable internet and, you know, writing stuff. Not to mention answering questions from editors, invoicing, chasing accounts departments, pitching other stories to keep the throughput running, and so on.

But – for I have many faults but a lack of optimism is not one of them – this only dawned on me as the eclipse chase wound into its final phase and I ducked out of a cooking class to take a call from an art director in Singapore.

“So…” I said, tentatively. “I was wondering if we could actually push this freediving story until I’m back from China, now that it’s moved forwards an issue.”

“Well,” he says. “We can if you want, but I’ve actually got an underwater photographer booked for Tuesday. No, really, we can if you want…”

Bugger. Not only have I got a freediving course lined up, there’s some stupidly well paid underwater photog giving up two undoubtedly lucrative days to take photos of… well, moi. Underwater. Cancelling at this stage would be highly, highly unfair on the photographer, a minor pain in the arse for the people comping me the course, and a complete clusterfuck for everyone at the mag.

Bollocks. Or, as they say in France, noblesse oblige.

We’ve technically been travelling together for the last ten days, but as he’s had three mates along our interaction has been largely restricted to grunts.

You see, at my advanced age, there are certain prerequisites before having one’s photo taken, particularly given the art director’s brief includes full page shots of, ummm, me. Underwater. In a wetsuit.

Ideally, preparation for a shoot would include, but not be limited to: losing 10 kilos (or at least doing some sit-ups), Botox (no judgement unless you’re my age or older, puhlease), mani-pedi, wardrobe rethink and “doing something about my hair”.

As it is, I only have time for one and a bit of the above, and so I message the Bag Lady, who is between places, so using mine as I’m not going to be in it very much and then she can “babysit” Zac while I’m away, and ask her to arrange a hair cut.

She’s been trying to persuade me to go blonde for a while now, on the grounds that it would look cool and youthful. I’m open to this partly because I spent many happy years as a bottle blonde prior to travel but mainly because I now have several undeniably grey hairs about which SOMETHING MUST BE DONE OR I WILL LOOK OLD and plucking them out ain’t cutting it any more.

If I book a flight for 3pm, I figure, I can get my kit packed up, hair blonded and my sorry arse on and off the plane just in time to catch the last public boat to Gili T. And, gulp, promptly freedive to 10, or even 20, metres.

And so, I say a fond farewell to Zac – we’ve technically been travelling together for the last ten days, but as he’s had three mates along our interaction has been largely restricted to grunts – and gear up for the hair cut. The Bag Lady gives me some handy direction on what people who are cool wear on the beach and lends me a very chic black shirt dress.

“You’re going in the WATER?” she says, waving a directive hand at her assistant. “Well, yes,” I say. Has my social secretary not communicated this?

“It’s for a photo-shoot, right?” says the VERY cool blonde who runs the salon, as her assistant pastes the first of a series of chemical layers onto my hair.

“Yeah,” I say brightly. “I’m doing a story on freediving in the Gilis, and they’re sending an underwater photographer along, so I wanted to…”

“You’re going in the WATER?” she says, waving a directive hand at her assistant.

“Well, yes,” I say. Has my social secretary not communicated this? Goddamnit. Anyone would think the Bag Lady had a life of her own. “There’s pool work tomorrow and then the ocean after that.”

“You can’t go in the pool tomorrow,” she says. “Your hair will go green. You’ll need to wear a swimcap.”

It is a little after 10am. My flight leaves at 3pm. I’m not sure a swimcap is going to look very good in the photos, but it’s too bloody late now. We have started, so we’ll finish.

“Is there anyone who can get you one?” she asks. “I got mine from Galleria. It was about $30.”

The Bag Lady asks at the pool. They direct her to a sports shop in Canggu.

In the absence of Made, who mystifyingly would rather earn $2500 a month, accommodation and meals found, in the States than work for me for 100,000 IDR per half-day, I’ve acquired a friendly ojek driver named Dewa. Dewa lives round the corner, has plenty of initiative and can be trusted to go off with large sums of money and come back with the item it was supposed to purchase. I call him. I’m in the salon, I say. He’ll arrive in a minute.

The pasting resumes.

