This weekend a small group of us ventured out to Hundred Islands, a small national park about four hours from Subic Bay. Jeff was unable to go because of his recent surgery, but he INSISTED I still go. Feeling a little guilty, I packed a bag Friday after school and took off.
We made it to Alaminos City at about 9:00 and checked into our hotel. By 9:30 we were checking out and heading to some place a little cleaner and with bigger rooms. The rooms were dingy, the bathrooms less than clean, and the beds minimal. They offered to throw an extra mattress on the floor, and we left. Just down the road we found a nicer, cleaner hotel for less money. Crisis averted! This isn’t an uncommon problem here. Websites can be misleading, and staff that aim to please sometimes misinform potential customers.
We woke, ate breakfast, and loaded our banca by 10:00 the next morning. Our three-man crew was a father, his young son, and another young man. They were amazing! Lito, the father, took us to all the best spots and avoided the crowds. We hoped to visit about three islands, but he took us to more – caves, tunnels, snorkelling spots, etc. His son, Jason, was about eight years old (I’m guessing) and worked like a man, poling the boat in and out and anchoring when we stopped. Don’t get the impression that his father was working him to death, though. Jason played plenty and looked like he was having the time of his life, hanging out with his dad. Watching the two of them together put a smile on my face. They were clearly very close, and I was reminded of the cultural values in the Philippines. People here might not make a lot of money, but they take family seriously. They show each other so much love and devote significant time and attention to their families. Instead of working 80-hour weeks to buy a bigger house they work enough to keep their family fed and healthy and spend their free hours enjoying each others’ company.
Our first stop was Governor’s Island where we climbed a steep flight of stairs to the top to see the islands spread out in the sea.
After heading back down, we were approached by a young man who invited us to try helmet diving at the floating dock right off Governor’s Island. After some debating, Danette, Dana, Brandon, and I decided to give it a try. It was cheap, so why not?
Helmet diving is pretty simple. They lift a HEAVY helmet with a glass viewing window and an oxygen tube over your head. As you lower yourself into the water, the pressure from the oxygen in your helmet keeps the water from coming in. I remember doing an experiment like this in elementary science.
I was a little nervous, having never “dove” before, but those initial butterflies subsided once I got to the bottom and saw all the fish and giant clams. There were tons of clown fish, which the divers refer to as “Nemos,” most likely because the movie is more popular than the actual fish, and tourists have never heard the real name. The divers handed us each a tiny bag of cooked rice. Pieces floated out from the a hole in the bag, and fish swarmed us to eat the rice. We held onto ropes to keep our balance. The combination of the water and the heavy helmet threw us off. Divers would take us by the hand to guide us around and get our attention. They would touch the edge of the giant clams which would snap shut with a giant puff of bubbles.
After half an hour we resurfaced, all excitedly talking about the things we’d seen. The highlight for me was a small cichlid-looking fish that got very territorial. I was too close to “his” coral, and he would swim erratically in front of me, then lunge towards my face. Had I not been encased in a giant helmet this might’ve scared me, but instead it was just cute.
Next, Lito took us to a sea tunnel. We dropped anchor, put on our snorkel gear, and headed into the tunnel, which led to a large cave inhabited by bats. From there, we swam the rest of the way through the tunnel. It quickly narrowed to a tiny circle of light, just big enough for an adult to squeeze through. To get out, we had to climb up and over the ledge of this hole – no easy task. Then we snorkelled around the outer edge of the island and back to the boat.
On the way, Brandon was recording our trip with his GoPro. He was excited to check out an underwater arch, but quickly got stuck and had to back track, scratching himself on the coral. By the end of the day we all had cuts and scrapes from coral and getting in and out of the boat, but nothing compared to Brandon’s wounds.
After the tunnel, we headed off in search of a place for a picnic lunch and relaxation. Every island seemed to be packed with other vacationers, so we asked Lito to find us an empty beach and ended up at Scout’s Island.
We spent the early afternoon snacking, napping in the sun, collecting shells, and just talking. By the time we left Scout’s Island, it was about 3:30. The sun goes down pretty early here — around 5:30 — so we only had time for one more stop. We asked Lito to take us to his favorite place. He nodded and took off for Coral Garden. We tied up to a large raft and climbed out of the boat. I was the last one out, and when I had steadied myself, I looked up to find the rest of the group posing with strangers for a photo. I asked what was going on, and someone explained to me that they wanted to take a picture of us. Why? Because we were white. I couldn’t help but laugh. The veteran teachers are quite used to this request, but I’m still surprised by it. I suppose it’s only fair, though. We take plenty of pictures of “locals” in the different places we visit, so it’s reasonable to honor their request for the same. We are a part of their experience just as much as they are a part of ours.
The snorkelling at Coral Garden was AMAZING! The giant clams we saw during helmet diving were miniature compared to these monsters, easily the size of Jeff if he were curled in the fetal position. Fish swam in schools all around us, clearly used to having people in their waters. There isn’t a color on earth I didn’t see represented on their scales: zebra stripes, iridescent rainbows, neon patterns, you name it, I saw it, along with purple starfish and large coral formations. This spot was pretty crowded, but we got away from the crowds, which stayed close to the raft, easily.
After Coral Garden, we asked Lito to take a scenic route back to Alaminos, so he snaked a path through the islands, pointing out some of the more well known ones, stopping at a couple of spots even though it was getting late. He took us to a tunnel, which was disappointingly blocked off. We checked it out briefly, then turned to head back to the banca, and who should be standing before us but the same group that had wanted pictures with us at Coral Garden. Of course, we had to take another picture, and one of the boys asked for a photo with me, which led to 5 more requests from others. This was pretty embarrassing for me but completely amusing to everyone else. 🙂
The last stop was at an island surrounded by mangroves. Lito led us into a cave filled with bats while little Jason tried to catch crabs by the banca.
We ended our Hundred Islands adventure under the gorgeous setting sun.
Prior to the trip, I had very low expectations for Hundred Islands. The Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t give it great reviews and a few of the teachers had been underwhelmed by their experiences. Plus, I had just returned from Caramoan (island hopping heaven) a few weeks before. Luckily, my low expectations were exceeded exponentially. I’m so glad we made the trip and can’t wait to take our visitors (and Jeff) to experience it for themselves.