Thursday, May 5, 2011

Island Hopping To It in Honda Bay

For all that Justin and I have lived overseas for the last four years and on the US east coast for the five (Justin) and six (me) years before that, we consider ourselves Midwesterners. And don't give me any crap about Pittsburgh being East Coast because it's in Pennsylvania. There's a mountain range in the way, people. They're west of a Big Ten football team. Plus, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are basically the same city, and Cleveland is Midwest. (And people who don't think Ohio is in the Midwest? Man, I won't even try to convince you. You can't reason with crazy.)

One distinguishing characteristic that allows Justin and me to be Midwestern in spite of my Canadian birth and his geographically flexible origins is our complete ignorance of water sports. We can swim, because we both went to pools a lot as kids. Justin has on occasion ridden a jet ski. But surfing? Off of what, the waves people of Midwestern proportions make when they use the diving board? (Hang on, business plan idea...) And snorkeling would be just as dull, seeing as you have the choice between looking for pennies at the pool or looking at zebra mussels taking over Lake Erie, although according to such legitimate sources as the lyrics to "Mack the Knife," Lake Michigan may be more exciting.

So is Honda Bay, Palawan, where Justin and I did the outstanding Island Hopping Tour. The way you book things in Puerto Princesa is pretty straightforward: you go to the front desk at your hotel, say "I want to do this tour," pay them, and then the van shows up the next morning. The island hopping tour works out to about $25 a person, including snorkel rental and lunch, for a full-day tour.

First, the bad news about snorkeling in Honda Bay: we didn't find Nemo. I've heard that's because he was in some dentist's office in Sydney. The good news, however, is that we found just about everybody else. We didn't take pictures - although our camera is, at least on paper, waterproof, we never tested that, and we read reviews saying it's not buoyant, which means a fumble of the finger sends all your vacation memories to a watery grave. Not worth the risk for the kinds of grainy fish photos we'd probably turn out.

Our first stop was the Floating House, a little dive shack on stilts in the middle of the bay. Awesome. If you've been around the blog a bit, you know how Justin and I feel about aquariums; the chance to basically be in an aquarium was therefore mindbogglingly, nerdily awesome. Species spotted here include little blue fish, bigger blue fish, stripey fish, and brown fish (I warned you I was a Midwesterner). Actually, as a nerd, that's my big complaint about nature: it doesn't come clearly labeled. I really wanted Terminator-style target vision loading whenever I looked at a fish, not only to satisfy my nerdy curiosity but also to help with my soul-shattering fear of blue-ringed octopuses. (Why? After one bites you, its venom will completely paralyze you, so that you can't move or even breathe on your own, but you're conscious enough to hear people around you saying you're dead and that they're going to give up treating you, leaving you screaming inside until your oxygen-starved brain fades to black. Sweet dreams!)

Next we moved on to the Starfish Sand Bar.

We did, in fact, spot several starfish (starfishes?) the size of turkey platters. (Full disclosure: this starfish is not from Starfish Sand Bar, but rather from Snake Island. This one is actually smaller than the Starfish ones, but it was close enough to photograph. I do not have a complementary picture of a snake from Starfish. )

We also saw huge sand dollars, cowrie, crabs, more unidentified reef fish, and four dolphins who cruised by just to say hello, because dolphins are friendly like that. We didn't manage to get a picture of them, but this was me watching. The scenery was so amazing I put up the picture even without dolphins.

We also saw a merman.

Interesting fact about the Philippines: we snorkeled in the life jackets shown in the picture at the top of the page. I didn't think too much about it until I got an email from my mom reminiscing about her snorkeling days in Florida, and how when you wear flippers, you can float, and I thought, "Hm, I actually didn't wear any flippers." The possible explanation for this is that people in the Philippines seem to often be non-swimmers. The pool has directions for staying in the shallow end if you can't swim. The Floating House had a side where you could feed the fish bread instead of swimming with them. I finally managed to adjust to non-swimming islanders in Orkney and Shetland, where the water is so cold swimming wouldn't do you any good in a shipwreck, but I can't come up with an explanation for the Philippines.

Starfish Sand Bar lunch: grilled tuna steaks, garlic eggplant, rice, and watermelon.

The last stop, Snake Island:

Decorated, for some inexplicable reason, with a Christmas tree made out of shredded soda cans:
Snake Island was both my joy and my undoing. The reef was just fabulous. We saw a few things there we hadn't seen anywhere else, like a pufferfish in its unpuffed form and a clam that could have swallowed a football. One of the most amazing things about a coral reef is the color. Not that it's all bright - in fact, that's what I expected, and it wasn't. Most of the colors are dull, including nearly all the coral we saw here. But every now and then you'll the bright yellow fish, the orange fish, or a fish so iridescent, in shimmery turquoise and fuchsia, that it looks unnatural. I wonder about that as a survival strategy. Maybe it's because they're designed to be seen from underneath, with the sky as a backdrop, instead of from above looking against sand and coral? Or it could be a mating thing. I don't know.

Snake Island was also where a bunch of funny little fish started snacking on my feet. I can't even describe how ridiculously, hilariously cool that was: these tiny little guys swimming up from the reef to follow me around taking nibbles here and there. It didn't hurt at all - it felt maybe like tapping your skin with a fingernail, or at least it did until the much bigger black-and-orange fish decided he was also in the mood for American food. That wasn't painful, but definitely scrapey, and I shooed him away after that.

Why my feet and not Justin's? No idea, although I like to think it was the red toenails. Anyway, I vastly enjoyed playing my role in the Honda Bay ecosystem. Too much, actually: I stayed out for the whole 1.5 hours we had on Snake Island at the hottest part of the day, and ended up with a hot pink sunburn all up and down the backs of my legs. It was too much to expect that two people as pale as Justin and me could come to the tropics and swim without a burn of some kind.

Snake Island left us feeling like this:

Which is basically what we've been doing for the last two days. We've neglected to do any other tours here in favor of the rigorous routine of wake up, eat colossal hotel breakfast, and wander back to nap until lunchtime, swimming occasionally at the hotel pool. The afternoon looks a lot like the morning, except replace the names of the meals. I feel a bit guilty that we didn't make it up to the Underground River, or even that we didn't do a repeat Island Hopping day, which we seriously considered. Justin and I are pretty intense vacationers - we don't "vacation," we take trips, and a day with fewer than two historical sites is pretty rare. This has been a major change of pace for us. On the other hand, I'm relieved. Thanks to this rejvenating R&R, we're dramatically more likely to survive until the end of the school year. Plus, it was kind of fun to turn into our own breed of tropical vegetation.

I have a lot more photos, including what will need to be an entirely separate post about our island-hopping boat, but the connection at the hotel here isn't great and it's taking forever. So I'll wrap this post up now and promise some more annoyingly scenic photography later.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In Palawan

Yesterday evening, Nana and I arrived in the tropical paradise of Palawan, a narrow island on the southwestern edge of the Philippines. Our internet access is spotty, but we'll try to post some photos as soon as we can.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hi from Manila!

Justin and I are having an absolutely unbelievable time here in the Philippines. We can't say enough nice things about our hostess Beia and her awesome boyfriend Romel, who have been squiring us around Manila all weekend in some of the most incredible driving conditions ever. Beia's family has been so welcoming, even including us in family events, although they do seem intent on feeding us to death. (This doesn't bother Justin).

Tomorrow we head to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, for beaches and relaxation. Love to all, and lengthier posts when we return!