Manila, Philippines

Note: I visited Manila in Dec 2013.

I was walking along the coast of Manila when I came upon the local marina. Half of it was filled with small yachts and the other half was littered with old wooden fishing boats. That one image, in my mind, summed up Manila.

The rich and poor, divided.

I had wanted to explore Philippines in more detail but Super Typhoon Haiyan messed up my plans. No Coron (no diving in beautiful waters), no Bohol (no Tarsier monkeys), no Donsol (no swimming with the whale sharks).

My hostel was located in Makati district. It was clean and A/C-ed but like most hostels, the quality of your stay will be dependent on your roommates. One night, I was trying to sleep when 2 guys busted in with their bags, turning on the lights and chatting away. With them came a smell (that I would later figure out to be body odor) that was so foul it wouldn’t go away, even after they took a shower. It was not easy trying to get back to sleep as these guys had no consideration whatsoever for their roommates.

The next morning, I found a group of about 12 black people downstairs, eating breakfast. They spoke English but with very unique accents. I usually have a good ear for accents and having travelled extensively, I can sometimes pinpoint an area of the continent (and maybe even the country) where someone’s from but their accent was absolutely foreign to me. I asked the front-desk who these people were and where they’d come from. They were from Papua New Guinea, visiting Manila for a Christian convention. Of course, I applied and got a room transfer. I just couldn’t take that B.O. for another night.

On the streets of Manila, the first thing that really stood out were the vibrantly-decorated Jeepneys that zoom past you, honking its way down the streets, picking up passengers at every other intersection. These Jeepneys were leftover by American army after their time spent in the Philippines in WW2. The key to utilizing a Jeepney as public transport is to know what part of Manila you’re going, then look for the signs that are painted on the Jeepney’s sides. They tend to make quick stops so be ready. The “conductor” and driver won’t take the time to stop long enough to answer any of your questions about its route. Unless you’re a beautiful woman who speaks Tagalog. (Because every man will stop long enough to answer questions asked by beautiful women. It’s universal.) BTW, although English is a main language, I rarely heard it being spoken on the streets; most people revert to their native Tagalog.

It is very cramped inside the Jeepney. I hand my fare to the person next to me and they pass it down the aisle all the way to the conductor, sitting in the front with the driver. (Sometimes, the driver is the conductor. Talk about multitasking.) If there is change to be made, the conductor will pass it back down the aisle until it reaches your hands. The driver, I believe, will make it as a pro driver because he is very good at weaving in and out of heavy traffic at high speeds.

Jeepney. Destinations are painted on the sides.
Riding inside a Jeepney.

There is a variety of food in the Philippines but most of them are variations of foods I’ve had in Southeast Asia. But the one food I had to go seek out was “balut”, or aged duck embryos. It is a popular snack among the Filipinos (and I later learned, in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and Cambodia, each with their own aging techniques which control the developmental completeness of embryos. Scientific-sounding enough?). “Balut” can be terrifying, especially with first-time consumers. Most people first eat visually. When they see a half-developed baby duck, what would they think?

I went to the local night-market to find this nasty-sounding snack. There were several stands which had plenty of them and plenty of people eating them. Some became amused when I started to ask about it and how to eat it. A foreigner trying “balut”? That, they had to see. I was taken through the process of removing the shell, exposing the embryo, and was then advised to sprinkle some salt and add a dash of vinegar to it. I then thought “Here goes nothing” and took a bite. It tasted a lot like… egg. What a surprise (not). Even the embryo portion merely tasted like hard-boiled yolk. It wasn’t that bad. I ate about 2-3 and called it a night. I could see the Filipinos around me were happy that I had passed the test. I was now one of them. (OK, that’s not true.)

“Balut” stall.

Could I have done more in Manila? Sure, it’s a massive city. Do I like Manila? Not really, it’s a massive city. I will make it back one day though, for a visit to El Nido and Coron, as well as visit Bohol for those darn adorable looking Tarsier monkeys.

Click for more pictures of Manila…

Invocation of the Muse

For all you travel bloggers out there, I am sure you are just like any other writer. You experience writer’s block. You need something to inspire your creative juices. This is the Invocation of the Muse, which I read from War of Art. Say it as a prayer before you write.

