Thursday, January 26, 2006

La Union Trip

I wrote this after we got back from a trip to La Union in October of 2003. After reading it again after more than two years I can see I come off somewhat snide, but that's me! Stay tuned for more on other trips we've taken in-country.

I wanted to take a short vacation trip between school semesters. I’d heard that it was pleasant enough up in the northern Luzon province of La Union, on the northeastern shore of the Lingayen Gulf basin, so I asked around and heard the Southern Palms Resort was an okay place. I went on-line and made reservations via email the night before we were to depart. My thought was to simply ride a bus up there, but Amalia wanted to take the Swagman van advertised as “Fly the Bus.” That’s a local hotel transport service that goes to anywhere the Swagman hotel chain has hotels. She called them and the counter girl said to be there by 8 am the next morning.

The next morning we had our favorite Timog Park trike driver pick us up, and off we went with our one little suitcase and my knapsack. We were at the hotel with 10 minutes to spare. I sat and waited in the lobby as Amalia began to speak heatedly with the counter girl. I approached to find out what the big deal was. Amalia told me we had been misinformed; that the bus to La Union only goes twice a week and Wednesday morning wasn’t one of them. Amalia wanted to continue with her verbal remonstration, but I interrupted.

“Screw this place. Let’s get out of here,” I said loud enough for anyone in the lobby to hear.

We jumped into another trike and headed to the bus deport in Dau. Amalia was still fuming when we arrived there about ten minutes later. She wouldn’t even answer me as I tried to ask about the availability of buses. To me, it was all no big deal. It would have cost us $40 for the round trip by the Swagman bus and we wouldn’t have had the luxury of choosing when we came back. By catching our own bus it was only going to cost us $12 for the round trip and we could come back when we felt ready to do so.

The next town north of Dau towards our destination is Mabalacat, home of the very first WWII Kamikaze pilots. Unfortunately, the Mabalacat Bridge is being overhauled, and it will probably take many more weeks for it to be reopened. In the meantime, all large trucks and buses have to take a 45-minute detour through the towns of Magalang and Concepcion. It pays not to be in a big hurry over here. God knows most Filipinos are rarely in a hurry; I think more because it would be futile than for any other reason. If you are an impatient person, DO NOT live here, and think long and hard about even visiting. Impediments like the one I just mentioned keep foreigners from investing here, BUT it’s also kept the cost of living down for all of us who can stand the inefficiencies of this place.

Speaking of which, when we finally arrived at our hotel a little over four and a half hours later, we were delighted to find our room ready for us. It was on the beach and it was only going to cost us a little over $20 a night. The woman who checked us in walked us toward the bungalow, and handed us the key as we approached the door. Strange that she didn’t take us all the way TOO the door, but non-service-oriented behavior is not unknown in these parts, so I blew it off. When we got inside, I figured out why she was so hesitant to take us all the way inside. The fan wouldn’t rotate, the TV was about 6 inches across and couldn’t even be seen from the bed (Heaven forbid!), the bathroom fixtures were falling to pieces with oxidation, plus the room was only half-assed clean. Time to change rooms! We made a complaint and soon enough we were moved to a family-sized bungalow much more to our liking. Not much cleaner, but at least everything worked.

Most of you know I am a history buff, so please enjoy a little background on our vacation spot that forms the eastern shore of Lingayen Gulf basin:

“In January 1945, three years after the Japanese landed at Lingayen Gulf on the northwest coast of Luzon, Gen MacArthur's Sixth Army went ashore early on the 9th, supported as usual by the Seventh Fleet with its Royal Australian Navy element. As the US forces spread out and head south towards Manila, a secondary landing is made at the end of the month on Bataan Peninsula to stop the Japanese falling back there as Gen MacArthur did in 1942. Kamikaze attacks continued to inflict heavy losses throughout the region; mainly in ships damaged, but on January 4th escort carrier "OMMANEY BAY" on passage to Lingayen is sunk off Mindoro. Here is an interesting item: The first Kamikaze attack of the entire war originated from a Jap airstrip, which is now an area near where I play golf in the town of Mabalacat, just north of where we live in Angeles City. Cool, huh?”

