Monday, December 19, 2011

Walking with Elephants

Look! She's floating!
Have you ever wanted to see elephants in the wild? Not chained or caged up, but actually behaving like elephants should? Me too! Well, if it's your dream to walk with elephants, then The Elephant Valley project, based in Sen Monoron, is somewhere you might be interested in visiting.

 The NGO - E.L.I.E ( Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) was the dream of a Brit named Jack Highwood. After working closely with elephants in Thailand and learning the techniques of a Mahout (ma hoot), an elephant keeper, he found his calling in eastern Cambodia. The elephant population in Cambodia was quickly diminishing as the elephants were worked to death either from heavy labor or from constant tourism (elephant ridding). Jack recognized this and decided to do something about it. He created his NGO and pushed to have it registered with the Cambodian government, realizing his vision in 2006. 

"E.L.I.E.’s primary goal is to improve the health and welfare of domestic elephants in Mondulkiri Province. The secondary goal is to work with the people and the problems that face them."      

 In 2007, The Elephant Valley Project was created in conjunction with E.L.I.E. As the domestic population of elephants aged and began to die, they were not being allowed to reproduce. This was creating an obviously tragic situation. Instead of traveling from village to village to look after and give medical care to the elephants, Jack and his team decided they should bring the elephants to them.

"Elephants are able to generate a large income for the impoverished indigenous peoples, but in many cases the elephants are not receiving proper care. E.L.I.E. has seen elephants that are dehydrated, emaciated, over-worked, abused, and some that should clearly be retired but are forced to continue to work because of the large income they create. Since the creation of the E.V.P, we’ve been able to bring the elephants used in logging, hunting, and tourism, out of villages where there are bad working conditions, and employ the mahouts, their families, and the elephants at the project, which allows the elephants time to rest, recuperate, and escape human activity."

Stinky butts...
 And that's just what E.V.P. did! When we arrived at the project we made our way down into a lush valley appropriate nicknamed "elephant heaven". Before long the gentle giants emerged from the thickets of bamboo chomping happily away, just the way an elephant should. During the day they are free to roam around, to forge and socializing with the other elephants. Although the project's current 9 elephants are not technically wild, this is the next best thing to re-introduction to the wilderness. Since the elephants have been domesticated and have no fear of people we were able to walk beside them, touch them and even help to bathe them in the river! 


E.V.P has short and long term volunteer opportunities available, a better moral option to taking an elephant ride or trek. Of course, all of the proceeds go to the continuation and growth of E.L.I.E. We spent the rest of the afternoon doing some work around the camp, pulling invasive weeds and assisting in the expanding construction of the project.

I won't say too much more about the project because you can find heaps of info already on the website and on the project facebook page. What a great way to experience the World's largest land mammal, combining Eco-tourism with the conservation and welfare of these amazingly burdened animals! Way to go Jack and the rest of the team!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Laos Video

Laos, although still suffering from a turbulent and war-torn past, is a quiet, peaceful, country in the heart of Southeast Asia. Whether Wat-hopping in Luang Prabang, a  UNESCO World Heritage Site and the late Capitol of the Buddhist Kingdom of Lao, or taking in the easy climate and  atmosphere along the Mekong in the south, It's prime space for catching up on "soul time".

Check out this short video of my travel through the country:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Market

Flower H'mong flood the streets.

In Bac Ha, east of Sapa, is a weekly Sunday market that we had heard was an event not to miss. This was an understatement. 
We step off of the bus into a street filled with color. The Flower H'mong are in town and with them they have brought beauty in every direction.

Raw meats, waiting for buyers

We stroll through the bustling market, the town's major source of commerce. All around, people are socializing, negotiating prices, and eating varieties of fresh foods.

Deep fried rice snacks
The meat market catches my eye, fresh cuts of beef, pork, chicken , and other four-legged mammals, are spread over large wooden tables. The sight would be a nightmare for a health inspector in The States. There's a commotion as men crowd around a table, apparently bets are made on how many hacks it will take to cut through a piece of pork. 

