Thursday, May 27, 2010

Art Linkletter, I really wanted him to live forever. . .

Art Linkletter is gone. He was 97 years young when he passed away today at his home in LA. He had no diagnosed diseases; he just died of old age. Over the years every time I saw him on the tube he seemed no different than what I remembered when I used to watch his show back in the 60s. I was convinced that he would live on and on; probably long after I was gone, but that was not to be.

Art Linkletter was one of the reasons I became so interested in history, and in a real, very personal way. On his show called House Party he was known for his hilarious interviews with young kids, but he would also have on the occasional old timer.

It was about 1964 when he presented a lively old gentleman that was 105 years old at the time of the show; so this ancient time traveler had been born BEFORE the Civil War, BEFORE the first election of Abraham Lincoln. I was only 7 watching him on the show, but even then such a thing impressed me.

Mr. Linkletter had the old guy come up from his front row seat in the audience. He was thin as a rail and sprightly; in fact, to show off his good health he nearly bounded up the few stairs to the stage. He continued to demonstrate the agility belying his age by bending down from the waist and touching his toes, not once but three times. Now that was cool. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, getting old isn’t all that bad. LOOK at this guy!’

He wasn’t able to touch his toes with all his fingers however since he was missing two or three of them. He proudly held his mangled hands up to show off the missing digits—and the ones still there weren't looking all that good either; they had obviously been through the mill a time or two.

In a voice hoarse with age yet quick with wit he told Art the story of his youth, how he had gone to work while still a young lad in the 1870s to help build our up-and-coming intercontinental railway system. It was while doing that roughneck work in the days before machines took over all the more dangerous difficult tasks that he has lost the fingers. It was after seeing that fascinating old man, a living breathing testament of our past that I began to read biographies and history. I never stopped.

Whenever I’ve seen Art Linkletter over the years I’ve remembered that interview with the 105 year old intercontinental railroad builder. I was sure Art would live at least as long as that old fellow. The last time I saw Mr. Linkletter was about two years ago, I think it was on Larry King. Already well into his 90s, Art seemed just as sharp and with it as always. I know I shouldn’t be surprised and disappointed that a 97 year old man has passed on, but I really wanted him to live forever.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A skewed scuba version of Michael Angelo’s God Reaching Out to Adam.

I just uploaded a group of pics to Facebook from my scuba diving trip last week. Going over those photos reminds me what an awesome four day experience that was. Ever since I first strapped on a snorkel and mask decades ago in Puerto Rico I’ve been fascinated by the whole other world existing under the sea. Until you are in it there’s no way you can truly understand the fascination it engenders. I always feel like an idiot when I try to talk about what it’s like to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I tend to gush about it until I realize I’m boring the pants off the poor guy. It’s a lot like when I try to talk history to someone who could not care less. Forget about it!

So now, at the risk of glazing eyes, I will try to describe what it was like, learning how to dive using a self contained underwater breathing apparatus.

Seeing a person decked out with all the gear is impressive. It all looks very complicated to the layman (like me). In fact, it’s simple as far as how it allows a human to do something that is very unnatural, breathing underwater, although as a system it encompasses an extraordinary bit of engineering.

Until I got schooled up on it I had thought it was all about strapping a tank of compressed air on the back and breathing from it through a mouthpiece at the end of a hose. Actually, that’s kinda true; but there’s a bit more to it than that. I think you can imagine what it would be like if you tried to breathe directly from a tank filled under high pressure—you couldn’t—the air flow has to be restricted in some way. This is done on most tanks in two stages, first through a restrictor valve at the tank and then again from the regulator which is the piece that goes into the mouth. A cool thing is that the air comes out only when you suck air from the mouthpiece, which is also where you exhale through of course.

Breathing in and out exclusively through a mouthpiece was natural for me since that’s how one uses a snorkel, but my snorkeling experience also caused me a slight problem since one gets used to NOT breathing underwater with a snorkel. My inclination was to stop breathing as soon as my face submerged. I had to force myself to take in air until it became completely natural. Finally, I developed a mental switch, one way for snorkeling and the other for diving. Such a small thing, but for me it was something I had to overcome. It didn’t take long though; maybe ten or fifteen minutes of practice in the shallows and I was good to go.

There are other little basic tasks that must be learned before venturing out to the depths. Over the four days I was able to experience and put into use most all of them. For instance, when one lets the air out of the buoyancy compensator, an act that causes the diver to sink like a submarine, at about ten feet down the mask will start to suck hard right up against the face; the further down you go the harder it sucks, a most disconcerting and even painful thing to experience. No problem, breathe a little air out through the nose to produce some positive pressure into the mask and Voila! The mask feels just fine again.

