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Published: August 3rd 2014
Our first days were spent exactly as we'd planned: eating, diving, napping, hanging out on the deck or walking along the beach peering into tide pools. The ocean is definitely the draw here. Locals comb the beach at low tide for mussels and other shellfish and men use nets, spears and lines to fish from boats or by standing in the shallows. Dive tourism provides another source of income and the dive shops, though often owned by foreigners, seem to employ many Filipino divemasters and instructors.
In an attempt to attract more tourists some people have tried to harness the draw of whale sharks, by hand feeding them from boats. Matt and I have always wanted to see a whale shark in the water, but after researching the operation in Oslob (another town here on Cebu) we realized it wasn't one we could support. The whale sharks are attracted to an area, surrounded by boats, and are hand fed by operators. Tourists are allowed in the water with scuba or snorkel gear, or can lean over the sides of the boats. Activists protesting the practice have photographed whale sharks with deep propeller cuts and though the operators say there is
no touching allowed almost all photos of the operation online show people petting, grabbing and even sitting on the sharks.
Whale shark feeding seems on the rise in SE Asia. The biggest fish in the sea are known as gentle giants and readily accept food from human hands. We've read articles about this practice in the magazines Backpacker and Diver purporting that it is an ecologically sound way to provide an alternative living to coastal peoples. It's a tough argument. Anything that gives a respite to overfished waters and provides a living to the local population seems great but as humans continue to encroach on all natural spaces the loss of any "wildness" is something to be mourned. On land we seem to be rapidly heading in the direction of managed areas taking over wild spaces. Many endangered species are constrained to parks and sanctuaries; protected, studied and watched by humans. How wild are animals that have been forced to adapt to changes in food, habitat and in some cases, social behaviour? Looking back over our trip, it seems almost every amazing animal we've seen has had to adapt to a human agenda in some way, either by learning
to live with and sometimes off the scraps of people, to being restricted to parks for their own protection. These animals are not domestic, but they are also not entirely wild.
The last refuge seems to be the sea, although that is changing very quickly. As we're beginning to exhaust the resources on land, more and more, we're turning to the oceans. Hopefully both sides of the feeding debate in Oslob can sit down and figure out a workable solution that allows tourism, but in a way that respects the sharks themselves, perhaps by monitoring to ensure a certain distance is kept from the sharks at all time, and that provides a sustainable
living for the operators. But for now we could not stomach seeing these beautiful animals in what amounts to a petting zoo, so we decided to forgo this tour. We both still do want to see a whale shark but not at this cost to the animals.
We did visit the spectacular Kawasen Falls, a short 30 minute scooter trip from Moalboal. There are several falls, two of which are popular destinations for locals trying to escape the heat. The trails to these waterfalls are
paved and stairs are built into the mountain. Once you arrive there are restaurants, hotels, and concrete decks built around the pools with picnic tables that are available for rent. The water is cool and clear blue and there are bamboo rafts anchored along the sides for sunbathers which are also rented out by the hour. The way that natural spaces in SE Asia are almost turned into amusement parks with flashing lights and music surprised us at first, but we've become accustomed to it now. It makes us laugh to imagine what tourists from this part of the world must think when they visit parks in Canada that are mostly undeveloped.
As we continued to climb past the popular pools, the concrete stopped and the trail dwindled into a path cut through the forest by machete. We found several small deserted pools and stopped to swim in each one. The Falls are definitely worth a visit. We saw all manner of enormous invertebrate life and many plant species that reminded us of our time working in El Yunque, the Puerto Rican rainforest. Butterflies for days! There is something so wonderful about a tropical rainforest, the earthy smell of
decaying leaves and cacophony of birdcalls and most especially the warm, moist air. It was lovely.
With each week we spend here, we become more and more aware that the Philippines are actually very socially liberal, especially concerning sexuality. It is the first (mostly) catholic country we have visited on this trip, and we did not expect it, but from dress, to acceptance of sexual differences, to television programming, this country seems to be the most tolerant of any we've visited. Even in a town as small as Panagsama Beach, it seems as if anything goes. At the same time a lot of emphasis is placed on the family and on children. I feel as if I haven't been able to gain any true insight into the culture here and am still unsure if everything is a widely accepted as it seems on the surface.
