jump to navigation

Day 5 – Out with the butanding April 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
add a comment

Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.butanding-in-donsol-sorsogon-manila-philippines

First a quick introduction to the whale shark. The whale shark, locally known as the Butanding, is not a whale. It is, however, a type of shark, though not the Jaws variety. It is the largest fish still in existence and not surprisingly, given humanity’s cluelessness, not much is known about it. We know that it is a filter feeder, surviving solely on plankton (microscopic plants and animals) and is completely harmless to humans. As to how many are in existence, why they grow to such a size (known to reach over 12 meters in length and 20 tonnes in weight), where their breeding grounds are, how long they live, where they go, where they come from…, well, no one quite knows.

What we do know for sure is that adolescent ones, measuring between 5 and 10 meters come to the Donsol area, between January and May, as the region is rich in plankton during that period. Ergo our presence there.

Our second day in Donsol started early. Soon after sunrise, we reached the Butanding Interaction Centre to get introduced to our BIO – Butanding Interaction Officer. After that we chose our masks and fins and got into his boat for the 3 hour butanding spotting tour. The boat was a wooden craft with wide out-riggers giving it rock solid stability. The sky was clear, the seas calm and the water was the same temperature as the air around us. It all augured well for whale shark spotting. That most of us on our boat could barely swim, had never worn masks and fins, had never used snorkels and never jumped into the sea was all but forgotten in the excitement.

vista

The BIO helped us with our life vests. Mine was loose and I was worried it would slip out over my head as soon as I hit the water. However, there were additional straps that he threaded through my legs that held it in position. Unfortunately, it did not do too much good for my dangling scrotum, as it got crushed every time I straightened my torso. So much for intelligent design!
on the boat

Twenty minutes into the ride, we spotted a grey form just under the water. Our first butanding! The BIO said he would take us over it and screamed “Jump! Jump!”. Not thinking twice, I jumped in and so did my wife. She, being the more attractive of the two, the BIO latched on to her and dragged her towards the butanding, leaving me floundering in the water. Not knowing what to do, I held on to one of the out-riggers for dear life. I am sure I cut a sorry figure. My wife, though, had a good darshan and described the butanding in excruciating detail, all breathless and excited.

swimming in the sea

I am on the extreme left (orange vest). Just ahead of me is the BIO with my sister-in-law.

Hoping, I would get lucky the next time, I sat next to the BIO and tried to get pally with him. Soon enough the next butanding came our way and this time my sister-in-law jumped in with me. Well, she being the more attractive of the two of us… enough said. This time, however, I was determined to pursue the whale shark by myself, come what may. I swam behind the BIO and my hapless sister-in-law but by the time I reached them, the butanding was long gone.

“Third time lucky, third time lucky”, I chanted to myself, hoping there would be a third time. Thankfully there was and I was the only one who jumped in. Having no choice the BIO dragged me unceremoniously to where the Butanding was and shouted “See! See!”. I hesitated, never having used a snorkel to breathe before. Then I saw the look on the BIO’s face and I knew that if I waited even a second longer, he would grab me by the neck and dunk my head in. So, I took a quick deep breath and put my head into the water.

It was all so quiet, serene and other-worldy. The water was murky all around, thanks to the plankton, but right there, almost within my hands reach, was the butanding. It was like an open aperture picture with the butanding in sharp focus and everything else fading away and out of focus.  The butanding was coming straight at me with its mouth partially open. It was clearly visible, white spots, dorsal fin and all. It swam right under us and as it passed by, the BIO grabbed my vest and turned me around. I put my head down again, and promptly drank a few gallons of water,  having unfortunately let go of the snorkel. But I had got my 30 seconds with the butanding. It was totally worth it.

There was a 4th and then a 5th sighting and I jumped in eagerly, but failed to reach the butanding before it dived deep. The BIO was disappointed that I got to see the butanding only once, such was his commitment. After 3 hours, we came back to the shore, elated and wanting to go back again, but hopefully after learning to snorkel properly.

