Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A LITTLE HELP GOES A LONG WAY



OK, so if you've been reading this blog, hopefully you know we try to do some sort of volunteer work at least once a week wherever we are. It's not a monumental goal, nor is it going to change the world. We realize this.

But giving back, even a little, does make us feel good. Plus, sometimes we get to see/do some cool stuff we may not otherwise get to do, such as photographing whale sharks or spending Earth Day underwater in Palau

Last week, doing our "1 of 7," as we like to call it, we experienced something we thought was pretty nice. 

We had found our own little paradise--a beach hut for $10 per night (whoo hooo!), complete with front porch, hammock, and ridiculous views, all on a remote island in the Philippines where few foreigners visit except during surf season, which it wasn't. There were even seashells out front for Liz to collect and water buffalo out back for Kip to take pictures of!

The only problem was the beach was scattered with trash. Most of it came in with the tides, but some also fell from the hands of locals, many of whom still think tossing their chip bags, food wrappers, and cigarette butts in the sand is acceptable behavior. A few folks even call the plastic bag the "Filipino Jellyfish" for its prevalence and appearance when found in the water or washed up onshore. 

After breakfast and a less-than-stellar surf session, we grabbed a few plastic bags and hit the beach to start a clean up. Side note: You may have noticed picking up trash has been a go-to activity for us; there's litter everywhere, it's easy to collect, and cleaning it up makes an immediate impact, especially in tourist areas; if only we could figure out how to get people to stop littering. Hmmmmm. 

After half an hour or so, a graying man and younger boy in board shorts walked down the empty beach toward us. Looking closely, it appeared as if they both were carrying plastic bags and that they were picking up trash as they walked. 


Helpers? Indeed, it was.

The man's name was John. He was an expat American living in the Philippines, and he and his Philippine-born son, Kenji, had seen us and wondered if they could lend a hand. 


"Of course," we told them, "we'd love to have the help."  So father and son joined in, and, together, we walked along talking and filling our bags. 


John said he hoped this would be a good lesson for Kenji, who spent hours on the beach or on the waves nearby. He also thought it may help convince some of the locals who'd been watching us to stop littering and maybe even consider cleaning up after others who weren't as conscientious. 

It was nice to imagine. 


After emptying our bags in a nearby trash can, we shook hands and parted ways. And then we got back to enjoying what we felt was our own little slice of paradise...

PARADISE FOUND. WE'RE NOT TELLING YOU WHERE.

We think we finally found it. Paradise.

These shots are from somewhere on the island of Catanduanes in the Philippines. No, we're not saying where it is. You'll have to find it yourself.

Lunch. For $5. Enough said. 
This one's for our nieces...a clown fish patrols his green carpet anenome just off the beach. 
A local surfer named Libby rips across the peak of a small wave at a famous surf break nearby. 
The view from our $10/night beach hut. Thought about asking them to move the palms, but decided to let it be.  
A time-lapse photo reveals the flight patterns of fireflies roaming the night sky. Liz likes fireflies.
We often heard the calls of black-naped orioles, like this one we photographed nearby. Kip likes birds.
Grasshoppers scale rice stalks to get a prime view of sunrise on Catanduanes. 
OK, so we stayed at Majestic Pururan Beach Resort. All photos were taken within a 10-minute walk of our hut. Seriously, this place is amazing. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

VOLCANO TREK TO A WATERFALL


A thick cover of clouds loomed overhead as we hiked up the slope of Mt. Isarog, a Filipine volcano that's never known to have erupted, but that scientists say certainly could.

Luckily, the rain held off, as did any volcanic activity, as we made our way up the mountain. Our 11-year-old, self-appointed "guide" led us along a dirt, mud, and rock trail through rice terraces and corn fields that slowly disappeared into dense forest.

About an hour in, we heard the unmistakable rumble of falling water up ahead. The trek was well worth it. 



We hitched a ride back in the bed of a dump truck. Got tangled in some horrific rush hour traffic. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

WANT INSURANCE WITH THAT?


Last night, a bold gecko climbed up on Liz's plate and ate some cake. Didn't even thank us in an English/Aussie accent as we were hoping. Guess they roll differently in the Philippines. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

HELP WITH HOOPS



Why a country with such a serious height disadvantage is crazy for basketball, we'll never know. But Filipinos love the sport, whether watching it or playing it. 

Virtually every town has a court, which doubles as an events center, concert hall, and all around meeting place. During our visit, Kip has played in more than a few games, where he's learned height isn't a hindrance for the locals, nor are flip flops or bare feet.

While driving a borrowed motorcycle around the tiny island of San Antonio last week, we saw a group of guys gathered around a make-shift backboard with hammers, nails, and a rope, so we pulled over to see what was going on.

