Hundred Islands: A Weekend Getaway

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.

Island Hopping: Day 2 (PARADISE)

We woke on day two to sunshine aplenty, headed down for a quick breakfast, and made our way to the banca. The islands for day two were much remoter than the ones we had visited the day before, and thus, required far more travel. I didn’t mind in the least. The views on that one-hour boat ride were absolutely stunning. (I’m running out of quality synonyms for beautiful: breathtaking, awe inspiring, magnificent…). We passed small uninhabited islands and expanses of ocean on the left and watched the coastline on the right change from towering limestone cliffs and dense vegetation to gently sloping landscapes. I got lost in the views and tranquility.

Island 1: Cotivas

Still quite far from our first island, the banca slowed considerably to maneuver through the mazes of fishing nets marked by tall sticks set up in large circles. Tanned old fishermen working at their nets from small boats watched impassively as we motored by. I silently hoped we weren’t disturbing their catch. I’m stealing this line from Danette’s blog because I couldn’t say it any better: the scene was like something straight out of Steinbeck’s The Pearl.

We pulled up to Cotivas and were pleasantly surprised to find it completely deserted. The rest of the day would be the same: all these island paradises to ourselves!

Cotivas was a long island ending in a V-shaped beach, while the larger portion was covered in palm trees and a rocky shoreline. We gravitated to the opposite side of the beach where we were less likely to interrupt fishermen.

The water was crystal clear and only about knee deep until you waded much farther out. The beach was littered with shells and driftwood and dotted with small open-air huts. We dropped our belongings and made our way into the calm waters. Danette and Brandon took off snorkelling soon after, and I took some time to collect shells. When they returned, they showed us the GIANT starfish they’d found and handed us their snorkel gear. Our turn…

Side note: I have tried snorkelling twice in my life. The first time in 2006 in the Red Sea, and the second time the week we arrived here. Both times I failed miserably. I could not get used to breathing out of that tiny tube and floating prostrate in the water. The combination was unnerving and caused me to panic.

I decided it was now or never. Here I am, living in a gorgeous tropical nation made up of over 7,000 islands and I’m afraid to snorkel. I couldn’t imagine leaving here having missed out on the world-renowned sea life, so I sucked it up and forced myself to get over the fear. It helped that Jeff went out with me, reminding me that I had all the air I could ever need at the other end of that tube. Soon enough I got used to the tube, my breathing relaxed, and I began to find the feeling of floating and the sound of my own breathing to be very soothing, almost meditative. Success!

We saw orange, brain-like coral, schools of black fish, more star fish, and these tiny fish that poked their heads out of holes in the sand. I could have floated along watching the underwater world all day. And to think I’d missed out on this in the Red Sea – an opportunity I will never have again.

Reluctantly, we left Cotivas after a couple of hours and headed to our lunch location.

“Island” 2: Lahus

Island two was actually a large sandbar connected to an island. Our guide pulled up and cut the engine in the middle of the water and pointed to half a dozen floating picnic tables on small covered platforms. We were like kids in a candy store, setting up lunch at the nearest half-beached picnic table. By the time we finished eating our raft was floating because of the rising tide.

Jeff and Brandon got out the football and we made a game of tossing it to one another in a large circle. Anyone who missed a catchable ball had to face plant in the water. Highly entertaining. Danette cracked me up, yelling out the name of an NFL player every time she threw the ball. When she ran out of football players, she moved on to any and every athlete she could think of, including her husband. 🙂

I noticed some dark clouds in the distance and suggested we head to our next location before our trip got cut short.

Island 3: Sabitang Laya

This was the supposed filming site of the last season of Survivor, so we were all really excited to see it… and were pretty disappointed to find that it was pretty much unidentifiable from the show. Possibly more of the filming went on on the other side of the island. The beach here was lonnnnnng and narrow, curving to a point at one end and abrubtly changing to limestone at the other. We climbed on the limestone for a bit, then borrowed Danette and Brandon’s snorkeling gear (I’m addicted!). Immediately, I saw a teeny tiny jelly fish. Yikes! I backed away slowly, and saw it was moving away from me too. We made our way around the end of the limestone and saw crabs, schools of yellow fish, and a small squid.