The rest of the day was spent basking in the glory of our outing with the butanding and comparing notes on each others’ experiences. Back at the AGM, we continued our observation of the youth brigade, purely for scientific reasons, I might add. Finally, unable to contain our curiosity, we sent our stickybeak to find out the antecedents of the group. She took the easy way out and enquired at the reception. They turned out to be traveling as a group on a tour arranged by a company called FreeNEasy. That explained a lot. Some of us made a mental note to check out the site later, though on my part, it was purely for academic reasons.

Later that evening, we went to a bar called Baracuda and had a few beers. It was a lovely place run by a Briton. The bar itself was built like a log cabin, on the beach facing the ocean. There was a power outage for a short while and the place became even more magical, if that was possible. We wrapped up the day with dinner which included Kinilaw – a raw fish dish that was delectable. Life was good.

The next day, we returned to Legaspi and flew back to Manila, our short trip to Bicol over too soon.

Advertisements

Day – 4 – Enchanting fireflies April 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
1 comment so far

Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Everything in the Philippines is understated. Nobody touts the Philippines as the greatest country, Mt. Mayon as the most active volcano, San Miguel the best beer, the beaches the whitest, or the island nation the safest. That’s nice and refreshing for someone like me, coming from a country that is forever taking credit for every little thing that is even remotely connected to it – be it references in history, India’s bio-diversity, Indian-origin people doing well in some part of the world or even Jonty Rhodes’ daughter.

However, the Filipinos did not tell us that Donsol was probably the greatest place to swim with the butanding (whale shark) or that the butanding tour would be a most extraordinary experience or that the firefly cruise would be unbelievably beautiful. And that I think is criminal.

Anyway, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Day 4 marked the arrival of the last component of our family puzzle. Having set aside what we hoped would be the highlight of the trip, we waited for her to come from Sydney to Manila, then to Legaspi and from there to Sorsogon, in time to join us on our journey to Donsol to see the butanding.

potted plantsWhile we waited for her, we walked down Magsaysay street to get a feel of the morning life in Sorsogon. It was clearly morning rush hour with tri-cycles and jam-packed Jeepneys scurrying about, some with people, with expressions that suggested that nothing was out of place, perched precariously on them. Along the roadside were shops, nurseries with lots of pretty plants, shops selling beautiful pots and even a specialty shop selling engraved headstones, all one next to the other. Were the plants and pots for homes or for the cemetery, we wondered.

We walked about a kilometer and back looking for a place that served breakfast. Not finding one, we returned to Fernandos and ordered their omelette. The spanish omelettes was fluffy and filling, and the coffee, though instant, was hot, aromatic and flavourful.

By the time we finished breakfast, the last member of our contingent arrived and we were ready to leave for Donsol. After an uneventful two-hour journey we reached AGM resorts by about lunch time.

AGM, at first glance, looked like a quiet, small beach resort with just enough rooms for the 12 of us. We thought we would have the resort all to ourselves. We checked in, had lunch and were thinking of jumping into their tiny pool when a group of over 30 youngsters landed up. From their accents, they appeared to be American or Canadian. A mixed group of girls and boys, not young enough to be a college group, nor appearing old enough to be a working group. All of them, bar one, were in good shape.  They checked in (AGM somehow had conjured up more rooms), changed into trunks and skimpy bikinis and came back to the poolside. Our group’s stickybeak and the rest of us, apprentice stickybeaks, watched and speculated while the lively bunch splashed around in the pool. A part of our contingent went to the Butanding Interaction Centre to plan for the various activities, while the rest of us enjoyed the view, the sunset being spectacular.

firefly watchingThat evening, after watching the Butanding interaction video, we went on the firefly tour. We took two boats, each with a guide and traveled down the Ubod river, also called the Donsol river. The guide quickly introduced the tour saying if we were lucky we would see three different kinds of fireflies that day, ones on the trees, ones in the water and those in the sky. I distinctly heard her end her introduction with “I will stop now with the introduction and continue later because I believe Indians are too lazy to listen to the whole thing”. My sister sitting next to me was not so sure, but then she has only one good ear, so I might have to go with what I think I heard. Though one cannot tar 1.2 billion people with the same brush, the cynical me was willing to admit that the guide’s assessment was possibly a close approximation, at least speaking for myself. That was the only rude thing we may have heard during our entire trip.

