Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dinagyang Festival

Last weekend was a great weekend for me. Festival season has started in the Philippines and the Dinagyang festival is the biggest in Iloilo and one of the most famous in the country. Naturally I was quite excited for it, but this time even more so because Ida, who I'd met in Coron, was flying out to visit for 4 days.
This is a big festival and a big deal for the people around here I guess (even though most of the Filipinos I work with skipped all of it) and had technically started the weekend before, thus running for about 10 days. The only part I saw and the most important is of course on the final weekend.
So, last Friday after class I ran off to the airport to pick up Ida and we proceeded directly to SM City (the big mall) where there was a stage and food court area set up outside in the parking lot. I didn't care much about those festivities as about the firework competition to follow. Seriously, has a better form of entertainment ever been invented? I could watch fireworks all night long every night. Friday and Saturday night they had a competition with 10 teams each night shooting off a short display to a single song thus lasting about 3-4 minutes each and the whole thing lasts close to an hour. Perfect. I know we have the firework competition back home but they have fireworks here for every holiday and event. I love it.
On Saturday we spent pretty much the whole day out in the city centre enjoying the festivities. I don't know that even now I have a proper appreciation of the scale Dinagyang takes place on. They close off a huge portion of the city to traffic. The food festival area covers several blocks around the malls in the centre and the parade route winds its way around a huge circle of the core too. You think of a parade somewhere and you think of a big line down one street with a start and finish. These parades were more of a carousel style. There are 4 official staging areas where the different groups of parading performers do their dramatic dance performances before official judges and paying spectators set up in mini grandstands. They then march between these stages past the masses and do small street dancing and drumming demonstrations as well. I only even saw 2 of the staging areas so don't know the total amount of area blocked off, calculating that it was 4 blocks wide in places and 10 long in others, it was huge (but no, not actually 40 blocks). Since neither Ida or I are locals and we weren't sure of the timing of events we had a lot of luck in somehow showing up right when things were starting and finding the perfect viewing places (it helps when you can easily see over everyone, haha). Not that it wasn't busy because it was.
On Saturday morning the first parade was a group of "tribes" from different municipalities around the state doing a dance performance to tell a traditional story about their area I guess. The groups were usually high school students (some even younger) and used a lot of different costumes, drums and other props. Common themes were of fishing, the harvest and the arrival of Christianity. Some of them were really good and I quite enjoyed watching it for a few hours. We were actually across the street from the first staging area so saw the back of the performers as well as all the chaos at the back with the props and people hurriedly changing between dance sets. Not sure how long each lasted but it was definitely more than just a couple minutes.
In the afternoon they had the sponsors parade a normal parade put on by the local companies with people marching with banners and simple costumes. Still entertaining enough if you like parades and the best part was seeing the hundreds of motorcycles all driving together. Saturday night we watched the final 10 competing firework displays.
The main attraction of the whole festival by far though occurs on Sunday morning. It is the Ati portion of it all and represents the main theme of the whole festival concept because the festival itself is about the history of the island/Philippines and the original Ati tribes here as well as a celebration of Santo Nino (the baby Jesus child?). Some quick background then: The Atis are the original inhabitants of the Philippine islands. They look African, having curly hair and black skin. How they got here I don't know but they still exist though are the bottom of the ladder out here. The only ones I've seen are the beggars in the city though apparently they live in the mountains too. Sadly, they have nothing to do with the festival and do not participate in any way. Most modern Filipinos are related to the Malays and so the story goes that when the Malays first arrived on the islands the Atis willingly sold them the land. (I'm sure it was a little more complicated than that.) Much much later the Spaniards arrived and brought the Roman Catholic church, which is still the dominant religion here today. There are other festivals at this time around the country that also celebrate the Atis this story but again, this one is one of the more important and has been celebrated in some form for a few decades now.
