Philippines as “wish list of every diver”

Now that I’m back in Pennsylvania, bundling up against the autumn chill, white sand beaches and sea turtles are a distant memory. The days of shorts, humid weather, and dive boats are replaced with orange-red leaves and crisp blue skies without a cloud in sight. So when PADI scuba certification send me an e-mail, I was jolted back to my summertime diving experiences and had to restrain myself from jumping on kayak.com and buying a ticket to Manila.

With amazing levels of biodiversity, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and multiple ship wreck dive spots, it’s hard not to view the Philippines as anything but an underwater paradise. Check it out! Philippines Scuba Diving

My Filipina friend Anna told me she went to Cancun for the Climate Conference and managed to schedule one or two dives in-between meetings and nights exploring Mexico. The dive master asked where everyone was from and when Anna said the Philippines, he shook his head and told her not to be disappointed. Cancun’s underwater life just couldn’t compare to her home country.

I was speaking with a friend at school and the subject of diving came up. “Are you a diver too?” Beth asked. “Oh my god. I love it. My dad’s been diving for years.” The unspoken attachment I feel upon meeting another diver surprises me. It’s a recreational activity like a number of others and yet there is something different. Something more. Because sinking beneath the surface into an underwater world is like opening the doors of the wardrobe and entering Narnia. Everything you knew about physics, magic, and beauty is redefined. And like Narnia, we cannot exist in that world forever. We buckle up, deflate, are weighed down, and breathe deep just to  glimpse the realm of the fish and corals beneath flippers suspended in blue abyss. Time seems to slow and stop completely but the bubbles escaping from our masks serve as reminders that we do not belong in this new and vibrant paradise. Our home floats feet above our heads but for many divers, heaven lies below.

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Vote for Puerto Princesa Underground River!

12 days 21 hours and 08 minutes

That is the amount of time left to vote for the Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the many natural beauties in the Philippines. The competition for the New 7 Wonders of Nature has been steep and the final 28 finalists are vying for your vote. Who will represent these new hidden gems of the natural world? I can tell you where my vote is going. 

The New 7 Wonders of Nature competition is related to the New7Wonders movement to increase awareness, education, and tourism by recognizing seven unique places on earth. The founder, Bernard Weber, has written a charter and frequently updates his blog on the activity of the movement. Physical candidates from across the globe were studied by a team of experts and 28 finalists including the Bay of Fundy in Canada, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Dead Sea in Jordan are among the incredible locations chosen. Ultimately, only seven will be crowned New Wonders of Nature.

Vote here for the Puerto Princesa Underground River!

The city of Puerto Princesa was my last trip in the Philippines before returning back to the states. The mayor, Edward Hagedorn, has turned the city into a source of pride for the region of Palawan and the country at large. The city is considered carbon neutral and boasts almost 90% forest cover. Investments in ecotourism, elimination of mining projects, and annual tree-planting on Valentine’s Day makes Puerto Princesa lives up to the nickname City in the Forest. Clink Hagedorn, the son of the mayor, briefly greeted me at the airport before showing me to my tour guide for the duration of my three-day trip. Each day was packed with incredible snorkeling expeditions, zip lines, and of course, the Puerto Princesa Underground River.

In order to get to the river, tourists must take a small motorized boat to the park’s entrance. The owners of the boats are local fishermen who received economic profit from the visitor activity in this remote area. The mouth of the cave is surrounded by tropical forest cover and giant monitor lizards. Families from the Philippines and around the world flock to the neon orange life vests and line up for their turn through the underground river. When it was my turn, my guide gently pushed me to the front of the tour boat; I would be holding the lamp to direct the boat through the cave.

 

As the guide pushed us into the darkness, I flipped on the battery and illuminated thousands of bats flapping overhead. Water dripped down the sheer rock walls and off the ceilings into the river below. Our boat traveling along the 8 km vein of the earth, deep into the heart of biodiversity, giant caverns and stalagmites. I swung my lamp according to the guide’s directions, left toward a mushroom rock formation and up to the cavern edge 60m above our heads. The entire tour took about an hour and I reemerged from the cave blinking as much from from the sudden wash of sunlight as sheer disbelief.

