Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philippines 2011 - Wrapup

Rising at the unholy hour of 6:10am begins what i already know will be a long trip back to Beijing. I hear the tinkling of dishes outside my room. Breakfast has been served. Banana pancakes and Nescafe await me, with mangoes for dessert, served the right way, sliced in cubes but left attached to the skin. The mosquitoes are active, and i debate applying OFF Lotion to my exposed skin, but also do not relish the thought of traveling all day feeling slimy and sticky. I remember Mike Ashmore's philosophy of always keeping a set of clean clothes for the last day of a trip, so you can travel feeling fresh. Lotion aside, i will not have that luxury today, for my trip is long, consisting of bed à motorcycle à boat à bus à taxi à plane à shuttle à  plane à taxi à bed.  There are eight degrees of transportation separating me from bed.

I decide against the lotion, opting instead for vigilance, for i am a mosquito ninja, defending my body against these silent little assholes that, like me, are just trying to enjoy a nice breakfast.   I get bit four times and kill one.
I apply some lotion.

I ride on the back of a motorcycle to the port and pay the guy 10 pesos, about a quarter. I am plenty early for the 7am boat, which costs 80 pesos. The boat ride is uneventful and i am calm, because traveling is easy, because i am an excellent traveler, awaking at the perfect time, eating breakfast, settling my bill, finding a motorcycle and bargaining for 10 pesos even when he made the logical case that it should be 20 because i also have a heavy backpack, finding the right boat, getting on that boat, sitting on the boat... i am great at this game.

The bus to Cebu City is scheduled for 9:30, but there is one ready to leave when my boat docks at 7:45am.   Schedules are confusing in the Philippines.  I get on, and pay the requisite 163 pesos. The bus is not air-conditioned, but the bus is also not full, and the windows open wide, like the vertical sliding windows in yellow school buses, the ones without the safety latch to keep it halfway up. I purchase some fried banana chips and some popcorn from roadside vendors when the bus stops. I am riding in style. I am very good at this.

I am so very good at this game, i even recognize where we are when we enter Cebu City. I think this is where i should get off to be closer to the airport. I ask the bus driver.
"Should i get off here for the airport?"
"Yes, Ma'am Sir, you should get off here."
I get off. There is a taxi on the street, and it backs up from halfway down the block to pick me up, unbeckoned by me.  He just knows, because he is the ninja equivalent of the taxi world.  I say to him, "the airport". He nods, a knowing nod people nod to each other when they both know the other person is very good at their job, confident, like a job-doing ninja, and no further explanation or questioning is required.

I arrive at the airport at 12:30. My flight to Manila is at 5:00pm. I am early. This is good, because my flight from Manila to Beijing is at 7:30, and there is only 90 minutes between connections. This is plenty of time for Manila's small terminal 3, but, being the travel-ninja that i am, i do not want to challenge fate.

I approach the counter with purpose and explain i have a ticket for 5pm but would like to fly standby for the 2pm flight, to ensure i have enough time for my connection. He says that is not possible.
"Why is it not possible?"
"We are not allowed to do that."
"Are there seats on that plane?"
"Yes, there are plenty of seats."
"You know, if you put me on the earlier flight, you can resell my seat for the 5pm flight. You take a empty seat and fill it, moments before the plane takes off, just to make sure it would have stayed empty, and then you put me in that seat, freeing up a chance to sell my seat again. You understand?"
"I understand. You may purchase a ticket on the earlier flight for 6000 pesos, if you like."
"No, I would not like. I would definitely not like."
I did not like that, but i got my ticket, and had lunch. Being the seasoned travel-veteran that i am, armed with plans B through E at all times, i know there's another option: the gate agent. I am so devious and clever. I ask.
"Sorry, Ma'am Sir, that is not possible."
You have got to be kidding me. I'm here. Three hours early. You have seats. There might be a problem with the next airplane. It could be delayed. I would miss my international flight because you won't let me on this one. It will be all your fault.
Note, i might have but probably did not actually say all that. But i probably did.
"No, Ma'am Sir, it would be your fault. You should have booked the earlier flight."
Crap. Valid point. Well... but the bus wasn't supposed to leave until 9:30, and i, because i employed advanced ninjamindtricks, made a bus leave at exactly when my boat arrived, thus getting me here in time, against all odds... how can everyone else be so incompetent?  So unreasonable?  How could they put me in this position!

