Manila, March 21-24

Due to my failure to really think about travel times and blind faith in my travel agent, I arrived in Manila at 04:30. That’s 4:30 am. For a small charge, I got to check into my hotel early. This was after a three hour flight that had the most uncomfortable seats ever… so I didn’t sleep a wink. A wise man once told me that a stripper is designed for one purpose- “to extract money from your wallet”. The same applies to the Manila Diamond Hotel. I thought it would be a good idea to stay 5-star in Manila, problem became that all the taxes, service charges, and other crap that is not included, you basically double your cost. I guess the idea is that if you can afford to stay five-star you should be able to afford paying luxury American prices for food and beverage…. Painful on the budget….. Painful. The Lonely Planet said this was the best of the best along the bay; if this was the best Manila has to offer, I won’t plan to go back. The staff was very friendly, it just seemed they were drowned in procedures and rules. The pool bar was under construction…the top story lounge and restaurant were closed for the holiday weekend.

I only did a one day walk-about in Manila, which was enough. Once you step across the street from that hotel, all bets are off. I walked about 6 kilometers, passing folks fishing and swimming in the bay, the American Embassy, a park, and some pretty run down looking buildings. Most of the buildings in Manila look run down… probably because they are. I wonder what was different after World War II- Japan was leveled but they bounced back to an economic powerhouse…… on the other hand, Manila was also leveled, but at least everyone is happy. I’m sure there are other parts of Manila that are very nice, I just didn’t see them.

Went to an area called Intramuros, which is the remains of an old Spanish fort and city within a wall. It was where all the wealthy folks lived back in the colonial days. The whole area was basically leveled when the Americans kicked the Japanese out at the end of WWII. Basically the only thing left of Manila was a church and some of the walls around Intramuros.

Fort Santiago was on the north end of Intramuros. It was first build in 1571. It was also basically destroyed in WWII. They rebuilt it in the 50’s. Some of the walls that survived still have potmarks from bullets and shrapnel. My first WWII battleground visit. Also included was a mass grave for about 600 people the Japanese starved and suffocated at the end of the war. Very somber experience. For those that ask why the US spends so much on its military- this is the answer- to prevent crap like that from happening….. Except our hands are always tied by the United Nations….but enough politics. Over 150,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire when we defeated the Japanese in 1945.

Boracay Island, March 24-April 2

I escaped Manila and headed south to a small island that Lonely Planet says is the “grand dame” of Philippine beach resorts. It is as close to paradise as I have found. Beautiful beach, palm trees, delicious food, and plentiful scuba diving. I took two PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certification courses while on the island- Open Water and Advanced Open Water.

SCUBA Diving
This was the highlight, so it’s first. I have now spent something like 6.5 hours of this trip underwater. On two separate dives we went to 30 meters (100 feet) deep. I completed 10 dives, varying in length from about 25 minutes to 45 minutes. Most of the dives were in the 12-18 meter (36-54’) range. (Dive Photos) Open Water consisted of 4 dives + training sessions in the shallow water off of the beach. This class is where you learn to do things to be relaxed and not die underwater. Underwater examples:
(a) take off mask, put it back on, and get the water out of it,
(b) breath from a free flowing regulator (you ‘sip’ the air),
(c) take out your regulator underwater, switch to a spare,
(d) try to imitate your instructor and move without ever using your arms,
(e) How to ascend properly without making your lungs explode. (lung over-expansion injury)
(f) How to descend properly without having your eardrums implode from water pressure.
(g) Negative entry is the coolest… roll off the boat backwards ,with no air in your vest, exhale as you enter, and you sink. (Negative Buoyancy)
(h) Floating, zen like, at a constant depth by controlling how you breath.
You also get to see mass quantities of fish and coral

Advanced Open Water is where the really cool stuff starts:
#1 Underwater photography at Crocodile Island. Borrow the dive shops camera and take pictures under water. This dive site was primarily an underwater bluff, top around 12 meters and bottom around 20 meters. It was near vertical on one end and the slope got flatter towards the other end. The whole area was covered in coral.

#2 Navigation at Coral Garden. Limited amounts of coral to see, but that’s not why we were there. You use the compass to navigate a few courses underwater, determine your swimming ‘pace’ for navigation purposes… much like using your step pace above water, and amazingly accurate. Oh, and find your way back to the dive boat.

#3 Underwater Naturalist at Friday’s Reef. You take the underwater fish book and try to identify fish. Amazing variety of life underwater.

#4 Wreck Dive. They sunk an old freighter about 4 years ago just for diving purposes. It is about 100’ long and in about 95’ of water. To dive down and see this mass of steel appear as you swim closer, was possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever done… top 20 anyway….. You can swim through the bridge, look into the engine room, and swim in one cargo hold and out another. Very, very cool.

#5 Deep Dive. Dive to 100’ and learn how not to die. Oh and you look at fish and stuff also. But mainly you “enhance your calm” so you don’t die. I didn’t die- class passed.

#6 Dive for fun. Back to coral garden. New classmate, John from Dublin, was doing navigation, so I swam around and looked at things.