Pressurizing the mask can also cause it to fog up to the point that you can’t see through it. What to do? It’s simple—bend forward and swish water around in the faceplate. But how do you get water in the mask to do that? That’s easy—bend forward and pull the bottom of the mask out ever so little until some water leaks in. But how do you get the water out after defogging the mask? No problem—look up, hold on to the top of the mask and pull the bottom seal away from the face as you blow air into the mask through your nose. This forces the water out through the bottom believe it or not. The mystery is how doing this doesn’t seem to re-fog the mask; but it doesn’t.

Another undertaking is to learn how to remove both the mask and the regulator underwater and then replace them. I must admit that the first time I did both these things that I felt a bit of panic come on, but I fought through it and got it done.

The mask is tough for me to do in salt water. I have to keep my eyes closed throughout the whole process. The idea is to put it back on and then push all the water out through the bottom of the mask seal by breathing out forcefully through the nose. The problem I had was fighting the urge to breathe back in through my nose while there was still water in the mask. It took me several tries in the shallow end before it became natural for me to do it. I have to say that clearing my mask full of water was THE hardest thing of all.

Replacing the regulator takes a little thought as well. The idea is to have enough air in your lungs so that the water that gets in the mouth can be expelled along with the exhaled air. After that it’s back to normal breathing. Piece of cake.

For a novice diver (like me) buoyancy is what drives the ship. I learned the hard way what a tricky thing buoyancy CAN be. It was on my third or fourth time out when I found out two things: first, make sure there are enough pounds in the weight belt—better to have too much than too little; and second, the tank becomes a LOT lighter when it approaches empty, and THAT makes the FIRST thing even MORE important.

So, with all that said—there I was—at about 35 feet having just been down for a few minutes at just over 40. My indicator showed I was just touching the red, which on mine was 700 lbs—no biggy; that’s plenty of air to get all the way back to the beach. We turned around and headed back up the hill toward a formation of coral covered boulders, my buddy diver just a little ahead of me. But then we ran into a strong current which caused me to stop dead in my tracks no matter how hard I kicked. I tried to hold on to a boulder but the surge was pressing me slowly away from my partner.

At that point I made a crucial error—I squirted a little air into my vest thinking that if I could get just above the boulder that I would be able to pull myself over it in the direction of my buddy. About this time he saw I was having problems so he turned back and came to me. I felt myself drifting upwards and quickly pushed my deflate button releasing all the air in my vest, or so I thought. It was like a bad dream—I was reaching down for him with him reaching up for me—it was a skewed scuba version of Michael Angelo’s God Reaching Out to Adam. I kicked my flippers like crazy and managed to grab his hand. He pulled me hard and emptied his vest of all air as well but to no avail; now we were both heading topside. No matter what we did we could not stop our slow yet sure ascent.

Lucky for us we hadn’t gone down deep enough for long enough to require safety stops. If we had though, we would have blown right through them, probably risking a case of the bends. And THAT little incident demonstrates why novices shouldn’t mess around with deeper diving until they learn EVERYTHING they need to know. After that, I increased my ballast by another six or seven pounds. Oh, and I learned also that to fully void ALL the air in my BC (buoyancy compensator) that I need to bend forward a little to release the air that gets trapped in the vest bladder otherwise. . . So much to learn.

More to come. . .

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I looked forward to my first day of scuba diving.

I miss it—the clean air, the quiet, the calming continuing rush of waves right outside our room on the beach. I miss the refreshing sea breezes, the smiling ever-helpful wait staff, and the beautiful tropical scenery that fills the eyes no matter what direction the head turns.

My buddy drove us all the way to this heavenly place; right to its tiny gravel parking lot (I’m sure hardly anyone drives their own car to that place). On the way there we showed up at the roll-on-roll-off piers at Batangas and learned that we’d missed the one vehicle ferry to Puerto Galera. It was past one and the ship pulls away daily at noon. So, we caught the afternoon ferry to Calapan arriving there with dusk fast on our heels. Good thing he’s a good driver, his car with engine strong and brakes dependable. My eyes were often shut during the heart stopping ride; if something bad was going to happen I didn’t want to see it. Credit to him though; we didn’t kill anyone and he pulled into Puerto Galera as the last of the day’s light went from dim to headlights required.

