Sights of Philippines

Odds and Ends watched from the long ride to and from Puerto Princesa to El Nido and back.

  • a grey dog sitting on a pile of roadside scree staring off into the distance
  • a family living under a blue tarp in a gulley beneath the road
  • white egrets working squared off flat-flooded plots of land with water buffalo, one egret standing on the back of a laying buffalo
  • cattle egrets. Did they get their name because they hang around cattle or because it looks like a cattle just crapped on their head?
  • a man sweeping the road of construction gravel in the rain with a witches broom
  • a token mango seed weevil inspection of the van that any even mildly crafty weevil could have breached
  • a boy riding his roadside grazing water buffalo
  • people standing in line waiting to vote at the local school
  • a painting of the landscape photo I wanted to take of the El Nido sunset descending over the ocean between two islands
  • an outdoor basketball court with wooden backboards and dirt grass court
  • jungle jungle jungle
  • banana trees and sugar cane fields, some of the sugar cane fields smoldering back to the black ground
  • jack fruit and stunted bananas at a thatched roadside stand
  • sales children offering packets of coconut vinegar
  • a karst tower rising out of the flat ground
  • a woman parasailing on the back of a scooter with a white spotted purple umbrella
  • a painting at the seafood grill of kids playing together with the caption that says “I’m glad I grew up before technology took over.”

And the pics that I actually did take.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1Y8dkaUD7xL3BQJs2FPIYZWmEwPpNTZaO

All works are original work of the authors subject to Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licensing.

On a sad note, I lost my Nikon 3400 camera to a wet bag. It was supposed to be a dry bag and I wanted some pictures of a very beautiful hidden beach but it didn’t survive the swim over. While not entirely pleased with the loss, I take it as a message from the universe to always respect and enjoy the moment, it’s the only way to really hold it forever.

Dive Story

The deep dive of the day is in a channel between two islands. A low-pressure system has passed through overnight. The water is choppy and the current strong. The dive starts along the cliff edge, follows the channel to where it narrows, then we are to swim out of the channel behind the backside of the pinch point of the channel behind a cliff into calmer waters to return to the bangka dive boat.

The first part of the dive is more or less floating along with the current along the wall of the cliff that dives deep into the water. As the current pushes us out into the lane, I can hear the bangkas passing overhead, even at twenty meters. The current has churned up the sediments so the visibility is only twenty or thirty feet.

Next Day when water is calmer. You can see dive boats waiting for their divers in front of rocks in the distance. We started on the other side of that.

The second part of the dive is swimming back against the current to reach the relative calm of the backside. JJ, the dive master, points down, later explaining that there is less current closer to the bottom. I tried to swim down at the time but easier said than done. When I check my tank, I’m at the 10 psi mark, the half tank point, so I check in with JJ as instructed. We turn around to check on Tin, my recently certified, Chinese dive buddy for the day who fixes elevators in Hong Kong. He is nowhere in sight. JJ shoots back into the murky water like a spooked dolphin. I’ve grabbed ahold of the rim of a three or four-foot tall sponge-like thing to hold my position and wait. I’m down to five PSI, the redline on the tank. I’m wondering at what point do I go for the surface. Am I in the boat lane? I would sure hate to lose my head to a bangka boat.

A couple of minutes later, about fifty feet back and above the murk in the brightness near the surface, I see Tin, a few feet from the surface in the boat lane trying to let the air out of his BC. JJ is pulling him down back into the murk. Moments later, they re-emerge out of the murk. JJ is towing Tin at his side, crawling along the bottom pulling himself forward, one piece of coral at a time. I see Tin’s limp pale white hand and he doesn’t seem to be moving at all. I’m starting to wonder if he is dead. He finally shows some sign of life when we reach the spot where we are supposed to surface.

Running out of air, I don’t have the luxury of a safety stop. I hit the boat ladder at just a hair over zero PSI. Tin and JJ come up a few minutes later. After Tin peels the top of his wet suit back, he’s pumping his heart with his fist indicating how scared he was and bowing to the dive master repeatedly in thanks.

Tin asks me if I’ve ever had a bad experience before. My story of Phil’s seasick misadventure in the kelp helps calm some nerves and give a few laughs, but that definitely goes down as a bad dive and the only time I remember being underwater by myself in dangerous conditions. For diving, I’d much rather have experiences than stories. And I for one am glad that the elevators of Hong Kong will continue to run smoothly.

Camotes

The slowest moving ferry ever chugs toward the Camotes islands late in the afternoon. I watch painfully from a bench at the front of the deck by the bridge as flying fish easily outfly the chugging and seemingly struggling boat.

