Sunday, May 20, 2007

Lows and Highs

Over a month has passed since my last up beat post; my tour de Panay. In that time my spirits have been crushed and built back up again. It has been an emotionally draining month with many contradictions. Many of you may have read about the Volunteer, Julia Cambell, who lost her life while serving in the Peace Corps. She was a wonderful women. We were in the same batch. She was stationed on the opposite side of the country from myself. Her loss was felt throughout the country, by Volunteers and Filipinos alike, and my thoughts continue to go out to her family. Her death drew a large amount of attention in the Philippines. People continually asked me, and other volunteers, about Julia. Often they knew more than I did. I tried to avoid reading the papers and watching the news. Knowing more wasn't going to make myself feel better about the situation. People's inquires grew so intense that I started to refuse to talk about any of it. Filipinos treat death much differently than Americans. It is one aspect of the culture I have not adapted too, and do not feel I could If I did want to. They seem to confront it much more, use humor to deal, and in general don't portray symptoms of grief like many people in America. This isn't belittling the feelings of loss they surly have. However with Julia people wanted to talk about what had happened and offer, there much too late, criticism. I disliked people bringing it up, many times for no other reason than to find out if I personally knew her or to tell me what she should have done to prevent this tragedy. It was boggling to me and I had a very hard time keeping my temper. It still is on going, however not near the level it was. As with most things the media has moved on, in this case to the Filipino Elections. I just hope they haven’t moved on to far as to forget Julia and the amazing person she was.

Yes, it was election time in the Philippines and it proved to be a difficult adversary of mine. I knew I would have trouble accomplishing much in the month, and weeks, leading up to the elections. My mayor ran for congress and his wife for Mayor. Knowing I would have a very non-productive April and beginning of May was part of the reason I decided to extend for 6 months instead of fewer. I accomplished some basic tasks regarding the project in Brgy Cagbang, working on sustaining potters livelihoods. The foundation of the site for the potters workshop was accomplished. As was a day seminar on community organization options. However beyond those nothing more tangible was done. I worked on finding a reasonable size/priced Kiln to purchase for the barangay and also finding proper professionals to assist in the training of product development and other business skills. Now with the election complete I hope to move at a more steady pace. I won't get into what the election was like here but if you are at all interested simply Google it. It was interesting to say the least. I choose to not be at my site during the election. Many volunteers left site during the days before, during, and just after elections as precautionary measures so as not to appear has having a political agenda of any kind. I was one of those volunteers who felt it best for myself to not be at home during this time. That decision was made simply for my own mental well being, and the fact that I got to go on one of the best trips of my life during that time, nothing more.

On May 11th myself and 5 other friends left Panay Island for an 11 hour boat ride to the middle of the Sulu Sea. Located there are the Cagayan Islands. They consist of less than 1000 people, no electricity and no fresh water. The lack of electricity is easy for me to imagine. The lack of fresh water sounds impossible. They rely solely on rain catchment systems and of the closest island with a fresh water source, which is about 35 kilometers by way of boat. It is one of the most remote places in the Philippines and it was a joy to visit, even if I never set foot on land

After the 11 hour boat ride we awoke to the sound of the boat dropping anchor. It was just before sunrise and we all climbed out of the small cabins to what will forever be remember as one of the most fantastic wake up calls of my life. I rose out of the cabin to look out around the boat; there was nothing but water in every direction but one. There, located 100 meters off the bow of the boat was a small, uninhabited, what sand island. It seemed to be transported from a Hollywood beer commercial minus the bikini clad women and, well, beer. On this post you will see 3 pictures of it. The one above before sunrise and the two located further below; one of me at sunrise and the other during the heat of the day. It was gorgeous. It was Boomboom Island. The first island of the Cagayan islands and the first of three we would dive in the next 4 days.

Dive we did. Myself and the above men dove our little rear ends off. The first day at BoomBoom Island I did four dives, the most I had ever done in a day. In that day I saw lots and lots of fish but things of mention were 2 sea turtles. The one below I saw off the bow of the boat just after the above mentioned wake up call. I also saw the biggest thing I had yet to see underwater. A spotted Eagle Ray, with about a 2 meter wingspan. It was amazing.

