Back in the air now after 10 days in the Philippines, I finally have a chance now after a busy ten days to reflect a bit and write. Thankfully my iPad is loaded with a fair amount of music, and the Kings of Convenience (as always) provide a languid and contemplative soundtrack to the goings-on around me. I swear this duo’s music just gets better and better with each listen.
My destination for this trip was Cebu and I was traveling on company business, though I managed to squeeze in a little extracurricular activity as well.
The business was setting up a new branch office for Netwise, and what will soon become the center of all of our development-related activities. I have spent the last few months laying the groundwork for this modest expansion of our operations, and now that the company registration and other legalities are mostly complete I flew down to interview applicants, secure office space, arrange for business support services, etc.
The trip overall was largely productive, which the only snag being our still-pending SEC approval at the hands of the official charged with handling our application. While the loose, make-it-up-as-we-go style of the bureaucracy we’re dealing with was perplexing at first, now that I’ve spent a little time in-country I see that it’s just like pretty much just everything else here. If you’re looking for efficiency, order, process or (in some cases) simple common sense, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. Things happen when, how, and at the pace they happen, whatever you for whatever reason might expect to the contrary. What you get in return is operational expenses a fraction of what you might find in Japan or the US. The jury’s still out on the subject of which is better. Watch this space…
Anyway, things overall went well. We’ve hired people, secured office space, and otherwise checked all of the boxes most in need of checking. Bully for us.
I stayed in the Marriott, a hotel experience I would happily recommend to anyone else traveling to Cebu on business or for any other reason. Great amenities, capable staff, pervasive, free wifi, and a convenient location abutting Ayala Center, a largely open-air shopping and dining complex designed by a Japanese firm with lots to make your stay interesting.
My exposure with the seedier side of Cebu was quite limited, I’m happy to say, and so I can’t report much on that. What I can say is this: if you thought the sight of old dudes with young Asian girls was common in Bangkok, well, take that and multiply it by 2 or 3.
And not only are there more of them, the age range seems to be even broader. A lot of these guys are clearly pensioners, and seeing them stroll around the mall with a couple buxom 20-something local girls is a little off-putting.
I booked some time in the middle of the trip to get out of the city and do something I’ve wanted to for about as long as I can remember: SCUBA diving. Ever since the days of watching Jacques Cousteau’s Underwater Kingdom I’ve wanted to travel to those undersea depths myself, and be it for distance to the ocean or lack of initiative or simple procrastination it’s taken me this long to actually get around to doing just that.
I booked my course weeks in advance, choosing the PADI Open Water Diver course and selecting Seaquest in Panglao (Bohol) as the school for my practical training. The PADI certification has a theory portion which you can complete online for a moderate fee of around 120 US dollars. Doing it in advance means you don’t have to spend time doing it at the dive center and can focus instead on the practical, in-water training. That’s what I did, but I’ll give you a word of advice: get it down well in advance. I “paced” myself (ha!) and as a consequence had 4 chapters left to do in the few days leading up to my trip to Panglao. The result? I spent my evenings not out exploring Cebu, but rather ensconced in my hotel room studying dive theory. Not the best of possible outcomes, to be sure.
I finished the last course and final exam at 1:30 in the morning of the day I would travel to Panglao to begin practical training. The ferry I booked had a nine-o’clock departure time, so I swiftly packed and called it a night.
My “first class” ticket cost around twenty bucks and secured me spot in the fastboat’s elite upper cabin, the unclaimed seats of which, I found, soon fell prey to the more bold and audacious among the ship’s other passengers. Poor souls who left their seats briefly to have a look about topside returned to find their reserved places occupied by (typically Chinese) interlopers. The former would ask one of the crew to deal the situation, and when confronted the latter would vacate the seats without complaint or hint of apology. I was reminded then of earlier observations about vacationing Chinese, which is to say that having lots of them around usually does little to dress up the place.
The in-transit movie selected for the voyage was Inception, an excellent movie if allowed to enjoy all five fifths of it, rather than merely the first four, which is what our one-hour forty-minute transit time allowed. Guess no one saw that one coming. (More likely, this being the Philippines, the person who chose the movie never considered two factors as wildly unrelated as movie duration and trip duration…)
I swear I could write an entire blog post–a long one–focused solely on the topic of the breadth and depth of things you encounter in daily life in the Philippines which don’t work, which work poorly or in spite of themselves, or are at a glance hopelessly ill-considered or (worse) just plain brain-dead. But I won’t. In the face of such sweeping and pervasive dysfunctionality the Filipinos seem largely unhurried and unconcerned, and it’s this relaxed attitude which you’ll find in most every area of their society. Coming from uptight, high-standards-for-everything Japan I suppose this can be sort of refreshing. For me, though, it was mostly just annoying. I’ll take efficient, timely, perfectionist Japan over that any day.