“O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stay grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope – for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.” – from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)”

Resistance and Criticism

“If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.

Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. if they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.” – War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

Sipadan/Mabul, East Malaysia

Note: I am not paid by Scuba Junkie. I was just very happy with their service and I had a wonderful experience with them. Their website is also very informative.

I love diving. I am a certified Open Water scuba diver. I love exploring lands but I also love exploring the world beneath the lands, a world where most of the world doesn’t see.

At the beginning of December 2013, my original plan to visit the Philippines fell through due to Haiyan. As an alternate option, I chose to visit East Malaysia, mainly to dive in Sipadan Island. A journey to Sipadan requires a few connections. One has to fly into Tawau, southeast of Sabah. From there, it takes about 1.5 hours to drive to Semporna, which is the launching point to Sipadan (and islands around) by some dive operators. I had arranged to dive with Scuba Junkies (SJ) and to stay in Mabul Island, a world-renowned location for underwater macro photography (and what a world it is!).

To dive Sipadan, one has to book with dive operators ahead in advance. This is because there is a limit to how many people can dive in that location, per day. I had the worrisome moment of being on stand-by, despite trying to book one (or was it two?) months in advance. I would recommend people to book about 3-4 months in advance, just to be safe. It’s always nice to have peace of mind when you’re about to make a long journey although I would add that the other islands there offer fantastic diving too. Eventhough I was on standby and was ready to make peace with the fact I probably wouldn’t be diving in Sipadan, I got very lucky. Someone had cancelled and a permit was up for grabs and it went to your’s truly.

It took 1 hour to get from Semporna to Mabul Island, where SJ has a “resort” set up, next to a Sea Bajau tribe, or nomadic and stateless folk of the seas.

Being of Malaysian descent and being able to speak Bahasa Malaysia, I wasn’t too afraid to walk around the island, even in the late evenings. It was very easy to get lost in the local village as the wooden homes all looked identical but I managed to ask for directions and found my way back to SJ. All the Bajau knew SJ because SJ works with them in return for the Bajau’s help in preserving the environment. For example, SJ will pay the Bajau more per turtle egg than if it was sold or eaten. I think it’s wonderful that both sides have needs and both are willing to work with each other to meet each other’s needs.

A group of sea bajau kids, playing amongst themselves.
Kids watching TV on Mabul Island.

Mabul and Sipadan are two different dives; Mabul is for those who like the small things (or “macro”) and Sipadan is for those who like the big things.

During my Mabul dive, I learned about nudibranches. They are super tiny sea slugs but they are some of the most colorful creatures in the sea. It’s very hard to spot nudibranches but the trained eyes of our dive instructors ensured we saw several. Find out more about Mabul “muck-diving” here: http://www.scuba-junkie.com/diving/mabul/

Nudibranch. Now imagine one of about 3000 species in all colors. Image courtesy of wikipedia.org.

The Sipadan dive was one of my all-time favorite dives. The visibility was about 40-50 m (you can spot sea life clearly from a distance) and we encountered many giant sea turtles, some swimming and some resting. These old guys surely must have tales to tell of the sea. Read more about Sipadan dives here: http://www.scuba-junkie.com/diving/sipadan/

Imagine that you are underwater, looking out for sea turtles, sharks, eels…and suddenly, the “sky” above you turns grey and light is slightly blocked out. Those aren’t rain clouds; they are a school of thousands of jackfish. By itself, they aren’t impressive. But as a school, what a sight!

Jackfish. Image by Raimundo Fernandez.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see the barracuda “tornados” at the famous Barracuda Point. Sometimes, it comes down to luck. I did, however, encounter several yellow moray eels who peeked out through their “homes”, wondering what all the pesky humans were doing, mouths opening and closing as they observed us. They are very beautiful, graceful, and aren’t dangerous if you keep your distance.

Overall, diving in Mabul and Sipadan was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. There’s so much beauty in the seas and oceans that it is unfortunate that many people only wish to experience it on their TVs because they are afraid of diving. (Not that I can blame them, it’s not easy, at least for the first few dives but you get used to it.)