About this time, it started sprinkling. I watched our guides to see if they would call to us to leave, but they simply put the tarp over the boat’s framed roof and went back to napping. It never did anything more than sprinkle and we were wet already, so no big deal.

Jeff and I returned the snorkel gear to Brandon and put our shoes on to check out the rest of the island. We didn’t get very far before the sharp grasses cut at our legs and the swarms of flies over powered us and we headed back to the beach to leave.

The ride back with the sun setting and the clouds absorbing its light was the perfect cap to the highlight of our trip. I couldn’t have asked for anything more than what day two offered.

Island Hopping: Day 1

We woke up the next morning to a very overcast sky that threatened at any moment to burst. Breakfast was scheduled for 7 so we could leave by 8 for our day of island hopping. I tried not to get negative about the formidable outlook of our vacation, but it was hard not to mope. At breakfast, we all agreed to take the risk of getting soaked and being miserable on boat rides rather than cancelling our trip and wasting a day of vacation. Our banca was on the other side of the limestone cliffs, so we took a path through the mangroves to get to that beach. Raised wooden walkways extended the walking path for use during high tide when the lowest areas of the path would be submerged. Termites had built massive mud hills against the legs of these walkways. Some were about hip height.

We met our banca driver – I believe his name was Robiro (sp?) – and his assistant and loaded up for our trip.

Island 1: Matukad

We landed at Matukad just a few minutes after taking off from Gota. This first day of island hopping was for the islands nearest our resort. One banca was already beached when we pulled up, and two more were right behind us. I was a little disappointed that we would have to share “our island” with so many other people, but there was nothing I could do about. Matukad’s beach was small and wrapped around a limestone outcropping. At the back of the beach was a small grove of trees and then high limestone walls all around. Jeff immediately scrambled up the outcropping on the beach. Robiro followed effortlessly (and barefoot) up the sharp, rough facade. I was right behind him and heard him trying to explain something to Jeff. I heard the word “lake” and remembered that one of the islands we were supposed to visit had an interior lagoon. This must be it. We nodded and followed him down the rock face and across the beach, Brandon joining us on the way. I don’t know what I had expected as a means to get to this lagoon, but rock climbing wasn’t it. Robiro walked directly up to the limestone cliff and started climbing. I had a moment’s hesitation before reminding myself that this vacation was all about “Adventure!” and started climbing. Luckily, the rock face was naturally somewhat staggered and offered good hand and foot holds. We made it to the top quickly, but saw that now we would have to climb down to get to a good place to view the lagoon. This part was a little trickier.

A young couple had followed behind us and the woman, originally from the Philippines, knew Tagalog. She chatted with the guides and shared their information with us. Apparently, the lagoon’s floor was quicksand. We were far too high to get down to it anyway, but that satisfied and curiosity or desire I had to get closer. Legend has it that two kinds of fish used to live in the lagoon but one kind was killed off by fisherman. If I have the legend right, the other breed, which still lives in the lake (we saw 2 or 3 swimming around) is considered cursed to keep people from fishing for it. A man caught one and took home to his family. They ate the fish and it made them all very sick.

From our vantage point, we could see not only the vibrant green lake, but also miles and miles of ocean and islands on the other side of the cliff. The views were one of a kind, and I’m really glad I summoned the guts to climb, but after a few minutes my mild fear of heights kicked in and I was ready to get back to the sand. We spent about half an hour soaking in the water. I checked out the small grove of trees with Erin and we found a little hut raised off the ground for sleeping (so snakes and bugs don’t get you) and a bench seat wedged between two tree trunks. Staying the night on Matukad would have been an experience!

