April in The Philippines: Malapascua

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Malapascua is a beautiful little island north of Cebu. I met up with Omar at Cebu city’s northern bus terminal for the 4 hour bus ride up. Following that was a short 15 minute boat road across and then this idyllic sight met us.

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We spent a good few days diving with Sea Explorers, a very good scuba outfit that took really good care of us. The board below shows Malapascua (right below the tresher shark) and the types of wildlife you can see there. It’s most famous of course for the thresher shark, but there’s lots of other stuff to see there too, like mandarinfish (mating ones at that!), blue ring octopi (which I didn’t spot), lots of other types of sharks and unusual stuff like hairy frogfish and harlequin shrimp.

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It was pretty fun except for the early morning dives, the earliest of which requiring us to be awake at 4.30am. These were to catch the thresher sharks as they came out early to the cleaning stations when the water was cooler. Here’s one of me and the dive guides at sunrise. I look uncharacteristically cheerful in this picture.

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So did we see any threshers? Yup, just one for a couple of seconds out of maybe four hours underwater for the dives we were down there. It was a pity but the rest of the diving made up for it. Omar’s blogged about the trip here and I think he’s done a better (and far faster) job of it.

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April in The Philippines: I Will Survive

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After two days of uneventful diving at Panagsama Beach in Moalboal my young, fairly incompetent dive guide asked if I karaoked and if I wanted to join him and his friends for a session that evening.

Alan, mysteriously called Noel by everyone in town, claimed to be 23 years old, but I thought he acted and looked more like 18. His mother named him Alan; he couldn’t tell me why everyone called him Noel. No, he wasn’t born on Christmas Day and neither did he join the dive shop that day. I alternately called him Alan and Noel just to have a little bit of variety. He was extremely quiet and grunty, which I attributed it to his not-so-great English and the fact that he’s barely finished adolescence. (“Will we see bull sharks?” *grunt* “You saw the whaleshark but you didn’t tell me!!!!” *grunt*) I tried teasing him to get him to open up a bit more, but it didn’t work, making it even more  boring than it already was. Hence my surprise at the karaoke invite.

I couldn’t figure out where Days Bar was, so I just headed out to the general vicinity of the dive shop and there he was, baseball cap perched just-so on his head, coolly tugging at my sling bag to get my attention. (He didn’t say much, remember?) He gestured across to a dimly lit room in a shack next to the bar. It had a karaoke machine that took5 pesos (about SGD 0.20) per song. Only his friend Boi, whom I’d met earlier lurking on the diveboat, was there. I felt like a cornered animal. Alan told me that the girls were working next door and would join us soon. Gulp.

Alan and Boi picked their favourite songs from the thick index listing songs from Pinoy favourites to English oldies to the latest-ish pop hits to even hymns and gospel songs (Great is Thy Faithfulness on karaoke anyone?). Alan then asked if I had change to feed the machine. I pulled out a handful of change feeling like their sugarmummy. Boi disappeared for a while and came back with a glass and a one litre bottle of Red Horse (extra strong!) beer. Apparently they needed a little help to start singing. Boi took a sip from the glass and then passed it round.

The first song Boi massacred halfway and then passed the mike over to Alan, who mumbled his way through the next verse and chorus. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable when the video screen showed lots of scantily clad bikini girls on a low budget shoot. Later, it turned out that there were only two videos that kept getting repeated. One involved the model dancing awkwardly on the beach with a fixed smile while doing the 70s double fist twirl. It then cut to another model on all fours lifting her leg in a porno-type pose and giving a suggestive smile. The second video was the entertaining one: first, a close up on a pair of warthogs, complete with tusks. A bikini-clad model posed nearby, inching away from the hoggy pair, smiling uneasily at the camera. I couldn’t help but smirk.

