Philippine Islands November 2017

Judy and I had missed out on the Philippines, perhaps because it was not on the main United Airlines routes. So now I will go spend about 3 weeks here, visiting just two areas: Manila and a world-class snorkeling and diving area to the south near Cebu, Dumaguete and Siquijor Island. Manila is reputed to be a big, chaotic city. I’m only lingering there long enough to get visas I need for Myanmar and Thailand. My real goal is to sample the outer island beach life and reef scene.

As you can see, there are LOTS of islands! And this is just a small part of the Philippines, with more than 7,000 islands and a population of around 103 million.

There is an interesting overview video that you can watch if you wish of the place I will be staying for nine days on Siquijor (‘Seek-ee-hore’) Island:

Coco Grove Beach Resort video
A long video. No need to watch it, or all of it. But some nice aerial views.

November is the beginning of the ‘dry’ season, which a dive guidebook told me is the best time for diving and snorkeling. Apparently not, as it is still typhoon season. If the typhoon season is kind to me, there could be some great things to see in the water. It will really mark my return to the ocean after leaving Hawai’i. I’m looking forward to it. Aloha!

First, a bit about Manila. I rented a nice ‘serviced apartment’ in a good neighborhood for a week.

A fine base, roomy and comfortable, up on the 28th floor with city views. ‘Serviced Apartments’ are common in Asia. They are aimed especially at businessmen, and include good internet service plus daily maid service. Kind of like a good hotel, but bigger apartments and no fancy lobby.

As opposed to staying here in a Manila icon, The Peninsula. The stairway to heaven? Not real stairs, water is cascading down them! I try to stay away from places like this, the ‘Grand Hotels’.

How the ordinary people get around. You can go 8 km. in one of these for $1USD. Or 2 km. for 20 cents, which instead costs $2USD if you use ‘Grab’ shared ride, an Asian ‘Uber’ equivalent, very useful.

‘Metro Manila’ is very big, like Los Angeles a conglomerate of cities that have grown together, a lot like Los Angeles, with a population of about 13 million, about the same as LA. I did not attempt to see it all at all. My visa quest was not very successful. I wound up getting my Myanmar visa online, and when I could not do this for Thailand, and they were requesting many documents and bank statements, I gave up on that. You’re allowed (if from USA) 30 days with no visa. Then, leave for one day, and come back, another 30 days. The normal way to stay longer!

Greenbelt Mall is a vast collection of stores, restaurants and bars. As it was 5 minutes walk, I settled into eating there, and working on some writing and education projects during the day. I do this sometimes in my Global Nomad life, when I’m well-connected to the internet and have a comfy apartment. A friend who spent his career at the World Bank wrote a very interesting book about the practical realities of trying to lift the world out of poverty. I put together an iBook version of it:

Reforming Foreign Aid: Reinvent the World Bank

Bank security guards here tote serious weapons. There may be a reason.

On to Siquijor Island. After a 1 hour flight, a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride, I make it to the ferry terminal.

Then a 1 ½ hour ferry ride, and a half hour van ride, I arrived at the ocean edge. Global roaming is hard work sometimes.

Settling in with a cold beer for less than $1USD, I am glad to be back to the warm tropical waters.

Nearby Apo Island is reknowned, so I took the 1 ½ hour boat ride to snorkel there. It was worthwhile.

The ‘reserve’ area was disappointing due to rather poor coral conditions and too many people. We did see three banded sea snakes there, and several big green sea turtles. The area in front of Apo Island Resort, however, was very nice, as well as the point a short boat ride away. I would enjoy staying a few days here to access this house reef more.

Just around the corner from this spot, volcanic gases bubble up from the seafloor, creating a lovely curtain of small bubbles. And there is a rich seafloor scene of soft and hard corals, and abundant fish.

My goal in the next few days is to explore the area offshore of Coco Grove resort, where I am based. While the coral directly in front is not the best, there are many interesting fish, if you explore among the tall sea grass and what coral heads there are.

When the tide is out, it exposes the broad shallow grassy area just offshore. A lot of little fish live here when it is underwater most of the day. They have learned how to survive the occasional high and dry episodes.

I am taking time to learn Tagalog, the modern-day official common language of the Philippines (there are more than 100 languages spoken among the more than 7,000 islands, so a common language is important). The people are very friendly and helpful in this regard. Some may wonder why I bother to learn some of the languages wherever I go, when elsewhere they are useless. Fair question. The answer is that the effort somehow connects me in a special way with local people. Few tourists make the effort. And it keeps your brain sharp.

This morning, I’m learning Bahay Kubo, a song every Filipio child knows. The title and first line is “Little Hut, however humble,” Here is such a humble hut.

Unfortunately, this marks the end of pictures for awhile. My iPhone got stepped on and died, and it appears that my AppleCare Plus ‘global warranty’ is hardly global at all. I may be camera-less for many months. This apparently follows the old saw that ‘You don’t know what your insurance covers until you have a loss’.

Today, I will go to Apo Island again, this time to scuba dive. As I don’t have a camera now, here are some pictures I found online that accurately show what I am seeing underwater (in the better reef areas).

The coral triangle is the old home of fish evolution. Don’t forget: we are at the end of a very long evolutionary line that began with fish! They are our ancient ancestors. There are more fish species in the coral triangle than anywhere else in the world, which is why we know they began here before the continents began to split apart and drift.

The soft corals are delicate and lovely up close.

I’ve seen three banded sea snakes. Poisonous, but not too threatening, as they’d have to chew on you for awhile with their little teeth.

Today I went back to Apo Island to do two scuba dives.