Anyway, Amalia and I had a pleasant dinner at the hotel restaurant, also right on the beach and only a few short steps from our room. I ordered sweet and sour pork. It looked like it, but it was missing one thing—actually two things. There was NO sweet and NO sour! Amalia didn’t believe me until she tried some. It was amazing how it could look so good and yet be almost tasteless. Oh well, the meat was tender so I ate it. I told the waitress but she just smiled and shrugged. I guess you can’t have everything. You can only complain so much before you come across as a spoiled jerk.

After dinner, we sat on our front terrace and enjoyed the view of the late sun sparkling off the rippling waves. The sound of gentle lapping with the occasional louder crash of an alpha wave onto the dark beach sand only 15 or so feet to our front and below us was calming and restful—just what I needed.

A slender fellow in shorts and a tank top approached and wished us a good afternoon. He was a boatman and wanted to know if we wanted to take a day trip to a nearby deserted beach and do some snorkeling. I told him to meet us right there at ten the next morning.

Amalia and I retired for a nap. We woke up to a fading red sky having just missed the sunset. The breaking wave caps were still tinged pink from the freshly set sun. I declared, “Tomorrow we will make sure to see the sun slip into the water; it should be gorgeous.”

We skipped dinner because our lunch had been so late and we decided to go to the hotel go-go club called “Stiletto.” We took our seats at the bar and watched the girls cavort in their bikinis. They danced quite enthusiastically, with much more gusto than the lackluster go-go girls in Angeles City where we live. We called it a night by 10:30 and fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of crashing waves.

We ate a leisurely breakfast at the beachside restaurant at 8 am. I had an omelet. I figured the cook couldn’t possibly mess that up. Sure enough, it was very good.

Later on, back at the room, I found that the World Series was on live. I opened our door to the wonderful sight and sounds of tropical paradise while I marveled at the modern wonder of watching a live baseball game from all the way on the other side of what now seems to be a very small world. I can still remember my years living at Karamursel Air Base in Turkey as a kid in the 60’s, only about 10 or so years before the days of cable, VHS players (much less DVD!), and no TV whatsoever. There weren’t even any Turkish stations to watch at that time. Of course, I don’t remember any Americans even having a TV over there anyway. ‘Now,’ I thought, ‘here I am in a far off, remote corner of the world watching a World Series baseball game AS it happens. How is it that technology has come so far in such a short time?’ Aside from marveling at the unlikeliness of my situation, I enjoyed the sublime sensation of watching the detested Yankees lose on a walk-off homer to a rookie Marlin in extra innings. Yes!

At 10 sharp the Bangka boatman pulled his outrigger onto the beach in front of our room. Amalia didn’t want to go saying she’d probably just get seasick. I shamed her into it and we gingerly made our way into the oversized canoe. I had the boatman take a picture of us just before shoving off. He pull-started the two-stroke engine and off we went into the mini roller coaster swells of the gulf. I was amazed at the loudness of the little inboard. It clacked along to the pulse of none-too-little explosions, like one continuous string of firecrackers. Our boatman was pretty good at keeping the bow aimed into the swells and timing our speed so that the hull wouldn’t smash full force into the beginning or end of the occasional four or five foot wave. At times, however, he didn’t quite get it right and we would smash down awkwardly into a trough with a spine-jangling jolt. The resulting spray splashed and soaked us. Three times on our way to the promised little white beach the engine missed to the point that it could not recover and so completely died. I enjoyed the three or four minutes it took our man to re-access the engine, re-spin the pull cord, before pulling hard enough to re-ignite it’s single sparkplug and cylinder. Until he could fire it up though, the feeling of being in a tiny boat a good mile or so from land in a sea of gently rolling three-foot waves was quite delightful, and us without a single life jacket between the three of us!

Amalia nervously demanded that I save her first if something happened and we sank.

I poked fun at her uneasy remark: “Ah, as opposed to saving someone else first? Who else here am I going to save?”

