Monday, April 2, 2012

A Perfect Week in the Phillipines

Last week has been one of the best on our trip so far. I only wish it never ended. Exactly a week ago, on Sunday, March 25th we had arrived in Manila at 5:30am after an overnight bus from Vigan, a small village in the north of Luzon. We were tired, sick of overnight buses and hauling our backpacks every day from one town to another, from one taxi to another, from one bus to another. Enough of that! So I went online and found same-day tickets to an island in the south. A one-hour flight took us from metro Manila hell to white beach paradise. What awaited there was a whole week of maximum relaxin', beach massages, dolphin and whale shark sightings, snorkeling and diving. 

View from the place where we stayed. From Manila we flew to Tagbilaran, a small town on the island of Bohol, which is part of a conglomerate of islands called the Visayas. (Basically, as a mini lesson in geography, the Philippines is split into 3 main groups of islands: Luzon in the north, with Manila as main city, Visayas in the middle, with Cebu as main city, and Mindanao in the south.) From Tagbilaran we took a cab to the small island of Panglao, which is connected to Bohol by two bridges. Since we didn't make any reservations before arriving here, it took us a while to find a place that had affordable rooms, but we managed to score a bungalow for 800 Pesos per night. That's a little less than $20, so around $10/night for each of us. Not bad, given how expensive all the other resorts were. On top of that we got 20% off, because I took a diving class.

No, that's not where we stayed. We wish... this was a nicer resort, where the beach-front houses cost almost $200/night. Maybe someday, when/if we ever get to be ballers. Right now, the only place we can be ballers is Bali.

Panglao today is a popular diving destination, mainly as starting point for other small islands surrounded by coral reefs. An interesting history lesson, via Wikipedia: "In 1803, Spanish explorers came to the shores of Panglao in search of fresh water. At the time a couple of natives on the seashore were making fishing devices called "panggaw". One of the Spaniards asked what the name of the island was. The natives, who thought the visitors were asking what they were making, then replied "panggaw". Hence, from that term, was derived the name Panglao."

6am sunrise on Alona beach, right before we embarked on a dolphin-spotting and snorkeling tour. The tour was pretty much just the two of us and the boat driver for a whole day, which was pretty cool, as we were on our own time.

 Sunrise through my sunglasses.

This was our humble bungalow at Bohol Divers Club, where we lodged for a whole week. The price of a room with AC was double that of a room with fan, so we opted for the fan. We were barely in the room, literally from the moment we went to sleep to the moment we woke up. Who needs a nice hotel room, when you have a gorgeous beach a few meters away?

This is around 6:30am on our way to see dolphins. I didn't take any photos of the dolphins, mostly because they were jumping very quickly out of the water, and my camera is not good enough for fast action shots. So I was happy to just watch them jump around and enjoy the moment.

Star fishes are scattered across the bottom of the sea. The water is so clear that you can see them from the boat. We picked a few up, but released them shortly after we took a few photos.

We made a stop on Balicasag island for some snorkeling. Balicasag is pretty much a small, round and flat island, surrounded by a belt of white sand beach. It's famous for great diving spots. There are about 2,000 locals living there and only one diving resort.

After we snorkeled for about an hour, we strolled around the beach for a while. The shoreline is a bit rough for sunbathing, walking or swimming, as the beach is covered with small pieces of broken coral. The villagers have small shacks right on the beach, which made me think of how priceless and special their peaceful and simple life is. Many of them are so poor that they can't afford the ferry ticket to a neighboring island, yet they wake up every morning looking at this. For a room facing the beach, a tourist usually has to pay over $100 per night. Some of the locals, especially the younger ones, dream to escape this paradise. Taking things for granted is a universal thing.

After Balicasag we went to Virgin Island. I wouldn't really call it an island, but rather a small strip of land jutting out of the water, approximately 100 meters by 30 meters. It also had a sign indicating that it's private property and showing the name of its owners. During low tide, you can walk on two strips of white sand on either side of the island. We got there during high tide and we liked it more, as we could swim in the shallow, warm water.

Just a teeny tiny island, one of the approximately 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines.

Picking up my own starfish. I was hoping to get this little fellow dried up and take it home with me, but the ants in our room ate it up. :(
Somehow, this photo reminds me of Burning Man. Hope I can make it there this year. I miss the playa.

Coconut (buko) vendor. Louie, our boat driver, told us the Filipinos have multiple names for coconuts, to distinctly refer to baby, young, ripe coconuts. I didn't take notes of the exact names used, but this story reminded Anne of how Eskimos have multiple words for snow, to refer to different types of snow: icy, fluffy, melted, etc. Similarly, people living in the tropics have multiple names for different stages of the coconut growth.

Louie, our boat driver for the dolphin watching and snorkeling trip. We made friends, so the next day he took us out on his boat again. Out at sea, he turned off the boat engine and we chilled for a while, watching the sunset. As we were quietly enjoying the sunset, we saw a giant fin cruise the water right next to our boat. Then I saw the white dots on the back of the huge whale shark, sliding underneath our boat. My heart skipped a beat. Louie quickly took off his clothes, grabbed a mask and dove to swim with the whale shark.

