The Epic Saga of the Filo Trip: Came for the bad jokes, stayed for the photos

So – 2016 is happening huh? Holy shit do you know what that means?!

We are going to have a third Captain America movie.  And a third Star Trek movie. And we just had the latest instalment of Star Wars as a glorious X-mas gift.
And what a gift...
What a time to be alive.

But we've also lost a bevy of awesome people - seriously, was there a statute of limitations that we didn't know about with regards to the coolest music and film icons ever?

Nonetheless, I can only feel grateful even as I’m slightly panicking that I have somehow gotten through 16 years of the new millennium and still have no idea what the hell I’m doing. 

And there’s so much to do!! So much to see!! So many places to go!
I want to continue travelling of course and have recently capped my travels of 2015 with a three week stay back home in the Philippines – the beautiful, beautiful homeland.
Except for the times when it isn’t.

But you know what – I missed my family, I missed the weird culture bubble that is Manila, I missed the godawful television.
That's right - she's advertising donuts - all harmless and so not sending out the wrong message regarding food advertised to young children
Really – why aren’t Ryzza Maye’s parents doing anything about her health? She’s going to have stroke by 20, she’s so cute and talented and this is how they’re encouraging her public image?!
I mean seriously....
Australia banned Fanta from using their cartoon mascots cause it was directly aimed at kids... and we get Ryzza making food commercials for everything ugh...
This should not be acceptable.  Anywhere. 

There’s so much unbelievable beauty and people to admire and so much ingenuity in the Philippines and yet the level of greed and consumption is such that it makes my brain explode. I could write a whole essay about it - and I wont because I'll get mad, and then you'll get mad, and being mad doesn't help - spreading the word can help, and making small changes can help and we can only do so much and then rely a little bit on hope.
But never mind! I still went and had a wonderful time and loved it, and loved the gorgeous heat and even the humidity and oh boy the FOOD.  Look at that - that's a rice bento covered in Uni, yes - sea urchin.  GOD THAT STUFF IS EVERYWHERE!

But I wanted to get my dive on, and booked a trip to Coron, Palawan for roughly a week.  We stayed at a dive resort called Chindonan Island where everything has to do with diving.  The place itself is simply furnished but really well made.  There would be no electricity during the day and the only wifi spot was slow and there was no phone reception.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better actually.
What a sight to fly into
The Island is surrounded by mangrove and has its own springwater source, which means the water was gorgeous and drinkable.  It also made the surrounding seawater less salty which was just the absolute best because I have always had a gross tendency to swallow seawater when diving or snorkelling, or getting it up my nose cause I fail at breathing or holding my breath while swimming and goddamn saltwater stings.
There are people who wake up to this every day... goddamnit
Its also a bird sanctuary and waking up to the sound of birdsong is one of the most beautiful things in the world.  We also got woken up by geckos, which make this adorable noise.  We called them Tuko is tagalog because that’s what the noise they make sounds like.  They usually wake you up at 7am with a stream of knocky tukoo, tuko, tukoo… and then eventually it sounds like they run out of steam making their calls and their tukooo gets stretched out until you can tell they can’t be bothered anymore. 

The diving here however, is phenomenal.  The set of islands we were in are home to numerous WW2 wrecks of some small and medium sized Japanese ships that were sunk nearing the end of the war.  Some wrecks were so close to the surface you could see their coral encrusted bows just skimming the surface of the unbelievably clear water. 

I dove with Dive Master Nic, who, along with the mangers of the result are Danish, which was so cool and funny.  That these mega white and tall dudes were showing me around my own country’s beautiful sites was mildly ironic but not really all that unusual. 

Nic was an excellent dive buddy and, typical of all the divers I have ever met, easy going, relaxed and passionate about the sea, which is all the things I love about diving company.
He’s also a mega nerd and we had some great conversations on land during dinner about the latest sci fi books and their reflections on current scientific progress and the comparisons of magic and science.  My godmother, who tagged along with me and is a pro diver and snorkeller herself sat bewildered between us as we bantered back and forth about Game of Thrones and the Kingkiller Chronicles, which are on my to read list (which is getting bigger). 

But the diving – oh boy.  I have mentioned that my motherland is beautiful haven’t I?