Goods and money change from hand to hand and everywhere we look there are people enjoying the weekly occurrence.It's more of a social event, it seems, than anything.The local tribes have all concentrated here and the combination of the colorful market goods and the striking outfits makes the scene worthy of a masterpiece. I can't take enough pictures. 

On the hill above town.
 On the hill above the market is where animals, primarily water buffalo, are inspected by picky buyers. I feel a remorse for the large beasts of burden, as they wait to be purchased,
but they will spend their days working in the surrounding hills, and will subsequently be well fed.
Selling herbal medicines.
After browsing for three hours, and reveling at the variety of goods, I imagine that anything a person could need would be found here. From fruits and vegetables, to coffee and spices, herbal medicines, to handmade clothing and jewelry, meats and live fish, tools and contraptions, everything is in surplus.
Surplus of veggies
Baby sleeps while Mom eats Pho.

In the center of the excitement are 100 or so tables all owned by different families. Fresh noodle soup, the infamous Vietnamese Pho, is being served to the patrons sitting at the tables. Meat is cut
right from a fresh hog leg and put into the soup, ladled from a giant pot boiling over open flame. Small limes are squeezed over the soup and small hot peppers and pepper sauce is added for an extra zing. We sit and enjoy the food and the scene simultaneously.

As the afternoon turns to evening, the crowd disperses and people pack their goods to go home. By dark the streets have metamorphosed from a flooded, chaos of color, to a sparsely populated, average mountain town.It's hard to beleive that we are in the same town that was home to the most dazling local market Iv'e ever seen. The week will surely pass with uneventful daily routeins. It's quiet now, until next Sunday.

Among the H'mong

In the rice-terraced mountains surrounding Sapa live a number of indigenous tribal peoples. The H'mong, Red Dzao, and Zai tribes populate the area and can be seen in town selling their woven handicrafts.

The terraced hills near a H'mong village

A Flower H'mong Woman
Nyui works on a shirt she is making
All of the women are clad in brightly colored traditional clothing and are adorned with beautiful jewlery and wrapped    headdresses. History is preserved in their appearance and the contrast between the traditionally dressed women and the surrounding French architecture is a unique spectacle. We meet a H'mong woman named Nyui. After talking for a short time we negotiate a price for her to guide us through the hills to stay in her village.


A river crossing
 The next morning we follow our guide out of town and down the steep slopes to the river valley below Sapa.The rice has already been harvested but the terraced hills still provide breathtaking views. It's as if we've take a trip back in time. Water buffalo wade through the terraces munching away at grass and chickens, ducks, pigs, and barefoot children run around, freely, through the villages. It's slow, village life.

Nuyi's two daughters study Vietnamese.

We cross the river and follow Nyui, climbing and zig-zagging up the opposite side of the valley until we reach her house, nestled between the terraces, with streams running past on either side. We meet her husband and her children, two girls and a boy. Nyui works on a shirt she is making, the children spend the day and evening playing and doing schoolwork. We relax, Cozette and I enjoy the view and or surroundings.

Baby on board.

 For lunch and dinner we eat pan cooked pork, greens of some sort (Nyui didn't know the name) , and rice. The food is cooked entirely over a fire pit dug into the floor of the dimly lit home. It's delicious. After dinner we're offered rice wine, a strong, pure, alcohol, made from the grain. We go to sleep early.

The next morning after breakfast and after the children have gone to school, we set off to visit another village before walking the 10 kilometers back to Sapa. The experience has been truly priceless and Cozette and I are on a high as we say goodbye to Nyui. Our stay in the terraced H'mong village has been a humbling experience that neither Cozette or I will be able to forget. The people are living as traditionally as possible in this day and age, and to have the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a H'mong family, we both agree, has been extraordinary.

Flower H'mong


One of the more innocent street peddlers.

We fly into the chaos that is Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. In the streets motorbikes flow like blood through the arteries of the city. The backpackers ghetto is in an area called Pham Ngu Lao. It's busy with hagglers pushing over-priced foods, massages, pot, and prostituted sexual acts, among other things.

insense burns in a quiet pagoda in Ha Noi

  We stay for a few days, long enough to meet some friends, then we flee the city by train to Ha Noi, in the north. After a 40 hour journey we step off in the more relaxed atmosphere of Ha Noi. A central lake in the Old Quarter of the city provides a scenic backdrop for the citizens to do early morning calisthenics or for evening strolls, post dinner. After exploring the narrow picturesque street, we have depleted the activities to do within the city.

