Monday, May 25, 2015

Banaue Rice Terraces And The Ifugao People of the Mountains, Philippines

Trip Notes:

From Negros Oriental, we flew back to Manila.
We had booked a private car to take us to see the Unesco world heritage rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, located north on the island of Luzon, which is the largest and most northern island in the Philippines.

It takes about 8-10 hours drive from Manila depending on the traffic to get to the region of the rice terraces.
It is a very mountainous region with many tall peaks that the local tribes started cultivating two thousand years BC.
It took 2000 years to complete, with families adding more and more rice terraces down the steep mountain slopes, as the need for food increased.

Because of the very long drive, it was suggested to us that we should leave Manila at 4AM in the morning to avoid the horrendous morning traffic in the city.
We left our larger backpacks with the hotel and packed only small overnight packs for hiking through the rice terraces.

The drive north was very pleasant.
We had a minivan all to ourselves and were able to recline back and sleep until sunrise.
Our friendly and talkative driver Eddie, told us stories and observations about politics,  about life in the Philippines and shared with us local jokes. 

For example, corruption is rampant in the Philippines.
Eddie told us that there is a ban on logging and making furniture from the native Narrah  trees which are nearly extinct, yet still people cut those trees and invent all sorts of ways to transport them from the forest to Manila.

The most popular way is to just bribe the guards at the checkpoints.
Another way is to use tourist buses, which have been customized by removing all the passenger seats.
They fill those empty buses with Narrah wood, and pay day laborers to sit on the logs as if they were passengers, so from outside, the checkpoint police think that this is just a normal passenger bus.

Another corruption scheme is to buy votes for election.
The way that the person who buys votes can tell that the people he has paid have really voted for him, is by asking them to bring a piece of carbon paper to the voting booth.
The person votes on the original form, and also makes a carbon copy, and when he presents the carbon copy to the politician, the politician pays him.
A vote costs about 3000 pesos (about $67).

The day was almost unbearably hot, but as we arrived in the mountains, the temperatures were much cooler.
In this mountainous region, the traffic was light since most of the tribal people cannot afford cars.
Eddie told us that drivers drive very carefully here because of the free roaming chickens which often cross the main road.

Eddie said he always follows one rule that applies in this area: 
"Don't drive over a chicken, or you'll pay not just for the cost of the chicken, but also for the loss of the income from the eggs it could have laid, and for each of its unborn chicks."

In Banaue, we met Darwin, who was to be our local guide and accompany us on our hikes from village to village.

Darwin was a short and very strong man.
He has lived in this region all his life.
Darwin extended his hand for a handshake and asked us where we were from.
We said USA and NZ.
He looked at me with a doubting look on his eyes and said:
"You look like a person from Israel, you have that long face, and its something around  your eyes."

I was amazed, and asked Darwin how he had learned what Israeli people look like, since in most places in rural Asia, they have never even heard of Israel. When I have said that it is the country where Jesus was born, they say: "Oh, you mean that you are from Jerusalem."
They think Jerusalem is a country all by itself. 

Darwin said that Israelis were some of the biggest groups to come to see the rice terraces.
As he pointed to the mountains he said: "Over the mountains in Cambulo and especially in Batad, you will be able to eat Mallauach, Pita and Shakshuka.
The Israeli backpackers who have come here since the 1980's taught the local people how to cook Israeli food, and also how to make banana pancakes and pizza."

A private Jeepney took us up the mountain to the starting point of our hike.
Until recently, the hiking path was just a narrow mountain trail and the villages of Cambulo and Batad, were completely isolated.
If the locals wanted to buy supplies, or more likely to barter their rice and root vegetables in Banaue for sugar, salt, etc, they had to walk 4-5 hours each way to town. 

The expansion of this trail is still under construction by crews of workers living in tents made of tarps by the side of the road.
As we passed by them, we saw them cooking cabbages and slices of pork in boiling water, cleaning dishes or washing up with buckets of water.

Darwin who knew most of them, yelled out to them: "No time for love!" and they all laughed.
It is a private joke, that they work all week long on the road and only go home on weekends, which leaves them little time to court a girlfriend or to get married.

When we started our hike, the rain was coming down, making the patchy dirt road very muddy.
It was a bit difficult to navigate the muddy road between the huge potholes, which quickly became pools filled with rain. 
We did not bring raincoats, but Darwin supplied us with what looked like yellow rubbish bags, to serve as our ponchos.

I was happy that we were carrying our electronics in a dry backpack, and that we had folded our overnight  clothes in plastic bags inside the heavier backpack which Jules was carrying.

I was also glad that before we left Banaue, I asked Darwin to stop at a local shop where I bought arm sleeves to cover my arms during the sunny hike that awaited us the next day.
There, among a collection of goods and supplies to fit the needs of the local people, I found arm sleeves that look like they were designed not for hikers or cyclists, but for working in the rice fields.
Still, they will do.

Despite the heavy rain and the difficulties in navigating the muddy road, I felt elated by  the hike, the beautiful rice terraces, and the tropical scenery.

The Banaue rice terraces were carved into the mountains by hand by the Ifugao people, or the 'People Of The Mountains.'

When we reached Cambulo, it was nearly dark.
We walked through the village and saw the traditional houses which were small one room Pyramid shaped wooden structures, with either a thatched roof or metal roofs.

The houses (called Bale) are built on high stilts to deter rats from climbing up.
The people enter the house through a wooden ladder which is pulled up at nighttime.

The traditional Bale houses for the upper class used to have carvings on both sides of the door of humans or animals, carved from wood or tree ferns (called Ponga in NZ.) 

