Tuesday, November 24, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 10: Wet, wet, wet

It is now most of the way through Tuesday, and it has rained all day. It is a warm and (mostly) gentle rain, so it hasn’t put too much of a damper on the experience, but it did cause us to postpone our scuba lesson until tomorrow when, hopefully, it will clear up. We did go snorkeling on the eastern side of the island, where the rain did not make much difference in the experience. It was as advertised: the quantity and variety of fish on this side dwarfed that of the other, though the coral was generally not as impressive. Everyone agreed that the highlight of the session was the large octopus that Marcus found hiding under a ledge (he has very sharp eyes), but also very cool were the breadbox-sized clams lying open-mouthed on the sea bed, and the HUGE school of hundreds of big fish sweeping slowly along the coral, tails a-flutter as they fed on something we could not see. There were also smaller schools of small turquoise fish that mingled with orange ones, and bright bright iridescent blue ones hanging out near the octopus. Parrot fish were abundant, as were other, opalescent fish that reminded me of giant mood rings. Several lavender starfish, fully two feet from tip to tip, sprawled on the bottom amid some nasty-looking but beautiful sea urchins.

Rebecca came this time, and had a far more positive experience than she’s ever had before. In the past, she’s felt somewhat freaked out by all the fish, and the sense that there was something lurking in the water that she couldn’t see. Whether it was due to the clarity of the water or her own increased bravery, however, she didn’t have that problem this time. She didn’t much like the minor jellyfish stings, though (none of us did), and has been suffering today from a bit of traveller’s rumbletummy, so she didn’t stay out too long. Jai got out a little bit later, lips faintly bluish from chill (the guy has about 5% bodyfat). I hung in as long as I could, reluctant to give up the amazing things there were to see all around us, but also having a difficult time between the nasty saltwater taste in my throat and cramping feet and calves unaccustomed to so much swimming and tired from yesterday. I would swim back to shore occasionally to stand on solid ground, empty my mask and just spend a few minutes resting and breathing normally before plunging back in for another look around. Levi and Marcus were indefatigable, diving down to the floor to point out particular things they had spotted. I tried diving myself a few times, and was surprised at the sudden pressure in my ears. I was never able to fully clear my snorkel when I came back up, though, so would usually spend a while afterwards dumping seawater out of the mask and snorkel, which was tiring.

Rebecca came back an hour or so later to tell us it was time for lunch, which tasted sooo good after all that nasty seawater. Now we are all resting in our separate rooms, staring somewhat morosely out at the storm (which has gotten very blustery). Ben checked the satellite map, and the storm is supposed to have already passed us and is heading southeast away from the islands, so it should clear up by tomorrow if not later today. There has been some discussion of returning to the western side for a little more snorkeling, but between the storm and the lateness of the hour (it’s already 4:30), I doubt it will happen. It’s a shame, as we would all love to get in some quality time in the sun – hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Addendum: we wound up going snorkeling again, after all. It was a learning experience: don’t bother snorkeling after a storm. We went quite late in the afternoon, with only an hour or so of light left. The water was dark, murky, and almost totally devoid of life. We swam from the stairs on the northwestern corner of the island down to the house where Levi and I went yesterday, a distance of about a mile, then got out and walked back. By that time, it had gotten so dark that one of the island’s security guys had come after us with a flashlight. A nice little bit of exercise, but the prettiest thing we saw was the fragment of sunset through the clouds before it started raining again.

Dinner was a bit more subdued than last night – I think people are trying not to let the weather get them down. Ben played his new favorite game: mock the Koreans. The other group on the island with us is a group of Korean couples that he says are on a marriage tour – something he says they like to do, that costs exorbitant amounts of money. They are young, rambunctious, don’t speak any English (except for their guide, who is the only one of them to interact with the staff whatsoever), and are prone to odd behavior (like wearing life vests in the shallow pool). Ben just HATES them, and relishes in opportunities to point out rude or (by our standards) classless things they do. I know mocking tourists is a favorite pastime of natives – we did it in Winthrop, and occasionally in San Francisco- but maybe since I’m a tourist here myself I’m less inclined to be critical and just chalk their behavior up to that of excited young newlyweds. I didn’t like the cigarettes they were smoking at lunch, however. (By and large, smoking here is only a little bit more common than it is in the Bay Area, and they generally have the same policies against smoking in restaurants and public areas that it hasn’t been a problem at all. You usually have to walk through a haze of smokers at the tables outside the entrance to the mall, but it’s a tiny nuisance and it’s smoke-free inside.) The resort has promised to seat us further apart in the future, and since it’s an open-air pavilion and we usually don’t eat at the same time anyway, it shouldn’t be a problem again.

Philippines Day 9: Off to Sumilon

If there is a benefit to jet-lag, it is that – in certain situations – it makes getting up insanely early a lot easier. 3:30AM found us up and about with only a little bitching and moaning, finishing up our packing, microwaving coffee and adobo pandesals I’d purchased for us the night before (Turns out Seattle’s Best, on the second floor, makes much better coffee and pastries than Starbucks. They do not, however, have real cream to put in it.) The trip to the airport was a replay of our trip to Palawan, though our party had more than doubled in size. With us for this leg of the journey are Ben, his best man Ray, Alison, Levi and Jai (Raine’s son from a previous marriage. He’s 21 but looks 16, rail thin with a huge smile and monstrous appetite for plain white rice.) We were surprised to hear that Raine wasn’t coming, but apparently the plan was always to get us out of town and out of her hair so she could focus on the wedding.

The short flight to Dumaguette island was followed by a 10-minute drive to the beach, where we hopped on a relatively large banca that took us to Sumilon. Sumilon is the name of both the island and the resort that is its only resident. It is small (you can walk all the way around the island in less than an hour) but extraordinarily beautiful, with two large white beaches and surrounded by clear, azure waters and coral reefs. There are only 14 rooms in the whole resort, in plush cottages with big sliding French doors that open out onto the beach. The common area is up a little hill overlooking the two beaches, with a large open-air pavilion that houses a few dining tables, the front desk and a large Christmas tree constructed of wire and big, brown tropical leaves. Nearby is an “infinity pool” that looks out over the sea and is ringed with smaller hot-tubs, a series of smaller pavilions with beds where they have seaside massages. Orange, yellow and red bouganvillea arches on trellises over the stone stairs leading down to the larger beach and its lagoon. It is, without doubt, the closest I have ever been to the typical tropical island paradise. Sometimes I find myself humming the theme to “Gilligan’s Island.” It is also astonishingly cheap, considering how luxurious it is (there are probably mid-rate hotels in Fresno that charge more, and don’t include three meals a day and snorkeling).