So somehow they've managed to combine the 2 events together and you have "tribes" of dancers dressed in great costumes and with their skin painted black dancing to drums while holding little statues of Santo Nino. In look and feel sometimes if comes across as even more African than Africa and while the drummers must all be totally deaf after playing through such noise all day, it sounds great and is lots of fun to watch. Many people just adopt a tribe and follow behind it all day doing their own dances.
I've added a video below of one of the 16 groups going past doing their street performance for the crowd.

This is the grand performance, and while there is still the food and a few other things going on for the remainder of the day, when the tribes were done we were done and went home exhausted but content.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Returning to Puerto Princessa we did end up meeting up with Flager's college friend Jinna. She showed us around the city, taking us to the waterfront area where they have a nice boardwalk and square with the biggest Christmas tree in the Philippines. We stopped by the cathedral (every city has a nice one it seems) and then hung out at the cafe for the ladies to catch up while I contemplated where I was.
I found it rather ironic that Palawan advertises itself as the "Last Frontier" of the Philippines and yet seems to be quickly catching up to the rest of the country, if indeed it was ever behind. I guess it depends what yardstick you want to use. To me, the last frontier would be somewhere without modern conveniences and somewhere unpenetrated by foreign tourists in large quantities. I suppose if you were coming from Thailand then it holds true. For the typical tourist in the Philippines, who might visit Manila, Boracay, Bohol, Donsol and the rice terraces up north if they had enough time, Palawan might seem undeveloped and relaxed. The countryside is not overly developed which is a change in the Philippines as this country is rapidly approaching a population of 100 million and they have to put them somewhere.... The majority of tourists are still Filipino in Palawan and when I say there were foreigners there, we're talking a handful here and there, nothing obscene.
But, if you look at it from my perspective, being based in Iloilo, it wasn't the last frontier at all. Iloilo is one of the oldest cities in the Philippines as it was built by the Spanish as one of their first settlements and was the last city held before they finally got kicked out (by the Americans). Iloilo's population is about 400,000 and has plenty of ageing buildings and not a single working traffic light! Puerto Princessa's population is a little over 100,000, it looks newer and a lot cleaner, and has 3 traffic lights! So which sounds like a frontier now? Can you go to the "Last Frontier" and upgrade your traffic lights? Not by my definition.
If you still aren't convinced, how about another. Palawan, lots of tourists. Iloilo, lots of Koreans. If I go out to the mall or some other part of the city, I am surprised when I see another Westerner. There are very few in Iloilo at all and 99% of them are males over the age of 50 and with Filipino families, (or at least a lot younger wife and usually one small child). Probably not good for all the children of these mixed families to grow up most of their lives without a father because the men are so old... Thus I am constantly joking that I am the only white guy under 50 in Iloilo and am practically a celebrity. When locals ask me what I'm doing here and I say teaching Koreans they all, without fail, immediately roll their eyes and say "oh, Koreans". Koreans are the biggest foreign group (I swear the only one in Iloilo) and are tolerated but looked down on as strange. Kind of funny because the Koreans see the Filipinos the same way. But they don't have any major problems. I think the biggest difference between the two, apart from their English ability, is that the Koreans come across as 1000 times more serious, less adventurous and less friendly and welcoming to strangers. But then I love the Filipinos so everyone else is going to suffer by comparison. Even the prisoners here are friendly, haha ;) So I got a little sidetracked, but does seeing more tourists and foreigners count as the "Last Frontier" to you? In the end I concluded that while Palawan is cool and there is obviously stuff to see, it is only the last frontier for visitors here with a limited itinerary and still wanting tourist infrastructure. I've been to much more frontiery areas already like Caramoan and Antique, and I'm sure there are tons more all over the country just waiting to be explored...
