Archive for May, 2008

May 19th 2008
All That Glitters

Posted under Bali

We arrived in the late evening and stepped out into the breezy night air to find a friendly face with a sign bearing our name – always a welcome sight in a new country. The drive to our hotel in Legian, just north of Kuta, provided flashing glimpses of upscale resort hotels with patios bathed in incandescent glow; a startlingly ubiquitous presence of “culture Americana” with all of the usual suspects – McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts – and random others. It was the face of a tourists’ haven, the likes of which we had not seen since Thailand. In the dark of night, I might easily have mistaken it for an American beach town but eventually the bright lights gave way to narrower streets and alleyways crowded with vendor stalls and smaller, locally-owned businesses. Our hotel – Sayang Maha Mertha – was tucked inconspicuously into the corner of two quiet alleys. Between the hotel and the beach – a ten-minute walk – lay every type of shop and service that we might need: laundry, tailor, transport, tours, garment and trinket shops, and enough restaurants and bars as to avoid repetition in a much longer stay than our intended four nights.

The beach was solely for surfers, not for swimmers; in fact, “No Swimming” signs were posted in many areas with dangerous rip tides. The big, rolling waves were beautiful to watch while walking along the shore in the finely pounded sand. Lining the top of the beach, a long thicket of shady tropical trees provided shelter from the blistering sun for the local beach touts offering cold drinks, massages, hats, sunglasses, watches, jewelry and the occasional muted offer of hashish and magic mushrooms. Bali is one of the handful of Asian countries wherein drug trafficking is punishable by death; a very large warning sign greets visitors as they wait in the long lines at Immigration. I don’t know what the penalty is for recreational use and I don’t want to find out. Aaron made me watch Return to Paradise, a movie about a young American tourist who gets hanged for hashish possession in Malaysia, and I still can’t get the images out of my head.

Our time in Legian and Kuta was mostly aimless and relaxing. On our second day, we hired a car and driver from the hotel to take a day trip to John Hardy’s workshop, north of Denpasar. In a rare (okay, not really) moment of compromised judgment and pessimistic frustration regarding the sale of our Texas home (I’m not patient by nature), I indulged in some retail therapy at Needless Markup (Neiman Marcus). My introduction to John Hardy (the jewelry, not the man) was an accident, really. I was looking for Yurman and stumbled upon Hardy with the help of a perky sales associate with excellent taste. Despite Aaron’s better judgment, he conceded to ease my frustrations with two fabulous pieces, which sliced about a month of travel funds out of the pie. Strangely, I still have no regrets.

Eager to learn about the brains behind the beauty, I found John Hardy’s website and read that his workshop was in Bali; not only that, but visitors were welcome to tour the compound and join the employees for their daily family-style lunch at one o’clock sharp. Having made an appointment in advance, we rode through the narrow busy streets of Denpasar and north toward Kapal. Driving west from there, the tightly packed homes and temples slowly dissipated, revealing breathtaking views of terraced rice fields – Bali’s rural treasures.

John Hardy’s workshop is a sprawling, secluded organic farm. The buildings are energy-efficient, made of natural materials and bear the mark of an environmentally-conscious artist. Everything that is planted on the land is edible, used to provide the hundreds of local workers a daily wholesome lunch.

We arrived at 11:30 and began with a private shopping hour in the showroom – a tall, steep-pitched structure made of bamboo and thatch and built over a rice field. I could sense Aaron starting to sweat and justifiably so. We have spent the past eight months shedding our shallow materialism, one layer at a time, but get me into a room full of shiny, sparkling pretty things and, in two seconds, I regress to the former shameless victim of American consumerism whose gluttonous desires I’ve worked so hard to squash. Oh, the humanity! Only this time, I don’t have a job. My husband doesn’t have a job. Our sole source of current income is the unimpressive interest rate on our ever-shrinking pot of travel money. These facts alone should cause a rational person to say “Thanks, but no thanks” to the private shopping hour to begin with but the gleam in my eyes, reflecting off the hammered gold of the Palu collection blinded me to all rationality I might otherwise have been able to muster. What is it with women and the forbidden fruit? Fine jewelry is like a drug – the more you get, the more you want.

