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The Interview: Jennifer Idol talks Diving all Fifty States of America, The Muddy Middle and why you'll never use a straw again.

Frozen with horror at the sight of the Deep Horizon Oil spill left Jennifer Idol with guilt and regret at not reaching for her trusty camera to record the sight in time. Luckily rather than dwell in the past she chose an empowered response in the moment and set her heart on sharing the stories of our underwater world to people everywhere. 

Between 2011 - 2014 Jen combined her passions of design and scuba diving to become the first woman in the US to dive all 50 states. She recorded her extraordinary journey and is now a published author to boot. We talk The muddy middle, our culture of immediacy and why you'll never use a straw again!

The Week from Hell - Kung Fu Fighting - Part Six

I am just beginning to think I can survive the school – even feeling a little wistful that I can't extend my little sojourn here to two months when Wong decides to end the week with the regime from hell. 

It all begins on Thursday afternoon session. Most of the boys have gone into town with Wong for lunch . Somehow for the three remaining (including me) we get to go for a run even though the others come back late. We all run to the bridge and back – as I pass Felix – he gestures 3 to me. I assume he means do the bridge three times so diligently do it wondering where he and Sergei have got to only to get back ad realise he meant the class won't start till 3pm. Oh well I think – no matter - i've just run 2.5k its goo to push myself. Just when I think the afternoon session is about to end – Wong decides to spring the dreaded Stairs on us. We have to bear crawl down the stairs and then do a punching circuit with a parter holding pads then run up the stairs and do it all again three times. By the third time I still don't have the techinque right – i've completley given up on tryig to do a press up and am just trying to haul my body down without scraping all the skin off my legs. 

"Put your bum in the air – like downward dog in yoga” says Eleanor – which actually really helps. I do it and it pushes my weight onto my hands – the feeling of lurching forward face first towards descending concrete is terrifying but easier than doing it in press up position. It's the first time i've done them since ruining my legs – after my initiation – and I think maybe now I have some of the technique the fear has subsided a little. We all think that is it for the day...but no... 

Wong has decided that we need a further legs circuit and so we then have to sprint up and down the legnth of a basketball court, do frog leaps and bunny hops(just try it I dare you) it feels like your quads and calves have been injected with molten lead and when that hell finishes and we think surely the class is over now -Wong makes us race to the bridge - 800m in under 4 minutes. I am absolutely shattered and can hardly move my leg muscles – however at dinner I discover that the 5.30am morning circuit is likely to be...that's right ...legs again. It is the very worst morning circuit I do there. 



We have to do laps of the school and let me remind you the school is set on a hill with 120 high flights of stone staircases around it. SO we start by sprinting the length of the basket ball court running up three flights of stairs along the top through the tai chi area and then down another flight of stairs. We have to do this ten times, the next tme instead of sprinting we have to do bunny hops along the court, then frog leaps, duck walks, milk shakes, side jumps, hops etc. After lap 1 Audrey and Alice – who have made a token appearance for their last morning session – somehow disappear with a gallic shrug. 

"Oh I can't do this"...says Alice – 

Well I can't either but i'm givin it a go . After lap 5 I notice Jasmin has disappeared as well so i'm the only girl to complete it entirely! Its horrendous. 

However if my poor legs thought that was it they were wrong – because straight after breakfast Wong has decied we can all do a nice 10k run up a mountain and then over to a local reservoir. 



I haven't even done “the mountain run” a 45 minute run up a steep hill well mountain - let alone think its possible for me to just tag on another 6 – 7k through and out the other side of Xin Qiao the nearest village and then past the temple and up another mountain. 

I get directions from different people – because I don't want to get lost ( a speciality of mine) and I know I won't be keeping up with them. 

Its already about 30 degrees outside. My aim is just not to stop and start walking. I manage the mountain run – which is across the bridge and up the mountain. My first experienceof running up hill – horrible!!! Wong passes me on his motorbike and offers to carry my water for me. Great -a lift would have more appreciated thanks! 

