Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Ups And Downs Of Travel. But Mostly The Ups

Today I am writing from the Nisa Traveler's Inn in Tagbilaran City, the same place we had spent a night when we landed on Bahol before moving down to Panglao Island and Alona Beach. It is a relief to be here, but there are many things to discuss before I get to why!

This is Sam, my excellent diving instructor.  He has been a diver for 20 years and holds the PADI level of Master Instructor.  While it has been brought to my attention in countless other ways, this diving class has illustrated how laid back the Philippines are: I did my first dive ever after only even going snorkeling for the first time the day before, I had not given them a single peso yet, they didn't even know my name or have me sign anything, and we went on an 11-meter dive for 34 minutes! Haha...

What I was doing was getting my Open Water certification, which is an international certification that allows me to dive in open water down to 18-meters.  We began by looking at the gear and doing some drills in shallow water, then we went to the coral covered cliff that is at this part of the beach.

Let me just say SCUBA diving is really cool.  The feeling of breathing underwater and 'weightlessness' is really exciting, and the sights are wonderful.  To me, it was very easy to do, and felt quite natural as well. Once that dive was over and Sam determined I was not one of the people that panic underwater, we called it a day and would officially begin the course the next day. While the class is mostly practical work, 4 dives, there was actually some 'classwork' where Sam taught skills and theory, as well as a video to watch and a final test.

After my first two dives, Chris who is already certified, came out with us on one of my class dives and of course brought his underwater camera. Diving really does bring you into a whole new world, especially for someone like me from the northwest. This picture is of course a clown fish, *insert Finding Nemo reference*. 

This is Sam along the edge of the cliff in a school of fish. Swimming with schools of fish is a really neat sensation, with so many different shapes and sizes there is always something new to look at. One of my favorite things is looking at smaller things, like a particular piece of coral that has it's own little community of bright colored tiny fish that hang out around it. 

Chris and I under the surface.

This crazy looking thing is a sea slug, just one of the many new and strange creatures I've had a chance to see up close and personal on the sea floor.

Because I was the only person in the class and I seemed capable enough, Sam and I did the four day course in three days. I am now officially a PADI-certified diver! With this, I hope to do some diving in Thailand for sure, and upon returning to Seattle I'd love to do a dive out there just to see the difference between the two extremely varied ecosystems.

The night I completed the course, Chris and I did our usual evening activity, relaxing on the beach with a San Miguel or Red Horse beer and watching some music.  As usual for the Philippines, it was a cover band, which in this case played mostly American songs from the 70s. While enjoying the music, we met Steve (from England) and Morgan (from Canada).  We promptly invited them to join us the next morning on the dive we were doing at Balicasag, one of the primo dive sites here in the Philippines.

The next morning we boarded the dive boat at Alona Beach and headed out for Balicasag Island, a 45 minute or so ride.  There were I think four or five dive leaders, and ten or twelve of us tourist folk, mostly American and Chinese.  Like Alona beach, this island is surrounded by a deep vertical cliff covered in coral and has an amazing array of sea life. 

Because of the certification I and most other divers had we stayed at around 18 meters, though at one point I saw something I wanted to look at and went to about 22, haha.

The boat was out for the day and was offering two dives.  I went on the first, then we snorkeled around for an hour, and moved to the other side of the island for the second dive. I was being cheap or something, decided not to do the second dive, instead opting to just snorkel off the boat, and naturally I regretted it.  They ended up giving us a deal, which worked out at just $18 for the dive, and for that I could have been swimming with sea turtles... oh well. There is always Thailand.

While the turtle was Chris' highlight, my highlight was the lion fish.   

Liking lions since I was a little kid, naturally any fish with 'lion' in the name would be of interest.  This particular photo is from the dive I skipped, but I saw a few on my earlier dives and they really are amazing looking creatures.

On the way back, the waters actually got a bit rough, but I had a great time sitting on the front of the boat getting splashed by the waves whenever the bow would fall into a trough. 

Having done what we came to do at Alona beach, we opted for a change of scenery and took a tricycle to what we thought was the town of Panglao.  On the map it looked like like a bigger town, especially given the series of roads that meet there, and we went for our usual 'get someplace new and figure out out when we get there'.  Turned out to be our first mistake.  There was really nothing there, no main streat, nothing. We walked down the road trying to find a place to stay for the night, but despite a series of totally empty resorts, every place was charging 1000-2000 pesos and we were not sure what to do. 