Rebecca was suffering from congested ears and a general icky feeling, and others wanted to rest, so Levi and I grabbed a pair of snorkels and headed off to see what we could find. One of the local staff recommended the waters off the western short, so we started following the path around the island. We wound up going about 1/3rd of the way around the island before we found a spot where we could clamber down some rocks to get in the water, but oh, what we found when we got there!

I have only been snorkeling once, and it was a disappointing experience. My mask leaked a lot due either to my beard or its shoddy manufacture, and the location (off the Denali coast in Kauai) left much to be desired. This was entirely different. The water was only a few feet deep, but the coral was vibrant and extremely diverse: some shaped like huge leaves, some like brains, some like spiky branches, and all different colors. Tons of fish, too, of course. We saw blue and white angel fish the size of dinner plates, and large clown fish peeking out at us from their gently waving anemones. Other fish of all shapes and sizes, such variety as to defy description. We didn’t have fins for our feet, so we didn’t get very far, but we were really impressed with what we saw. Levi had a nasty run-in with a severed jellyfish tentacle, so we decided to pack it in and head back, as this was only ever supposed to be a scouting mission. Talking later to another staff member, he told us that side of the island had bigger fish, but the other (eastern) side had a larger quantity and variety, so we resolved to check that out the next day.

By that time it was starting to get late, so we convened up by the pavilion for cocktail hour. The mosquitoes were out, which was a bummer, but also out were the bats, which were amazing. None of us had ever seen bats so large – they seemed as big as eagles, flapping overhead in the waning light. Fruity island drinks were the popular option, but I’ve never really been a fan, so I went with a simple scotch. They lit candles on the tables as it grew dark, and we watched the lights from nearby boats dance across the water as we ate our dinner.

Philippines Day 8: Winding up for the Wedding

Our last day in Manila before departing for Sumilon was primarily a family affair. We had contemplated checking out the Binondo and Quiapo districts (Manila’s Chinatown) early in the morning, but Ben told us there wouldn’t be anything happening there on a Sunday morning, except in the churches and they would be packed. So we just waited until 11 when Ben, Raine and his daughter Alison and her fiancé Levi (who had just flown in the night before) picked us up and took us to lunch at (where else?) a mall.

I had to admit, the Greenbelt mall (so called because they had a small area with trees and plants surrounded by six separate, huge malls) had ours beat by a mile. The thing was HUGE – six malls of four floors each – and very fancy. We had a really tasty lunch at an upscale restaurant that served classed Filipino cuisine, and Ben and Raine made sure we covered all the bases in terms of getting all the traditional dishes. I’ve been trying to eat native dishes wherever we go, but the quality has been really hit-or-miss. This was the best so far – tilapia braised in a honey marinade, super-garlicky pork adobo, a fish stew, sweet and spicy calamari, shrimp and vegetables in a coconut curry, and a deep-fried pork that was a bit intimidating (I normally avoid red meat, but made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t turn anything down while I’m here. Including balut (fertilized duck egg, a local delicacy), which I’m hoping nobody offers me.

After lunch, we wandered around the mall so that Alison could find some shoes to match her bridesmaid’s dress. Half of one floor was devoted entirely to luxury watchmakers. Gigantic photos of sour-faced, half-naked, anorexic women in weird makeup and weirder clothing glowered down at us from the high-fashion shop windows. Air-conditioning blasted us with frigid air while big doors stood open to the outside. I was in heaven.

Alison finally found a pair of shoes she liked (and could afford), and Rebecca and Dana got some, too. By this time Alison and Levi were feeling the effects of the jet-lag, so we went back to the hotel where they could take a small nap before we headed off to the rehearsal dinner.

While they slept, Ben and I went across the street to get some coffee. I like Ben, but I find him an interesting character. He likes to take up a lot of space, both physically (he’s as tall as I am) and psychically. He speaks to friends and fellow Americans with a boisterous southern geniality that makes him easy to like, but adds a tone of sharp command when speaking to waiters and staff that shocks my liberal Bay Area sensibilities.

After a brief rest, we were off to the wedding rehearsal dinner. I was excited, as this would be my only chance to experience Filipino home life. The dinner was hosted by a cousin of Raine’s (she seems to have an endless supply of cousins) in a very affluent suburb of Manila. From the street, the neighborhood didn’t seem too different from an American one, but it was very different inside. From the Audi TT and Acura parked in the driveway, it was clear we were in a home with a lot of money, but architecturally speaking it was surprisingly bland. The rooms were a simple series of boxes, each with a different linoleum or concrete or tile-patterned floor. We were introduced to a dizzying array of friends and relatives, all of whose names we promptly forgot. Unfailingly friendly and polite, they nonetheless didn’t know quite what to do with us, so sat us at a table off to the side with glasses of super-sweet orange soda.

The dinner, which I had been looking forward to with great curiosity, was something of a letdown. There was a LOT of food, and I took a little bit of everything, but none of it was particularly good. Particularly noteworthy was the mystery meat (probably pork) casserole in a sauce that tasted of cream of mushroom soup and instant coffee. The chocolate cake, however, was excellent. During dinner, we all watched the last quarter of a college basketball game between the two big rival schools in Manila.

