February 26, 2011

Week of Weirdos Part V & VI: Jungle Friends

If you were going to spend three days in the jungle, what would you bring? Knowing full well that electricity and running water would be novelties and since it's the RAINforest, there would be a high chance all of your things would get drenched, would you bring much?

After a full month of traveling, Jenn and I decided it would be best to limit our packing to a change of clothes, a rain coat, bug spray, sunscreen, and toothpaste. We put our items into plastic grocery bags, which would be more or less water proof and easy to carry.

We looked like hobos compared to the rest of the campers who brought in large, fancy hiking backpacks and multiple changes of clothes. Maybe I was missing something, but I didn't feel compelled to be fashionable in the rainforest.

Perhaps the only one who brought less than us was one of our three cabin mates, a British teenager named Guy, who ironically was the only guy in our cabin. He didn't bring a flashlight (which was vital) nor did he bring bug spray. I'm fairly certain he didn't bring any change of clothes whatsoever, either.

Our other cabin dwellers were a middle-age lesbian couple from Germany who had spent a lot of time in the jungles of Central America, Thailand, and Laos. They had large backpacks and bright LED lights that they could strap to their head. Each day they had a new pair of durable, quick-drying khaki trekking pants and a fresh Lycra workout shirt. In the mornings and evenings to protect themselves from mosquitos, they had long-sleeve button-up sturdy safari shirts. 

They had millions of pockets. I'm not sure what in the world they would put into all of the compartments. Jenn, who lived in Kenya for a while, had them pegged as diva safari people from the moment we met them. She said in Africa that most people who visit Africa for the first time bring with them fancy, unnecessary and expensive safari clothes. Jenn and I wore what the staff wore -- freebie t-shirts, cotton shorts, and basic light pants. No specialty shopping needed. 

Before we went on our trek, we were warned that we would be walking through pretty deep water, so we went back to the cabin to figure out what to put on. Jenn put on gym shorts, and I rigged my pants so they were sort of shorts (they were the one thing I had that had a legitimate chance of drying out overnight). The ladies saw us and quizzically watched me as I rolled my pants up. 

"You girls don't look very prepared... didn't you bring jungle clothes?" they asked me. 

"Uhh, jungle clothes? Umm well I don't really know what that means, the clothes we have seem to work just fine," I replied.

Jungle clothes. What in the world are jungle clothes? All I could think was Tarzan.

Oh shoot, I left my loin cloth back at base camp... Shame on me!

Guy, in the meantime, seemed to get by in his skinny blue jeans and his camera around his neck. He was introverted and reminded me a lot of a gecko the way he walked around and studied plants, spiders, lunch, breakfast... Through it all he never said much of anything. He smoked more than any 18-year old ought to though, nearly every time I saw him he had a cigarette in his hands. He smoked as if nicotine was his oxygen, one puff/breath, breathe out, another puff/breath, breathe out. Back and forth back and forth four to five times in a row without a rest in between. My lungs hurt for him.

The afternoon I came face to face by myself with a meter-long monitor lizard, I was the envy of the camp. Guy in particular was deeply upset he missed the prehistoric creature. He decided to go on a mission to find the lizard, completely barefoot in the trees armed only with his camera. Poor Guy, he never completely caught up to the lizard.

Guy managed to make it out of the jungle alive and uninjured, even without mosquito spray or a flashlight. Jenn and I easily survived with our grocery bags of goods and lack of jungle clothes. Our kind German friends were well-protected by their nice clothes, and I guess if something bad would have happened in the jungle, I'm sure they would have had packed a remedy for any trouble in one of their 10,000 pockets.

-- Weirdo Disclaimer -- 
The people we met are far more interesting than the places we visited, so I feel like I have to give them a little credit for making my travels even more memorable.  In some cases, I'll use "weirdo" in a positive and quirky way, other times I'll use it in a "dude, you are legitimately strange," sort of context. I've got full confidence you'll be able to decipher between the two. (Also, I've changed a few names).

February 24, 2011

Week of Weirdos Part IV: Narco

Note: Never have I ever met someone who so consistently made me feel so wildly uncomfortable. My interactions with him often left me baffled and speechless, and it wasn't until thinking back on this strange character of a person that Jenn and I realized just how funny he really is.

