Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Coconut Pirates and Date Night

January 15th – Island Hopping off of Cebu Island.

We actually get to sleep in until 7:00 A.M. and during  breakfast, John tells us he has a date tonight. To recap: John met three young women at the mall last night and was charmed by one in particular and they exchanged Facebook information. It is our last night in Cebu and I ask John about his plans for meeting? They want to meet at the Alyana Mall, at the railing where they met the night before. Although I am surprised, this will work well. We can all take a taxi together to the mall again for dinner tonight and John can meet up with Hana, take her to dinner and return by taxi on his own.   

After breakfast, our prearranged driver picks us up for a 1.5 hour drive to Mactan Island the departure point for todays island hopping and snorkeling.  We take a large and private catamaran out to three different snorkeling spots; Talima,  Hilutungan  and Nalusuan, off of Olango Island.

Island Overview

Mactan & Olango Islands


Our first snorkeling stop is reasonably good, the second very good and the third one amazing. I wear a life vest, more for the coral protection than for my own.  With a life vest to keep me buoyant, I will not be tempted to stand up and possibly damage the coral with my fins. We snorkel just a few feet above huge islands of stag-horn coral with luminescent pale green and blue damsel fish swimming in synchrony, like leaves blowing in the breeze. Bright orange damsel fish add to the underwater symphony and luminescent orange anemones, each with their own species of clown fish, undulate in the current. Brain coral, table top coral, ribbon and stag-horn coral abound. Dr. Seuse could not have imagined a more magical underwater garden filled with brilliantly colored parrot fish, trigger fish and angel fish. It is remarkable and heartening to see this fragile and remarkable ecosystem thriving.

Catamaran to Mactan and Olango Islands

Motoring out to Mactan and Olango Islands

Tying up to the Buoy 

Motoring Back

Shortly before lunch, a small boat pulls along side of our catamaran and three men climb aboard. We are not quite sure what they are doing here and feel a bit uncomfortable. Although our crew seems to know these men it feels as if we have been boarded by pirates. They hang back by the motor and watch us. I don’t want to go back in the water and leave our valuable unattended so I tell Art and John that I will rest onboard awhile. Art remains onboard as well and it soon becomes clear that the islanders wish for us to “order” coconuts from them for the exorbitant price of $4 each. They speak an island dialect and little English but Art manages to communicate and negotiates the price down to $2 each and they motor off back to their nearby island, presumably to climb a coconut tree to procure the coconuts. The men return thirty minutes later, Art pays them and we sip the sour, rather than sweet juice. In the meantime our crew has fired up a rusty grill and barbecued a surprising good lunch of grilled chicken, pork, squid and fresh mango. For lack of vegetarian options, John and I eat the chicken, rice and mango. 

Coconut "Pirates"
Lunch Onboard

In 2008, Art, John and I traveled to Komodo Island and spent two days onboard a tiny wooden boat motoring between Komodo and Rincon Islands where the dragons roam. We slept one night in the open on the wooden deck of our boat and were surprised and somewhat frightened when two small boats pulled along side ours; village men selling souvenirs. One of the men was missing an eye and we felt vulnerable, anchored off shore of this remote island. John and I purchased a teak carved Komodo Dragon sculpture and several bone and shell necklaces from the men. In retrospect, our night time visitors were one of the highlights of the trip.

Night Time Visitors, Komodo Island, 2008
One Eyed Komodo Villager, 2008

We are tired and salty when we return to the dock for our return drive to our hotel in Cebu. We all shower quickly and change and it is a little after 6:00 P.M. before we all climb into a taxi to drive to the Mall. Traffic is terrible and John checks the time on his phone anxiously. Last night it took only 20 minutes by taxi to reach the mall but it takes us nearly an hour tonight. it is nearly 7:00 P.M. when we arrive and John’s date is at 7:00 P.M. and we leave him standing at the railing waiting for Hana. I tell him I will check back in 15 minutes in case she stands him up but when I return a few minutes later, John is no where to be seen. 