One of the neighborhood kids had found an old, rusted rim, and most of the town/village/barangay came out to help hang the new goal using whatever materials they could find. The best part--the goal would be hung from a coconut palm about 30 feet from the beach.

We joined in the construction project, hammering nails, sawing logs, and offering mostly useless advice. Liz also taught some of the young girls a few English words, while Kip and the guys went about putting up the goal. 

When it was all done, we got lots of hi-fives from the kids. And Kip even got in a quick 3-on-3 game to test out the new addition, which luckily worked quite well. Unlike his jump shot.



Monday, May 21, 2012

WHEN FEATHERS FLY

An inspector unsheathes the four-inch steel blade attached to a rooster's leg before a fight.
Cockfighting is huge in the Philippines, its popularity surpassed only by organized religion (and maybe basketball, but more on that later). If you see a crowd beside the road you can rest assured folks are either paying their respects to Jesus and the Virgin Mother or betting their meager paychecks trying to guess which one of two roosters will end the day as someone’s dinner.

Driving our rented motorcycle along the coast, we rounded a curve to find a throng of people milling around beside the highway. Curious, we turned the bike around to take a closer look.

NOTE: Before we go any further, we should say that if the idea of cockfighting bothers you, please stop reading now. We’re not supporters, but we did watch a few matches while here. From what we saw and learned, it’s worth noting that if you have ever eaten chicken at KFC or McDonald's, the animals you ate were likely raised far less humanely than those we witnessed in the Philippines.




Before we got within 10 feet of the all-male crowd, someone shouted, “Hey, Joe!”, a friendly greeting left over from World War II days when most foreigners here were of the military type, aka, G.I. Joe.


A shirtless, one-handed man in baggy red shorts hollered our way from the middle of a make-shift cockfighting ring, pointing to us as he cleared a path in the crowd. Bald and wearing a gold hoop earring, he looked like a 5’1” version of Mr. Clean, but the naked lady tattoo on his chest and the beer and cigarette in his hand said otherwise.


He directed us to the front row, right up against a waist-high wooden fence under a canopy of coconut palms, and he quickly went back to work. Mr. Clean, whose name we later learned was Noel, served as ring master of the show. With his one good arm, he stirred the crowd, announced the fights, took bets, and then refereed. He was the Don King of the cockfighting ring, a highly-skilled promoter and businessman. He even managed to squeeze 20 pesos (about 50 cents) and a beer out of Kip. No small feat.


Liz's new best friend, Noel, aka Mr. Clean.
After odds were set and bets taken, Mr. Clean would bring the competitors face to face, or beak to beak, as it were. Held head high and inches apart by their owners, the birds would lunge at each other, the feathers on their heads and necks sticking straight out. Then it was time.

Noel silenced the crowd, holding up one hand and pointing his nub to the middle of the ring. The competitors lowered their birds to the ground, looked at each other intently, and then placed them carefully on the dirt near the center of the ring. The men retreated. Quickly.

Freed, the roosters would converge in a fury of feathers. Within seconds, one bird emerged as the winner. The other would be gathered up in the hands of its disappointed owner.


For all the buildup and drama leading up to the fights, the bouts themselves lasted maybe 10 seconds, thanks to the four-inch stainless steel blades secured skillfully to one leg of each rooster. Death was quick, at least in the matches we witnessed.

As soon as the action stopped, fistfuls of pesos would be exchanged. And immediately, Mr. Clean would start revving up the crowd for the next match.

A specialist attaches a blade to a rooster's leg. The man's carrying case is in the background.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

MORNING AT THE FISH MARKET

Early morning catch at the local fish market on the Calbayog pier.
Unloading the boats. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

THE REAL UNDERGROUND RIVER

Liz and the group at the mouth of the underground river. Bet you can't guess which one's Liz!
Have we mentioned how much we love the Philippines? Seriously, this place has more hidden treasures than a forgetful pirate. We’re particularly loving Southern Leyte, and the town of Maasin.

Yesterday at breakfast, two Filipino kids fascinated with Liz crawled up in her lap while she checked her email (side note: things like this happen to us a lot; not many light-skinned people, plus the average height of a woman here is 4’11”; Liz is 5’10”). This led their father, no doubt glad to have them occupied, to start up a conversation with Kip, where we learned of a mountain town not far from here with a waterfall, cave, and underground river.



Although we'd already seen “the” underground river in Palawan (one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World), we were hoping for less of a Disneyland experience and decided to try and find this one. Our only directions were to go to the town of Maria Clara and turn right at the elementary school. Seeing as how turning right would put us directly into the ocean, we figured he meant left, and started up the mountainous dirt 
road.