We drove the narrow winding 3 miles to Sabang in the dark. I knew we were in town as we headed down hill past the Tropicana Hotel then right at the bottom and past the marketplace on the left before heading back up some seriously steep hills toward the inward side of the peninsula. Much of that road is single lane and lightless. After making only two wrong turns we found ourselves going down a ridiculously steep descent. It was there at the bottom of that final hill that we finally found the resort.

The manager had one of the hotel workers show us a sampling of the rooms available. It was obvious that we were the only customers and we were still only potential ones at that. With that in mind my buddy did his thing and got us into rooms directly on the beach and got her to agree to $30 a night. So far so good.

We checked our bags into our rooms and let him talk us into “walking” back over the hill in the dark to get some dinner in town. We weren’t excited by the idea of it, but being team players we grabbed flashlights and followed him and his gal into the night. Within a minute we knew it was a questionable idea. Within five minutes I was soaked with sweat. Much of the road is in bad repair and there are long stretches that are completely without any light at all. If not for our flashlights we would have turned back, but we trudged on—stubborn I guess.

At last we plodded down the final hill into town. What took less than ten minutes in the car was a 30 minute exhausting hike on foot. That was the last time we did that. We settled into a table on the beach side of Eddy’s and ordered some dinner. The food is pretty good there, but my oversensitive nose continually picked up the foul sewery scent that now permeates Sabang beach. They really should do something about that, but it’s not likely.

At the end of the meal it was decided that he would ride back to the hotel for the car on the back of one of the numerous motorcycle taxis. In much of the Philippines paying to ride on the back of a motorcycle is the common mode of transport. As soon as he left to catch a ride back to the hotel, a group of five Korean men, each accompanied by a young Filipina, boisterously took a table directly adjacent to ours. I immediately got up and moved our little group, including two young girls, to a table as far from them as possible. Truthfully, families should not try to go to Sabang for any reason after 8pm. It’s not fit for decent folk after that hour, something that was definitely proven two nights later on another ill-conceived foray into town for dinner.

He sent us a text that he was on the way back down the hill with the CRV and we began walking back through town to meet him. It was a treat not having to make that return trek on foot. Back in our room we hit the hay and passed out from sheer exhaustion. I looked forward to my first day of scuba diving.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Final Fun in the Sun at PG

In the boat on the way back to the hotel we decided not to repeat our “blunder of nap” from the day before—no more lying down for a “short” one just because we feel a little tired. Instead of giving in to our exhaustion of the moment the plan was to have a light lunch after a quick shower and change, and then walk up the dirt path over the point for a look at the Ville of Sabang. Doing so turned out to be an excellent decision. For the next two hours we enjoyed the sights and took some nice shots of the town and sea from high up on the point that separates Big La Laguna Beach from the little one on the Sabang side of the point. I’ll post a couple of the pics we took of Sabang down and to the east and Big La Laguna to the west.

The path from Big La Laguna Beach over the point toward Sabang this time of year is dusty from the lack of rain and always steep in places. I took the girls up the ruined concrete steps to the top of the point for some photos before heading down the other side to Sabang. From the photos the view from way atop the hill is grandly picturesque.

We kept to the seaward side on our walk to the far end of the town. On the return we kept mostly to the meandering passageway that parallels the beach. This narrow alley is only wide enough for pedestrians as well as mostly covered for when the rains start. Its nice to walk it when you want to keep your feet out of the sand. Its also great if you are shopping for small groceries and souvenir items, or you can take a break along the way and have a coffee or a bite in one of the hole-in-the-wall cafes.

A fun thing for some is to barhop along the beach side. Each resort has a restaurant bar with its own unique view of the bay. Not being much of a drinker these days I’m not big on barhopping, but to each his own.

We observed the construction of the new Sabang pier. It will be a substantial structure of concrete and stone. It’s not quite half finished, but when it is, it looks like it might even be able to accept vehicle ferries. At the moment berthing space on all the beaches from Big La Laguna to Sabang is at a premium—there isn’t enough room for all the boats. I could tell from watching how our own boatmen maneuvered and parked that there are restrictions on who can pull in where and for how long.

I’ll say this; there are some spectacular looking hotels in the Sabang area. Check out my flickr photo set of this trip and check out what I’m talking about. For instance, walking straight up the street from the new pier it soon ascends and bends to the right. Near the top is a magnificent looking place called The Tropicana (see the photos). Its architecture design is anything but tropical; it’s more a cross between Swiss chalet and Austrian castle. I didn’t feel rich enough to go inside and check it out—maybe next time.