The Terraces, Alyana
I want to have dinner again at the Siam Restaurant but John is planning on taking Hana there and we don’t want to intrude.  Art, Joe and I wander the terraces reading the posted menus until we settle on a Japanese restaurant. Because both Art and Joe were raised in Okinawa, Japanese food is always a draw. We sit outside on the patio overlooking the public garden space below. Dinner is disappointing and I am worried about John. He is 22 years old and a seasoned traveler but I am still anxious. Will he remember the name of our hotel if he looses the hotel card and I think of worst case scenarios and how we could find him if he doesn’t return to the hotel?  Eventually I relax into the evening, glad that we have Hana’s contact on Facebook.  

A Birthday Spent with Whale Sharks

January 14th - Swimming with Whale Sharks at Oslob

Today is my birthday. We are up at 5:00 A.M. and Art, John and I eat breakfast at the restaurant next door. The young waitress who served us eggs and beers last night is still working. Her 12 hour shift is  7:00 P.M. – 7:00 A.M. and we order more eggs and rice but instead of beer, wash these down with coffee (pre-sweetened Nescafe.) I order an omelet which has been cooked in rancid oil and I hurry to the toilet and spit it out. Unfortunately, Joe is still ill, but the swim with the whale sharks is high on everyones list so he is going anyway. The morning is not starting out as I would like. 

We are picked up at 6:00 A.M. for what is supposed to be a 2.5 hr – 3 hr. drive to Oslob, the whale shark park at the tip of Cebu Island. Unfortunately an hour is added to the trip, driving the opposite way across town to pick up a young Australian couple staying at the very upscale Marco Polo Hotel. The traffic is terrible and our driver extremely aggressive and he passes motor bikes and pedestrians with inches to spare. I am not overly concerned for our safety but fear for the safety of the others. 

Whale Shark Orientation Area

About Whale Sharks

We arrive at the whale shark “park” a little after 10:00 A.M. and are ushered to a staging platform where we listen to the orientation. We will have 30 minutes allotted time to swim with the whale sharks. No sunscreen is allowed, no touching and we must keep 3 meters away from them. (We will soon realize that the whale sharks have not listened to this orientation because they swim within inches of us, gaping mouths open and it is impossible to keep our distance from these gentle giants.)  The 6 of us (Australian couple included) climb into a small wooden outrigger boat that takes us a few hundred of feet out to where another 15 – 20 boats float idly.  Dozens of snorkelers bob in the water all wearing orange life vests. (The three whale images immediately below below are borrowed from tour company web sites.)

Whale Shark and Outrigger Canoes

Oslob Beach

Swimming with Whale Sharks

Gaping Whale Shark Mouth

I slip on my mask and lower myself over the side of the boat and come face to face with two whale sharks. Their immense toothless mouths slurp in gallons of water with each swallow. They have white spots speckling their black skin, patterned rather like snowflake obsidian. The spot pattern on each whale-shark is unique, like a fingerprint and is how scientists identify and track them. They have five gill slits on each side, tiny eyes and their immense bodies glide through the water effortlessly.  Although we have been cautioned not to get within 12 feet of them, it is an impossibility, because they swim within a foot or two of me, and often two or three at a time. They are 15 feet to 20 feet long and slurp in the chummed krill through big gummy toothless smiles; the krill tossed to them by the crew onboard the outriggers. Our 30 minute swim passes all too quickly.  I think a whale shark will be one of this year’s new designs.  

We shower and change in a mixed sex bath house with just a few stalls and proceed to the restaurant next door for the included breakfast. It is an unusual breakfast of mango and a Japanese style sticky sweet rice flavored with cinnamon. There is no coffee but instead a thick hot chocolate is served to us in an espresso cup. I am quite satisfied with the breakfast, a huge improvement over this mornings rancid omelette.