Views along the river.

  We take a day tour to The Perfume Pagoda, an area named for it's many fragrant, blossoming trees. Along ride by bus, and a more enjoyable, beautiful ride, up river in boats paddled only by women, put us at our destination. The hills are filled with a number of pagodas built in classic oriental fashion. The most impressive, The Cave Pagoda, is fond at the very top of the mountain, two and a half kilometers up the stairs. The enormous cavern is very impressive and was home to many Buddhist monks before it was, bittersweetly, discovered by the tourism industry.

Traffic in Hanoi:

In the hills of the Perfume Pagoda.
We return to Ha Noi and board an
overnight bus to Sapa the next day.

Sapa, within shouting distance of the Chinese boarder, is a serene mountain town, first colonized by the French. It's 1650 meters above sea level and the cool, misty air is refreshing after spending time in the heat of the low-laying coastal areas.
View near Sapa, looking into the valley.
The pace and pushiness of the cities is exhausting. Finally, in Sapa, we relax and slow down. Ahh, this is Vietnam...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Philippines with no Reservations


I enjoy traveling through developing countries, like the Philippines, much more than the high profile "first world" sort. Some may see the country as less clean or less technologically advanced but I find that there is more beauty in the people and more opportunity to have a truly memorable, altering experience in such a country. If you can look past the dirt and pollution and rather look into the eyes of the people, you will find these places to be more welcoming than even your home town.
Along with these opinions above, there are some very concrete benefits to traveling in a country like the Philippines. 

A Jeepney in Tacloban City
The public transportation here is impeccable. Buses and Jeepneys travel from town to town on a regular, frequent schedule. In towns and cities motorbikes, tricycles, multicabs, and taxis are in high supply. Even bicycle drawn cabbies are cursing the streets in small towns. Frerrys take daily trips between islands with close proximity and less frequent trips to further destinations.
Accommodations run from five-star quality to very basic. A basic room has a bed, a fan, and a bathroom with a bucket to shower and flush the toilet with. Even the most luxurious hotels are    cheap compared to U.S prices, which brings me to the benefits of the currency exchange.

Cozette's favorite cheap breakfast - Corned beef w/ egg and rice
Twenty dollars a day is more than plenty here to travel and have fun. This is an average daily cost when paying for long journeys, hotels, food, basic supplies, and unnecessary pleasures like snack foods, internet cafes, and nights out. When not on the move from town to town cost of transportation is greatly reduced. Fifteen dollars a day is a very realistic cost if staying in one place for multiple days. Food is simple, and therefore cheap. Expect to eat rice with every meal, including breakfast.

All of these factors make it easy to travel and see a wide variety of things and people in such a country. So, we travel on a whim. If there is something to be seen we go. It's freedom in the purest.

The following is a brief recount of our two month journey through the Philippines and details of our route through the islands.


