travel: Loboc River, Philippines

 

As dusk hits, we are bussed to a small shack by a river. We drop off our things, don lifejackets, and get a quick lesson in kayaking. The woman asks if anyone has done this before. I reply yes, remembering the days when my family’s friend Wendell would take us out on Lake Okanagan for tours around Rattlesnake Island. The tour manager then proposes that I don’t need a guide, and I can go solo in a sea kayak. I am skirted up and we take off against the current under a darkening, star-filled sky.

The sea-kayak by comparison is much faster than the guide boats, but I am still responsible for powering myself, turning, obeying instructions quickly and keeping to whichever side of the river the guides request. My personal task is to dodge oncoming motorboat traffic and do my best not to collide with the river kayaks. I’m starting to wish I were relaxing in front of a strong-armed guide. I now see their trick. Get the guy who claims to have experience and you don’t need to send out a
guide. Hoisted upon my own ego yet again.

Nohyun and I question a guide and he is filled with information. He talks about the two combining phosphorescent chemicals in fireflies. He tells us they are poisonous to eat. I never planned on eating them, although I do come from the land of bon-dae-gee. We learn that they have an average lifespan of two weeks, and that they mate at night, using their lights to communicate with each other. He talks of the mangrove tree where they live, a tree that sends out a scent signaling to fireflies that there is abundant food beneath the tree in the claylike mud. Periodically as we paddle, some fireflies come out to meet us. Strings of brightly coloured plastic netting float by, but I might be the only one here with the night vision to see them.

I’ve been showing off. I’ve been going much faster than I ought to. I’ve been doing as I was instructed and pushing rather than pulling the water with the oars. My arms are spared, but my back is beginning to ache something fierce. We are two kilometers away from the shack, two kilometers that I am not ready to paddle. I need a rest, but I don’t want to voice my pain. The guide next to me whispers: Now we’ll really see something. We’re going to the firefly city.

We edge around the elbow, and there it is. After ten or so Mangrove trees we had seen swarming with fireflies, here is the city: a tree fully lit, looking like festive holiday decorations. The tree is shorter than most, but it is swarming with tiny lights. We sit quietly, spellbound.

Our guide whispers to me a few things about the fireflies passing by my cheek. He tells me they are males, for the females stay within the mangrove trees. Eggs are deposited in the mud beneath the trees, sometimes underwater. Another guide remarks that obnoxious motorboats disturb their habitats. We watch a motorboat putt through, its engine loud and sputtering. He laments that some tours run a motorboat straight onto the mud and up to the trees, destroying countless firefly spawn. Maybe they don’t know about that, I tell him. Maybe they don’t want to listen, replies the guide.

The guide informs us dinner is almost ready and asks us if we want to leave now. Don’t give them the option, I whisper. Nohyun laughs, understanding that this group is too polite to make a decision. Back in the shack we eat coconut rice bound in reeds alongside chicken and squares of pork. For dessert we have a stupid man game where we eat ridiculously spicy peppers no bigger than a pushpin.

A handicraft catches my eye. Most of the things here are woven reed, but this item is a colourful little change purse stitched with brightly coloured stars. It is made of plastic, probably from those colourful plastic strands of river refuse I saw in the night water. The tour manager explains to me that it has been woven by the local women. The woman who made it comes over to our table, combat-prepared and ready to bargain. I just pay her the price she has asked and her look softens into a smile.

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travel: Balicasa and Virgin, Philippines

I have to hand it to Jina: she really knows how to plan a vacation. She’s a veteran traveler. She knows the ins and outs. She knows how to arrange a vacation with as much fun and Korean food as possible. She’s a responsible and caring  single mother in a network of awesome traveling friends with unlimited budgets. Still, she really knows how to save her won, and somehow I am a participant in this latest travel scheme.

Strange occurrences begin with a five am rise on Bohol Island. We’re thrown into the day with no breakfast or coffee. The bus takes us to a shack out in the rural Philippines wilderness, where we are far away from dirty blocks of crumbling cement buildings and clamourous street traffic. Here we are surrounded by banana trees and twenty year-old Filipinos who look no older than thirteen. We see smiling, skinny children running in the streets and laughing. Our driver must be my age, but he has the recklessness of a teenager, honking at every car and motorbike to pass them.