It is a one room house with an attic in which they stored the rice supply for the whole year.
The whole structure could be disassembled, and reassembled in another location. 
They almost look too small for human habitation.
Initially, Jules thought that they were storage rooms, but we could see kids and grandmothers inside, smiling toothlessly at us.

Our guesthouse in Cambulo was a very basic operation.
Not well built and not very clean, it offered low level plywood rooms with no shower and a shared toilet.
If you wished to shower, you had to use a cold water bucket in the toilet room.
We saw nobody take such a shower beside the local kids, who bathed this way outdoors the next morning, as the sun warmed the day.

The place was busy with backpackers from England, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, all dining in the restaurant and chatting away.

There was only one sink in the place to wash our teeth.
It was the kitchen sink which had a hose with fresh spring water from the higher elevations in the mountain, and had no faucet valve to turn it on or off; it continuously flowed into the kitchen sink.
I had to move aside the dirty dishes in order to brush my teeth.

My initial reaction was an objection to the idea of sleeping on bedsheets that clearly had not been replaced in weeks.
They had no washing machines and the village was not clean.
The pathways were full of discarded candy wrappers.
Some of the more creative girls were taught how to make little purses from those candy wrappers, and we saw them weaving strips of chips bags or of candy wrappers into small, charming wallets.
I bought one in order to encourage them to keep the village clean and to make something good out of discarded trash.

Despite being repelled by the sleeping conditions, I had to remind myself that this is the difference between anthropologists and missionaries.

Missionaries come and tell the people that their ways are WRONG and then proceed  to "educate" the natives by teaching them the "right" way to do things.
They tell the people that their beautiful naked bodies are to be covered with "modest" clothing and how to worship the God of the missionaries.

Anthropologists come to observe the natives' ways of doing things, and with a spirit of admiration, they LEARN from the natives.

Anthropologists who come to learn and observe, live and sleep with the natives, the same way that the native do. 

Even though I have not studied anthropology formally, I have read many of the fascinating accounts of anthropologists who have lived with tribal people all around the world.

Much like Alexandra David-NĂ©el, (October 1868 – September 1969), who was a Belgian-French opera singer who became an explorer, a spiritual seeker, a Buddhist, and a writer who lived in Tibet while it was still a forbidden kingdom, I too count myself as an unaffiliated global anthropologist.  Like her, I do not go around the world in order to just observe; I do so as a spiritual journey through the landscapes of our beautiful and fascinating planet.

I resigned myself to the basic living conditions and encouraged Jules, who normally is less adaptable than me, to do the same.
He took it in good spirits and we placed our small towels on the pillows and made sure not to use the blankets which clearly were NEVER washed.

The menu of the restaurant had some promise.
They offered only tourist-food, which in these parts of the world, mean chocolate  banana pancakes, pre-packaged instant noodle soup, eggs, rice with vegetables, the Israeli Mallauach on fried or handmade pita.

We ordered a variety of dishes with the hope that some of them would be edible; most of them were not very good.
Still it was fun to sit among the backpackers and to listen to many of the conversations around us.
At times, we could not resist a chuckle at some of the unexamined ideas that many of those young people held.

For example, a conversations between an Italian man and two backpackers from England:

Italian man: "Do you eat a lot of fish and chips?" 

English woman: "Not really, but I do sometimes."

Italian man: "You shouldn't!"

English woman: "Why, because it is full of calories and is unhealthy?"

Italian man: "No, it is because it is all made in China nowadays."

English woman: "What do you mean? Many places use local fish."

Italian man: "I don't think so... But maybe, even if the fish is local, still they ship it to China to fillet it and return it to England to fry and serve as fish and chips."

English woman: "That is crazy, why would they do that?"

Italian man: "Because it is cheaper!"

English woman: "You do realize that fish and chips cost only £5 right?

Italian man: "Trust me, it is cheaper to ship the local fish to China and fillet it, then ship it back to the UK! I KNOW what I am talking about!"

While we were eating, a local women came by, asking us if we wanted to get a massage in our room.
I thought that it would be fun and suggested that Jules try one.

The woman who came to massage Jules was a woman we had passed on our hike that afternoon.
She was then on her way to plant rice in the rice terraces.
It was already 8:30 in the evening and she had worked all day in the fields.

I gave her some rose and bergamot essential oils to massage Jules with, instead of the baby oil she had brought, and because she loved the smell so much, I poured most of what I had into one of her empty bottles to take home.

She told me she had three kids and that life in the mountains was very hard.
She tried to make an extra income from massages, but not many backpackers went for it.
They travel on a budget, or just do not think she was good enough as a massage therapist.

Untrained, she turned out to be a great massage therapist, and I agreed to get a massage also.
I asked her to concentrate on my back and legs, which were achy.

There, in the dark room with barely room for two single beds and a window, she told us about her life.
She told us she was born and lived in these mountains all her life, and that she has never left the region, not even to go to Manila.

She asked if I had any kids.
I said that I do not.
She said that in this region, you must have kids, so they will take care of you when you are old and unable to work in the fields any more.

The concept of making ANY money during a lifetime, is very rare, since they are used to just bartering rice or squash that they grow on the terraces, or wild bananas that they forage, for whatever they need in town.
After thinking awhile while working on Jules' back muscles, she added that she believed that she must be kind to her children even when they are young, so they will stay with her and take care of her in her old days.

That reminded me of an account that I once read about missionaries who introduced the concept of the Ten Commandments to some tribal people.

In order to explain to them the concept of "ONE GOD," they told them that God was like 'Divine Oneness' which encompasses all.

