Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Furthur into the Philippines

Furthur into the Philippines - 

Fun things we've discovered during some deeper exploration of the Philippines. 

My first observations were true, the Pinoys are a fun and beautiful people, but also much friendlier than I first gave them credit for. We are out of the big city of Puerto Princesa and discovering all the differences that are obvious between any big city and rural area. It's the same story here - the Pinoys are less interested in our money here and more interested in making friends and getting to know us.  

Petrina and I shared a kayak (for some reason) to paddle (or rather, I paddled) towards a small village, Maytigued, that we'd anchored near. As we got to the anchorage at around 4pm we had plenty of time to get to the village and back to the boat before it got too dark. Even so, it felt like I was trying to manoeuvring us for hours before we got close enough to make out the people on the shore. A whole crowd of people were waiting there to welcome us. At first they just stared, before their curiosity got the better of them and they came forward to speak. We found that most of the adults spoke at least enough English to ask us a few questions:

Where are you going?

   Just walking around.

Where are your slippers?

   Err...on the boat. 

Oops. I wonder if the practice of walking barefoot outside is bad mannered here as it is considered in other places. You should take off your shoes before entering someone's house (sometimes restaurants and stores too) to avoid making their clean floors dirty. We were reminded time and time again of our lack of 'slippers' (something you don't tend to wear into a kayak so naturally we didn't realise we didn't have them until at least half way there). It was a great way to bond - they gawped and wondered about our strangeness in Tagalog (Filippino) as they pointed at our bare feet and laughed with their friends. 

We walked around the concrete paths and wondered why they were necessary in such a tiny place with a population of 600. There are no vehicles to speak of - not even a single scooter. As we completed the circuit of the village we came to the top of the hill. Looking down, we finally saw why the roads were necessary. An ox was pulling a cart up the steep slope. Instead of having wheels, it was built like a sledge. There were two bamboo poles that came into contact with the ground and took the weight of the cart and it's contents. Wheels are impractical during the rainy season and much more likely to get stuck in the mud than sticks. 

By this time we'd collected the proverbial bus load of kids, so we stopped to play games for a while. Petrina did an excellent job of demonstrating 'Simon Says' - we soon had at least half the village kids playing along. One very obvious difference between the Philippines and neighboring countries is the absolute abundance of kids here. A 'small' family has 3 or less kids.  An average number is 4-6. Families are only considered large when there are around 10 children! This is sadly a reminder of Spain's occupation - Catholicism is rampant in the country; therefore birth control (and education about it) is very difficult to get hold of. Condoms are banned by the government/Pope and the pill is too expensive for many of the people here. This is an interesting spin, as many of the kids' parents are not married (divorce is illegal, and finding a new partner after separating can be punished by 6 years in jail if you fail to meet the requirements agreed upon by your marriage partner and the intervening police force). 

As we were walking back to the kayak, Petrina and I giggled to ourselves about the fact that we would both be squeezing into one kayak - the villagers would think we were crazy. Actually, they were interested in following us around, but didn't laugh or find it at all strange that two of us were getting into a single kayak - why would it be weird? Of course, this same nation doesn't struggle to regularly put 5 people on a motorbike or 10 into a tricycle.


Whilst being in Coron we've finally seen some damage from the typhoon. Exploring the town on our first day, we stumbled into the recreation centre - piled high with stacks of boxes and sacks. We quickly realised it was a distribution centre for aid for the typhoon victims. A large map covered in post-it notes showed the most damaged areas. The other side of the island was directly in typhoon Yolanda's path - although the casualities were not nearly so high as the ones in the Tacloban area, the devastation is just as bad. Our friend told us over 10,000 families have been affected in the area - by damage to their houses, either partial or complete, a lack of food, water, electricity and roads to manage the distribution of the supplies. There has also been a few outbreaks of water-borne diseases although the official we questioned told us these had been controlled quickly and hadn't turned into epidemics. As we can see clear evidence of Yolanda's destruction in Coron, such as fallen trees, collapsed buildings, missing roofs - sheets of corrugated iron stuck up in the tops of the trees... it's difficult to imagine what things must look like further north, where they are more exposed. There were 15 casualties in Coron, despite them having 3 days warning before the typhoon. An eyewitness who lived on the other side of the island explained that much of the destruction was done by the waves - he estimated they were higher than the top of the basketball backboard in the recreation centre. 