We pull in to a tiny residence and I hear my Korean family pondering why we are not at the beach. We make our way through the property, and discover that the sea is behind it. How did we miss that detail on the ride here?

We walk out into the water on a sand bar, probably a half kilometer of shallow water. We meet our guide, a Korean named Myung Su who has soaked in the Filipino lifestyle. His torso is tattooed. Like the locals he has a soft, round belly with perfectly tanned skin and tight upper body strength. He speaks little English, and less tagalog. I keep my eyes down and only answer crucial questions: Where are you from? How long have you been in Korea? How much Korean do you speak? Jokum. We’re about fifty meters out into the water when we board a small boat that ferries us to a larger boat. You might call this boat a catamaran, but it has a full hull and wooden balancing beams. We speed out to our destination: a coral reef.

As we approach the reef, a serious conversation is taking place. There are four wet suits and scuba tanks. Four travelers can go down, and the rest will snorkel. Who wants to go?

My hand shoots up immediately only to be met with the disapproving gaze of Nuna, who has already told the captain of my medical condition. I wasn’t thinking of the consequences when I casually brought up to Nuna months ago that I can’t scuba dive because of my asthma. She has remembered this. She cares about me much more than I deserve. She discusses it with the captain and mutually they agree that without a doctor’s note, I am unable to scuba dive, as I have been told by numerous doctors.

But the chance is right in front of me! It’s now or never! I squirm with disdain over the conspiracy between the captain and Nuna. I plead at first, mentioning that I am much better now. I haven’t had an attack in three years. Neither Nuna nor the captain know that three years ago, I was addicted to salbutamol and daily doses of discus, a wonderdrug cooked up by GlaxoSmithKlein. The drugs were my saving grace, but still I fell into heaves, unable to breathe during stressful situations or after overexertion. But something, or I should say someone, saved me.

She was a woman of great power who taught me the lessons of breathing steadily and deeply. Even now my companions marvel at the depth of breaths I can take. Since I have put her lessons into practice, I have been feeding from the sun and pulling in oxygen with prana. Who says I can’t scubadive? I can do it! Give me a chance!

After my desperate pleadings, the captain agrees that if I pass the tests, that is, if I can snorkel well, then maybe he will let me scubadive. He will keep close watch on me as I snorkel, and if he so much as sniffs a liability lawsuit, the game’s over, and we’ll pull anchor and head to the island. It’s showtime.

I drop into the water, overly aware of my every action. I need to swim calmly, and enjoy it. I need to be aware of obstacles, and above all, I MUST NOT PANIC. Every action must be done gracefully and deliberately. I dip into the water with my snorkel over my face and do my best to look calm, until I see something. It’s the first two scubadivers. As a snorkeler, I’m able to see the coral reef and the schools of colourful fish from a distance. But the first divers are actually interacting with the reef, swimming about, descending, ascending, and swimming among the fish. Here I am snorkeling, and all I can do is watch others at play. I feel the asthma breath sneaking up on me. I’m stressing. When asthma hits, the breath sounds like a million voices of the damned souls of hell crying out for mercy. I start to panic, and the feeling of panic only worsens the obstruction in my lungs. I need to resurface. I need to come up for air, real air. I do it as calmly as I can. I emerge on the other side of the boat so the captain can’t see me. I will not miss this chance. I’m going to go. My mind is made up.

I come up onto the craft as Koon Hyeung in yelling my name. Ley-puh! Let’s go! Scuba dibing ka ja!. He’s on my side. Nuna casts disapproving glances. She’s protective. She knows what I’m thinking. She can tell I know there’s a chance I won’t make it. She can tell with a moment’s look in my eye that I overexerted myself and I am beginning to have an attack. I smile and convince everyone but Nuna that I am ready to go. She’s the only one who knows the truth; she knows I am lying. She knows that I might not make it. She’s weeping inside, but on the outside she knows that nothing will stop me, even if she’s the only one who can protect me now. But she also knows that she’s opposed by the captain, who has seen no sign of my illness, and Koon Hyeung, who is set on diving with his younger brother. There is nothing she can do without seeming hysterical. With a firm lip she lets it go and hopes for the best.