Another banca pulled up shortly thereafter and we took that as our cue to move on. The rest of the day we would be in a short convoy of bancas hopping from one island to the next.

Island 2: Lahus

The second island already had three bancas floating offshore, so it was a little busy. The beach at Lahus went clear across the center of the small island and was flanked by large limestone walls. The water here was pretty rough, so none of us got in the water. Jeff and Brandon spent our time here teaching our banca guides how to throw a football. They loved it. Erin, Danette, and I took pictures and explored the tiny island. The same couple from Matukad (Hannah and Darko) told us about a little cove around the rock face, so we waded into the water and around the edge. Behind it was a deep cut into the rock and a teeny tiny sand beach. Snails clung to the sides of the rock. The waves were powerful enough to push water all the way up into the secret hideaway.

Because it was so packed with people, we didn’t stay at Lahus too long. At this point, the weather was still overcast and breezy, but there were no signs of rain. Our choice to tough it out with the weather was turning out to be a good one.

Island 3: Cagbalinad

IMG_5916

We rounded the end of Cagbalinad Island and saw a desolate beach. I think all of us got a little excited by that site, but our banca motored right on by and around the side of the island to a beach where a banca was already floating. When we asked about the other beach he just shook his head “no,” unable to explain to us why it was off limits.

This beach was the smallest of the four we saw that day. Rock walls curved around all sides of the beach creating a protected cove with calm waters. A massive rock stood in the center of the beach. Jeff climbed the rock an lay down to soak up the rays that were now peaking through the clouds. Since there wasn’t much to explore on this small but beautiful beach, the rest of us took advantage of the calm ocean to soak in the water. A few bancas came and went, and finally we had an entire island to ourselves. Our banca guides napped in the gently rocking boat while we relaxed and enjoyed the peace and quiet.

P1120572

The boys at Cagbalinad

Island 4: Hunongan Cove

Our last stop was the cove around the bend from Gota Village. This was where the pricier cabins on the beach were, and I was curious to see what more money would have gotten us. The views from Hunongan were spectacular. We could see several islands spread out in front of us, backdropped by an expanse of ocean and voluminous clouds. The beach here was very long, so sharing it with others wasn’t an issue; you could easily get away from other groups. We laid our towels out and relaxed to the sound of waves. Brandon, sans towel, dug himself a cozy little throne in the sand and immediately fell asleep. We stayed at Hunongan for well over an hour, knowing it was the last stop on our first island hopping adventure. After his nap, Brandon made his way down the beach to take some pictures of the scenery that put mine to shame.

Reluctantly, we packed up and loaded the banca for our short trip to Gota. It was in the afternoon by the time we made it back to our cabins, so we decided to shower up and head into Caramoan town for dinner. It was risky, not knowing what the town had to offer for eateries, but we figured options there couldn’t be worse than what the resort had to offer.

We met at the front office and hitched a ride with the van driver. He dropped us off near the old Spanish church and we walked through the gated courtyard, admiring the architecture. As we came up to the church, we realized a service was going on and stayed away out of respect. A group of little girls followed us in what I can only assume was one of their father’s trikes (bicycle operated, not motorcycle), and Jeff did his best to tease them in English. I’m not sure they understood anything he said, but the intent was clear. They giggled and shouted things in their Tagalog dialect, which not even Danette could understand. As the sun set, we walked out of the courtyard and found ourselves in front of a school with a concrete basketball court. The building looked tired and worn, and I was reminded again of how fortunate I am and how lucky our students are to have the facilities we do.