After a week in Palawan, we were back in Manila at our fantastic condo-turned-hostel on the 18th floor of a new high rise. A short, stout man got in the elevator with us as we headed up. He was wearing a mustard yellow shirt heavily stained with sweat, long khaki shorts, and he hadn't shaved in a few days. His eyes were droopy and beads of perspiration were forming around his thinned out dirty blonde hair.

We both pressed the 18th floor.

Please don't let him be in my hostel... please don't let him be in my hostel... I thought over and over again as the strange creature of a man followed Jenn and I passed door after door until we all stopped in font of the one that was our hostel.

We thought we got lucky when he didn't immediately come into our room, but a few short minutes later we realized he was on the bunk be right across from us. Awesome.

He is from Minneapolis but spends his summers on the lake in Bemidji. He works a number of odd jobs in the city, including valet parking, painting store front windows for Halloween and Christmas, "there's actually really good money it that," he told us. 

"But the main thing I do is manage a home for retarded adults," he said. 

I nodded my head along with another hostel dweller, "Wow, that's great!" I said.

"Yeah, not really... I'm burned out. I got tired of tackling retards in the stairwells everyday," he replied.

I eyed the guy across the room, unsure of how to respond, and we both squeaked out awkward noises of acknowledgement, followed by an impossibly long period of silence.

"Oh hey, do you know where I can get some prescription narcotics?" the man from Minnesota asked. "I went to the dentist yesterday to see if I could get some, but they wouldn't give me any. Then I went to the doctor, and they wouldn't budge either. I was expecting the pharmacies in the Philippines to be stocked with all sorts of pain killers I can't get stateside, but they're not."

It was about that time that I noticed his large, wide open suitcase along the wall. The suitcase was oversize and overflowing with clothes. On top of it all was a big plastic container filled with no less than a dozen prescription pill bottles.

"Umm, well sorry to hear that. I have some ibuprofen if you want?" I said.

"Haha... that's funny. That won't do me any good."

"Well, what exactly is wrong with you?" I asked.

"My thighs are rubbed raw. You know, it's really hot out and I've been walking a lot and so my legs rub together and shit - it hurts! I can't really walk anymore and I think the only thing that will knock it out is something like morphine," he said.

"Wait... you rubbed your legs raw? Huh. Well that sucks. I think sitting down for a while might be a little more effective than pain pills," I said. 

What I was really thinking though was, "Dude, you're chaffing. Get some Goldbond and quit telling the world that your inner thighs are bleeding... I think you've got quite the cocktail of narcotics to get you through the pain already."

He replied by saying he was going to take some sleeping pills and was planning to pass out (it was mid-afternoon). Jenn and I left to check out the city and returned a few hours later to get ready for dinner. 

"Ugh... these weren't strong enough," he said in a dazed stupor as he emerged from under his bunk. Despite his drug-induced haze, he was game for another conversation and we learned he wanted to open up a resort in the Philippines.

"Man, I love it here. I've been here a couple of times now and I just love it. My buddy and I from back in Minneapolis are going to open a resort here. He's got a Filippino girlfriend who is helping us buy land. Don't worry, she's totally legit, like they're not breaking up anytime soon. Even if they did we would still have the business partnership, you know? She's the real deal. I swear," he said, uninterrupted.

Well, sir, that sounds nice. There is no way in hell I would ever stay at your resort.

He went way over the top justifying her legitimacy while his business plan seemed like something he and his friend came up with one night when they were tripping on some of the many prescription pills they own. Jenn and I assumed that perhaps the man stole from all of the "adult retards" that he was tired of tackling? Who knows, it's just a hypothesis. 

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Narco. 
(I actually don't even know what his real name is).

February 23, 2011

Week of Weirdos Part III: Pierre

Anti-Americanism is something that most Americans convince themselves exists outside of the safe shorelines of the Pacific and Atlantic. Since the evening news shows protests and flag burnings and all sorts of patriotic sacrilege, Americans must certainly endure a lot of hatred abroad, right? Well... not exactly. 

For all six months I spent in Europe and four months here in China, I've only experienced two instances of mild anti-Americanism -- both were in China in taxis. I said where I was from and the taxi drivers promptly said, "Bu xi huan Meiguo! I don't like America!" and they made little guns with their fingers. Certainly nothing extreme or hard to deal with.