We both knew that Aaron came along as the good shepherd of his credit card. He sat patiently in one of the showrooms hanging chairs while I circled each display case like a lioness stalking a herd of wildebeests, carefully selecting its prey. Seduced by my surroundings, I knew that I wanted something – a remembrance – because you can’t visit John Hardy’s workshop in Bali and leave empty-handed, can you? Of course you can, thought the good shepherd silently. His face betrayed his thoughts and so did mine. It was like a silent standoff, each of us gauging the other’s determination and contemplating our own limits of compromise. No words had been exchanged. Aaron sat in his hanging throne and I took a seat on the steps in the middle of the showroom, pondering defeat but trying not to show it. But then something changed. I looked over at Aaron and he nodded. I stared into his eyes, trying to determine whether that nod could possibly mean…could it? He nodded again. Yes. As I held his gaze, I was overcome with sudden emotion – my eyes welled up with tears. It sounds silly, I know, but it was the gesture that got me. You see, when you’re unemployed travelers, every unnecessary dollar spent on frivolous wants means less days on the road (a.k.a. less days until you have to wake from the dream and get a job). Aaron has no interest in jewelry and I was touched by his selfless willingness to drop some dough on a glittery treasure to make me smile.

With renewed enthusiasm, I began circling the displays again. There were so many beautiful things. My natural (inherited?) affliction of champagne taste tangled with my desire not to take advantage of Aaron’s generosity, sparking a stalemate of indecision. My husband knows me like the back of his hand and sensed my plight. Both to assuage my guilt and hedge against the potential damage, he suggested a round of rock, paper, scissors – an elementary but effective way of decision-making. He suggested the following terms: if I won, I could guiltlessly take home any single piece in the showroom but, if he won, I got nothing. I’ve never been much of a gambler – a decidedly positive trait passed down from my father – so, at first, this seemed like a bad deal for me since I was technically already authorized to make a purchase. But in the glitter and gleam of gold, silver and precious stones, I somehow became that greedy game show contestant who puts her big winnings on the line to go for the grand prize. I went for it. My heart was racing as was Aaron’s, I’m sure. One, two, three! Tie: rock-rock. One, two, three! Tie: paper-paper. Madness! On what would become the third and tie-breaking round, my paper covered Aaron’s rock and the crowd (inside my head) went wild! I could hardly contain my excitement. I wanted to scream “The world is mine!”

One o’clock came with my staggering indecision still hovering over us with Aaron patiently waiting to determine the final damage. We walked over a bamboo bridge to a long table set beautifully under a canopy. We took our places, listened to a brief welcome announcement, and chatted with the staff as we passed the steaming Balinese dishes. The food was fresh and delicious and the conversation stimulating since several of the employees were well-traveled themselves; a few were European or Australian, working for John Hardy out of Bali or Hong Kong. The conversation stayed centered around our favorite subject: travel. Regrettably, Mr. Hardy was not present.

After lunch, we took a brief tour of one of the workshops, where Balinese craftspeople were creating the individual pieces. It was fascinating to get behind the scenes to watch the shiny materials being molded, hammered and plied into the beautiful treasures coveted by women in pretentious department stores. The workers were all friendly and the work conditions seemed pleasant.

After the tour, it was time to pick my prize. I’d circled the showroom several times already. At lunch, most of the female employees were dripping with John Hardy jewelry and one of them had worn a small silver bracelet that was simple and pretty. With carte blanche to choose anything I wanted, I chose a similar small bracelet (notably one of the least expensive items on display), much to Aaron’s surprise. I liked it because I can wear it while traveling without worrying about getting mugged…and I earned some brownie points with my relieved husband, which will undoubtedly be leveraged at the appropriate time. I walked out of John Hardy’s showroom happy as a fat kid in a candy shop, my new treasure already shimmering in the afternoon sun.