But speaking of prisoners, we ended up sleeping at Jinna's parents house a little outside the city at a place called Iwahig. Now this was something truly special and another first for me (which is why I should never stop travelling). I'd only heard about Iwahig 2 weeks before when I was with Nikki in the Iloilo jail. Iwahig is actually an open prison. It's so radical I can't even properly describe it. It's a large area of land (I heard something like 60,000 hectares) that acts as a penal colony. There are just over 2000 prisoners, most of whom are convicted murderers, and yet the majority live minimum security lives on the grounds doing agricultural work. The convicts are divided into 3 groups, maximum, medium and minimum security. The max security guys are not allowed out of their specific area (which looks like a proper jail) and wear orange shirts. The medium security guys, wear blue shirts, go out during the day but are locked up at night and the minimum security prisoners have a lot of freedom. They wear brown shirts and live largely unsupervised. Some have permission to live with their families in their own little community area.
Why was I there? Well, Jinna's parents work there, and some staff have houses there. The is something of a little village community with these staff houses and prisoners running around. The crazy thing is that there is a prisoner, convicted murderer, living at the back of their house and he does the washing and gardening etc for them... The community has an old recreation centre, a church, a shop, even an elementary school! We drove around a little to take a quick look. Just too strange though, but then the really shocking thing was finding out that it's been around for 100 years and was originally started by the Americans! Seems far too progressive and lenient a prison system for them... Just goes to show, there's more than one way to rehabilitate someone. So many different systems around the world. I love it.
Then it was back to Puerto for the flight home to Iloilo to start work again. The good news is that festival season is starting here soon, so I will have something more to do and write about in the near future so stay tuned.
I have also finished uploading the newest photos.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Because Coron is a small island north of the main island of Palawan (Coron is still part of the state of Palawan though) it was necessary to arrange transport over there. It was has to be one of the most disappointingly obvious tourist traps in the country and by far the most expensive... The transport situation out of Coron is terrible. There is a once weekly ferry service to Puerto Princessa (the capital of Palawan) which didn't fit into our schedule, and the one airline that flies the short hops around the state has currently suspended its flights in the area. Thus we were left with a daily bangka boat service, run by one of the resorts if I'm not mistaken.
The problem with this boat is that it is ridiculously overpriced. Foreigners are charged more, but even the local price is still insane. It's more expensive than flying and double the price of the much longer weekly ferry service to farther away. The boat is slightly larger than one of the small dive boats, and with very little protection from the elements. We were lucky to have a beautiful day, but sitting around squished together for 8 hours is terrible and I would hate to do it on a day of rough water... It is a good thing that I'm used to long journeys (I am a little out of practice though lately) but being on the tourist mobile (Flager and one other lady were the only Filipino passengers) when you haven't seen a westerner in months was kind of weird and annoying, because I wasn't really one of them. There are definitely 2 kinds of foreigners in the Philippines. The small group of tourists that come over, and the rather large group of expats, most of whom are in mixed relationships with the locals. I sort of fall into the second group by default as I was travelling with a local, didn't have a shiny new backpack, nor was I looking at a Lonely Planet. In fact, I have no travel guide for this country at the moment and in this case Flager was more or less the guide and leader. We'd worked out what we wanted to do, but she did the major info gathering and conversation work. It was a total role reversal for me to be the tag along, but she did a great job and I have no complaints. It was weird to look at all the other backpackers and I have to admit to being jealous. I would much rather be a traveller than an expat. I just feel the need to move.
So after saying bye to Ida, and after a long 8 hours, we arrived at El Nido, on the northern tip of the long skinny main island of Palawan. Apparently any tourist visiting Palawan has to make the trip up to El Nido, because it is the most popular hangout spot because of its relaxed atmosphere and beaches. Um.... Where were the beaches? El Nido is a small fishing village lying around a naturally protected harbour and sports a small unimpressive beach. The beach area is now lined with small, simple guesthouses and low-key restaurants. It's a place to come and relax and eat your dinner while the tide comes in right under your table and gets your feet wet rather than party. What you are supposed to do from El Nido is either hire a boat to take you island hopping for the day (that's where the real beaches are I guess) or get on a bike and explore. There are caves and other interesting natural points in the area. Or so I'm told. We arrived in the late afternoon, checked into the cheapest place we could find quickly, ran around figuring out or transport options and taking a few pictures and went to bed. The next morning at 7am we were in a minibus speeding away to Puerto Princessa.