Then I went to Vietnam and for the first time, experienced being confronted with some not-so-nice things about my country. No, it wasn't from Vietnamese people (who call it the American War), they were very friendly and hospitable. Europeans were the ones who questioned why on earth an American should feel like they should go to Vietnam or feel welcome there. 

Halfway through my trip, I was fairly accustomed to issuing reasonable rebuttals to comments, but I had no idea what was in store for me when one of my diving instructors laid in to me about US foreign policy over a bowl of Vietnamese noodles after my last dive. 

After leading me through two terrifying dives and nearly sending me crashing into a rock face in a surge zone, I was not too keen on my freshly certified dive instructor. I had passed all of the necessary skills underwater though, and he wanted to take me to lunch to celebrate. 

Pierre is an ex-IT extraordinaire from France who got fed up with his job and decided to become a dive instructor. He's a chain smoking foodie who just moved to Vietnam in October and has some very strong opinions about the US.

"Don't you feel uncomfortable being an American here? People in your country rarely travel, and you shouldn't think you're welcome to come to Vietnam of all places," he said as he scooped up some of his noodles clumsily with a fork.

"No, actually the Vietnamese people are wonderful. It's been the Europeans who have a perception that all Vietnamese must hate Americans. I've never had to defend myself so often in a country before," I responded as I gracefully took a bite with chopsticks, as any good Asia-bound expat should.

"You Americans think you can go anywhere you want and expect people to cater to you. You go to Egypt and want them to speak English. You go to Japan and expect the same thing. You go to France -- it's all the same. You don't learn language and you don't learn culture. Americans want America around the world. Look around -- look how many stores and brands are influenced by America!" Pierre said.

Fair enough, I saw his point so I applied it to his own country. France is known for some wonderful things, and any French person ought to be proud. All around the world you also see French-influenced restaurants. Same with Italian, Spanish, Indian...I could go on. I tried to tell him that for some reason, America has been more effective at globally marketing its pop culture better than other places.

I think he was a little bit taken aback by some of the things I said, so he started grasping at experiences he's had with other Americans, who managed to do an excellent job at reinforcing all of the negative stereotypes. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Pierre asked me such gems as:

  • "Don't most Americans believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are buddies and that Iraq was about to nuke Israel? That's why your country thinks you went to war, right?"
  • "Wouldn't you say that at least 45% of your country really hates Obama and wants to kick him out of office?"
  • "What are the odds that Sarah Palin will win in 2012? I bet she'll become President, which would be awful for your country because then the whole world would hate you."
We covered the Tea Party, congress, healthcare, gun control "America would solve all of its problems if they did a nationwide gun ban," obesity... pretty much any sort of politically-charged cliche affiliated with the USA. 

Talk about a stressful lunch. Luckily for me, I kind of geek out with these kinds of topics, so I was able to confidently hold my own. I may have even made Pierre think twice about some of his opinions about the states. 

...cracking down the cliches one opinionated jerk at a time.

He was right about Americans not traveling much. Of all the people I met, Americans were few to be found. We really need to get out more, I promise the world isn't as terrifying as some might think. And plus, how can we start to change the minds of people like Pierre if we don't get out there and prove them wrong? We ought not to need such a grandiose cause as this to prompt us to head to the world's finest beaches in exotic locales... I mean, really, rock the stars and stripes people.

-- Weirdo Disclaimer -- 
The people we met are far more interesting than the places we visited, so I feel like I have to give them a little credit for making my travels even more memorable.  In some cases, I'll use "weirdo" in a positive and quirky way, other times I'll use it in a "dude, you are legitimately strange," sort of context. I've got full confidence you'll be able to decipher between the two. (Also, I've changed a few names).

February 22, 2011

Week of Weirdos Part II: Jason Schibby VII

It was well past midnight when a drunk and stumbling Brit grabbed my blackberry and typed out his name into a blank text screen. Jason Schibby VII.

"Add me to Facebook," he said.

"Wait, there are seven generations of you?!" I replied.

"Of course there are, my love. We're legends." 