My plan is to hire a guide and rent a scooter and cover as many of the island’s attractions as possible. Junjun and about ten other people offer bike rental at the arrival gate. Junjun hands over his bike for 500 pesos for 24 hours of use over two days without so much as a credit check or a license check or even proof of insurance. I want a guide to take me around the island but he says it is too late for tours. I know from looking at the map earlier the resort is close to the northwest corner of the island. I ask for directions to Sunset Vista Resort. The map app on my phone won’t work without some kind of connection. I usually remember to take a picture of the map when heading off the grid but I forgot this time. The phone battery is almost dead anyway. I will have to do it the old fashioned way, ask for directions.

Junjun gestures with his left hand to stay to the left and tells me to follow the road to the North until I get to Encarnacion. Then ask for directions. Somehow, I am reminded of the joke that says go 3 miles past the old gas station they tore down and turn right, then stop a half mile before the sign to the city, and ask a person, “Where the hell am I?”

Junjun didn’t say what to do when I come to a fork in the road. Yogi Berra notwithstanding, I have to choose one of the tines of the fork and I chose left. The road to the left looks a little worse but I figure if I keep left trying to stay close to the shore which I can’t actually see anymore, I should be good.

The road turns from concrete with lane markings to concrete without lane markings to crumble to hardpack. I catch up to a trike driver puttering along on the road with a fare. He just shrugs when I ask him if he knows where the resort is.

The road turns back to the South so I know I’m heading the wrong way. I can easily tell directions by the setting sun but I’m far enough from the water and deep enough in the jungle that I can’t see the shore. I turn around. I stop to ask a lady standing on the side of the road. She tells me to follow the road then stay left. I stay left, again, staying toward the shore heading North in the correct direction, but I’m getting in deep. There are a couple of resorts buried in here, but resort seems to be a bit of an optimistic marketing interpretation.

The sun sinks fast near the equator and the sun is getting low. I’d like to be at Sunset Vista to witness its namesake. I drive on and I’m getting deeper passing huts with people milling about looking at me curiously. The shadows of the jungle are getting longer and the light dimmer. I stop by a cluster of huts with a bunch of kids playing in the dirt road and smoke from a grill filling the air. They banter about in a foreign tongue (I assume Tagalog). Another lady finally points to continue in the direction I am going.

I drive on. More thatch huts, more fires, more people standing around, men squatting next to their own scooters pretending not to notice me as I look in their direction and kids looking curiously on, as if they’d never seen a lost white man before on a scooter riding through their woods. The thought of being lost out here driving around on dusty roads in the dark is not particularly thrilling. Another older lady says to follow the road, take the next right and take it back to the main highway, then go to Encarnacion.

The sun is starting to take on hues of orange and the jungle is getting darker. I pick up the pace and kick up plenty of dust on the dirt road. I come back to the paved road as promised and head North. Then I come to another fork in the road. I can’t recall from my mental image of the map if the resort is right on the main road or not, but I do remember it being right on the water. I stick to what looks like the better road this time going to the right but heading away from the sun.

I chose correctly. I reach Encarnacion. I still don’t know where I am going. I ask a couple of people for directions to the resort. Shrugs and indifference. I’m definitely not in a tourist town. I keep going hoping for a sign to the resort. I stop and ask a group of punk teen kids sitting on a wall by a school if they know where the resort is. They tagalog and laugh but one says it is a hundred meters down the road. I say thanks and start away, the kid stands up moving towards me waving his arms saying, “You can talk me, mister, anytime.” The other kids are laughing, I’m sure at my expense.

The kid was right. I finally find the resort where the paved road just about rejoins the shore. It is a fortified resort, again I use the word resort loosely, behind high walls and a black metal gate. I have to ring to get in. I am just in time to snap off a few pictures of the sun as it disappears into clouds on the horizon. The sunset vista part of the name is real. The patio sits out above the calm seas with a perfect view of the sun setting over the distant island of Cebu.

I have a couple of beers with the proprietor Michael, a 68-year-old expat from Nottingham, who says he needs something to keep himself busy, but goes back to England every six months, to keep his sanity. His much younger Filippino wife and his sister-in-law prepare and serve me dinner.


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In the morning, after discussing my itinerary with Michael, he says just go around the corner and spend two hours snorkeling at the small island. I’m not sure why two hours, but that is what he recommends.

So, in the morning, I take off on the scooter following the road to the north shore, just a couple of minutes from the resort. The road splits and I take the fork down to the beach. The beach is lined with huts and Bangka boats between the road and the water.

The small island is actually a fair distance across the channel, too far to swim, and there is a lot of boat traffic moving back and forth. I don’t see anything remotely resembling a tourist spot with boats or a sign. Michael failed to mention any of these complexities.

