February 21st, 2004
Subject: Sailing the high seas
Sorry for not having written sooner. These past 2 weeks have been some of the most amazing of my entire trip thus far, and its been killing me not to be able to write it all down. I'm afraid of leaving out details if I have too much to write. But we havent been getting to many places with internet, and when we did, we had to leave due to impending storms. More on that in the journal. Back to Carmen where we left off.
I hung out on the boat in Carmen for a few days while we waited for the other crew to arrive. I really became completely endeared to this town. There really wasnt anything special to it, just that I had spent a lot more time there than I had in other towns. I think my frame of mind might also have been changed by the fact I had a purpose. I was working aboard a boat, and I was waiting for crew, and exploring with the extra time. I wasnt just hanging around doing nothing. Frame of mind makes all the difference sometimes.
I'd row to the docks just about every day, and go wash up in the well, or do laundry, or head to the markets or internet cafe. At the end of the dock where it met the road, there were about 8 kids, all between the ages of 3 and 8 years old. I had stopped one day to take polaroids of them which I gave them, making me a fan club for life. The only english they knew was hello and goodbye. So as I would walk up, they would form a gang on one part of the street, and say "Hello, Hello, Hello" in their different voices, then just as I would pass the exact spot they were standing, they would instantly change the chant to "Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye". That was worth going in to town alone for.
Going back and forth from Carmen to Danao, we passed a school. On two occasions I saw the schoolkids outside cutting the grass. With knives. Little butterknife sized instruments, and 50 or so kids moving along to cut the grass. I tried to imagine what would happen if you asked kids in a school in the US to do that.
On one occasion when Alex and I went to Danao, we timed it just right that we were able to catch a mini-bus there. When we arrived in Danao, we went through the streets to the drop off point, through intersections without stopsigns. Thats just the way all the intersections are here. As we went through one of them, a motorcycle carrying 3 people came racing through and we hit it head on. The back tire went flying out and the bike accelerated and the rear tire fishtailed down the road, but regained an upright position. The last guy on the motorcycle turned around, gave the finger, and the bike sped off, without a care that they came less than millimeters from dying.
While on a solo trip to Danao, I went to grab a bite to eat in the market. The 14 year old girl at the food stand asked, "What would you like to eat?" "I'll have the beef and rice, please." "Will you marry me?" "Yeah, sure." Then I sat down and the 2 guys next to me who were obviously having beer with beer for lunch started talking to me in barely coherent English. The topic always comes to 'what are you doing in the Philippines?' I explain I am sailing, they ask if I am looking for a wife, I say no, they act offended that I dont like Filipinas, which I say I have nothing against Filipinas, at which time they say they have a sister/cousin/daughter suitable for me to marry. This is not an uncommon conversation, but this guy was really forcing the issue, and doing it several inches from my face, due to the amount he had to drink. All the while, the counter girl is coming back to see if I need more food and to confirm that she can start sending out invitations. It all gets a bit much for me, I ask someone for the time, act surprised and say that I've really got to go, promsing to call this guys sister. I then get up and run out. As I am walking down the street, the countergirl is shouting after me, to which I wave and say something like "We'll get married later" - but she is in quite a panic about it. Give it up, will ya. It was only the next day in Danao that I knew why she was so excited. She came up to me and said, "You forgot to pay for your food yesterday. 54 pesos please." Oops.
One of our last nights in Carmen, we invited people from the other boats in the harbour over for dinner and drinks. We are not staying in any marinas, and in fact, only 2 cities in the Philippines actually even have marinas. We just find protected bays and anchor out in the water. Well, some of the other people at anchor came over for a visit. Late at night, everyone on our boat had gone to bed except me and Alex the captian. Our guests were Steve from the US and Franz from Germany. Steve had been sailing for the past 25 years, Franz for 5 years, and Alex has been traveling continuously for 22 years now. I truly felt like a novice traveler in this crowd. The stories they all had to tell were just amazing. Steve and Franz are singlehanders, meaning they are sailing their boats around the world solo. Truly an amazing feat.