The rehearsal itself was a casual, rushed affair, orchestrated by a stylish gay man with poofy bleached hair, granny glasses and zippers on the backs of his pantlegs (it would appear the predisposition of gay men towards wedding planning is an international phenomenon). The script for the wedding was in thick purple folders for everyone to review, and they’ve got all the bells and whistles planned. Unity candle, unity bouquet, unity wine ceremonies combined with three or four readings, a song from Phantom of the Opera and the vows themselves, the ceremony is scheduled to take an hour, but I have my doubts. It’s a very nontraditional ceremony for the Philippines, which is fully 90% Catholic. Raine seemed to be annoyed that people were not taking the rehearsal very seriously. She has clearly put a great deal of effort into planning this thing (the script is extraordinarily detailed), and Ben tells us she badly wants it all to be perfect. When the day itself comes, I really hope they’re both able to let all the expectations go and just enjoy themselves, so they don’t get caught up in a cycle of disappointment over all the things that will inevitably go wrong.

By the time the rehearsal was over, it was getting late. Alison and Levi were barely coherent, and we had to get back to the hotel and get ready to leave at 4:30 the next morning. We said our goodbyes to the nameless smiling faces of the party and went back to the hotel with Mel at the wheel, careening wildly through the streets with horn blazing in the face of drivers who refuse to turn on their headlights at night for fear of wearing out the bulb.

Saturday, November 21, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 6 & 7: In which I bitch, a bit

Our last day in Palawan dawned cloudy, in more ways than one. The inclement weather outside matched the mood inside, as indecision reigned over how to spend our last few hours on the island. We had slept in, for once, and we had to be at the airport in time for a 5:30 flight, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time. But what to do?

I thought it would be interesting to visit Honda Bay, even though we’d sort of decided against it due to all the boat-riding it entailed and our seasick-prone crew of adventurers. But, I argued, we wouldn’t be doing the full tour of the bay, we’d just get a boat and go to one island, just to hang out a bit and see what it was like, then we could turn around and come back. This is ultimately just what we did.

With the late start and the early departure, we only got a little under two hours on Snake Island, the island our helpful desk staff recommended to us. That turned out to be just fine, however, as the weather turned against us and got quite stormy, rendering the island not a whole lot of fun anyway. But we had time to go for a little stroll down a beautiful beach right on the reef of the bay, and to wade into warm, clear blue water and look from above at the large, beautiful fish that came to nibble on our toes. Rebecca even came with me with a bit of bread and bravely stood in front of dozens of swarming fish, with very little freaking out on her part. She’s even looking forward to the scuba lessons at the resort – as am I.

It wasn’t much, but it was a pleasant little excursion that finally got us a taste of what Palawan – and the Philippines – are famous for, and a nice little preview (hopefully) of things to come on Sumillon.

The rest of the day was taken up with the trip back to Manila, getting back to the hotel and checked in and fed at, of course, the mall.

This is going to be the portion of the blog wherein I do a bit of venting. You see, I don’t like malls, and I haven’t liked them since I was a teenager (when such predilections were compulsory). And it has irked me, throughout our stay, how much of our visit seems to orbit malls. We live across the street from what is probably the most upscale mall in the country. We’ll be going to yet a different one tomorrow. All Ben can talk about is which mall is better for what purpose. But I don’t WANT to spend all my time in bastions of western consumerism! I want to experience Filipino life and culture!

I had a minor epiphany today: malls ARE Filipino life and culture. They are far more, to them, than convenient places to shop. They are a center for socializing, for seeing and being seen, for getting out of the oppressive heat, grime and chaos that surrounds them all the time into a cool, clean, tidy little bit of paradise. Many of them have other attractions as well. Ours boasts a large outdoor pavilion tent that can house travelling fairs, dances, etc. Another one has a large-scale, 15-minute firework display every Saturday evening (we watched it from our hotel room). It’s like Vegas. Which I also hate. And as much as I feel trapped in this hotel, and in Makati in general, many Filipinos would consider this prime vacation real estate.

Which doesn’t really make me feel any better, but I do appreciate the insight. One of the reasons I liked Palawan so much, despite the noise and smell and ugliness, was its lack of pretension. Here the people-watching mainly consists of watching the Manilan glitterati strut around, and there really isn’t a discernable difference between American and Filipino hipsters. It’s all very silly.

Thus far, our efforts to escape have been largely stymied. Tomorrow we had planned on taking a daytrip to Ta’al, a nearby volcanic lake, but we’ve had to give that up in deference to Ben’s plans to take us to Green-something mall so we can see their great pearl market. We keep dropping hints to imply the sort of things we’d LIKE to be doing, but these are brushed aside with, “oh, I wouldn’t go there – it’s dirty and there are a lot of pickpockets” or, “that would be a great thing to do the next time you visit.” Combine this with the situation that Ben and his fiancée Rain are – in many ways – hosting us here and the fact that we have to look out for Dana and Marc, and our choices are limited. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

We got away for a very little bit this afternoon, taking a taxi to the American Cemetery. Not something that ever would have occurred to me to do, but Greg (our guide from Intramuros) recommended it strongly at least twice.

It is a beautiful place. I think, perhaps, that Greg likes it so much is the same reason that Filipinos cherish their malls: it is extraordinarily clean, spacious, and organized – all the things that Manila is decidedly not. It is quite large (13,600 Americans and Filipinos killed during WWII are buried there)¸with grave markers laid out in broad curves that follow the hill contours. At its center is a large, circular memorial with dozens of large marble walls with the names of the dead inscribed thereon. The real breath-taking moment came when we walked into one of the map rooms. GIANT, intricately laid-out handmade mosaics grace the walls, depicting in map format the history of WWII in the Pacific – battles, ships, islands and explanatory text all lovingly rendered in tiny shards of colored stone and glass. We learned a lot from these big maps that we hadn’t known before.

Thursday, November 19, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 5: Exploring Puerto Princesa

Today was considerably lower-key, though still pretty busy. To start things off, we took a half-day tour of the city of Puerto Princesa. We didn't really know what the tour would contain, but figured at the very least it would give us a better sense of where we were and what there was to see here.

It was a good tour, covering several of the also-rans in the guidebooks' list of things to do. First we went to the Crocodile Sanctuary, which is basically a small, rural zoo with a rather intense focus on crocodiles. I was never really clear on WHY these guys breed hundreds and hundreds of crocs, but there you have it. We saw the hatchery, and the adult pools, and a series of small enclosures in the forest with bearcats, civets, cockatoos, etc. I am never a fan of zoos, particularly under-funded ones, but this one was pretty good for such a small town, and their focus was clearly on conservation and rescue rather than capture and display.