(photo courtesy of D. Kehska)

(photo courtesy of D. Kehska)

Following side roads, we made our way back to the main road to check out the restaurants. We came across a bakery where Jeff tried to ask about some of the bread, but all the two girls behind the counter could do was giggle at him. Down the road was a woman who could keep her wits about her in spite of Jeff’s handsomeness, so we purchased small sweet rolls from her for breakfast and snacks for the next day. The restaurant selection was somewhat minimal unless we wanted to walk all the way through town, so we settled on a little courtyard restaurant called Anacleto’s that had a simple kind of charm. Maybe we were just traumatized by the food at Gota, but we all agreed that the food was amazing. Added bonus: it was ridiculously cheap, also unlike Gota. The five of ate and had several beers and sodas all for under $20. We spent dinner talking about our favorite islands and what we wanted to do with our second day. Danette and I had asked at the front office about other island hopping options and found out that for a little more money we could go to some of the more remote islands. At dinner we decided to extend our island hopping for another day so we could see more of the islands.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Satisfied and full, we found a trike home, which was a little tricky on the quiet Thursday night. With no streetlights outside of town, we traveled home in the near dark. Danette was struck with wonder by the fire flies swarming trees along the road. I couldn’t help but smile at her wonder. Up to this point, we had been the ones always awestruck by our experiences while the veteran teachers looked on, remembering their own first experiences in the Philippines. Finally, we got to be on the other side, watching someone else get really excited by something new or rare. I grew up catching lightning bugs in jars and watching them out the car window, blinking on and off over the fields. It was nice to see something I take for granted through the eyes of someone who appreciates it.

Upon arriving back at Gota, I parted ways with the rest of the group going to play cards so I could update my journal. I remember taking a break so my hand could rest and woke up an hour later to Jeff coming in. A highly satisfying day of vacation always ends in exhaustion.

*A HUGE thanks to the Keshkas for sharing their gorgeous photos.

Getting There

On Tuesday, the day before our vacation was actually supposed to start, the Keshkas and Mayroses headed to Manila for a day in the city. Aside from our arrival, doctor’s appointments, and school-related functions, Jeff and I had never been to Manila. Those trips were all strictly business, so we didn’t get to see much of the city other than our short trips to the mall after cross country meets.

We dropped Ringo off at a vet/kennel in the morning, met the Keshkas at their house, and headed to the bus station in Olongapo. I’m sure some of you will laugh at this, but I was actually kind of excited to ride the bus. Iowa does not have an extensive public transportation system, so I had never ridden one before. Well, I’ve ridden it enough for a lifetime after just one trip.

Danette warned me that the bus would be cold because they keep the air con cranked way up. Wouldn’t you know, this is the one time a bus has terrible air con. Hot air blew on us the entire ride, which is about three hours with traffic. I was in yoga pants, which was kind of miserable, but I did my best to not move much. As soon as a few seats opened up, I moved so Jeff and I wouldn’t have to sit so close. (He says I’m a furnace.) I got comfy in my new seat, hogging the two vents above me, and actually started to cool down. This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. And at that moment I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. On the floor, not two inches from my foot, was a clear plastic bag filled with vomit, jiggling like a swollen breast implant, ready to explode. It turned my stomach just looking at it.

I figured out right away where it came from. At the bus terminals vendors board the bus and walk up and down the aisle selling treats: pork rinds with vinegar sauce, hot dogs (dyed red for whatever reason) on a stick and other such “delicious” treats. This bag was undoubtedly from one such treat, and my guess was that the contents were also from said treat. Note to self: NEVER eat bus vendor’s food.

We made it to our stop shortly after that and got a cab to our hotel, the F1. It was really upscale but cheap. We got up to our room and were disappointed to find two “full size” beds that would never fit two people comfortably. I quickly volunteered to take the couch.

After the hotel, we took a cab to Green Hills Mall. I had heard stories about this place and couldn’t wait to see it for myself. GH isn’t like a regular mall. Instead of upscale stores, it houses vendors selling knock off purses, shoes, bags, and cheaper clothing. There’s also a pearl market. We started with the pearl market I’d heard so much about, and it didn’t disappoint. Rows upon rows upon rows of men and women selling pearls of all colors, shapes, and kinds. South China Sea pearls are famous around the world, and here they were in the thousands. There were freshwater pearls (which I find quite beautiful for their asymmetrical shape), gold pearls, green pearls, and some of the largest pearls I’ve ever seen. Danette gave me a quick lesson on how to spot fake pearls. One of the most obvious tells is the color. Gold pearls are absolutely beautiful, but they aren’t too vibrant. Some vendors had pearls the color of the Capitol’s dome. Definitely fake.