The next day the plan was to barbecue some chicken on Big Clam Beach (if that’s what it’s called) and of course while there we’d swim out to see the big seawater clams. We gave Mac-Mac the money for the fixings and he took care of the rest. This time they picked us up just after 10:30. We made the same stop at the small pier on San Antonio and picked up another little boatman; the four year old nephew of Mac-Mac’s primary assistant boatman. The cute little guy with his curly blonde locks is the son of an Australian fellow who had a fling with the boatman’s sister. It was fun having him along for the day, a very sweet little boy.

It’s not much of a beach, just a little patch of dirty sand at the bottom of a tree-covered cliff with concrete steps going up to a locked gate that leads to the lighthouse keeper’s hut, or so I was told. An interesting thing for me was the sight of a black rubber pipe, not much larger than a garden hose, disappearing into the water into the direction of the village on San Antonio Island maybe three hundred or more yards across the channel. I asked about the paltry pipe and was told that that one narrow tube provided all the potable water for all the families living out there. He said it was either 100 households or 100 people; I can’t remember exactly. I’m positive they don’t use the water from it for watering their yards though. Mac-Mac said the water was piped down from the “mountains” that can be seen away in the distance toward the center of the peninsula.

I much enjoyed the snorkeling there. The water is much deeper above much of the coral which has mostly kept it safe from careless tourists. It amazes me that the fish and coral is so much more different from what I saw only a few hundred yards away at the Mangrove site. The geology is grander, the rocks bigger, the underwater drop-offs more spectacular, and the coral was more expansive and developed. There were more large fish as well. I noticed some old abandoned coral-covered metal fish cages and asked about their presence. Mac-Mac said all fishing is illegal but at times it happens. I imagine most of the poaching is done in the dark of night or by some other surreptitious method. He said there are patrol boats to police this kind of destructive activity but this IS the Philippines after all, with lots of poor hungry people, and just as in all countries everywhere there are also a few greedy selfish ones as well, so there you go.

First thing we did was three of us (Mac2, Jen2 and I) swam the hundred or so yards out to see the giant clams. I've seen them before and they look exactly as they did five years ago. There are no more and no less, I think four or five of them, the largest about a yard long from hinge edge to edge. To me they look more like giant oysters than clams. They are definitely a big draw for all the tourists though. They aren't that deep, but deep enough, maybe 12 or 15 feet down. I packed in a few breaths and went down to touch one just to say I did. 'Okay, I've seen them, let's go...' We made the long swim back and took a break sitting on an old driftwood log near the beached bangka. After that, I spent the next several hours exploring the coral and geological formations up and down that part of the channel.

Later, back at the hotel, Mac-Mac took the girls to Sabang for shopping while I sacked out for a couple hours. I woke up when they came in. Divine was wearing a new beautiful sun dress with a spectacularly colored print. I looked at it closer and was shocked to see that the primary motif seemed to be marijuana leafs.

“Hey, did you notice what’s on your new dress?”

“Yup, colored leaves, right?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s the symbol for marijuana. Why would you buy something like THAT?”

She stood in front of the mirror and gasped, “Oh my God! I didn’t notice that!”

“Turn around, let me see the front.” She did, and sure enough, in large print were the words Bob Marley along with his iconic image. “You DO realize that Bob Marley was a reefer smoking reggae singer, right?” I laughed seeing the gathering horror on her face. “It’s too bad though;" I continued, "I really LOVE the colors. They are beautiful to see on a dress; especially on you.”

I don't think she heard a word I said after she realized what was on the dress. She couldn’t wait to take it off, and hurriedly did so, carefully folding it and placing it in a plastic bag. She declared, "I’m going back NOW to trade it for a different one." She was already texting Mac-Mac to come back and pick her up. I LOVE that girl!

Our final full day was spent entirely at a small cove just down from what used to be the Coral Garden dive site. If you’ve read my earlier post about the time I dove into the cave through the underwater opening then you’ll know exactly where we were. I was sickened when I realized that the cave is no longer the pristine place that I had first discovered in 2005. I hope my blog entry did not lead to its ruination, but I suspect that it did. Before, only a few intrepid swimmers and divers would dare go into it, but now anyone can. They’ve opened it up from the top and dropped a ladder in. I didn’t even bother to go see it, I couldn’t bear it thinking that I probably contributed to its undoing. For the four hours we stayed there one boat after another puttered in, about one every twenty minutes, and unloaded its passengers for the walk up to the top of the cave. Invariably they would yell or just talk too loud, all of which I hate to hear in natural places. To me, the sound of the human voice in a place like that is crass; it just doesn’t belong. I always try to speak just loud enough to be heard or just use my hands and gesture. I’m strange that way I guess.