The firefly show was truly spell-binding. The females glowed steadily while the males flickered (or was it the other way around?). Sometimes, a whole bunch of them pulsated as one, to some beat that only they could hear, putting to shame the brightest of christmas decorations. While we were thus enthralled, some things started glowing in the water. It turned out that some of the plankton, the reason why the butandings come to Donsol, were bio-luminescent. The fireflies in the sky turned out to be the night sky. With zero light pollution, a new moon and not a speck of cloud in the sky, we had the greatest view of the milky way. It was unbelievable. We also spotted a satellite racing across the sky which added to the overall thrill. The guide salvaged herself by telling us that the trees on which the fireflies landed were the Indian almond tree. Our pride in India knew no bounds!

We walked back down the Donsol Pio-Duran road, had dinner at another resort and came back to AGM. The young group was nowhere to be seen. We hit the bed early so we could be up bright and early for the Butanding watching tour the next day.

Day 3 – To Mt. Bulusan and back March 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
3 comments

Part III.  You can read Part I and Part II here.

The vegetarians in the group definitely knew that getting food without meat and fish in the Philippines was going to be a challenge. But the fact that the Filipinos ate rice, upto 4 times a day, somehow seemed to lull them into a false sense of security. “After all”, they seemed to think, “if steamed rice is available, how difficult would it be to find some Sambar, Rasam or an equivalent vegetarian curry?”. The truthful answer is “Not easy, my friend, not easy at all”.

breakfastThe food problem came to the fore the day we woke up in Villa Amada. There was a brief knock on our door at six in the morning. Still half asleep I went and opened the door to find a pretty young thing sporting a dazzling smile with our breakfast. Two plates, each with a serving of rice, a fried egg sunny side up and two small sausages presented neatly. A typical Filipino breakfast served in the room because Villa Amada did not have a separate dining area. I quietly accepted the plates, thanked her and then placed the plates on the one tiny table in the room. Despite being a meat eater, I could not bring myself to eat rice and sausages so early in the morning. My wife, being vegetarian, refused to even look at the plate. The plates remained where I had left them, untouched till we checked out, at which point in time, having spied a train of ants converging on the plates, I moved them into the corridor.

In our defense, we had ordered only one breakfast and when they described it as eggs, sausages and orange juice, I had assumed that it would come with toast, butter and preservatives.

Filipinos do eat rice for practically every meal. Most often with some dry meat or fish by the side. And unlike us Indians,  they don’t need any curry or gravy to go with it. Once in a while, as a concession, they may have a few drops of soy sauce or adobo sauce to go with the rice. Not bad at all once you get used to it, but definitely not what an Indian rice eater would want.

Anyway, we made do with some peanut butter sandwiches that morning while we waited for a couple of more of our family members to join us in Legaspi (they flew in a day later, from Manila).

June, at the wheels of our van, arrived at 8:00 AM sharp as planned. We then went to the airport, picked up the new arrivals and drove on to Sorsogon City. We had not booked any rooms in Sorsogon city either, though we had checked the net and found 3-4 options. Not finding too many useful reviews on TripAdvisor, we hadn’t been sure about the quality of the accommodations available in Sorsogon and hence had decided to wing it.

fernandosThe one and half hour drive was pleasant and the gentle banter between the occupants of the UrVan ensured that we reached the outskirts of Sorsogon before long. Our first stop was a place called Fernandos. It was a budget hotel with decent reviews. We went in, found the place to our liking, and more importantly  found rooms available and checked in immediately. The rooms were clean and neat, the rates eminently affordable and the service, as usual, excellent. The hotel had a spacious sitting area with an adjoining garden abuzz with bees and birds which added a lot of character to it.