Further out, in Concepcion Bay, many of the yachtees were very lucky their boats remained unscathed at their moorings. Only one captain was crazy/brave enough to stay on board during the typhoon - the others were either abroad or checked into hotels away from the water. He is adamant that it is not something he would do again if there were other options. One of the dive boats is in a less happy state - it's partially sunken now after it was lifted 20feet into the air before being dropped by the wind.

Petrina and I bust out the Crocodile move...
It's also refreshing being here in the Philippines because of the nightlife - we've had a few opportunities to explore the options and are very happy with what we've seen. Men AND women dancing TOGETHER! Not just dancing, but fairly explicit 'MTV-style' at that. We also crashed a staff Christmas party at one of the large hotels in Concepcion Bay. We were warmly welcomed and quickly given scorecards to judge the various team efforts at a talent competition. Once that serious business was out the way (we watched one group dance to a catchy local song, a fire dancer and a group sing-a-long) the organised party games began. Madara volunteered herself for the first game before fully understanding the rules. Six guys were sat in chairs - in a ring with the backs towards the centre. Seven girls danced around until the music stopped, at which point they had to sit on one of the guys to stay in the game! It was hilarious. Maddy did very well - she was the third last in the game. The second game was even more inappropriate although it followed the same format. Eight men were given aubergines, and told to clasp them tightly between their legs. They stood in a circle while the women had to grab the aubergine when the music stopped! The craziest part was when we asked our Italian/Pinoy friend if she'd ever played it before, whilst growing up in the Philippines. She told us she'd probably first played it when she was around seven years old - the only difference was that the girls were given wooden spoons to balance an egg on. While the girls were trying to make a grab for the boys' aubergine, he was using it to poke them with (still held between his legs) to make them drop the egg!!! Can you imagine playing anything even remotely like this in your primary school? 

Finally we were all invited to play a game which required a partner of the opposite sex (it's amazing they had any volunteers at this point, but practically everyone played). Sheets of newspaper were spread over the floor. You danced together with your partner until the music stopped, at which point you jumped together onto the sheet. Easy enough so far. To make it more interesting, at every round, the newspaper was folded in half, so it became progressively more difficult, until there was so little space that the man would have to pick up the woman whilst keeping his balance on the small square for 5 seconds. Or that was the theory. In practise most of them fell over. My partner and I quickly established a game plan -  we'd have to rely on whoever was the strongest. I had my doubts about the strength of the lovely but slightly chubby munchkin Bernie, so we surprised everyone when the music stopped: I balanced on the sheet, and he jumped onto my back! Surprisingly, it turned out to be a winning formula and we were awarded first prize. 

We've used the short amount of time we've had here wisely - diving in the many fantastic dive sites that Coron has to offer. Courtesy of Japanese invasion during WWII, many of the best sites here are dilapidated wrecks that were sunk during the battle of Coron. These are very eerie places to dive - the ships make fantastic underwater scenery lurking suddenly out of the depths as you descend the line. Some parts are overgrown with corals and reefs protruding; it is not immediately obvious as to what the original shape of the ship was. In others, the twisted metal remnants are a horrific reminder of the fierce fighting that happened. It's difficult not to think about the lives that were lost here, on these boats, as the chaos of a lethal hit became a desperate reality for everyone aboard them. It is not difficult to imagine there are ghosts wandering the wreckage. On one of the wrecks it's possible to see the remains of a huge machine gun, bolted to the ship and abandoned to the sea. In another, you can see hundreds of bags of cement, in transportation to the next base, although they were ultimately used to bring the ship to its watery grave much faster.  As we slowly drift among the ruins I think about the desperation that must've been prevalent in the last moments of the ship's life. We penetrate gloomy passageways where batfish appear from the shadows and poke into the places where hundreds died. Many lives were tragically lost here on both sides - whoever won and lost is irrelevant in the face of the suffering that those soldiers, sailors, pilots, mechanics, cooks, captains and crew must have gone through. Let's hope we always remember the sacrifice that was made so we can avoid doing it again.