The flight leaves. I am not on it. I sit in the waiting room and they have movies playing. I watch Open Season, a cartoon movie about a talking bear who lives with a forest ranger but gets sent out in the wild during hunting season. The bear makes friends with lots of other woodland creatures and together they outsmart the hunters. I am not entertained. I do not believe the plot is very plausible. I watch anyway.

...and my flight is delayed. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuu.... untimes are over. It's time to get serious. I remind the gate crew, who is different from before, that this is all their fault. They had a chance to put me on that flight, and they chose not to. I suggest they call ahead and alert the Manila ground crew of my predicament. I am told the ground crew is aware, and i am to find a connections agent upon arrival. I do not like Cebu Pacific Air at this moment. I am not entertained.

I'm asleep on the plane. We land in Manila at 7:15. AWAKE!  My brain is working fast. I calculate how i am going to fly over the 10 rows of people inside the airplane, be the first one out the door, taking giant strides as i step on the tops of seats to run over and past people. We stand up and i advance one row before the aisle is full. I gently push my way ahead, 2 more rows, then we disembark -I AM READY TO RUN- and board a shuttle. Crap.

Then i am off the shuttle!  First person off!  I am running, fast! I sprint up the escalator, down the hallway, and since i am running on carpet, i feel like i am flying, noiselessly, they way you do when you sprint down a hotel hallway.  I am running down another escalator, scanning the baggage claim below for these "connections agents".  I am still running when i hear my name.  I turn, immediately locating the source of the sound, it's A Connections Agent!, and i run to her.
"Hello Mister Kevin, i see you didn't leave enough time for your connection."
Seriously lady?  We have to do this now?

She says my flight has already boarded, that they are closing the gates, i will have to catch the next flight to Beijing, which is two days later.  But we are still running?

We arrive at the check-in counter, breezing past security guards with shotguns, because i'm with A Connections Agent!, and also because they can see i am excellent ninja at traveling.  I should be called Kevinja from now on. Must remember that for later...

At the counter, i'm pulled behind the computers, i am given forms, onto which i scribble things, i relinquish my passport, with which they do things, i am given a ticket and then MORE RUNNING!  Sprinting!  I am in a video game, dodging carts, kids, old people, signs, i slide under a rope, jump over a rolling barrel, spin kick a henchman, all fast! High Score! And then we wait at document inspection for two excruciating minutes.

THEN MORE RUNNING!  I run directly to the front of security, launch my bag through the X-ray, run through with my shoes, phone, change, everything.  The Connections Agent, who i now realize is also a ninja, reaches into the X-ray and grabs my bag, lobs it to me, and we're running again.

We sprint for 3 minutes all the way to my gate. Kids point and cheer. Teenagers are awestruck. Twenty-something's pump their fists in slow motion. I have just won a marathon. They held the plane for me.


We are delayed taking off, but then we do.  And when we land, i am confused, because somehow we have landed at 11pm, almost 90 minutes early. But we are not in Beijing, we are in Shanghai, because Beijing's smog/pollution is so thick that no plane can take off or land.  We will have to wait for the smogllution to clear.  And wait we do, on the tarmac, for 4 more hours. During that time, i occupy my brain by writing this post in my head, but since i've just finished AHWOSG, all my thoughts are intertwined with Egger's style of writing.  I can't get him out of my head. I decide i'm going to try to write my recap his style.

When we finally arrive in Beijing, it is 5am, and i am in bed by 6.  I did not get up at 7am for work, even though it was Monday morning. Even ninjas need a rest after 24 hours of travel.


Note: this post was definitely inspired by AHWOSG.  You all should read it. The book, not this post.  I mean, read the post too, but i assume you already did if you made it this far.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Philippines 2011 - Part 4 - Malapascua

Esther and most of Big Brother left Manila Sunday night. A handful of us enjoyed the final party, which was small and reserved compared to previous years which have featured fire dancing, marching bands, and unlimited rum. We called it an early night and i caught a flight to Cebu the next morning.