The seventh generation Schibby looked like he was born on a beach. He had long blonde hair topped with a grey herringbone flat cap, a loose razorback sleeveless shirt with a Thai beer logo, and cropped linen pants covering his very tan body, lean from spending so much time on his surf board. He had a love for travel, parties, and socializing that few people can match.

His magnetism for meeting interesting people on the road has prompted him to find a way to make sure he never forgets some of the people he meets. The night I met him, he was collecting signatures from a few people he had been hanging out with for the past 10 days. 

"Are you really sure you want to do this?" Evan asked.

"I mean, this is permanent... do you really think we're cool enough to be added to the list?" Kat, Evan's girlfriend, added.

"No man, you guys have been great. I won't forget you, I swear," he said. "Hey, do you think I should get the name of that one girl from the other night? She was like the most beautiful girl I've ever seen..."

"Dude, you talked to her for like 24 seconds. Do you even know her name?" Evan asked.

"No, but I mean, she was hot. Probably the hottest girl in the world," Jason replied.

"It's permanent. That would be creepy," Evan said. 

I asked what they were talking about and Jason promptly pulled down his loose linen pants. Across both cheeks were lists of names of people he's found interesting. There were more than a dozen signatures. I didn't look too closely, but I swear some had been crossed out, others were written  vertically. His ass was literally a register of the most influential people in his life. That night he added "Babs" to the list and promptly returned to the bar after he had been stamped.

I don't think I've ever met more of a free spirit. He's from England, but has been traveling around southeast Asia for a few months. I think by now he's made his way to Bali, where he will live for the next few months. We ran into him at the Ho Chi Minh airport a few days after we had left him in central Vietnam. 

He was still wearing the same clothes, but had changed his flat cap for a basic black baseball camp. "I don't know where the f*ck that cap went, I'm a bit pissed off about it, but I mean, this works." He was carrying a satchel and a backpack. When we had met him he had a guitar, but over the course of a few days he had to sell his guitar to get money to leave the country.

The people he had been traveling with took most of his cash and left him in Vietnam. He had been traveling with old friends from home and some sort of horrible went down during the trip and the group separated, leaving Jason with few options other than to sell his guitar and waste his anger away on alcohol.

He was sad to leave his guitar, but he didn't seem too concerned about where his next meal, beer, or cheeky tattoo was going to come from. He'd figure it out and find the cash to keep living the dream. I wouldn't doubt if one day I'll run into him in some obscure location, like the island of Kiribati. He'll own a surf shop there that sells fruit shakes on the side and he will probably be the happiest person on the planet. 

-- Weirdo Disclaimer -- 
The people we met are far more interesting than the places we visited, so I feel like I have to give them a little credit for making my travels even more memorable.  In some cases, I'll use "weirdo" in a positive and quirky way, other times I'll use it in a "dude, you are legitimately strange," sort of context. I've got full confidence you'll be able to decipher between the two. (Also, I've changed a few names).

February 21, 2011

Week of Weirdos Part I: Henri

The road attracts all types -- misfits, lost souls, artists, missionaries, curiosities...  I've met some of the most interesting people on the planet through random encounters in strange places. This trip was certainly no exception, Jenn and I met some of the most eccentric personalities and consequently found ourselves in ridiculous scenarios with our new acquaintances. 

The people we met are far more interesting than the places we visited, so I feel like I have to give them a little credit for making my travels even more memorable. So here's the start of the "week of weirdos" dedicated to the characters I met in the last month. In some cases, I'll use "weirdo" in a positive and quirky way, other times I'll use it in a "dude, you are legitimately strange," sort of context. I've got full confidence you'll be able to decipher between the two. (Also, I've changed a few names). 

Week of Weirdos Part I: Henri

The bathroom in our hyper-modern hostel in Nanning, China, was a unisex one and after 30 hours on a train, I badly needed to wash my face and brush my teeth. As I squeezed my nasty green tea flavored toothpaste onto my brush, a devastatingly handsome guy walked up to the sink next to me and started to brush his teeth as well. We were the only two in the bathroom and our eyes were nervously darting around to avert eye contact but still gauge each other. 

I made sure I brushed my teeth longer than he brushed his, just to show my superior oral hygiene (ha!) We didn't say a word to each other. 