The other crewmember we were waiting for, Martyn from the UK, arrived and he, I and the other crew member,Dave from Germany finally took off for other ports. Our destination was north towards Borocay beach, stopping in various ports along the way. Our first day we headed up to a city called Ormoc and anchored for the day. I thought the town looked familiar, then realized it was the ferry port where I had beers with my bus drivers just a couple weeks ago. We decided to go around to explore the town just a little bit. The locals by the ferry dock said the nearest town was Isabel, just a few minutes by moto-trike.
Thus starts perhaps 3 of the most amazing days of my whole trip.
Now, Isabel is on a main island of the Philippines, and on a main road. However, there is no reason for anyone to stop there, and you could tell people were stunned to see tourists there. People would come out of their shops to look at us, which was interesting more than anything else. We walked around the markets for a while, then headed for a walk down the sidestreets. It was truly fantastic. I dont think that any non-local has ever walked down that street. Ever. We went along and talked to the locals along the way who were more than curious to see who we were and what we were doing there. We passed a school at one point, and the students were all outside with their teacher. The teacher stopped us and asked if she could ask us questions. We were only too happy to stop and talk. When we asked if we could take a photo, everyone went in to a frenzy. These kids loved to have their picture taken, and all 30 of them jumped in to action vying for the best spot in the photo. They were even more in awe of being able to see the digital image appear on the camera. Walking that street was such a cool experience.
We walked around Isabel for a few more hours fielding questions from the locals. Dave has long dreadlocks, which most of the people here have never seen, so most of the questions are about his hair, or people just come up and inspect it really close, or shout "Hey Bob Marley" from a distance.
That night, as I was peeing off the side of the boat (as one does) I noticed an amazing amount of phosphoresence as the pee hit the water. Phosphoresence are these little particles that light up purple in the water at night when agitated. Usually you have to thrash about quite a bit to see them at all, but these were really going. I decided I had to take off my shirt and jump in. I thought someone had turned on a spotlight under the boat at a jumped in it was so bright. Dave and I had both seen phosphoresence before, but both agreed we have never ever seen it so amazingly bright. Little particles of it even clung to my leg as I got out. I dried off and ended up going to sleep on a mat on the top of the boat under the stars.
The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, pulled up the anchor and headed for points north. There really arent any major towns along the way, so we just pick a spot that looks safe, and head in. The spot that we picked this night was a small town we think was named Boris. Martyn and I went ashore to check out the scene. If I thought Isabel was remote, I was in for the shock of a lifetime.
Boris is on a small island. There are no roads. There are no cars. No hotels, resturants, buildings. Just a bunch of houses made of wood or bark which houses the fishermen and their familes that live there. Electricity comes from somewhere, perhaps on the other side of the island. But I will almost guarantee without a doubt that we were the first tourist to arrive here. If the reactions in Isabel were of awe, these were just of total shock. I think most of the people in the town of Isabel get to the nearer big towns once in a while where the busses and ferries pass through and see tourists. But for the kids of Boris, we were something they'd never even seen. Within minutes of arriving, we had a posse of 30 children following us. We passed a small path off the main path where we heard music and decided to follow. It was some guys building a house. Its really hard to describe the situation or the feeling as you approach this scene. No one is being unfriendly, they are just absolutely shocked to see you in this village. The only way to arrive here is by boat, and there really isnt a reason for anyone to come here, expect by random co-incidence. So the locals dont greet you with a smile at first, but rather a look of shock. Once we started talking to them, people smiled, and we talked and even danced to the music with the kids a bit. Pretty soon, word spread through this little village of about 200 people about the visitors by the building site, and everyone came out to see us. One guy even brought his turtle to show us.
I really couldnt, and still cant, believe this experience. For me, this is the essense of traveling. Meeting new people, experiencing their culture, and sharing what you can of yours, just by being there. I had never had such an untouched experience. I guess thats the only way I could put it. Even now as I type it, its impossible to put in to words the feelings and emotions that this afternoon held for me. Really just truly amazing. As we rowed back to the yacht, our crowd of children were waiving us off.
We reached a small island called Gigantes Island just a couple hours or so before nightfall. Gigantes was more or less another Boris, an isolated paradise which doesnt see any tourists unless a yahct happens upon it.