My destination was Malapascua, an island off the northern coast of Cebu, one of the Philippines' main travel hubs. Reaching Malapascua is long but easy process: fly to Cebu City, taxi to the bus station, 4 hour bus ride north, 45 minute boat ride to the island. My flight arrive at 10:30am, and i arrived at Malapascua around 6pm. Seven and a half hours very well spent.

The name Malapascua translated from Spanish means Bad Christmas, and was named by Spanish sailors in 1520 who shipwrecked on the island on Christmas day. There are about 4000 residents, up from 1500 ten years ago. Tourism has changed the island, for good and bad. Most houses have electricity and hot water, there's a pharmacy, and a growing economy bringing lots of resources and money to this little island. Also Denver Nuggets jerseys.

For comparison, Malapascua is about one quarter the size of Boracay, in both land and population. But it's about one tenth as touristy. There are no roads, only sandy paths. The only motorized vehicles are dirt bikes. Bars and restaurants are cheap, as is lodging. It's a very chill place, one where drinks actually get cheaper the more rum you add. I'm actually surprised this hasn't caught on throughout the Philippines, where rum is cheaper than coke.

The major reason for Malapascua remaining untouristy, relative to Boracay, is the airport. Boracay has no airport on the island, but there are two airports nearby. One of them is right at the port, meaning you can reach Boracay withing one hour of your flight landing. The other airport is further inland, about 3 hours from the port. Compare this with Malapascua, which only has one airport, 4 hours away. If they were to open a second airport on Cebu's northern coast, it will bloom into the next Boracay overnight.

That 4 hour bus ride is part of what makes the place so special. People stay a week or two. They become a part of the island for a little while, respect its inhabitants, learn the names of locals around you, feel at home. It's beautiful, and worth the trip. But it's also not for everyone. The scuba diving is fantastic, and remains the only place in the world to see Thresher sharks. However, there is little or no nightlife, because that Thresher shark dive is at 5am everyday. My first night there, i was out until about 1am with some people i met at the dive shop. Every other night, i was in bed by 10 or 11, which was fine by me. Diving can be exhausting.

I stayed at Mike and Diose's Beach Cottage. I was so impressed by their service and hospitality, i decided to make my first review on trip advisor. We sat up one night drinking beers and eating BBQ on the beach while he told me stories about growing up in West Berlin during bombing raids. I think he liked me because my name is German, and also the mustache thing. Mike's mustache bested mine, but i made a good run at the title.

I spent 6 nights on Malapascua, and with my five full days there, i did eight dives with two rest days. I also did my 50th dive overall, which is still not much, but enough to reinvigorate my love of scuba diving. Diving might be best explained with pictures, so here are some of the weird, cool, or interesting things i saw this trip.

Pygmy Seahorse. That's a finger behind the little guy. He's tiny.

Frogfish, with her eggs. The white in the upper left is the lure on top of her head, mouth open just below that, eggs visible in the middle right.

Banded Coral Shrimp on left (or top), Commensal Shrimp on right (or bottom).

Giant Hermit Crab, closeup.

Spider Crap, or Decorator Crab. I found this guy on a night dive, just one piece of seaweed that didn't look quite like the rest. I watched it for a while and it seemed to react to my flashlight. Such and awesome and weird find!

Bob-tailed squid. Only about half and inch long, check him out against the grains of sand he's burrowing into. So cool.

Devil Scorpionfish, x2 on a starfish during a night dive. In the second pic, a closeup of another one.

Nudibranch, about 2.5 inches long. Really cool to watch because he was always on the move. Hung out with him for a good 5 minutes.

Fingered Dragonet


Porcelain Crab in anemone.

And of course, Thresher Sharks. I didn't get any good photos of them, but my Norwegian diving buddy, Bjarte Håkonsen, definitely did. He had an impressive camera rig which made my cute G9 seem a bit inadequate. But it was awesome seeing his shots after each dive. I may have just gotten myself into a very expensive hobby though...

One of our day trips was to Kalanggaman, a barely inhabited island gorgeous sand and nothing in the way of inhabitants.

On our way back, our boat was visited by a pod of seven dolphins.

One of the divemasters at Evolution took a video, definitely worth a look.