 We arrive at 1am in the Ninoy Aquino International airport in Manila. We have been up since 6am and have been flying or waiting in airports all day. As we shuffle forward and get in line to pass through the immigration checkpoint, I suddenly catch sight of the sign on the booth reading "you must present your visa and departing ticket..." this makes me a little nervous since we have only purchased a one way ticket into the country. When we get to the booth I explain to the clerk that we do not yet have a departure ticket, we didn't know it was necessary. She motions for someone and we're quickly whisked to the side into an office  where our passports are taken from our hands to be held behind a desk somewhere. If you have ever traveled internationally you know how nerve racking it would be to give up your passport to and official who precedes to examine and then leave the room with it in hand. Slowly, he returns and asks us how we plan to leave the country, if no return ticket has been purchased. He seems almost accusatory with his words. As if guilty of trying to illegally immigrate into the country, we quickly explain to him that we plan to buy another one way ticket to our next destination, we're only travelers, visiting and then moving on. I emphasis again, as convincingly as possible, that we did not know we needed a departure ticket. Another official with a badge of some sort steps into the office and the man we have just been explaining ourselves to brings him up to speed on the situation. They speak in Tagalog and I can't pick up any sort of emotion in the unfamiliar language. "How much trouble are we in?", I wonder. After they finish speaking they both turn their gazes to us. One of the men has his brow lowered, his eyes scanning back and forth between Cozette and I, the other repeatedly taps the edge of a stack of papers against the table top separating us. It's obvious they are both thinking about how to handle the situation. Some high up representative from Korean Air walks into the office. We flew into Manila on the airline and they are taking a fine for letting us enter the country without a departure ticket in the first place. He too is informed of the predicament. Cozette and I just stand waiting for questions or instructions or something. We feel pretty helpless with the situation. Two security guards lug our bags from the carousel just on the other side of the immigration booths. It's like looking across the border to freedom, it's so close. For a moment I wonder if we can just sneak through when everyone is busy. That bubble bursts as soon as I realize that that is exactly why they have taken our passports. Besides, that would land us in a lot more trouble, and in an entirely different kind of room than the one we are standing in. After 10 minutes or so of sitting and waiting in the office with nothing being done, we manage to communicate that we have a laptop, and if there is wireless internet, we can buy our tickets right now. They tell us to try it. We walk back and forth in this small area of the airport, stuck between the immigration booths and the security desk in the hall way leading back to the terminal. There are three network connections available but one is down and the other two are password protected. No one we ask knows the password, of course. An immigration officer comes from the office every five minutes or so to check on us. He knows we have no working internet connection but has no present solution. After half an hour trying the internet and asking for help from various security guards, info desk clerks, and other airport personnel, no one seems to have access to the internet. The officer returns and tells us that immigration will be closing at 3am, if we don't come up with our tickets by then we will be put on a return flight to Honolulu, where we had come from. We would be deported before we could even enter. My heart quickens a little. It's already 2am and we have made zero progress. We are trapped between checkpoints in a foreign airport, we're tired and under stress, and it seems as though immigration is hanging us out to dry, offering as little help and sympathy as possible. To make the situation even more difficult, communication is only half clear most of the time. We ask an airport employee if they can go to find an airline representative, maybe we can arrange to book an over priced ticket out of the country. The employee leaves, looking confident enough and walking in the right direction. Five or so minutes pass and we soon realize that the employee is not going to be our savior after all. We ask three people in all to help, none return. We are on our own, we realize, no one really cares. As Cozette and I start to freak out a little, searching for options and having no luck, the representative that had taken the fine for Korean Air returns. "Do you have a credit card?", he asks. We hand it over quickly, anything to get us through immigration to freedom. If he has a flight to book for us we will take it! We're desperate at this point. "You will be flying back to Honolulu", he says commandingly, as if the decisions is final. "We don't want to fly back to Oahu!", Cozette replies in her own authoritative tone.  "It's the only option, you will have tickets for the 28th of August." he responds. "No, we're not going back", we both explain. He looks around him and then motions for us to walk with him as he turns his back on the immigration office. A few steps later, he says in a hushed tone,"Fake. The itinerary will be fake, just to get you through immigration." This seems like serious business, Cozette and I exchange glances. "A fake ticket?" I ask. "Yes, I will have someone bring them over. It's the only way." We give this some thought. "Can we do that?", I ask. "Yes, just play along, say it was the only flight available, and you will make it through." "Ok, do we need to pay you though?" "No", He says, " The airline has already taken a fine, it's late and I just want to go home."
In five minutes someone brings us two printed itineraries for a flight to Honolulu on the 28th of August. They are completely legitimate. Someone has actually paid on a different credit card, to be canceled by the airline, I assume. Everything looks correct and our names appear next to the ticket numbers so we collect our luggage and passports form the office, explaining to the officers how we are so bummed we will be going back the way we came. We're lying through our teeth. We pass through the booths with no issue, our tickets are flawless, and we walk into the pick up area breathing sighs of relief. What a night! After an overpriced taxi ride to our hostel we finally relax into bed sometime around 3:30 am. It seems like the night has been a nightmare, but on second thought I decide it's just part of the unpredictability that comes with traveling, and that it will make a good story. Next time though, we will be more careful. We drift to sleep and don't wake until late the next morning.
Our route through The Philippines