Tumalog Falls
Pool Tumalog Falls

Bathers at Tumalog Falls

Tumalog Falls

After breakfast our van drives us 10 minutes down the road, turns inland and drives further up to the road leading down to Tumalog Falls. The road to the falls is too steep for vehicles and there are half a dozen enterprising young men with motorcycles ready and waiting to ride tourists down and back up. I appraise the trek, appraise the motorcycles and choose to walk. The road is extremely steep but nothing compared to the treks we made recently in Banaue and I fell like the exercise.  The cascading falls are several hundred feet tall, broken into multiple fan-shaped sprays by outcropping rocks and trees.  (Even with the help of Google, I cannot find the exact hight of the falls.) The mist and spray from the falls drenches us and I can only take a few photos for fear of damaging my camera in the spray.  John goes swimming under the powerful falls and I manage to take a few photos before escaping for higher ground and making the slow trek back up to our waiting van.

Lunch in Oslob
The View from our Table

Lunch is included in our tour and we stop at a tiny beachside restaurant. The family style lunch is all meat and rice and I request something vegetarian and they bring John and me a reasonably tasty plate of stir fry vegetables. It is a three hour drive back to our hotel in Cebu and our aggressive driver passes vehicles at unsafe speeds,  playing chicken with oncoming trucks and jeepneys. He clears within inches, scooters loaded with entire families and children playing precariously close to the side of the road. 

It’s 4:00 P.M. when we are dropped back at our hotel and after quick showers, Art, John and I walk up to the old part of town. All of Cebu is preparing for their annual Sinulog festival which will take place this weekend. Colorful pennant flags are strung along the main streets and countless market stalls selling colorful Sinulog T-shirts. We watch young men silk screening them on the spot and other entrupernal young men sit on the pavement and for a few pesos, paint “Henna Tattoos” on arms and bare legs. They are talented artists but the “henna” is actually just paint applied with fine brushes and I wonder how toxic and difficult it is to remove? Art and John play a ball toss gambling game in the square, John confident that he can beat the odds. He comes out a few pesos ahead.

Festive Flags for Sunilog Festival
Sidewalk Cell Phone Repair

Silkscreening Sinilog T-Shirts

Ball Toss Gambling Game

Because it’s my birthday, I get to choose the restaurant for dinner. My guide book recommends a number of restaurants at the “Terraces” a section of the Alyana mall and at 6:30 we catch a taxi to take us there. Twenty minutes later we are deposited at the elegant circular drive entrance and after a security bag check we enter the mall. It’s an immense and beautiful mall, especially in contrast to the polluted, grimy and chaotic city beyond. I locate a directory and punch in the names of the several recommended restaurants.  Most of the restaurants are located on one of three outdoor terraces overlooking a large public garden and event space.  The “Terraces” are lovely and remind John and me somewhat of the outdoor restaurant area at the Dubai Mall. After much debate and menu checking, we choose “Siam Restaurant”, where after a game of musical tables, we settle ourselves down for dinner. The cocktail prices are extremely reasonable and we order drinks and vegetarian appetizers. The drinks are excellent and the spring rolls and coconut encrusted tofu delicious. We share plates of Pad Thai, curried vegetables and pineapple rice and enjoy it all.  After dinner and a second, (or was it the third round of drinks?) Art pulls a plastic bag from his backpack and passes it to me. Inside is one of Tabra’s beautiful leather bags crafted of thick chocolate leather, embellished with an iconicely Tabra; jaguar, fish, moon-face, carnelian and dinosaur bone pin with lovely embossed metal beads decorating it’s long rounded straps. This bag was a prototype for others she plans to design and she carried this bag personally when we visited her in Ubud Bali just last week.  I’m thrilled to have it and I will carry it often as a reminder of this trip, my husband’s generosity and Tabra who for the past 35 years has inspired and influenced my life in so many ways.

The Rough Guide to the Philippines
Siam, a Recommended Restaurant

Curried Cauliflower
Brotherly Love

After dinner the four of us wander to the edge of the terrace and lean on the railing overlooking the terraces below. Many other people are gather along the railing enjoying the warm evening and John strikes up a conversation with three college coeds. Since English is a primary language spoken in the Philippines communication is easy.  All three of the girls are attractive and all going to the University but John is charmed by one in particular and before long he has become Facebook Friends with her.  We follow the three young women out to the taxi station and wait for 20 minutes in a quickly moving line as taxi after taxi swoop in and swallow up the exiting mall patrons. It is soon our turn to pile into a taxi for the return ride to our hotel.  