You fly to the town of Caticlan on a prop plane; about 14 rows of seats, two seats on each side of the aisle. The runway seems barely long enough for a turboprop, I don’t think a jet would have a chance here. Then you take a tricycle- mototorbike with a covered, very comfortable sidecar- to the dock. ($1). Then pump boat to the island ($1.75) Then a tricycle to the beach area ($2.50). Then you can walk the beach looking for “vacant room” signs, and you’re set. You could do this on your own, however, friendly “tourist assistants” are waiting at the small airport arrival area. You fill out a visitor registration card, and if you don’t have a place to stay (I didn’t) they go into action. Tessa whisked me through the above process bypassing lines everywhere, delivered me to the beach and helping me find a hotel in half the time it would have taken me otherwise. Which was cool, because it was freaking hot. Turns out Tessa and her fellow assistants are “commissionaires”- that is they get a commission off your hotel price. So, in effect, you pay extra for the convenience. The commissionaires also prowl the beach to sell you anything; scuba, jet ski, glass bottom boat, etc. Also, the vendors will try to sell you sunglasses even while you are wearing a pair already…. And watches- many times I passed on the deal of a lifetime on a new Rolex.

Other Irritations:
The first sign of trouble in paradise, came the first evening, when my eyes dried out and I got a sore throat from someone burning trash. It was quite a contrast; beautiful sunset, palm trees, and burning trash haze. I am from the country- I know what trash burning smells like. Luckily it was not a daily occurrence, the 24th must have been burn day.

Occasionally you find yourself downwind of the sewage treatment plant. They smell worse here than back home. Also, the bathroom in the hotel room had no trap in the floor drains, so the bathroom always reeked of sewer gas. Hmmmm.. methane, maybe I should have tried to blow it up. Anyhow, it took me a few days to figure this out and keep the bathroom door closed so the whole room did not smell of sewer. (and no, due to the configuration I could not cap or cover them both.)

Apparently the island is ‘overbuilt’ and the water supply can’t keep up. Typically I could only shower late at night, at other times in the day, there was either no water or not enough flow to let the wall mounted heater operate. Brian the dive instructor hasn’t had water to his house in months. Not enough pressure in the system to get water to my 2nd floor room or to his house on the hill.

Social Values:
Only irritating if it upsets you and you look for it or can’t ignore it. However, it is hard not to notice a 50 year old white dude walking down the beach with a 22 year old Filipino girl. Technically, prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, but it is basically overlooked. I guess the world’s oldest profession will always be around. If you’re curious, apparently the going rate is around 2000 pesos ($50USD) per night. You can also get ‘special massage’ for 300 – 400 per hour. To put it in perspective, minimum wage is about 196 pesos per 8 hours. (about $.63/hr). If ,as a single white guy, you sit at a bar, late at night, by yourself and don’t enter into conversation with other folks at the bar, it is almost guaranteed a working girl will approach you and start a conversation. They are always polite and easy to send away when you explain that you ‘don’t buy girl friends’. And apparently Eckroth is right- some of the girls are boys. Detection methods, per a local: (a) From distance- body shape, especially hip area; (b) interaction: voice, facial features, and (c) if all else fails, grab their balls. Fun to try and spot them on the beach. Applying the identification methods (a) and (b) above, we determined that a chick that had talked to me one night was actually a dude… weird stuff. Cute on first glance, but in reality, a dude. Dive instructor Brian has employed method (c) on occasion also.

Enough about the bad though, the good stuff

The primary beach area consists of about 40’ of white sand beach, 20’ to 30’ of palm trees, a sand walkway, and then storefronts, resorts, restaurants, etc. The walkway is about 8’ to 12’ wide and usually packed with people. Most of the restaurants set up tables under the palm trees so you can have a nice breeze and view of the beach. About 400’ away from the beach is the main paved road. It has no centerline; it is probably 12 or 14’ wide total. Between said road and the beach is a varying array of stuff. One area, called D*Mall, has various shops, restaurants, and even a small ferris wheel. Other areas are large resorts, bamboo shacks, brick houses with bamboo roofs, just an assortment of buildings. This part of the beach is probably a mile long. My hotel, which was really just a 3 story building with maybe 8 rooms, was on an alley perpendicular to the beach, about 50’ from the walkway. There was a convenience store where the alley interested the walkway- water, coke, beer, sunscreen, etc. Turn left out of the alley and the dive shop was about 45’ down the beach. Super convenient.

Food and drink:
Known as one of the priciest spots in the Philippines. Most meals were about what you would pay back home, unless you really shopped around. Filipino food tended to be slightly cheaper. An “American Breakfast” –eggs, toast, bacon, maybe potatoes, was around $5-$6. Throw in a mango shake for $2 and you’re set for most of the day until you have to eat again. Local beers ranged from about $.60 at the “convenience shop” next to the dive shop to $3 at some of the fancy bars. Imported beers and liquors were pricier than back home. The best spot to drink was in front of the dive shop. After diving, we’d pull out the plastic chairs from the shop, buy beers from next door, and watch the people walk by.

....or watch dudes cut down a palm tree with a machete. They used a machete to chop down about a 10” diameter tree. And then they cut it into pieces so they could carry it off. I saw a lot of manual labor. About the only power tool I saw or heard was a welder. A lot of chieseling and hand sawing going on.

Had some great Filipino food, I won’t even try to name it all.

Met people from New York, Minnesota, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Philippines. A lot of dudes from NZ and AUS came on holiday and stayed. Unfortunately, not a lot of single American girls traveling alone on Boracay. Even fewer cute ones. Then, on my last night, with a flight in 5 hours and packing still to do, I noticed her noticing me- the ever elusive, highly attractive blonde girl. Nothing to do but share a smile and that brief moment of prolonged eye contact, and keep walking. Had to pack for Vietnam…..

When I was packing, I briefly thought about staying. I thought about staying when the alarm was going off at 4:51am. ….maybe I’ll go back and be a dive instructor.


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