“Don’t look now,” says Cool Stylist Chick. “There’s a reason we don’t have mirrors at the washbasins.”

It’s a pleasantly social place, the salon. A friend of the Bag Lady who I’m hoping to adopt as my friend too swings by, and we chat about diving. My hair passes the point of no return – ginger.

And Dewa materialises. I give him 400,000 IDR. He looks at me as if I’m bonkers. And, to be fair, gussied up in a robe, waving wads of cash around, I must be some way past normal-for-bule and heading towards full-on-lunatic gila. “You are giving me 400,000 to buy a swim hat?” he says, in the slow, cautious tones of someone unwillingly interacting with an imbecile.

“No,” I say. “I’d like you to find one in a local shop. But if you can’t we might have to go to a bule shop and pay bule prices. It needs to be plain black.”

The light of understanding dawns, and off he trots.

Time passes. He returns. “They don’t have in Canggu,” he says. “Maybe I should go to Denpasar?”

“Yes,” I say. “Please go to Denpasar.”

It is 12 when the first layer of chemicals is removed, or almost exactly three hours before my flight departs. “Don’t look now,” says Cool Stylist Chick. “There’s a reason we don’t have mirrors at the washbasins.”

At this point the chap who runs the chopper store down the road enters the salon and doubles up laughing. “That’s a new look!” he says. “Bogan orange!”

“You do look a bit like Donald Trump,” says my (well, the Bag Lady’s) dive friend.

Oh great. Dewa returns, bearing a swimcap which has cost him all of 40,000 IDR. I pay him 100,000 for being honest about the price and a new layer of chemicals goes on. A travelling friend swings by to catch up.

“How long would YOU say to the airport on a bike from here?” I ask Cool Stylist Chick’s equally cool boyfriend, who oh-so-evidently drives way faster than I do.

It’s not, by the way, that I’m not enthusiastic about the prospect of freediving in the Gilis. The reason I pitched the story is that I want to try freediving (yeah, possibly not in the Gilis, but that’s supposed to be one of the better locations in the world, and it’s not only on my doorstep but on the airline’s route map).

It’s just that, right now, after a ten day epic including four separate flights and two nights sleeping on concrete, and with a flight to Malaysia on Thursday, I’d rather be loafing around my lovely home, not to mention redoing a bathroom which has had the sink hanging off the wall since January because it took a while to come to terms with our landlords about a contract extension and then I pissed off to East Indonesia to see the full solar eclipse (thoroughly recommended, fwiw).

Further, one of the reasons that I want to try freediving is that it scares the merry shit out of me.

At 12.45pm, two hours and 15 minutes before my flight is due to leave, my hair is still a rather Tweetie Pie yellow. “How long would YOU say to the airport on a bike from here?” I ask Cool Stylist Chick’s equally cool boyfriend, who oh-so-evidently drives way faster than I do, but I’d like to feel good about my prospects.

“30 minutes?” he says. “Maybe 45?”

Another layer of bleach to lift the colour, then toner. My little backpack is in the corner, ready to roll. I settle the bill in advance.

“We should do a treatment,” says Cool Stylist.

“Can we just leave it on?” I say, clutching my phone as if holding a clock is going to make time go slower.

“Yes!” she says. “That’s actually one of the best things you can do for your hair.”

At 1.40pm, with an hour and 20 minutes to go before my flight allegedly departs – it is Lion, so, I figure, will probably be late – I whack a helmet over my newly blonde and rather oily hair, forget the Bag Lady’s cool shades, and head to the airport.

I spend a while stuck behind a bike carrying two workies, tools, a long ladder and an impressive tonnage of cement which gives it the width of a small car.

I’d like to say I ride like I’ve got the devil on my heels but a) I realise I haven’t changed the oil for a while so the bloody bike could die on me at any point and b) I’m so rabid with neurosis I decide it’s better I only overtake in spaces you could get a London bus through.

If I miss this flight, you see, I’ll likely a) have to spend the night in some fetid swamp at the port for Gili and b) miss the opening explanatory video of the course, with a photographer there primed and ready to shoot. The first would be unpleasant, the second unprofessional.