I was relieved that Alan and Boi don’t force me to sing. I kept telling them (quite truthfully!) that I didn’t know any  of the songs! They then announced that they were going to sing one of their favourite songs. I had an exercise in keeping my face straight when I saw the title “Don’t touch my birdie”. The boys sang with such gusto I really couldn’t laugh. They also scored 96% on the machine. See lyrics I googled below:

Don’t Touch My Birdie (apparently a popular Pinoy song)

Look!
Up in the sky!
It’s a bird! Aaayyy!
Bird Nga!

Kapag ako’y nababato
Pinaglalaruan ko ang birdie ko
Ang cute cute naman kasi
Kaya ko siya binili

My birdie is my bestfriend
Ang dami naming maliligayang sandali
Madalas ko siyang pinapakain ng birdseed
Mahal kita o birdie ko, ‘wag kang lalayo

Chorus:
Don’t touch my birdie
Resist temptation please
You don’t have to grab my birdie
Just call it, and it will come

Ang birdie ko ay nakakatuwa
Parang cobra na mahilig manuka
Kapag nilabas na mula sa kulungan
Tuloy-ttuloy na ang aming kasiyahan

Di naman ako madamot talaga
Ayaw ko lang na hinahawakan s’ya ng iba
Ang birdie ko ay medyo masungit
Konting hawak lang siguradong magagalit

Repeat Chorus:

Interlude:

It will come

Bridge:

Huwag ka sanang magalit sa akin
Tuwing ang birdie ko ay aking hihimasin
Sana’y maunawaan mo
Mahal na mahal ko ang birdie ko
Pati mga itlog nito

Repeat Chorus: (2x)

Coda:

It will come
It will come

Thankfully the girls appeared at this point. They worked at the bar next door and dressed accordingly though They were very nice, all friendly and curious where I was from and why I was travelling alone. They belted out the songs with great relish, leaving Alan and Boi only two more songs to massacre.

Another one of those keep-a-straight-face moments came when at the end of a Filippino song, Boi calmly told me that the song was “I swallowed it all.” Thank goodness I’d finished my own drink at that point! Boi elaborated to say that it meant the guy swallowed all his pride. Oh my.

The evening ended when we all ran out of change and I scampered back to my room. I survived Pinoy karaoke!

April in The Philippines: Ho Hum Diving

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It was time to get to the next main island. Not even considering a ferry ride now, I flew out of Coron on another one of those small propeller planes. The view was stunning as usual.

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It was my last propeller plane ride of the trip.

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My next stop was Moalboal in Cebu. The most interesting thing that happened was that I had tropical fruit pancakes for breakfast. I kid you not. Aside from the pancake place (very aptly called Last Filling Station), there wasn’t good food to be had in walking distance.

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The diving was boring, as I had a mediocre dive guide who couldn’t even take care of himself let alone me. He didn’t point out anything at all. Once he saw a whaleshark but didn’t even bother to signal me and upon surfacing asked me whether I saw it. (Obviously not.) When I spotted what looked like a blue-ring octopus (neon blue pulsing rings anyone?) he told me it was a fish.

April in The Philippines: Wrecks and Good Food

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Coron is less than an hour away by plane from El Nido. By ferry, however, it takes an eternity. I caught the morning ferry and only got there 10 hours later. Nothing much happened on the way, save that we saw an eagle of sorts kept as a house bird.

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The scenery wasn’t quite as good as that in El Nido. The limestone crags were still draped with lovely green, but the cloudy skies turned the water a dull grey-blue.

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We finally arrived as the sun was going down. Thankfully I’d booked ahead and the dive resort was right where the boat dropped us.

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Coron is famed for its wreck diving. An island surrounded by shallows, its warm waters are ideal for diving year round. It was this same shallow water that stranded a whole fleet of WWII Japanese warships and all of them went down under Allied fire. I didn’t yet have my underwater camera at this point, so all I have is this photo of the dive brief.

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I wasn’t particularly keen on wreck diving. All wrecks look pretty much the same to me and marine life on wrecks hardly seems varied enough to sustain my interest. I feel that wrecks, being dead things, are very unnatural and it’s quite spooky even in the day time to go there. The idea that people died there, that I’m diving a grave site is quite unnerving.