From there, we went to a different sort of zoo: the Iwahig penal colony. Several decades old, Iwahig is a model of unconventional incarceration. Covering many acres of land, inmates live and work together on cultivating rice fields, building houses, and working on various crafts and knick-knacks for sale. They wear color-coded shirts (orange for minimum, blue for medium and orange for high-security) but all work together. Many of them live in houses that they've built for their families, and their children attend the same school as the guards' kids. It's all very forward-looking, despite having been around for decades, and they boast the lowest recidivism rate in the Philippines. It's a beautiful piece of country, though we only got out of the car to visit the gift shop. Mostly carved wooden knick-knacks and souvenirs, though I did score a handkerchief printed with a hilarious design of a smiling inmate with a ball and chain.

From there we stopped briefly at the highest hill in Puerto Princesa, atop which sits the local Congressman's ranch, which he allows the public to visit while he's in Manila. It commands an impressive view of the city and Honda Bay, though today was rather hazy from what appeared to be a lot of burning in the valley.

We took a short break at a nearby bakery, where Rebecca, Marc and I bought a whole bag of goodies to sample (for $3). Here's what we discovered: Ube is a purple root vegetable commonly used in sweets here. The ube ice cream I had was pretty good, though Marcus declared it tasted like old socks. Today's ube cookie was less good. The mocha munchies that Marc got were like little cupcakes with coffee and chocolate icing, but were not very good. The dried banana chips are excellent and very addictive. Pandesals are like dinner rolls stuffed with various meats, and are generally OK but vary widely in quality from one place to the next. The empanadas were good, as was the cheese bread. The "crinkles" were basically little chocolate cookies coated in powdered sugar: good, but nothing you couldn't get in the States. The real discovery was the pianonos, a roll of sweet, doughnut-like bread rolled into a long tube (like a churro) with a bit of dulce de leche, then dusted with sugar. They are extremely tasty.

Onward to the next stop, a weavers' collective. In support of a local orphanage and to support out-of-work teens, this collective takes native grasses, dyes them and weaves them on looms into a wide variety of crafts which it then sells in local markets. Many, many beautiful things like placemats, table runners, blinds, wall hangings, and other ornaments festoon the little shop by the weavers, but the real highlight had to be the purses and handbags. Really, really pretty stuff. We did get one gift there, but it's hard to buy that kind of thing for other people. Rebecca's probably going to take Dana back there tomorrow (she didn't come with us on the tour), as we were certain she would want one of the bags.

That was it for stops, but the tour took us the long way home by way of the bay road and the port, so we could see more of the city. We swung by a wide assembly area by the bay where they are in the process of assembling an enormous Christmas tree (Christmas in the Philippines is huge. Someone (Greg?) told us that they pride themselves on having the longest Christmas season in the country.) Saw the local cathedral and its surrounding cluster of schools, and caught a glimpse of the big open-air market in the heart of town.

Once back the hotel, we rested a little and then went with Dana to a local coffeeshop for lunch. Good, strong coffee with genuine milk in it was a real treat - I've been living off the rather uninspired stuff in the hotel cafe - but I struggled to find any tuna at all in my meager tuna sandwich. The pandesals I ordered as a follow-up were much better. From there we went back to the market, in search of various small items that we needed.

The market was a trip. Taking up most of a city block, it's a labyrinth of booths crammed together with very narrow walkways and very low ceilings. At its heart is the seafood section, where fish and shellfish of all types, fresh and dried, created a distinctive aroma that drove Rebecca straight back to the Hello Kitty wallet vendor. One whole section of the market was devoted to rice, with large piles of it separated out by some completely unfathomable logic (it all looked like white rice to me). Another to vegetables, one to fruit, clothes, toys, random crap, etc. This place was for locals, and Rebecca (with her blond hair) and I (with my height) stood out like sore thumbs. Curious eyes and hesitant smiles followed us wherever we went. I had decided that I would like to find some dried mango (side note: the mango here is amazingly good - vastly superior to the mango we get in the States. Apparently they can't export it, due to some conspiracy of international fruit bureaucracy, if you believe local legend), but I was unsuccessful in my search, unable to decipher the stream of Tagalog that met my query of a random woman who spoke enough English to hail us as we passed. Oh well: a project for the remainder of the trip. We were successful in our other chores: postcards for Dana, and undershirts for me and Marc for the wedding.

We got back to the hotel in time to do a little housekeeping, caption and upload the pictures from the last couple days, and just chill out until dinner. We opted not to revisit Ka Lui, instead taking Dana across the street to a place whose name forever escapes me. Something like "Kettlebush." We feasted on a wide variety of (mostly) delicious dishes. I struck out with one local delicacy that Ben had advertised: green mango served with a fermented fish paste. Two horrible tastes that taste horrible together. Well, not horrible, exactly, but strong. Green mango is very very sour, and fermented fish paste is very very... fermented fish paste. Everything else was great, though, and (like everything here) shockingly cheap.

Puerto Princesa is a BIG city measured in space (the largest in the Philippines), but the population is only 250,000 or so, and the vast majority of commercial life happens on an axis of two roads: Rizal Avenue, which runs west from the port, and the North Highway which runs lengthwise along the island. Our hotel is practically on the intersection of these two roads, about a mile and a half from the port. I can't call it a pretty city by any stretch: it is a noisy, smelly jumble of haphazard buildings separated by arteries of nonstop traffic. Still, walking back to the hotel from the restaurant, I felt a powerful fondness for this place. The people are so friendly, the culture at once so foreign and so familiar, the attitude so honest and the weather so nice...I really like it. Manila is a big city, and Rockwell is an upscale enclave in that city that leaves me feeling shut out and isolated in a bubble of all the things about the West that really bug me. Palawan is a stark contrast, a place that is proud of its unique identity and surrounded by tremendous natural beauty. It's (very) rough-hewn, but it is genuine with a big heart, and I can't help but fall for that. I was concerned when we first got here that it might be TOO rough, but my fears proved unfounded. I'll be sad to leave tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 4: Puerto Princesa & The Underground River

Whew! What an exhausting day.