When i wasn't diving, i was rereading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in a hammock with a beer, or wandering the village in the middle of the island. If esther were there, i'd say it was a perfect vacation, but very relaxing nonetheless.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Philippines 2011 - Part 3 - Manila Spirits

Esther and i flew to Manila from Legazpi on thanksgiving. BloomFat searched out potential options for a t-day dinner. Turns out the Hilton was offering a special dinner buffet and seven of us who had arrived early met up to celebrate my favorite holiday.

We showed up a little early and i met BG in the casino. With only about 30 minutes before dinner, i sat down at the no-limit hold-em table (25/50 peso blind). I bought 2000 pesos in chips, about $50. I wouldn't be able to see too many hands, so my goal was to find a good spot to get all my money in. That opportunity would come in the tenth hand.

I was dealt pocket kings, the second best possible starting hand. I raise to 350, four players call, the fifth re-raises to 800. I push all-in, four players fold, and the re-raiser calls with pocket 7's. I'm an 80% favorite to win the hand. I'm covering him in one suit with my kings, so his outs are: four spades, a third 7, or four cards for a straight. I've played the hard perfectly, giving myself a great chance to triple up. He hits his fifth spade on the turn. It's disgusting, but it's better to be lucky than good. I get up and go to dinner.

... which was great, but a far cry from a real thanksgiving. They had excellent indian food, fresh sushi, pizza, hamburgers, rib eye, italian, mexican, and... a turkey, gravy, and some mashed potatoes. Thanksgiving dinner a turkey does not make. Where is my cranberry sauce, the kind with the baked ocean spray cranberries? Where's my stuffing? My green bean casserole? The dessert was pretty epic though, complete with a chocolate waterfall/fountain, and, like, all the pies. Ever.

Tournament Recap
We played three days of ultimate, as Friday was a one day single gender tournament. On the Men's side, our Beijng/Shanghai/Lincoln team lost in the finals against Philippines' own Boracay Dragons, on the final point, 17-16. We played a great game too, but we were plagued by injuries and strained muscles from the intense heat. We lost 3 or 4 key players about halfway through the game, and our lead turned into a deficit. We fought to keep it close and even had possession on the final point, we just couldn't finish it.

On the Women's side, China won everything against the Bebots, also from the Philippines, with a dominating final score of15-9, i believe.

For the co-ed tournament on saturday and sunday, Big Brother played great... up until the last points. We lost two key games against strong filipino teams, Boracay and Sunken Pleasure, both games lost on the final point again. I think the final score of both games was 10-9, or 11-10... something like that. Heartbreakers, both of them. As a result, we finished 7th overall out of 32 teams, which is quite good, but we could have easily been top 3. If those two games go differently, we become a contender for the finals. One problem is that most of our team played friday also, and when sunday becomes your third straight day playing under the brutal Manila sun, you have to dig deep to find the strength to push hard. We just didn't have anything left.

We did kick ass at the saturday party, as always. The theme was "Back To School" and Big Brother went as chinese schoolgirls. Nina gets credit for the original idea. Esther and I found the costume on Taobao for $10 each. I worked the logistics of pulling everything together. Esther worked with the factory directly to sort out the sizes and request custom XXXL's for the big dudes on our team. Gareth and Nina carried all the costumes over.

The result was fantastic.

I also played one song with the band, their cover of Sublime's Santeria. It must have sounded decent, or at least been memorable, because a bunch of people recognized me on the fields sunday. Good times.

What a mustache.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Philippines 2011 - Part 2 - Donsol

Here's a map of Southeastern Luzon, so you can follow along in our travels. I don't think they teach this geography in school yet.

We arrived at Legazpi by bus and checked into a hotel located inside the Embarcadero. For those of you familiar with Chicago, think Navy Pier... restaurants, shops, arcades... all in a waterfront mall. We did not know this is what the Embarcadero was when we booked the room, but we were nonetheless amused when we checked in. There's no excuse for me though, embarcadero means "pier" in Spanish.

