Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mexico of the East

Ahhhhh the Phillippines. I knew precious little about this large smattering of islands except that the beer was cheap, the women possessed a fiery spirit, my buddy college has set up mercury testing in a fish plant out here, and the indomitable Filipino warriors of old warranted the US government's invention of the robust .45 caliber handgun round because previous calibers had proved ineffective in stopping them. I ended up not seeing to much of Manila as I was pretty much bed-ridden for the first 48 hours we were there but Pat relayed some valuable information from his forays into the wild. "It's hot, there's people sleeping everywere, people want money from you, weird 1/2 jeep/bus things driving around, bar girls are aggressive, I've never had more girls say they "like" me, I met two crazy Filipinos, are you ready to go out yet?". I got the basic was hot, but with very little humiditiy which was a welcomed relief from Thailand and Indo. We decided to leave after 2 days as we wanted to see some of the beaches and maybe get some diving in so we booked a flight to Boracay further south and peaced out. After an hour in the air, we negotiated a tricycle (scooter attached to a carriage with another wheel added on) to a ferry, and then another tricylce to the "White Beach" 3 kilometers long where all the hotels and restaurants were. Boracay is a pretty small island with its western side entirely devoted to tourism. Given that, the long beach was still very clean and the water looked epic (colder than anywhere else we'd been though).
After wandering with the "travel agent" who'd attached himself to us (this happens in Asia) we found a legit hotel with a nice pool and settled in. The next 4 days consisted of living the touristy beach life: quart-sized Long Islands served in jars, reading by the pool, late breakfasts, Pat got in some dives, dinners on the beach, outdoor club drinking with young Canadian doctors on some kind of philanthropic mission, some great Indian food, making sure that happy hour was observed religiously, watching cockfighting on tv set to the Enter the Dragon soundtrack, and counting the number of older (50+) white men with younger (less than 25) Filipinas. There was a lot. We made it to a couple pretty deserted beaches, found an actual deli that served actual sandwiches (almost impossible in Asia), but still decided to ignore out return flight to Manila and seek out Puerto Galera instead. We thought we would be checking out the Calamian Islands to the west and their legit wreck dives (lots of Japanese ships sunk during WWII) but after talking to a Spaniard who'd just been there late one night in a club, we decided against it.
Turns out it wasn't as easy to get to Puerto Galera as we'd first thought. Ferry, van, & sketchy night tricycle we arrived 8 hours later at 11pm to a few circuitous streets filled with restaurants, stalls, dive shops, and bars (I've been to worse places....). After promptly finding a hotel and settling in, we decided that the rest of our night should be judiciously spent in the bars. We were well received, had an enjoyable time, and took it as a sign of things to come.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Though this is madness, yet there be method in it.....

After leaving the Rajat Ampats, Pat and I decided to make our way to the Phillippines while Josh elected to return to Thailand. We flew from Palua to Makassar to Jakarta to Singapore (in one day) which allowed us to spend some quality time in the Jakarta airport bar with a Belgium guy who was adamant to explain to us how/why/etc beer from Belgium was by far the most superior of beverages known to mankind. We landed in Singapore around 10pm and were immediately taken aback by the quality of the airport. I'd known Singapore was very modern, English-speaking, exceptionally clean, etc but we just weren't prepared for it. Brilliantly lit corridors led us to baggage claim where our bags were already on the carosel (never happened to me before) and was a stark contrast to arriving in Palua where we were informed that Pat's bags hadn't made the flight because it was too full and that we should return the following day to collect them. This is standard practice when flying to Papua we were told..........

After using the free internet at the airport McDonalds as well the the automatic hand santizer dispenser in the elevator, we grabbed a taxi and headed for town. After a couple tries, we found a small hostel and decided just to crash. By far the worst accomdations we'd stayed in so far as it was simply a room with two small beds and AC but we passed out pretty fast. As an aside, many hotels in Asia will ask you how long you need the room for and are often surprised when you say the whole night due to the prevelance of the sex trade here.