We've also dived a few other sites - beautiful coral reefs and a first for me: lake diving. Although it's only separated from the sea by a few metres, I've never had to climb up stairs before to get to a dive! The lake is a really interesting phenomena - it's brackish water and completely different temperatures in different layers. The highest reading I had was 38Celsius! Probably a good place to do a naked dive... Anyway spectacular scenery, interesting fish and something I hope we'll get another chance to do. 

Petrina and Madara swimming in 'Twin Lagoon' - again, a mixture of salt and freshwater. If you snorkel just below the surface you can see the difference in the layers, and also feel the temperature range. 

 We had fun kayaking through the opening - a very narrow gap (you had to get completely inside the kayak and keep your head ducked in to avoid scraping your face off). 

 On the boat, we're celebrating Christmas in a quieter way than usual - no big dinner, heaps of presents or going out to Christmas parties. My Christmas present to everyone else is a day of hard labour - the money that would have bought presents for the girls and Brian has gone towards books, toys, clothes, materials for building and everything else we need to help this family rebuild their house after Yolanda completely flattened it. There are seven kids in the family (and one more on the way) and they're desperate for help. The father earns only 225 pesos a day (4000 pesos is around $100USD) - the kids haven't been attending school because they literally don't have clothes to go in. Despite this, they are a loving, beautiful family with smiles for everyone they meet. We are asking all of our local friends to come and help out too - not that the community needs any encouragement from us to pull together and work as a team. Everyday we see countless examples of people pulling together and lifting a fallen tree from someone's house, or replacing basketball hoops in the local high school's court. The way this community comes together to help others when most of them have nothing by our standards is a very positive, powerful example of the beauty of human nature. This Christmas is going to be everything it shouldn't: hot, tired, dirty, hard work - but perhaps the most meaningful I've ever had.  

We've been spending the evenings making decorations for our little Christmas tree - it's got lights now and is starting to look very sweet in the corner. We're having fun making the wierdest decorations possible. A strong sea theme is emerging - not surprising based on the available materials in this environment. It's also great to show our appreciation of the sea which supports us on the boat - literally - and also our lifestyle of travel, diving, snorkeling, kayaking and swimming in the many seas we've sailed in this year. 

We'd all like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year - lots of love from everyone aboard Furthur. I'd also like to say thanks to everyone that has made the last year as fantastic as it's been - families real and adopted, past and present crew, old and new friends discovered and re-discovered in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. Wishing you all a great 2014 with lots of love. 

Crew supermarket shopping challenge in Puerto - who can make the best outfit 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Shopping malls and shanty towns

Kota Kinabalu - An exotic name for a western city. 

Malaysia is a very developed nation to nearly-Western standards (sightly more emphasis on Health and Safety issues and it would be just like home, with a better climate). Which is why it finds itself home to many migrants from it's poorer neighbours. In east Malaysia, or Borneo particularly, there are many Filipinos filling in the jobs that are undesirable to the well-educated Malays, such as labouring on the constant new developments. As a result of these poorly paid, illegal workers with no rights, slums spring up close, or on, the building site to house the workers for cheap.

I can hardly criticise this system, as I have well and truly been reinforcing it, willingly or not. We've been moored at the beautiful Sutera Harbour Marina, (2 private beaches, four pools, separate saunas for men and women and all the other conveniences of a 5* resort).  Although it's been a luxurious holiday, the proximity to the nearest slum is astounding. In fact, it's only a very short stretch of water that separates the brightly lit 'Sutera Harbour Resort' sign from the nearest village on stilts which doesn't have electricity - and plumbing? Why would that be necessary when the houses are built over stagnant water? 

After spending 6 weeks almost exclusively in the city of Kota Kinabalu, I think I've got a good feel for the place now. If this is coming across as slightly bitter, please excuse me. I'm not. I understand the system exists because it works. The Filipinos come here because they are earning more than they ever could at home, even if their current living standards are lower. Maybe it's a temporary thing, or the fact that they can support their entire family easily. I also know that just because somebody lives in a hut on stilts doesn't mean they're not happy. In fact, many of the happiest people I've met on my travels live in similar circumstances, with barely enough money to rub two coins together, but the love and support of their immediate family, and an unchanging job that supports them through the wet and dry season is enough. However, the Malaysian government should be aware that these people are the backbone of the economy and certain rights, such as giving them legal citizenship, or at least the right to a temporary work visa would benefit everyone. 