After hearing the Ten Commandments, two of the tribal woman said to themselves:

"That doesn't sound right.....Why would Divine Oneness ask us to 'honor your father and your mother' when it is something that ALL people do naturally.
Children LOVE and HONOR their parents naturally...."
Lady number two answered: "Maybe Divine Oneness meant to say to the parents, 'Do not treat your children badly or make them lose respect for you!... Yes....That sounds  more correct..."

Jules Wrote:

Back to Manilla, and on to Banaue

It was time to bid a very fond farewell to Dauin, and to prepare for the final leg of our introductory visit to the Philippines.  We returned to Manila Friday early in the afternoon, but by the time we made it through city traffic and arrived at the H2O Hotel, it was already dinner time.  The H2O Hotel is part of a complex that also houses the Manila Ocean Park, and its claim to local fame is that one wall of many of the rooms, the wall that would ordinarily be without windows, is part of the aquarium, so it has lots of tropical fish swimming freely in it!  

We didn't have much time to enjoy the fish, though, since we had to repack our backpacks and get some sleep.  Our final Philippine adventure involved a nine hour drive north, to trek to and explore the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces of Banaue and Batad villages.  

The drive was to start at four in the morning, so that we would arrive in Banaue by lunch time.  Our driver, Eddie, was right on time, and so were we, thanks to a 3am wake-up call, even if we were a little bleary-eyed!   

We really appreciated being able to take a private car for this trip, since the only other alternative was the public bus, which leaves at 10:00pm, and drives overnight, arriving in Banaue at seven in the morning.  
A few years ago, we had heard that one of these buses had a mechanical failure in its braking or steering systems, and wound up at the bottom of a ditch, with quite a few injuries.  In addition to being a very safe driver, Eddie was also pleasant and informative, good company for the long journey, with lots of interesting tidbits of info to share. 

After we completed the first half of the drive, on the expressway, we started to climb through the mountains, on a winding two lane road.  We passed through many small to mid-size villages along the way, whose residents were just beginning their days.  Everywhere there were rice fields, with water buffaloes that are used to help with the hard farm work lounging before their days also began. 

Just as in most of Asia, there is a vibrant community life on display in these villages, since residents of all ages live their lives as much outside of their houses as inside.  The sense of community is reinforced by constant interaction with one another day to day.  It's so much more alive than in many parts of America, where people live indoors, in front of their televisions or their computers so much of the time, isolated from one another.  
Up in these mountains, Internet and cellphone service are intermittent at best, so you don't see too many people walking around glued to their phones!

We finally reached the town of Banaue, the gateway to the rice terraces, at about 2 pm.  
At the entrance to the town, there is an arch welcoming visitors, and around it are sculptures carved from the black wood of the fern trees that we call Pongas in New Zealand.  
The Ifugao tribes of people, who have lived in this area for thousands of years, have a very rich and creative culture, and woodcarving is just one of their many talents.  

The Municipality of Banaue is one of the eleven (11) towns of Ifugao and one of the five (5) provinces of the Cordillera Administrative Region.  It lies on the northern most part of Luzon island, surrounded by steep mountains up to about four thousand feet high.

The Ifugao people in this area began building stone terraces for the cultivation of rice at least four thousand years ago, and the gargantuan task of constructing these stone terraces took them about two thousand years to complete.  

This whole area is so steep, that a system of terraces was really the only possible way to cultivate the land.  The need for terraces was recognized by the Ifugao at a time when no tools or beasts of burden were available to help them in their construction.  By hand, they removed all of the rocks from the mountainous soil and carved them into the size and shape they needed to make terraces.  Then they carried each rock up the steep mountainside to place in the terrace they were building.  No wonder this process took two thousand years to complete!  

It is not surprising that the Banaue Rice Terraces are a Unesco World Heritage Site, a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines, and are considered to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World by many Filipinos.  When the First Lady of the Philippines visited this area in 2002, she was so impressed by the Ifugao people and the terraces that she directed the national electric company to bring electricity to these small villages for the first time. 
Before that, the Ifugao had been living with no electricity and only a very rudimentary sewage system.  

We met Darwin, our local trekking guide, in the center of the town of Banaue.  Eddie was going to stay in Banaue and wait for us to return, in two days' time, to drive us back to Manila.  
Darwin was considered to be one of the best and most experienced guides in the area, and his lighthearted manner made us immediately feel comfortable.  "It's not my tour," he told us right after we met, "It's your tour, so just relax and enjoy yourselves."  
Since Darwin was a member of the Ifugao people, I felt that he would be a great source of local tradition and customs.  

We boarded our private, brightly painted jeepney for the ride partially up the mountain trail that would eventually take us to the tiny mountain village of Cambulo, our stop for the first night.  
Cambulo and other mountain villages around it were until recently only accessible by hiking four or more hours from Banaue along narrow walking paths. 
Life in these villages was almost completely self-contained, and a bartering system was used to swap locally grown produce for necessities such as salt and sugar.  
A year's worth of rice, cultivated here, was stored in the locals' pyramid-shaped houses, raised almost two meters up off the ground to prevent infestation by rodents.  These pyramids, with either thatched or aluminum roofs,  looked to me just like large, bright tents from a distance.  

There is a four year road building project here that is now in its second year.  The original narrow dirt walking path has been widened, and Cambulo is now accessible by jeepney, which runs once daily in the morning from Banaue, and returns to Cambulo once daily in the late afternoon.  