I made a swim out to the old coral garden site. It was true what Mac-Mac said about it; it’s completely destroyed. The once huge beds of glorious multicolored coral in all their varied shapes and sizes are now all gray and flattened. I was told that a series of extremely terrible typhoons (all blamed on The El Nino phenomenon) produced underwater surges that simply bashed the coral into smithereens. I was shocked to see it after remembering how it once was. There are a few small patches of bright reds, blues, greens and orange among the dead grays where the polyps are struggling to regrow into formations, but its going to take many years, probably decades, before it ever gets back to what it once was. And chances are that more typhoons will come and then….

This will be the last post on this particular trip to PG since in just a few hours my buddy, Don, will pick us up for a scuba trip to the same place. I now have an underwater package for my Canon and I’m itching to see what kind of photos and videos it can take. See you when we get back…

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

our first day of snorkeling

For our first day of snorkeling we woke up to a gorgeous morning—bright sun in a sky of the purest blue. It was pretty much the same for the next two equally beautiful mornings—an American breakfast at 8am, ready to hit the water by 9:30. Mac-Mac was never late, and in these days of immediate communication we were able to confirm his arrival at any moment before he showed up. Of course, he knew that if he was even a few minutes late without explanation that he would likely lose us as customers since boatmen are everywhere waiting to serve potential fares.

Mac-Mac came right to our door along with two of his able bodied boatmen—a young boy about 12, Mac-Mac’s little nephew, and a robust fellow in his early 20s, a cousin. Like most endeavors in this country, businesses are almost always made up entirely of family.

The crew carried our stuff as the three of us followed them out to the bangka. As always upon boarding Mac-Mac told us to go slow. Good advice; the tendency is to rush it with a headlong sprawl into the boat being the normal result of trying to hurry it. I make sure that I always keep one hand on one of the overhead wooden supports. Doing that and listening to Mac-Mac, I only fell once in the five days that we used his services—not bad for rickety old me.

I had mentioned the day before to him that I would like to go back to the Coral Garden dive site. He had just nodded then, so I had figured there was no problem with that plan. But when he asked me again that morning just before we boarded his boat I began to realize that there WAS a problem with it.

The boatmen extricated the bangka from its beached mooring, transitioned into a 180 turn and motored us out into the swells. The seas were choppy the entire length of our stay, something that was certainly not true during my first two visits years before when for the most part the water was relatively smooth. Mac-Mac said that the El Nino was the cause, and in fact, was also the reason we weren’t going to Coral Garden, since the underwater garden of coral no longer existed. I made a mental note to ask him later for details on exactly how the El Nino weather phenomenon had evidently destroyed it.

“I will take you to another place where there are many fish and lots of living coral. I think you will enjoy it,” he told me knowingly.

It wasn’t until we had turned left up the Batangas Channel instead of continuing straight to where I knew the Coral Gardens is on the north side of San Antonio Island that he told me where he intended to take us. But first, he pulled into the little island village where he lives on the very pointy end of San Antonio Island (The rest of most of that large island belonging to some rich family; I think he said it was the Lacsons). We pulled up next to a little wooden dock where boatmen in the area go to get gas and supplies. In less than ten minutes we were off again, only now we had two smaller boats following along on each side of us.

For the next few minutes Divine and I nervously watched these young unsmiling fellows with dark shades hiding their eyes.

“Do you know what’s going on? Why are those guys following us? I don’t like this!” I muttered into my girl’s ear.

She nodded in agreement and admitted she wasn’t feeling comfortable with them there either. Finally, she asked Mac-Mac why they were following us. He said they were just coming along in case we wanted to be pulled through the water while we were swimming. She told him to send them away, that we were uncomfortable with them following along like that.

In retrospect, we had nothing to worry about; but we live in a place rife with criminality and scams, a place much different from that part of Mindoro, which I hear is quite safe for foreigners and tourists. Our boatman called out something to the two young men and they peeled away. Until that moment I was thinking the worst, wondering how I was going to protect my fiancĂ© and her daughter if worse came to worse. Ultimately, once in a situation like that though it’s too late; for the best protection is to avoid getting into those situations in the first place—sometimes easier said than done.

Mac-Mac took us to what turned out to be a wonderful diving spot just off an area he called Mangrove Beach, named after a small grove of that type of tree on the west side of the Batangas Channel. I asked him to take us into the beach first so I could teach my future stepdaughter how to use her snorkel. I love this kid. Still just 11 she’s fearless, unlike her mom, who refuses to get anywhere near deep water unless it’s in the hotel pool where she then holds on to the side with a death grip. I showed Jen how to breathe through the snorkel, how to clear it of water with a hard puff of air, and how to spit a film inside her mask to keep condensation from forming. (Next time we’ll bring baby shampoo for that purpose!)