Perhaps I should set this up a little. A couple months ago, while we were still in the planning stages of this trip, Rebecca handed me a guide book with a plea to do some research and find something for us to do with our week of exploration in the Philippines. Conscious that we would be with Dana and Marc, I discarded those things that seemed too strenuous, but I still was hoping to find something that would get us exploring the out-of-doors, since we already had the city and beach resort bases covered. On Lonely Planet's list of Top-10 Can't Miss Things to Do, I saw the tours of the longest Underground River in the world, on the registry of World Heritage sites and shortlisted for the New Seven Wonders of the World. "Perfect!" I exclaimed to myself, "All we have to do is sit in a boat. Nothing strenuous about that." Perhaps you can guess where this is going.

We started out bright and early, with the tour van picking us up from the hotel at 7:30 to take us to the river. None of the guidebooks that I saw really spent any effort discussing the trip TO the river from Puerto Princesa. Here's the short version: it's hell in a minivan. The trip is supposed to take a couple hours, on extremely bumpy and swervy roads that are unpaved for long stretches. It took us an hour and a half. The driver was a maniac, going at maniacal speeds around maniacal turns on maniacal roads. It was harrowing. And very uncomfortable.

Arriving at Sabang beach, a beautiful bay of resort-quality beach surrounded by green mountains, we quickly boarded a small banca (boat with outriggers to the side) to cross the bay to the mouth of the underground river. Considering how green around the gills many of us were feeling from the car ride, the boat ride seemed like a lot to undertake, but it really wasn't that bad and only about 15 minutes long.

Arriving at the mouth of the river-cave, we donned life vests and hard hats and piled into small, paddle-powered boats to explore the cave. Marc and I were in front, where he seemed rather nervous about the car battery sitting in an inch of water at our feet (the battery was there to power a hand-held light we used to see where we were going). Heading into the cave, we went about a kilometer in before our guide started talking, pointing out the formations and lore surrounding the rooms we were in (many of them religious - we saw Mary, the Nativity Scene, Jesus' face and the three wise men all formed out of the natural rock). He was funny, with jokes he had clearly honed over many trips up and down the river.

The cave itself was quite remarkable. Carved out of a mountain of marble and limestone, most of the walls were gray with streaks of yellow and brown. There were thousands of bats in the cave with us, most of them nesting on the ceiling but quite a few flying around our heads, and the occasional swallow loudly chirping up and down the cave (they've learned to fly with echolocation, apparently). The cave smelled awful from all the guano, particularly near the entrance - deeper inside it wasn't so bad. In the largest room, which our guide dubbed the "eyeful tower" (so-called because if you look up you get an eyeful of water - or batshit), the ceiling yawned 250 feet over our heads. It was very impressive.

Afterwards, we putted back across the bay to lunch on the beach, a buffet-style affair with a really good coconut soup, pretty good meat and VEGETABLES - string beans, spinach and eggplant - which Rebecca and I piled high on our plates. They weren't actually that great (especially the eggplant), but we didn't care: it was just so nice to get a little balance in our meal.

The ride home was like the ride out, only worse since we were already tired and sea-sprayed with the boat travel under our belts. It felt like forever before we got home, and I for one was fighting nausea much of the time. Dana had a very rough time of the day, despite popping some pain pills, but she tried very hard to maintain a positive outlook throughout. Once we got back to the hotel she brought up the idea of going back to Manila earlier than planned with a disheartening amount of enthusiasm, and elected not to join us for dinner - hopefully she'll feel somewhat better tomorrow morning.

For dinner, we took a trike to Ka Lui, enthusiastically recommended by all the guidebooks. A trike, or tricycle, is Palawan's primary mode of public transportation: it's basically a motorcycle with a metal hood/sidecar on top of it, and up to three people can cram in for short, hair-raising journeys on the chaotic roads. Turns out Ka Lui is less than a mile away, so we just walked back. The restaurant itself was awesome, by far the best food experience we've had yet in the Philippines. Its specialty is seafood, with a very limited menu of whatever's fresh that day. We had a full meal of clam-ginger soup, fresh fruit shakes, giant prawns, seaweed (blech), greenbean-calamari salad, tuna steak, rice, coconut-fish rolls and fresh fruit for dessert for three people for $20. Total. The atmosphere was great, too: an open air bamboo and rattan tiki-style house, with masks from all sorts of cultures lining the walls and a no-shoe policy, there was something in the building that I swore made it smell like apple pie (it wasn't, sadly, actual apple pie). I would strongly recommend this place to anyone coming to Puerto Princesa. We very well might eat there again tomorrow.

After dinner, Rebecca and I wandered around downtown PP a little bit. I regret to say it is not a very pretty town. The streets are dirty, loud and smell of diesel fumes from all the motorcycles, and the shops are haphazard and largely industrial (lots of auto supply and repair). But we were perfectly happy to finally get out, on our feet and on our own, to explore the world around us. We stumbled across a high-school talent show where the audience seemed to be comprised entirely of other students all sitting with their backs to the band performing Dashboard Confessional covers on the stage, preferring to socialize with each other and, in some cases, rehearse their own acts. We think maybe the whole thing was a just a rehearsal.

Tomorrow, the plan is to get up fairly early and take a short guided tour of the city to get our bearings and see if there's anything that we want to explore further. We had contemplated the Honda Bay tour, the other big destination on Palawan, but it sounds like an awful lot of time on a boat, which nobody in our group is really excited about. So we'll play it by ear and go a bit lower-key, hopefully allowing some time to recharge and recover. Maybe there's a nice beach around here we could go sit on...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 3: Palawan Bound

Most of today was taken up with the journey to Palawan, the westernmost major island of the Philippines and our home for the next couple of days. It was pretty ridiculous: we spent at least 3 prime hours in the airport for a one hour flight.