As we had a flight to Manila in the afternoon, we spent our few hours in Sing wandering around by the river the splits the city in two, had lunch with a good friend of mine (Paul Candy) who is currently working for my old company in their Sing office, and Pat finally found an underwater housing for his camera to take some pics of our next dive. Like parts of Indonesia & the Phillippines, Singapore has a large number of malls and is a shopping destination for many tourists as two Swedish girls told us as they were buying an extra bag in order to hold the shoes they were about to buy. Sounds familiar.

Now one of the main reasons for us to visit the Phillippines was to discover (as the guide book said) if they truly did have some of the cheapest beer in the world. Allegdely, San Miguel (the pride of the Filipino Nation) can cost as little as 50 cents US and by God we were going to confirm or deny. The flight in was uneventful except for an hour from arrival in Manila I started getting ridiculously cold chills and began shivering. This was not good. I didn't have anything I could put on as my everything was in my checked bag and so I suffered through the next hour until we landed. Upon landing, I even had difficulty walking as I couldn't control my shivering and luckily was able to pull it together enough to make it through customs where everyone was promptly handed an H1N1 Virus notice which pretty much described my symptoms........awesome.

After putting on a longsleeve and asking the cab driver to turn off the AC, we made it to a decent hotel where I suffered a long night of feverish sleep and awoke in Manila, Phillippines.

Constantly Asia

Couple things I've noticed during the last few months that are present in every country and city I visit.

Hammering - yes that's right, everywhere I've stayed there is some sort of hammering going on throughout the day/night. It's like the this entire part of the world just discovered their dad's tool box and are convinced that everything can be built/fixed with a hammer

711 - omnipresent, these green bastions of familiarity & comfort are even more prevelant than in LA.

Soccer - at least 2-3 channels in every place that we've stayed (that had a tv) are devoted to soccer 24 hours/day. I'm definitely a fan of the "beautiful game" and being able to watch Premier league at all times is most entertaining, but local Filipino teams floundering around on a brown field might not need to be televised.

Akon - yep, he's worldwide

Where have all the trash cans gone? - I really don't know but they've hidden them somewhere. With trash strewn about in many countries in SE Asia, you'd think a simple answer would be get some trash cans, but then I guess you'd have to figure out how to collect the trash, etc and municipal services are not this part of the world's strongest attribute.

Some random observations....

Sunday, March 7, 2010

It Continues.........