As usual, the locals took an interest in us and waved us over to some little shack to chat with us and give us some coconut wine.  One of the local woman actually lived in Seattle for a while! While there, a guy came and said he could find a place for us to stay at his friends house. I guess he was pretty drunk, and communication was difficult, but we figured oh well, he seemed nice enough and we didn't want to have to stay at one of the expensive and unwelcoming resorts. We ended up in this room in someones house, and thus began our worst night so far.

After walking down the beach for a while talking to our new friend, I started feeling pretty awful. Combine this with his insistence of leading us around the island on motorbikes and staying with them for even longer and I was having a bad time.  Luckily Chris was able to deal with them while I laid down, and we agreed to have two of his friends take us around on bikes in the morning.

My stomach pains continued, the room was really hot, neighbors were blasting awful music all night, animals were all over, and around 9pm or so the diarrhea started. Let me just say this situation is not very nice when all you have is a squat toilet in a cinder block room with no light nor running water. After some time in the 'bathroom' I came back to bed to lay in misery for the rest of the night. At around 11pm, things really got rough, and I ran to the toilet (past the guy sleeping in the middle of the living room floor) to watch nearly a whole chicken projectile vomit out of my mouth (sorry if it's gross,  just trying to tell the truth about travel!).  It's one of those situations where you have no idea if this is just the beginning of what is to come and you may have to suffer for days on end, or if this will be it.  Luckily it was the only time I threw up, but problems on 'the other end' persisted.  Unable to sleep, I actually went for a 3am walk and beach swim, where I listened to the noises of the night and got to see some neat bio-luminescent... things under the sand. 

We had until 7am to “sleep” but neither of us got much at all, and I got maybe an hour and a half at most. Neighbors blasted music late into the night, as well as early in the morning. It was quite obnoxious.  Anyways, I did feel better in the morning, and was able to eat a little bit of food. At 8am as planned, the guys with bikes came.

I think there are 4 helmets in the entire Philippines, haha. Anyways, from that house, Chris and I got on the back of some bikes and they took us around the area to the places we had talked about the night before. Given the communication difficulties we had had the previous day, it went remarkably well.

Our first stop was a cave near by.  After the cave in Sagada, this place was a huge disappointment. It was more built up, having stairs and a handrail, as well as some lights, but inside was just a large stagnant pool of water and not much else. Oh well, at least it was only 10 pesos...

Next on our list for the day was to stop by the town of  Tagbilaran City to get our room and drop off our bags, then onto the 'python sanctuary'.  What this consisted of was a huge python in a cage, which also contained a few other interesting birds and mammals, including a sad looking monkey on a leash... 

The one snake was quite large, and they feed it pigs and goats. It really just sat in the corner not moving, and people take turns getting pictures with it. While more interesting than the cave, it was also a bit of a letdown, but at least it was also only 10 pesos or something.

The real entertainment at the 'python sanctuary' was in one of the people that work there.  Once a critical mass of visitors had arrived, this 'lady-man' or whatever you call him/her came to life.  The face looked rather feminine, but the masculine build, chest hair and sideburns are a bit of a giveaway...

Anyways, he/she put on a song on the blown-out stereo, and preformed what we all found to be a pretty hilarious lip-sync and dance, including hanging from the hut upside down and crawling under the table. Even a nun that was there was laughing! I'm still trying to figure out what this has to do with a 'snake sanctuary'. Oh well, it's southeast Asia, just enjoy it!

From the python, it was still quite early so we also had the guys take us to Mag. Aso Falls, and this set everything right again.  This one was 20 pesos to get into, but the falls were quite pretty, the sandstone then cut through was interesting, the water cool and clean, and a ton of fun to swim in.  We climbed in and under the falls, jumping and diving off into the pool below and generally trying to forget about the last night.  It worked. I was feeling almost normal, we both had a great time swimming, and were now ready to head back to Tagbilaran to rest in our room. 

So, that is were I am at this point.  Tomorrow we are looking at going to the Chocolate Hills, which may be a day trip or we may spend the night out there, not sure yet.  On the 5th, I have a flight from here back to Manila, and on the 6th I say goodbye to the Philippines to meet Nick and Ellen in Cambodia!