The ride was much shorter than expected, only taking us 4 hours instead of 6 or 7 as I'd heard it should take. Flager had a college friend, Jinna, from Puerto, and she'd made plans for us to stay with Jinna back when we'd first started planning the trip. Unfortunately, we'd had difficulty for a week or so in actually contacting her and this continued while we were in the bus station. As I've done so many times in so many bus stations around the world, we made a snap decision to alter our schedule slightly and jumped on the next jeepney to Sabang. I'd read that the ride to Sabang was hell, and when I saw the jeepney I started to get a little excited for a rough ride. This jeepney, in addition to being totally loaded inside and on the top, had the biggest snorkel I've seen and no windshield. A quick look inside the driver's seat also revealed a complete lack of instrument gauges on the dashboard. Nice... I was originally thinking I wanted to be on the top for the 3 hour, 70km ride (and I still think that it's the best option if you want a view and to take photos of some of the great scenery) but Flager did even better and talked us into the front seat :) The front seat was kind of like sitting on the top though, as there were no windows so you got the full effect of the wind coming at you. The view wasn't as good from below I guess, especially with a guy sitting on the hood in front of you for part of the journey!
At this point I must say that I was sorely disappointed but pleasantly surprised. It seems that the info on Palawan is horribly outdated in a lot of the travel forums I've been using or the tourists that go to Palawan are retarded because I heard so many complaints about the transport in the state and yet, the roads are almost all smooth and new. The road to Sabang has obviously just been redone, except for a few small sections, but it's not like super new that the info should be so wrong, and the road to El Nido, far from being bad, is for sure unpaved for ~30% of the way at the El Nido end, but is a smooth unpaved road. Maybe Westerners really are wimpy like they say in the rest of the world...
Sabang is even smaller than El Nido and since it was early evening on New Year's Eve, we decided to have a long nap before waking for midnight. Not that we could really sleep much with everyone (and probably the pet dogs too) lighting firecrackers all day long. Sabang is much too small to have any sort of organized display, but the residents sure put on their own show anyway. Not that you could tell when midnight hit, they just kept it up at a furious pace all day and night.
Why were we in Sabang anyway? Well, because it is the gateway to the Underground River, one of the most popular attractions in the country and currently a finalist in the global competition for the new 7 natural wonders. Sabang itself is just a small fishing village with a lot of much nicer beaches than we saw in El Nido converted into a tourist spot. Most tourist visit as a day trip from Puerto so it's not overly developed, but unfortunately (and Flager will agree with me on this as she first pointed it out) the most of the local residents seem to be indifferent at best or downright rude. Very unFilipino, but ultimately not terribly surprising. Maybe they were all hungover and grumpy....
Ok, so the UG river is the longest navigable underground river in the world, as it is possible to take a small boat up the river for just over half of its underground length of 8.2km. It basically runs underneath a limestone mountain and pops out before flowing into the sea. The river is the centerpiece of the national park which also includes jungle walks and various protected wildlife. You must either take a bangka boat, or walk along a jungle trail for 5km to get to the entrance to the cave and go up the river. We ended up taking the boat there and walked back, a very pleasant walk with some very nice empty beaches along the way that the trail pops out on.
