Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Days 4 & 5

Wednesday was our day on the water. After checking in to the Bamboo House, a beautiful two-story house entirely made of bamboo, we left our luggage and hopped onto the catamaran we'd rented for the day. Our two Filipino sailor-guides took us around to show us the different islands from out at sea. There are a lot of them—over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, many of them tiny ones close together. We could see the outline of Taal Volcano far off in the distance, heavy clouds quivering over its mouth, heat and ash in their bellies. The ocean here is a color that I have never seen ocean be before. They always talk about the crystal blue waters, and that’s exactly how it is. Just looking over the edge of the boat, I could see the ocean floor in the more shallow areas, and fish gliding in the reefs beneath us.

After some sightseeing, they drove us out over the reefs, gave us snorkels, and set us free to explore.We had some bread that we broke pieces from and held beneath the water. Whole schools of fish swarmed us, enveloping us in amongst them, their slippery bodies flipping against my skin as they crowded for the bread.

There were so many different kinds of fish down there—rainbows and snake-looking things and black fish with frilly fins. The coral was all different colors and shapes and here and there, a purple starfish or a sanddollar, still living, squirming in the water of their world. After we had swum around for awhile, we hooked ourselves to a little motorboat, and were pulled along the length of the reefs, keeping our heads in the water, watching it all open up and spill away beneath us.

At one point, where the reef fell away into open ocean with a long, empty, sandy floor, a three-foot long, green sea turtle appeared out of nowhere and glided along the ocean bottom. He was incredible! We decided to dive down and see if we could get closer to him, but by the time we went up for air and dove back, he was gone. As fast as a blink of an eye.

After snorkeling, we hooked up with a kid on a motorboat, and paid him to take us to an underwater cave. There was an underwater entrance, and one above, hidden in the rocks that you had to climb to and lower yourself through. The light came in through that little hole in the top. The tide was stronger inside, because it was contained. If I just let myself float in the water, it would grab me and throw me to the other end of the cave, against the rock. The light filtered in from above, and also from the hole that reached below the water, giving it some crazy cool lighting. It was beautiful--the the rock with the green and blue growing on it, and the way the light came in from two different angles to hit the water. 

We came back home to our Bamboo House after that, ordered some dinner, including a real coconut, and watched a gorgous orange sunset over the water. After that first Sunday of pouring rain, the only rain we saw was at night. But the clouds that floated across the horizons built up the most incredible sunsets. I love the sunsets of home. But I was mesmerized by the sunsets there. They’re wild like the ocean, instead of wild like the desert.
The sun was setting when we realized that we were in for a rotten day the next day. The sunburns that we had started to feel on the boat suddenly became full-force. It’s been a long time since I’ve been sunburned like that. I was fire-engine red—back, shoulders, arms, legs. Jon’s back and calves got almost as bad of a dose, and he’s actually tan.

I kind of felt cheated. It wasn’t like I was being neglectful. I put on sunscreen. 80SPF. Twice. But then, I don’t know anyone who’s been to the Philippines who didn’t get burned. It’s a hot sun over those islands. Hot and low.

Wednesday night was awful. Any way I laid was painful, and every time I moved, it felt like someone was sticking me with fire. So, basically all of Thursday was spent the same way. I guess I wasn’t looking too good in the morning, because after breakfast, Jon put on a shirt (which had to hurt like crazy), and went off to search for aloe vera. If I’d have known that he was going to traipse across three beaches looking for it, I wouldn’t have let him go. He came back with some fruity smelling lotion that had aloe as an ingredient in it somewhere, some aloe soap, and some burn cream from some clinic he had run across. We gave the burn cream a shot, but sunburns aren’t like other burns.

They’re like burns that have mutated so that they are impervious to all defenses.

 The burn cream stung. A lot. And I don’t think it did much good, except that it made us feel like maybe it would. Here I must concede that the placebo effect is a valid bit of science.

After the room got too stuffy, we went outside and sat in the shade. I was going to read, but I kept getting approached by salesmen wanting to sell me jewelry. And baskets. And dart guns.

Jon wanted a dart gun. Probably he would have mixed his own poison and used it as a tranquilizer at school. Luckily for his kids, he resisted buying it.