I pull on the tight wetsuit, managing as much Korean as I can with the captain. We are laughing together and he has no idea that I was only seconds away from an attack just minutes ago. I’m suited up. It’s time to go. Now or never. I slowly walk down the ladder with the suit sticking to my skin after rigorous instruction from my guide about hand signals. I’m wearing a mask of calm, doing everything I can not to betray my nervousness about what lies ahead. I picture the other two divers, who were able to see everything and interact with it. Coral. Clownfish. Schools swimming around their heads. I want it. I want it now.

I dip in and my guide grabs my suit. He looks me in the eyes as I dip in and struggle for my first few breaths. Something goes wrong.

As the bubbles ascend, I can’t take new breath in. This must be why someone with a breathing condition can’t do this. My guide keeps asking me in hand signals if I am okay. He’s ill-at-ease, wondering why I keep popping my head above the water’s surface. I’m stalling, and not giving him the response he’s looking for. Every time I go under, my own exhalation blocks me from taking a new breath. I get nervous. I keep coming up above surface. My guide is now frantically flashing the okay hand signal, unsure why I can’t submerge. I can’t understand why I just can’t breathe. Everything is fading. That’s it, I’m done.

Fish can’t fly. I can’t scuba dive. To hell with it.

I’m going to do this. I’m going to dive. I’m looking into my guide’s face, and he’s expecting a response. I meet his okay sign with an okay sign of my own. If I don’t make it, I don’t make it. If I slip and let go of the spark of life, it was a good ride. I’m not living without this experience. I break the surface. I expect to hear a crash, but there isn’t one. Just perfect, sterling silence. For a moment I float there, unable to breathe. But then new breath enters my lungs. My breathing teacher’s there, giving me instruction about ballooning my diaphragm, taking deep, calm, steady breaths. She takes me back three years to a cold November day on a beach in the Interior of BC, Canada. She is telling me how to overcome my condition. She puts her hand under my belly.

Can you feel that? That’s where your breath should go. There is a central sun in the middle of the universe and a core in the middle of the earth. Bring the pranic energy from the central sun into the core, through your body, down your spine all the way to the root. Keep the energy in the core for as long as you can, and then release. Keep doing this and keep focused. Remember. Om.

I descend unafraid. I am free.

And what a feeling of freedom! Imagine floating weightlessly among columns of coral like canyon walls. The difference with these canyons is that they are covered with soft sealife of every colour and are civilized with many schools of fish so vibrant they look electric. I’m getting hand signals now to release the pressure. We are going further down. To release the pressure, I hold my nose and blow in. Even dropping the tiniest bit increases the pressure on your head. We’re not meant to be here. It’s as improbable for a human to go underwater as it is for a fish to be above water. Yet here I am.

The reef walls drop into infinity. From my vantage point I feel that there’s no limit, that it could drop straight down into the hole in the universe beyond which there are only thoughts and imagination. I switch off the nagging voice of science that tells me that isn’t true, and that there is a sea floor. The only truth now is my perception. Now I’m having fun as my guide gives me the okay to descend further. The walls silently rise beside me, and I am doing the moonwalk in this alien world, a dream in Dr. Seuss colour, stranger than anything he could picture or even dream up. It must have been a half hour that I was down there, but it was in my mind days of exploration amidst the stars and galaxies in this improbable world.

Koon Hyeung is there as well, playing. We are two alien beings, both explorers and children, interacting among these fields of wonder. I start to shiver in the cold, the first time I have been cold in the Philippines. Bit by bit, my guide helps me inflate and ascend. My ears crack. I resurface and take off my gear as I step onto the boat. A new kind of breathing has taken up residence in my body. It is the breathing of relaxation, flooding in with the wonder of doing something unknown and dangerous. I can’t keep the high down. I sit and let the fires of this colourful passion sweep over me. The Koreans are concerned as they see blood streaming down my face. The pressure has popped out my nasal walls, but I again turn off my scientific understanding and realize that this was a ritual drawn with blood, a small sacrifice for a cathartic adventure. Salamat, breathing teacher, for giving me the gift of the impossible. Namaste.