I know its just going to be mental effort that gets me through, I cheer myself after reaching the entrance to the village – then run past the villages and out the other side of town. The locals have been going through a bamboo phase – they have made little wicker drying racks out of twigs and have stripped and steamed various sections of bamboo that they are drying and smoking in great fires. They sit by the roadside amongst the sweet smoky scent of the drying bamboo and have a good old laugh at the us as we go running past – all red, hot and sweaty. I wonder what they think of us. the Chinese don't seem to be big on exercise. Little children run out of shop doorways to shout – HELLO aggressively at me – at which I muster a wheezy hello back. 

The village goes uphill towards the end - I note with displeasure but I manage it and keep going past the Buddhist temple which is another landark Wong likes to get us to run to. Then I keep going until the path starts going up hill again up another mountain. Oh goody. About halfway up and there is a little smoking factory which seems to be drying and burning some kind of fuel. Its possibly the worst thing you could ask for – having run almost 8k up two mountains in 30 degree heat – and now for some smoke to asphxiate you when you have no air in your lungs left already. Well – no excuses but as an asthmatic as well it does for me and shortly after my legs refuse to do any more running up hill and I have to walk the remainer of the way up the mountain. I'm disappointed because I think running is really pshychological and I think if I knew the route and how much farther I had to go I might have made myself push on but just not knowing made it more difficult somehow. I get to what I think is the reservoir – there is a dog barking outside (which James has told me about) and a big wrought iron gate that you need to climb through. I do this and am faced with an enormous gorgeous lake surrounded by trees and a stone damn with steps down it. I look down and think there is aboslutely no way i'm going all the way down there if they are not down there so I just stand around at the top for about 10 mins to take in the view until Alison passes me on her way out. 

"Hey – they are all down there- if you want a swim" 

"Er yes I really do I say!" 

"Sure i don't blame you" she says and then adds quietly

"Good job" 


She is an enigma. I was aboslutely terrified of her at first – i'd already been told about the men she'd slept with then the first thing she said to me directly when i'd complain I couldn't straighten my leg out in an exercise because of pulling my hamstring was: 

"If it aint broken you can use it..." 

Splendid. But she's very different – mildly unassuming and bookish and very gently supportive and caring. 

"Did you get lost??" asks Sergei

"Well yes kind of and obviously I was also just SLOW!" 

Sergei is 19 and about 6 ft 4" and built like a daddy long legs – he often starts running well after me and then I get to watch him bound past like Tigger. 




I keep my shorts on and strip off to my sports bra and go for a swim. Its gorgeous. 

"Where are the others?" I enquire innocently. 

"Oh they have swam to the other side."

Kung Fu Fighting - Rising Dragon School Part 2

I wake at 5am for my first morning circuit. I am filled with dread at what the day might hold. I get dressed quickly and descend the steep and stony steps in semi darkness. The sky is misty mauve and bats are still flitting overhead. Clouds hang dark over the wooded mountain tops. 

It is the easiest of the morning circuits – it is abs. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. 

It starts with 300 stomach crunches... 

I've always enjoyed ab exercises in a perverse kind of way so this isn't too bad. Then we have to sit in a sparring ring with our bums hanging over the edge with our partner sitting on our legs whilst we lower ourselves out horizontally and up again. I can't do it at all. It's like I have no stomach muscles whatsoever and every cell in my body is screaming – no its not natural you will DIE! 

"Dominique - lie down flat!" shouts Alison - a wiry Canadian with closely cropped hair. 

"I can't" i gasp....she is terrifying... i think. 

Immediately after the morning circuit the Shaolin students do Qi Gong for fifteen minutes. We stand in the basketball looking out to the rise of the morning sun – then shut our eyes and meditatively summon our Qi - holding our arms as if we were hugging an imaginary basket ball. 

I'm not sure I ever do it correctly but i'm used to meditating so I use it as an opportunity to do that. Some of the boys say they can feel energy tingling down their shoulders. 

Afterwards at around 6.30 our Shaolin Teacher Wong joins us for our first lesson before breakfast. 