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May 17th 2008
Singapore Stopover

Posted under Singapore

The cheapest route to travel between the Philippines and Bali was with two budget airlines and a layover in Singapore. We decided to spend a couple of days exploring this cosmopolitan sovereign state located at the tip of Malaysia, but were unable to find reasonably priced accommodation. To Tina’s delight, we used about half of our precious hotel points and booked two nights at the Hilton Singapore. After flight delays, long lines at Immigration and a short taxi ride, we arrived at our luxurious hotel well after midnight. We are always amazed at how comfortable these international business hotels are in comparison to the many budget hotels and hostels in which we normally sleep. We were warmly greeted at 2:00am by impeccably dressed attendants, fresh flower arrangements, marble-lined corridors, and the rich scents of good living. Sinking into the featherbed and swallowed by the down duvet draped over the bed, we agreed that we could easily spend the next two days in the isolated comfort of our fifteenth-story room.

I awoke early, eager to explore. Whenever we arrive in a new country, or even a different city for the first time, I’m giddy with excitement. It’s one of my favorite parts of our trip; each country is like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that I read as a child and every day is a new chapter. But Tina is never enthusiastic about waking up early, so I’ve learned to keep myself busy until the Queen awakens naturally. When her Highness finally arose, we decided to visit Chinatown to have some lunch and to find a travel agent who would help us make some travel arrangements for China – a task laden with headaches thanks to the long list of requirements and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government.

Walking through the Saturday sidewalk crowds on our way to the subway station, I was amazed by the rainbow of colored faces; Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Indian, and Anglo. It reminded us of New York – an ethnic melting pot – but with more Asians. Singapore is considered one of the premier financial and business centers of Asia. Favorable tax and corporate laws, an English-speaking work environment, and the absence of overt government corruption make this city-state attractive to corporations and professionals from around the world. We easily navigated the Singapore subway and arrived in Chinatown. Our search for a competent, English-speaking travel agent in Chinatown was less than fruitful, but we finally ruled out traveling overland to Tibet. Given the current political climate and the Chinese paranoia about the Summer Olympics, travel visas to mainland China are proving difficult to obtain without even mentioning travel to Tibet. We concluded that there are likely to be more headaches before our China travel plans are finalized.

We shared a wonderfully authentic Chinese meal of soup and dumplings before exploring more of Chinatown. We perused the narrow, shop-lined streets selling the same souvenirs that we’ve seen in every major Asian city. Salesmen hawking cameras, tailored suits, watches, sunglasses, and countless other items barked in our direction as we strolled down each street. We concluded our outing with a stop for bubble milk tea for Tina, sweet yam-flavored ice cream for me and headed back to the subway. It was surprisingly difficult to find good wireless internet in Singapore so we bit the bullet and paid the exorbitant $30 fee for internet at the hotel. We spent the rest of the evening wrapped in the lavish ambience of our room, playing online and watching movies in bed.

Our flight to Bali wasn’t until 7pm the next day and we arranged a four o’clock checkout so that we could savor the comfort as long as possible before taking the subway to the airport. We woke early but left the room only for a quick trip to Little India in search of our beloved paneer butter masala. We found a wonderful little Nepalese restaurant which also specialized in northern Indian cuisine and we happily clogged our arteries with Indian cream sauce. Two days was decidedly plenty of time to spend in Singapore and although we spent more time in the hotel than we did exploring, we have no regrets. We’ll do plenty of that in Bali.

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May 13th 2008
Chocolate Hills and The World’s Smallest Primate

Posted under Philippines

On our last day in the Philippines, we embarked on a day tour of Bohol. We had chartered a car and driver for the day and were on the road by 7:30. As we rode through the interior of Panglao Island on our way to the land bridge, I regretted not renting a moped and spending a day exploring the lush, tropical forest community. There were so many opportunities to ask the driver to stop for photos of the homes – so beautiful in their sad state of dilapidation – but I let them slip away. I hope that the picture in my mind will always be as vivid as it is today.