It was steep. And rocky. And we were on a mo-ped. This proceeded for about 45 minutes. We twice discussed turning around, but finally we saw some locals walking the trail and asked directions. Since Liz still only knows how to say “Thank You” in Tagalog, that didn’t help much. Then we met three little boys, one of whom carried a cage of sparrow-sized brown birds with white beaks we later learned were chestnut munias. The kids clearly thought we were nuts but pointed us in the right direction anyway. Ten minutes down the road, we saw a hand-painted sign for ‘the cave,’ and soon we were at the Cagnitoan “barangay hall,” a meeting place that virtually all towns or "barangays" have, no matter what size.

Out of the cinderblock and wood barangay hall came four giggling, barefoot women, and eight curious kids (all the men were in town for a meeting). Turns out it was our lucky day, as all the ladies and the children decided to be our guides for the day.
As we walked through a coconut plantation, across a river, and over rocky hills, our group gradually became larger. A couple of stray dogs joined, as did four more kids. Soon, we rounded a curve in the trail and came to a beautiful waterfall. Kip, being Kip, just had to take a jump.
   

Just upstream was the mouth of the water filled cave. Our guides asked us if we were ready to go. They flipped on their flashlights, pointed into the darkness and, hand in hand, we all walked into the icy river.
There were no other tourists. No boats. No signs to lead the way. Just us, the ladies, and happy kids holding our hands as we stumbled, swam and crawled along upstream through the cave. There were incredible stalactites, and thousands of bats. It was a little scary, somewhat challenging, and a lot amazing. Liz even got pooped on…by a bat. On her face. No one told her for a long time, which gave Kip and the kids a good laugh. After wiping it off, she decided to assume it was good luck.

On the way back, Kip even got a lesson in palm tree climbing. He was no match for his eight-yr-old instructor, who graciously tossed down enough coconuts for the group. 




One of the ladies had a machete (naturally), and she skillfully sliced open the cocos, handing us one each to enjoy.




Palawan can have its Seven Wonders. We’ll take Cagnitoan any day.



We realize we missed volunteering last week with the sailing trip (does voluntarily not mutiny-ing count?)...considering how much plastic we saw and Kip caught fishing during the trip, we've joined and are supporting the Surfrider Foundation, which works to protect the world's beaches and oceans, among many other things. 

We head to the island of Samar tomorrow, where we'll be looking for our next opportunity.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

SAILNG (AND DRIFTING) THE PACIFIC


It was our ninth day at sea. We were adrift, floating without wind in the unrelenting sun somewhere on the deep blue Pacific. A merciful current pushed us along, painfully slowly, the 40-foot sailboat carrying us inched toward the Philippines. At least we were moving in the right direction, for a change.

We were supposed to have made port in Cebu at least two days ago, according to our captain, a friendly, well-meaning German in his late twenties. Yet, four more agonizing days would pass before we actually were allowed to touch our bare feet on dry land. And it would not be Cebu.

On day nine, though, something wonderful happened.

Kip was on  “dawn patrol,” as he liked to call his early morning watch shift from 5-8 a.m.—amazing sunrises, plus it’s the best time to fish (or so he thought). After an hour at the helm, he saw a dark spot on the horizon. A boat, perhaps?

The spot gradually grew larger. Through binoculars, the outline of a small island came into focus.


Wow. Liz had to see this.



Still groggy from her midnight watch, Liz bolted upright when she heard the news. Squealing like school girls, we fist bumped, high fived and simultaneously screamed, “Land Ho!”

We were Columbus discovering America. We were Magellan circumnavigating the globe. We were finally getting off this godforsaken boat.

Or so we thought.

To be honest, the trip couldn’t have been that bad. We were sailing on a boat in the Pacific Ocean, after all. And we were only gone for 12 days. It was that the trip seemed something more akin to the first lines of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

The trip started out quite beautifully, as we left the dock and set the main sail in a light breeze. The scenery was stunning. We were content, fulfilling a lifelong dream of international sailing. 

The boat weaved leisurely between Palau’s famous Rock Islands, mushroom-shaped, jungle-clad hills of limestone, some as small as a VW Bug and others larger than the Superdome. We reached a narrow, turquoise-colored passage in the outer reef and slipped smoothly through, cruising into the deep blue of the Pacific. Dolphins played nearby. 




Feeling celebratory, we broke out a bottle we’d brought along and mixed drinks for the four of us, including the Germans Martin and Corrina, who as we mentioned previously, were a twenty-something couple sailing around the world on a mission to educate people about trash in the seas. We cheers’d, we poured out a tribute for Neptune, and we drank until the bottle was gone.

Things pretty much went downhill from there.

Naturally, after a few rum drinks, Liz usually has to pee. This is when we learned that our “cabin with a bathroom” does not actually have a working toilet. Or sink (in the U.S., we’d call that a closet).

No problem, though. For the next week and a half, night and day, we would just use the one in our hosts' cabin. Which is fine, except boats are tiny and the toilet is next to their bed. As in 14 inches from it. It took some getting used to, particularly at night. Have you ever tried to “relax” in a bathroom, knowing that the heads of two sleeping strangers are a foot from your rear end? Us either. 