I introduce myself to him - the only goodlooking Chinese man i've ever seen. He is 21 years old, lithe and skinny with a six pack men can only dream of. He has trained in Shaolin Kung Fu at special school since he was six. He is not quite a master yet as he is too young. He has a huge broad smile that always connects with his eyes and friendly affable manner. Later I hear stories about his training with the Shaolin monks. How he would be hit by the masters with sticks every time he loosened a pose or didn't get a form correct – how he would be punished by being put into solitary confinement with scraps and a slop bucket in the dark for a week. Its extraordinary but he is one of the gentlest (considering he could probably kill you with two fingers) and most cheerful people i've ever met. 

The performance like forms of Shaolin Kung Fu are acrobatic and demanding and a lot of emphasis is put on fitness to get students in shape – hence all the exercise and running that is incorporated into the daily regime... 

“Too many fat...” he says ominously and signals to the mountain. We walk to the mountain and then up it to a steep slope and start what is then essentially another morning circuit. Sprints up a hill, followed by frog leaps, bunny hops, hopping and then wheel barrows. All these things we used to do in the playground for fun as kids that are like some kind of medieval torture now - I discover – when you are trying to support 55 kilos of your own body weight! 

Its 7.30 am and i've already done an hour and a half of exercise. 

There is a huge gong that is struck for mealtimes. It reverberates up the hill and I go down for breakfast. A dour Scottish chef with a cold grey unsmiling eye and scrappy goatee slops porridge into an enormous bowl. Its porridge made with water. Everyday. There is no fruit, and I see most of the students have brought their own honey and bananas to add to the mix. I can see why. 

There can be only 30 – 40 students in total who all eat together every mealtime. It really is like school. That and they all seem to be in their late teens to early twenties – mostly English speaking – from the UK, Australia, USA and Germany. 

Everyone is incredibly friendly ( I later learn how rumours of new arrivals circulate the school – maybe my arrival is anticipated...) 

Again Shaolin is spoken of in hushed terms. I say politely – Ah well I'm going to give it a go. 

I meet Ferdiand – an 18 year old red headed German also doing Shaolin – who although he had done a year of martial arts training came to the school oerweight and has already lost about 13 kilos in 3 weeks and Felix and Camille – 21 year old French brother and sister. Felix has spent around 7 years studying Kung Fu in France. He is short but ripped beyond belief with dirty blonde shaggy hair, goatee and an incredibly sweet and genuine smile. Camille is his brunette sister – and is effortlessly sexy and naturally beautiful in a way that seems to come so easily to the French. She has an incredible body – defined abs, toned upper arms and forearms but still has feminine curves. However like 90 % of women she is unhappy and wants to loose weight. 

"It eez awful" she confides- "since I been here my muscles get beeger and my boobs 'ave disappeared!!!" 

She tried Shaolin for the first two days and quickly reverted to Tai Chi. 

We start the 9am morning session with a run to the bridge and back. I am already nervous - i've never run before and am worried I will drag everyone back. 

Plus its already roasting – how typical of me to choose to study in the very hottest months -when August sees temperatures of between 30 and 40 degrees everyday. Luckily the run is only 800m so I survive and I spend the rest of the lesson learning high kicks and stretches from one of the more advanced students Sergei. 

At 11 the class closes and I go to lie down and sleep until the gong is struck for 12. 

'You won't do much the first week - except sleep between class" I'm advised by my new friends....they are right... 

"and the pain normally gets better after week 2...." 

Great. 

The boys all wander around with their tops off – the majority of them are ripped with washboard stomachs. I've never seen so many six packs in my life. I'm beginning to realise I may just be a teensy bit out of my depth... 

That evening Chef decides to serve vegetable curry. Its 40 degrees outside. He has some sense of humour...i'll give him that.