The Hospitality of the Philippines

San Miguel - the Philippine original
We stay in Manila for a week. We meet a new friend named Edgar on  He lives in Makati, Metro Manila. A few days are spent touring around the city and nights are spent out dancing, enjoying the night life in the Capitol city. It's a good time, the three of us, plus Will, another couchsurfer from Australia, sharing Ed's apartment. We came to the Philippines with no real plans, we didn't know much about the country or it's attractions. This ignorance , making the place so alluring, is what pushed us to visit the islands in the first place. We've picked the right person to stay with because Ed just happens to be a travel writer himself. Having seen almost all of the Philippines, he becomes our trip planner and concierge. Within a day or two we learn from him all of the places to go, and people to meet. He boasts a very well written blog - , and he is a fantastic photographer. With Ed's recommendation we have our plans to take dive lessons in Davao and enjoy the Katayawan festival there the following weekend. 
Couch surfing party at Ed's place in Manila. Photo by Will Hoffman

In Davao, we are greeted by our divemaster, Frank, a Danish man, at the airport. We go back to his house where we stay, and are made to feel at home, for three weeks in Davao. For more about our time in Davao read my previous posts, "Salamat Davao", "A Day of Diving" , and "A Filipino Family Experience".

Island Hopping

Our three weeks in Davao fly by and I'm more than ready to get out of the city. We've spent a month in the country already and have yet to leave a metropolitan area. The bus to northern Mindanao promises time spent in small towns, villages and rural parts of the country. We speed down the road in an empty, air-conditioned bus through the mountainous center of Mindanao. 8 hours later we step off in the town of Cagayan De Oro on the northern coast of the island. We decide that the air-conditioned buses are not for us. The chilly air blasts the entire time, forcing us to bundle up in jackets and blankets, and the higher price keeps the locals riding the slower, "non-aircon" buses. Riding with the people is half the fun. As we transfer to our next bus, the non-aircon heading further north to Balingoan, we get many curious stares as we push and squeeze our way to the back of the very full bus, avoiding hitting people with our large backpacks. Every bus and jeepney ride from here on out will resemble this. People ask the basics, where are we from? Are we missionaries? Are we enjoying the Philippines? The people have no shortage of kindness and are more than excepting of our awkward presence among them. 

The "Non-aircon"

We barrel down the snaking road at speeds that would make a car passenger uncomfortable, weaving in and out of our lane as we pass slower traffic. There are no windows on this bus, the cool night air blows freely through. As the bus comes to a slow roll to let people off, the crowd thins out and pretty soon it is only me and Cozette to the end of the line. We pull into the small port town at 10pm. It's raining and the town is empty. We will catch a ferry the next morning but since there are no hotels or lodging houses in town, our bus driver escorts us to a house by the pier where travelers awaiting the ferry can rest and wait. We tip him and head to sleep. 

View of Camiguine from Balingoan

One of the island's many falls
The Sunken Cemetary
The island of Camiguine is an hour and a half ferry ride to the north of Balingoan. We arrive before noon and find a budget hotel for our base camp. The tiny island cannot be more than 50 miles in circumference and a coastal road hugs the sea all the way around.       Because of it's size we rent a motorbike and spend the next day touring and eventually circumnavigating the unspoiled island. This island of volcanic conception is home to some refreshing waterfalls and sweeping coastal views. We spend some time snorkeling at "The sunken cemetery", which was swallowed by the sea after an earthquake in 1871. It's since become a home for corals and fish in the warm shallows surrounding the monumental cross that memorializes the site. It takes only one day to explore the island on our motorbike and the next day we almost miss the departing ferry to Bohol. Arriving at the wrong port town only fifteen minutes before the ferry is due to leave, we quickly hire two men with motorcycles to get us where we need to be. Racing through the curves along the winding road with our 40 lb packs almost dragging us off of the back of the bikes, we make it to the right port, 10 kilometers or so away, just in time. With windswept hair we set off to the island of Bohol. 