Next, we headed to the knock-off vendors. Jeff and I wanted to buy backpacks, and there were PLENTY of fake North Face bags to choose from. Personally, I could care less about the brand name, but these bags were pretty cheap. We got the largest size (60 liters) for about $35 each. These will be ideal for traveling and hiking, which we plan to do plenty of as soon as Jeff heals.

Jeff had fun haggling, which involves a lot of joking around and teasing. We heard calls of “I give you good price” and “my friend” as we walked past each stall. I found it a little bit wearing, but Jeff reacted like it was a parade and we were lead float, waving and smiling. I credit him with getting us such a good deal.

We shopped around some more, and I found several cute dresses and tops for really cheap, but I restrained myself. I’ll definitely be making a trip back to Green Hills.

We headed back to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. Several of the other teachers were also in town to catch flights the next morning, so we all met up for dinner at a place called Chelsea’s. It was there that I fell in love with Manila.

Since our move to the Philippines, I’ve had to accept that western food just isn’t the same here. I wasn’t surprised by this – c’mon, it’s not the West, so why should western food be good here?! – but I missed it. Manila, being a metropolitan hub where many westerners come for business, had all that I needed to fix my cravings. It was like being home again! Our meals were absolutely amazing. To anyone back home, it probably would have just been typical restaurant food, but to us, it was 5-star quality. I savored every bite of my seafood pasta and endless warm bread. Then the bill came, and I saw that this was a western meal at a western price. I definitely don’t miss paying $50 for dinner for two. I’d gotten used to thinking $25 for two of us was expensive.

After dinner we went out for drinks at a place called Drafts and headed home fairly early. Our flight was set to leave at 6:15 and it would be a lonnnnnng day of travel. Manila had been good to us for the 5 hours we spent in it, and I’m determined to make another leisure trip soon.

Dark and early (no sun at 4 AM) we got up, packed our bags, and headed off to the airport. We met Erin at the entrance and checked in, no problems. Leg one of the trip went perfectly. Our flight from Manila to Virac was maybe an hour. It felt like we no more than took off and we were landing. Danette gets all the credit for planning this trip, and she warned us before we even agreed to come that it would be a bit complicated to actually get there. Caramoan is what most people would call “off the grid” because it’s so hard to get there. To me, this was half the appeal.

We landed in Virac and had to find two trikes to take us from Virac to Codon, about an hour away. I had never ridden in a trike at this point, so I was pretty excited to check another new form of transportation of my list. Trikes are motorcycles with large covered sidecars and luggage racks. We hired two trikes for P900 ($24, split 5 ways). The trike ride was awesome, not because trikes are super comfortable, but because it was novel and the scenery was amazing. I began to see why Danette kept calling this and “off the grid” trip. With every mile we drove, we seemed to get further and further away from the westernized world of Subic Bay and Manila. Buildings were replaced with rice fields and giant palms. Busses and taxis were replaced with caribow and bicycles. Concrete homes gave way to bamboo huts. I felt like I was getting a drive-by look into a more authentic Philippines.

Image

The trike brought us to Codon where we hired a banka boat to take us to Caramoan. This is where things got a little tricky. Because we had gotten so far from “civilization,” communicating was getting a little more difficult. We had been spoiled back in Subic where everyone spoke great English. Thankfully, Danette knew enough Tagalog to explain in simple terms what we wanted and how much we would pay. We got a banca for P1500 ($38). The waters were very rough, so we had to stay very close to the coastline, but first we had to make our way from one island to the other, straight across the choppy waters. I was in the front of the banca, and the drivers passed a tarp up to me.  After the first wave doused me, I figured out what it was for.