The path widening has produced a muddy, uneven path for us to walk, however, and just as we were starting out for the three hour walk to Cambulo, it began to rain.  Darwin had a couple of thin plastic ponchos for us to put on, fortunately, and Tali carried a waterproof pack, while everything in my pack was wrapped in plastic bags.  We slogged through, enjoying the occasional spectacular views of rice terraces, the quiet of the mountains, and the dense growth of flowering and fruiting trees all around us.  

After about three hours of walking, we arrived at our guest house in the tiny village of Cambulo, a bit muddy, most definitely wet, but otherwise fine and in good spirits.  
Darwin explained to us that Israeli backpackers have been one of the most frequent nationalities visiting this area since the 1980s, along with French and German trekkers.  
The Israelis showed the local owners of the guest house we are staying at tonight how to make Israeli and global backpackers' food, like pita bread with tomato and onion and banana pancakes, so there wasn't much local food on the menu for us to try!  In fact, most of the food was of the pre-packaged noodle variety, reflecting perhaps the very basic kitchens available to the cooks.

We sat in the dining area, along with half a dozen other backpackers from Europe, and enjoyed our simple fare.  While we were eating, a local woman approached us and asked if we would be interested in a massage.  After carrying my heavy backpack, I didn't need much convincing!  She came up to our very simple bedroom and gave me a surprisingly good massage, while telling Tali and me about her challenging life as a mother of four children in a very poor village environment.  
She spoke about insects eating the rice which they farm in organic methods and do not spray, about birds or rats eating their rice in the fields and about living with no money.

Tali even decided to have a massage after mine was over, and her sighs of relief at having her sore calves and thighs worked on, led to a good night's sleep for us both.  

I love this kind of adventure, despite the very simple room and board, and lack of any shower other than a bucket.  
It's physically challenging, new and unexpected, and a great opportunity to mix with and learn from people from very different cultures.  
I looked forward to the next day's trek, from Cambulo to Batad, which would offer the most spectacular views of the rice terraces.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Casaroro And Pulangbato Waterfalls And Hot Springs, Valencia, Negros Oriental Island, Philippines

Casaroro And Pulangbato Waterfalls And Hot Springs, Valencia, Negros Oriental Island, Philippines 

In the hotel garden outside our apartment, stands a large mango tree that is hundreds of years old.

Its fruit are small and round, and if we are lucky enough to find some fallen mangoes before the ants get to them, or the groundskeeper rakes the area, we are treated to a culinary delight.

I estimate that we have eaten five mangoes per day since we arrived on Negros Oriental Island.
We eat fruit for breakfast, accompanied by one of the resort's breakfast specialities, a large plate of fruit for lunch, and after our lovely dinners by the seashore, we skip the sugary desserts and I make us another fruit plate for dessert in our apartment.

I love the slow pace of island life... Picking up fallen mangoes, swimming with turtles or diving with tropical fish, eating by the seashore, and the natural friendliness of the islanders here who really are curious about how other people live around the world.

I love diving and would do it often, but I also wanted to see the island beyond the sea.

We chose to visit the small mountain town of Valencia and its surrounding area.

The town itself is small and somewhat charming, but beside the market, the church, and the Central Park which runs through town, there is not much to see.
The beauty of the region is in the surrounding areas. 

We drove on a narrow, recently paved road up the mountain.
An active volcano was emitting sulfur smoke from the rocks by the road, which were colored ochre red and black, by the mineral deposits.

Chito was our guide for the day.
Chito is 36 years old but he looks like a twenty year old boy who still lives with his parents.
In fact, he is a widower with a twelve year old son.
His wife passed away when she gave birth to their son.
Chito lives with another woman, and they have just had a baby together.

Chito told us that traditionally, families in the Philippines lived together for life.
The children stayed with their parents, their grandparents and the sons' new wives; everyone lived together, adding rooms to the main house as the need arose.
The daughters usually move into their husbands' family's homes.

Nowadays young people choose to live alone if they can afford it.
Not many can afford it.
Rent is expensive, and buying new land and building your own home is getting more and more expensive for the locals, as more foreigners are choosing to come to live on these islands.

Forbes Magazine has rated Negros Oriental Island as one of the world's best places to retire to, and the Philippine government has made it easy to get residency statue for those who wish to make these islands their home. 

The owner of our lovely resort is an English woman named Gaby.
We met her one morning as she kissed her little children goodbye on their way to their local school.

Gaby told us that besides owning the resort, she also runs the local elementary school and that they have 22 kids, all from expat families who live in Dauin.
The school complies with the curriculum of schools in England, and the kids must pass standard exams sent to them from England as well.

Gabi and her partner do an excellent job, not just in running a first class resort with a fabulous dive shop that operates four boats, but also in generously giving back to the community.
Every day Gabi feeds 30 local kids from the resort's restaurant.
Guests of the resort are invited to join the kids if they wish to do so.

We drove past the town of Valencia into the mountains.
The mountains are covered with tropical vegetation and rivers and streams run from them.

I could see small farms, with their charming traditional houses made from a wooden frame with thatched roofs and walls made from strips of bamboo and woven banana leaves.

Chickens and pigs run in the backyards and small triangular chicken coops dot the gardens. 
Chito told me they use these chicken coops to raise roosters for the Cock flights that take place every Saturday and Sunday.

Our first stop was Casaroro Falls.
At the entrance to the trail we met a couple who live in Melbourne.  They used to live in Christchurch, NZ, and for many years in Hong Kong.
We chatted awhile about our lives and about each of our traveling plans in the Philippines.  
They warned us that the steps down to the falls are a tough descent.