The next morning, we inexplicably found ourselves in the same situation as the night before: awkwardly brushing our teeth alone in front of the mirror. Still not a word was spoken.

Later that evening, I saw him in the common room hunched over his computer. He had dark brown hair, dark eyes, and an 8 o'clock shadow on his face. His well-fitted jeans and sweater were a little nicer than what most travelers wore, and I sensed he was probably from Europe. He was beautiful.

A few hours later, we once again were in the bathroom brushing our teeth for the third time in 24 hours. The awkwardness was palpable and we managed a brief "hi."

At 6 a.m. the next morning, Jenn and I walked downstairs to begin our walk to the bus to take us to Vietnam. He was in the common room getting directions for the bus, apparently this mystery man was on our bus. 

The second he got to the station he came up and started talking to us. He didn't stop talking. His name was Henri, he's French and was really, really excited to go to Vietnam. He was talking with his hands in fast, broken English that was impossible to understand in the noisy station. He had an exorbitant amount of energy for 6:20 a.m. He was like an 8-year old who had just shotgunned a Mountain Dew.

Any attraction I had to him was immediately erased after he opened his mouth.

His energy didn't wane, even after four hours on a bus. At our first pitstop, asked if we could help him track down his hostel in Hanoi -- which was fine he asked that, but he did it in a high-energy, "I want to stress you out," sort of way. As we were going through customs at the border, he showed us his passport and told us about the origins about all four of his first names. He told us about the city he lives in China and all of his favorite hobbies and foods. And when he wasn't talking he was humming or playing a noisy game on his cell phone. 

When we handed over our passports to the Vietnam border agents, we were in a huge mob of people that were all trying to elbow their way to the front. Jenn made it to the window and started telling the agents about cowboys in Texas (which definitely expedited our passports) and good ol' Henri stood by me, put his hand on my shoulder like he was my dad, and started humming and bumbling about something. I couldn't pay attention.

Once we finally made it to Hanoi, the energetic 34-year old got his planning hat on and scared off a few Vietnamese taxi drivers who couldn't understand his loud, fast French accent. The small pool of Anglo-saxtons around him, including Jenn and I, looked at him in sheer, baffled amazement at the train wreck happening before our eyes -- he was trying to finagle all five of us into a tiny car and tell the taxi where our hostels were at, even though he was clueless. 

After 20 minutes of high-stress deliberation, Henri got in one taxi and Jenn and I got in another one. I never had to endure another toothbrushing again. Thank goodness.

February 20, 2011

Jungle fever: The end of an adventure

After trudging through hip-deep murky river water, encountering a three foot monitor lizard head-on, negotiating a six-hour bus fare we didn't have the cash for, showing up to an airport a day early, "sleeping" on a dirty floor in Kuala Lumpur, and enduring a five hour flight full of extra chatty Chinese, I'm finally back in Hangzhou. 

It's weird to be back; I thought I'd feel happy or excited to be back here, instead I'm indifferent. I appreciate that I have my familiar neighborhood and it's been nice hanging out with my friends, but for the most part my return to China has been ushered in with a large empty feeling.

The last week of the trip was incredible, it was the best way to end the adventure. After our diving adventures, we headed into central Borneo to Sepilok. We stayed at Uncle Tan's Wildlife Adventure camp for three days. After already having our backpacks soaked once on the trip, we weren't eager to bring all of our stuff into the rainforest. Luckily, we got to leave things back at base camp.

Jenn and I ventured into the Bornean jungle with nothing more than a grocery bag with one change of clothes, lots of bug spray, and a toothbrush. We journeyed almost two hours by car and an hour by boat to get to the camp, situated on the Kinabatangan River -- which just happens to be flooded.

"You should probably take of your shoes, and your socks," the camp director told us.

Jenn and I looked at each other like he was crazy -- in front of us was a boardwalk of 2x4's that was covered ankle deep in nasty, silty river water. We followed his advice and made ourselves at home in our shack (three walls and a roof). We had an air mattress and a mosquito net. 