Joe, John and Art at the Terraces at Alyana Mall

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Goodbye Paradise - El Nido back to Cebu

Tuesday, January 13th   El Nido to Cebu

The Cliffs of El Nido Town
Good Bye El Nido
It’s another early morning and our driver picks us up at 6:30 A.M. for the trip back to the Puerto Princessa Airport. We leave before our hotel breakfast is served and stop for coffee at a roadside restaurant along the way. It’s an uneventful drive and we make very good time and when we realize that we will be a couple of hours early for our flight to Cebu, we stop at a mall on the outskirts of Puerto Princessa for lunch. We eat an uninspired lunch at a food court, each going our own ways to pick and choose from the meager options.

Cock Derby Banner
Roadside Coffee Stop

We arrive at the Puerto Princessa small town airport a little after 1:00 P.M. for our 3:00 P.M. flight to Cebu City. Check in is chaotic and their ex-ray machine not working. When we are finally checked in, we are informed that our plane will be two hours delayed. I am not too bothered by this and take advantage of the time to write this blog. When it is announced that our plane will be delayed another hour more, Art decides to have a chair massages at the airport. The massage is not great, but cost less than $8 and it helps to pass the time.  When our plane is delayed yet another hour, I choose to follow suite with a chair massage. The massage area is in a corner of the overcrowded waiting room and I awkwardly sit down on one of the four plastic chair and wonder why my masseuse is wearing sun glasses? He expertly massages my neck and shoulders and keeps contact with some part of my body as he pivots around me. I soon surmise that the three masseuses are all visually impaired. The hour passes quickly and when my massage is over, I grasp his hand and pass him the posted amount plus a generous tip. For the past hour, a not very charming woman has overseen the massage transactions and when I pass him the money she grabs it from his hand and barks that I must pay her. I wonder how much this gentle man is paid and if he will ever receive his tip?

The Waiting Game at the Airport Terminal
We are all very hungry but aside from snacks and “Instant Ramen” there is little food available. Joe buys an out of date airport sandwich and just as our plane is beginning to board he gets violently sick and heads to the bathroom.  We are frantic that he will miss our long awaited plane and he is green when he stumbles on board and he sleeps in the back where there are empty rows of seats and a bathroom close at hand.  When we land in Cebu he is still sick and sporting the alien color of E.T.  It is an hour taxi ride to our Skypark Pension @ 58 Landon Street near the corner of CNU Osmena Blvd.  Rates for a double room are $18.  It is a bare bone minimum room but clean with comfortable single beds, working air-conditioning and hot water. Joe has reserved three rooms, a good thing with Joe being so sick, in case Joe’s ailment is not food related. It is close to 9:00 P.M. and Joe is too sick to eat and Art just wants to go to bed so John and I go next door to a 24 hour fast food restaurant where we sit and drink a San Miguel beer and eat scrambled eggs and rice. A pretty waitress has just come on duty and she tells us that she earns the equivalent of $11 a shift. Our two meals cost under $5. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

El Nido Island Hopping

Monday, January 12th, El Nido Island Hopping.

Motoring out to the Islands
The morning is bright and beautiful and breakfast is on the open air rooftop terrace of our hotel.  Disappointedly, the morning coffee is again Nescafe 3 in 1, mixed with hot water and we wait a long time for our toast and fried egg but the hotels wi-fi is working and I check and send e-mail.  Frank Murphy has contacted us with a potential buyer for our Lincoln Street house and Art responds telling him we will talk when we are home from the Philippines.  Today we are going island hopping  and at 9:00 A.M. our guide meets us at our hotel and we walk with him to the beach and his companies shop. We wait in the shade of the open air shop while the other passengers arrive for our catamaran island hopping tour. The dozen of us wade to the boat, slip on our life vests and we set sail past the spectacular craggy limestone cliffs of El Nido.

