Travel networking a.k.a. Filipino connections
by Janice Nigro
I kind of took the no planning approach to an extreme for the Philippines. I did not know where exactly I would stay or for how long when I got there. Not even for the first night. Furthermore, I was not exactly sure what I would find when I got to Cebu. In between the time that I began to plan my swimabout and when I would arrive, a big earthquake and a major typhoon (Yoalanda as it was locally named) struck. One of the areas I wanted to dive, Malapascua Island, was completely flattened (no one was lost) by the typhoon and in the aftermath, Cebu City became the center of operations to rebuild the smaller islands that suffered the most damage.
Instead, I used “travel networking”. I envisioned a big, Philippine adventure from a local/insider’s perspective, partly because I thought I would do things that I would never do through an agent (I did, especially in part 2 which will come soon). My travel networking began when my brother introduced me to a Filipino couple about a year ago, in Arizona, not exactly a diving capital of the world. They connected me to a relative in Cebu who is a diver who connected me to the son (Bo) of a man who was the original scuba dive master in the Philippines. Bo, had a tank strapped onto him when he was just eight years old. I do not know how he stood up, but of course in the water no need to stand.
I did not think a lot about where I would go before I arrived (more about natural disasters), and really left the planning up to my Filipino connections. I just got myself to Cebu. The main place to dive in Cebu, though, is Moalboal. So that is where the friend-family connection (Alex) took me to meet Bo. In between the beginning of my swimabout and my date of arrival in Cebu, Malapascua Island was on the mend, but Bo steered me away from there, as resorts were only marginally operational in January of 2014. He still managed to come up with a plan for me to dive three different major islands (and a lot of small ones as I would find out). It was a completely logical plan if you know where to go and that the ferries in between islands are easy to use.
Alex and his girlfriend took a day off from work to drive me across Cebu to Moalboal through some spectacular scenery and to eat locally made rice cakes in banana leaves (amazing Filipino hospitality), and then left me alone with Bo, the dive-pedigreed Filipino. Bo had ironically worked as an IT person in Hungary. We traded some similar views about living in Europe, but a Hungarian speaking Filipino? It was one of those moments when you think, how is it possible: a Filipino dive guide and underwater photographer who is a former IT person who worked in Hungary. It was kind of an example that either career paths are not necessarily straightforward or you can not beat out of yourself a lifestyle that was probably imprinted on your DNA before birth.
Bo took me directly to one place. He told me to keep an open mind about the place, and for a moment I thought, what did I agree to? We pulled up and the big sign in front said, Love’s Beach and Dive Resort, but he referred to it as Love’s Lodge. I had to laugh secretly at that because I was wondering if I was at some kind of rehab for people burned in love? But I think it was the nickname of the woman who owned the resort.
Why he told me to keep an open mind I will never know. We only had about 20 minutes to introduce ourselves during the ride to the main resort area of Moalboal, Panagsama Beach. I am not sure what kind of impression I made on that short trip. Am I a princess? Because when they showed me the room, for me, it was perfect! A lovely, big room with air-conditioning connected to a kitchen with a refrigerator and a really large brand new bathroom. I was at the south end of Panagsama Beach so it was quieter but close enough if I wanted to have a beer and make some acquaintances outside of the resort.
Somehow the plan (again, not to plan) was working. A Filipino taking me to where he would stay if he were a guest, even a Filipino run business, and as I would soon find out, Love’s Lodge was the annual choice of a number of guests who had been returning to Moalboal for years.
Diving started at 9 the next day. Windy, a little choppy, and Germans were everywhere! You would have thought that schnitzel was a Filipino dish as it was on every menu. I started to just use the German that I knew over the days, not much, and occasionally impressed them. I think it was “bis morgen” that got them to notice. I have read that you can become fluent in a language within three months, and I wondered if I stayed for that long at Love’s whether I would become fluent in German or a Philippine language. I was surrounded by Europeans in fact, and it was a long time before I saw another person from the US, who actually when I think about it was not even living in the US.
The boat took us north up to Kasai Point about 10 to 15 minutes away. I was close to reaching 600 dives so I was not prepared to see something that I had never seen before in a tropical environment. Sure enough, Cayo pointed to a new critter for me, a nudibranch, the yellow-tipped Phyllodesmium, locally known as the spaghetti nudibranch. Spaghetti is a descriptive adjective, but I also see the elegant pose of a Hindu goddess with many arms in the photo that I took. I am not sure what happens when two of these get together-how do they ever get apart?
The water temperature was a cool 26oC. In the evening, we did a mandarin fish dive on the house reef, yes only meters from the shore. Enormous mandarin fish were playing tag until the right moment, when two mating pairs rose above the reef shedding/mixing their gametes. Somehow I was so shocked that I failed to take a photo. It was the first comment Cayo made when we surfaced, “You didn’t take a photo!”
All of the diving in Moalboal was similar, a hard coral garden from shore until you reached the dropoff and then a wall down to 30 meters or so. The current would take you north or south. Diving in Moalboal is a bit like some kind of a days-long reef crawl because each dive takes you to another section located next to where you were diving the day before. It is all lovely, and maybe because I was so relaxed I took many of my best photos of the swimabout.
On the third day, I was to dive an island to the island (Cebu is an island!). Pescador Island is one of the big draws to Moalboal. It was about a 15 to 20 minute boat ride from Love’s Lodge, which was much shorter than from some other resorts further north from Panagsama Beach. So we were able to go several times in my 8 days there. It is a small island in the middle of Tañon Strait. It is always tough to decide where to look on such dives because the wall goes down forever as well as the blue. Visibility was not so great at the time, so we focused on the island wall. The first creature that caught my eye was something I have no name for, but I call it the hanging anemone. They look like flowers. But Rene found several frogfish on this dive, one with a pattern that made it look like it had a rare skin disease while the other seemed to be a skilled trapeze artist balancing itself on a narrow sponge. We saw turtles and sea snakes, but no other pelagic animals.