“You know I can’t swim!” she reminded me.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’d better save you since I don’t have all that much insurance on you!”

It wasn’t long before we neared the little white beach. “That used to be Wallace Air Base,” our boatman pointed to the right side of the beach as we approached.

Sure enough, it still looked like an American base with obligatory chain link fence still in good shape and half dozen or so red and white radio towers visible above foliaged cliffs. As a matter of fact, our little white beach looked to be directly under the cliffs below the abandoned base. I could see the tops of light poles just visible over the thick plant life high above our sandy deserted corner of heaven. I understand that Wallace used to be an annex to Clark Air Base. I assume it was some kind of communication site by the look of all the radio towers. Our guide informed us of a rumor that some Japanese were going to develop the old station into a resort. ‘That’s all you need,’ I thought, ‘another resort around here.’

We had passed about a dozen resorts in the several miles of road as we came close to Southern Palms, and there were many more of them all along that same road as it continued up the coast. The japs, I have noticed, love to have their very own places separate from other foreign tourists. Fine by me, I’d much rather NOT be anywhere near THEM as well. Let them hang out in their own little enclaves. I suppose liking Japanese is the same as liking cats, which I don’t. One usually has to develop a taste for them, sort of like learning to eat raw fish. And just the same as cats, Japanese aren’t all that friendly and they even have the same persona as the furry little rat eaters—haughty and full of themselves. How do I know this? —I lived there for over four years! Then again, I guess some would say, “How ironic, an American accusing someone else of being full of themselves. If that’s not the pot calling the kettle black!”

The beach had two things going for it: 1) It was isolated with no people in sight, and 2) the sand was pale in color instead of the mud-colored stuff at our resort area. I couldn’t help but compare it to the beautiful beaches we encountered at Puerto Galera six months ago though, and compared to that splendorous spot, this place was disappointing. The water was full of brown silt and it was nearly impossible to see more than a couple of feet into it. Right off the bat I noticed the paucity of fish as compared to the millions of brightly colored tropical beauties in the Puerto Galeran waters.

Our boat guy let me use his goggles, snorkel and fins. He was concerned that the fins wouldn’t fit me, but I showed him my girly feet and he handed over his flippers without a comment more.

Even with the snorkeling gear I was disappointed with the underwater views. The few fish in sight were brown and unremarkable, like underwater sparrows. Even so, I did my thing and enjoyed myself. I came out once to let Amalia smear me with lotion. There’s nothing worse than a snorkeling-induced sunburn. The water keeps you cool so you don’t feel the burn coming on, but once you get out, you are one hurting beet-red puppy!

After an hour and a half we saddled up and headed back to the hotel. We passed by a very clear area of water and with great interest I pointed at the bottom, which was easily visible. I yelled a query to our boatman. He yelled back, “It’s about 3 meters deep here with lots of coral.” Back at the resort I asked him to come back that afternoon so I could snorkel in that area with the coral and clear water. He readily agreed.

At 2:30 pm, without Amalia, we chug-chugged our way back to that intriguing area of comparatively crystalline water. The boatman killed the engine on our little boat named the “Jan Jesus,” named after his young son, and threw out a very intimidating anchor. It wasn’t heavy, but it had three claw-like metal hooks, each about three feet long. I knew something like that couldn’t be healthy for coral, but I said nothing being just a visitor to those parts. I took off my shirt noticing yet again how much weight I’ve gained these past three or four months, and dropped into the warm water just inside the left outrigger. I had to really stretch high to get hold of the boat’s gunwale.

‘Now how the hell am I going to get back in when its time,’ I wondered.

‘Never mind, all in due time,’ I decided as the guide handed me the mask and snorkel. I put them on before he handed over the fins. Once “snorkeled up” I eagerly submerged into the deep. Then ever mindful of taking pics for my Yahoo Group I took out my snorkel mouthpiece and shouted, “Hey Pare (pronounced Pah-ray), I’m going to get a starfish, you take a picture of me holding it up, okay?” I had seen scads of them as the boat drifted to a stop, but now that I wanted one to show off for a photo I couldn’t see a single one. At last, I spotted a big blue one about 8 or 9 feet below me against the side of a seaweed-covered boulder. I took a deep breath, jackknifed, kicked down to it, and carefully picked it up. I took it the surface and had him snap my picture. I told my friend in the boat to take a couple more “action shots” before putting the camera away. He had no problem figuring out my camera, and I realized he did this sort of touristy thing all the time.