The tour began with some diverse yet decidedly forgettable stops: an historic bronze statue of a blood pact between a Spanish conquistador and a Boholano chieftain; a centuries-old coral stone church (probably a gift from the Spanish Catholic crusaders, funded with resources plundered from the islands); and an enormous captive python weighing in at 225 kilos. It was a beautiful day on Bohol and we were happy to be on land. Despite our driver’s breakneck speed, the ride was lovely with fantastic buffered views of Filipino life. We drove through expansive rice fields with straw-hatted farmers wielding man-powered ploughs, immersed shin-deep in the sopping muck. The fields were framed by palm trees and banana plants against a backdrop of low, tree-covered mountains.

We arrived at the Tarsier Visitor Center with no expectations. We had seen the island’s mascot – the tarsier – immortalized in postcards, key chains, stuffed animals and t-shirts in the many gift shops along the beach. As we entered the rectangular fenced area of the conservatory and spied a pair of the tiny monkeys clinging to a narrow tree branch, it was love at first sight. The tarsier is the world’s smallest primate. It can literally fit in the palm of your hand. Tarsiers are indigenous to the Philippines and are currently endangered. The two tiny monkeys clung to their tree branch while we cooed and photographed them (without flash because their proportionately large eyes are nocturnal and would be damaged by the bright lights). We were each given a wooden skewer with a black bug on the tip to feed them. It was adorable to watch them grab hold of the skewer with their tiny, soft hands and lick every last trace of insect guts from tip of the stick. On our way out, I dropped some coins into the donation box. I hope that someone is working hard to save the tarsiers. If the little angels ever made it to the States, every kid would have to have one.

After the tarsiers, we drove on to the highlight of our tour: the Chocolate Hills. If the tarsier is Bohol’s mascot, then the Chocolate Hills are like the Taj Mahal of the island. They are the premier tourist attraction. There are 1,268 hills in the middle of the island, covered with vegetation that takes on a rich brown tone in the hot summer months. The hill formations are thought to have resulted from rising coral reefs, centuries ago when much of the island was underwater. The main viewing point is located at the top of the highest hill, offering panoramas of the brown hills rising up from a thicket of dense tropical forest and stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions. The viewpoint is naturally thronged with tourists but, as you stare mesmerized across miles of chocolate vistas, you subconsciously tune out all but their awe-inspiring magnificence.

The grand finale of our tour was lunch on one of the many floating restaurants that cruise the lazy Lomboc River. Heavy rains over the last few days had stirred up the silt from the river bottom, changing the river’s usual emerald green hue to a murky greenish-brown. Rain had poured down just a few minutes earlier, stopping in time for our lunch cruise, and we were happily surprised to find the floating restaurant packed as we climbed aboard. We took seats at our assigned table, which we shared with a Filipino family. Tables were set around the perimeter of the boat with a long buffet set up in the center. When everyone was seated, the hostess announced that we could begin the buffet line, which incited a mad, disorganized rush from all directions to the center table. With our plates full of fresh fruit and piled high with traditional cuisine, we began our leisurely cruise down the river. A solo guitar and vocalist provided live entertainment, consisting of a decidedly cheesy mix of American soft rock covers. Aaron quite accurately compared the two-man band to Adam Sandler’s character in The Wedding Singer. As the floating restaurant glided merrily along, we attempted to tune out the music but ended up singing quietly along to songs like The Love Boat.

The river bank on both sides was thick jungle with simple homes built on the water’s edge. There were many locals outside, sitting on their riverside patios and waving to the boats going by. At several spots along the banks, large groups of local people, spanning three generations, sat on floating pavilions made of bamboo and thatch. As we neared them, the band stopped mid-song and one of the men tethered our boat to the pavilion. The group immediately commenced the first of several high-energy music and traditional dance performances. The young girls danced first; then the young boys and the mothers and grandmothers. Those who weren’t dancing strummed guitars, sang and clapped along. Everyone participated with faces exhibiting true joy. There were donation boxes attached to the posts on the pavilions and we were happy to contribute to such an inspiring and energetic display of local culture. Each group performed for about twenty minutes and then untied our boat and waved goodbye as we cruised away. It was a very moving experience that really epitomized the heart and soul of the Filipino people. We were continually inspired to see people with so little material wealth express such joy and love of life.