Google image of Chocolate Hills
Google : Tarsier
Bohol has two main tourist attractions. The first of which is The Chocolate Hills, a large frequency of clustered, perfectly shaped hills, that turn a chocolate color during the dry season. Science has discovered the hills to be remnants of prehistoric ocean reefs, while Filipino legend tells that they are tear drops from a giant. The second of the islands popular attractions is a critter called the Tarsier. It's the world's smallest and oldest living species of primate. We decide to skip both of these attractions. We are told by a guide that the Chocolate hills were actually deforested to create their bald, ferry tale like, grassy covered slopes. This immediately takes away the wonder of the strange hills for us. The Tarsier, doomed by it's cute and cuddly appearance and it's over exposure by the Philippine department of tourism, has, for the most part, been illegally captured and caged for tourists to photograph and gawk at. We weren't about to support this industry so instead we spent a couple of days in Tagbilaran City with close proximity to Pangalao Island. 

Bikini Beach, Pangalo Island,

Cave Swimming pools
A pristine and expensive dive location, Pangalao has many world class dive resorts. We take a day trip to Bikini beach, one of white sand and warm shallows, where we do more snorkeling. Pangalao also has a small cave with an underground swimming hole consisting of both fresh and salt water. As we make our way through Bohol's interior, in a northeasterly direction, we spend a night camping in Rajah Sikatuna National Park. The Park has seen better days, it's mostly abandoned with a few scattered empty buildings and only minimal necessary staff. The camp ground is a large cleared area with dense forest surroundings. In the fading light of the evening a clan of monkeys comes swinging and crashing through the canopy. We hear them calling to each other long before they can be seen and like a gang, ten or so of the primates make their way to the ground and head straight for us. They sit only a few yards from where we are in the progress of setting up our tent. They study us for awhile and then, realizing we won't be offering any food, they move elsewhere. Later, we spot a flying lemur gliding to a jack fruit tree in our clearing for an evening snack. After a night of steady rain, we accompanied the park's bird watching guide on a walk through the dense tangled rain forest. He can identify every bird by it's call and he even plays his own recordings to try coaxing the birds down into view, but the birds are high and out of sight. Instead we walk and he points out insects and lizards and tells jokes along the way. That's good enough for us. We spend another uneventful night in Ubay, on the NE coast of the island and catch the ferry to Leyte.

A night in Maasin is occupied by drinks which leads to singing karaoke with the locals. Karaoke, by the way, has been a popular evening activity ever since it was introduced by the Japanese. It's hard to go a day without hearing someone's shameless rendition of a popular tune blaring from a bar or eatery. It's not always pleasant to the ears but it offers a challenge to the singer and a good time.
In Padre Burgos, in the south, we find a perfectly secluded beach with clear water and great views, sometimes hard to come by in the Philippines. We camp so close to the water that the rising tide threatens to  flood our tent in the night. The beach has good snorkeling with corals right off shore. It's a hangout for locals and fisherman, children wrestle in and out of the water all day.

Camping near Padre Burgos.

We make our way up the Leyte's west coast to Ormoc. On a Saturday night the strip along the harbor is filled with people.Vendors line the street selling popcorn, peanuts, chicharrones, and lechon manok (grilled chicken). An "Ormoc Idol", singing competition, is being held in the town square. Kids of varying ages sit in small groups in the park. Restaurants all around sit guests outside who sip beer and feast, enjoying the pleasant evening, just a typical Saturday evening in the town of 200,000 or so. We join in on the fun, relaxing in a restaurant and listening to the live music. Cruising the streets, we get lots of stares, smiles, and "Good evenings!", as do we anywhere.We sleep in a budget room and head for Tacloban, the island's provincial capitol, sometime the next day. In Tacloban we find a lodging house where students attending the nearby university board. It's a large, old house owned by an elderly lady. We accidentally scare her a couple of times as we come into the large living area, and again, later when we try to pay her, she doesn't hear us approaching. The house has many rooms, a large courtyard for hanging laundry and it's close to good food. We are tired from moving from place to place so we relax and stay here for 3 days before heading on to the next island of Samar.