But first things first. This morning, Ben picked us up immediately after breakfast to go with him to his favorite place to buy fabric. Apparently it is his custom (as it was Greg's) to simply pick out fabric and get clothes made custom fit, instead of getting it at the store. And while all the women at the wedding will be wearing their own dresses, Ben wants all the men in the same outfit: black pants and a 'barong,' or traditional formal Filipino wedding shirt. So we went with him to pick out which fabric we wanted for our barongs, and to get our measurements taken.

My entire life, I've had a hard time getting clothes that fit - particularly long-sleeved shirts. So I asked Ben (who is also very tall) if it would be possible for me to get a couple shirts made while we were doing this, and he ushered me into the next stall where we proceeded to get into discussions with the seamstresses of style, cut and fabric. I wound up getting four shirts, custom-tailored, for about $20 each (fabric and labor). I'll be able to pick them up next week. It's all very exciting, but I'm a little concerned about the buttons - all they had were these very shiny pearlescent ones. I guess, worst-case scenario, I can get them re-sewn in the states with more normal buttons. Rebecca also got a beautiful swatch of blue silk to go as a light wrap with her dress, and which cost as much as the fabric for all four of my shirts put together.

The drive back was a long one in Manila traffic, and we only just had time to grab a quick lunch before checking out and hopping in a taxi for the airport. The traffic had mysteriously evaporated, though, and we got there in record time. Hurry up and wait. We hung around the terminal until the flight, and got to Palawan just as it was starting to get dark.

While here, we're staying at the Hotel Ardent, which I've decided is very well-named. It is bursting with good-hearted intentions...but it is a marked difference from the modern (and expensive) elegance of our lodgings in Manila. This place is FUNKY. the combination of garish colors and chrome make me think of Cuba, the rooms are tiny and furnished with painted-plywood furniture, and the thin walls let in either construction noises or karaoke. But it is staffed to the gills with helpful and polite young Filipinos (of course). Dinner was good, but a long time coming as we were the only guests in the restaurant and they apparently had to fire everything up just for us. Anyway, there's free wi-fi in the coffee shop down the hall from our room, so we're able to indulge our internet addiction, and that's all that really matters. I actually really like this place: it feels much more like we're in a different country than the Manila hotel did.

A side note about the food here. I've decided that I really like Chicken Adobo, and want to learn how to make it at home. However, I am sorely feeling the lack of any real vegetables in this diet. Just about everything you get is meat in sauce with rice, and while there are fantastic fruits available at markets and roadside stands, there really just aren't many veggies. I can't imagine trying to do this as a vegetarian.

Tomorrow we get up bright and early for a full-day adventure: the underground river, which is the primary reason we're on this island. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm a bit concerned about Dana and Marc - they seem to be showing signs of wear and tear from the travelling. When we get to the beach resort in a week or so, it should be much more their vacationing speed: days of sitting on the beach. Hopefully they can hang in there with us that long.

Monday, November 16, 2009 by Daniel

Day 2: In which we visit the oldest part of Manila

Woke up bright and early thanks to the jet lag, and forced myself to keep sleeping until around 7:30 or so. The hotel doesn’t have its own restaurant, but does provide vouchers for complimentary breakfast at a café around the corner. The food there was really good, but teeny-tiny, so we supplemented from Starbucks, which has rapidly become my most-visited spot in the Philippines. Which is sadly illustrative of both my own addiction to coffee and the kind of neighborhood we’re in. The only other place around here that has coffee serves its cream in little paper packets, so…snob on.

Ben arranged for us to get a tour of the city from a guide he knew named Greg, an American ex-pat who has been living here for the last 25 years. Greg was a great guide – extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and knew when to use “who” and “whom” in regular speech. Also really tall. My kinda guy. He took us on the scenic route to our destination, which was the oldest part of Manila, a place called Intramuros.

Turn out our hotel is not in Manila proper – we’re in one of many booming outliers to the city called Makati. Kind of like San Francisco vs. the Bay Area. Manila has a population of 3 million, but the larger metropolis is more like 12 million. The city has a tremendous history dating back to the 16th century, but thanks to sieges and occupations by both the Japanese and then the Americans in WWII, there’s not a whole lot of architecture from before 1945 to be seen – there’s a huge amount of modern development, and a great deal of buildings from the 70s and 80s (largely thanks to Imelda Marcos) that is going to seed and sadly being abandoned or torn down. Which isn’t THAT tragic, as much of it is hideous poured concrete bunker-style architecture, but still it’s an important part of local history.

Greg navigated his Toyota truck confidently through the chaotic streets while giving us a rundown on what we were seeing. The occasional pre-war relic, usually abandoned. Buildings and cars salvaged from wartime-era army surplus materials. He taught us a bit about local governance, which he describes as extremely corrupt, enabled by a largely apathetic population. They might turn things around this spring by electing the son of their only non-corrupt president in recent memory, but he’s skeptical that the election will not be stolen by the incumbent president.

After about a half-hour, we arrived at Intramuros. Founded in 1574 by Spanish colonists, Intramuros is the original location of the city of Manila (at least, as it called – there was an indigenous presence here well before that). It is a walled city (Intramuros translates literally as “inside the walls”), about five square kilometers on the banks of the river leading to Manila Bay. These days it is primarily an educational area, home to over 10,000 students spread out among several colleges. It is also home to the oldest church in Asia, San Agustin, built 1594-1604. There were several other churches once, but they were burned or leveled in the war.

We started our on-foot portion of the tour in the church, which is very beautiful and very much like many of the churches I’ve been to in Europe. They were cleaning the chandeliers in the church itself while we were there, filling the hall with a sweet sound of tinkling glass. We toured the crypt and gardens, then went outside and got in one of the donkey-carts that tours around Intramuros. Capably pulled by a diminutive, frothing-at-the-mouth horse named Rambo, our driver pointed out the Japanese prisons carved into the walls, the cannons on the walls used by the Spanish to keep the low-caste Chinese laborer population in check, and the various colleges and universities we passed.

Rambo drew to a halt at the northernmost tip of the district, Fort Santiago. We got a lesson in the specific battles of WWII and the destruction they wrought on the Philippines in general and Manila specifically (over 100,000 Filipinos killed in Manila alone). Fort Santiago, an old Spanish fortification, was the site of the Japanese last stand against the invading Americans at the end of the war, and also the site of the incarceration and execution of Jose Rizal, a writer and martyr to the cause of Filipino independence from the Spanish in the 19th century. Now it is a beautiful collection of ruins with an administration that pipes music through speakers placed throughout the grounds, making the whole place feel like a bizarrely ancient Disney military fortification.