As we rode to the Cebu airport, our final stop in the Philippines, we felt the usual twinge of sadness that seems to come with leaving a place that we have truly enjoyed. The coral reefs were pristine. The locals were friendly. The beer was cheap and the mangos perfectly sweet. With white sand beaches and plenty of upscale resorts, it is easy to stay isolated from anything resembling real Filipino life but the Philippines is a long way to come for just another pretty beach. The real treasures of the islands are the people – living, loving and always smiling.

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May 8th 2008
Islands of Bohol: Attacked By a Triggerfish

Posted under Philippines

We arrived back in Manila by bus and with great ambitions. We had booked a flight from manila to Tagbilaran on the southern island of Bohol where we planned to do more diving and hopefully get some beach time but, before that, we were going to attempt a shotgun trip – a nine-hour bus ride each way – to Banaue in north Luzon to see the famous rice terraces of the Cordillera. The logistics were exhausting to think about but the photos of the rice terraces were breathtaking and we’d certainly endured worse travel in the not-so-distant past. By now, our backs are strong and our patience is long.

In Manila, the beginning of the Labor Day holiday weekend, which we knew about in advance and which should have shocked us out of beach bum complacency and into the forward thinkers we usually claim to be, meant that many businesses were closed. We did manage to find one tourist office open but the two young interns, who were running things while the owner took advantage of the holiday, informed us that the single bus leaving for Banaue that evening was full. While part of me was quietly relieved that we would be unable to spend eighteen of the next forty-eight hours on a bus, the other part saw my sweet husband’s spirits almost instantly deflate. We regrouped back at Malate Pensionne, where Aaron made inquiries about hiring a private care and driver for the long journey. After much deliberation, we agreed to let go of our rice paddy dreams and instead change our flight to leave earlier for Tagbilaran. The white beaches and crystal clear waters of the Mindanao Sea would surely take our blues away.

An easy two-hour flight landed us in Tagbilaran around 5:30pm. We took a taxi from the airport to nearby Panglao Island, attached to Bohol by a narrow, man-made land bridge. The thirty-minute drive through the interior of Panglao Island just before sunset was a photographer’s paradise. Houses and huts were scattered along the roadside and wrapped in lush tropical forest. The homes varied greatly in size and appearance. Remnants of what had once likely been grand Spanish villas remained inhabited in scarcely maintained, skeletal forms. Old wooden houses, many erected on stilts, were beautiful in a “Little House on the Prairie” way, despite their need of reinforcement and repair. In many instances, the houses looked condemnable and yet families happily lived their lives inside and around the weathered walls. Nipa huts were the most basic homes with permeable woven walls and thatched roofs. Almost all of the homes looked dilapidated, although an occasional modern Spanish-style home, freshly painted in bright pastels, stood out like a star against the rich green tropical landscape of coconut palms, mango trees, pineapple and banana plants and bright, flowering shrubs. The Philippines is the world’s biggest producer of both coconuts and pineapples, the third largest producer of bananas.

The holiday weekend celebrations were under way in many of the yards as families congregated outdoors: children ran around and squealed with delight as their parents prepared freshly-slaughtered pigs for the spit. It seemed as though everyone was outside and I felt an urge to join in their festivities (keeping a safe distance from the pigs, of course) but it was getting late and we still needed to find a place to stay.

The driver delivered us to Alona Beach, where most of the clustered resorts along the shoreline have their own dive shops. The first place that we tried, Bohol Divers Beach Resort, could only accommodate us for one night in an overpriced air-conditioned room, due to the influx of local holiday travelers, so we decided to check around. As we entered the drive of the next resort, a couple of weary and frustrated backpackers kindly informed us that they had been to fifteen places along the beach and all were fully booked except for the most exorbitant rooms. We thanked them for the tip and walked back to Bohol Divers and took the overpriced room for the night. We would have a couple of San Miguels, get a good night’s sleep, and figure out the rest in the morning.