 

The Puerto Princesa UR is a wonder of nature whether it wins the contest or not. The title as a New 7 Wonders of Nature, however, would generate more tourism and revenue to a country still labeled as economically developing. Increasing revenue and prosperity in the Palawan area will fund  sustainability efforts and showcase the incredible natural wonders of the Philippine archipelago.

The act of voting only takes a minute but the implications will last for decades. Vote for the Puerto Princesa Underground River!!

12 Things Travelers Should Know About the Philippines

The Philippine’s Independence Day is celebrated on June 12th. In honor of the number 12, I’m making a list of 12 important facts for anyone wanting to travel to this beautiful island nation. I’m sure more lists are soon to come as I begin to dissect everything I’ve experienced. 

  1. ATMs are located in major cities but charge Php 200 (USD $5) for a foreign card transaction. Bring American money which be used in certain places or easily exchanged.
  2. Taxis are relatively cheap if you find a metered cab, identified by an orange sign on the windshield. A taxi ride should never be more than Php 200. Once I jumped into a cab outside an airport just to find out there were set prices for locations. I had to pay Php 1800 (USD $42) for my error. The driver gave me Php 100 back because he said I was beautiful and I told him I should get a discount.
  3. Bring toilet paper in your purse or pocket whenever you travel around the city. Many public bathrooms, including those in malls, often do not have toilet paper. Also, put the paper in the trash bin because there is a very fragile sewage system that gets clogged easily.
  4. Movies and food are cheap! I went to see Harry Potter 7 Part 2 in 3D and paid about USD $10. Which is half the price of some malls in the United States. The food sold in stalls on the street are only a few cents but finding a nice sit-down restaurant with meals and drinks will only put you back about $10.
  5. If you are staying with family or friends and you decide to take a short trip, make sure to bring back a small gift. This can be a package of the local food, a painting etc. just to show that you were thinking of them. This gift, called a pasalubong, is an integral part of the Philippine culture and many stores advertise pasalubong in the airports.
  6. Titles of people are very important. Men and women who are slightly older than you are referred to as Kuya or Ate (for older brother or sister, respectively). Older people are either Sir or Mam with their first name ex. Sir Martin, Mam Jean.
  7. All meals are eaten with a fork and a spoon. The spoon is usually held in the right hand and fork in the left. The fork is used to push the meat and rice into the spoon before being brought to the mouth. Most meat is boiled, fried, or stir-fried so does not require a knife blade.
  8. There are two distinct languages spoken in the Philippines: Tagalog and Bisaya. While Tagalog is the official language, it is only spoken in Luzon. In the other two major regional areas, Visayas and Mindanao, varying dialects of Bisaya are spoken. All signs are in English and many people speak English fluently within urban areas. To see map: click here.
  9.  Be very wary of porters at bus stations, ferry ports and even airports. If you do not want to pay someone to move your luggage, you must be firm and vocal as soon as you board or unload. They expect a Php 15 or 20 tip. See earlier post.
  10. Become a scuba diver! The Philippines boasts some of the best dive sites in the world and offers a variety of short day trips and live aboard experiences to see coral reefs, ship wrecks and whale sharks. Some dive instructors offer student discounts but generally the course will cost between Php 10,000 and Php 18,000. Contact me if you want dive instructor recommendations.
  11. The country is fairly modest in terms of dress, probably due to the prevalent Catholic religion throughout the country. Outside of the very modern areas of Manila you will not see people in spaghetti straps or short shorts. Even in the hot weather, people wear jeans. In terms of beach clothes, buy a rash guard or some shirt and shorts combination that can be worn during swimming. Outside of foreign tourist beach resorts, walking around in a bikini is not appropriate. 
  12. If you are staying more than 21 days, get a visa. This can be done prior to your trip or after arriving in Manila. Also, double check the dates and length of time you are allowed to say. I was forced to pay an extravagant fee because I overstayed my visa, a mistake made by the Philippines Embassy before I even left the United States. 
The Philippines is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. The abundance of natural beauty ranges from mountains to rice fields and white sand beaches. It is considered a biodiversity hotspot and houses an incredible number of endemic species. The Filipino people are beyond friendly, welcoming travelers into their homes and offering helpful advice as well as long-lasting friendship. A week before I left the country, I was already on Google searching for flights back from New York to Manila. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. 

