Thursday, July 30, 2015

Exit COS Trip: Philippines

5:30am at Siquijor 

For our exit Peace Corps China trip Libby and I decided to head to the Philippines for our first stop. We set out on July 12th from Chengdu and arrived on the small south central island of Siquijor, Philippines the next day. There we visited a few PC Philippines volunteers to reflect on and draw differences and similarities between our services. Discovering the real challenges other volunteers face set some lingering tensions about our service to rest. I highly recommend COSing volunteers to visit active PCVs in other countries at their sites. A visit answers a lot of questions many volunteers are likely to develop about service in other countries while at site. 

First Mate unloading our kayaks from the bunka boat in El Nido

After Siquijor we headed for a small developing tourist town at the north end of Palawan island, El Nido. We did many touristy things, making us uncomfortable for most of the time: kayak island hopping boat tour, kayaking, tons of snorkeling, tons of motor bike riding, white sandy beaches with coconuts, and although not very touristy I snorkeled out to a deep, coral barren area and did a pinch of deep water soloing (climbing over water with only climbing shoes). 

Philippine sunrises are just spectacular

Nerd Alert!

Leaving Beijing:

Leaving China, Bye Bye from Beijing

We flew from Chengdu to Beijing to Manila to Cebu City, then a bus to the end of Cebu Island, then a ferry to Sibulan, then a trike ride (three-wheeled motorcycle, sort of) to Dumaguete Port, and then another ferry to Siquijor. Long travel, even with a daylong delay in Beijing, but Siquijor was worth every second of it. 

Hard to explain this view, but we are in the air at twilight

Siquijor Island:
Ferry to Sibulan hit rough headwinds 

Unspeakably Beautiful Philippines

Libby (and myself not pictured) skeptical about our first trike ride

There are three ways to travel on land on smaller islands in the Philippines. There are public buses, trikes, and jeepney. The public buses on the smaller islands can be rented out by locals, for a birthday party or something, and as a consequence, they bus might not show up to the stop on that particular day. Trikes (pictured above) are motorcycles that have been welded to a thin metal sidecar structure. We were told they are of Russian design and the designs are different on every island. Jeepney, is a private small-bus, likely owned by the driver. The coolest thing about jeepney and the trikes is that they all have custom paint jobs and metal work, themes ranging from Christian saints to anime characters. The last trike we rode was Batman themed. 

The treehouse we slept in

To arrange the offhand site-visit, I contacted our kind and magnanimously generous host, Sandra, through the PC Couchsurf Facebook group. In the group I looked for active PCVs in the region I was interested in traveling to and sent FB messages to all of the volunteers. Only one responded, so I recommend this strategy when your try a PC couchsurf.

When Libby and I arrived at Siquijor we were greeted by four volunteers. As volunteers come they were amiable, highly informative, passionate, cool, and a little nerdy. Unlike China, where we all teach English, I believe the four were broken into three different sectors: youth development, ________, and environment . Immediately we were lifted into Tagalog, dialects, food, habits, education, environment, economics, and weather. Hyper specific things that living on the island outside of the PC would be difficult to learn, for many reasons of perspective and intention. 

Old Church made of coral

On Siquijor all of the volunteers lived with host families. Sandra's family opened their doors to us. Gave us meals and shelter, which ended up being the new tree house they had built recently. Their wooden house sits on a hill above the ocean. Chickens cluck and cheep with snorting pigs and marauding dogs patrolling the lush property. A farm is one word for the place, but the well pruned bushes, mowed lawn, and clean sunlight reflecting off of every leaf and flower certainly detract from the grave images I have developed of farms in China. 

Inside the coral church

At the waterhole with coconuts

Keeping this short, on Siquijor two volunteers have coral gardening as part of their PC projects. Not long ago a typhoon swept the island clean of 94 percent of its coral, desiccating life in the reefs surrounding the island. Peer at the ground within a few hundred feet of the coast and you will probably see skeletons coral strewn by the typhoon. As part of their larger PC project, the volunteers dive, in real diving gear and plant coral, with the intention of regrowing the population, and possibly bringing the reef back to an equilibrium with the ocean. You might be pulling your hair out right now at the thought of their project, and you should be. Despite the reality of this project being underwater labor, there is no way you cannot make their project sound badass. Good people doing good things.

On the other side, despite the volunteers living in an imagined island paradise working one of the coolest jobs you could not think of, there are setbacks and challenges. I will not discuss my observations, but like China and every other PC country, there are highly complex cultural challenges that take significant time to even realize. The point being, at points, we all think we got it bad in the PC, many think service would be better somewhere else, but challenges in one place will still be challenges in the next. 

Libby and I got lucky with timing and came during the weekend of 'fiesta' in the county we were staying in. Sandra, being a great host, got us all tickets to the beauty pageant. I knew Filipinos loved Pacquiao like Job loved god, but I wasn't aware of the staunch affection for beauty pageants. A culture bound by beauty pageants is a culture I don't understand, for sure. Regardless, hundreds of people filled the auditorium, cheering at contestants' references to the Lord and developing tourism in the county. 

In the image above, there is a boy flying off a swing made of vine. This area is a popular swimming spot for locals and the little tourism that has touched the island. One great thing about the Philippines is all the water you would swim in, from rivers to sea, is hot. You never have that temperature adjustment period, it is always perfect. 

That time we rode on top of jeepney

Host brother

On the trail to the beach


For our last two days at Siquijor we went with some friends of the volunteers to a beach only known by locals in the area. It was discovered by locals after the typhoon that killed all the coral. Our plan was to snorkel, hang out in the sun, make a bonfire, and camp on the beach. 