I focused on snorkeling. The swells we boated through on the way there now made my occasion as a human jellyfish, floating about at the whim of the wave surge, quite fascinating. First thing I noticed was the long hair-like seaweed. What made it so noticeable was the unremitting heave of seawater. First, it would snap the 4 and 5 foot long brown vegetation one way, and then as the undertow reversed direction, the long fronds flew back into the opposite direction, snapping exactly like a bullwhip—and I was part of it. I wasn’t getting snapped, but my body was definitely moving right along with it, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it, so I went with the flow so to speak.

The fish, the few I first noticed, were also getting tossed about. Somehow they managed to keep together their integrity as a swarm, or a group. No, I guess “school” is the correct term. The longer I observed this underwater world, however, the more life in it I discerned. I spotted sea cucumbers and sea slugs, starfish of all colors, shellfish, and lots of “tropical” fish albeit diminutive. The place didn’t teem with finned, scaly critters, but there were a lot of modest sized ones of beautiful bright colors and assorted shapes. I’ve seen many similar looking creatures in people’s fish tanks. At first all I seemed to see were the brown “sparrow fish,” as I call them. Then I noticed in ones, twos, and sixes, the other more brilliant types. It’s as if my eyes had to become practiced to the sight of them before they actually became visible to me. It wasn’t Puerto Galera, but it wasn’t bad either.

As far as coral, the place was hurting. The ball-shaped brain coral and the aptly named barrel coral were evident, but only here and there and all were quite undersized. None were in any significant formations like you see in the undersea TV specials. Then I began to see huge patches of what used to be stag horned coral lying in flattened, lifeless heaps. They looked like crushed piles of long-dead grayish bones. It was sad to see. There wasn’t even any seaweed growing amongst it, almost as if it had been poisoned or blown up. I felt sickened looking at it.

What also struck me was that even though I was noticing the presence of fish, there were no large ones of any kind. The biggest was maybe six inches long and even these “whoppers” were few and far apart. My guide pointed out to me the many boats similar to his that were lined up with filament nets strung between them. Swimmers were in the water splashing the water to their front, their job to scare their prey into the stretched nets. I realized where all the fish were; they were all eaten! These people had devoured their very livelihood into oblivion! It was depressing to think about, and I knew I never wanted to come back to that place again because of it. I suppose people have to eat, but couldn’t they do it in a smarter more sensible way?

I slowly explored all around the bobbing boat. I circled in a meandering clockwise fashion in a radial going out about 150 feet depending on how the current shoved me around. Every so often I forced myself to look up and find the boat. After 5 or 7 minutes I would find myself in a trance from the sound of my own measured breathing and the lack of sound in my ears. It’s hard to describe, kind of like the silent crackle the old record player styluses make between song tracks. Sometimes I would force myself to awareness of the surface, raise my head and look into the direction of where I thought the boat should be, and it wouldn’t be there. Instead, I’d spot it in an entirely unexpected direction, like directly behind me! It got to be like a game, exciting yet alarming at the same time.

After I had made a complete circle around the brightly colored craft, I figured it was time to call it a day. I could see that the skin of my hands was “dish-panned.” They were as pale as a frog’s belly and as wrinkled as a brain. Yuck! I kicked my fins and soon I was between the boat and the left outrigger again. I threw each item of my borrowed equipment back up into the boat and reached up to the side. I tried to do a pull up on the gunwale and realized my bad shoulder was NOT going to allow me to do much of that to any effect. I could get absolutely no leverage whatsoever. I tried to hold onto both the horizontal outrigger support and the gunwale and that was even worse. The boat dude was at a loss as I asked him, “You wouldn’t happen to have a ladder up there, would ya?”