Legazpi is the capital of the Albay province with roughly 200,000 inhabitants, called Legazpeños. The city's tourist attractions include, and are limited to, the Mayon Volcano. It's a cool volcano though, a perfect cone. And it's still active, very much so. It recently erupted in 2009, 2008, and 2006. Its tip was shrouded in a clouds the whole time we were there, like whipped cream melting over a sundae. Apparently it has a permanent wisp of smoke coming from the tip on clear days.

We spent a couple hours walking around an area, some area, talking to locals, looking at stuff, etc.

The railroad appears to be out of order at the moment, as it is cluttered with chickens, children, and abandoned cars.

We only stayed one night at the Embarcadero, so esther and i left BloomFat behind and headed to Donsol, The Whale Shark Capital of the World. Whale sharks are not whales, they are massive filter-feeding fish, and are the largest animal in the world outside of the whale family. There are daily sightings off the coast of Donsol and visitors can go on guided snorkling trips to swim with them, but only during the peak season of November to June. Unfortunately, we were a little early and they hadn't yet come in from the open ocean to feed on the coming plankton bloom.

We checked into Giddy's Dive Resort located in the town proper, rather than beachfront. I called ahead and asked one place how the beach was... "Well ma'am sir, here in Donsol we have da black sand, sooo, i tink maybe the beach is not so nice." ...

Being low season, there were only a few guests in the resort and they upgraded us to a deluxe suite. The food was pretty good, the service excellent, the pool clean... highly recommended!

There isn't much to do in Donsol aside from seeing the whale sharks, but both the town and the village are nice to walk through. People are incredibly friendly and curious, which i've grown accustomed to when traveling off the beaten path. Walking in the village, we find wood and grass huts raised on stilts, chickens, dogs, and cats running free, hand pumps for water, clothes drying outside, carefully swept pathways cleared of all debris, all in a tropical jungle environment.

We say hello to an old lady, her underbite prominent, as she goes for water. We stop to peer into a small yard and house, its dirt grounds immaculate. The lady walks back and says this is her house. We are surprised, unsure if we should apologize, but she invites us in. Her english is quite good. She is 78 years old, born and raised in this little town.

She lives here, a widow, with her son of about 30. Their house contains few posessions. There is no bed, and the living room doubles as the dining room, and triples as their shared bedroom. They sleep on the floor on simple bedding which is folded neatly in the corner. They have a TV, and I wonder if it works. The walls are bare, save for two photographs: one of her son, one if her husband. She says the picture of her husband is older than she is.

We pause outside for a photograph and, apologizing for interrupting her lunch, i give her my loose change of 20 pesos, about $0.50. She is surprised, but thankful.

Back in town, we wander the public market, which is mostly meats, fish, fruits and veggies. Children follow us and make faces or play hide-n-seek, alternately shy and curious. There are a few souvenir shops selling all manner of whale shark memorabilia. The whole town thrives on these animals, called Butanding in the local tongue. Murals adorn city walls, and there is a festival where people dress up like the butanding and sing butanding-related songs.

The local police department waves to us, and comes over to welcome us to the town. I ask a few standard questions people ask of the police, like, do you have much crime here?

Him: No we don't have much crime here. This is a baseball town. (pronounced "beesebol")
Me: Oh, i see. This is a baseball town?
Him: Yes, a very baseball town.
Me: Hmmm. So people play a lot of sports to stay out of trouble?
Him: *looks confused*
Esther: Kevin, he said peaceful, it's a PEACEful town.
Me: *nervous giggle*... Yes, that makes more sense. Can we go onto the roof of your police station?
Him: Of course! It's a nice view from up there! Very very baseball.

We ascend to the roof so i can take an important picture of Gangster Esther. Gangsther?

The next day we spent our time lounging at the pool, reading, and relaxing before heading back to Manila for the tournament.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Philippines 2011 - Part 1 - Caramoan

For my annual trip to the Philippines surrounding the Manila Spirits tournament, Esther and I joined up with Leigh and Baby Girl for a trip to the untouristed Caramoan, in the Bicol peninsula of southeast Luzon. We went a week prior to Spirits and after two flights, we arrived in Naga. A van picked us up at the airport and took us 90 minutes to the port, where we boarded a public boat for a 3 hour boat ride to Caramoan.