Boarding the Catamarans at El Nido Beach

Our Catamaran

Seven Commando Island is our first stop, a small crescent stretch of sandy beach, book-ended by two rocky points and fringed with palm trees. There is a traffic jam of the wooden outrigger boats servicing the tourists on tour A and each of the tour boats throw their anchors into the sand (or what was once presumably coral.) We need to wade to shore and regrettably, I don’t take off my jean shorts or shirt and the water is deeper than I expect and I am soaked when I reach the beach. John quickly dons his snorkel and mask and swims along the edge of one rocky point. He reports that he sees anemones with both cinnamon and traditional clown fish, a large field of stag-horn coral where the tips were beginning to bleach and fan corals; (one in particular is green and 6 feet across.) Our stop her is only 30 minutes but the wind comes up and are unable to leave and we stay nearly an hour. Art and I wander the short stretch of beach and I step on a sand fish that slips, flips and flops back into the surf. I imagine the small fish is more startled than me. 

Seven Commando Island
Shimizu Island is our lunch stop and our longest stop. It is a beautiful island with jagged, black limestone cliffs and a small jagged island centered in it’s crescent bay. Art draws a circle in the sand and he challenges John to a sumo wrestling match. It is a beautiful day and we are all in great spirits. 

Sumo Wrestling in the Sand - Shimizu Island
Beach Bums - Shimizu Island

Snorkeling Shimizu Island Reef
John snorkels out towards the island and around the edges visible from shore. I keep watch for the flash of his red trunks in the distance and try not to worry unnecessarily. The change of water color from intoxicating turquoise to deep blue makes it easy to see where the coral shelf drops away to the abyss. After John has explored the edge of the rocky island, he works his way into open water swimming above the edge of reef’s shelf and it is more difficult to keep him in sight against the glare of the sunlight on the water and the choppy surface of the ocean. To distract myself from worry, I watch our three crew members prepare our lunch in the shelter of a cliff’s face. Two build two charcoal fires and grill pork and calamari while another slices cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, pineapple and watermelon.  45 minutes later, when John swims ashore, a beautiful buffet lunch is ready. It amazes me that these men have prepared such an elaborate and delicious meal with minimal equipment.

Barbecuing Lunch, Shimuzu Island
Lunch Buffet, Shimuzu Island

Cucumber and Tomato Salad
Enjoying the Lunch Buffet on Shimuzu Island
After lunch we motor to the Secret Lagoon, another island paradise, aptly named because when the tide is low, one can crawl through an opening in the jagged limestone rocks and step into a shallow and sandy lagoon, surrounded on all sides by rocks. The water inside is murky and warmed by sunlight and possibly the pee of many island hopping tourists with no restroom facilities available. 

Secret Lagoon
We motor to the Big Lagoon which is actually smaller than the next one on our itinerary, the Small Lagoon. Go figure. We motor into the shallow lagoon clogged with other catamarans and with the tide low our boat bottoms out on the sandy bottom. Art, John and several other men are needed to push us back out into open water. I am throughly enjoying this day of island paradise and it is great fun to watch my boys playing at Swiss Family Robinson. 

Hitching a Ride
Catamaran Goes Aground

It is late afternoon when we reach the Small Lagoon and I can’t imagine the day getting any better or that this lagoon might surpass the previous lagoons, but it does. We drop anchor in intoxicating turquoise waters and have 30 minutes to swim or kayak.  John chooses to snorkel and swim but Art and I rent a kayak for a few pesos and we are pointed towards a small opening in the cliff face. Art paddles us through an opening in the rocks and we pop into an enchanted lagoon, framed by tall cliff faces. I have left my camera in our catamaran for fear of dropping it in the water and I am regretfully unable to take and photos, so the photo used here is from an image search on google. John soon swims up beside us, hops atop the kayak and takes the paddle from me. I relax blissfully into island time.
Small Lagoon - Photo by John Baldon
Our Island hopping day is at an end and we wish we had several more days to explore the El Nido islands. There are three standard Island Hopping excursions offered out of El Nido and today’s trip was remarkable but unfortunately we must leave tomorrow morning.  We enjoy another evening of drinks and dinner on the touristy beach strip, an easy stagger back to our hotel.

Returning to El Nido 

Toasting to the Islands

The Town of El Nido - Art and John
An Unhappy Pig