But to the main event! We chose the Philippines as our last stop for the diving. The only thing we unpacked the first week were our bathing suits and dive gear. Without discussing it we fell into a routine: morning yoga, then breath holds in the pool followed by breakfast, rest/nap, and an
afternoon dive on the reef. The reef is alive with all sorts of macro life (including pygmy seahorses and pipefish), soft and hard corals, anemones, and fish every colour of the rainbow. It's also lousy with turtles, we see several each time we go diving, either swimming over the reef or napping right on it with remoras hanging onto their shells. One even came to check me out when I was diving on the line.
Paradise, right? Well, it would be except for a few hiccups. After our first week, we both came down with fevers. They started with general aches and pains in the joints and weakness in the arms and legs and progressed to high temperatures, chills, nausea and headaches. Matt was out of bed after around a week but I couldn't seem to shake the fever. Dengue is very common on Cebu and the hotel staff made an appointment for me at the local clinic but once we saw the stray dogs wandering in and out of the examination rooms and the general unkempt condition of the place, I decided to ride it out. There are lots of government offices here, especially those catering to children
Under the influence of Typhoon Rammasun
and early education services, but the medical facilities are sadly lacking. The day I went to the clinic there were dozens of families with babies and small children outside, waiting for their chance to get in. The nurse was moving between patients without washing her hands or changing equipment. The examinations were conducted outside in the open air waiting room where stray animals napped on the chairs and dog excrement littered the ground. They were pretty deplorable conditions.
When Matt contacted the Canadian Embassy for advice they recommended he take me to Cebu City, 3 hours away, to a private hospital. By then I was at the end of my second week of fever and I decided that I would just stay put. Even if it was Dengue the only cure is rest and hydration so we just kept an eye on my temperature and ate a lot of chicken soup. At the end of the third week the fever left for good. Ah, we thought. That's the end of that and we can get on with having a good time.
Unfortunately the weather also had something to say about that and sent us not one, not two,
typhoons to contend with. Cebu Island is in the southern part of the Philippine archipelago so we were not in any of the typhoons' direct tracks, but each one brought days of rain, high winds and wild seas. In Manila, Typhoon Glenda (Rammasun) killed 38 people.
But in spite of all of the above, we have managed to get some great days of diving in. The water is the perfect temperature, the visibility is great, and the jellyfish aren't too bad, though some do pack quite a wallop. For fun dives we just swim to the reef and when we want to practice on the line, we call Andrew at Element Freedive. His bamboo platform is terrific and his system for setting depth is efficient and easy. There are at least two freediving outfits in Panagsama with a few instructors each. Andrew tells us it is mostly Korean and Chinese students that come to take beginner classes, but more experienced freedivers come to train depth. We lucked out as he only had one student from Singapore here during our whole stay. There were never more than four of us at the platform at one time so we
could selfishly hog the line as much as we wanted. Perfect training conditions.
The one thing Matt and I wanted to try before leaving SE Asia was durian. If you don't know what it is google it and you will find hundreds of posts and videos of people trying it for the first time. In Asia it is often referred to as "the King of fruits", but it is banned from many hotels. That's because it stinks - some people describe a terrible odour as bad as raw sewage. It is a fruit that divides people; some call it an elixir, some tell stories of gagging while trying to swallow a spoonful. Even the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote an entire page describing it in The Malay Archipelego.
So it's been contentious, at least to western palates, since at least the late 1800's. We had to try it. I can attest that the smell is strong. We had to keep it out on the deck overnight after Andrew brought it to us as a parting gift. I found the smell more unpleasant than Matt did, but it wasn't gag-inducing. It was sweet and pungent and very strong. I
Durian: The King of Fruits
Less affectionately known as "The Royal Stinker"
knew if I left it in the kitchen I'd have a headache by morning. When we cracked it open the flesh looked like a firm vanilla pudding or a lightly set cheese. It's a very odd texture for a fruit, like a custard or pudding, extremely rich and creamy. I can't describe the taste so much as tell you what it doesn't taste like. It's not sweet, or sour, not fresh or sharp. It buzzes slightly on the tongue. The pleasure it gives comes more from the texture than the taste. Neither of us were repulsed by it but it did succeed in dividing us. I thought it was interesting, but not necessarily something I needed to eat again, and Matt loved it. He said it was like eating dessert. Either way, we're pleased we had the opportunity to try it. For a much better description see a little of Mr. Wallace's ode to durian, written in the 1800's, below: "The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the eatable part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured
with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree... It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the
two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits." -Alfred Russel Wallace -The Malay Archipelego
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