There was a nice pizzeria across the road and we hoped to grab a quick bite before heading towards Mt. Bulusan. The food turned out to be great, but the service a little slow so by the time we came out, more than half the day was gone. Nevertheless, we charted a circuit around Mt. Bulusan, the volcano that had erupted only recently, and set out immediately. We were told that we may not be able to go too close to the volcano due to safety regulations, but since we weren’t planning to, we were not too worried. We had two destinations in mind for the day, the Mateo hot springs and the Bulusan lake which was home to several birds including kingfishers, fruit doves, trogons, and hornbills.

mateo

Half-naked, and happy in the hot springs

We took the south bound AH26 called the Pan-Philippine highway and traveled counter-clockwise down to the Mateo Hot and Cold Spring Resort first. We paid a nominal entrance fee, hired a hut, asked for the senior citizen discount for the two senior citizens in our group, which we didn’t get as senior citizen discount were only for Filipinos, and got ready for the dip. There were 4 pools, one marked hot, another marked lukewarm and the rest without too much water in them. The one marked hot turned out to be very pleasant and the clean water was a pleasure to swim in. Even though the water was coming from somewhere under Mt. Bulusan, there was no smell of sulfur, typical of such hot water springs. It was with great reluctance that we came out of the water an hour later as otherwise we would not have been able to reach lake Bulusan before it got dark.

lake bulusanA half-hour drive from there took us to the beautiful lake Bulusan. The large lake is surrounded by dense jungle and is home to several colourful birds. Unfortunately, we had only about an hour of sunlight left, and much to our disappointment, could only manage to rush headlong around the short trail, with the diminutive guide setting a terrific pace, bent on ensuring that we went to the end of the trail and back before sundown. We heard a few bird calls, posed for photos on the yet-to-be completed canopy walk, and spotted one heron at a distance before it got dark and we had to move on, secretly promising ourselves that we would be back again soon.

We drove along the coastline, through Bulusan, Barcelona, Rizal beach, and Gubat back to Sorsogon city. Along the way we caught glimpses of beautiful churches but could not halt as it was already dark. We thought of stopping along the way at some restaurant for some fresh seafood, but were told that eating in strange places in the province would turn us into vampires. As it turned out, we did not notice any restaurants along the way, leaving the vampire story untested. We had also planned to visit the Panguriran beach and island resort, the photos of which had looked inviting, but due to the paucity of time we couldn’t. “Next time, then”, became the catch-phrase of the day.

porkchopsAt Sorsogon city, we found a nice restaurant that served Bicol express, another local specialty that we had wanted to try, while the vegetarians found some salads and veg curries to their liking. It was nice watching the vegetarians worm their way into the hearts of the hospitable chefs and get dishes to their liking.

The rest of us, a few San Miguels down, and after having demolished some succulent pork ribs, some squid and lots of adobo, were left wondering why there were no Filipino restaurants around the world!

Day 2 – To Legazpi March 18, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Part II.  Read part I here.

legaspi_airport_panorama

Legazpi Airport.  Photo: Bhaskar Dattatri.

Philippines, surprisingly, is not on the tourist map. After having been there and back, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why.

When we first told friends that we were going to the Philippines, it was like playing a word association game. One set of friends raised their eyebrows quizzically when they heard about our plans as though to ask “what’s there in the Philippines that is not there in Phuket or Pattaya?”. The ones that regularly traveled on business scrunched up their noses and said “Traffic Jams”. The tourist-y kind nodded knowingly and enquired rhetorically “Boracay uh?”, as though that was the only option. Was that all there was to the Philippines, we wondered.

When we searched the net, again there were only 3 destinations that cropped up regularly – the terraced rice fields at Banaue, the beaches at Boracay and the island of Palawan, apart from Manila, of course. We dug a little deeper and found Donsol where one could swim with the whale sharks. The rest of the Philippines, if we were to believe what was, or was not, on the net, might as have been unexplored territory! So we rolled up our sleeves and went where no one ever goes – beyond page 10 of the google search results. That’s when we discovered Bicol.