A wonderful video I found on Youtube that will give you an idea of diving there:

Sarawak, East Malaysia

Back in November 2013, I had originally planned to make a 1.5 week trip to the Philippines after spending a few days in Kuala Lumpur to attend my friend’s wedding. Then super typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Many of the destinations I had originally planned to visit were in Haiyan’s path such as Coron and Bohol. It just wasn’t going to be the same although one could argue that “To see the world as it is, even at its worst” should be a “real” traveler’s motto. I might’ve done so had I had unlimited time but it was a long-awaited vacation and I wanted a vacation, as selfish as it is for me to say that.

Thus, after forfeiting $250 in plane tickets, I purchased a ticket to East Malaysia, starting in Kuching, Sarawak.

There is nothing to do in dull Kuching but eat, in my opinion. They had some fantastic food that I hadn’t had in Peninsula Malaysia, such as tomato kuey teow, sarawak laksa, mee kolok, manok pansoh and beautiful kuih lapis. They’re variations of many Malaysian staples. Seafood is also a must-eat and a popular spot to get seafood is Top Spot, an outdoor food court filled with stalls selling the freshest seafood.

Tomato Kuey Teow.

 

Sarawak Laksa.

 

Kuih Lapis (Layered cake).

 

Top Spot, seafood stalls everywhere.

Among the multitudes of small, low-budget museums scattered around the city, one museum did stand-out; The Chinese Museum. Being of Chinese heritage, it was eye-opening to learn just how many different Chinese “clans” made their way from China to Malaysia during the early 1900s. I was aware of the major ones such as Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese and Teochew but I didn’t realize there were many more minor ones. The museum had pictures, stories, and even an exhibition which played audio of a single sentence but in all the various Chinese dialects.

A word of warning. Taxis are expensive (by Malaysian standards) to take and many drivers insist on not using the meter. But if you need to get somewhere fast and are willing to pay, it’s the best option. If you stay close to the city center, you can walk everywhere.

Did Kuching replace the Philippines? Certainly not. But Sabah sure did. I’ll write another entry about Sabah soon.

Puerto Rico

Up until this point, my blog has always been about my long-term trips (2010-2011 RTW and 2014 South America) but I plan on writing about places that I visited the last few years and really enjoyed but never got a chance to highlight. Forgive me as I write from memory.

Flashback to January 2013. I attended a meeting in Tampa and thought to myself that it would be nice to take a holiday somewhere in Florida. Browsing Googlemaps, I saw that the Caribbean was nearby, so I figured I’d check out a country there. I remember that most flights to the Bahamas was expensive and that I was surprised to find a $160 round trip (from Tampa) ticket to Puerto Rico. I figured it was because they are a territory of the USA and plenty of flights went to and from there.

When I finally arrived in the capital,San Juan, and got out of the airplane, I was hit instantly with its humidity. I had a rental car to pick up the next day but on the day I arrived, I had to find my way to Old San Juan where my hostel was. I had done a little research on buses that would take me close so I hopped onto a local one which I thought was correct. I was armed with rusty Spanish but I had taken some time to memorize key phrases (“Can you tell me when we arrive at …”). Luckily for me, some people in Puerto Rico speak English, especially the younger generation, so I wouldn’t be completely stuck assuming I got lost.

Long story short, I got off at the wrong stop, got lost, and a young English-speaking girl helped get me on the right bus and also told me when to get off.

In Old San Juan bus station, I still had to figure out where the hostel was. After some time staring at my Lonely Planet guide map and asking several taxi drivers chit-chatting, I find my hostel. It was a charming place called “Posada San Francisco”. After setting my bags down in the somewhat muggy 5-bed dorm room, I headed out to find dinner. I had a list of things I wanted to eat in Puerto Rico and top of the list was PORK. Puerto Rico is well-known for their lechoneras, which serve lechon, or roast suckling pig with delicious cracklin’ skin. The best lechoneras are to be found in Guavate, a 2 hour drive south of San Juan. I had planned on driving there in a few days.

I found a charming little restaurant that had a bar. Pina colada was supposedly invented in Puerto Rico and Bacardi rum is their biggest liquor export.

I ordered chuleta kan kan (fried pork chop) and a strawberry pina colada. The pork chop had too much fat on the sides but the mofongo (plantain mash) was fantastic. Although it was delicious, I couldn’t finish the pina colada.