We stayed at West Pen Villas, where for 5000 pesos each (about $115) we got round-trip airport transfers, three nights accommodation, three days of food, and two days of guided island hopping. On the first night, we wandered the town center (read: one street, three blocks) and entertained the locals. Baby Girl and i bought some 1-Litro Red Horse beers (extra strong! 6.9%) at the corner store and joined some loitering locals. We played chess against 10-year-old challengers and won, impressing the amassing throng. Esther and i had some incredible fried chicken from a street vendor. Everywhere we went:

Them: Hello Ma'am Sir! What are you doing in the Philippines? (aside: it's always "Ma'am Sir", even if you are just one dude. to avoid offending potential lady-boys?)
Us: We are traveling before an Ultimate Frisbee Tournament.
Them: Oooooh. What is Ultimate Frisbee?
Us: It is a team sport like rugby, but with a frisbee. Do you know who Derek Ramsey is?
Them: Of course!!
Us: We are good friends with him. We play Ultimate Frisbee together.
Them: Well then you, by association, are also awesome and possibly famous!
Us: Yes, this is true.

There is not much to do in the town itself and the local beaches aren't fantastic, but the islands are unpopulated and beautiful. With our two full days there, we visited 6 islands, and made them our temporary paradises.

Day 1. Matukad, Lahus, and Sabitang Laya

Matukad was heralded as having the best beach of all the islands. In my opinion, while not true, it was a nice place to start, since it was probably the least interesting of all six that we visited. Recent storms littered the beach with more debris than expected, and it was already occupied when we made landfall. Moffleigh (aka BloomFat {Bloomberg+Moffat}) went for a swim in the cove, while Kevsther played frisbee on the beach.

Lahus was a real gem. I stole this picture from the Gota Resorts website, because, well, it's better than mine. Probably because they had a helicopter.

There are two coves on opposite sides of the island, connected by the same beach. We had a delicious lunch there... chicken curry, king prawns, stir-fried veggies, bananas, san miguel light... and we all did our own version of enjoying the island.
  • BG - climbs the jagged rocks barefoot.
  • Leigh - sunbaths and reads on her Kindle.
  • Esther - swims in the double coves.
  • Kev - chills in his hammock.
Later we all reunited and joined forces to build the tiny sand kingdom of Wah. Large in its dreams, righteous in its execution, short in its life, Wah had a prosperous time of growth -- centuries for its inhabitants, 20 minutes for its constructors -- in which it saw the completion of a protective moat, complex drainage system, exterior walls, guard towers, resident dwellings, and some kind of treasure. The creators and residents rejoiced, certain their loving toils would be rewarded with several eternities of peace. But when the armies of evil waves began crashing down upon the outer walls, it was clear their time was limited. Also, i think leigh dropped a large rock on the treasure, so we shoved off to the third island...

Sabitang Laya was the largest we visited, with nice sand, an expansive beach, and cool rock-outcroppings. There were several other groups there already, so we decided to walk down the long beach. We found a second beach, a perfect stretch of sand, unspoilt such that when you walk in it, your foot breaks through the top layer and sinks calf-deep into soft cool below. We all delighted in this for a while -- hey, you've gotta try this, step here, hahaha, isn't that crazy!? --- and while BG went on another shoeless adventure, us three played frisbee on the gorgeous, private beach.

Day 2. Malawi Sandbar, Cotivas(?), and Someplace?

Our first stop wasn't an island, but a sandbar. And as it was high tide, the shallowest area was waist deep. There are several floating huts you can relax in to take cover from the oppressive sun and there are ladies walking around, offering sea shells for sale. They need to be offering cold beers, and they missed a golden opportunity. Of course, we played frisbee, laying out with every opportunity.

Note: yes, i am manicuring a glorious mustache in support of Movember.

Our second stop offered the clearest shallow water we had seen. BG and I played chess in the shade with our guide, Eric. He beat the crap out of us.

The last island saw use of the hammock again, this time Kevsther reclining together. Also, there was a puppy, which leigh named Toast. I'm not sure why, maybe because gosh you're such a cute puppy i just want to eat you?

Leaving Caramoan, we backtracked, first the boat ride, then the van, then an AC bus heading to Legazpi, where BloomFat and Kevsther would eventually part ways, for a whole, like, three days.