Rice terraces, underground rivers, WWII wrecks, and creatures of the deep (Day 215)

All of these things I experienced in The Philippines, and I only visited 3 of its 7,107 islands.  Wow.  I will definitely have to return someday to check out the other 7,104 islands.  I want to tell you about the few islands I did check out.  But first, on the photo albums page, I put up an album of my recent visit to Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore.  As usual, if you have been following this blog, most of the pics are repeat offenders.  However, I have added a few extras just to tempt you into checking it out.

Now.  The Philippines.  I spent two weeks in this country.  Admittedly, my travels were hurried and messy.  Partially to blame were the rains that hit me every day despite my best attempts to find some sunshine in this country.  This rain that slammed the country was the result of typhoons.  My travel problems were small compared to the 27 killed and the tens of thousands displaced by these typhoons.  Damn.

As much as it pains me, I’m going to use a list format to tell you about a few of my experiences in the Philippines.  I don’t like this format, as I find it a bit lame and boring, but I resort to it now and again when I feel like I have a lot I want to say and I need to try to curb my rambling.  Ahh, I’m a horrible writer… I should have taken a writing course or something before attempting this blog.  In my defence, I was a math guy in school :)  Anyway, here goes…

1.  My first goal was to hike among the beautiful rice terraces in the Cordillera region.  Two thousand years ago the locals built rice terraces on the impossibly steep flanks of the region’s mountains.  The rice terraces are so impressive they are now a World Heritage site.  The local tourist t-shirts bill it as the 8th wonder of the world.  Indeed, if you have never seen anything like them, they will blow your mind.  But, actually, I have seen rice terraces which are even more impressive in Nepal — but I didn’t mention this to anybody.

The vibrant green rice terraces of Batad

2.  I flew to the island of Palawan, declared as the Philippines’ “Last Frontier”.  As soon as I read this, these guys had my money.  Anytime something has a tagline of “the last frontier”, I want to go there.  It’s killer marketing for my demographic.  The major attraction is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, which is the world’s *longest* navigateable subterranean river.  Chalk up another “est” for me (is anybody keeping score of these?  Could I be the world leader?).

Aside:  I’ve been thinking about all these “ests” I’ve been visiting lately.  I think it’s not that hard to be an “est” if you are precise enough.  For example, I was the *tallest* guy named “Shawn” who visited the river that day.  There, now I’m an “est”, too.

Just the same, the river was impressive.  Tourists are taken into the underground river by boat while a guide describes the wildlife in there and the different cave formations.  We were taken 1.5km into the 8.2km river.

Hopefully you’re not afraid of the dark…

On a related note, this river is currently a candidate for one of The New 7 Natural Wonders of the World, which will be chose in 2011.  (Btw, what happened to the old 7 wonders of nature?  Have they been lost?  And why are we looking for seven of them?  Although I enjoyed the website, it failed to answer any of my (seemingly obvious) questions).  If you are bored, I recommend you check out the live rankings, and perhaps cast a vote.  I would love to travel around the world and visit all of these…

3.  Apparently, in WWII, the Americans sunk several Japanese ships near the island of Coron.  I went to investigate.  Over the course of a couple great scuba dives, I confirmed there are definitely ships on the sea floor, and they definitely have holes in them where ships should not have holes.  At first it was a bit creepy to be swimming into these wrecked ships, but I started to enjoy it.  You could check out the boiler room, the rudders, etc.  A tip in case you ever go wreck diving:  with all your scuba gear on, you tend to underestimate the size of a hole you can to swim through.  I recall approaching a hole in the hull of one of the wrecks and thinking, “I can fit through there”.  Sure, I could have, if I didn’t have this huge, clunky tank on back and all these tubes connecting the equipment.  I wish I had a video of me, underwater and thus in slow motion, struggle to escape the wreck, haha.

A note needs to be made about the diving lifestyle:  it is in your best interest to be as lazy as possible.  You see, when you are diving, nitrogen builds up in your body.  This is bad for you.  When you are out of the water, the nitrogen dissolves.  Good.  But, it will dissolve less quickly if you do any stenuous activity.  Thus, it is in your best interest not exert yourself in any way!  So, going for a run after diving can be hazardous to your health!  It is beautiful how this all worked out.  Here is my recommended dive-day out-of-water activities to keep you in tip-top diving condition:

– In between dives, go up onto the top deck of the boat and take a nap in the sun

– In the evenings, have a lazy dinner, do jack-squat, and shoot the breeze with some divers (they always have good stories).

To your health!

4.  I went snorkeling with whale sharks!!  It was damn exciting!  Whale sharks are the world’s biggest shark.  These monsters can grow up to 18m (60 feet) in length.  Luckily for my fellow snorkellers and I, they eat plankton (not people).  We were taken out in a boat where our guide would be on the lookout for the sharks.  When he spotted one he yelled and we frantically put on our snorkel gear… waiting for his signal.  At this point, you could feel the excitement on the boat.  On the edge of the boat, we waited.  I felt like I was on a SWAT team in the movies waiting outide a door for the signal to bust into the drug dealer’s house.  Then he says, “Go, go!” and we dive jump of the boat and swim after him, in the direction of the whale shark.  I can still see in my head the sight of this creature of the deep just a few metres below me.  I cannot describe the joy of swimming along-side these massive creatures.  Awesome.

Since I didn’t have an underwater camera, I have no pics of the sharks, but I think you should see one.  So, here is one I stole off the web (http://scienceblogs.com/deepseanews/upload/2007/04/Whale-Shark-01_about_utila.jpg):

How cool is that?  I should note that I didn’t see one this big :)  And again, not my picture.

Our whale shark spotters scan the waters for massive shadows lurking beneath the surface

4.  One of the most poplar forms of transportation in The Philippines are the jeepneys.  I travelled on these a few times.  These are essentially WWII jeeps with extended cabs on the back.  The back contains two benches.  The amount of people they cram in there is downright ridiculous.  What I love about the Filipino people is their good attitude about this situation.  No matter how full the jeepney is, when somebody else shows up to get on, nobody complains; they simply make more room.  Many times it appeared to me to be a physical impossibly to cram somebody else in, but they do.  I would have taken a picture for you, but I could not get an arm free from the mass of humanity in there.

Actually, these jeepneys are just one of the many uncomfortable, over-crowded forms of transporation in Asia.  If you have never tried one, you are missing out on part of the Asian experience.

All over the Philippines you can see beautiful, private beaches, some with huts, some without.  I spotted this gem while on a boat ride to Coron City.  How would you like to hang out here for a while?  Yes, the pic crooked.  The boat was rocking, I swear.

A random sign I saw while riding a motorcycle on the country roads of Coron.  Am I supposed to vote for this guy??  I don’t get it.

One last story:  I stumbled upon a bar in Coron run by an older Austrian gentlemen.  Long after the other customers left, I stayed for hours drinking rum-and-cokes and listening to this man tell me his life story.  It was a pleasure to listen.  He’s been to 55 countries (!), married 3 times, among many adventures.  I would be lucky if my life turned out to be half as exciting.  Something I realized a long time ago is that as people get older, what they really want is somebody to listen to their stories.  As he talked, this man was reliving his good and bad times.  He didn’t want me to leave.  This got me to thinking:  when I get older, who am I going to tell my stories to?  I’m going to have to figure this out…

A few more pictures of The Philippines here.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for reading.  Wow, long post.  My apologies.  I just arrived in Indonesia.  I feel like more good times are on the way…

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