Kota Kinabalu is a walkable city (unusual in Asia) with a population of some 600,000. I think of KK as one big shopping mall with some roads to negotiate in the middle. The rich here seem to be incredibly rich - in the marina there is a  brand spanking new US$5million boat, which is just a floating party venue to the owner. He has no idea how to drive the thing, and doesn't even own a pair of swim shorts! What a tragic waste! 

There is also a bit of a nightlife scene here - 'The Bed' is a large and popular nightclub right on the waterfront, with an entry fee of 20RM (even for girls, despite the fact that it can easily be described as a sausage fest). It was a good night out anyway although I wouldn't recommend going unless with a large group. The other fantastic night out I had in Kota Kinabalu was at the white room, which was epic just because it was so unexpected: we made friends with a large group of Indians who were dancing their Bollywood hearts out. This location seemed to have a slightly more gay crowd. I managed to get a completely unironic high five for my dancing (a first); Siem held the end of my hair out and the surrounding group of people used it to shimmy under as a limbo pole. 

The other, slightly random, night out I had was with Petrina. We were at Shamrock, enjoying the live music and embarrassing ourselves at pool, when a group of mostly Australians arrived, presumably already drunk (one of them wasted no time in stripping off his clothing and dirty dancing with the owner, who was turning 60). We took a stroll outside to explore the other options and drink cheap beer outside 7/11. When we came back, most of the mostly-Aussies were in a SUV, apparantly waiting for us. We were hustled into the car, en route to Sutera Harbour (the parents of some/all of these guys had a beautiful house on the edge of the golf course). What a crazy party it was. Everyone went swimming in the pool as soon as we arrived, (we regretted it straight away because it was freezing) and one of the mostly-Aussies sprayed champagne over everything. We spent a few hours partying with the nutters, had breakfast and got back on the boat seconds before Brian woke up (to this day, he doesn't know how late we got back). 

We spent some time exploring health care options in KK - Madara has a badly bruised ankle from a classic accident: motorbikes in Thailand. One day we borrowed a wheelchair from the marina and spent the day in town finding out just how disability unfriendly Asia really is. For one thing, all the local people are looking at us like we're strange. There are enough white people hanging out in KK that it's not just because we're differently coloured. I felt they wanted  to say, 'well, she's clearly broken, so what are you doing taking her through shopping malls and getting in the way of those of us who aren't crippled?'. Finding pavements that had a slope into the road rather than a step was insanely difficult. Also any ramps we found tended to be either too steep or slippery to push up/down a wheelchair without loosing control/getting squashed on the main road. Foreigners should note that if you manage to get to a hospital or government-run clinic you pay a flat rate of 15RM ($5US) for: access to a Doctor, any X-rays or treatment you might need and whatever medication they prescribe you. Unfortunately we weren't aware of this - we went to a private clinic at the beginning which charged extra for X-rays and meds.

 We also found a dentist (eventually) and got a check-up. Petrina and I wasted quiet a bit of time initially - we were recommended a local dentist and booked an appointment by phone. On the date and time of the appointment, we arrived at the location (directions from the friend who'd recommended the dentist). Strangely, the place appeared to be shut. We walked around the block, looking for a different door in or another dentist with the same name. Tidak ada. We called up and got directions from the receptionist whose level of English consisted of, 'go to 7/11', which was on a parallel street. When we drew level we realised the store was actually shut down although the signs were still up. No sign of another dentist though. The saga continued for at least another 30mins - we listed all the hotels, banks and restaurants we could see. They directed us towards something they recognised. We requested they send someone out onto the street to find us. No luck there. Eventually when we were thinking on giving up on the quest and indulging in ice-cream instead, I passed the phone to a local lady walking by. After a very short conversation, she informed us: 'You need to take a taxi. This dentist is 100km away.' We had much more luck with our second attempt.

I've also met some brilliant local friends in KK. I had a bout of tonsillitis and was fortunate enough to be picked up by Sim whilst en route to the nearest farmasi on foot. He was kind enough to take me to get my drugs AND waited to give me a ride back too. When I was feeling more sociable, he introduced us to some of his friends who took turns in escorting us to various local attractions. We particularly loved the Sabah museum (I suck at walking on stilts) and the best laksa restaurant in town.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Welcome to the Philippines!