I left Jen to practice her new skills in the shallows while I swam out to the deeper water looking for some sea life to view. There are few fish in the hot sandy shallow water, just a few little brown fish and sea plants. As the water deepened it became noticeably colder with a lot more fish. But it is where the coral starts that the real sea life begins. It was just as I remembered, beautiful corals of every shape and size enlivened by more kinds of fish than I could keep track of, at times shimmering in tight knit schools of what seemed like thousands of individuals yet all moving miraculously together as one, or swimming in smaller groups of a few dozen, or even in pairs. Some of the most colorful and interesting swim alone, such as the parrotfish. I saw a few of those more than a foot long.
I remembered to pull a plastic bag of bread and potato chips from the front pocket of my swim trunks. I have a system where I let the bag fill with water which dissolves the contents into tiny crumbs. Then all I have to do is to squeeze the bag a little to make a cloud of crumbs swirl out and about me. The fish at that particular spot are used to being fed by swimmers and soon it seemed that hundreds of them enveloped me in a feeding frenzy. I loved it. Later on Jen joined me in the deep water and spent hours experiencing the weird feeling of being part of a feeding school of ravenous fish. She loved it too.

I noticed something though that made me quite angry; there were spots all over the coral masses where holes had been punched through it. I knew already what had caused it but I asked Mac-Mac anyway.

"Its from the tourists," he said.

"How come you don't tell them before you let them go into the water to be careful not to step on it? It takes forever forever for that stuff to grow back!" I was angry.

"We do, and most people like you, from the Europe and the US already know, but the problem is the Koreans. They don't want to listen."

"Are you sure? Maybe they don't understand?"

"Maybe, but it seems like they don't want to listen, or take any instructions."

I shook my head and spat out some sea water before putting my snorkel back on, "Well, all the resorts and the local government needs to get together and create some pamphlets or some way to tell ALL tourists to keep off the coral man. There's NO excuse for the damage I'm seeing down there. It's pissing me off!"

On that sad angry note I cannot begin to describe the variety of creatures and their myriadness of number that can be observed beneath the lightly choppy waves of The Batangas Channel, but I can tell you that for me, someone who loves nature more than anything, being afforded the privilege of viewing it is akin to a religious experience (all the more reason why seeing the effects of stomped coral sickens me to the depths of my soul!).

In fact, there are two places on earth where I truly love to be—The Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania, and the coral snorkeling sites near Puerto Galero. When I visit those places time seems to have no meaning, hours go by like minutes. On that first day I stayed in the water for more than four hours and had no idea it had been more than one. It was almost 2:30pm before I allowed Mac-Mac to help pull my waterlogged prune body out of the sea.

Some might ask, “What could a person possibly do in the water for such a long time without getting out?” It’s a good question, because for the life of me I have a hard time explaining how I can do it, but it happens every time I go.

We did figure out why the boys were following us earlier in their small bangkas though, because Jen and I went ahead and paid a couple hundred pesos to a boatman to have him drag us through the water by ropes tied to the outriggers of his small boat. We held on face first in the water while observing the sea life pass below us through our masks and snorkels. It was okay I guess, especially for a novice like Jen, but I’ll never do it again. I noticed a lot of other tourists being towed around like that, mostly Filipina female tourists, all wearing life vests along with their masks, snorkels and flippers. I don’t know, why wear a life vest while snorkeling? As long as I’m wearing a snorkel I don’t need a floaty vest since I can simply put my face down and breathe through the snorkel for hours without moving a muscle.

What finally did me in was my hiatal hernia. It’s gotten much worse over the years to the point that the heavy American breakfast caused a problem. My upper digestive system doesn’t like me being horizontal, much less upside down vertical, which is what I tend to constantly do while snorkeling. I’ll see a brilliant green large parrotfish a dozen feet below me, I’ll jackknife down to in hot pursuit, and then repeat the process time and again for hours on end. At 2pm the nausea started as bile and hours old breakfast began to erupt past the hernia above my stomach. I started to try to snorkel standing up in the water, which is actually quite doable, but once the retching started I knew it was time to call it a day. A little queasiness I can take, I’ve run miles feeling like that, but vomiting while snorkeling is a bit much. So, I wimped out and quit. Anyway, I still had two more days to enjoy my underwater cathedral.

I guess I’d better wrap this up. A buddy and I have plans to go back to PG this week, only this time I’m taking an underwater camera; AND, he’s promised to get me checked out on some actual scuba diving. I’ve always wanted to give that a try. Now’s my chance....

