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.

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