Blast fishing

At Bucknell last semester, I researched the devastating effects of dynamite fishing on the marine life in the Philippines. Local fishermen use homemade explosives to kill the fish and scoop them out of the water. While the method is initially effective, blast fishing permanently destroys the coral and plant life. Decades of slow coral growth gone in seconds.

In Lewisburg, Pennsylvania the experience was academic and abstract. About 30 meters off the coast of Bantayan Island, the experience was directly in front of my fogged mask. We started snorkeling where the coral and marine life was still intact, taking the underwater camera down with us. Thick forests of blue coral appeared out of the water beneath my fins. Eager clownfish ventured out of their sea anemone homes to welcome us into their liquid world. I swam toward Carlie and turned around to see a giant jellyfish floating by- a dangerous ethereal orb.

We snorkeled at another location before moving toward shore. I noticed the coral and large fish begin to disappear. The coral forests looked as if they had been deforested by small underwater loggers. The starfish we found were exposed in their barren landscape. If this had been my first snorkeling experience, I wouldn’t have missed the fish and plant life. But after seeing such beauty minutes before, I felt robbed by past explosions caused by faceless fishermen.

The importance of the School of the SEA has never been clearer. Each marine protected area (MPA) the team organizes helps to protect and regrow this underwater paradise. The environment is something worth protecting today and everyday, yet my mind returns to small fishing communities using blasting as a last resort. Are homemade bombs the only option? Is it right for environmentalists to protect the natural environment at the risk of others profits? Is it our duty to provide alternative livelihoods for these people or focus on the coral we fight to save?

Giant Clam

There are no clear answers. The only thing I have found consistent throughout my time in the Philippines has been the relationship between human activity and the natural world. Our every action sets off a ripple that extends far beyond our limited knowledge of Earth yet our lack of answers is no excuse for inaction or the future will come too soon. 

Half Way Done

To Do List:

Meet Stu and Anne

Home visit massage, mani, and pedi

Trip to town for Market Day 

Become a certified open water diver

Snorkel with sea turtle

My week at Granada Beach Resort was better than I could have possibly imagined. After the first dive, Stu and I went on four more over the next couple of days. Each time we strapped our gear on and swam down the sea wall, fish and corals I had never seen before appeared in front of my mask. No dive was the same. Whenever I tilted my head back and peered up at the sun’s rays, the surface seemed so far away. By the 5th dive I could set up and take down all the equipment by myself. I remembered to equalize the pressure in my ears during the descent and breathe with a slow even rhythm. But I never did get used to the beauty under the surface of the water.

Today, Anne’s niece and husband’s family came over for food and a swim in the pool. The husband and family are from Laguna Beach, California but come back for a month or so every year to the Philippines. It was nice to see some fellow Americans on lovely Independence Day. Happy Fourth of July! While everyone was sitting by the pool and drinking some San Miguel’s, I slipped away down to the beach to snorkel one last time. The day had been hot and humid so the ocean water felt cool on my skin.

I swam, or floated, for about 30 minutes before moving back toward shore. The coral under my feet changed back into sand and sea grass. I turned around one last time to see the reef before moving toward land. Out of the corner of my eye, the large green shell and fins waving slowly in the blue water. It was the biggest sea turtle I had ever seen.

The shell was about 2 feet long and blended perfectly with the murky grass. I would have missed the animal completely if it hadn’t decided to come up for air. As the turtle’s giant body moved toward the surface we breathed in unison, making eye contact just above the surface of the water. It was beautiful. Stu knows of a couple turtles in the area, he later told me. I said I would name the turtle Katelyn and he let me.

Just like Atty. Oposa said, appreciation is everything. How can people expect to love and care for beauty they have never seen?   Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to Bantayan Island to visit the field station of LNF and the School of the SEAs. Excited to see the field station but sad to end such a great week.

It’s turtles like these that remind you why the world is worth saving.

Cheshire Cat in Space

The first day of my internship with LNF, Atty. Oposa informed me that I needed to learn how to SCUBA dive. ASAP. There are local fishing villages, he said, who upon seeing the coral reefs and marine life below the surface of the water realized the tragedy of devastation caused by dynamic and cyanide fishing. Scuba diving would be my way to see the environment I would be fighting to protect.