Friday, May 07, 2010

Pool side fun at the LBC

We checked into our room, turned on the air con, took a shower, and flopped onto the firm clean beds. Couldn’t help it—they beckoned! Telling ourselves that we would just lay down for an hour’s worth of recovery napping we ended up waking up hours later to the laughing screams of some kids running past our door. Fresh from our slumber we looked at each other thinking the same thing, “Damn kids!”

“I hope those brats aren’t going to be here for the entire time we are.”

“With our luck they will be…”

Well at least the noisy little inconsiderate monsters had gotten us up and moving again. No use going all that way to one of the most beautiful spots in the country only to sleep through all the potential fun and games.

The sun was fast approaching the end of its day’s journey by the time we had made up our minds to go out and have dinner by the pool. The LBC has some pretty good cooks. Over the years I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal there. They definitely know how to make what foreigners like. It was true my first time there in ’03 and its true still in April 2010.

After eating we decided to swim off some of that good food. My buddy Jen-Jen (Divine’s daughter) and I continued our pool fun until well after dark. The warm clean water felt great; it was perfectly treated—clear as it could be, not too much chlorine and not a bug or a leaf in sight. Nice.

I did my best to stay away from the screeching kids that had awoken us earlier. Unfortunately, they too were in the water. There was a girl about 12 with her two younger brothers. Luckily, they stayed mostly in the shallow end, but the noise they made was incessant. The chubby girl babbled and giggled in the most irritating way, mostly because it was nonstop. At times they would wander too close to where I was trying to swim and I’d have to move. There’s nothing worse than someone else’s kids.

“How does she stay so chunky with all that quacking and snickering? I’d be worn out after five minutes of that. She’s kill’n me!”

Then another kid entered the pool area. It was a slightly built blond-haired very pale English lad whom his grandfather said was 9 years old. What a delightful contrast the young boy made to the splashing quacking insufferable little piglets on the other side of the pool. He walked up behind me and quietly said hello. Then he politely asked if it would be okay if he dove into the pool near me.

“By all means young sir. Dive away!”

“Thank you.”

Putting his hands together in front of him he launched headfirst into the water almost directly over my head where I was hanging onto the side of the pool. His slight body hardly made a ripple. A few minutes later on one of my underwater laps his foot inadvertently brushed against my side. I barely felt it. I popped up ten feet away and heard him politely call out to me, “I’m sorry about that.”

“You’re sorry? Why?” I asked, wiping the water from my eyes.

“I kicked you underwater. I’m sorry; I didn’t see you.”

Delighted, I smiled. “Don’t worry about it buddy. I’m fine. All part of the fun, but thanks for your concern. I appreciate that!”

Standing at pool side, his grandfather, a tanned tall grizzled fellow in his early 60s, said they were on holiday from England. They had already been at various resorts in the Philippines for the last three weeks.

“Well, I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip sir. Your grandson has renewed my faith in the potential of the world’s youthful humanity. What a fine young man he is! My congratulations to you and to whoever else has had a hand in raising such a courteous little gentleman!”

With towels wrapped around our shoulders Divine, Jen-Jen and I ambled over to the sea wall and sat on the steps with our feet in the sand under millions of shimmering stars. Where I live in Angeles City, seeing stars only happens anymore when someone bashes you in the head with a pipe (which does happen to some unwary denizens on occasion). The toxic pall that hangs over this town has worsened over the last year to the point that the sight of stars is a very rare thing indeed. The thought of it is too depressing for me to continue to even think about. I need to stop, NOW.

To the right of the wall, at the foot of the steps going into one of the seaside hotel rooms, is a fellow and his wife, I believe, that rents snorkeling equipment. They have a little hand scrawled sign advertising their snorkeling wares, which they keep in large plastic bags piled on the sand at the edge of the wall.

“Do you have fins and masks that will fit kids?” I asked.

I wanted to make sure we could find items that would fit Jen-Jen. They did. I found some nice flippers and a mask for me as well. There’s nothing worse than ill-fitting flippers, especially if too tight; but these were made of super soft rubber and felt great. Over the next few days they would serve us well. I don’t think we paid even $30 bucks for the two sets that we used over the next three days.

When Mac-Mac the boatman had dropped us off earlier that day we had already told him that we were interested in going out the next morning at ten am. Sipping my last beer of the night looking out at the shimmering sea dimly reflecting the moon and stars above, I couldn’t wait to get back out into the water to swim with all those gorgeously colored fishes again.