To give you an idea of the size of these islands, you could probably sail around the entire perimeter in about 1 hour. There are a few neighboring islands about the same size, then a handful of dinky islands just big enough for a small village. We usually choose which one to stop at by which bay has the best protection from wind or waves.
After climbing back down the cliffside, we went in to town and bought a case of beer, giving a couple to our gides. We suggested we go to the beach to watch the sunset. The locals agreed, so the 6 of us took off with our posse of 50 or so seven-year-olds in tow. We grabbed a beer and sat on the beach. Instantly, we were surrounded by the kids checking us out. They were at least 3-deep, blocking any view we had of the sunset. All we saw were little faces staring at us. We all agreed that a sunset could be seen anytime and this was way cooler, so we just sat and watched the kids watch us.
Walking back to our rowboat, I tried to nail down in to words a way to describe how intense this all was - something which I am still not able to do. But I treid to liken it to being a rock star. Everywhere you went, you had admirerers following you and wanting to be around you. But Dave pointed out, that its actually quite different. These people arent trying to feel better from being around you, but rather, they are simply wonderful people trying to share their happiness with you. How true.
Our guides had told us that the neighboring island had a lake in it, and if we wanted, they could find someone to take us out and show it to us. Our plan was to leave in the afternoon, so it sounded perfect.
Dave and I amused ourselves after dinner by trying different jumps off the top of the boat, and playing in the phosphoresence, which wasnt as active as the night before, but fun nonetheless.
The next morning, we rowed back to the island and arranged an outrigger boat and 4 guys to show us around this neighboring island. Going out there on the boat, we must has passed more than a dozen pristine beaches, more beautiful than any beach I have ever seen in a resort or beach town. I am not kidding. I thought to myself that there are so many people looking for that secluded, lost, deserted and untouched paradise they envision in their minds, and they head to the travel agency with a description of it and try to get there. And we've found it. Stumbled upon it by accident. For the second time in the same journal, I find myself at a loss of words to describe ther beauty of the scenery. I took a couple photos, but just had to stop. No lens could capture it all. The crystal blue of the water, the green of the islands, the white of the sand and the perfect shade of sky. All with the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
We took the outrigger around to the back side of the other island, and tied up to a cliff, which looked almost impossible to climb up. We werent going up, we were going through. There was a small person-sized hole in the cliff, and we climbed through to arrive inside a perfect circle of cliffs jutting up all around us with a shallow lake in the center. The cliffs were covered with all sorts of different plants and trees, making for the most amazing melting of greens and rock colors. 360 degrees of utopia. Some of the cliffs on one side had deep caves in, which we explored for about an hour. None of us wanted to leave. We knew that returning to Gigantes meant returning to the boat and sailing off. We all agreed that if there were no other considerations and we were on our own boat, we would spend a week or 2 here. Perhaps I'd never leave.
Heading out of the caves, the path took us to the top of the cliff were the outrigger was tied up. Rather than climb back in and through the hole, Dave and I decided to get in some cliff jumping and made a pretty big leap of faith in to what we hoped was deep enough water. No suspense in this one - I'm here writing, aren't I?
We left that afternoon to make an overnight passage to Borocay. Theres a huge science behind sailing, and I'm only just beginning to learn it. First, you want to time your arrival at a daylight hour, and with a favorable tide. With the Salamandra, its a deep boat (3.6m draft) so we have to go in at low tide so the reefs are visible. But we need to pull up anchor and leave when the tides are changing so we can get the anchor up. Then, we want to travel with the current, and if possible, with the wind. Currents are predictable, winds are not. So with all these factors, Alex felt it was best to leave about 3pm, sail overnight and arrive in Borocay the next morning at low tide.
Sailing at night was a rather interesting experience. Each of the crew takes turns doing nightwatch in 3-hour shifts. The boat is on semi-autopilot. We check the GPS every few minutes and adjust the course accordingly, but other than that the main task is to watch for other boats and wake Alex if anything looks dangerous. When you're in the cockpit alone, it hits you how still, quiet and vast it all is. No noise but the wind in the sails. The sea blends in to the sky and the horizon melts together. Just a few flashing lights in the distance give any clue where the two come together. It really makes you contemplative, and with that much time, its easy to get caught up in your own thoughts. You begin to realize just how small you are in the universe and in the grand scheme of things. Then you see a smaller boat....
