Wednesday, April 15, 2015

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

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