P1120459

Image

After watching the boat dip down into waves three or four times, I figured it might be best for me to turn around so I couldn’t see what was going on. This way I could also keep us all dry. The ride took about two hours, but after we got across the open expanse, I was able to put the tarp down and enjoy the calmer waters and more beautiful scenery. To our right were cliffs of charcoal gray and streaked with orange. Small caves opened here and there and the waves crashed into them. Vegetation clung to the sides of the cliffs and sprouted out of the top in bright green tufts. To our left was ocean as far as we could see and the occasional uninhabited island. The water was a color I can barely even begin to describe. I’ve seen turquoise and crystal clear, stormy gray, and muddy brown. I’ve never seen a blue so deep and so rich in water before. This is going to sound terrible, but it reminded me of that awful water at Adventureland Land that was so full of dye it could stain your clothes. But this was real. Liquid sapphire.

Image

By the end of the ride, we all had sunburned necks and salty skin. I couldn’t have cared less. Bankas are by far my favorite form of transportation in the Philippines. We paid our drivers and took a deep breath. Time to find a way to get all the way to the other side of the island. We had hoped to find a banka that would take us straight to Gota Village Resort where we were staying. We aren’t sure why that didn’t happen, but my best guess is that the water was even rougher on that side of the island. We climbed the steps to the top of the port and before we could even ask about rides to Gota, a van pulled up beside us and the driver said, “Gota Village?” How did he know?! The van was the free shuttle to Gota and he had been there waiting for us because they knew we were arriving that day. They probably also had a good estimate of how long it would take us because they knew when our flight landed. That’s possibly another reason why the banca drivers took us to that port. We didn’t ask questions. After 4 hours of traveling, we just wanted to get there.

We hopped into the non-air conditioned heap of a van and took off.  The ride was horrible, but the views were once again breathtaking. It seemed like each leg of the journey brought better and better scenery. We bumped and jolted down the road and through Caramoan town where we saw a Spanish church, over 300 years old. Then came the rice fields against a mountain backdrop. And last, we went through the tiny town of Ilawod. Children stopped and stared as we went by. The houses were bordered by bamboo fences and vibrant jungle plants and separated from the road by a trench to help with flooding during rainy season. The families of Ilawod lived in simple concrete homes and likely did not have a lot of money, but they clearly took pride in what they had. The courtyards and gates to each small home were immaculate and carefully tended.

We finally reached Gota Village, our home for the next three days. This is where the production and filming crew for Survivor had stayed during last season’s taping. Rumor has it the next season of Survivor will also be filmed in Caramoan. The cabins at Gota were small and simple, stacked up on the sides of the valley. The main road leading past the front office led down to the dining area and beach, which were hemmed in by densely forested, limestone cliffs. Our ocean view was pleasantly interrupted by an island. The waves crashed against the limestone outcroppings, creating a foamy spray, their volume amplified by the natural acoustical setting. I could have sat on that beach forever!

Image

We checked into our rooms, rinsed off the grime of travel, and headed to the dining lodge for lunch. It was clear after our first meal that the food would not be a highlight of our adventure, but at least we got to sit on a covered patio enjoying the view.

Image

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the beach, napping under the overcast sky and playing in the huge waves. We talked about our plan for the next day and decided to spend it on an island-hopping excursion organized through Gota Village.

Tired from a full day of travel, we spent the night playing our favorite card game, Bang!, and went to bed fairly early. A few rain showers had popped up in the early evening, but that in no way prepared us for the night of strong winds and torrential rain. I slept fitfully, interrupted every couple of hours by the storm outside. Though neither Jeff nor I said anything, we were both wondering if we’d get washed out of the valley and down into the ocean.

Things did not look good for tomorrow’s day of island hopping.

Vacation Part 1: Anawangin Cove

As mentioned in the last post, our break was extended by a couple of days, but we didn’t know about this until after we had booked our tickets for vacation in Caramoan. As disappointing as this was, we made the best of it by going camping at Anawangin Cove with a group of teachers.