Then there was the heat and lack of fresh water. We sweat constantly and in buckets. Sheets, clothes, towels, everything was damp. The saltwater showers on deck did not help the situation, though we weren’t allowed to use fresh water since the water pump broke on day three and our supply was extremely limited. Deodorant was useless. The choice was between sweating in the sun at 90 degrees on deck with a view of the ocean, or sweating in the shade at 100 degrees and no breeze in the musty cabin.

Since Liz hadn't exactly "adapted" to the skin tone of the natives yet, she wisely opted for the cabin most days. Kip was up on deck fishing. He never caught a fish. Most days he reeled in seaweed or plastic, which was exciting, but didn’t go well with wasabi. 

Turns out, to catch tuna in the deep, the boat actually needs to be moving, which we frequently were not. It’s the same if you want to catch some land. Like the Philippines.  

Which brings us to the topic of wind. There wasn’t any. For days. 

“Why didn’t you use the motor?” you ask. Because it was broken. Well, not totally broken, but only half of it worked, and it’s electric. The electric part is awesome and eco-friendly, when it’s charged. It wasn’t. 

Knowing our captain was in a hurry to meet his sister who was waiting for him in the Philippines (he wouldn’t make it in time), we assumed he was doing all he could to get there fast. Plus, we’re unemployed and homeless, why should we be in a rush? 

So we settled in to wait for wind. Did we mention the rum was gone on the first night?

With no electricity to power things like computers or iPods or lights, we made ourselves busy. 

We played guitar... we slept... we stared at clouds.... 

We read, a lot. At night we used headlamps we brought. Both of us made it through eight books each, including two well over 1000 pages. 


Jump to night 10 (of our seven day trip, based on the captain’s initial calculations). We were still drifting off the coast of the Philippines, at least two days from port. A wahle surfaced and another pod of dolphins swam by in the distance.

Yet again, there was no wind. The current was pushing us toward the shore. Liz heard a strange noise. “What’s that?” she asked our captain.

“The motor,” he replied. “We’re drifting toward the shore. I’ll have to get out the generator to charge the batteries.”

Liz was wide-eyed and silent, but internally thinking, “OMG. Are you freaking kidding? We’ve been drifting off the coast for almost three days with dead batteries and no motor, you’re supposedly in a hurry to meet your sister, and now, days later, you pull out a gas generator to charge the motor? What were you waiting on, a team of mermaids to come pull us along?

Instead, she took a deep breath and said, “Sounds like a great idea.”

Day 12, we finally made port in Maasain, the provincial capital of Leyte, which was not Cebu, our original destination. That would have been another 3 days (or 8 hours, if you’re our overly-optimistic captain).

Seeing as we were back in the Philippines, we immediately hi-fived as the locals do and ran to the first place we could find that would sell us some deep-fried hardboiled eggs, fresh water, and rum.

Over iced cuba libres, we promised to never, ever sail again...at least for a week or two. And only on boats with functioning engines.



Sunday, May 13, 2012

DRY LAND, DEEP FRIED EGGS, AND SOUTHERN COMFORT

Yes, that's a deep-fried, hard-boiled egg.
After 12 days on a sailboat (much more on that later), we could not be happier to be back on dry land, particularly since that terra firma is the Philippines.

While there are so, so many reasons for our joy, one of the main ones is the food. Before we left home, people told us not to have high expectations about eating here. A well-traveled friend even suggested bringing our own salt, pepper, and Tabasco.

While not every meal's one to blog about, we've had much worse in other spots around the world. And today, we found something neither of us had heard of, despite our extensive time spent at county fairs and the Deep South.

Deep-fried, hard-boiled eggs.

It's like the Easter Bunny got a Fry Daddy and a southern accent for Christmas and went buck wild. There's even a shop selling these delicacies in the main grocery store of the port town Maasin, where we made port late yesterday (yes, we were supposed to land in Cebu, many hours west of here; that's another story). Liz and I had our fill. Then we had some more. 
After binge-ing on fried foods and any drink with an ice cube in it, we hit the supermarket itself. Wow. This place was amazing, at least to two landlubbers at the end of a near two-week odyssey at sea. 

There was electricity, air conditioning, rum, and all the fresh water we could drink. Unadulterated madness. To top it off, we both even found a new favorite brand of chips, each of the pork-flavored variety, naturally.


All these modernities and over eating wore us out. Imagine our elation when, down a side street we saw a beacon of light gleaming with the words "Southern Comfort Pension." Kip knocked over two moto drivers and an aging water buffalo to discover what was a clean, quiet hotel with ocean view and AC for $10. The lady behind the counter even promised the place wouldn't rock in bad weather.

We've booked three nights but may stay a week.