That concluded the walkabout portion of the tour, and we adjourned to a cute restaurant called Barbara’s with an extremely forgettable buffet and a trio of musicians serenading us with songs like “King of the Road,” and Elton John’s “Daniel.”

We were all feeling pretty tired by this point, so Greg drove us back through crawling traffic. Rebecca and I went to the hotel gym for a workout, then to Starbucks for afternoon coffee, followed promptly (on my part) by a nap. Dinner was a bit problematic, as nobody had any strong preferences, but Dana stayed at the hotel so we could bring her back something. The only really transportable food we could find that appealed to all parties was California Pizza Kitchen, but we justified our horribly non-cultural purchase by getting the Chicken Adobo pizza, which is available ONLY in the Philippines. This made us all feel much better about ourselves. And it was really damn good pizza, too, despite being on cracker-thin crust (they’d run out of proper pizza crusts). Tomorrow we fly out to Palawan, where hopefully our local dining options will not be limited to a giant mall filled with nothing but international chain stores.

A word about the shopping experience, while I’m on the subject. Apparently minimum wage in the Philippines is about $7/day, and there is no shortage of people looking for work. The upshot of this is that EVERYWHERE you go is staffed to the gills – it isn’t uncommon to walk into a store and see the staff vastly outnumbering the customers. And they are VERY eager to help. We went into an electronics store thinking to maybe get a wireless access point for our hotel, and had three young workers telling us all about Wireless G vs. Wireless N and which routers they would support, with two others hanging back in case the first three were somehow insufficient. Inevitably, entering a store will result a chorus of “Hi Sir!” (or “Ma’am,” as the case may be) and a swarming of helpful salespeople. It is, frankly, creepy. But all part of the culture, as Greg explained.

Vacation Workout #1 - Row 5k

So today Daniel and I had a few minutes to head to the gym after our tour of Manila.  The hotel gym is pretty standard - a few ellipticals, a few treadmills, etc.  The DID have to C2 rowers, though, so while Daniel opted to do 'pushup Nicole', I opted to row 5 k.  I didn't want to do anything so strange the gym personnel would feel they needed to speak to me about it.

Time: 23:36 - Big PR - by about 2.5 minutes, although, to be fair, I've only rowed 5k one other time.  My time at the 2k mark was nothing to write home about: 9:25.  But I managed to keep my pace at about 2:20 throughout at about 24-25 strokes/min - kicking it up to 2:17-2:20 at 27-29 strokes/minute for the last 500m.  It took several minutes for me to feel like moving after i was done.  I felt a little bad about sweating all over the very tidy gym.

Sunday, November 15, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines, Day one

Well, we have arrived in Manila, safely and somewhat groggily. The plane landed at 4am local time, and now begins the process of trying to get acclimated to this time zone. And climate: wow, it’s HOT. If it’s this warm at 4am, I’m really afraid of what it’s going to be like in a few hours.

Rebecca’s uncle Ben picked us up at the airport and took care of getting us to our hotel, which made things a LOT easier. Thank God, because the ride to hotel was pretty harrowing. Mel, the driver, used his horn more in the first mile than I’ve used mine in the last year. If there are any lane markings, they seem to be taken as general suggestions rather than actual rules, and most intersections had no stoplights or signage to control them that I could decipher. There was a surprising amount of traffic and people out on the streets for so early in the morning. We’re in the fancy part of town, and the hotel here is pretty swank.

Now it’s tonight. We spent most of the day in the hotel, resting up and getting acclimated. Ben had booked us a double suite, but since we arrived way before check-in time, they put us up in a studio to wait until our room was ready. The room was small, and smelt of cigarette smoke, but we didn’t much care – we just passed out for a few hours to try and catch up on the sleep we missed on the plane. When we woke up, things weren’t much better. Rebecca had a horrible headache, we were all feeling pretty grungy but nobody wanted to shower until we got into our real room, and they kept pushing back the time to get us into our room, leaving us in a bit of limbo.

Marc and I went across the street to (where else?) Starbucks. Rebecca’s headache ultimately subsided with the help of caffeine and drugs, and finally they got us into our room. And it’s NICE. Way up on the 41st floor, two bedrooms and a separate living room, each room with a balcony and a gorgeous view of the city. We finally got showered and changed, and met Ben and his fiancé Raine for dinner.

Dinner was just across the street in the mall, which Ben describes as one of the nicest in the Philippines. It’s pretty crazy, but it’s still a mall. Dozens of small, swanky boutiques with high-end, designer wares. We ate at a shabu-shabu restaurant, which I’ve never had before. It was really good! Makes me want to try Zabu Zabu back in Berkeley even more. After dinner we explored the mall a bit more. Downstairs is the food court, full of a WIDE variety of chain restaurants and many small tables filled with mainly sweet stuff. Apparently Filipinos are very fond of their sweets. Raine directed us to one of her favorite Filipino delicacies, which Rebecca described as “mushy shortbread,” but which I would categorize more generously as shortbread dough. Really tasty, but oh-so-sweet. It kind of sucks being so sensitive to sugar now.

My first impression is that things here are not terribly different from the States – but we’re in the richest, most westernized part of the Philippines’ biggest city. Tomorrow we’re scheduled to get a guided tour of the city, where hopefully we’ll get a better sense of where we are the local color and culture.

Monday, November 9, 2009 by Rebecca


not much to report - I'm pretty beat from the weekend's workouts.

i did 3 climbs one 5.8 and two 5.9.  only the last 5.9 was clean - i had to rest on the other two.  kinda pathetic - but when it's hard to put your arms above your head, it's really hard to climb.

Sunday, November 8, 2009 by Rebecca


For time:
1 mile Run
100 Pull-ups *used green resistance band
200 Push-ups *squatted to a med-ball
300 Squats
1 mile Run

Partition the pull-ups, push-ups, and squats as needed. Start and finish with a mile run. If you've got a twenty pound vest or body armor, wear it.