Bicol had everything we wanted, from smaller cities, villages, lakes, forests and bird sanctuaries to beaches, scuba diving and whale shark watching. And volcanoes. Not one, but two. Not dormant, but active. Not just active, but gurgling and spewing. Mt. Bulusan, in the heart of Bicol region had last erupted on 23rd of Feb 2016, just about 10 days before our trip. Its gentle cough had sent up a plume of smoke and ash to a height of over 500 meters! A Filipino blogger called Bicol a hidden gem, and we were smitten.

The early morning CebuPacific flight from Manila to Legaspi city was uneventful. The flight, which was the second for the day in that sector, was full and we were among the few foreigners. No food was served, but the air hostesses sported genuine smiles. They also had a nice trick up their sleeve. Instead of informing us about all the sectors CebuPacific covered (as part of their marketing spiel), they conducted a short quiz with prizes for passengers who could name 4 foreign destinations of CebuPacific or 3 local destinations, etc. I thought it was a considerate and engaging way of disseminating marketing information.

Legaspi airport turned out to be scenic, tiny, bright and airy, and well maintained with an unhindered view of Mt. Mayon. Our 12-seater Nissan UrVan  was there waiting for us, with June at the wheels. We piled in and drove around looking for a hotel to stay in. After a couple of false stops we finally found a decent place with clean rooms in the heart of the city. The hotel, Villa Amada, was right above the 1st Colonial Grill famous for its Sili ice cream. Unfortunately, we missed having it. Very silly of us, I must admit.

legaspi_porkIt was past noon by then so we checked in and immediately went to a mall for lunch. Some of us went to a Chinese restaurant while the rest raided a pizza joint looking for vegetarian fare. The pork and broccoli dish was delectable. In the spirit of adventure and experimentation, I had a San Miguel apple flavoured beer for the first and last time.

legaspi_cagsawaAfter lunch we went to the Cagsawa ruins, the remnants of an 18th century Fanciscan church surrounded by paddy fields with Mt. Mayon as a backdrop. Mt Mayon, like most volcanoes, loomed over an otherwise flat landscape with just its tip hidden behind a tiny wisp of clouds. Very scenic and peaceful despite a number of fellow tourists, mostly Filipinos, milling around. We had buko juice (coconut water), bought and ate honey coated pilinuts, a local delicacy (melted in our mouth) and waited as the ladies browsed through each of the 20-odd almost identical shops with identical merchandise.  While waiting, a large group of friendly Filipinos wanted me to take some photos of them using 4-5 of their phones.  I obliged and answered their questions on where I was from.  One of them, a sailor, was thrilled to hear that I was from Chennai, India.  Apparently he had a lot of colleagues from Chennai.  He taught the others to greet me in Tamil and they all shouted “Vanakkam” in unison before departing.

From there we went to Ligñon hill which afforded a wonderful view of the city of Legaspi on one side and Mt. Mayon on the other. From the viewpoint we noticed a small airfield and wondered why such a small city had an airport and an airfield before we realized that the tiny airfield was the airport we had landed on earlier in the day. We also spotted a few birds including what we thought was a Philippine Bulbul, which sent our Filipina relatives into fits of uncontrollable giggling. Apparently, bulbul was Tagalog slang for a female body part. There was just so much to learn.

It got dark pretty early, by around 5:30 PM, and so the rest of the evening we spent walking around Legaspi city. We bought some fruits at the open market, ogled at the colourful jeepnies and scouted around for a place to have dinner. We were again surprised to note that we were among the few foreigners in the city that day. There were quite a number of money changers in the city which we initially thought was suggestive of sizable tourist traffic. However, we noticed that most of those transacting there were locals, so we guessed that these exchanges were mostly catering to locals to help them convert the foreign exchange coming from their expat relatives.

This was another observation that brought home the fact that Filipinos were unfailingly cheerful, courteous and kind not because the tourism trade demanded it, but because that is their true nature. That’s just the way they are.

How can one not fall in love with people like that?!