“Chuleta kan kan”

On my second day, I spent my morning exploring Old San Juan and its coast. A statue of a dancing San Juan was the highlight. The famous old fortress or La Fortaleza was closed that morning but I wasn’t really into fortress-exploring mood. I had bigger fish to fry that morning. I checked out of my hostel, found the bus that would take me to the airport, and picked up my rental car. Renting a car is cheap in Puerto Rico and the preferred way to get around the country as everything is driving distance. I paid $20/day for a small compact Toyota Yaris.

Dancing San Juan

I headed east toward Vieques where the legendary Bio-luminescent Bay, or Bio-Bay, is located. It took me about 1.5 hours to drive to the Fajardo ferry docks where I would park my car for $5 and keep it there for a night. Be wary; The ferry has strict departure times so you might want to check it out here and plan on arriving 30-45 mins early.

Vieques is a small island about 1.5 hours from Fajardo. Upon getting off, I found communal vans (publico) which takes people into the town. It’s a much cheaper option than taking a taxi solo because the fare is split between 10 people. Expect to pay $5 pp. There are several trucks running around the island that can take you anywhere. Expect to pay $10 for a trip anywhere.

After checking into my charming “hostel”, which really was a European guy’s home where he rented rooms out, I took a trip to the beach. The beaches are much smaller and relatively empty. Several tour companies take you on horse rides along the coast but for a hefty price, about $80 per person. A really cool thing about Vieques is that horses can be seen roaming freely everywhere. It’s quite a sight.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the highlight of my Puerto Rico trip, Bio-Bay. It was a night-time group expedition to the lake and I didn’t want to risk bringing a camera onto the canoes. The night was filled with mosquitoes (no surprise, as Bio-Bay is actually named Mosquito Bay). We walked in the mud as we dragged our canoes into the water. Then we paddled to the middle of Bio-Bay where a small boat was parked there, perhaps for the purpose of allowing people to climb it and jump into the lake.

Here’s a picture I borrowed of Bio-Bay:

Photo courtesy of private-tours-israel.com

What makes Bio-Bay special is that the water is filled with dinoflagelattes, micro-organisms which cause the water to glow eerily luminescent when there is movement in the water. The water was warm, the waters glowing, and the moon was out. I’ve never swam in the middle of a lake at night so it was exciting.

The next day, I boarded the ferry back to Fajardo. My schedule for the day was to drive to El Yunque National Forest and hike the trail to the waterfalls. I got to the falls, tried to swim in it but it had rained the day before so the current was extremely strong and I didn’t want to risk being washed downstream filled with massive rocks. Taking a selfie there was almost impossible due to water droplets clouding the front of my camera lens.

Next up, the other highlight of my trip; The drive to Guavate, home of many popular lechoneras. I first learned about these places from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I decided to hit up one of the more famous ones, El Rancho Original (the other being Los Pinos). It was tricky to get there because the winding roads go through a forest and the roadsides are filled with many competing lechoneras. But you knew when  you got to the main street. It was jam-packed with people. As lechoneras only open on the weekends, everyone comes at the same time to feast and party. I stood in line while I admired the beautiful roast pig sitting on the front display for everyone to see, as the employees carve juicy chunks off it. Don’t forget the sides, which there are plenty to choose from. As a bonus, there was a party going on next door and there was a live band playing and people of all ages were dancing their afternoons away.

 

Delicious plate of lechon with some morcilla (blood sausage)

Overall, Puerto Rico was a great place to stop for a few days. There were other cities to visit but I felt I hit the highlights that I really cared for (Bio-Bay and lechoneras) so I was more than happy to leave after that.

For more images of Puerto Rico, click here.

Why I love World of Warcraft.

I enjoy playing World of Warcraft. Why? Because it allows me to travel even when I’m not travelling. I am in Azeroth, Kalimdor, Outlands, exploring lands far away, seeing exotic creatures and having adventure along the way. There is a feeling of freedom I can gain while I lead my more mundane life.

A Map for Saturday

All those years ago, before I started my first year-long Round-The-World journey, I watched “A Map for Saturday”. It was a documentary about the journey of a backpacker through his RTW trip and the people he meets, their experiences, and life on the road. It opened my eyes and prepared me (somewhat) for my own journey.

Re-watching it after my own journey made me nostalgic. It confirmed many things but I also felt some things were exaggerated. I guess it all comes down to perspective.

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