Monday, May 03, 2010

. . . The deep blue sky, multi-colored sea, white beach . . .

Such a good time was had on our trip to Mindoro that we are already planning to go again soon; but I’m getting ahead of myself. This post is about that trip; it takes up from when we arrived in Sabang by boat two weeks ago today. . .

After the jouncing ride by Bangka boat to the Sabang Beach “terminal”—and by terminal I mean a few feet of beach on the south end of Sabang where the big boats drop off and pick up passengers—we discussed how to make our way to the Laguna Beach Club where we had reservations.

With the three of us standing amidst the swirl of human activity up off the sand under the shade of a restaurant awning I told D: “It’s going to be a long hot walk if we hoof it. Do you want to just catch a small Bangka taxi to the hotel?”

I pointed up the beach, “See, look way down there at the end of the beach. See that point of land with all the trees? We will be staying on the other side of that.”

It didn’t look so far and the three of us had only one small pull-along each, but the walk is all sand, dusty path or rough concrete so I knew that the only real option was to go by bangka. While I was still pointing and peering a beefy, or beefy by Filipino standards, young fellow asked us if we needed a ride somewhere and pointed toward where his boat was parked.

I said, “Yup, we need a ride to Laguna Beach. How much you charge?”

“200 pesos. That’s the going rate.”

“Eh, well, ok, why not? Let’s go.”

And off we went. He grabbed my bag while one of his boatmen grabbed the girls’ bags. For part of the way we walked the sand just above the water line; much of the Sabang sand is a dirty brown and black from the town’s many runoffs. We followed our boatmen past several dive resort hotels that line the waterfront from end to end. At times we veered up onto sidewalk depending on the foot traffic in front of us. Five or so minutes of easy walking and we arrived at a spot where six or seven bangkas were crammed together; some were pulled right up on the sand with others tied to the stern of those three or four pulled up onto the beach. As we approached, our boat was in the process of being extricated from the other packed in boats so that it could be brought onto the beach close enough for us to walk up the narrow wooden gangplank that is a part of every bangka’s composition.

It was fascinating to watch the boatmen maneuver their bangkas in and out of the beaches packed tight with other identical boats. The fascination for me stems from watching them deal with each other’s outriggers, which greatly increases the footprint of what would otherwise be a relatively narrow boat. At times they would have to jump out on one of their outriggers or on one of its two connecting spars to make it dip below its neighbor’s, or if they could, they’d simply push down on the other boat’s thick bamboo float with a bamboo pole to allow his own to ride up and over his neighbor’s outrigger framework. Often the process goes quite smoothly, but there are times when stuff gets jammed together and then it takes quite a bit of pushing and pulling and backing up and going at it again. In typical unflappable Filipino fashion, no one ever gets frustrated or perturbed; they just work it till it gets done and the boats get to where they need to be. The hard part for me is keeping my mouth shut as they go about their business. My tendency is to chime in with suggestions or “helpful” comments, none of which is in the least bit listened to anyway by the boys and men clambering about their boats and floats.

The trip by water from Sabang to Laguna only takes a few minutes, no more than fifteen, probably closer to ten depending on the wind and chop. We made use of the time to ask a few questions of our friendly boatman whose name turned out to be Mac-Mac. By the time we got to the beach in front of our hotel we were all buddies—he he had our cell number and we his. From that day until our last Mac-Mac was our man—he took us everywhere we needed to go, which was by his boat.

It’s been more than four years since the last time I stayed at the Laguna Beach Club. Except for some construction upgrades it still looks much the same as it has since my first visit in 2003. With bags in tow we trudged through the sand up the concrete stairs past the outdoor cafĂ© around the right to the desk. By this time it was nearly 1pm; I was feeling a bit travel weary but our room wasn’t ready yet.

Leaving our bags by the desk we stomped up the wooden steps to my favorite place at the LBC, the upstairs deck of the hotel’s bar and grill. The view from that spot is part of the reason I always go back to that hotel. It feels like a living postcard as you stand there and take it in. The deep blue sky, multi-colored sea, white beach, the hazily distant shores, all bracketed by high tree-covered points of land, provides a stunningly beautiful view. To make it perfect I ordered an ice cold beer. Indeed perfection was attained when my frosty beer was quickly delivered. With great satisfaction I gulped deeply as I also drank in the equally satisfying panorama before me.

With a great sigh I clinked my now half-empty bottle on Divine’s glass of iced tea and proclaimed in an exagerrated fashion, “Sweety, I hereby declare that we are NOW officially on vacation!”

More to come. . .