ABCD surf beach
North of Tacloban is a bridge spanning the channel between Leyte and Samar. We take a bus across and down to the small town of Guiuan on the southern most tip of Samar. Samar is one of the poorest islands in the Philippines, it can be seen from the windows of the bus as we pass through villages not on our map or in the travel guide. Dwellings in rural areas are open air huts made from bamboo wood and palm leaves. The bus weaves around squares of rice spread on the road tops to dry, the only flat place suitable for the necessary, life sustaining, process. It's a reminder of how basic the laws of existence are; eat and survive.
Guiuan is a small and simple town. The main source of transportation are petty cabs drawn by bicycle. During WWII Guiuan was a strategically placed naval base for the U.S to launch attacks on Japan. There were 150,000 troops stationed here. Remnants of the base are still seen today. The island of Homonhon to the south is where Ferdinand Magellan first landed in 1521, claiming the Philippines for the Spain. He was murdered soon after by Chief Lapu-Lapu near what is now Cebu City.
We venture to the nearby Calicoan island and stumble upon the one of the archipelago's best surfing spots, ABCD beach. The beach holds an annual surfing competition October 7th-9th, attracting local and international competition to this long stretch of Pacific facing coast.The surfers invite us to their hut and we spend the afternoon chatting, watching people ride the waves and generally having a good time. The location is pretty remote so we wait 30 minutes or so for someone to pass, offering us a ride. We are back in town by dark.
Cozette enjoys the 4-hr ride on the roof of a Jeepney

The next day before we leave, we go snorkeling in the harbor by our hotel. The water is murky with low visibility and as we swim Cozette has a run in with a jellyfish and she gets stung on her arm and feet.We end our snorkeling promptly and Cozette makes a new enemy.The stinging subsides in an hour or so and soon we are on the move again. We catch a jeepney heading north. there's no more room inside so we opt for a ride on the roof, The breeze is refreshing and the views of the countryside and rural villages is unmatched. We arrive in Borangon where we do nothing for a couple of days and then we go to Catbalogan.

Catbalogan may be one of Samar's only real tourist destinations. On the West coast, Catbalogan is the jumping off point for many of the Philippines best caves. Joni Bonifacio has a business here guiding people to the untouched caves, waterfalls, and gorges in the islands interior. We meet with him the next morning and spend the day in Lobo cave. To read more about our caving experience see my post, "Caving in Samar".

We leave Catbalogan and after one day of travel by bus and an excruciatingly delayed and unorganized journey by ferry, we arrive in Matnog on the southern tip of Luzon. Matnog is a small town with no real hotels, so we are guided by someone so conveniently waiting for us to come off of the ferry, to a small house where we pay too much for a room. The next day is spent in Legaspi, a city at the foot of a dangerously active volcano, Mt. Mayon, who's last eruption was in 2009. My intention for coming to Legaspi was to photograph the perfectly shaped volcano, but the clouds were stubborn and we never saw the top of the cone.
Google image of Mt. Mayon

A ten hour bus ride put us back in Manila at 4:30 am on a Friday morning. We finished our tour where we began. We spend the next couple of days at Ed's place preparing for the next leg of our travel, and we have one more night on the town to celebrate with our new friends.


The Philippines is a destination worthy of my return and of anyone's exploration. I only had the time to explore a fraction of this Nation, there's much left unseen. It's home to hospitable, friendly people. Everywhere you go, from villagers living the most basic of lives, to busy Manila residents, you are sure to be welcomed with a smile. The Philippines is a place of beauty; sprawling, reflective rice fields lay at the base of palm covered volcanoes, and uncounted numbers of beaches offer inviting aqua-colored waters, provoking long days of sun induced laziness. Reputation often warns people to avoid this SE Asian Archipelago, but if you believe seeing is believing, you will be taken back by the abundant experiences you will have, and humbled by the way of life that the islands are home to.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Caving in Samar

At the entrance to Lobo Cave, contemplating the impending doom that must lay inside.