He considered my plight for a moment. “Just wait, I’ll make something,” he said as he tied a rope to one of the horizontal supports. He fashioned a length of rope that looped over the side of the boat. It only went about 12 inches over though, so I told him, “You’ll have to make it down to the waterline if I’m going to get my foot into it.”

“Okay, just wait,” he said. He retied it so that the ½ inch nylon rope hung over the side all the way into the water. I put my left foot into it, and used it to painfully push my chubby body up over the edge of the bobbing boat. I say “painfully” because the bottoms of my feet, my left foot especially, are beset with tender tumorous tormenting things called fibroids. They seemed to have formed over the years as a reaction to the hundreds of running miles I subjected them to over the last 30 or so years. Nevertheless, I made it back into the boat. What a relief!

As I toweled off, the boat guy asked me, “I’ll just go in for five minutes. I will get some seaweed and starfish for cooking.”

“Sure, take your time,” I responded agreeably. Sure enough, in short order he tossed up a handful of brownish green underwater weed, and after a few more dives he had three or four starfish to boot. “I never realized anyone ate starfish,” I said. They certainly didn’t look appetizing and as stiff and as solid as they felt in my fingers, I couldn’t imagine anyone trying to make them edible. After completing his catch, he reached up, grabbed the gunwale with one hand, the front outrigger support with his other and smoothly pulled himself up and into the boat.

“Showoff!” I thought. I snapped a photo of his “catch” for my Group. The shot looks rather pleasing with the brightly colored interior of the boat as a backdrop, although certainly not very tasty looking. Oh well, what is one to do when most of the fish of any size have already been consumed?

We made it back to the resort in plenty of time to catch the sunset. I snapped a couple shots of Amalia sitting on the parapet of our beach porch. I was hoping the hazy sky would add to the beauty, but instead the sun disappeared behind the murk a good five degrees before the horizon. I was thankful I didn’t wait for the sun to go lower or I would have lost it completely. It must be that this time of the year causes the sky to be obscured by what appears to be dust-laden air, or maybe its just pollution from all the fires these people seem determined to set all the time. They burn everything, almost like they suffer from some kind of national compulsion to ignite combustibles. Instead of simply throwing biodegradable brush away into the fields, they burn it. I’ve seen people sweep up a tiny pile of leaves and twigs and then proceed to light it up. Imagine the haze of hundreds of these little fires all over the region? And if the rains don’t come everyday like they are now not want to do as the rainy season runs down, the sky just seems to grow hazier and filthier. Well, what can I do? It’s not my country. I guess it’s always easy to criticize, but I speak of the good things too, I hope.

That afternoon I had pizza waiting for me when I returned. I hadn’t eaten a thing since breakfast, so even though it was cold it tasted fantastic. Pizza is another one of those cuisines almost impossible to mess up.

We decided to check out the other local girly bar called Tramps located out on the main drag. We caught a lift to it by trike and told the driver to return in an hour and a half. There were a couple of loudmouth Americans in there who really got on my nerves, so I was happy when it was time to go. We went back to Stilettos, only an even more obnoxious fat American fellow was in there, and the other idiot I thought we had escaped from in the other bar soon joined him. So much for that—we called it a night.

The next day we decided to call our last in San Fernando, La Union. (San Fernando is the town, and La Union is the province analogous to a state in the US.) Amalia was anxious to see the kids, so after watching enough of game 5 to be sure that the Marlins had a good chance to go on and beat the hated Yankees, we checked out and caught a trike out to the main road. We waited until an aircon bus going south came by and our trike driver flagged it down for us. We got on and headed home.


Kevin said...

Great narrative. Felt like I was there.

Ed said...

Loved the story. It seems like where ever I have traveled overseas, there are always some loud obnoxious Americans around. Like you, it kind of disgusts me and makes me want to distance myself from them. I try to lead by example that not all Americans are like that.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Americans don't have a monopoly on being obnoxious, but we do have our share. Most of us aren't like that, but it just takes that one irritating fellow to give all of us a bad name.