I pull over in front of the first hut on the shore where a group of Filippino men sit and squat and smoke their morning cigarettes. They look at me like I’m an alien, which I suppose I am, standing there in my blue flower print swimsuit, Pink Floyd t-shirt, and fighting Illini cap. Not one of them acknowledges me. I point to my mask and snorkel and say, “Is there a place for snorkeling?” I’m sure they catch my meaning. They puff on their morning cigs and chat amongst themselves, in their Brooklyn t-shirt and St. Louis Cardinal hat and even old number 23 with a Nike Logo, Michael Jordan is alive and well in the remote Camotes Islands of the Philippines. The may wear the language but they don’t seem to want to speak it. I retreat saying “Ok. Sure. I’ll just check down there then.”

I back out my scooter and drive deeper into the village of huts. I ask another man standing on the side of the road. He points to a hut and yells to Reil. Reil comes out, he takes me past an old lady sitting in a thatch chair who seems to be watching the flies land on a stack of grilled red fish, and onto the sandy and white-bleached coral strewn beach to see his Bangka boat. I negotiate a price of ten dollars for him to take me on what he claims is a good snorkeling spot on the west end of the small island. He rousts his buddy from his sleep on a straw mattress on a wooden bed about the size of a hope chest in an open-air hut to find some change for my twenty dollar (1000 peso) bill.

It’s just me on this Bangka with a crew of three. A liter coke bottle of fuel for the thirsty engine that won’t start and we are on our way. Reil chases off a small child hanging from the white-painted wooden bowsprit post. The only thing that gives me some sense of legitimacy as I sit by myself on the Bangka bench is the five orange life jackets hanging from a hook on one of the stays.

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We arrive at the dive spot and the crew drops anchor.

“Dive over there?” I ask pointing to the shore.

Reil points to the ocean side of the boat.

“What about near the shore?” I ask.

He points again away from the shore and says, “Monet fish. Monet fish.”

“Monet fish?” I repeat.

“Yes. Yes.”

I’ve never seen the Monet fish before. I want to see one.

But then it finally occurs to me that he is saying “Many fish. Many fish.” Damn, I wanted to see the Monet fish but I don’t think Monet ever did any fish and not sure how the paintings would hold up to the salt water even if he did.

But the dive spot is an underwater Louvre of sorts. I do see the many fish and have an interesting snorkel. The reef drops steeply off into a bottomless abyss of cobalt blue, at least from my point of view on the surface with at least fifty-foot visibility. It’s the perfect venue for a hungry shark to rise up out of the depths, but I didn’t see anything larger than a parrot fish, and nothing particularly interested in me, though I gave the one jellyfish I saw, a wide berth.

I saw a spikey armored starfish, which at first I thought was a coral because it was so big. Upon subsequent research back home, I think I saw a “Crown-of-Thorns starfish”, a reef muncher and one of the largest species of starfish. The spikes on the starfish are painfully poisonous to unwary waders who might step on one. I also found a seahorse, sort of a kelp-ish color body, but definitely no kelp, in the area, that perhaps blended in well with seagrass. And hundreds of other corals, sponges, anemones, something that looks like the branches of a balsam fir tree and the usual colorful array of many fish.

I swam for an hour and by my estimates maybe half a mile, by myself of course. I covered all the way from the anchor point to west tip of the small island and back, not needing the two hours demanded by Michael. On the way back to the big island, Reil tells me he is 36 and has never left the island because he doesn’t have enough money. I want to give him a thousand pesos and put him on the ferry to Cebu. Instead, I hire Reil on as my guide to take me around the rest of the island negotiating a price of five hundred pesos. If anyone knows the island, it should be him. Before we set out on the tour, I return back to the resort, change out of swim clothes, pack everything up and check out. Michael informs me that I already paid too much for my snorkeling adventure, that in the old days they would have only charged twenty pesos.

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Reil and I scoot over to the Temubo cave. I looked for the cave entrance beyond the sign expecting the cave to be on a trail beyond the parking lot somewhere. The cave entrance is in the parking lot and right in front of the sign. It is literally a hole in the ground, no wider than the stairwell to a basement.

The cave is surprisingly deep. I work my way down the concrete steps ducking the low hanging rock and holding onto the wooden banister. The cave features some not so pretty crystalline looking stalactites and of course, a sleeping dog.

At the bottom of the stairs is a knee-deep pool. After depositing my shoes and socks, I wade through the shallow pool bending to work my way over through the tunnel to the wider chamber beyond. In the larger chamber is a swimming pool. I have the whole cave to myself, except for a shrine to the Virgin Mary in her blue cloak.

I look back down the narrow tunnel entrance. No one is coming. I make the command decision (or is it the commando decision?) to go for the swim, improvising my lack of swimwear, having left all my wet swimwear in a plastic bag attached to my scooter back at the surface. I swim in the clear and refreshing freshwater pool going all the way to the back wall, maybe some twenty or thirty feet.