We've finally made it. After a four day trip from Kota Kinabalu, we are now officially checked into the Philippines. It's the first new country I've been into, since Indonesia (some eight months ago) and so far, it's looking fantastic. Our first greeting in Filippino waters was from a speed boat as we were trying to pass through a small channel between some tiny islands. The boat came roaring up and the guy wearing camouflage (army?) warned us away from entering the 'protected area' ahead. There was a big gun lying handy in the boat...no arguments with this guy, then. We made a fairly quick about-turn and went via a different, slightly longer route. Sorry about the poor picture, I was trying to be subtle.

Puerto Princesa is considered the capital of Palawan Island, where we spent some time today, wandering around and getting a feel for our new habitat. It's an interesting mix of cultures. 'Jeepneys' are converted WWII vehicles that the US Army left behind - today they're used as small buses. 'Tricycles' are motorbikes with side carts attached (I asked how many passengers they can fit, and our first driver boasted 6*!) - something like the typical Asian rickshaw with a colourful twist. In fact, everything is more multicoloured here with a

fascinating blend of spanish language, Asian food and beautiful, fun people. Perhaps the biggest difference is the lack of covered heads, calls to prayer and minarets in the skyline. Instead, the people are almost western with their dress and strongly Christian as a nation, with a beautiful Cathedral dominating the approach to Puerto Princesa from the sea. From what I've seen so far, I have a feeling this country will take the place in my heart of best beaches and most incredible scenery. This will be a hard one to judge, but in a short time we've already seen karst mountains coming up dramatically from terraced rice fields in close range of spectacular coastlines. Apart from Burma, this is only the second country I've visited in the last two years that drives on the right hand side of the road. Crossing the road has suddenly become a lot more difficult for me and entertaining for everyone else!

Sadly, this is the only place where I feel like misinformation is a business - Petrina and Madara find the Philippines similar to India (although quieter and less intense) in the sense that everyone has a vested interest in the answers they give to your questions, so they tend to be biased. For example, our tricycle driver told us there were no more local buses to the other side of the island (although we later found out this wasn't true) which meant we'd have to take a more expensive minibus (which means he gets commission from bringing customers to his friend). I've never seen it to the same degree before (even in touristy Thailand) where you might come across the occasional scam artist or dodgy deal - here it seems to be the norm. Maybe as a result of this, the people here are not as outwardly friendly as the Thais, Indonesians or Malaysians. However, they are incredibly polite. Anyone that speaks to us, tags on "ma'am" at the end of the sentence, or even to get our attention. I've also never had a distinction for being a woman before - in Indonesia and Thailand it was "Hello Misterrr!", regardless of
your gender. 

The Phillipines were hit by the devastating supertyphoon Haiyan a month ago (or Yolanda, as it's known locally) - we've yet to see any signs of destruction, but we heard from the cruisers hanging out in PP that there were strong winds of 30knots but little else. As we head further north, we expect to see more damage, particularly on the island of Coron and the northernmost tip of Palawan. We  don't intend to head towards the area around Tacloban, where most of the damage was centered. The boat is carrying plenty of provisions, should we come across an area that has suffered badly and is in need of any help. 

Tourism is especially important to a country suffering from a natural disaster like this - it's a natural way for the Philippines to begin to rebuild and support itself, although obviously some care has to be taken to avoid the areas which are still suffering from collapsed infrastructure. Hopes are high for the adventures we'll have here - swimming with whale sharks? Yes please. Climbing into the crater of an active volcano? For sure. Paddling on an underground river through an extensive cave system? Already done. All of this, with less tourists around? Perfect! 

The phrase to get around the Philippines? Bahala na, or 'no worries'. This place is going to suit me just fine!

*Asian people, not us whities, duh.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

How NOT to plan epic adventures

Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. 

What a mellifluous mouthful. The place is almost as exotic as it sounds - beautiful beaches, high mountains in the distance, palm trees everywhere and some headhunters still showing off the spoils of their ancestors' traditions! Jungles filled with orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants and the world's largest flower - the Rafflesia. Having spent over a month hanging out in the admittedly stunning, Sutera Harbour, I was more than ready to go for some land adventures when Petrina and Madara arrived. We had to first sail the boat along the coast from KK towards Kudat (some 14hours) around the northernmost tip of Borneo, help with the haul-out before we disappeared into the jungles for seven incredible days of exploration. 

