Monday, September 23, 2013

A day of firsts -- Island Hopping 2013

I haven't written here in several years. For all practical purposes this blog was dead. However, today I had a number of "firsts" that I needed to write about somewhere, and that is what this blog was made for, so here I am.

Island Hopping (September 22, 2013)

My alarm went off at 4:45 AM this morning. Well, actually, both of my alarms went off at 4:45 AM. I snoozed them both. Twice. I am not a morning person. I finally drug myself out of bed and took a shower to wake up before putting on my outrageous red Hawaiian-shirt-patterned swimsuit and my bright yellow running jersey from a half marathon I didn't run. I was going island-hopping in the Philippines for the first time and I figured I might as well look the part.

I popped some Excedrin, an acid reducer and chewed a couple of Pepto tablets for good luck and headed down to breakfast at a quarter to six. A muffin and croissant later I was in a taxi heading to our meeting point. I was hoping that the rest of my team would be there, because we were essentially meeting on a street corner in Cebu City and I was only vaguely familiar with that part of town. Sure enough, as we got closer I saw a few familiar faces standing at the right intersection. The day was off to a great start.

Then things started to get a little rocky. For starters, we were expecting a group of 18, and I was only the 6th person there, and I was 3 minutes late. For the next two hours I stood on this random street corner while our group trickled in. It was very frustrating and I punished those who were on time by ranting about how I was not doing this again, and that in the future we were leaving those who were late.

First 1: Jeepney ride

Finally, a little after 8 AM, everyone who was coming (only 11 of us) had arrived, and we embarked on my first "first" of the day: a jeepney ride. I have spent, in total, more than 9 months in the Philippines, where the primary means for transportation for the general populace is the Jeepney.
It is a haphazard system of privately owned and operated public transportation, but they have made it work for years. An until today, I had never ridden in one, always opting for the more convenient, roomy and expensive alternative: the taxi. So I piled into the jeepney with the rest of the group and off we went. Right away I learned that like many jeepneys, this one was not intended for people over 5'8", Being 6'1" I risked hitting my head at every bump, and endured the entire ride in a hunchback position, the memory of which makes me want to sit up a little straighter as I write about it, enjoying stretching my neck skyward.

The Jeepney took us from Mandaue over the old bridge to the neighboring island of Mactan, home of Lapu Lapu city, and the Mactan airport. We continued from Mactan on a much smaller and shorter bridge to another island called Cordova. We drove out to the tip of Cordova to an isthmus with a single line of plywood and bamboo shops whose backs opened to the sea. We oozed out of the Jeepney and into one of the small shops to wait.
It was a sari-sari store, which is a kind of local variety store that you can find all over the Philippines. We sat on some plastic stools provided by the shop keeper, and a few of the group bought drinks or some small snacks. Our boat, it turned out, had gone on another trip because we were so late, so now we had to wait for it to return. It was between 8:30 and 9 AM at this point, and we waited and waited. Around an hour and a half later the boat showed up. Note that I don't list "Waiting" as a first for me. Unfortunately, when one works in the Philippines, one learns to wait.

First 2: Open water in a small boat, ship, or whatever

So the Captain of our vessel, whom everyone called "Boss", was assisted by his First Mate, Taco Phil. I'm pretty sure his name was Taco Phil because that was what was printed on the back of his shirt. I give them the grand titles of Captain and First Mate to make up for their ship. Or boat. I was never quite sure on the distinction there. Our vessel was at most 30 feet long and 6 or 8 feet wide, and was shaped like an over-sized canoe, with bamboo outriggers on each side. There were benches down each side of the canoe facing a small table in the center. It had peeling paint and the plywood floor was mostly firm, and I only noticed one hole in the side where I could get a peek at the water, if I wanted one. It was just an option. Captain Boss and Taco Phil were kind enough to extend a canopy over the table and benches so we had a little floating pavilion set up.
We had piled our things in, and were about to cast off when someone mentioned life jackets. Taco Phil produced 7 ragged orange neck-strangler style flotation devices. Thankfully, my companions told him that we needed more. Unfortunately, everything comes with a price, and we rented three additional vests, complete with snorkels. We were still one vest short, but decided to risk it and get moving. Ironically we had negotiated a discount since the boat was late, and the rental fee for those items roughly equaled the discount. Well played, Cpt. Boss, well played.