Obviously, I enjoyed mealtimes a lot more. The crew made excellent food and there was plenty to go round.

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Aside from the food, other things caught my fancy too. Here is the entrance to Barracuda Lake. The lake is enclosed within the island and to get there, we had to scramble up and down craggy rocks. Only some bits of the way was a proper path connected by wooden planks. And if that doesn’t sound hard enough, we had to do this with full scuba gear on. OK fine, so we hung the fins round our necks, but you get the idea. It was awful!

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The dive itself was fantastic though. I didn’t see the barracuda, later someone told me others had spotted it on the other side. What an experience it was! Fresh water running into the saltwater lake somehow forms a film on the top which traps heat from the sun. It results in (relatively) cold water of 30ºC at the top and warm water of 38ºC at the bottom. It felt like diving in a nice warm bath. I loved it. At 10m, there’s a halocline where salt water and fresh water meet in a hazy muddle. It’s really strange to pass through that transition. I saw the bottom at the shallower part of the lake and it was made of a strange kind of earthy, soft sand. You could dig your arm right inside and still not reach anything hard. Squeamish about odd encounters with the unseen, I only reached in up to my elbow. The dive guides told me that someone had once taken a photo with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich!

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As usual, the food was excellent, with fresh grilled fish at practically every meal. It was great.

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While we’re still on the topic of food, there was this great French place on Coron that served up amazing food, especially considering that we were hours away from freshly imported gourmet food. I had the booziest coq au vin ever, so full of red wine that I had to go back to my room to lie down before heading out to check my email and then head back Coron Bistro for some very good apple tart.

April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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April in The Philippines: Downtime in El Nido

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Morning at El Nido was a slice of tranquility compared to the hectic rush and relative bustle of Puerto Princesa. It was nice to wake up in a room of my own and not have anything in particular to do nor anywhere in particularly to go to. Except of course for a morning walk by the beach…

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… and breakfast in the company of this funny fella. According to my guesthouse owner, he bought the monkey from a rice farmer who was about to kill it. Monkeys are apparently pests in this area, especially to the padi fields in the area. All the monkey did was mooch about doing its own thing until it realised that breakfast was coming, then it screamed and got so incredibly excited about its plastic box of water and rice that it almost strangled itself  in the process. When I approached to take pictures, it was so defensive and afraid that I’d steal its breakfast that it was almost funny.

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After breakfast I went into town and wandered around. Deciding that a boat trip was in order, I headed into Art Cafe to make arrangements. If I wasn’t already convinced I was relaxing on holiday, the view from the cafe would do the trick.

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And then off on a boat it was!

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April in the Philippines: The World’s Smallest Airport

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The landing at El Nido was very smooth. The plane coasted across a strip of sea polka-dotted with giant white jellyfish, and dipped down onto a runway flanked by two low hill ranges. I should have expected it, but the sheer (lack 0f) size of the airport stunned me.

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Everything was done manually because it was so darn small, from the steps for passengers to get on and off to the baggage cart. Incidentally, I was the only one getting off the plane and I offered to carry my own bag to the arrival hall but I was waved away with cheerful grins. I then trotted off to the arrival/departure hall.

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It really was more open-air shack than airport hall. Low benches were the departure/arrival area. The check-in counter was but a rostrum with a manual weighing scale next to it. Both were covered with plastic canvas once check-in was done. It was lovely and relaxed chatting with the departing passengers, mostly western tourists. We exclaimed at how quaint and dinky the airport set up was.

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Of course this wasn’t quite the whole airport. The VIP lounge was at the back. In reality just a hammock strung between two tree trunks. Much of the time airport staff used it for their siesta.

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I gather that this here is the side gate of the airport. I don’t know where the meandering path goes to but it sure looks pretty.

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Seeing that there wasn’t a road in sight, I worriedly asked the friendly folks manning the counter how I could get to El Nido town. No problem was the answer: I’d just wait till the plane took off and then they’d open the runway gate. A trike soon came rumbling in and I was off on the next part of my journey!