The following morning, early, we hauled up anchor and headed towards the island of Calusa. Calusa is Gert's, the owner of the Dive Company we were with, favorite spot to dive in the world. That is saying something considering he has had over 3,000 dives and has been diving for over 30 years. It is world class, as we would all soon find out. On the way to Calusa we stopped on an outer reef for a quick dive. It worked out marvelously. Myself and 2 others were in one group and we immediately dropped down to 45meters. As we did so, within the first 2 minutes of our dive, we were right above two large white tip reef sharks. As we dove on I saw three more, the biggest being over a meter long. I came up thrilled! My first sharks!

After that we were off to Calusa (Below). The entire island of Calusa is surrounded by reef walls. Walls, for myself, are the most fun to dive. That day I did four more dives at Calusa, putting my total at five dives for the day. I saw another shark, black tip reef shark, and did my first ever night dive. I felt like a burglar at night, like I didn't belong. It was exhilarating watching the fish sleep and seeing the ones that never were out during the day. The highlight of my night dive was sitting and watching a 1+ meter cow fish sleep for about 5 minutes. I was less than a meter from it. The following day at Calusa I did four dives and saw schools of giant bumper head patriot fish, each close to a meter in length, giant napoleon rasps, eels, an amazing spectacle of coral spawning causing all the fish in the sea to be more active than I had ever witnessed before. In addition I went to an amazing depth (for myself) of 59 meters. That’s almost 180feet. Normal open water divers are only supposed to go to 20 meters however I have been advancing my certifications. Still I never dreamed I would go that deep. It was Brilliant!

Throughout the trip I saw numerous pods of dolphins but the most memorable was after I came up from my deep dive with Gert, the diveshop owner, and my friend Shawn, who is a dive master. We were in the dingy, which is a small boat used to fetch divers after dives so as to leave the big boat anchored. On our way back to the big boat the pod came right up to the dingy. The dolphins were jumping up out of the water not more than 3 meters from me, cutting across the bow of the moving dingy, and diving back into the ocean. The water was so clear you could see the whole pod below us. We drove around a bit, extending the mesmerizing experience close to 10 minutes. Unforgettable.

The next morning we were out and up early again. A last dive was done at Calusa, we dropped in on a large school of Barracudas, some over a meter in length. I will never forget one, the largest and most solitary of the school. He circled right in front of me and I could see him eyeing me with one his teeth showing. He seemed to be saying, "watch yourself, you’re at my home." After that we were off to the actual island of Cagayan to do two dives. They were both good but nothing compared to Calusa's brilliant walls, corals, and fish.

That night we hunkered down for another 11 hour trip home. But lucky for use we had still a bit more diving to do. We stopped off at Nogas Island, where I had done a number of dives in the past. That morning at Nogas I almost didn't dive. I was tired, having done 16 dives in 4 days. I also thought after diving world class dive sites I may not enjoy Nogas at the moment. But something pulled me into the water for two more dives and they both were the best dives I had ever done at Nogas. On the first a sea turtle seemed to play with me underwater; coming up two times to within a few meters of me to take a look. Normally sea turtles swim off at the site of people underwater. I couldn't believe my luck! The second dive I saw the largest bumper head parrot fish of the trip, larger than those at Calusa. My friend Shawn said it best, "It was the size of a barn door!" My guess is it was well over 1.5 meters.

Later that day we finally arrived back at Gert's home in San Joaquin, just 30 minutes down the road from my home. When I finally set foot on land, the first time in 5 days, the world started spinning. I couldn't believe it I was land sick for almost two hours! When I got home I reveled in my bathroom taking a much loved freshwater bucket bath. It was like heaven. Later that night when I awoke around midnight from my exhausted slumber, the result of 18 dives in 5 days, to go use the rest room I found myself gripping for ropes and poles to not fall over the boat till I remember I was at home.

The next day I found out my Mayor lost his bid for congress, and his wife won her bid for Mayor. It will be nice to have work go back to being work without all the nonsense that elections bring. I'm already trying to plan my next dive trip, December?, I'm a full on addict now. I have 39 dives and only need another 20 to get my dive master so I can lead dives under water. Perhaps, perhaps. There is still a lot to see down there. Yet first I have work do. Until I get the time and money to dive more I will be more than happy filling my days with some resemblance of productivity again.