Bedroom view

So I contacted Stu (see earlier post) and weeks later I arrived in Granada near Boljoon on the island of Cebu. Their property consists of their main house and the resort–a beautiful property built on a mountain with steps down to the resort pool, other buildings, and the beach front. I arrived at night and in the darkness I could just barely make out the mountains and the sea.

In the morning, I opened my eyes and thought I had gone to warm, tropical heaven. The windows in my room opened out onto rolling green hills with palm trees, song birds and pink flowers. I walked downstairs, through the open living room and kitchen to the veranda for breakfast. The giant papayas were picked from the trees along the house and the taste was sweet and delicious.

Papaya Tree

I jumped into my swimsuit and grabbed my mask before making my way down to the resort’s pool for my first diving lesson. Down and to my left was the ocean, eggshell blue melting into navy and sparkling in the morning light. I stopped multiple times to gaze through the tree branches toward the islands dotting the near horizon. Small fishing boats moved through the water and men with wide brimmed hats paddled or motored with the hopes of the day’s catch. This is where I will learn to dive, I thought. Life could be worse.

I spent almost two hours that morning learning the basics of diving. I tried on the bulky equipment and practiced breathing underwater with the regulator, BDC and tank. I felt like a fish–a big, unbalanced, awkward fish–and clearing my mask took a number of times before I felt comfortable removing my mask and clearing it using air from my nose. I listened to Stu’s instructions and tried to replicate them as my mind wandered to the memories my father had of diving with Stu long ago. I was swimming in my father’s wake with the same man by my side.

Hours later, after lunch and a cup of coffee, Stu and I were floating in the sea with our gear on ready to go for a dive. A real dive for the first time ever. I put the regulator in my mouth and took a few breaths. Don’t freak out, I told myself, What’s so scary about breathing under 30 feet of water for 45 minutes? Stu gave me the OK sign and we began to let the air out of our BCD’s, sinking slowly beneath the surface. I kicked my fins behind me and told myself to breathe.

Sea life appeared beneath my body and in front of my mask almost instantly. Black and white stripped fish danced between hard pink coral branches and long blue arms of sea stars hung onto the rock walls. I left like Alice falling into Wonderland and Neil Armstrong exploring the moon. There were creatures I had never seen before, organisms I could not create in my mind and there they were, living life as they had for generations. It was a sight to behold.

Island Adventure: Samal Edition

View from the house

The wonderful world of Wi-Fi does not extend to the far reaches of Samal Island, beneath the canopy of palm trees and bamboo walls that softly muffle the sound of the laughing ocean waves. Too poetic? Perhaps. My week-long exposure to community outreach and reef restoration was fundamental in both the research of my undergraduate thesis and my growing love of the Philippines . [Warning: this post is filled with pictures.]

Main House

 

The main goal: save the beautiful underwater habitats while providing the local fishermen with legal and safe ways to make money and fish. The project was titled The CORAL Project: COral, Restoration, Awareness, and Livelihoods. The mastermind behind the combination of Marine Protected Areas and a functioning sea cucumber ranch was Bonar Laureto, the former executive of the Law of Nature Foundation before (my boss and friend) Viv took over the position. Viv and I, along with a small team, stayed at the lovely rest house of Ma’m Jean and every member welcomed the confused American girl with open arms and wide smiles.

The Crew minus Bonar and Sherwin

Excluding Viv and I, there were five main members and a range of incredible volunteers. Before every community meeting I was warmly introduced as we traveled to different villages, talking to local fisherman and explaining our project.Russ would translate for me while I videotaped the conversations. One man showed us three fish: his entire catch after being out at sea for 9 hours. I tasted tuba for the first time-homemade coconut wine that accompanied every community discussion. I saw young children playing in their father’s arms while the men explained how the lack of fish takes a toll on their families.

 

Community gathering

 

Too many stories to count. There was the dance lessons I received from the local woman in the Tagbaobo community and tasting incredible fish ginger soup.

There was the hour and a half commute down the steepest, bumpiest unpaved roads I’ve ever seen, at night, in drizzle,seated in the back of a covered pickup truck. And there was snorkeling just off the coast of our house surrounded by sea snakes, brain coral, and clownfish swimming in every direction.