Traffic is, of course, spectacularly shite: Sunset Road feels more like gin o’clock on Saturday night than lunchtime on a Monday. My cautious approach means I spend a while stuck behind a bike carrying two workies, tools, a long ladder and an impressive tonnage of cement which gives it the width of a small car.

But I negotiate the scary roundabout to the airport OK – unlike the other roundabout I frequent in Bali, this one vaguely adheres to European-style rules of the road, except when it doesn’t, and on a bike I rather prefer the herd approach. In fact, I make it to the airport’s motorbike parking a full half hour before my flight is due to leave.

There’s no way I’m going to manage to get the bike into one of the two-storey parking lots, find a slot, wheel it into the slot (which involves lifting the bloody thing up several times), get out again and still make my flight. So, figuring it will only be there two nights, I dump it down an alley with several other bikes (all of them still in possession of key moving parts) and jog-trot, fatly, to the airport.

I race to Gate 3. This is my fifth visit to Bali airport in the last three weeks and the scenery is getting old.

People are very forgiving when it’s obvious you’re desperate. I race to the front of the Lion Air queue, mumbling “Sorry” in Indonesian, barge in front of the people who are currently checking in, present my receipt from the Lion Air counter at yesterday’s airport and wheeze, “My flight leaves at three!”

By the time the check-in lady finishes labelling the couple’s bags, she has my boarding pass ready to go. “Go straight to Gate 3,” she says, in Indonesian.

There’s a queue at the security desk. I barge to the front of it, apologising. “My flight leaves at three!” I say to the people at the front.

The guy checks my boarding pass and waves me through.

I race to Gate 3. This is my fifth visit to Bali airport in the last three weeks and the scenery is getting old.

And, quelle surprise, my half-hour flight is running half an hour late.

“Speedboat 500,000,” the tout says. “No share boat.” “I take the share boat,” I say. “300,000 for the share boat,” he says, with eminent consistency.

Needless to say, I miss the last public boat to the Gilis, leaving me at the mercy of the speedboat touts and sundry scum. Howevs, I am an old hand at this and, further, my Indonesian is by now quite convincing, at least, in short bursts.

“You want private boat?”

“I want the share boat,” I say, forging my way to the beach and enquiring of sundry Indonesians whether they’re waiting for a boat, which of course they are because this is not a beach anyone sits on for fun at twilight.

“Speedboat 500,000,” the tout says. “No share boat.”

“I take the share boat,” I say.

“300,000 for the share boat,” he says, with eminent consistency.

I can see there are four bicycles, at least 20 Indonesians and a mound of sacks of cement awaiting the share boat. I locate the captain. Rapidly, we acquire critical mass.

“100,000,” says the dude, giving it one last shot.

“No,” I say. “50,000.”

And I’m away, to Gili T, an island which can be a sybaritic paradise if you have the funds to stay in the nice bit, and is otherwise one of my least favourite places in Indonesia after Jakarta airport and Senggigi.

We are warned off both alcohol and COFFEE. COFFEE, I tell you. COFFEE.

I make it to the free dive place just in time to catch the video, and the photog, and slump down in front of the video endeavouring to look natural while also holding my stomach in. As a strategy, this has mixed results, not least because the stomach-holding intensifies my unBotoxed frown.

Further, I can’t help noticing, reviewing the photographer’s shots of me studiously copying down stuff about scary things like Shallow Water Blackout and the Urge to Breathe, that my hair is so bright it almost matches the neon bits on my dress. This dress is not one of the ones the Bag Lady has certified as cool but in fact one of the ones she described, in a moment of wine-infused honesty, as “cheap and tarty”.

But whatvs. We are given a list of things not to eat that increase mucus – this is, I will learn, because you need to pop your ears like a demon when you’re freediving and the last thing you need is earwax – and warned off both alcohol and COFFEE.

COFFEE, I tell you. COFFEE.

One more time. NO COFFEE.

I am aiming for a long, lean profile in the pictures, which is difficult when you’re ten kilos heavier than you should be.