We set off on Sunday morning in three vehicles with two dogs, eight people, and TONS of food and gear. The drive took about an hour, then we had a 20 minute banka boat ride to the cove. I was a little worried about how Ringo would react to the boat ride, but he took it like a champ. Much like or flight over here, he just curled up and rode it out. He was far more scared of the water than the boat. He’s never seen “moving” water before, and the rolling waves crashing into the beach freaked him out. Every time they came in, he would run up the sand to get away.

Our banka turned a corner around the craggy coastline and Anawangin Cove came into view:

P1120428

The view, as you can see, was absolutely breathtaking. After we landed and unloaded, we sprinted up the beach (HOT sand) and found a place to camp. I was surprised to see tall, skinny pine trees in our campground. I’ve gotten so used to palm trees that these were a welcome change and reminded me of home.

P1120445

Our campsite came with two covered areas and several picnic tables. We had more than enough space. The beach was just over the top of the hill and we could hear the waves meeting the shore – lovely white noise at night. We arrived in the early afternoon and spent the day in water, playing beach football, and exploring the freshwater river and pond just off to the left of our camping area.

picture courtesy of Danette Keshka

picture courtesy of Danette Keshka

The beach was really nice, aside from the hot sand. The water was shallow and there was a sandbar about 30 feet out from shore. During low tide you could sit on the sand bar like a second beach. Renzo, the Keshka’s dog, LOVES the water. He was in and out of the waves, barking at those playing football, and playing endless games of fetch. Poor Ringo was sat sullenly on the beach, pouting. When he was a puppy, I had taken him to a lake in Des Moines and carried him out to where he couldn’t touch. As soon as I let go he swam for shore. I decided to give this another try at Anawangin. Same result. : ( But then a crazy thing happened: Jeff called to him from the water and after some coaxing, Ringo swam VOLUNTARILY all the way to him! He immediately turned around and went back, but hey, that’s a huge step for our water-shy pup! I was really proud of him. We got him to do it again a few more times and even convinced him to swim to the sand bar where he could be closer to all of us. I wouldn’t say he’s a water loving dog now, but he’s definitely a lot more accepting.

After the sun went down it actually started to get “cold.” I know those of you back home are laughing at that idea and you’re right to. “Cold” was about 70 degrees. But it was windy! We’re used to a consistent 85 with only a few degrees shift at night. Another highlight of the trip for me was this drop in temperature because it meant we could have a campfire. We made s’mores and Craig played guitar. It was a really good time.

Photo courtesy of Craig Greenan

(Danette, Natalie, and me) Photo courtesy of Craig Greenan

Even though we overpacked, we managed to eat and drink almost everything we brought with us, which was a huge relief when it was time to pack up and leave. The banka picked us up and we headed back to our drop off location. The beach from the boat to the inn where we parked was fairly long and Ringo kept stopping and laying down because the sand was too hot. Jeff ended up carrying him part way. When we got him home, I noticed his paws were pretty red and sandy. I got him in the shower and rinsed them out the best I could, but there was no doubt they were hurting him. I felt terrible.

The next day we began the journey for vacation part 2.

Book Week

Two weeks ago (yes, I’m a little behind on posts) was Book Week at Brent Subic. As the sole middle school English teacher, I was the representative on the committee for the middle school. I have to admit, I found this job to be pretty intimidating. I went into the experience not really grasping what Book Week was supposed to look like, but I did my best to offer ideas and to make the ideas of others happen at the middle school level. In the end, I think it went really well, and I’ve got some great ideas brewing for next year.

Basically the week is a celebration of reading. We had a book fair from Scholastic going on all week so kids could purchase books. Once each day we had D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read) where the entire school read for 15 minutes, no matter what class they were in. Kids got a kick out of this, especially if they had P.E. during that time.