There were 330 high concrete steps going down.  
The view of the river and the surrounding hills was magnificent.
I saw large bamboo, coconuts, Lychee trees, breadfruit trees, Jackfruit trees, Mango trees, Banyan trees and an array of tropical ferns and flowers. 

When we arrived at the riverbed, the river was wide and full of boulders.
Rock clambering is a fun part of hiking.
We had to climb over and between the boulders and to cross the river a few times, jumping on very slippery rocks.

Yes, I slipped a few times when it started to rain, but we carried our cell phone and money in a dry sack so nothing stopped us from having a terrific time.

The waterfall was beautiful, but the day wasn't hot enough for me to swim in the cool pool that gathered beneath it.
We saw a foreigner who came with a bar of soap, jumped into the water and started to soap himself.
I thought that perhaps he was camping somewhere and has no access to a shower, but Chito said that he thought that the man just liked bathing in waterfalls. 

From there, we started to climb up the 330 high steps, and huffing and puffing, I made my way to the top.
Jules was already waiting for Chito and me, since he is so used to climbing many steps in our home in NZ.

Chito asked me how old Jules is, and how come he is so strong and healthy.
Chito's own father is younger than Jules by four years.
Chito said that his father looks much older than Jules and that he drinks too much rum,  making him not very healthy.
Chito said that he used to give his father a part of his salary every week, but that he no longer does so.
Instead of seeing his father drink himself to an early grave, he just brings him groceries when he comes to visit him.
Chito said that his father started drinking too much after his mother passed away four years ago, and that his father aches and misses her very much.

From Casaroro we continued on to Pulangbato Falls.
A popular picnic and bathing place for the local since the falls are easily accessed by a car.

There were a few smaller waterfalls and cold water pools with kids playing in them.
Many of the kids waved enthusiastically at us and some adults came asking to take their photos with us.

The families had come for the day to enjoy the cooler mountain air, the cool pools and the scenic waterfalls.
They brought coolers full of food, fruit and cold drinks.

Again, I felt amazed at how warm, generous and friendly they all were, and I felt that if I lingered a bit under their covered picnic area, they would offer to share their food with me.
Since I do not like to refuse nor to overeat, I did not examine their interesting cooking.

At Malungcay, there were a few small hot spring pools on both sides of the road.
We soaked at the "Red Rock Hot Springs," which used to be just a family's private pool, but now they have expanded it to welcome the public.

It is a small hot spring with mild temperatures, but it is very pretty and scenic.
Chito brought a cooler with watermelon and mango for us to eat.
There was also a small shop on the premises, and I bought some corn on the cob and handmade cassava and yam chips.

I was given a taste of one of the local dishes made of boiled Breadfruit, which they dip in a paste made of salty fish mixed with chillies, lime and chopped tomatoes.

I loved soaking in hot springs and I left Jules and Chito to talk about life, while I floated around in the hot spring pool.

I looked at the volcano and the remains of the black ash that had recently spilled from its peak.
I felt so connected to the earth and to everything around me... So blessed... So euphoric.

My mind wandered....

Why is it that we fight one another on this green earth?

Why is it that we do not stop to enjoy this beautiful place, and the abundance of interest and bounty that it offers us?

Why is it that we narrow our vision to see what is missing in our lives, and not recognize our many blessings and our connection to one another and to the Universe?

I cannot really describe the feeling that seeped into me at that moment, because I have not had enough time to process it yet, but it felt like a combination of simplicity, humble gratitude and expansion into the surroundings.

My consciousness was not focused on that speck of life form called Tali, but was free and vast, one with all.

Jules wrote:

Day Trip to Valencia And Mount Talinis, Negros Oriental, Philippines

On our last day in wonderful Dauin, we decided to see a little more of Negros Oriental Island, by taking a day trip into the mountains.  Our destination was the small town of Valencia, located about 30 minutes' drive from Atmosphere Resort.  
Our guide for the day was Chito, the expeditions manager for the hotel.  

Valencia is a pleasant village, nicely laid out with a fresh produce open-air market, a spacious park called "Central Park," and several large public swimming pools, which attract lots of locals and visitors during the hot summer months.  

We slowly drove through town, passing a few resorts offering zip line adventures and ATV rides in the forest on our way, as we continued up Mount Talinis to the entrance to Casororo Waterfalls, Negros Oriental's most photographed waterfalls.  

It was a brief climb up a dirt track before we reached the entrance to the path to Casororo.  It is a descent, down about 330 concrete and then metal stairs from the roadside, which is midway up Mount Talinis, to the valley, and then through a gorge which has the river flowing through it.  

The gorge is beautiful, with a rainforest feel, and dense mixed growth that includes bamboo, banyan trees and many varieties of native fruit trees.  
Typhoon Sendong tore through this area in 2011, destroying the concrete walkway that once led from the bottom of the steps over the river, and strewing sizable boulders, all the way to the falls.   

Post-typhoon, the waterfalls are only accessible by clambering over and around all of these boulders, and crossing the river several times by stepping on mostly submerged rocks.  
The clambering is precisely what makes visiting it so much more of an adventure than it probably was before the typhoon hit.  

Chito, Tali and I all managed the bouldering and river crossings well, despite the slipperiness of the wet rocks.  
I thought back to when we first starting hiking these kinds of rocky and slippery paths during our travels.  

It was in Japan a few years ago, and at that time I was much more tentative in clambering over slippery rocks.  
I would try to cautiously think out each step to take, and I would actually wind up walking with clumsy and heavy feet.  
Now I have a new model in my mind for how to approach boulders like these.  
I move more instinctively, quickly and lightly, and it seems much easier and more effortless than it was then.  

