Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jan Dive Trip to Mindoro "Lars the Dane" Day 3`

Jan 17 2011, Monday
Day 3

I take it all back, the glowing remarks I made yesterday about Captain Gregg’s that is—I’ll get to that in a bit.

Another late bedtime due to several glasses of wine on the veranda caused me to awake late to weather that was and is still most foul. Even now, sitting up here with an early evening coffee I can hear the angry surge of pounding sloshing waves out there in the cold damp darkness.

We decided to make a road trip over to White Beach to find “Lars the Danish guy,” as recommended by the European manager yesterday at Captain Gregg’s. Thinking back, there was a scruffy bearded American fellow with him and both of them colluded on giving us Lar’s name as being the go-to-guy in these parts for outboard motor repair. I say that now in retrospect after what happened when we acted on their “helpful” info.

The six mile drive, or thereabouts, is continuously winding and slow, what with all the pedestrians, trikes and scooters acting as rolling speed bumps. We turned down the first narrow lane after reaching the White Beach area and got stuck behind a jeepney unloading a group of Korean tourists at a resort hotel. During that pause an obliging Filipino gentlemen informed us that we should return to the main road and continue another kilometer to The Tamaraw Hotel, assuring us that Lars was across the road from that place.

We easily found The Tamaraw but the only thing across the street from it is a building under construction and an unimproved muddy road disappearing up the hillside to the right. So, we pulled into the Tamaraw and parked in a cul-de-sac lot allotted for about a half-dozen tiny beach cottages. Walking toward the water we asked an attendant at a beach rental kiosk if she knew of Lars. She sent us back across the street and up the muddy road; she told us that his office was at the end of it. Off we went.

Expecting some kind of repair shop, instead we entered the grounds of what appeared to be an elaborate child care facility. I knew immediately that if Lars was in this place he wasn’t about repairing watercraft engines. We continued to follow the winding sidewalk through an attractively landscaped area interspersed with cottages and open air classroom huts; there was even a large outdoor stage pavillion. At the end of the pathway we came to the office. A sign announced that we were on the grounds of The Stairway Foundation.

While Don went in to make his queries I was diverted by a cute yet quietly dignified little puppy tied up at the far end of the office bungalow. The little guy sat there without so much as a wiggle or tail wag as I squatted on my haunches and said hello. I was tempted to reach out but his reserved demeanor kept me from doing so. I took a picture of the cute fuzzy little fellow and wished him well. (That photo was lost along with all the other great shots in the camera, dang it!)

I found Don in the office speaking to a thin worried looking European man who turned out to be Lars, the director of the foundation. As I walked up to them I heard the balding fellow inform Don that in no way was he any kind of expert in the field of outboard motor repair. A sick feeling began to settle in my gut as I realized what had happened.

I asked Lars about his foundation, from the signs and posters the place was a sort of a school for homeless street kids; mostly for boys from the explanations I received. Don did his thing and wrangled the use of a computer and internet to check out more info on our broken Mercury engine. While he researched I spoke with a young teacher, very beautiful and very sweet as so many of the women over here are, nice enough to interrupt her going over a lesson plan at the table we also sat at, and found out a few more things about the foundation.

The kids they receive mostly come from government run institutions that are not nearly as nice as that one. The selection process involves an interview with the child, most of whom are between the ages of 11 and as old as 16. The primary education goal is not any kind of degree but is to ensure that the kids learn the basics of reading and writing, as most of the rescued street kids are illiterate. If you have ever driven through Manila you’ll see these kids everywhere, dirty and ragged. There must be thousands of them all told.

Wanting to help the foundation out after learning all this, I told Divine and my stepdaughter, Jen, to pick out some items to buy. Jen picked out six bracelets made by the foundation children while Divine chose three beautiful hand-woven basketry items made by local Mindoro craftsmen. After a half hour Don thanked the staff for their generosity and we ambled down the winding walkway and back out to the car for the return ride to Sabang.

Don’s online research revealed a surprising fact about the outboard that he was seeking to repair. For one thing, that particular Mercury boat motor, the 40 hp two-stroke, has not been manufactured since 1978, and as early as 1972; that means the one we have out there on the dive boat is at least 33 years old and probably much older than that according to Don. It speaks well for Mercury outboards that this ancient engine, once it’s bad switching module is replaced, may well continue to operate for another untold number of years. Go Mercury!

On the return drive from Lar’s foundation we passed the ferry pier where the roll-on roll-off (RO-RO) ferries used to operate out of when we used to be able to go to directly to Puerto Galera from the Batangas Pier instead of the now much longer overland drive now required from the ferry port destination of Calapan. Don thought it would be nice to check and see if there is any plan to resume the Batangas to Puerto Galera RO-RO run. He woke up the attendant in the office who told us that the latest rumor is that service might begin again sometime after March. I’m convinced it will probably never restart. I hope I’m wrong; it’s such a pain to have to make that two-hour drive from Calapan, unless Don is driving, who can blast through the run in about 80 minutes from Sabang.

Back in the town of Sabang, Don parked in the as yet unfinished town pier and went off to ask around about the location of an outboard motor shop. He found two locals, this time not relying on any wise-ass European or American, and these honest local Mindorans informed him that “Merly’s,” all the way back past Puerto Galera was the primary shop for such things. Don wanted to backtrack all the way to find this guy but I begged off; it was past 1 pm—we were all hungry and tired, or so I whined. Besides, maybe we could still get a dive in I said hopefully.