The view from my room
My godmother couldn’t dive with us as she had problems with the cold (although, I dived in just my swimsuit because the water was a glorious 29 degrees Celsius every day) and she needed a prescription mask, which she didn’t have.  But her photos of me diving and her own snorkelling shots are phenomenal. 
Look at that terrible flailing, can't even kick properly!
Basket coral
My own photos were, if I may say so myself, pretty damn good too.  I got some beautiful colours and some clear shots with my cheap action camera which at least could handle up to 60 metres of depth.  I even managed to take one good shot of a seaslug although this one gorgeous shot of a Spanish dancer nudibranch came out unfocused AUGH!!!
look at this adorable sea slug!!!
But that’s ok because I still managed to get some good practice, on both using my camera underwater and learning to achieve a good level of neutral buoyancy.  I cut and scratched and stung myself on nearly everything down there due to my messy swimming style but eventually learned to be more still by the end of my whopping 5 continuous dives over those few days. 

I even did a night dive where I thought I was getting sick at one point.  I thought maybe I had not been breathing properly and was getting compression sickness.  It turned out that it was most likely exhaustion from a 75 minute night dive and the accumulation of two other dives before that.

Yey, I sort of did some hardcore diving!

My co divers were two very experienced Dutch divers who were on a long holiday diving around the world.  They had just been in the Caribbean and they showed me some glorious videos of them diving with Manata Rays the size of cars. 

One day, that’s going to be me too.
The little streak of green are actually the huge lips of a giant sea clam embedded in the coral
The place was supposed to be a sanctuary for seahorses, although I did not get to see one.  Nonetheless, I did get to see one of the most beautiful Jellyfish ever and chased after the poor creature to get a good shot of him.  You can tell that he looks mildly panicked as I blundered after him to get a good shot.
I called him Leppy, cause he looked like he had leopard spots.  After a quick Google, it turns out its called a Spotted Jelly (duh), Golden Medusa or Papuan Jellyfish. 

After Chindonan we took our boat back to Coron town to spend our last night.  We ate at a phenomenal and unusually authentic Italian restaurant and I had to get my phone fixed cause it got exposed to water.  The town itself is basically a holding pen for tourists who need a place to sleep when they’re not snorkelling or diving.  We didn’t end up going to the Coron Island sights like Barracuda Lake but I didn’t mind because I know I’m going back for more soon.
The adorable lodge we stayed at on our last night.
I cried on the boat back to the town, I really didn’t want to leave, the feeling of seaspray and the salty wind on my face was bliss and at that point I didn’t know how I could live a life where I didn’t go island hopping on boat and just eat fresh fruit and fish for my meals.  Hell, I even learned to kayak (I row badly, it turns out) and got some great workouts while I was there. 

So, you can imagine it felt like a punch in the gut to land back into the polluted morass that is Manila. 
hahaha contrasty nonsense
Manila used to be a beautiful city.  It was vibrant and the people were exciting.  Now it’s a bit of adump, filled with pollution, constructions sites, and evidence of the blind capitalist greed that has consumed the cultural psyche and, oh my god, the poverty is so prevalent that it makes you hard and cynical.  I can only hope that some of these constructions will improve things a bit.

But despite the poverty, the visual cues of seeing a beautiful city begin to rot from poor foresight, corruption and poverty, Manila is also home to some amazing things, like the enthusiasm of their X-mas decorations. 
Seriously, how beautiful!

The one thing I love about Christmas in the Philippines is the amount of effort people put in decorating, no expense is ever spared – especially with lights.

Nonetheless, Manila is home, and its home because that's where my family is and god, I love them so much and the little house I have spent so much of my childhood in during southern summers and X-masses.

But away with Manila, shopping land extraordinaire and city of paradoxes, and off we go to the mountains of Tagaytay, which is only a 40 minute drive away where we are building a new family home to move out to. Look at the view we can start waking up to!!!!

This is one of my favourite places in the whole wide world. 