The next couple of days included a lot of boat rides looking for wildlife; we saw an orangutan, many different species of monkeys and too many Oriental Hornbill and Kingfisher birds (I don't really find bird watching extraordinarily interesting...) We made friends with the staff, who was mostly our age. They were all native Malaysians who get to leave the jungle a max of one time each month. They're like family -- they kind of have to be; the guests switch out every other day and there's not much to do for fun in the jungle. We sang songs to guitars and makeshift drums and they taught us how to call orangutans and gibbons (I'm proud to say that I'm fluent in both languages.)

We spent the morning of our second day jungle trekking with Tong-Tong, a fun Filippino-Malaysian guy who was dead set on showing us the wonders of the forest, which involved walking through three feet of water for twenty minutes.

"Don't worry, if you die I will die first," he joked about the creatures that could be lurking in the muddy water. The staff was awesome and had a great sense of humor. Even though the jungle is full of all sorts of creepy, poisonous things (like the feisty, evil millipede that was freaking out in our boat one night... the three inch critter can give you a month-long fever if it bites you) the staff didn't bother with scaring us with a huge briefing about all of the nasties, instead they made us feel right at home and comfortable right away. They appreciated that Jenn and I had an equally goofy sense of humor and weren't outrageously squeamish about things.

We made it out of the jungle unscathed, asides from some mosquito bites and stings. With dirt between our toes and our hair extra nasty (the bath was the muddy river.. so trekking was the only bathing in the jungle we did) we headed off to Kota Kinabalu. Our bus drove past Mt. Kinabalu -- the highest peak in southeast Asia -- just at the sun was about to set. We were high enough so that a few clouds were level with the bus, the sky in the west was a fiery red and orange and the stars were just starting to shine in the cobalt sky. 

Once in the city, we treated ourselves to a night in a real hotel, with legitimate beds and showers. It was Valentine's Day, so we were the odd couple in a nice, western restaurant. The next morning, I swam laps in the outdoor seventh floor pool and we ate lunch in a restaurant that was plucked right out of the states. We shopped in a mall that had American stores (I bought my first MAC makeup in Borneo of all places). It was the most American I've felt since I left home. 

Once 7 p.m. rolled around, we headed to the airport for our flight to Kuala Lumpur. 

"Uhh, excuse me miss... there seems to be a problem," the gate agent told us.

Jenn and I looked at each other and my heart sank a little bit.

"Your flight is actually tomorrow, not today." 


All we could do was laugh -- a manic, sleep-deprived laugh. We were out of money and getting island fever. We found a cheaper hotel and settled in for the night and wasted away the next day checking out a little bit of the city.

Finally we left for Kuala Lumpur and found a cozy spot on the airport floor to spend the night for our flight back to Hangzhou. The plane early the next morning was packed with overly excited Chinese people. Before leaving KL, we already felt like we were back.

People rushed on to the plane. Everyone was talking, shuffling, and not sitting down until the absolutely last minute. The second they sat down, many reclined their seats and set down their tray tables (a huge no-no for takeoffs and landings). No surprise that the second we landed everyone got up and started to try elbow their way off plane (even though the cabin doors hadn't even been opened yet). 

The night we got back was the Lantern festival, marking the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. All of Hangzhou was a war zone of bright fireworks, people were lighting them in front of their stores and I saw a lot of children hanging out of their apartment windows with sparklers. Of course it was impossible getting a cab.

I waited for 20 minutes, got hit by a bicycle, and couldn't quite remember how to tell my taxi driver how to get to the restaurant to meet my friends -- somehow it all seemed to work, as it always does. True to her nature, Big Red didn't give me a welcome back hug or a fluffy little honeymoon period, she just is the way she is, love her or hate her. Welcome back to China. 

February 11, 2011

Swimming with sharks... by land and sea

Although I'm sitting on a chair in an air conditioned internet cafe in a little town on the northeast side of Boreno, my brain is convinced I'm still floating on the pristine Celebes Sea. The past three days have been some of the most visually intriguing of the entire trip.

It all started with our last day in the Philippines when we sought out some of the city's sights. By sheer dumb luck, the cabbie we hailed to take us to the old Manila post office turned out to be an ex-tour guide who was all too eager to take two young tourists around his home city. After driving us to the post office he drove us to the American memorial cemetery from World War II. The memorial rivaled Arlington's beauty. It was shocking how many blank-faced white granite crosses covered the hills. At the center of the cemetery was a large circle with granite slabs 20 feet high that listed the name of every soldier killed in different battles in the South Pacific... there were at least 100 of them with names from top to bottom on both sides. The landscaping showed off the diversity of the Philippines and the sparkling skyline of the city was a backdrop showing off how Manila has bounced back since the war.