The highlight of Panagsama Beach at the moment was the sardine ball. For a couple of days, Piddy, the boat captain, would show up grinning with a small plastic bag filled with sardines that he said he would just quickly fry and eat in their entirety for any meal of the day. Finally, on the third day for our afternoon dive, we dove directly into the sardine ball.
I suppose you did not need to dive, because from the surface, the black cloud of sardines was easily visible below us. A few fisherman were out, line fishing for the sardines, which they would sell to the local restaurants for evening appetizers. I expected the sardine ball to be out in the open water, near Pescador Island perhaps, but unexpectedly for me it was located literally right where the wall begins or about 30 meters from shore. We descended to around 10 meters, and now the ball was over our heads. Like a dark cloud, the sardines blocked the hot Philippine sun shining down on the sea. The sardine ball is like watching a choreographed dance, and any small sound or movement causes all of the fish to redirect themselves and move some other way, but synchronously. We swam into them and let the fish fall all around us, and if I somehow faced them directly, they immediately rotated 180o and left. But if I peeked over my shoulder while swimming away, I could see them swimming/creeping right up behind me again like I was the biggest sardine.
I began to wonder however after a while, what else might be out there. Because small fish lead to bigger fish which lead to really big fish, just like on the cover of the Dr. Seuss book, One fish, two fish. Visibility was not great at that time so it was possible something(s) was out there, but nothing big with the exception of tuna appeared before us. I heard thresher shark on a couple of dive briefings, and Bo had said there was a chance, but we did not see any. Rumor had it that a fisherman was run out of town because he caught and proceeded to kill a thresher shark rather than release it in recent weeks. The locals are very aware that the sea brings divers (business) to their small part of the world. Anyone who is not following the fishing rules, might have to run for their life, literally.
The sardine ball was located right in front of Panagsama Beach, which according to some was the least interesting part of the reef in Moalboal. It was more sandy, less coral, and low visibility. But Ray was guiding us. He is a young Filipino and one of the most relaxed dive guides ever. He somehow manages to appear not to disturb the water even though he is in it, so it seems that the creatures come to him rather than the other way around. While the big show was going on over our heads, Ray was finding other reef critters too-a black pipefish, a sea snake, and a beautiful juvenile barramundi. And somehow, one of the prettiest anemones emerged before me. There is always something to find if you look.
When I was dry, I felt like it was the kind of place where you don’t have to wear makeup, you don’t have to care what clothes you are wearing, and maybe you don’t have to care that you have not taken your scuba diving braids out for days. I ran shampoo through them each night for sure, but did not release them, and my braids became like some slightly more sophisticated version of Jamaican dreadlocks. I am not going to try that at home, but I felt free of convention.
The actual town of Moalboal is not long down the main road, if something with a motor takes you there. I probably never would have gone there except that I needed a SIM card and cash. There was one ATM in the pharmacy in Moalboal town center so I set out one day to get cash. The only trick is to get there. You can walk. If you are walking though, people on motorbikes and their “tricycles” will stop and automatically ask if you want a ride. This is not a free service, and you will have to haggle a bit, but drivers are extremely polite. I went out to the main road one day and was immediately picked up (whacky braids and all). Anyone will take you. For about 50 cents, I got a ride to the town center, which takes about eight minutes.
The pharmacy was easy enough to spot, and there was a short line at the ATM. The man at the machine though was repeatedly inserting his card and receiving money. I became very anxious and started to mumble, “He is going to take all of the money.” Filipino run resorts tend to want cash for their services, so you need a lot. My turn finally, and the machine still had money (a limit of 10000 pesos), but a withdrawal was allowed only once on my card. I still had to repeat the operation the next day, from the tricycle ride to the ATM.
My second big errand of the day was to get a SIM card. You would not imagine that there would be electronics sold there on first glance because it looked just like an open-air market. It is actually quite easy to find SIM cards in Southeast Asia, but not the nano-card that fits an iPhone 5. But this does not matter. They can punch it down to the right size with a special punch. And this works. The first “shop” that I went to did not have the special punch, so I moved on and remarkably found a second. They went through the costs: 40 Pesos (1USD) for the SIM card plus 35 text messages, 50 Pesos (>1USD) for the punch, and 100 Pesos for voice. Incredible fun, all for about 4 dollars. My very “sophisticated” iPhone 5 was operational in the Philippines for a fraction of what it would cost through a global package. I was ecstatic, and immediately texted Alex that I had money and a SIM card.
Moalboal is still a rustic town, i.e. there is nothing like a chain store/café around. Only local run shops. I do not know how long it will stay this way though. I, for some reason, could not part with about the 2.5 USD needed for a new pair of flip-flops-I do not know how one can be so choosy about them with a price like that-but I did spring for some bananas. Bananas come in all sorts in Southeast Asia; some redefine what we know as a banana because they are so sweet while others are used like a vegetable. I thought about this (too late) when I left the stand-maybe I should have asked-because when I got home and bit into one, it was not the “is this really a banana?” sweet taste.
My Bo itinerary would have had me leave Love’s after just 6 days of diving. I decided I wanted more; I could have stayed the rest of the days that I had for the Philippines, but since it was convenient for Alex to take me to the next dive destination on the Bo itinerary, I decided to move. But I did fall in love with Love’s…
©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com
Best season to dive Moalboal: February to end of April.
water temperature January 2014: 26C