“Have you ever done underwater modelling before?” asks the photog, later, while I’m still flushed with the pleasure of a) not being the oldest person on the course b) not being the heaviest drinker and smoker on the course and c) being MILES better at popping my ears than anyone because scuba.

I look at him to establish whether he’s taking the piss. He appears not to be. “No,” I say. “It’s my first time.”

“OK,” he says. “There’s some hand signals, like look at me, look to the camera – I’ll talk you through them.”

Oh god.

I’d hoped that this freedive course would be a golden opportunity to give up smoking (again). In fact, I still believe a freedive course, when not combined with underwater photo modelling and endeavouring to hit deadlines while your poor oxygen-deprived body is howling for a nap, would still be an outstanding way of giving up smoking.

I had also believed we’d be taught how to stop your diaphragm doing that thing it does when your body believes it’s running out of air. But we’re not going to be taught that. We’re going to learn how to master the power of our minds to make it not matter any more. Oh bollocks.

Further, I am annoyed we don’t get the super-long, super-cool freediver fins. I am aiming for a long, lean profile in the pictures, which is difficult when you’re ten kilos heavier than you should be. Freedivers wear their weights below their stomach, so they can do diaphragmatic breathing, which means my beer gut will be on full display, so I was really hoping for long black fins that could merge with my wetsuit for a long, thin profile, at least when seen from a distance.

There could quite well be pictures of me running across eight pages of the magazine, which has invested quite heavily in getting the photog to come along (considerably more heavily than it has invested in, well, me, but that’s showbusiness). Ergo: not looking fat matters. Or, as a lady photo editor from a renowned British tabloid once said to me à propos of an interviewee, “Well, if she’s rough as a badger’s arse, what are we going to do then?”

It’s extremely difficult to replace a swim cap on your rapidly yellowing hair when you’re hanging off a buoy with one hand in the middle of nowhere, waiting your turn to go down a rope to, well, also nowhere.

I manage to keep the swimcap on for the pool session, at which I think I do quite well, probably because I regularly swim several lengths underwater at home anyway and I know I can go up to the surface at any point, although our teacher, a cultivated chap who moved from the museum world to Gili T and free diving, has this weird thing about stopping me from looking where I’m going.

Out at sea, it’s rather more difficult, not least because there’s more chop than would be ideal. It’s hard to do relaxed breathing through a snorkel when the sea keeps coming over the top of it, and it’s extremely difficult to replace a swim cap on your rapidly yellowing hair when you’re hanging off a buoy with one hand in the middle of nowhere, waiting your turn to go down a rope to, well, also nowhere.

I’m annoyed that all but one of the people who were clearly going to be worse than me are now out of the group. I’m also annoyed that I’m not allowed to look where I’m going. I need to tuck my chin under and follow the line, just look at the line. It’s really quite counter-intuitive. I want to look where I’m going, even though the only place I’m going is down.

Anywise, I manage to go hand over hand down the rope to about eight metres and sit there for a bit. Eight metres doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s easily as deep as the roof of a two-storey house. Also, I feel quite relaxed. Although not as relaxed as two of the guys on the course, who are hanging out at ten metres as if they’re in the front room watching telly. But one is a surfer, therefore used to being under the water in environments so much more strenuous than this one that they’re basically trying to kill him.

And then I go back to base and hit two deadlines on crappy internet while fending off mushroom vendors. Go me!

The guy who runs the joint and regularly descends to over 100 metres – that’s around the height of St Paul’s Cathedral – somehow manages to do both scuba and freediving, but I’m quite attached to breathing.

By the next day, I’ve already decided I prefer scuba. (The guy who runs the joint and regularly descends to over 100 metres – that’s around the height of St Paul’s Cathedral – somehow manages to do both scuba and freediving, but I’m quite attached to breathing.)

Which isn’t to say the day goes entirely badly, not least because I’ve abandoned the swimcap on the basis that my hair can’t possibly get any more yellow than it has. In fact, I even manage to tuck my chin into that weird position – which also helps my earache – and fin down to ten metres. I’m also very pleased we have a yoga class in the morning, because I am bendy, and I figure there’s a fighting chance of me not looking like a complete spaz in the shots.