After the cemetery, the driver took us to the Manila Hotel where MacArthur lived and then he drove us to the exact parking spot where a bus of Hong Kong tourists were kidnapped in July. He showed us the old Spanish architecture and told us all about the Philippines' hero (though I forgot his name at the moment...) We spent more than two hours with him and paid less than $10 each, even with a generous tip.

That night we went out with two new friends from our hostel. They had spend a week in the city and knew of a bar called the Cowboy Grill that had an excess of live bands and a lack of prostitues. The music was fantastic and we had fun meeting other Filippinos (we were almost the only westerners in the bar). Afterward, our friends asked if we wanted to see the "real" Manila. I'll explain more of the evening once I've gotten more sleep, but let me say it was one of the most profoundly heart-breaking and educational experiences I've ever had. It both inspired and disgusted me... inspired me to help intelligent and ambitious women my own age to get out of the industry and disgusted me because the world's most profitable business (human-trafficking) is fueled almost entirely by wealthy western men.

Like I said, I'll explain more later.

The next morning we flew out of Clark Airfield in Manila for Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia (Borneo), another short flight and an hour's drive later we were in Semporna. We spent the night in a dive shop and left early the next morning for Mabul, a small island 40 minutes off the coast. We dove three times yesterday in outrageously stunning water. There were turtles, massive schools of jacktrevallies, lion fish, moray eels, a rainbow of corals and endless constellations of starfish on the sea floor.

The resort we stayed on was literally on the water, our rooms were on stilts and the sink water drained three feet down into the ocean. The place was definitely for hardcore divers, I felt a little silly there around so many people who had been diving for years, but the staff was awesome and once we started chatting with the other guests we made some new friends.

Last night I saw my first legit sunset post-North Dakota. It was incredible -- shades of gold, purple and dark blue reflected off the water. Certainly the definition of paradise.

Today we dove the Sipadan (google it). We had to apply over a month ago to get permits for it. The island and its surrounding waters are protected by the Malaysian army, fishing is not allowed and no one can stay overnight on the island. A few years ago, the island was taken by pirates because it was in dispute between two countries (now no one can stay there and the island is no longer in dispute).

The Sipidan has some of the most diverse and rare marine life in the world. Approximately 95% of the coral is living and healthy and species of fish and plants that live there don't live anywhere else in the world.

It was surreal, it was like Disneyland Borneo. At one point we couldn't even count all of the sharks that were around us -- white tips, black tips, grey reef sharks (some of which were three meters long!) There were turtles and barracudas and trigger fish. We could see 20-30 meters up and down the sheer 2000 meter wall of coral one one side, and looking over the other shoulder was an endless cerulean abyss, broken up only by the profiles of fish in the distance.

We rocked two dives on the Sipadan and then my ear started tweaking out. It felt like I had a huge bubble on the right side of my brain that just wouldn't pop. After resting for an hour in between dives, the pain still hadn't stopped, so I had to forgo my final dive. I opted instead for snorkeling, which was almost as incredible. I swam within an arm's reach of a few turtles, saw more sharks, and admired an endless coral bed.

My ear is still popping (but most of the pain is gone). I'm still on the boat even after writing all of this.... I think I seriously need to catch up on some sleep though. Tomorrow morning we're off to Uncle Tan's in Sepalok to hang out in the jungle for a few days and nights. I'm really excited, but not looking forward to the creepy critters that can crawl and squirm. Ick.

Back to China Thursday. It's odd this great adventure is almost over.

February 6, 2011

High Season

This week I learned that finding paradise comes at a price -- whether it be in the form of a pseudo-seat on a bus, expensive and awkwardly sweet food, or sleeping in a makeshift room.

El Nido is exactly what one would imagine when trying to think of an idyllic paradise. The steep limestone cliffs climb out of the crystal clear waters of the Pacific and copious amounts of coconut trees line the shore. There are so many coconuts, in fact, that the town has an abnormally high amount of deaths related to falling coconuts. There are hundreds of tiny islands speckled just off the coast, each offering up aquamarine lagoons, white beaches, and the drama of high cliffs shaped by the ocean over thousands of years. The main island, Palawan, along with the other islands are lush with rainforest and all sorts of creatures that make interesting noises at night.