After the sun went down, we took the boat closer to the shore and jumped in for some night time swimming. Louie picked up these star fishes from the bottom of the sea. I snapped a few photos, then threw them back in the water.

Anne holding a sea urchin. The coconut guy was selling it and I didn't even ask for the price. Apparently, its roe sells for as much as $450/kg in Japan.

We later got to try a sea urchin. I thought there would be more inside, but all you get from one shell is that teeny tiny bit of yellow roe. This one was taken out of the water minutes before we ate it.

The next day we rented motorbikes and went on a long ride to Bohol to see the Chocolate Mountains and the tarsiers. Jake, whom we met at the dive shop came with us. Originally from Korea, he'd been living on the island for a month and knew his way around. He guided us and it was great to have someone with us who was familiar with the roads.

The end destination of our ride was to see the Chocolate Hills. As soon as we got there it started pouring. After one hour of heavy rain, it cleared up, but you couldn't see very well because of the rising mist.

On the way to Chocolate Hills.

Even if we both think we look like shit in this photo, I'm still going to post it.

Jake looks good on the broom. He must have watched a lot of Harry Potter.

The whole round-trip lasted for about 7 hours, most of which we spent riding around. It was a perfect day and made me realize how much I love to ride a two-wheeled vehicle on country roads. That day we rode on windy roads through forests, rice fields, villages, lush jungle vegetation. Everything around us was so green and beautiful.

Motorbike Barbie. Anne is here posing with my pink bike. We had to ride with those shitty helmets, but these were the only thing they have here. It's crazy that people ride quote fast, but nobody wears full-face helmets, and some people don't wear helmets at all.

We took a little detour to check out the Nuts Huts retreat on Bohol. Anne rode all the way to the bottom of the hill, while Jake and I stopped to take some photos, thought we got lost and then turned around. Jake looks really dark here, which I am sure he's proud of. Spending a month on the beach made him look almost as dark as the locals.

Loboc river.

Sunset on Alona beach.

Just a random shot I took in front of our bungalow. I sort of like it.

During our moto ride we also stopped by a butterfly conservation center. These are my last photos for the day, after which my battery died. I forgot to bring a spare with me, Anne's camera was broken, so we don't have any photos of the rest of the day, the tarsiers and whatever else we saw that day.

A moth as big as my hand.

Tinkerbell Anne.

A dead butterfly. It died a natural death, of old age. This guy lived around 21 days, I forgot exactly how old it was when it died.

Butterflies making love. Apparently this type of butterfly mates several hours every day.

Butterflies eating rotten mango. They especially love the sweetness of rotten mango. Who knew?
On the way back to Panglao, which you can see far in the distance.

A talented local kid was making a different sand sculpture every day. At night, tourists would give him tips for his work. He was also a talented dancer. Anne and I spent a lot of time talking to him. He was smart, talented and kind. We gave him a generous tip and we hope he'll find a good way in life. He deserves the best. I heart him.

If there's a beach, there's also poi dancing. We later got to meet and hang out with the fire dancer and his twin brother, who was adding drum beats to the performance.

The other half of the twin-duo. We first "met" while riding our motorbikes back to the resort. Someone on a fast bike kept blasting past us, then we'd pass him, only for him to pass us again a minute later. Later on the beach it turned out that the maniacal rider was no other than this guy.

Day 1 of scuba training. Learning how to clear the mask is the biggest bitch ever! I still don't feel 100% comfortable about it and fortunately haven't had to do it during a deep dive. Clearing the mask entails filling your mask with water, then emptying it of water and creating an air seal again. All that while being underwater. Apparently it doesn't happen very often in real dives, but it's a skill every diver must know how to master. Imagine losing your mask while at 20m under, having to put it back on and getting all the water out...

Jake was great at training me and was very patient showing me how to do various exercises over and over again. While Vince was my main dive instructor, Jake was also training to become an instructor himself one day. They were both amazing at making me feel comfortable underwater and get over my initial fears.

Day one we trained in the pool. Day two we did two dives in open water and two more dives on the third day.

Panglao is a diver's paradise. I am feeling a little hooked now.

Jake getting ready.

Me getting ready - 2nd dive. 

And down I go.

Catching my last surface breath before going under.

Deflating our BCDs.

The last day was crazy packed with a lot of last minute things. While I finalized my dive course, Anne planned our ferry tickets to Cebu, arranged a cab pick-up, booked a hotel in Cebu, paid for our room and did other trip planning errands. At the very end, right before we said good bye, we took this group photo with (almost) the entire dive crew at Bohol Divers Club. Between me and Anne is Vince, my dive instructor. He's truly a great guy, an amazing teacher and a good boss for this team. The guys seem to like him a lot. Without getting too sappy at the end, I'll just say that I'll really miss them and this place.