I'd heard recently from a handful of other visitors that they were disappointed by the experience on the river but I actually enjoyed it more than I expected. The normal tour takes about half an hour I guess and takes you 1.5km into the cave. You sit in a little row boat that can carry 8 people I think. The guide sits at the back and slowly paddles you along while the guy in the front is given a small spotlight hooked up to a car battery for power. That is the only source of light in the cave. All the advertisement photos for the river tour show the cave as it would be if fully lit up so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is completely dark inside. Flager and I were lucky because we were the only people in the boat, and we were the only boat in the cave for most of our ride. Thus I had the only source of light and it was very quiet with only the soft swish of the paddle interrupting the continuous clicking sound coming from all the swallows flying inside. They are the birds that you get bird's nest soup from and seem to use a type of echolocation like the 8 species of bats also present in the cave but one that we can hear. There are the usual cave formations and some very large chambers with the ceiling overhead as much as 65m above you at some points. Very atmospheric and I enjoyed the ride. The following morning we did a short hike in the opposite direction from the village along the shore to see a small waterfall before returning to Puerto Princessa by jeepney.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wreck Diving in Coron

My main reason for heading to Palawan for the holidays, indeed, the main reason I returned to the Philippines and became a divemaster was to go to Coron to do some wreck diving. Most Filipinos go home for Christmas and my Koreans are pretty boring and claim to be poor so I was lucky to be able to actually have a travelling companion when Flager agreed to join me in Palawan. We met up on the flight to Busuanga (for the town of Coron) and checked in to some very simple accommodations for the next 5 days. Oh, I like this travel thing. It brought back so many good memories...
In Coron we also met Ida, a local couchsurfer, who was at home visiting her family for the break. We were very lucky to be invited to her family's place for the midnight dinner of Christmas Eve. I don't know, it's a new tradition for me. Actually, it's the first Christmas I've celebrated in 3 years. The last 2 were spent in non-Christian countries... Ida's great and we had a lot of fun hanging out with her and going to a local hot spring. Christmas and New Year's is also full of the sound firecrackers here as every kid old enough to light a match seems to have a full arsenal. I was just happy that they don't have the urge to throw them at me... Mostly it's just the simple bang variety but there are also large bottle rocket types too.
Coron is a very small town, on an island that is part of a group of small limestone islands north of the main island of Palawan. There isn't any beach to speak of though it is possible to do island hopping tours to find some small sections of beach. Most of the hilly islands seem fairly sparsely vegetated, and with sharp rock coming straight up out of the sea. It's not the jungles and beach thing. Despite that, Coron is quite popular and well know as a tourist destination because of it's diving. True, there is great diving all over the Philippines, including many other wreck sites but these ones are supposed to be some of the best in the world in terms of quality of the dive experience and accessibility I guess. I did a total of 6 dives over 2 days, 5 of which were on different wrecks.
The story on the wrecks is that during WW2, the Japanese navy had a large group of ships sheltering in the area and 2 air raids by the Americans over a 3 week period in Sept-Oct 1944 managed to sink quite a few. There are many ships not found or not developed as dive sites, but they do have about 10 ships easily accessible and regularly dived on. The deepest ship sits on the bottom at 41m while most of the others are in the 20-30m range, with a width/height of maybe 8-10m (significant when figuring your dive profile). Some of the smaller ones are in even shallower water and can actually breach the surface during low tide. Most of the ships are auxiliary naval cargo ships about 150m (500ft) in length but the first ship I dove on was a true warship, a sea-plane tender, with a large crane at the back for lifting seaplanes out of the water to load their carriers.