Viv and I in the truck

I could go on and on about the incredible people I met: the dedication, hope, and resilience found in community leaders, volunteers, and fishermen alike . I seem to have the same number of memories as I do bug bites but can only begin to scratch the surface of their deeper meaning.

Meaning of the memories. I figured out the bug bites pretty quick.

Fishermen on the ocean

 

Road Revolution: Cebu City, Philippines

Road Revolution- roadrevolution.ph

Cebu City is located a little over an hour south of Manila by plane. As soon as we landed, I checked into my room and rushed with Atty. Oposa to the press conference. Different members from TV and radio stations were present, weaving between one another in the small room of the Casino Espanol. On the panel was Atty. Oposa who gave the main presentation followed by members of 350.org, youth leaders, and other main organizers of the event. I sat in the back and smiled, hoping no one would try to ask me something in Cebuano.

Presentation at Dept. of Education for Students
Presentation at Dept. of Education for Students

The rest of the day was packed. We made our first stop along Osmena Boulevard, the street that would be closed down on Sunday June 12th. Next, we traveled to a trade school and saw the making of the Renewable Energy train (RE Train) that runs exclusively on petal, solar and wind power. We spoke on air at three different radio programs to explain the Road Revolution and encourage citizens of Cebu City to come support the cause. On the last program, an FM station, I was able to introduce and explain the event in English…the only language I know. I got back to my room around 10pm, throughly exhausted and content with the day’s work.

Me and Brian at the radio station DYRF

It is amazing how quickly the people here switch between their native language and English to communicate. The language spoken in Manila by the general public and my host family is not the same language spoken here in Cebu. People in Manila speak the national language, Tagolog, while the people in Cebu speak Cebuano- a variety of Basaya the language in the middle region of the Philippines. The majority of the vocabulary is different and I had to re learn basic phrases like “How are you?” and “Good night.” By relearn, I mean promptly forget spelling and pronunciation as soon as they are uttered. I have yet to understand why Filipinos would decide to start words with ng. Don’t try to pronounce this at home, folks. Words like ngit ngit (dark) are strictly meant to be said by professionals.

Renewable Energy Train in the Workshop

The next day included another radio interview, a marriage proposal from a father whose son is a single doctor in Ohio, visits to three different grade schools, and my first ever jeepney ride. All in a day’s work. In two days, I have not only learned about what the Road Revolution is but explained it to small children, adults, and teachers all across Cebu City. It got me thinking. What are the future implication of this Road Revolution? We have collected over 6,500 signatures in effort to expand sidewalks, increase bike lanes, and introduce mass public transportation along with edible gardens. I’m amazed by the progressiveness of the idea, prevalent in a “developing country” no less. I’m surrounded by people with big ideas and deep convictions people dedicated to protecting and restoring our natural environmental in order to save humanity from itself. I just hope I can somehow prove myself amidst this group of intelligent, dedication stewards of our beautiful planet. One road at a time.

Jeepney

Back in Blog

So in case all of you were wondering, I did make it back to the United States. On my To-Do list of life, Study Abroad was checked off with a big red mark. Travel accomplished.

I’ll admit the first week back at school was tough. The intricate city of Copenhagen, allure of travel every other weekend, and long conversations with international friends had been replaced with sorority events and dance company rehearsals. It wasn’t bad but it was very much different, returning to a place that did not seem to notice I had been gone. I was a second semester junior with my head back in sophomore year and my heart back in Denmark. I worked my way back into school mode and waited patiently until the time I would be able to travel again. That time has come.

On May 23rd, I will leave the United States once again and fly 22 hours to Manila, Philippines. It is the home of my father’s close friend and the location of my internship with the Law of Nature Foundation. I will spend 6 weeks in the capital working in the main office before relocating to the field work station on the Bantayan Island off the northern coast of Cebu. It’s definitely the farthest I’ve ever been from America but I can’t wait to feel the humidity and say Hi Kamusta? for the first time. (The national language is Tagalog). Hence the reason that the blog is back and better than ever. More pictures, more friends and more memories of how awkward I am in a new culture, or my own for that matter. Follow me thousands of miles away to an island nation full of beaches, rice, and friendly faces.

Wish me luck.