Tagaytay is a mountain region built on the lip of an ancient volcano which got flooded in thousands of years ago.  And then, another little volcano, which is still active grew out of the lake inside it.  So essentially, it’s a volcano inside a volcano.  And there’s no way you can ever get a bad shot of the place. 
We stayed at Taal Vista Lodge for a weekend away and spent some time with the little bubbas at the Skyranch, which was a mountaintop fun park that wasn’t all that bad, we enjoyed the rides (all of which you had to pay for separately damnit!) and had some gorgeous walks in the hotel gardens where there were butterflies following my hungover cousin (my theory is they smelled the alcohol coming from him and thought he was food or something) and gosh darn it, isn’t this the most beautiful view?

Then, it was back to Manila for fam-bam days and a nice visit for an early X-mas party at the orphanages my aunty teaches English at.  The place is called The House of Refuge and the kids are adorable and amazing as all hell.
The teeny one at the front in the green shirt is my adorable cousin.

The kids are sent to school and taught English to prepare them mostly for adoption.  The fact that they already know English means its easier for overseas parents to adopt.  Likewise, they’re given a full all-rounder education and some of the kids are being eyed to join the regional and national Wushu teams representing the Philippines.  Oh, and so many of these kids are unbelievably bright.

We took my young nephew to Manila Ocean Park, which I’ve visited before, there were two additional exhibits including a small ocean bird exhibit where we got to hang around with a few sea kestrels who were actually quite sweet and a damp touch the sealife experience with a largely pettable Leopard Ray.  

The animal seemed to enjoy the physical contact with his handler and I got my little nephew to touch it, just so he knew what it felt like.  I find those kinds of exhibits uncomfortable because of the possible stress you’re putting the animal through, but in a country like the Philippines, where there is so much desperate need for people to understand that these animals are precious, its one of the few ways it helps (its not the best way, but baby steps please).  There were also some sleepy nurse sharks that were just lumped on top of each other at the side of the pool. 

As always, my favourite exhibit is the Jelly fish room.  I utterly adore jellies and even though we entered the darkened exhibit with a gaggle of screaming children.  I was determined to zen out with my floating buddies.  I imagined myself as floating about with Ponyo and her friends under the coloured lights.

Aside from the sightseeing, naturally I did some insane shopping in the insane malls of Manila.  Filos are naturally inclined to be nerdy by nature and good god the Star Wars hype over there was crazy.  Everything was Star Wars related, EVERYTHING.  I managed to get so much tastefully made and official Star Wars stuff that I boggled as to why there was that weird copyright infringement by Black Milk with their first Star Wars collection.  If several Filipino labels can get licenses, you’d think that an Australian label would find it as easy.  Also, they had everything else licensed, if it wasn’t Star Wars, it was Marvel or Giordano’s epic Voltes 5 collection (which was admittedly, rather pricey). 
Also – they had Cotton On there, and it was expensive.  What. The. Hell?

My trip home was a balm to the soul.
And even though I genuinely think Manila is a hole, it is my hole and I’ll love it the way I do. And I'll always have a love-hate relationship with Manila which is mostly a love and exasperation relation, more than hate. 

My Aunty and Uncle who both live there gave me a simple explanation.  People like to be patriotic in the sense of being proud that Martin Nievera is good looking and 'talented', or that Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussy Cat Dolls is half Filipina or that Apple from the Black Eyed Peas is Filipino, but they don’t actually love their country, not the kind of love where they're willing to give their all for it.
For example - its a great marine wildlife park and all - and you definitely want to pull those tourists in and all - but for the love of god, if you're going to build a marine wildlife park in the bay, don't throw all your rubbish into the water.
Because repeated requests to not sit on the stairs means that you sit on the stairs...
I love the Philippines, I want to live there and just set up a life there by the mountains where I can go diving and maybe tour people around.  Or create a turtle breeding program and show locals and tourists what a perfect country that place is. 
Its getting better, slowly.  I worry that it would have lost too much by then. 
I am Filipina too, this is my responsibility too and to be honest – it daunting.  I wouldn’t know where to start. 

But anyone who reads this – go visit the Philippines.  Its heaven on earth (except where its not), it will open your eyes to how beautiful the world can be when done right and open your eyes to the things that need to be seen and known so that we can start making things right.

For now – look at the photos and marvel at the wonder of a country built upon a coral reef, fertile with the tastiest produce and the most serene mountains and the friendliest people. 

I miss you already, Manila, craziness and all. 




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