First impressions of Philippines March 17, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
19 comments

Part I of a series.

traffic_manilaI had had no plans for a holiday, definitely not one to the Philippines. But destiny had other ideas and there I was flying into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on a bright Wednesday morning.

As I leaned over my wife and peered through the aircraft window, I saw the Pasig river and the much blacker San Juan river winding their way through Metro Manila. What appeared to be tin-roofed tenements on both banks reminded me of the slums near the Cooum. The houses were tightly packed interspersed with patches of greenery. I could not help but think that Manila could very well be a twin of Chennai.

The airport turned out to be not much bigger, but cleaner and brighter. More like the Hyderabad airport than Chennai’s, though definitely not like Changi or Heathrow. The airport officials like their counterparts around the world were grim faced and unsmiling. Just like in Chennai, the signs and directions at the airport left a lot to be desired and the airport security guards though better dressed, appeared just as surly and unhelpful as their Indian brethren. Consequently it was a good while before we could spot family members who had come to pick us up.

Having been ensconced in air-conditioning for over 12 hours, the heat hit us as we exited the airport. The temperature and humidity levels were almost identical to what we are used to in Chennai, though maybe the sky was marginally bluer and the sun a wee bit sharper. Luckily, we were back in air-conditioned comfort once we boarded the Toyota Innova that has come to take us to our accommodations.

The initial part of the drive from the airport reinforced the impression that Manila was just like Chennai. Construction of flyovers and subways appeared to be in full swing and there were mounds of construction debris piled alongside the roads. Thick and ugly strands of wires and cables hung between electrical post like last year’s forgotten festoons. The traffic was horrendous and progress slow. Pedestrians dodged traffic in their quest to reach the other side of the road. The same models of vehicles that we find in India, the Hyundai i10s, Innovas and Fortuners were vying for space on 2- and 4-lane roads. It was only the American style Pickup trucks, the colourful jeepnies and the auto-rickshaw-like tricycles that reminded us that this was not Chennai.

A while later we passed through the central business district, Makati. By then, we had begun to notice some significant differences.

Despite the heavy traffic, there was no honking. Our driver appeared unflustered and patient and stuck to his lane. When he did switch lanes, the other drivers gave way gracefully. Nobody swore or showed the middle finger. A few motorbikes weaved their way in and out of traffic, but otherwise everyone appeared disciplined in their driving and considerate to other road users.

As for the trash on the roads, apart from the construction debris, not much else was there to be seen. No pieces of paper or plastic bags flying around, no overflowing bins, and definitely no stray dogs running around tearing Styrofoam cartons apart. Manila appeared clean. Not clean like Singapore is, where there is always someone sweeping and swabbing right behind you all the time, but clean in a “people are naturally clean and don’t litter” kind of way. The heart of Metro Manila’s Makati region, where most of the larger banks and offices are located, had wide green spaces, neat tall buildings and looked almost as shiny and new as parts of Singapore.

Within an hour of landing in Manila, we realized that any resemblance between Chennai and Manila was merely illusory. Manila may be just as crowded as Indian metros, but it was leagues ahead of our cities in terms of cleanliness and civility.

The more we saw of Manila and the rest of the Luzon island over the next few days, the more visible these fundamental differences became. I tried to placate myself by thinking that India’s population pressures were the reason for the stark differences. However, a cursory search on population and demographics quickly blew this theory away. Though Philippines has one-tenth of India’s population, it’s land mass is also considerably smaller. so, in terms of population density, India and the Philippines are not far apart, India ranking 31st with 376 people per square kilometer while the Philippines comes in at no.34 with 359 people per square kilometer. So definitely, population was not the reason for the differences.

So what makes Manila cleaner and kinder? It could be the GDP and literacy levels. There is a yawning gap between the two countries with Philippines way ahead of us. Their GDP is nearly double ours and their literacy levels are well above 94% while we are still languishing in the mid-60s. Maybe the homogeneity of the population – culturally, ethnically and economically – helps. May be the government is more efficient.

Or, it could just be the attitude of people.