We continued up river, crossing from side to side, depending on the path that the Typhoon had left available.  
Soon, we were in front of the beautiful Casororo Waterfalls.  
It is a narrow, but tall falls, about 30 meters in height, with the water cascading dramatically into a cold water rock pool.  
Tali thought about taking a dip, but once she felt the temperature of the water, she quickly reconsidered!

The climb down the stairs and across the boulders was challenging, but reversing our direction now required those 330 stairs to be climbed.  
After admiring the falls for a while, we started in, retracing our steps down the river bank, towards the ruined walkway.  
Soon, a light drizzle quickly turned into a downpour, as the rainforest received a drenching.  By the time we were at the base of the steps, we were soaked, but the rain had stopped, and the sun came out again. 

Our house in New Zealand is built into a steep hillside, and we have constructed a wooden stairway of about 60 steps from our driveway up to the uppermost level, where the kitchen is.  
Every week, we carry our bags of groceries, household items, LPG tanks or building supplies, up those stairs - sometimes 8-10 trips in all.  
So we were well prepared for this climb up Casororo's steps! 

Our next stop was the Pulangbato Waterfalls.   
Pula is the native word for "Red," and Bato, for "Rock," and this waterfall is aptly named, because the minerals in the water have turned the rocks bronze in color.   

It is much more accessible than Casororo, and also much shorter in height, but its red color is striking.  
This is a cold water waterfall, but the man made swimming pool nearby is warm, and it was packed with happy locals.  

When we showed up, they greeted us with cheers and screams, and two young guys even wanted to pose for a picture with us!  The warmth of the local people here is genuine and spontaneous, and I have rarely felt so welcomed.

Red Rock Hot Springs, a bit down the road, started out as a hot springs pool for a family living in the area.  
As more and more of their relatives heard of the therapeutic value of the volcano-heated mineral waters in this area, they also came to bathe, and the family expanded the pool.  
Now it is open to the public, and it offers warm mineral hot springs bathing in a beautiful setting.  

We stopped in and enjoyed the heated waters, then sat near the pool in a bamboo gazebo and snacked on fresh fruit and locally grown corn on the cob.  

I had a long conversation with Chito while Tali enjoyed the hot springs pool, each of us sharing some details from our lives, finding connections between us, despite our very different paths in life.  
Chito, who is now 36 years old, has a twelve year old son from his wife, who died in childbirth.  
He has been with his current partner for almost ten years, and they now have a six month old baby.  

Twelve years ago, when the misfortune of his wife's passing occurred, Chito had just begun his career as a dive instructor.  Back then, there were many fewer dive shops around Dauin than there are now, and work was hard to find.  

Chito had to work from early morning to late at night six days a week, and so he was unable to care for his son by himself.  He arranged for his son to live with his parents, and he saw him only once a week, at best.  

By the time that Chito had met his new partner, and was doing well enough to take care of his son, a few years had gone by.  His son was now attached to his grandparents, and was not so comfortable with his father and his new partner.  Chito told me that despite his best efforts to make the boy feel secure and happy, it has been a difficult relationship for him ever since.  

Chito feels that, at the age of 36, the book of his life has been written, and it is filled with struggle.  I shared with him my feeling that this book is constantly being rewritten, with new chapters, and different endings than we can even imagine.  
Chito is talented and intelligent, and I told him that his future looks bright to me, if he chooses it to be so.  


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Diving in Apo Island and Dauin, Negros Oriental Island, Philippines

Trip Notes 

It is only a short flight from Manila to Dumaguete, located on the southern coast of Negros Oriental Island.

On the flight over, we met Marilia, a friendly college girl who was on her way to visit her father, who had moved to Dumaguete from Los Angeles.

Marilia has been a global citizen, starting at a young age, and has the easy going laughter and personality of someone who knows how to connect to people.
Her mother is a Brazilian, who moved back to Brazil after her parents divorced.

Marilia's mother had seven brothers and eight sisters.
"They did not have TV or internet in those days" Marilia joked, "Or they would not have been so busy in the bedroom all the time."

Of course there was also the Catholic faith, which prohibited her grandmother from taking birth control pills.

There are 7107 islands in the Philippines including the Spratly Islands, which the Chinese claim as theirs.

International Boundaries and Water laws say that any island up to 200 nautical miles from the shores of a country, is considered to be its territory. 
The islands are 150 nautical miles from the Philippines, but China has claimed that the sea is called "The South China Sea," which is a tacit admission that the islands are theirs.
China's need for oil and gas has prompted them to already send oil rigs to the islands and to seize control over them, despite protests from both the Philippines and the United States.

We chose to spend some time on the southern tip of the island of Negros, where we heard that the diving and snorkeling are very good.
We chose to stay away from Boracay and the other famous islands, which attract loads of tourists.

We landed in Dumaguete, and our resort sent a car to pick us up.
It is amazing how much 'island living' shapes the people who live on islands.
You will not see much difference between remote island life in the Cook Islands or Indonesia, or in Thailand, and here in the Philippines.
The people eat similar food like rice, fish, coconuts and tropical fruit, they all dress for the heat in a similar manner, and they spend their days doing similar activities.
Along the way I saw a large billboard sign attempting to educate the island women to "Practice Safe and Responsible Motherhood."  
The sign said: "Do not get pregnant if you are too old, too young or too sickly!"

I guess that is a health department initiative to try to stop the births of too many newborns with birth defects, or extremely premature, tiny babies.

I also saw a sign saying: "Be honest with others even if they are not!
If you are not, others will not be also!"