All of the natural glamor comes with some dirt and sweat, however. The night before we left for El Nido, we stayed in a bamboo house on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa. We had the entire house to ourselves and had to walk down a dirt path in order to get there. It is nestled in a neighborhood and is made of all local materials. We were certainly the focal point of the neighborhood. It was awesome staying there, but I couldn't help but feel a little guilty having a rainwater shower and a flat screen TV in my bamboo hut when most of the children who were eagerly approaching us slept in bamboo huts as well -- minus a real floor and electricity. One thing we did share with the neighbors were the cockroaches. They all came out to play at night and we nervously huddled our mosquito net close to our bodies to keep them from crawling in the bed. At one point I woke up to them crawling on top of the net, gross.

The easiest way to get to take a van from Puerto Princesa. The first 160 km are paved on a narrow, winding road. The 12-passenger van is filled to the brim, including utilizing the tiny foldout seats next to the door. The first half of the trip took three hours, we were going so fast that my half-seat would tip to the side on the corners. My back was cramping and Jenn and I were doing everything we could to fall asleep.

Sleep was not found though, as the second half of the trip was a pot-hole filled gravel road. It hadn't rained in a week, so the dust was rolling and we were weaving from side to side in order to avoid the "rough spots." Our driver was in a race, and he won.

The island was worth it once we finally made it. We stayed in a beachfront cottage the first three nights and were joined by a friend from Hangzhou for our second day. Two Filippino boatmen took us on an island hopping tour one day to show us the famous lagoons -- at one point we sat in a sea cave, swam in a glasslike natural pool, and crawled through a tunnel to check out a secret lagoon completely enclosed by limestone cliffs. The tour was complete with a beach barbeque with whole fish, mangoes, and rice.

The next day we all went scuba diving, which was a million times more incredible than Vietnam. Instead of the 2 meter visibility, we had 10 meters of ocean. We saw some incredible corals and a huge school of yellow snapper. Our dive leaders, Caca and Ronnie were fantastic. They just opened their dive shop, so our equipment was brand new. They brought their kids on the boat too, so it was funny watching the young boys navigate the boat as if they were old ocean pros.

El Nido by day was fantastic, but El Nido by night was nerve-wracking. We spent four nights there and only had three of those nights reserved. Prior to going, I knew we would be there during the high season because of the Chinese New year, but I assumed there would be plenty of options. El Nido is tiny though. We spent two hours one morning going from guesthouse to resort to hotel searching for a room for three. Everyone told us they were either full or they might have a room depending on if their guests check out the next day or not. No one was reliable.

At last we found a room in Taiyo Village, she offered us her Haitay Room -- or waiting room, which is a storage shed the resort will occasionally add a bed in depending on the demand. The bed was in high demand and we had to barter a bit in order to get it. It was next to the resort we had been staying at, so we still had the 15 minute walk down a dirt path in order to get there. At night we walked by flashlight (and at one point with "Killing machine #2 -- a Danish expat named Ole who owns a restaurant in the town). We only had electricity from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The night we slept in the shed was a wet one, it rained most of the day and most of the night. Our shower was a bucket in an outhouse next to a toilet. I showered in my bathing suit and since it was pouring rain, I didn't even bother to dry off until I had made the 25 meter crossing through the yard back to my room. Due to the rain and darkness, all three of us got desperate and ended up peeing in a bowl in our room.

Shameful, but necessary.

Our mattresses were larger than the bed frame, the roof was leaky, and the light bulb kept going out. But we had a bed and a roof. A lot of people had to sleep on the beach because there were no rooms available in town.

I was grateful, for the most part.

We decided to book it out of El Nido this morning with our friend who flies back to China tomorrow. There weren't places to stay and the night in the shed turned us off. We had another harrowing trip back to Puerto Princesa and have a dry clean room for tonight (although all my clothes are now soaked as a result of the rain pounding our bags on the roof today).

I can honestly say I've never had to go to such great lengths in order to get a tan.