At the beach I spoke with some of the local fisherman that came ashore. I asked them if there are less fish now than there was before the typhoon. They said the fish they catch now a re significantly small than they were before, but I am not sure this has to do with the typhoon. 

My first shot at night photography. Got lots of work to do. 

Light work

Light painting

We woke up at 5:30am for the sunrise. It was one of the most beautiful I have seen in my life. These photos have very little editing. 

Passed out on the beach after the sunrise

We had a great time on Siquijor. The beauty of the island was perhaps less important than us visiting other volunteers at their site. We are super grateful to all the volunteers and the family who hosted us.

 EL Nido, Palawan 
Bay near our hotel

Next we traveled to El Nido, Palawan. Palawan is known as the 'last frontier' in the Philippine archipelago. I am not sure what classifies it as 'undeveloped,' because it seemed just as developed as Siquijor. Regardless of its development status, El Nido was rated the number one tourist destination and island in the world by a handful of reputable travel companies, such as Tripadvisor and Conde Nast, and after going it is hard to argue with them. 

El Nido bay is where most of the hotels, hostels, and restaurants are located, where everything happens pretty much. What makes El Nido so great are its the white sandy beaches scattered throughout the small islands not far out of the bay. It is very much paradise, with coral and great snorkeling.  

Sunrise from our hostel

My only critique of the Philippines is of the food. Even though the flavors are highly complex, there is very little diversity by way of substance. Most meals are just meat and white rice (Adobo, pictured above). There are vegetables at restaurants, but they come in very small portions, some places don't even have them on the menu. My other issue is that if it is not meat and rice, it is sweet. Pretty much everything has sugar in it, painfully so. The lack of vegetables and I forgot to mention fruit is likely due to the archipelago status, but after talking to some locals about agriculture, they saw no reason why they shouldn't be able to grow vegetables on Palawan. I was told all produce comes from Manila, by ship, and if there is a storm and the ship gets delayed all of the produce rots on the ship and the island is left with no produce for a week. 

On our way to a waterfall. And men ride water buffalo in Palawan. 

Libby and I spent most of our time at El Nido riding motorbikes, snorkeling (7 times), on beaches, and kayaking. We have never done the average tourist thing before, and it was weird, so strange that I am pretty convinced we will never do it again. 

The only non-tourist thing we did was deep water soloing, and we barely did it. The only reason we went to El Nido was because I had read about a couple of climbers developing some deep water soling in El Nido in 2014. The idea is that you kayak out to the rock faces on the islands and then climb without a rope. When you are too tired to continue or slip you drop into the sea below. After kayaking out to the crags, we realized this whole thing was kind of ridiculous. When you get there your hands are super pruney and you are tired and sunburnt. The worst part is the rock. The rock in El Nido is extremely sharp. I did one route twice and left with a pretty nasty puncture in my hand. I asked the workers at our hotel about people DWSing in El Nido, and he said people have come before and tried to rent a bunka boat, even for crazy high prices, but bunka captain would take the risk. Unless you are a very very hardcore climber, I am positive a DWS trip it El Nido is currently unrealistic. To developers, there are a bunch of crags in El Nido bay that need developing. 

Dark red crabs live in the waterfall

We biked around the main part of the El Nido one day. It took over three hours but we saw the countryside

I haven't mentioned how hot it was in the Philippines. Not that we couldn't escape the heat in the shade, but we spent almost all of our time on the water, motorbiking, or in the sun pretty much. We didn't have one cloudy day in the Philippines, perfect weather, all sun and puffy white clouds, but after five days we were praying for storms. We were destroyed by the sun. We had to spend a day inside to recover. 

You just got to go. It is that beautiful

I got a flat. Luckily the mechanic was close

Even though beaches aren't really our thing, Nacpan Beach is extremely nice. Eat at Prince's Restaurant. The food is very affordable, and possibly the best food I had in the Philippines. The waiter there is unlike any other waiter. "The code of Palawan is: Smile everyday, everyday be happy."

Bunka boats

So much sunburn

This is a pretty common view in Palawan

Mentioning how Libby and I aren't comfortable with the whole tourist thing, we dug deeper and ended up getting a private kayak island hopping overnight tour. There was a three member bunka crew for the two of us. We would kayak between islands, snorkel, and then the boat would drive us long legs. Because we booked the tour through our hotel at El Gordo's Adventures, the crew has designed a trip that runs separately from all of the other tour boats. When you book a standard tour in El Nido, you are carted around with all of the other tourists, sitting on the beaches with all of them, but our boat hits all the spots when the boats aren't there, so it is very peaceful and you feel like less of a tourist. 

We camped on the beach. Sunrise. 

We kayaked through lagoons only accessible by kayak. When we were leaving tons of tourists started arriving. All the noise ruins the peace of the sanctuary. It is filled with sea urchins. 

Captain grilling a fish for us

One of the most amusing things about or trip was the question: 'Is she your wife?' Might be an Asia thing, but a guy and a girl can't travel together without the assumption of marriage. People would wait for Libby to leave and then pop the question. But, only when she was gone.  

The deck hand was very cool, I think his name is Muka

The las thing I want to express about the Philippines is my affection for the people. First, I must say the beauty gods favor the people of their country. But, more importantly they are super nice and they are always smiling. So many times in a nonchalant friendly way people walked up to me to just find out what I was doing. Hopefully I'll be able to return one day. All in all it was a great trip. Now for Thailand.

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