A 12 hour overnight ferry from the Togeans to Gorontalo in the north of Sulawesi followed by a 6 hour car ride finally got us to the "major" city of Manado. I think one of the reasons the diving in the Togeans is still so good is that it takes you at least 2 days of uncomfortable travel to get there, thus keeping out the rif raf. Now Manado is primarily used as a jumping off point for diving in Bunacan & has a fairly decent airport but no one really comes here to stay, but we needed a break. We were pretty beat by the days of travel, diving, hut living, & decided to treat ourselves to the nicest hotel we could find......The Quality. Think of a 4-star hotel in the States where people open the door for you, pull out your chair at breakfast, are super helpful and friendly, free internet, amazing free breakfast buffet, and with very nice rooms & bathrooms (this was huge after no hot water for a week), all for the very reasonable cost of $55/night. The next 3 days where spent enjoying all the comforts of the Quality, exploring Manado's huge number of malls (of all things), $4 haircuts that included a shampoo & scalp massage (que ganga!),Indo teenagers posing with me so they could take pictures, & except for a random night out with 3 sisters in some weird smoke filled club, we generally took it pretty easy while planning our next move. Jake took off for Cambodia leaving Josh, Pat, & I to figure out how to get to Papua & the Raja Ampat Islands next to Papa New Guinea.
We had heard the diving in the Raja Ampats was not to be missed as some scientist had set the record last year for greatest number of different species of fish recorded on one dive, 283, and that parts of the area are a protected national park which helps as well. Upon further research, we learned that many people that visit Papua usually charter a live-aboard boat for at least 7 days in order to access the outer islands and more remote areas you wouldn't be able to do from a land-based dive operation. The cost was a little out of our price range ($3K minimum) so we decided to just go and figure out where we would stay on the fly (pretty much our MO so far). The flight over was pretty amazing as you get to see all these tiny green islands set in the middle of the ocean, some inhabited & some not. One small island even had a volcano smoldering with a town built directly at its base. You really get a sense of how vast Indonesia is with its 1000s & 1000s of islands spread out everywhere and one could easily spend a year exploring as many as possible.
A quick nights sleep, another ferry, & a short boat ride found us at Raja Ampat Dive Resort and another bungalow. Now this bungalow was a little nicer than those in the Togeans but still with all the familiar characteristics of an Indo island bungalow: mosquito nets, limited eletricity, insufficient fan, toilets flushed by pouring a lot of water from the tub next to it, cold water/no water, set 20 feet from a small white sand beach on a fairly deserted tropical island in the middle of nowhere. We arrived and immediately set off to squeeze in a sunset dive as it'd been about a week since our last submersion (heaven forbid!). Saw some cool fish and reef sharks but it was getting a little dark as we came up at the end and we were fairly close to small island & cave from which small, dark, shapes kept exiting. After a few mins we realized that the hundreds of winged-creatures were bats coming out at sunset to start hunting. We had a goddamn batcave on our hands & these things were all headed straight to the main island (our island) to wreck havoc for the rest of the night.....perfect. Our dive guide was unfazed and didn't really even seem to notice and I couldn't help but think, "Poor bastard, wait till he sees those goddamn bats."
Anyway, we were only sharing the resort with one other guy, a Swede in his early 40s so we had plenty for dinner and the food was better here than in Togeans. Its a little weird to actually have to wait for dinner or lunch and not eat when you want to but you get used to it and they were very generous here as we were pretty much the only guests. 2 more dives the next day saw a school of 15 devil rays, some sweet eels, 6ft reef sharks, lunch on an awesome tiny beach on some random island, & stories from the Swede about diving in & out of cages with Great Whites in South Africa and being on a mission to swim with schools of Hammerheads (guy was gnarly). Now the nights here were similar to those in Togeans due to the fact that there is some shit going on. Basically there is always something falling and hitting your roof or some aninal shrieking or fighting with something else. A bright yellow lizard fell out of a tree and almost landed on Pat's head as we were heading back to the bungalow one night. The locals blame most of the noise on something they call "Couscous" which they described as "a monkey, but not a monkey".....way to clear that up. We asked about the possibility of setting up one of these "Couscous" to take a break from its busy, nocturnal, fruit-throwing regiment to fight a couple of the bats we'd seen earlier but the locals didn't seem to get the appeal.
We dove Manta Point the next day and, you guessed it, there were Manta Rays! We chilled on a sandy bottom and watched 3 big Mantas (maybe 7ft across) slowly "fly" around us. They got about a 1ft away from Josh and he was able to get some pretty amazing video. Very majestic and just so cool to watch especially when you're so close. There are also smaller "cleaner" fish that swim directly next the Mantas & remove dead skin, parasites, etc. Because we were so close, they also started messing with some of the divers......the Swede got bit twice in his ear and Pat swears one of them shot air into his ear & messed it up for the next dive, haha. We also found a decent sized octopus and chased him around for awhile until he squirted a couple clouds of ink at us, changed colors from purple to black, and peaced out under some rocks. Another animal that is fairly bizarre looking and really fun to watch. We surfaced to a decent rain storm and took refuge on an island to do our safety spot between dives, lunch consisted of cookies (pretty standard really), and then back in the water. The next site had huge schools of decent-sized Jack & Barracuda mixing together, always impressive, as well as some big eels swimming around which was very cool as they are usually hidden in rocks and only a small part of them is visible. Pat also found some weird looking type of frog fish which we really couldn't find in the Fish Book and so dubbed the new discovery the Sultan Dong Fish.....look for it soon in National Geographic.
It was still raining on the way back and as luck would have it, we ran out of gas about 3 mins from the resort. The dive guys didn't bring enough gas! We had to sit in our wetsuits, trying to stay out of the rain, while they attempted to reach one of their guys on a cell phone (reception is horrendous out here & half the time people don't pick up anyway). Luckily it only took them an hour to get it figured out and send out another boat with gas and we chocked it up as just one of the travel experiences.........stuck on a tiny dive boat, at sunset, with no gas, no food, in the rain, praying some guy picks up his phone. That night at dinner, one of our dive masters told us he'd seen 3 smaller crocodiles swimming in front of the resort about 2 months earlier as well as a diver the previous year at another resort having a croc bit his head while on a dive and his buddy having to stab it in the eye until it left! I guess there are worse things than running out of gas.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Togean Islands, Sulawesi, Indonesia