1 Mile
Round 1
Round 2
Round 3
Round 4
Round 5
Round 6
Round 7
Round 8
Round 9
Round 10
1 mile
1 Mile
Round 1
Round 2
Round 3
Round 4
Round 5
Round 6
Round 7
Round 8
Round 9
Round 10
1 mile

*paused to drink some water
**includes about 50 seconds of 'transition time' to get downstairs and start the run. 

Wow - nearly 10 minutes better than my last time.  It looks like, on average, every round was about a minute faster.

I was really able to pump out the pullups without too much trouble this time - i could almost always get a set of 8 before having to rest - i wish we had a smaller band. 

It looks like maybe in round 2, when i was still tweaking what to put where, i might have forgotten to do something ... or maybe i just did it really fast ... >.>  ... So my time might be more like 1:05, but eventually I developed a rep scheme that really helped me get through the pushups without hitting muscular failure.

1 round =10 pullups, 9 pushups,10 squats, 7 pushups,10 squats, 4 pushups,10 squats

It doesn't mean that I was able to get all the pushups in straight sets, I still had to stop and take a breath or two between some reps, but it I never needed more than a breath or two, so it effectively allowed me to stay in nearly constant motion.

I used a med-ball to squat to because I have a tendency to go farther down than I need to, and I suspect that little aid had something to do with my decreased time - I sorta wish I hadn't used it just so today's time was a closer comparison to the last time - but i definitely liked having it (it has a little bounce >.> shhhh)

Daniel said that my form looked pretty good throughout - clean decisive reps.  Which is good to hear. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009 by Rebecca


Warmup: run 400m, lots of run prep exercises to warm up the hips knees ankles and legs.

Run 5k

Results: 37:26
5:05, 5:39, 5:49, 5:49, 6:32, 6:58, 1:31

I totally fell apart at the end.

I've never run exactly 5k before. I ran something close but a little shorter last Christmas in 29 min and change. The one 10k I ran took 82 min - so at least this was less than half of that. I was working a 4:30 min of running with 30 seconds walking schedule, which might have been overly ambitious. I developed a horrible side stitch that just would not go away in lap #5 and had to walk most of the 1800m.

I think the main reason I got the stitch (and this is some gross detail, so fee free to skip it) is that I was having major issues with snot, phlegm and post nasal drip, and it messed up my breathing patterns.

My right hip also started to give out on me, but the stitch is what kept me from running.

At least there is a lot of room for improvement.

Friday, November 6, 2009 by Daniel

CrossFIt Total

Although I have a good idea of my one-rep max in all the movements, I've never actually done a real CFT before (ie, abiding by the rules, doing the lifts in the right order, etc). So tonight was a good chance to finally get this benchmark.

Back squat: 185 - 205 - 215
Shoulder press: 95 - 105(f) - 100
Deadlift: 285 - 305 - 325

CFT: 640

I totally blew up on the press - my PR on that is 115, and 105 should have gone up easily (100 did). Don't know quite what happened there. The squat was 5 pounds off PR and felt pretty good, the deadlift was 15 pounds off and felt very sketchy - my back was rounded to hell. Considering I haven't spent nearly any effort on limit strength since May, I'm happy with these numbers.

Crossfit total

Back squat
75-90F-90! PR Match

55-65-70F New PR

145-155-157F PR Match

Total: 310

I am very excited by tonight's performance. I managed to match my back squat PR from June - when i had been back squatting every week for 12+ weeks, and I haven't done a single back squat since then.

I bbusted out an amazing 65# press - which matches my current 1RM for a push jerk - though admittedly my push jerk is a lot pressier because i haven't really mastered the second drop. Once I do, I should be able to manage a lot more weight. Right now, this is also my 1RM clean, but once i dial in my form on that a bit, I am sure i'll be able to get more weight up, too.

My deadlift was the only thing i thought I could have done better on. I was really hoping to get a new PR on that tonight. I can't help but wonder whether if I had tried 160 before 155 if I could have gotten it up. But I am quite happy with at least matching my old one which seemed to be a bit of a fluke on that deadlift relay we did a couple months ago.

Thursday, November 5, 2009 by Daniel

Joining the sub-10 Fran club

A little over a year after starting CrossFit, I did my first bonafide, RX Fran. And it was a deeply humbling (and humiliating) experience. That was four months ago. Tonight, I revisited The Hardest Workout in CrossFit for the first time, with considerable butterflies in tummy.

95# Thruster

9:48RX (pr)

Sub-10 was my goal, but I wasn't expecting to actually DO it. And a PR by nearly 2:30, to boot! I came off the pullup bar and promptly collapsed onto the floor, whereupon I was not able to actually stand up for any length of time for a solid half-hour. I felt so whipped. Jesus, that workout is horrible.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 by Rebecca

Oly Benchmarks

Olympic Total

Total of best of three attempts in the Snatch and best of three attempts in the Clean and Jerk.

Post total to comments.


35-45-50(f) matched my snatch PR

Clean & Jerk:
55-60-65(f) got 65 on a 4th attempt - matched my clean PR

Neither lift was particularly good form. Although I think the 65# clean was probably the best form I've had yet thanks to some coaching from Polly.

Olympic Total

Best of three, Snatch and Clean & Jerk

Snatch: 100-105-110(pr)
Clean & Jerk: 135-140-145(pr)
Oly total: 255

Only 5 pound PRs, but my progress in the Oly lifts is so glacial that I'm happy with them. I tried 115 snatch afterwards with no success, but the 145 Clean & Jerk actually felt pretty solid.

Monday, November 2, 2009 by Rebecca


Slabby 5.9. Onsight - pretty straight forward

Slabby 10b - 2 minor falls - very technical climb - one really tricky move requiring a really tricky mantle. I could totally do it clean now that I know how it works - very exciting

-incline/booky 10a - lots of takes and resting. Nearly quit at the crux, but managed to finish it

Intense overhang 5.9 - 1 minor take - we think this is the first time I've successfully made it over this overhang. Sweet!!!!

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