We asked our driver to stop at a fruit market, and we loaded our bags with an array of tropical fruit.
I only pointed to what looked good to me and let the driver do the talking for us.

He shopped the way islanders buy fruit, not the way we normally do.
He bought kilos and kilos of mangoes, bananas, pineapples, melons, yellow watermelon and a small fruit called Sariguellas (also Siniguellas) which we have never had before.
It has a purple outer skin and bright yellow flesh.
It tasted like a cross between an apple and a mango.

When we were done, Jules commented that we had enough fruit to start our own fruit stand.
Luckily, in our resort we had booked a large one bedroom apartment which had a full size fridge.
We got organized in our comfortable apartment and took an early evening swim in the pool. 

Before dinner, we attended a presentation about diving in Apo island presented by a marine biologist named Daniel who has moved here from Orlando, Florida.

Global warming and massive typhoons that tear up the coral reefs, have left very few places around the world where diving is absolutely amazing and sea life is abundant. 

Another major problem is that the natives on many of the remote islands around the world have overfished the sea.
Many use sad and destructive fishing methods.
They have used cyanide, which poisons everything in the sea from live coral to fish and every other sea creature, to dynamite, which blasts the reefs and everything living around it.

In Apo island, right off the shore of Dauin where our hotel is located, the natives started a program with the help of a University of Manila professor, who promised them that if they were to create a marine sanctuary, they would actually increase the number of fish around their island.

Before this program started, there were almost no fish left near the shores of Apo, and fishermen needed to go farther and farther into the blue ocean in order to find fish.

The idea of a marine sanctuary creating more fish in the sea is that if the islanders protected an area of 450 meters by 500 metes of reef on which they do not fish at all, the fish and sea life population in this sanctuary will grow SO much, that the overflow will spill out into the rest of the shores around the island.

It was also explained to them that they must ONLY practice safe and honest fishing methods with nets or hooks, and not with dynamite nor cyanide.

The result is that Apo Island nowadays boasts one of the most beautiful live coral reefs in the Philippines.

On my first dive, I dove twice at two different dive sites in Apo Island.
The first dive was around the lush coral garden and the second dive was a "Wall Dive" in which we drifted along a sea wall full of coral and sea creatures.

I was the only one diving with two dive masters on one dive, and on the other dive, another woman joined us.

From our resort, it took only 45 minutes on the 30 foot outrigger boat to get to Apo Island.
The sea was calm with no swells.
It is my absolute dream come true to find a place that is so relaxed and beautiful, with rich and interesting sea life but without the massive amount of tourists that normally come to dive.

On the next day I did a muck dive combined with a dive in an artificial reef in Dauin.
I was the only diver with a dive master called Noel, and Daniel, the marine biologist who came with his huge macro camera.

For those of you who do not know, a "Muck Dive" is a dive along the sandy floor of the sea, where there are no corals.
At first, it might look like there is nothing to see, but on closer inspection you see some of the most alien looking creatures on earth.

For the first time ever, I saw 8 different sea horses.
I have seen some in aquariums, but never on a dive.
Those were pretty large sea horses of about twenty centimeters in length. 

The Seahorses had long thin snouts enabling them to probe into nooks and crannies for food. When they find food they suck it up through their snouts like a vacuum cleaner. Their snouts can expand if their food is larger than their snout.

They eat small crustacea such as almost microscopic Shrimp or tiny fish which I saw swimming around them. 
Adults eats 30-50 times per day. 
Seahorse babies eat a staggering 3000 pieces of food per day.
Sea horses do not chew their food, they swallow it and the food is digested in their stomach. 

Excuse me for elaborating so much about the Seahorses, but for me, this was a very exciting day to be able to see so many Seahorses in a dive.
I saw a green one, a few white ones, a pink one, a few purple ones and a silver one.

I thought they come in different colors, but as it turns out, Seahorses change their color very quickly to match any surroundings in which it finds itself. 
They have even been known to turn bright red to match floating debris.

Seahorses pair for life. 
They meet early in the morning and celebrate their bonding with an elaborate courtship display.

The female meets the male in his territory and as they approach each other, they change color.

The male circles around the female and the pair often spiral around an object.

This display can last for up to an hour. 
After the wedding is over, the female goes back to her territory.

A male Seahorse is the ONLY creature where the male participate fully in the pregnancy. 
The female transfers her eggs to the male, and he self-fertilizes the eggs in his pouch. 
The number of eggs can vary from 50-150 for smaller species up to 1500 for larger species.

The embryos receive everything they need in the pouch from oxygen to food. 
Gestation time varies from 14 days to 4 weeks. 
Giving birth can be a long process with contractions lasting up to 12 hours.

Baby seahorses live totally on their own. 
They spend the first weeks of their lives drifting along in the plankton layer of the ocean. 
Only a few become adults due to predators.

I saw Seahorses seating on the sand with their tails curled around a grass seaweed to prevent them from being washed away by strong currents and waves.

The live coral reef in the area has vibrant colors and so many interesting sea creatures that are rarely spotted, like the 'Frog Fish' with its large feet and funny looking frog face.

The frog fish sprouts a lure from his head.
He waves the lure to attract fish and when a fish approaches, he jumps and swallows the whole fish. 

I saw large turtles, a white lobster, black and white sea snakes, schools of colorful fish, many clown fish, and spotted Nudie Branch, which look like large snails without their shells but with a flower growing on their backs, which is actually their gills.

I saw the odd couple called "the Goby and the Shrimp."
It is one of nature's symbiotic relationships which might seem odd, but is actually beneficial to both species.