We boat out to Balicasa Island, where a feast of meat on skewers under grass-roofed huts awaits us. The meat sits alongside my new daily staple of mangoes and San Miguel. After we eat, I sit down on the beach and realize I am surrounded by small bits of the coral reef. I see small holes perforating some of them, and these look so much like beads that I start to think that I can make a beautiful necklace for someone special with them. I spend the next half hour collecting these natural beads, and our party is off to another island for a snack of fried bananas and sea urchin. There, the locals try desperately to sell me pearl necklaces. No, thank you.

What I have is more valuable.

travel: Bohol, Philippines

We arrive at the warm shores of Bohol somewhat paralyzed from the fast ferry trip. There’s static at the pier when we realize that we can’t get to the Wonder Lagoon without a twenty thousand won taxi trip (about 700 Filipino pesos).

The Wonder Lagoon is Korean-owned. There’s ample Korean dining on the menu and little Filipino food. There is one of those pools you read about in the magazines featuring a swim-up bar adorned with dancing fluorescent lights under palm trees and Romanesque arches. Everything’s subtitled in Hangeul. I may as well still be in Korea. Even the TV blurts out Korean news. Right now, relates Nohyun, Rain is dating the most beautiful pop star in Korea, and sneaking out on his military duties. South Korea is aflame with judgment and scandal. Meanwhile few care about Park Su Min, who cut off his own ear to get out of the service. He isn’t Rain. Rain’s an international superstar who everyone in the world worships after he starred in a box office action hit. Ye gods. Buy the ticket, right?

My Korean family despises the adobo at dinner. I’m the only one who eats it. I chewed the flesh and whispered over the table to Nohyun, the only one in our group willing to understand why kimchi jiggae and kpop news is not what I envisioned for this trip. Dude, we gotta get out of here… let’s just sneak away. Of course Koon Hyeung was also channeling that vibe. We escaped stealthily and caught a bus to Alona Beach.

We’re dropped off in the midst of a typhoon of activity. All the foreigners are here. Levels: beautiful, wonderful levels! From Filipinos with rasta dreads encircling their sun-beaten chests selling blown glass trinkets, to overweight Americans hauling along dark skinned women who look to be ten years old (I’m sure they aren’t). It’s all there on the beach. At first I imagined just a regular beach: a place to take the kids for a nice swim, not unlike the infinite stretches of deserted sand you find even on the Canadian West Coast in the summer. I pictured some pristine white sandy beach with the occasional stray driftwood. The closer we got, in view of the the fire flaring up over tiny rotisserie chickens under huts, skeletal middle-aged men hocking snorkeling adventures, young men wearing off-white wife beaters with blue toques and gold-plated status dropping like albatrosses around their necks, the closer I came to the truth: we are not in Korea anymore.

All those levels! I want all of them! But no. Reality speaking. I may not go and sit in the sand for hours and listen to Marley and Bradley while this glass blower paws at his taut animal hide to attract the consumers. I may not learn more tagalog with the cute chubby woman selling sweet chili crab for her Korean boss while sipping San Miguel. I’m with Koon Hyeung and Nohyun, and I must be here, on this level, just this time. We’re here for a couple of days. Maybe I’ll get the chance later.

But I should give these guys more credit. We drink San Miguel and laugh loudly into the night. Something magical happens: I completely stop speaking in English. It’s only Korean from there on in. My companions don’t even notice. Might be the drink. Might be the company. Might be the fact that I’m getting out of myself, and I’m finally getting it.

There’s a lull in the conversation. The lull comes when I look over to my left. There’s this woman standing there as a poi dancer behind her lights up their halos with liquid light. I pay no attention to the poi. It’s the woman who’s coveting my regard. My eyes do not make out her shape well. All I can see is that she is quite rudely staring in our direction.

I’ve had too much soju. Too much mekju. Too much imagination. I assure myself that it’s just a local staring at the white foreign guy laughing and talking loudly in bad Korean. Now she’s gone. I trace with my eyes the ways she could have fled. She left instantly, as though she vapourized.

Tell me, is it possible to imagine something as real as this, while still somewhat lucid, and find a realistic explanation? Or do things like this really happen to us all the time? Do we explain our delusions away with justifications in our zealous pursuit not to know uncomfortable things?

Are the spirits among us?