Because we had a unique situation in which we were in a 6-day school week for Book Week, I suggested that we make that sixth day a big event, culminating Book Week with a bang. No one wants to go to school on a Saturday, so I figured the least we could do was try to make it fun. (Side note: the reason we had school on a Saturday was to make up for all our typhoon/flood days. Also, we had two more “no school” days added to the calendar for the following Monday and Tuesday due to a national election. Our fall break was slated to start Wednesday, so really, we traded 1 Saturday for two extra days of break. Not a bad deal!)

Our Saturday was jam-packed with Book Week activities which included a costume parade, decorated room tours, a scavenger hunt, and buddy reading with the elementary school. That Saturday there was also a soccer tournament going on at the school, so we made sure our kids got a chance to go cheer on the Brent Subic team.

Prior to Book Week’s start, each middle school homeroom (there are six, two for each grade) had chosen a book to inspire their costumes and room decorations. The room decorations were my crazy idea for Book Week, and I was pretty nervous about the way it would turn out. Basically, each homeroom decorated their classroom to look like the book they chose, and during our room tours on Saturday the elementary students came to each room. They voted for the best room and that homeroom group won a pizza party. Some of the room themes were Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland (mine), Hunger Games, and Toy Story (Jeff’s). Toy Story was a bit of a stretch for a BOOK theme, but they made it work, and they WON! Because I was so involved in the planning and procedures of the week, I am sorry to say I was unable to get to Jeff’s homeroom to get pictures. I never even got to see their decorations! : (

Now, I am not, nor have I ever been, a big fan of costumes/costume parties/Halloween/etc. But considering that I was part of the committee AND a homeroom teacher, I really had no choice. My class decided I should be Alice, which was fine by me – an easy enough costume to throw together. Jeff, on the other hand, was in dire need of a costume. We searched for inspiration at the local malls and online before settling on making an Etch-A-Sketch costume. Not bad… This idea got axed when I discovered the costume closet for the drama department at school. I have never seen so many costumes in my life! Because store-bought costumes are hard to come by in the Philippines, most people have theirs made for them, which is actually really cheap. The school does this for every play/production and they keep all the costumes. I found what I thought would be a perfect Alice costume, but when I got it home I realized it was wayyyyy too big. For me. And wayyyyy too perfect for Jeff. I convinced him to try it on, explaining that he could go as a doll or something. Well, he had a better idea: Little Bo Peep, an actual character from Toy Story. I was headed to the mall for a last piece to my costume anyway, so I picked up a some yellow ribbon and found a “bonnet.” We made a staff out of a broom handle and coat hanger, and Jeff made a sign that said, “Have you seen my sheep?” to complete the look. Again, I have no pictures, BUT I know the yearbook staff got plenty, and as soon as I get ahold of one I’ll share it, much to Jeff’s chagrin.

Saturday we started off with the runway show where each class struts their stuff, showing off their costumes to a crowd of students, staff, and parents. When Jeff got on the stage, the crowd went absolutely nuts. What is it about a guy in drag that people find so entertaining? It probably helped that Jeff showed a little leg when he got to the end of the runway. 🙂 After that, it was no surprise that they won the room decorations, though people are giving me a hard time that the competition was fixed so my husband could win. Ha! They obviously don’t know me that well. If it were fixed, MY class would have won!

The rest of the day flew by in a blur, but I’m pretty sure everyone had a blast. My favorite part of the day was the buddy reading. The middle school students wrote and illustrated stories which we bound into books and shared with the elementary students. I figured the little ones would enjoy this, but I could tell my students felt pretty important and enjoyed the adoration from the kids. Most of them put a lot of work into their books, knowing they’d be subjected to the brutally honest opinions of young readers.

All in all, it went well. Next year I’ll be better prepared and will make sure there is more time to plan for room decorations and book making. I’ve got some fun ideas for additional projects and plan to get started right away in August.

I was exhausted by the end of the day, but it felt like a success. And there was a sweet reward waiting for me: 8 carefree days of VACATION!