We wanted more diving. We wanted it to be good. So why not go to the middle of nowhere. That's what we did. Flew from Bali to Makassar at the bottom of the weird "K" shaped island of Sulawesi and spent the night after a fairly authentic fish dinner involving: choosing your dead fish from a tub (gotta pick the fresh ones), having a rat charge you while choosing your fish, ordering random sides from a menu you can't read, realizing by the dish of water they bring that you're supposed to eat with your hands, being unable to finish the massive bbq'd fish (I even got the small one) they bring you for $3. A quick flight to Palu in the center of the island the next morning and then we hired a van to take us to the small town where you catch the ferry to the Togeans.
Sulawesi is definitely off the beaten track for tourists as there's not too much here to interest most people. There's some diving in the very south and at the very top of the island, but not much else besides the Togeans (which are such a bitch to get to) that attracts travelers. We were a bit of a spectacle as people in most parts of Sulawesi don't see a lot of white people from what I can tell. After consulting the Lonely Planet & the opinions of various cab drivers and locals we determined that the drive would take anywhere from 6-10 hours. Oh boy! 9 hours of RURAL driving, some of it in the rain, on less than reputable roads, eating nothing but weird cookies & chips, we finally made it our jump off point around midnight. Up at 8am we were able to catch the 6 hour ferry to the Togeans.........
There are only two "resorts" in the Togeans, Black Marlin & Paradise. We opted for Paradise as we'd heard it was a little nicer and run by a crazy Swiss-French dive master who'd been there for 15 years. Now "resort" is an interesting word and can have a variety of meanings. Here, it means wooden bungalows with lots of cracks, leaky roofs, power from 6-11pm, mosquitos galore, spiders, rats, random noises all night, lots of rice & fish, but it also means insanely gorgeous terrain & epic diving. For one thing, the water here is so calm & warm its insane as the Togeans are located in the very center of Sulawesi & are proctected from most swells & storms. We'd come up from dives in shallow water sometimes where the water temp had to be mid 70s at least. We did 7 dives over the next few days but our most memorable ones were the 2 at the Atoll & the island of Una Una.

ATOLL- an atoll is an island of coral that encircles a lagoon and in this case it was a straight wall of coral about 10 stories up from the sea floor. At about 25 meters you would look up a sheer cliff & feel as if Dale Chihuly (or maybe Jerome Baker) had affixed glass-blown vases of every color to it. Huge, huge coral fans, "vases",fish everywhere, large overhangs you could swim under and even a small cave to swim through. Also a sick narrow canyon we got to descend through to start one of the dives. The coral here is the real star and I've never seen anything like it in terms of size and sheer numbers. Amazing

UNA UNA- The next day our 2 dives were at this island about an hour by boat. On the way we saw Marlin breaching & flying fish looking like they'd just been thrown out of the water. If the star of the atoll was the coral, the star of Una Una is the fish. Lots of really big fish. We swam with schools of Jack & Barracuda (700-800) about 3ft long swirling around us. You could look up and see the Barracuda forming a kind of huge, silver, shimmering funnel to the surface. It was really something to see, all these fish moving together in perfect unison forming these crazy forms with light streaming down through the water. Also, 6 gigantic Napolean fish and some big Grouper as well. Very cool and a perfect compliment to the beautiful coral of the atoll the day before. Probably my favorite dives of the trip

Link to some facebook pics.......