After fruitlessly combing the beach for modest-priced air-conditioned (a non-negotiable in the hot, sticky tropical air) accommodation, we took a room at Villa Almedilla, a small, family-run hotel located just behind Bohol Divers Resort. The building itself was either newly constructed or undergoing major renovation. Whatever the case, the exterior was a total eye sore of depressing gray cinder blocks and protruding rebar. There were only three serviceable guestrooms and ours was surprisingly spacious and comfortable with hot water, sparkling clean white tile floors, and a powerful air-con unit. We took the room for five nights and, after the first day, the warm smiles that we received each morning and afternoon as we came and went from the beach overpowered the drabness of the building’s façade.

We had come to Alona Beach to dive and dive we did – ten times over the course of five days, dividing our time among Panglao, Balicasag and Cabilao Islands. The islands are known for their spectacular reef walls – tall underwater cliffs covered with colorful hard and soft corals. The water was clear and the marine life vibrant. There were daily, two-dive boat trips around the islands, which afforded us plenty of much-coveted boat time and an early afternoon return leaving hours to linger over a post-dive beer and hot shower before pondering the day’s most pressing decision: where among the beautiful candlelit seaside restaurants to have dinner.

While we didn’t spot any new and exciting big fish, despite the seven species of shark known to inhabit the waters around Cabilao, we did have a couple of fun fish encounters, the first of which involved me and one pissed off triggerfish. Triggerfish vary in size from one to 2 ½ feet and have thick, muscular bodies. We have seen them on many dives; they are beautiful to watch because of their patterned markings and graceful fluttering fins. They are generally non-aggressive and evasive so I hadn’t ever noticed the sharp teeth that protrude from their jaws…until the day that I unknowingly glided into a mother triggerfish’s territory during reproduction season. A triggerfish deposits her eggs in a small hole, dug in the ground. Her perceived threat zone is the cone-shaped area starting at her nest and expanding upward. Triggerfish are known to viciously pursue intruders, including scuba divers (as we had been warned on the Great Barrier Reef) and snorkelers, who swim into their threat zone.

So our little dive group was exploring one of the fascinating reef walls of Balicasag. In one direction, the coral-covered wall extended almost as far up and down as I could see. In the other direction was the opaque blue abyss of the open ocean. I was enthralled with the coral but equally entertained by the weightless sensation of neutral buoyancy. In blue water, it felt like flying. Happily absorbed in my own peaceful, quiet world, I glided out a couple of meters from the wall, just floating and having a look around. I spied the triggerfish swimming toward me from below and watched it casually, assuming that it would divert its course in deference to my sharkish girth. That’s when I saw the teeth…and the fish wasn’t diverting. It was coming full-throttle toward my face. With about three feet to spare, I quickly waved my hand back and forth in front of my face and the fish finally altered its course and cruised past me. Odd, I thought, unconcerned, but certainly an anomaly. The fish was out of sight and I continued my careless float.

A few minutes later, my bubble of serenity was burst by the clanking noise of Aaron banging his metal pointer (our latest acquisition) on his metal air cylinder. He was trying rather frantically, with wild eyes and hand gestures, to communicate something but I had no idea what. After another minute of trying to translate his sign language, I gave up and kicked closer to the reef wall. I randomly glanced behind me and caught the tail fin of the triggerfish swimming away. It wasn’t until after the dive that I came to understand that, in the minutes between my initial deflection of the fish and my final kicks toward the wall, the triggerfish had made repeated attacks on me, darting frantically back and forth between her nest and me, the unwitting intruder. I was oblivious – I didn’t feel a thing. Had she found a spot of exposed flesh during one of her advances, her strong jaw, sharp teeth, and raw determination could undoubtedly have drawn blood, making for an unhappy little diver but she would have had trouble causing any lasting damage beyond a little nip and a great fish tale. My first thought was to scour the beach restaurants for one that had triggerfish on the dinner menu but then thought better of it. From one Mother Hen to another, I could hardly fault her for protecting her babies. We now have a designated hand signal for “You’re getting attacked by a triggerfish!”