For some reason, the group decided it was a great idea to rent a car to explore this vast expanse of area (over 70,000km²), which meant a trip back to KK would be necessary. 

Here are some quick tips on renting a car: 

1) Don't get the cheapest car. It's obviously the worst. Which means that when you're travelling over all those big Bornean rainforest-covered mountains your car will not do so well. 

2) Check the car works. Try running the A/C, radio and driving uphill (at the same time). If the car struggles with this, it is going to be an issue. 

3) Shanghai a Polish guy that knows a) how to drive and b) how to make a terrible car drive. You should ideally kidnap him for about a week (he might have to miss a couple of flights, but he'll appreciate his sacrifice in the end). Thanks Vtec!

4) Car alarms just don't like some people. It's a fact of life. Sorry Petrina.

5) The point is... When explaining mechanical failings of terrible cars, the point should be reached as quickly and painlessly as possible. And should also not be mentioned to the rental company before the deposit has been returned!!!! 

When you have selected your car, don't bother with a real map. If the roads are not so developed there won't be too many options anyway (we used a free tourist map that had little detail, but conveniently marked tourist attractions on it). Also, we found that often the best adventures happened like this:

Driver: Could you take a look at the map and check we're going in the right direction?
Co-pilot: No.
Driver: Can I check the map?
Co-pilot: No.
Driver: Where are we going?
Co-pilot: Turn left HERE! This road looks fun!
Driver: silently fuming

Which actually turned out for the best. In the above example, we went for a swim in the river, spent the night sleeping in hammocks and Madara enjoyed an early morning ride on on the longest zip-line in Borneo. 

The other advantage of not doing research, not planning and not arriving anywhere on time is that you can change the plan ...or the one you didn't have. Our first night's lodgings were procured through making friends with a Malaysian (Dr El, the local director of English Education) who led us to a guesthouse where they never normally allowed white people apparently because they didn't want complaints about their standards, although for us, this was not an issue* which was much cheaper than anything we saw in Lonely Planet, and much more fun - the four of us shared a room in comfortable double beds (apart from poor Vtec, who had a mattress on the floor).

 What else did we get up to? Well, one night we stayed at Poring Hot Springs Park, where everything was shut down by 7pm. Naturally that led Vtec on a quest for alcohol (OK, I joined him) and we began a dangerous night hike through the deep jungle (read: chasing fireflies along a paved road which bordered the jungle). Feeling guilty by the amount of fun we were having, we stopped back at the room to collect the rest of the team, and now with flashlights, we led them further along the same path. We progressed more slowly as we could hear a noise from ahead - over the gentle trickling sounds of a stream there was a louder roaring sound. Somebody eventually voiced their fears of being eaten by a clouded leopard, or trampled by a pgymy elephant until we stopped in our tracks, and huddled together in the middle of the road. Everyone was petrified of making any movement, should the unidentifiable beast come out of the bushes to attack. Madara was on the verge of hysteria. For four sensible adults, with a combined age of 112, it should not have taken us so long to realise that the sound came from a SPRINKLER. Or rather, a broken pipe - sporadically spraying water on nearby vegetation. 

The highlight of my trip was later the same night, when fueled by adrenaline from our brush with death and local rice whiskey, we decided to explore the closed park by night. A gap in the fence made this fairly easy, and we stealthily sneaked into the compound to look around - until we found the hot springs - and so our brief adventure as David Attenborough wannabes ended. Petrina was in her element; skinny dipping in the hot springs and playing with friendly cats after. It was so great to be there with just the group of us, that we didn't really see any point in going back in the next day (although we had tickets this time) - the place was an absolute zoo with all the tourists absolutely crammed into the pools. Although we did look at the butterflies.

All in all, we couldn't have planned this trip any better than it turned out. Which is why I'm glad we didn't try.

* I've been in Asia for so long that when I went into the bathroom, I noticed the tap, bucket and scoop and began having an Asian shower - I only found out about the actual shower head higher up on the wall because someone mentioned it later.