Samar is home to the Philippines best caves. Although, because of popular Filipino superstitions and folklore, many of them still lay unexplored, locals fearing what unknown may be found inside. In Catbalogan on the west coast is a man named Joni Bonifacio who has been exploring the islands most remote and "mysterious" caves for most of his life. We meet with him at his shop, Trexplore, and we learn about one of the caves in the area named Lobo cave. The cave had only recently been explored in 2005, by Joni himself. Every few years Italian spelunkologists (cave scientist) visit Samar island to explore and map newly found caves. Joni is the man they come to, guiding them to the caves , Lobo being a more recent one, and assisting them in the mapping of the cave system.Visiting one of these "virgin" caves sounds entirely too tempting to resist so we make plans to meet the next morning to set off for Lobo cave.

Cozette searching for a route up the waterfall

One of several sections completely flooded.
We meet Joni at the shop where breakfast is waiting. After a short Jeepney ride and an hour long hike through a small village and past hillsides filled with pineapple, we arrive at the toothy entrance to the cave. We suit up in special brightly colored caving suits, donned our helmets and headlamps and enter. The cave is considered a "virgin cave" because it is still 100% natural. No mining, guano harvesting or tourism development has been done. It's my first time in such an untouched sanctuary. There are places we have to rock climb through small holes in the cave celing and floor, no ladders here or foot paths like the caves found back in the states. It isn't long before he makes us put on life vests and we we're wading, and then swimming, through narrow passages filled with water.We pause for lunch by an underground waterfall and enjoy a home cooked meal prepared by his wife. After lunch there is  more water and mud to crawl through. Parts of the cave wall and formations are covered in white sparkling calcite that glisten like diamonds in the rarely shown light. We spend some quality time with the resident cave dwellers; bats, blind crabs, and cave spiders. Eventually, after exploring the extent of the subterranean labyrinth, Joni leads us out of a secondary exit. We swim down a long tunnel, so perfectly shaped that it could be a set in an Indiana Jones film. Ducking under some stalactites, we finally see the blinding light pouring in from the cave's exit. We rise to the outer world and the warm, welcoming sunlight.
A blind cave spider, harmless, but ugly.
We ride in the canoe down river back to the road.

After changing and walking another short distance, we all get into a canoe and we are down river at the road shortly. The entire day Joni did an excellent job of photographing our experience and at the end of the day he gave us a CD with all of the pictures he took. We spent a total of 6 hours in the cave and as we say goodbye, Joni assures us that if we ever come back to Samar that there are many more caves to explore and adventure to be had.

All Photos by Joni Bonofacio. Learn more about his company, Trexplore - Click Here 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Filipino Family Experience

A family outing to Eden Park
We were one big happy family. Over the 3 weeks that it took to complete our diving courses we were invited to stay in our Divemaster's home. It was a very full and busy house, ten of us under one roof; Divemaster Frank, Mari Lou, Cozette and I, and the six children, Jakie, Jayare, Javina, Kei, Mako, and Lahia.

The Lovely Mari Lou

We didn't expect to stay more than a week, but Mari Lou, our most gracious hostess, had other plans for us. She took the liberty of being our personal guide and planned everyday with things to do and places to visit. When we were not diving, she made sure we were comfortable, stuffed full of delicious food, and had an itinerary as to not miss any of the sights around Davao. When Frank got ill it put a hold on our schedule for a few days, then Cozette and I took turns being sick.This all threw kinks into our dive plans and prolonged our stay, but we were assured that we were welcome, everyone was having a good time.

Somewhere over the rainbow...
The rare Mako fish!

The ten of us went to the beach or to a park on the weekends for "Family day". At night us "adults" would go out to restaurants, for a massage, or to the disco. All locations were preselected by Mari Lou. Frank and Mari Lou were very stubborn about letting us share the cost of our outings. We had to be very sneaky to slip our money into a restaurant bill or to pay for a taxi fare. Frequently we were told by a waiter that the bill was pre paid before we had ordered. Sneaky, sneaky, Mari Lou!

  When we had finally finished our diving and it was  time to leave, it was hard to say good bye to our new Filipino family. One of the children asked, "Will you stay? Or come back soon? Maybe in November?". Afraid not...  So a piece of our hearts remains in Davao City in southern Mindanao. Some day we may reunite, but our time together will be remembered forever.