Everybody is Kung Fu Fighting - Rising Dragon School - Part 1

 

The sleeper bus is not the best i've ever taken! The Argentinian and Mexican night buses are pure luxury compared to China. There is a TV which remains on full blast the whole way playing some weird cross between a Benny Hill esque comedy and a musical. (The Chinese really shouldn't sing.) There is a toilet on the bus but after about 5 hours its filled to the brim with an ominous brown swilling liquid. However the scenery is stunning. I am making my way down to the school in Fujian province which is by the coast – but the school is set in the mountains with the nearest little village about a 20 minute walk away from the grounds - Xin Qiao and the nearest town Taining about 30 mins away in a car. 

As the bus leaves the city behind the countryside opens out into undulating paddy fields of lime green rice complete with farmers in traditional pointed bamboo hats - bent over double working the land. The sharp peaks and dips of the mountains are covered in bright grasshopper green feathery trees –gently swaying bamboo trees (what else?!) – with their long thick green stems bare and ringed with a flourish of soft leaves at the top – they look like giant feather dusters. 



I'm met in Taining by a driver the school use and an american student with a pony tail – Chris. I'm shattered. We do the half hour drive back up the mountain to the school at breakneck speed. The school is set deep into the hillside. The short termers accommodation is at the very top of the school up 120 steep stone steps. My calf muscles start to burn after about step 10. I think – Shit - this is probably the least strenuous part of what I do here.....! 

I'm sharing a room with Jasmine – a beautiful 23 year old fashion design student from Birmingham who has bright green eyes, the kind of wavy hair you've always wanted if you grew up with straight hair, thighs that could crack a man's pelvis - and she's deaf but can lip read. 

I'm sharing a top bunk which has one small foothold about breast height with which I have to heave myself up on. The room has a layer of dry dust and scum floating around it and clothes strewn everywhere – i have a flash back to my university days. The view from the window to the back is nothing but bamboo trees. There is a long walk downhill again to the toilets – maye this will help train my walnut sized bladder …. 



The day supposedly starts with a 5.30am morning circuit. I'm hoping it may be optional as i've failed dismally at doing any kind of training to get in shape before I arrive. However I soon realise the culture of the school is such that opting out is seriously NOT an option. 

Alice and Audrey -two Belgian girls -confirm as much. Alice is curvaceous and incredibly sweet, with a big innocent smile and huge eyes, Audrey is an athletic blonde with incredible six pack and a smile that curls up contempuously at the corners. 

"I waz frightened of her when I first met her" confides Alice... 

"she was one of the mean girls." 

Yeah you can see that - Audrey is rebelling by staying and not doing ANYTHING at the school – I like her style 😊 It really riles the rest of the students. 

Alice likes the tai chi but but on my first morning they have tried to get out of the 5.30 am circuit but are hauled from their beds and told if they want to stay there then they have to do it! 

“The early morning circuit is normally the toughest of the day “ says Chris laconically... 

“sometimes we may run up the mountain and do sprint exercies, sometimes we may just hold plank position for the half an hour...” 

“Half an hour???!!! I can't even hold the bloody plank position for 30 seconds...” 

Shit. What have I let myself in for. 

I do not have to attend the 5.30am morning circuit on the first day as I have just arrived (generous) I am allowed to join for breakfast at 7.30am (which still feels horrendously early – I like my sleep people!) 

I have to make a decision on what to train in while I am here. They offer Shaolin Kung Fu – the most energetic, demanding and strenuos option, or two different types of Tai Chi. 

All of the forms do a 800m run two to three times a day, with Shaolin there is also the possibility of running another 3- 8k a day as well – up mountains or to the nearest town. There are also further exercise and fitness work outs incorporated into the 6 hours of training a day....! 

Shaolin is spoke of in hushed tones. Most people start and then drop out after a day or two because they can't hack it. Just before I arrive a group of 14 have taken it up and one by one given it up so there are only 7 left. 

Patrice -a large, jovial guy with kind smileand dark skin - whose family hail from Afghanistan – so has the nickname Taliban (obviously) – says "maybe Tai Chi would be best for you..." 

"Did you do any exercise before you joined?" I ask – 

"No" he says. 

I think to myself – if you can do it I can do it. 

TD a long termer about to leave (you have the option of studying for 1,3,6 months or a full year) asks me why i've come. 