So Taco Phil pushed us out to sea with a long bamboo pole, and Cpt. Boss started the engine. It was a pull-start style of engine, like my old lawn mower at home. Unlike my lawnmower it produced a sound like a jackhammer. As they revved the engine the sound got louder, and any conversation had to be worth shouting if it was to continue. None were worth it. We headed out to sea, and immediately noticed that the swells were getting larger. A few other sailors (I'm upgraded my group of BPO professionals to sailors now) screamed a little bit as we rode several of the larger swells up and then back down. Life jackets were tightened and our 11th sailor looked for means of flotation (remember we were still one life jacket short), and saw a 2L bottle of Coke. He grabbed it with one hand while his other hand white-knuckled the back of his bench. This exciting ride continued for 30 minutes, with the yells now being enhanced by playful contributions from those of us who enjoy danger a little bit.
It was fun, not unlike the feeling of a roller coaster. Sure, it wasn't as fast, or the movement so spectacular, but that was made up for by the presence of real danger. Being a roller coaster nut I pulled out my phone and took some video. Upon reviewing that footage later I was disappointed to realize that the real sensation and experience of being on the boat was totally lost on video. It look likes a calm, peaceful boat ride with a bunch of people screaming for no reason. Not cool.

First 3: Swimming in the ocean

As we got closer to the first island, Cpt Boss cut the engine, and several minutes later my ears stopped ringing. Taco Phil was out front with his bamboo pole maneuvering us for a parking spot. They got about 15 feet from the almost-sheer bank that was the shoreline here, and threw the anchor in the the water. They had a handy ladder that swung down from a platform on the outrigger on one side, and it splashed into the water ready to be used. It was time to go swimming. I should explain that I was a little apprehensive about this part. I am not a great swimmer, and frankly, I haven't even tried to swim an real distance for years, although I wasn't too worried about that because I trust my life jacket. I can see the bottom clearly, and it doesn't look that deep, but water is hard to judge, with its light-bending properties and all that. And I know, like everyone else who has seen Shark Week or any movie with a shark in it, they don't need much depth. At this point, my hesitation was obvious, and I happened to be the one closest to the ladder. I did the only thing I could do. Get out of the way. "Go ahead, Dan, show us how it is done."

In he went. He stood up, with the water only chest high. One problem solved. I watched for the frothing red water that always accompanied shark attacks. Dan seemed to be swimming around fine. I guess that was covered as well. So in I went. The water was the perfect temperature. Slightly cool, but in no way cold. I borrowed a snorkel and went to town floating around in my life jacket, staring at the ocean floor. At first it was either sand or some kind of weedy, grassy plant, but then I started to make out more details, and saw all kinds of things, from fish to trash.

First 4: Touch a jelly fish

I took a break and stood up just as Dan yelled for our attention. I went over to investigate and saw what looked like a large clump of grass moving through the water. Then I caught a glimpse of what as on the the other side of the clump. It was a humongo jelly fish. We all basically freaked out a little bit, trying to keep our distance from the thing. A local fisherman who had been watching us (I tend to draw spectators) came over and calmly grabbed it and flipped it over and started explaining to us that it was harmless. It was about a foot in diameter and did have brown weedy-looking top, but with the tell-tell jelly looking bottom. We all touched the bluish, but slightly translucent, spikes that coated its underside. Keeping it underwater he pulled the spiky part open to show us its "mouth" if that is the right work for it. Seeing as how it didn't seem to display a defense mechanism, or any aggression, I'm not sure how this things survived, be we let it go and it floated off. I saw it once more as I snorkeled around, but decided to keep my distance. It may have been harmless, but it was still creepy.

While we were swimming, Capt Boss and Taco Phil had lit a small tin of coals near the back of the boat, and had been cooking a few fish we had brought. We spread out our food on the table and had lunch. Liempo (Pork belly), Lechon Manok (rotisserie chicken), and something they explained as Filipino sushi. It involved some raw fish, a number of juices such as lime juice and soy sauce, and vegetables such as red onions and tomatoes. Of course there was rice called puso or "hanging rice" because it is packaged in an intricate weave of coconut leaves which are hung in bundles. My contribution was a bag of chocolate covered caramels. At least I'm consistent.