I had not done any diving in the past two years or more, but had a good level of experience with lots of dives, so I was not concerned.

We entered the water with a high leap from the boat deck using what is called a ‘giant stride’. You simply jump off with your finned feet in a scissor formation, holding tight to your mask and regulator. It’s a bit like a ‘cannonball’. If you didn’t secure the mask and regulator, they’d be ripped off by the impact.

It sounds harder than it is 😂

I was wearing 5 kg. of weight. It soon became apparent that this was not enough, as I could not submerge. Our dive leader pulled me down, and began putting rocks from the bottom in my boyancy vest. Finally, I was neutral. It turns out I needed 8 kg. to compensate for the 3mm wetsuit I was wearing.

So now we headed down for a ‘wall dive’. I had not breathed compressed air for some time, and I was surprised to have some feelings of claustrophobia. Breathing was not feeling normal, and I found myself wondering if I should bail out and surface to breathe normally. It felt just slightly panicky. I need to breathe!

Fortunately, I’m experienced, and I was able to calm myself, and breathe slowly, knowing I could overcome this feeling. I really wanted to see all this, and knew it was just psychological. In time, it got better, and by the end of the dive was fine. On the second dive in the afternoon, I had none of this feeling, in fact was sad to leave when my air eventually ran out.

I tell you this story because I once before felt this ‘claustrophobia’-like feeling, on a dive in very rough conditions in the Seychelle Islands. If it ever happens to you, remember it is in your head. You can deal with it if you stay calm. There is no harm or blame for feeling urges to flee, but there is merit in learning to overcome them.

The dives at Apo were excellent. Snorkeling is fun, and relaxing, but in this case, the divers were seeing many more fish and critters, making the effort worthwhile.

Scuba enables you to enter an extraterrestrial world that is really quite amazing. In this case, there was a rich mix of soft and hard corals, with large schools of small to medium fish (very few large ones).

The soft corals are dazzling up close, like hugely varied super-cushy shag carpet with 3” depth. The hard corals typically had a big population of tiny colorful fish hovering among the arms.

Notable sightings included a 4 foot banded sea snake, and an 18” remora that kept swimming around us, hoping we were prospects to attach to with the sucker plate on the top of its head.

Also two black frogfish, two colorful nudibranches, and thousands of what I call ‘the usual suspects’, some of which were very detailed and colorful.

The level of texture, color, and detail is just dazzling. I cannot think of any above water landscape with this level of complexity and color. It is reason enough to learn Scuba.

Tomorrow, my sojourn on Siquijor Island ends, and I fly to the second largest city in the Philippines, Cebu.

I am finding having no working phone very bothersome. Cebu has a big problem: the airport is far from the city, and there is no public transit option of much help. Rather than, at 7pm, trying to get to my hotel by public bus, with transfers required, I stood in a half hour long taxi queue. I did not realize that it was possible (as a ‘senior’) to avoid this.

Eventually, I got into a taxi, and it soon became clear that the driver did not have a clue as to where my hotel was. Still, we drove on for close to an hour in traffic going from slow to stopped for long periods. In New York this would have been painfully expensive. In Cebu, it cost me about $5USD. When it became clear my driver still did not know how to find my hotel (and did not have a cellphone or navigation software), I told him to let me out at a McDonalds, where I could connect to Wifi and find a route. Fortunately, he had gotten me within 800 meters of the hotel, so I just walked the rest of the way!

It took me 2 hours to get from the airport to my hotel. Cebu badly needs some form of rail transit from the airport to the city center. With traffic this bad, it could lead people to avoid stopping here. Outside of the big city traffic nightmares, rural island Philippines is actually quite nice.

Now, I will go out in daylight and see what Cebu is like. Hot is one thing: 84°F at 8am, headed for 90. It cools off to pleasant temperatures after dark, though.

Cebu is rather worn, and needs a lot of building and street repairs. Certain places are clean and modern, such as the shopping malls, which are as colorful and alive as malls everywhere in the world. No wonder our kids like to hang out there. It’s also a good place to find food courts with a wide variety of types of food.The people are sweet, friendly and helpful. Impressive, especially as the average wage is about $5 USD a day. It must be difficult to get by on such a minimum wage salary. Life goes on. It is grounding to be immersed in the life of the Philippines, as it puts things in perspective.

I was in Robinsons Department Store/Supermarket yesterday, quite a nice resource, and noticed a few things unusual. It’s November 27th, and Christmas decorations are everywhere already, and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” by Bing Crosby was playing over and over. The last snow in Cebu must have been, oh, 15,000 years ago? The Philippines were proselytized beginning in 1520, when the Spanish arrived and planted a cross (Magellan’s Cross, on public display here). 80% of Filipinos are Catholic.

Secondly, as in much of the third world, the shelves are lined with lotions that promise to lighten your skin. As in India, lighter skin seems to be considered higher status. How ironic, when the girls here have a natural ‘tan’ or mocha skin tone that girls in Los Angeles work very hard to get even close to. Why is it we so often want to be something else than what we are? We describe the Chinese as ‘the yellow race’, yet if you know them, you see they are hardly yellow, and many are lighter skin toned than those of us of southern European heritage. And the Japanese are nearly as white skinned as the English.

I am tenacious by nature (by heritage?). Despite little initial help from Apple, it now appears that if I whiz into town and the Apple Store there during a layover in Singapore on the way to Sri Lanka, I should be able to walk away with a replacement for my iPhone 7 plus and resume keeping a photographic record. That’s not the most important part. It is the key to having GPS map support, and internet connectivity when in odd places.

Time to fly back to Manila for a few days.

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