I exit the pool still in naturist mode and stand there mildly excited with nobody but the Virgin Mary standing in her shrine with her arms spread to the ground looking away. I can’t tell if she is blushing or trying to sneak a peak. I hear some splashing coming from the tunnel at the entrance.

I quickly dress finishing just in time. A dude with a go pro recording his underground adventure leads a group of ten Filippino women but unfortunately for them, the show is already over. I won’t make the dude’s Facebook page on a salacious GoPro clip or unintentionally educate any of the women. After a lot of good mornings and smiles that return my big grin, I make my exit leaving the mother Mary shaking her head in disbelief.

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After a stop at the Danao freshwater lake and a lunch at a beach cafe in Santiago, I talk Reil into taking me to the Boho Rock, though he is convinced we don’t have enough time. We make it in plenty of time despite the fact that he has to stop a couple of times to ask for directions which completely amazes me, given his tenure on the island. Technically, the Boho Rock is on Poro, the second island, but I don’t even know where we crossed over from one to the other, the two islands are joined together at the hip, like Siamese twins. So maybe he never comes over to this other conjoined island.

I pay at the entrance leaving my bike and Reil, hike down a path and stairs to the rock. The rock has three Goldilocks, wooden diving boards. The lowest of the boards has crashed into the water along with the cement platform it was attached to and is closed. The middle board of about twenty feet elevation has a couple of kids playing and jumping off it. The highest board is about forty feet with warning signs, professional divers only, with a number of groups picnicking around the platform. I choose the middle board.

Every tree has a sign posted to it warning not to leave your valuables unattended. Which leaves me in a conundrum. How do I dive off the board without leaving my valuables unattended? I do some mental calculus. The kids have jumped in the water and are preoccupied with one another. The people near the high board could in theory run down the fifty feet or so and steal my stuff in the time it takes me to dive, swim, and climb out but they’d have to be motivated. They look preoccupied.

So I strip down to my skivvies this time. Don’t freak, my Underarmor is basically the equivalent of biker shorts. I figure it will have plenty of time to air dry on the ride back to the ferry port. I don’t have time to think about the twenty-foot dive, I just do it, swim back to the bamboo ladder to scale the platform to retrieve my unattended valuables.

They are gone! My money, my passport, my cameras, my wallet, my phone. I’m standing there slack-jawed in my dripping wet Underarmor. Ha! Just kidding. Everything is still there, but can you imagine? Stuck on some remote island in the Philippines in just your underwear? Looking around with the deer in the headlight look? Or chasing some punk kid in bare feet up the stairs and the trail as he disappears into some back street in the town? I don’t even consider the forty-foot jump. I would have had to leave all my stuff unattended with people all around it.

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I’m in row 1, seat b on the return ferry ride back to Cebu from Camotes, flanked by an older Filippino woman to my left in seat c and a younger Filippino woman to my right in seat a. Both try to sleep, their heads hung and curling away from me, like the two halves of a split heart, each side flipped over so that it is facing the opposite direction.

Neither can resist their cell phones for long though. I surreptitiously shoulder surf them both. The younger girl is using the back of her self phone as a mirror to apply makeup. I ask her why she doesn’t use the selfie camera. So she does. She wears a diamond-looking ring on her left index finger so I ask if she is engaged and I’m surprised to find out with all the primping that she isn’t, though it makes more sense now why she travels alone. Her family lives in Camotes, she is headed back to Manilla to work at Pugis, the best I can make out of the name over the hum of the engines and through her accent. She loves to travel and has been to a number of islands, most of the names I don’t recognize though I think they are all down by Mindanao, the one name I do recognize.

The older woman has two cell phones. She puts them back in her bag, flips the flap, which says forensics. I point to the word and ask her if she is in forensics. I opened pandora’s box on this one. She just finished teaching a course in forensics at a university on Camotes and is heading to Cebu to teach another course there. She digs out an ID and shows me like I don’t believe her. From what I can gather, she’s taken a course in every scientific discipline taught over her fifty years. She says she has a gun. I joke “on you?”, at least I think its a joke. She shows me her phone photos including some pics of her shooting a Glock and later examining the spread pattern under a microscope, and then photos of her with her mentor receiving an award, and about a dozen others. I’m impressed. She has a 70-year-old sister in DC but she has never been to the US. She’s come a long way from her department store days but seems to think that her choices caused her to drift apart from her sister. Yes, we’ve covered a lot of ground.

The two halves of the heart aren’t pointed toward each other exactly, but the two halves aren’t pointed away from me either. The ride back to Cebu passes by in the blink of an eye.