Riding back over the hill to our hotel, the anger I felt toward those two guys from Captain Gregg’s began to boil out of me like molten lava. Those fellows colluded to send us on a wild goose chase, and continued the hoax even after I earnestly shook the European fellow’s hand with a heartfelt thank you. I can imagine the laugh they had after we were out of sight. Writing about it now I’m so angry I could spit. I told Don that I will never have anything to do with that place again. I won’t eat at their restaurant (probably) and I certainly won’t partake in anything to do with diving. How can I ever again trust such people? Would that guy “playfully” sabotage my dive equipment just to have a laugh at my expense? How am I to know? All I know is that there are plenty of other dive shops and dive resorts and they will be the ones to get my business.

Back at the hotel we stared out at the seas still angrily roiling boiling and seething, much the way I felt about the way we had been fooled into going on that wild goose chase to find “Lars the outboard motor repairman.” We decided to try and get a dive in, thinking that if we kept it simple that we could quickly get beneath the surge and enjoy the stiller deeper waters below. We would head straight out to the channel bottom, perhaps to 100 feet; and then veer right before making our way back to the pier. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…!

Upon entering the water the first thing that struck me was the coldness of it. This is the tropics; thus, the water near shore is rarely cold; in fact, I’ve never seen it anything but slightly chilly, not ‘til much greater depths are reached.

The next thing I noticed was the near zero visibility. I fully extended my arm and my stretched out hand was nearly obscured by the silt in the water. I hoped that this extreme murk condition would lessen at depth as it did the last time we dove in choppy waters here, but I began to have my doubts.

Don and I slowly bobbed our way out to the deeper waters beyond the pier. As my feet left the security of the bottom, immediately a surge pulled me out and away from my dive partner. Soon I was more than fifteen feet away from him. I called out, telling him to make his way over to me before we submerged so we would be able to have each other in sight underwater. He made his way over and we deflated together, only instead of being able to sink below the surge we became caught up in it. Separated by only a few feet I was stunned that I could no longer see him, the silt was that visually impenetrable. I kicked over to him trying to keep him close and in sight by keeping one hand on his tank, but it was no use. The surge buffeted and tugged us where it wanted and we had very little to do with it, try as we might.

Again, he disappeared right in front of my eyes. That was it; I’d had enough. Feeling very anxious, I kicked hard back toward him, reached out as far as I could while kicking desperately with my fins, and grabbed his gloved hand. We rose together the couple feet to the surface where I gave him an earnest cut sign. Later, back on shore, Don said he saw my hand on his glove but couldn’t see me; the visibility was that bad and at that moment he also realized that we needed to get back in.

Seeing my signal to end the dive he immediately nodded in agreement. I pointed toward shore and gave him a thumbs up, but the weird thing to me at the time is that the shore was no longer where I thought it was. We had already been yanked way to the west out of our intended path and now I realized that we were going to have to fight mightily just to get back to the safety of the slack water where we had started from.

With bearings registered I put my head down and began kicking hard for the pier. About then, a mountainous wave washed over me, knocking my mask half off and filling it with water. Readjusting my mask, another wave crashed me down into the sea bottom, rolling my tank hard into a rock. I was thankful to be on regulator—as long as I’m breathing I know I’m okay I said to myself. I came up to get reoriented and as soon as I knew where to head to I kicked hard for the pier yet again, only to have another wave smash me into blind oblivion. Again, I recovered from the bashing, checked for proper direction and struck determinedly once again for shore, only now the waves had pushed me into a shallow rock infested area—so I began to use those rocks to pull myself back on course while maintaining strong flipper action, or at least I did until the next surge, and then the next, and the next rocked my world.

Continuing in that vein I finally made it to the comparatively stiller water near the boat dock. It wasn’t until then that I felt confident enough to be able to take the regulator from my mouth. Life saving adrenaline was still coursing through my body; it’s what had given me the strength to persist through those killer waves back into the safety of the shore. I felt enormous relief that I wasn’t going to drown after all, for I truly felt up until that moment that dying was a distinct possibility.

Now safe, I looked back out to sea for Don, and momentarily panicked when he was nowhere to be seen. Then, thankfully, my head frantically turning to and fro, I spotted him way off to my right. The breakers had carried him over there like a piece of driftwood. He was okay though, on his feet and slowly making his way over the submerged rocks back over to the dock. Great, we had both made it back in. For a while there, it had been everyman for himself, and nothing could be done about it other than to struggle and press on. In this case, it’s true what they say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.”

After getting over the excitement of our little ordeal, I heartily enjoyed a chicken fried dinner made by my wife in the hotel kitchen, while Don and his gal went back into town at 4:30 pm in search of Merly, the local outboard motor expert, as well as to grab a bite from Captain Gregg’s, a place that I doubt that I will ever patronize again. After quite a search for Merly’s place, Don said he finally managed to find the man, who does his repair business from his house up on a hill on the outskirts of Puerto Galera. After discussing the nature of the malfunctioning motor with the guy, Don left the alleged bad component with him to check out before heading back to Captain Gregg’s restaurant.

At the restaurant he left word with a friend of the owner/manager of the prank played on us, making sure to inform him that we weren’t happy and we hoped they enjoyed the laugh they had at our expense. When I think about it, I realize the practical joke could be construed as a minor thing, but I’m sorry, I take it more seriously than that. Thus, I include here the story of what happened at their hands to warn others who might run into these characters to be careful about trusting information obtained from folks at that establishment. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Once again, we call it a night hoping that the morrow brings good diving weather. My fingers remained crossed…

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