The other fish encounters were fun and much less dramatic. Two small remoras – small suckerfish that often attach themselves to sharks, rays, turtles and larger fish – stalked Aaron for fifteen or twenty minutes of a dive, at one point even attaching themselves to his cylinder. They were nonthreatening and Aaron was completely unaware as they wiggled around his back and between his legs. On another underwater expedition, two large batfish swam between Aaron and me for almost the entire dive. It is always exciting when a sea creature interacts with us; as divers, we are like alien invaders under the sea. Most fish will scurry away, propelled by their survival instincts but some are wondrously curious and friendly. You look into their soulless fish eyes and feel as though you’ve made a connection. It almost makes you want to give up seafood…almost.

While I love life as a little mermaid, my merman and I agree that we need to let our gills dry out for a while. Our two weeks in the Philippines have been well-spent but, admittedly, we’ve seen more sea than land. We called our taxi driver, Junior, who had left us his card when he dropped us off six days earlier, and made arrangements for a private day tour of Bohol. Suddenly remembering the lush tropical forest that lay beyond the beach, we packed away our scuba masks and geared up for the next great adventure.

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May 4th 2008
Seahorses in Sabang

Posted under Philippines

After Aaron’s brush with death, we had a quick but intense powwow in our room during which he acknowledged his bad judgment and promised never to scare me like that again; hugs were exchanged and, a few hours later, we were back underwater, cruising around a spectacular coral-covered dive site. Aaron had gotten his original set of equipment back and all was right in the world again.

We dove leisurely over the next few days and spend our free time eating cheese spaetzle at our resort, patronizing the neighboring seaside restaurant patios, reading, and scouring local fish books to identify the subjects of our underwater photos. We bought fresh fruit from a local woman who came by our resort with a round, flat basket on top of her head and, each day, I let her extort me on the fruit prices because she was so sweet. People walked by the resort all day long, peddling beaded jewelry, cell phones, string bracelets, clothing, pool cues and a few other odd items but we only bought from our fruit lady. Sometimes beggars came by too, which is always disheartening in a resort atmosphere. It’s difficult to enjoy your three-dollar latte with dark, desperate eyes piercing your soul. The beggars appeared to be rural folk, filthy and shoeless, not just down on their luck but truly destitute. One woman walked by with a baby suckling her exposed breast; the empty look in her eyes implied a life of such continual struggle and hardship that she had simply resigned herself to it long ago. There certainly seemed to be some small income opportunities for those few Sabang natives lucky enough to get a sliver of the tourist dollars that trickled in. And, of course, we saw plenty of foreign men taking advantage of the young Filipinas for hire.

The rest of our diving in Sabang was easy and enjoyable. Other “muck dives” yielded much-coveted seahorses – both pygmy seahorses, which are about the length of a fingernail and difficult to spot since they blend seamlessly into the coral and also thorny seahorses, which are three-to-four inches long, delicate and fascinating. I have always been intrigued by seahorses: they are one of the world’s few creatures whose males carry their offspring. I have always wanted to see one but they are as difficult to find as they are beautiful. Imagine my elation at seeing more than five on a single dive!

We also saw an impressive variety of nudibranchs. These multi-colored sea slugs are small but easy to spot because of their bright contrast to the muted coral. Nudibranchs are especially interesting because their lungs protrude from their bodies, functioning externally. They photograph beautifully because of their bright colors and slow movement. The tiny size of the nudibranchs makes it difficult to appreciate their intricate details with the naked eye. By now, I don’t even strain to see them anymore; I just wait for Aaron to work his camera magic and view them after the dive. They are by far the prettiest slugs I’ve ever seen, which really doesn’t say much.

As we loaded our bags and ourselves onto the pumpboat for Batangas, the young boys climbed aboard again looking for coins to be tossed. Their youthful exuberance was refreshing and I handed a few pesos to one of the boys but he kept it for himself rather than tossing it into the sea. Smart kid. As the boat motored slowly away from the shore, I felt a twinge of sadness. Sabang is a sleepy little divers’ town with no beach to speak of, which doesn’t stop the natives from wading in on a hot day. There is little to do besides dive, drink beer and wait for the spectacular tropical sunsets. Life is slow and simple. The locals are friendly. The diving in Sabang is excellent for its diverse underwater world of captivating shipwrecks, gorgeous hard and soft corals and treasure chest of fascinating, unusual sea creatures. Seahorses…check!

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