But, because I am working, and the photog is working, and we both need to be out on the 3pm boat and want to take some natural-looking shots of me snorkelling Gili T’s splendiferous coral before we make the boat (splendiferous was in my special invisible sarcasm font), there isn’t time for me to exactly pass the course. Ahem.

Doing something to write about it can often be very different from doing it (as I’ve observed elsewhere). Sometimes that’s in a good way: I only managed to paraglide without (much) fear because I needed to get a shot of Zac paragliding with me for a magazine story. As with this one, I’d pitched that as a way of getting over my fears.

Sometimes it’s in a less good way. Here, I was more focused on noting the details of learning to freedive, observing what was happening around me and getting the shots the magazine needed than on actually learning to freedive.

Yet, as I hop on the boat and bid farewell to Gili T, I’m actually pleased: I’ve conquered a fear to a degree, I can stay underwater, looking relaxed, with no air, for longer than I’d thought possible, and should anyone drop a diamond ring into waters 10 metres deep or so, I’d have no concerns about going to look at it.

And then it dawns on me. I’m going to be at home for under 24 hours, before heading out again, at least one of which hours will be spent de-yellowing my hair. And all I have for this bigass China trip is a list of stories and deadlines, with no plan of campaign for how to get from A to B. And China is, I am beginning to remember, a very, very large place.

This is, I figure, a learning experience. To be filed under NEVER-AFUCKINGAIN.


Thanks to Bro Jeffrey Pioquinto SJ for Bleach.

5 Responses

  1. Rosita says:

    My dear Thea,
    I laugh and learn a lot (really A LOT!) about travel with you. Thank you, Thea! I’ll, I decide, travel around the Caribbean, with Winnie – my canine partner -, and, as you may know, I crave the adventure of island hopping. I’ll be a doctor – although not a famous one -, and plan to have my own family, when I reach my 29/30 yrs, so I’ll choose an island for stay, at least for an awhile. And so our adventure will continue. We’ll probably start it here on Brazil, in my hometown or not. IDK at this moment, I’ll decide it later. Wherever I choose, the place will be our base when we wouldn’t be island-hopping 🙂 and what’re your recommendations to me, if I do this? PS: when I’d start it, I’ll be a tropical medicine doctor – a licensed one! – and I’ll bring a dog. So…what are your recommendations to conciliate being an expat with working and living as a belonger, not an eternal tourist type?

  2. Wow, such a fun, hectic adventure! I especially can appreciate the story about going blonde. After being in Southeast Asia for 6 months now and having only just once found a box of blonde hair dye (in Vung Tau, Vietnam of all places), I am now desperate to hide these growing swaths of gray hair. I’ve given up the search and have asked a friend to mail boxes to me from home. Hope that works!

    But I also appreciate your showing that although travel writing is fun and exciting, it is also work. I’m just writing for my little old travel blog at the moment, which I love doing, but sometimes, I’d really prefer to sip a cocktail or watch a movie with my family in the next room than keep my commitment to have the next blog post out.

    Thanks for another fun read! Glad you faced fears to free-dive. Like you, I prefer breathing, so I plan to stick to scuba. My 10-year-old wants to try it (scuba). Now, THAT makes me afraid. I’m going to hold him off for a bit. We are headed to Indonesia next, so I’ll have to catch up and read your posts on that. Looking forward.

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Cindy, Definitely recommend that your 10yo tries diving – but choose the right shop! You’ll need one that has an appropriate sized BCD and can give him the one to one s/he needs. Cheers, Theodora

  3. Satheesh says:

    Hi THEODORA,

    I read your blog about quit smoking at 6 weeks. I found interesting and motivated.
    And i have been as ex smoker past 6 weeks 2 days.
    I also have leukemia(CLL) stage 1.

    Just i would like to know how you are feeling now after couple of months, physically and mentally.
    IS things got better for you.
    I hope you will share your thoughts will definitely keep me motivated to stay away from smoking for ever.

    Thanks
    Satheesh

  4. Rosa says:

    Hello Theodora. I enjoy Reading about your travellings, that’s the reason I recommended your blog to a friend of mine who is travelling to Indonesia.
    All the very best to you.
    Rosa

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