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AsiaWheeling Opens a New Chapter in Borneo

Our flight was not too early, but further and diligent study of the toast and coffee at the Rucksack Inn resulted in a somewhat hurried departure from the establishment, necessitating a cab ride to the airport.

The cab driver explained local construction projects to us in curt snippets as we drove, most interestingly a large building that looked something like triplet towers with an aircraft carrier/surfboard mashed on top. The structure was gaudy and huge, and was going to cost at least 6 billion dollars to erect (and probably much more).  It was a casino.

Still humming with architectural discourse, David, Scott, and I arrived at the AirAsia counter. Once again, we found ourselves in a situation in which AirAsia demonstrated its poor communication skills.

In this instance, our check-in clerk solemnly explained to us that the presence of a local air show would delay our flight for at least one hour. Had we taken his advice at face value, however, and gone to the swimming pool (yes, dear reader, there is a swimming pool in the Singapore Airport), we would have completely missed our flight to Borneo. Luckily, we decided to check in at the gate, where they informed us that our flight was indeed on time. This communique unfortunately also proved false, when the flight was actually some 25 minutes late, though there was no talk of an airshow.

As usual, we got off the airplane starving, and discussing whether or not the food that was served on board was real or just a miscommunication as well.

The Tawau airport was petite, not air conditioned, moderately grungy, and mostly empty.

Malaysian immigration and customs was a breeze, and after some large smiles and plenty of vehement stamping, we were soon standing outside the sleepy Tawau airport, discussing cab fares with the local touts, and struggling with some head-scarved women in an attempt to purchase Malay SIM cards.

My suspicion was that something was malfunctioning with the digital registration system, which explained the blushing faces, school girl laughter, and marked inability to produce working SIM cards for us. After some 20 minutes of struggling against this blushing, giggling, silk enshrouded brick wall, David had identified the cheapest cab option and grown tired of waiting, so we took off empty handed.

The drive to Semporna was gorgeous and interesting, as we raced along in a white Proton van through endless sprawling monocultures of oil palms, dotted with garbage dumps, mangrove swamps, smoke-belching cooking oil refineries, and crystal blue ocean views.

In the car, David quickly began to prove his logistical mettle (though it was never in doubt) by interviewing our fellow passengers and beginning to build a framework for operating in the Semporna’s SCUBA scene. We were to be asking something rather complex and irregular of the local dive operators. Namely, to allow David to train Scott and me with their equipment and boats, but with little or no additional involvement on their part. By the time we arrived in the crumbling and hardscrabble town of Semporna, we had already identified our first choice to be an operation by the name of Scuba Junkie. They were quickly growing, and focused on a western backpacker clientele. We had also booked a room at the attached hostel, which would diminish in price by 50% in the event that we chose to dive with them.

We paid the van driver, deposited our belongings in the clean and refreshingly windowed room of the Scuba Junkie hostel, and decisively dealt with our starving problem at the hotel pub. David continued to chat with the locals, gaining more information, and once satisfied with the caliber of the place, and armed with the name of the owner, we strolled across the street to begin negotiations.. The owner of Scuba Junkie was a thin, shirtless, well tanned German. After some explanation of the project and our specific needs, he adjourned to his office to consult his business partners on the correct course of action.

When he returned, the terms seamed reasonable: we would be able to dive more or less on our own schedule, using their equipment, and would pay for the price of a normal dive. It was certainly not going to be cheap, but also not prohibitively expensive. With the specter of darkness and exhaustion looming, and the prospect of being able to begin the diving portion of AsiaWheeling first thing the next morning, we pulled the trigger, and surrendered our passports to Scuba Junkie.

David found this practice of surrendering the passports somewhat unsettling. Not from the standpoint of losing the things, but from the standpoint that if we were to have some disagreement down the road with Scuba Junkie, we might find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, unable to leave the country. Here, dear reader, we had our first inklings that David’s capacity on the AsiaWheeling team would prove much more all encompassing than simply that which he could do underwater. His experience with risk management, emergency management, and field medicine suggested we had better reconsider the role he currently played on the advisory board.  In short, a promotion was in order.

But that was an agenda item for another day. We needed to size our SCUBA equipment, and get back to the room. David had a couple of lectures planned for that night, and Scott and I were eager to lay into some of the theory behind SCUBA diving.

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