That afternoon, we ate at Lucio’s Italian Restaurant, supposedly the best food on the island. As we were eating, I noticed three very skinny little kitties wandering around on the fringes of the restaurant. I’ve never seen such skin-and-bones cats. I started feeding my expensive Italian pizza and cheesy chicken to the hungry kitties.

As we were eating, a couple of men selling baskets came up to the edge of the porch. They were looking up at us from below, and at first I shook my head and indicated that I didn’t want to buy. But every time I looked over, they would place a basket on the edge of the porch in my view, until they had a quite a little row lined up. And I knew that I was eating expensive Italian pizza and feeding cats, and those men were starving.

I didn’t even have to say anything. Jon looked at me and said, “We’re buying something from them,” and pressed P200 into my hand.

I bought a very small basket. I could have bought it for less. But why would I? I love that basket, not so much for its beauty as for what it stands for.

I loved how much good I could do there. I loved that all I had to do was step out my front door, and opportunities to give were screaming in my ears with silent, broken voices.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Day 3

On Tuesday, we spent mostly the whole day traveling, first taking a jeepney to the LRT train station, and then the train to the bus station, and then a long, three-hour bus ride to Batangas, the port city where we wanted to catch a ferry to the beach in Mindoro, the island just south of Luzon where we had spent the first few days. The ferry ended up costing more than we had planned, what with insurance fees, and “optional” tips to the random people who yanked our luggage away, carried it a hundred yards, and then asked for a little something for their trouble.

Jon was getting pretty stressed out by all the salespeople and conniving baggage-carriers. As we were sitting at the boat terminal, waiting for our ferry to board, women kept coming up, trying to sell us hotel reservations, maps, more hotel reservations, vacation packages, refusing to be put off by our obvious lack of interest.

But there was one woman that stopped me that I will never forget. We were weaving through the markets of Bachlaran, up toward the stairs of the LRT station. She came forward gently, and, hand outstretched, palm cupped up, brushed my arm. I looked down at the open hand. She said nothing, but I knew that she was hungry, and I knew that she wouldn’t be begging if she had any other choice. In her arms was a baby boy, less than a year old. His arms beneath the white T-shirt had sores on them, and his face was dirty. Bits of colored string were threaded through tiny holes in his earlobes—the only adornment she could afford for her child. I turned to Jon who was carrying the money, and he pulled out a P20 note and handed it to her. She took it gratefully, but I wished it had been more. And it was I who should have given it. She had appealed to me, as a woman and as a mother—to someone who might really understand. I wish I could find her again. I wish that I would somehow cross paths with her one more time. But I know I won’t. Opportunities come once if you are lucky. And they don’t come again.

When we finally got on the ferry, a pretty little catamaran, the ocean breeze was hitting our faces, and all was feeling good, until they suddenly decided that there was a little rain coming down from above, and they had better shroud all the openings in rolls of thick, foggy plastic. No more breeze, no more ocean spray, no more beautiful vistas. The stifling heat made me feel a little naseous, so I eventually opted to ride the trip standing up, where I could feel a little air coming in from the bow of the boat and the movement of the ocean under my feet. After a while standing on a boat, looking out at the ocean, it feels like you are walking on water.
 Then the island came into view, and it was beautiful. We disembarked at Puerto Galera, where they had a free jeepney waiting to take us all to White Beach. It was a beautiful ride along a winding road in the jungle, little huts and simples houses built along the road and half-naked Filipinos running along, ladling water or carrying laundry or logs or fishing nets, laughing in that completely free and joyful way that Filipinos do, their lean brown arms swinging as they ran, their bare feet skipping between the trees, heedless of the way that those trees followed them, laughing with them.

We got to White Beach just about as the sun was setting. It was a sunset of blues and purples, not at all like the fire of home. We had planned on continuing out to Aninuan Beach or Talipanan, the next two beaches over, because they were supposed to be quieter, more open with fewer people and touristy stuff. But it was getting late, and we were able to find a cheap place to stay that night. We each paid about five dollars apiece for accommodations.

After feasting at a candle-lit beach restaurant, while sand crabs feasted on us, we caught the flame-throwing show some of the native boys put on. Their brown bodies shining with sweat in the flickering orange light of the fire, moved and danced and played with the power of nature, flames dancing in the black stages of their eyes. They threw and caught and morphed the flames, spinning, dancing, tumbling together, man and fire, on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Pacific.