Anyway, we arrive right about the time the siege on the frozen outpost is kicking into full-gear (and when the van has just crashed through the guardrail on the elevated bridge) and disembark at Tagbilaran, home to Bohol’s ferry terminal. The hotel has a arranged a driver and he’s waiting there with a sign and a smile.
We head South down and around the island at no-big-rush Philippines speed, beeping the horn each time was pass an (even slower) “trike” motorcycle taxi or freight truck or water buffalo. The foliage, lush and tropical, soon dominates the scenery. After 25 minutes we arrive at our destination, the Oasis Resort on Alona Beach. This is where I would spend the next four days while taking the diving course.
The grounds were quiet and well-maintained, with a pool and restaurant common-area in the middle. I got a welcome drink (speared fruit, no umbrella) and went to go find out about the class schedule.
I was soon introduced to a young German fellow named Alex who would be my instructor and we set about planning the next few days.
As I had already finished the theory portion online I was ready to go straight into the water. On the first day (Saturday) we spent all of our time getting familiar with the gear and then doing “confined” dives in the 3-meter deep hotel pool. A lot of this time was simply getting used to the equipment, but also practicing skills that are necessary yet likely to press your survival-instinct buttons. These included taking out your regulator (the breathing mouthpiece) out and putting it back, or removing and then donning your mask underwater.
The first was easy to get used to, but I never got to a point where I was comfortable filling my mask with water and then clearing it, all underwater. Your eyes sting afterwards, there’s always a little water left in there, wetting your nose, etc. It’s a useful skill, to be sure, but one I don’t want to have to practice any more than necessary.
I think one of the things that surprised me most as I did the theory portion is how generally fraught with danger the very act of SCUBA diving seems to be. There are 50 ways to die down there, and none of them require that work particularly hard at it. Don’t go down too fast, don’t come up too fast, don’t go to deep, don’t touch anything, don’t forget to check X, Y and Z every so often, don’t hold your breath, don’t… well, the list goes on. When you finally get to the in-water training after going through all the theory you begin to wonder if you still want to do it at all. But you do, of course, because, hey, being able to hang out underwater for a while is pretty damn cool.
On the second day we were out in the open water, mostly doing more drills and covering the basic survival-type stuff. And this was the first time to see what’s really going on down there first-hand. I doubt I could have chosen a better place to do so. Our “skills training” was mostly done in 3 meters of of water, with Alex and my dive buddy Stephanie sitting on our knees in a triangle formation. We would do mask drills (ugh) and lots of “out of air” practice, which mostly involves borrowing or loaning the alternate air source which all divers carry with them when diving. We would practice emergency ascents and other trouble scenarios. All communication under water was done via hand signals learned as part of the theory portion.
It was tedious and repetitive, but in the end it help put us at ease, and when it was all done we got to do some actual diving. For the first time I was able to fling myself over the edge of the drop-off where snorkelers and divers part company. For the first time I was half-flying, half-floating in free-fall over darkened depths below, and man did it feel great! You fall from 3 to 6 meters and the “squeeze” comes over you, pressing in sharply on your ears and mask until you equalize by blowing air hard into pinched nostrils, and then it’s gone (for the moment, at least).
Here we learned about breathing technique, buoyancy, orientation and control. We learned how not to use up your air too quickly, how to work with the water, and how to navigate with minimal effort. Most of these techniques are designed to help conserve your air supply, which can last 30 minutes or an hour depending on how good you are at them.
The reefs were beautiful and awash is sea life of all shapes and sizes. I suppose “teeming” is an overused term among divers, but here in Panglao? Nothing else describes it. Different schools of fish would waft past you one after the next, sometimes purple, other times blue, or silver, or yellow and black. They would cloud the sea above you, while below the reefs presented a visual cacophony of shapes and colors, making you feel at times like you might be awash instead in a sea of LSD. An infinite variety of shapes and textures and colors, all there undulating gently and in harmony right before your very eyes, and you, floating above it all like a visitor to world’s most secret aquarium.
Before I get too swept away in reverie let me just say: it’s not what you see on the Discovery Channel. The colors aren’t as vivid, fish less numerous, the experience less… surreal. Nonetheless, you’re there. You’re right there in it, up close and personal, part of it. You’re pushed along by the current as well, take care not to bump not or step on anything, you hear the sounds of boat screws overhead. Whatever you lose in pristine HD video quality you gain in the visceral thrill of simply being there, and being–however briefly–part of that vibrant underwater ecosystem. It feels like a special and rare privilege.