It is a supportive relationship between a goby fish and a blind shrimp.

The pistol shrimp builds a home for both itself and for the goby, by digging a cave in the sand with its small claws.
The goby fish provides protection to the blind shrimp while it excavates their home from the silt and sand; the fish look out for predators. 

The shrimp also maintains the home if it were to be damaged by currents or storms or if the walls of their burrows collapse.

The shrimp places one of its tentacles or antennas on the tail or the fin of the goby.
With specific flicks either up or down, or left to right, the goby warns the shrimp of any danger.

The ocean is SO fascinating with so much to see....

On my second day of diving, I wasn't excited at first to dive an artificial reef, since I heard that it was built from truck tires only two years ago.
But this artificial reef is a major conservation success. 

The tires were tied two at the time on the top, and are open wide on the bottom.
They were placed on the ocean floor to form many small pyramids.

Only two years later, they are completely covered with live colorful coral.
Large schools of tropical fish swam everywhere.
This dive site exceeded all my expectations with its beauty.
And.... No other dive boats were around.

When we returned to the resort, a waiter met us at the seashore holding a tray with fresh mango juice and ice water for me.

Another plus in this resort is the food.
It is awesome, and I do not say that lightly.

Yes, there are ordinary dishes on the menu to please Western taste buds, but we did not eat any of those.
For breakfast they made especially for us Buko rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with Guimaras, the yellow island mangos which are one of the sweetest mangoes on earth.

For dinner we had some of the islands' specialities mixed with Malaysian food.
It was truly awesome. 

From our many travels, we wised up to dining only on the kind of food that island chefs really know how to cook.

If you order a burger or a salmon sandwich or a pizza in the islands, do not expect it to taste as good as what you are used to in your country.
On the other hand....
Chances are that the locals know how to make their own food very, very well.

We LOVED our food and it was also nice to wear the summer dress I had just bought in Manila, and to sit outdoors under the stars by the ocean and eat.

We have sworn to return to the Philippines, and on our next trip, to free up more time to explore and dive more of the islands.

And if you are reading this:
Please please please do NOT tell your friends about this place!

Jules wrote:

South to Negros Oriental Island 

Before we checked out of the Manila Hotel to fly south to Dumaguete, I wanted to get an idea of the hotel's rich history.
I asked to view the three-bedroom MacArthur Suite, located on the fifth floor of the original hotel, which was built in 1909, and opened on July 4, 1912.  

The MacArthur Suite is named after General Douglas MacArthur and it served as his residence while he was the Military Advisor to the Philippine Commonwealth during World War II from 1935-1941.  
When the Japanese occupied the Philippines at the start of the Second World War, they set up their military command in the Manila Hotel, and a Japanese flag flew over the Hotel for all of the war.  

During the battle for the liberation of Manila, the Japanese set fire to the hotel, with only the shell of the structure surviving.  Everything in the MacArthur Suite, except for two massive arm chairs which somehow survived the fire, is a careful reproduction of the pre-war hotel's furnishings and design, so it still conveys the feel of the grand residence that the controversial General had while he served as Military Advisor here.  

During this brief but fascinating tour, we were told that this historic suite is available for rent and that many famous entertainment, political and literary figures have stayed here.  

We soon met our taxi driver and headed for the domestic airport to catch our flight to Dumaguete Airport, our gateway to the snorkeling and diving marine preserves around the small town of Dauin, in the province of Negros Oriental, about a ninety minute flight from Manila.  

On the flight, we talked with the young woman sitting next to us.
She was returning to Dumaguete for the first time in three years, to visit her father, an American who has retired to the small mountain town of Valencia, about a twenty minute drive from the airport, where he owns a banana plantation and a backpackers' accommodation.  

She was currently completing her university education at an American college located in Panama, and she also visits her mother, who lives in Brazil, quite frequently.  
Tali asked her who pays for all her travel around the world, and she said that wherever she goes, she gets a job and works.
She has no problem getting jobs.

We could see that this girl was so adaptable and easy going.
It's amazing what a multi-cultural upbringing does for a person - we have met many people like this girl, who demonstrate wonderful poise, a good sense of humor, and the intelligence that comes only from personal experience - there's nothing else like it!

We were picked up at the airport by a friendly staff member from our hotel, Atmosphere Resorts and Spa in Dauin, two towns south of Dumaguete, just a twenty minute drive away.  
We stopped to buy some fresh fruit at a local market in town, before going to our hotel.  
There was a big selection of locally grown mango, melon, banana, pineapple and several other fruits we had never seen before, and all at very low prices.  In just a few minutes, we had selected everything we could possibly enjoy during our four day visit to this area.  

The resort itself is wonderful, as we discovered on our introductory tour of the facilities.  
Our one bedroom apartment has a fully equipped kitchen, a large comfortable living room, a comfortable bedroom, and an outdoor seating area.  

The property is long and relatively narrow, with a large swimming pool, an outdoor bar, and the restaurant occupying the space closest to the beach, and the accommodations stretched out among the mango, lime and flowering trees of the garden area.  

The dive shop is run by employees of the hotel, including two marine biologists, and is right in between the bar and restaurant.  
We signed up for a day-long diving and snorkeling trip to nearby Apo Island for the following day.  
Later, we ate a wonderful dinner, including a yellow Thai curry served inside of a young coconut, a Malaysian Mee Goreng with fresh prawns, and a delicious fish prepared Philippine style with coconut milk, mango and local herbs.  

We feel so happy to be here, at this small, friendly resort, not crowded or rushed at all, with great accommodations, great food, and as we discovered the next day, great snorkeling and diving!