First 5: Swimming in the ocean without a life jacket

With lunch done it was time to move on. This time our ride was smooth, although still very loud, across much calmer waters. I don't think the water was ever more than 8 feet deep for the whole trip to the next island. As we approached I could tell right away that this island was a paradise island made for brochure covers. Like most nice beaches, it was privately owned so we stopped just shy of the buoys, but we splashed down onto a soft sandy bottom that you could see through the clear pale blue water. In this perfect environment, I thought it was time to test my swimming skills without a life jacket.
I put my snorkel on and I took a couple of strokes and glided easily through the water, which was strange, because my swimming has never been "gliding." In fact, years ago in Phoenix one simple demonstration of my backstroking skills had my wife busting a gut laughing. Never, she said, had she seen anyone backstroke down to the bottom of the pool. The truth is that I just tend to sink. But this was different. I floated easily. I credit two things with my unexpected success here. One, it was snorkeling, not swimming. The hardest part about swimming is the breathing part, and with a snorkel it is a non-issue. Second, I have heard that you are naturally more bouyant in salt water I don't remember all of the science behind it, but I believe it. I had no trouble floating around. With breathing and flotation solved, swimming is just the movement of arms and legs. I have been to enough of my kids swim meets to have the basics down there, so things went swimmingly.

As I snorkeled around, I noticed all kinds of little cylindrical depressions where crabs had made their homes under the sand. We found several large star fish, and Joanne even came up with a small, fat, cylindrical thing that was about 4 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. It was apparently alive. It was pretty gross, but she picked it up and passed it around. Those who were squeamish about unidentifiable squishy living things were taunted and tortured by those who enjoyed harassing both squeamish people and defenseless creatures. Overall, this was a beautiful spot.

First 6: Swim through a school of jelly fish

We decided to go to one more spot before heading back. Capt. Boss knew where there was more marine life for our snorkeling pleasure. We headed out to where the water was little deeper, but still only about 10 feet or so. It was enough to make pretty choppy still, so most of us stuck to using our life vests. I got in and started to snorkel around, and there was a ton of stuff to see. Starfish of all shapes and sizes, more fish, and other creepy crawlies. I saw to big tube things similar to what Joanne found, but these were 8-12 inches long. I was busy being amazed at what was below my, when I noticed a little white thing in the water in front of me. It floated in way that reminded me of a tuft of cotton from a cottonwood tree floating through the air. Then I realized that it was a small jelly fish. I tried to swim backwards (awkward, I know) to keep from running into it, when another one floated in front of my face.
I glanced around me, focusing on the water rather than the floor, and realized that there were tiny jellyfish everywhere. I didn't know what to do and froze for a moment. Then I realized that if I hadn't been stung by now I likely wasn't going to be. I got out of the water and others confirmed that there was a school of jelly fish, but no one seemed concerned, since they weren't the stinging type. It still bothered me though, and combined with the rough water away from the islands (it took a lot of work to control your motion here) I decided I was done swimming for the day.

Final Adventure

We wrapped up the day and headed back. We paused as we got back to our first stopping point and Capt Boss instructed us to tighten things down and told us where to sit to balance the boat. I realized that there must be deeper water between the dock and this first stop. Sure enough the roller coaster swells returned, and this time there was more whooping for fun than out of fear. To add to the drama though, our trusty boat/ship/vessel stalled twice on that last leg, making everything go eerily silent as the swells moved our little boat up and down. It isn't as fun without some real risk...

Back at the dock we cleaned up and unloaded our stuff, but our Jeepney that was to pick us up was nowhere to be found. We sent someone out to the main road via a bicycle driven sidecar-for-hire, and 20 minutes later we had a new ride. Back at the hotel I looked in the mirror to discover that my whole head was bright red, and starting to hurt. I had religiously applied sunscreen, but it seems impossible to get perfect coverage. There is just too much surface area these days. And with any great adventure, if you come back unscathed you didn't get your money's worth. And I prefer a sunburn to a shark bite any day.

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