Once topside we compared notes and talked about things we needed to do better (e.g. – conserve air) and then called it day. Alona Beach in the evening is a lot of fun, and most of the beachside restaurants move tables and chairs out to the beach for dining mere meters from the surf. Tables laden heavy with fish and shellfish line the sandy “boardwalk” there, with hawkers calling out to passers by about that days catch, etc. a handful of beach bars do a brisk business there entertaining the German, Dutch and Korean tourists which seem to predominate. Your correspondent was flying solo and thus found his evenings quiet and largely uneventful.
On the final day we ventured out to one of the most popular dive spots in the area, Balicasag. We were a group of nine divers, plus two instructors and 4-5 support guys who helped with the tanks and other gear. Balicasag is a tiny, 1.5 acre island and marine sanctuary located about an hour from Panglao by boat. The diving here is especially good, with healthy coral reefs and abundant pelagic fish.
It was here (Black Forest and another location) that we made out final two dives to complete the PADI course. The very strong current here were both a blessing and a curse. While on the one hand you could float essentially motionless and let the current carry you around the reef shelf, it at the same time made executing our training techniques more difficult and even frightening at times.
Still, the reefs and ocean life here were like nothing we had seen to date, and it was wonderful to encounter schools of larger jackfish and gracefully gliding sea turtles. By this point my tank was lasting much longer due the better breathing control and conservation, and so both dives were the longest of the trip.
Surfacing after the second dive we found that our pickup boat was nowhere to be seen. The three of us–Alex, Steph and I–scanned the horizon while being pitched this way and that among heavy, rolling waves. After a few minutes of this we began to get concerned.
A nearby dive boat noticed our plight and invited us aboard. It took a bit of effort in the choppy surf to swim over to the boat and get onboard. The dive boat support staff helped us out of our gear and plopped down on the deck, winded. A group of Korean vacationers diving at the same spot sat nearby, smoking and offering friendly smiles for our plight. The boat pulled anchor and we took off around the island in search of the Seaquest dive boat.
We found it before long and pulled up as close as we could. We suited back up–weights and tank and all–for the short swim to our vessel. The strong current made for slow going, but before long we were safely back onboard and in the skilled hands of the Seaquest crew.
Having successfully completed the last of the dives required for the Open Water Diver certification I was now officially done with the course and could proudly proclaim my new status of Absolute Beginning Diver. As I would be leaving that afternoon I wondered when my next opportunity to dive would be…
On my return to the Oasis Resort I learned of the earthquake that had struck nearby Cebu that afternoon, and that all of the ferries from the island had been suspended until further notice. Just as I was scrambling to see what accommodations I could find for another evening on Panglao I got word of a ferry that would be leaving in 40 minutes. The Oasis drive and I made the drive to Tagbilaran in record time, but we’re too late to catch the ferry.
I dove into the madness that was the ferry terminal and eventually secured a place on a ferry bound for Cebu that evening. Six hours later I arrived back in my room at the Marriott exhausted and collapsed in a nitrogen-induced stupor. What a long day it had been…
To days later here I am, back in the air and headed back to the cold and Winter of Tokyo. Overall a great trip, and I’ll close this here with some endorsements.
Marriott (Cebu City)
An excellent hotel in a great location. The staff are professional and capable, the food is excellent, and the rates are affordable. I don’t have anywhere else there with which to compare it, but will give it a strong recommendation nonetheless. My staff there was wonderful.
Oasis Report (Bohol, Panglao)
Convenient and safe location, friendly and capable staff, good food. The amenities are minimal, and the place overall is probably most well-suited to those there to dive. Don’t expect luxury, but do expect to be taken very good care of.
Seaquest Dive Center (Bohol, Panglao)
A companion operation with Oasis, Seaquest offers the same high level of quality and service. I felt particularly lucky to have had Alex for an instructor, and was very happy with all of the Seaquest team, both out on the boat and in the dive center office. I can’t speak for the other dive schools and operates there, but can tell you that with Seaquest you won’t go wrong.
And finally: Cathay Pacific Airlines. I’d never flown with them before but they have a new fan in me now. Website, booking, check-in, flight attendants, food, wine, you name it, all good. And not too expensive!
Wanna see the full collection of full-size photos? View the full trip album here:
|Cebu Trip (2012/2)|