"I'm here for discipline I say – I want to improve my mental focus and my self discpline." 

"Then do Shaolin" she says. 

"No one will resent you and you won't hold anyone back – but you can't be lazy you have to push yourself and do your best – if you do that the group will support and respect you whatever your level." 

I have two voices in my head. One is saying – actually screaming really loudly 

I dont want to get up at 530am in the morning I dont want to do hard core exercise with a bunch of 18 year olds it will hurt...it will hurt don't let me I DON'T WANNA!!!!! 

The other is more like a kindly sergeant major. It says – you came here to improve your discipline – you need to do that to self motivate if you want to work for yourself. You could do tai chi and have a nice relaxing time – but that's not why you are here!!! you are here to challenge yourself, push yourself and do things you didn't think you were capable of. YOU came here to honour your values -discipline and vitality – AND make a commitment to your long term health and vitality by getting in shape. 

So Shaolin kung fu it is – with half my mind and body still screaming NO – and the other kindly sergeant major saying very gently but firmly – yes – and you are NOT going to give up.

Argentinian Tango and Smug Classmates - B.A,

It is the week of my homestay and Spanish and Tango lessons. I am studying at Coined language school in the Monserrat barrio near Centro and staying with a lovely Argentinian women called Viviana. I wake up at 6.45am to Viviana gently knocking on my door - and assess the puffiness of my eyes. Conclusion: Very fucking puffy. 

I leave with the moon still high in the sky and get the Subte (subway) along with the rest of the commuters and arrive at the school for my Spanish level test at 8am. I feel like telling them that I already know how much Spanish i'll be able to speak at that time in the morning – even less than I do the rest of the day! True to form - I know nada, its the first ever test I take where I actually leave most of it blank. 

There are two young pretty Brazilian girls in the class - Anna Carolina and Natalia and a tanned, gently balding South African man in his forties called Andre. He has watched me stare mutely at the test paper for half an hour... 

“ Oh Dominique!” exlaims Andre...who has smugly already informed us that he has studied Spansh for years...” you are not going to say anything the whole lesson! You better get everything out of your system now cos the teacher will probably say the whole thing in Spanish!”



Ticiana our teacher comes in, she has mousy curls, rosy cheeks and a toothy grin. Sadly what Andre hasn't realised is that Argentinian Spanish is different to the Spanish spoken in the rest of South, Central America and indeed Spain. Some verb conjugations are different eg. In stead of Tu Es (You are singlular) its Vos Sos. Some of the pronunciation is different - “Y” and “ll” in Spanish are pronounced as a “Y” and in Argentina as a soft “J” and some verbs are the same but have entrely different meanings. For example “Cocer” means “to take” in Spanish and “to Fuck” in Argentina – radially changing the meaning of “can you take my mother in your car....” depending on where you are. 

This seems to throw Andre, but as I am a complete beginner but do have pretty good French (another romantic language which shares many of the same grammatical rules as Spanish) I get by just fine. 

We learn the words for old and young and Andre decides to argue that at 38 (a year older than myself) Charlize Theron is old. When I reveal that I used to work for Arsenal Football club he turns to me and exlaims: 

"DOMINIQUE!!! you must have been so much OLDER than all the players there!!!!” 



Well - yes - as the average age of an Arsenal player is about 19 - I was - but still - no need to point it out! 

I imagine Andre and I are going to have words at some point. 

After school i try and get onto the internet but all the computers i try keep shutting down as its playing up. 

"DOMINIQUE!!! – YOU 'VE GIVEN THE COMPUTERS A VIRUS!!!!" 

shouts Andre gleefully. 

Its going to be a long week.... 

After school I walk down to Puerta Madero – the expensive new port by the water. I sit and blow two days budget on my first glass of white wine in the city and some calamari. Its worth it. I walk back via cafes and (because i'm drunk) imagine being a little old woman looking at the young chicas and waving my cane as the radio is playing old spanish tunes. I'm not quite sure how I will metamorphosise into an old Spanish crone...but I go with it. I won't care about being old and haggard as long as i've made the most of every age I am now until I get there.