I can't really describe to you the feeling of diving down on your first wreck and seeing its image slowly take form in front of you as you descend on it. The visibility in Coron is not the best (due to the presence of a lot of oyster farms in the area) so a 150m ship seems huge when you have up to 10m visibility. I suppose I could romanticize it and say it's like at the beginning of the movie Titanic when they show the ship as it really appears at the bottom of the sea. It is a little like that though I suppose a passenger ship would be even more interesting than a cargo one. What makes these wreck dives even more exciting is that you can easily penetrate the ships. Many places have restrictions due to "sea grave" status or the ships are too dangerous to enter. Not so here. We had a small flashlight each and our little group (of 3 or 4) just followed the divemaster through the ship. After so long, they have been salvaged and everything removed that would be an obvious hazard thus the inside is mostly a dark empty shell covered with crusty coral (that cuts your hands). We did get into the engine rooms and sometimes the bridge and there are a lot of small, tight squeezes where you literally have to rub your stomach on the ground to make sure your tank can clear the top. A bit disorienting to think that you are inside the ship and it's laying on it's side too (most, but not all are capsized). As most of you know, ships tend to have narrow passageways, small doors and tight corners so imagine going through them sideways, while swimming through coral obstacles hoping you don't accidentally get your regulator pulled out of your mouth. Ah, but to look out from the inside at a school of fish, that's something special.... You have to be a lot more careful though about the dive than with a normal coral dive as you tend to stay down on the bottom longer where the ship is and we had to do a decompression on our 2nd dive on the 2nd day (my first deco dive). I do like seeing fish and coral though so wreck diving isn't the best although anywhere that gets a little light on the ship (especially the outer upper surface) will grow into an artificial coral reef over time.
So that was 5 of the dives and they were great, but the 6th was even stranger. It's a dive into Barracuda Lake, which is even more unique. Barracuda lake is a small, lake/hot spring on Coron island (which is across from Coron town, which is situated on Busuanga island, go figure). At the surface it is fresh water. If you go down 10m or so it becomes salt water. At the surface the water is about 28C but if you go down 20m or so it goes up to 41C after passing through an intermediate temperature layer. The thermo and halocline are quite distinct and sudden rather than gradual. You can feel the difference with your hand as you pass it down in front of you. But each layer has it's own visibility I guess, because if you try to look through a layer, say at another diver, they are fuzzy. I did the whole dive constantly thinking I needed to get my eyes checked out because my vision was so blurred. But it was still cool. I don't know how far down it goes. It seems like a bottomless pit with the sides sloping down into the heat. The ground is also a very thick layer of gooey mud which you can sink your arm or whatever into, and somehow it comes back out clean. I can't really describe it but it was strange. I was also surprised to see some fish swimming around though the most fun were the 3 inch long cleaner shrimp that would dance on your hand.
Ok, as you can imagine I had a great time in Coron and I was quite saddened to have to leave. In fact, had I known how things were going to go, I would probably have rearranged my trip and schedule differently. There is something very limiting and frustrating about having short holidays and actually being on a schedule. I'll have to try to avoid travelling that way in the future, haha.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Pre-Christmas Activities

Ok, I'm a bit behind on the blog as I have actually been doing things :)
I'll break it into parts though to make it a little more manageable.
Class was class and things didn't start to get interesting until around the 19th of December when a friend, Nikki, flew in from Manila. She's from Iloilo originally and had come back to spend the holidays with family (as all Filipinos do) so I was able to spend a few days hanging out. Little did I know where we'd be hanging out together though... One of our mornings was spent with her brother who was doing some volunteer work (he's a nurse) in the local city jail.
This is actually the first time I have ever been in a jail. Very strange. It seemed more like a community centre with all the family members there visiting in a big open courtyard area. It was obviously a special day for them with a medical mission on hand and then some of the army there giving haircuts too. We chatted to a few of the guys as they stood in line waiting for their vital signs to be taken. They seemed nice enough I guess, but it was also strange to think we were taking photos of the tattooes of murderers...
Dec 23rd was the first day of our school's holiday and also the school Christmas party. The party was fun with all of us being divided up into 2 teams for various games. The break for us was to last for the next 10 days and unlike everyone else, I planned to go away. I think in the end only 2 students actually left the city for any period of time. Sad, I live with a bunch of non-travellers.... If I hadn't already booked tickets to go to Palawan for the break, I probably would've gone over to the volcano, Mayon, which was putting on a show and looking like it was going to erupt for a while. But Palawan was one of the main reasons I came back to the Philippines in the first place so I was not about to miss out.