These fishermen in their one-man outrigger canoes fish all hours of the day and night. They are in boats about 7-8 feet long, as opposed to the Salamandra which is 63 feet long. We have running lights, front, rear, and sides. They have a small lantern which they light if you get too close. Sometimes thats almost too late. But here we are, about 15 miles from shore, and they are in a canoe with a paddle and a lantern. Goodness.
I was lucky enough to get 3am to 6am shift, and got to see the sun come up over the back of the boat. The stars that I had been watching and plotting for the sake of curiosity were now slowly going out one by one, as of someone had a massive panel of lightswitches somewhere.
We made it in to Borocay at 10am. This is the tourist beach I had been to about one month ago with the guys I was traveling with at the time. After boat showers, which consist of a couple quick rinses with a soap-up inbetween, we decided to get a hotel and treat ourselves to a nice shower and a bed that doesnt move with the waves. My plans while in our planned 2-3 days in Borocay were: running, showering, internet, do some diving, get a massage on the beach (something I wanted to do last time), get a couple nights in at the clubs, do some shopping, upload photos and write this journal.
After a run and a shower, we decided to tackle the clubbing portion of the to-do list. We found some good spots, met some nice locals, and began to get in the swing of things. Martyn was the only sensible one heading in at midnight, considering we'd all signed up for diving the next day. Dave and I on the other hand were 2 of the last souls stirring in Borocay, shutting down the last bar and coming in at 5am.
I didnt make diving the next day.
I headed to the internet cafe, but was interupted moments after sitting down by a call from Alex that I needed to meet him on shore and watch the kids while he checked the weather on the internet. No problem, I've got a couple days. 30 minutes later, Alex comes back and says that there is a storm brewing not far away, and Borocay does not offer the protection that we need and that we need to get to a secure bay, and with tides and daylight, we need to leave in the next hour. Rats.
I bought some fruits for Sonia, as I figured she wouldnt have been able to buy any with our hasty departure. Nope, she had gotten some, and I made a valuable observation. Never ever depend on being somewhere as long as you think. Things can change fast when sailing, so do what you really want to do right off the bat.
We werent able to arrive in our first choice bay (Looc Bay) by nightfall, so we had to dock up at another bay called Santa Fe. Santa Fe was a pretty cool town, but the island was large and had road access, so the reactions weren't as pronounced. We got in a run and a hike and were able to explore the town a bit. But the true gem of the stop in Santa Fe came when we arrived back in town from our hike. Alex had made some friends in the local karaoke bar and had enough liquid persuasion to get up and entertain us. Quite possibly the most bellowing rendition of Like a Virgin I've ever heard. Classic. We paid an outrigger guy to take us out to a deserted beach we had seen while hiking, and just sat and watched the colors of the sky change.
The next day we sailed a couple hours up the shore to Looc Bay. After we arrived, Alex needed to head in to town for supplies, and Martyn went with him. Dave and I decided to check out the reef in the middle of the bay to see what snorkeling there might be. There was a lighthouse (well, a concrete slab with a light on it) built on the reef, but curiously there was a little bamboo hut floating next to it. We decided to head to the hut to tie up the rowboat, but had no idea what to expect. It could be someones house, who knows.
3 guys, all their gear, and a rowboat that was about to buckle under the pressure set out for our refuge from the kids. Just us and a bottle of rum floating on some bamboo in the midde of a bay getting ready for some snorkeling the next day.
As we rowed nearer, we began to see a light. A light? From inside our refugio? The Looc Bay Watch Patrol was out there and was maybe as surprised to see us as we were to see them. But some handshakes and introductions and we were all sitting around like buddies. The bay watch patrol provides any assistance to the 150 night fishermen who fish outside the bay. All around you could see little dots of light in the distance outside the bay where a little boat and a little lantern sat. The task force offered us some of their fish which they were cooking over the BBQ, and we ate, talked, drank and sang with the Looc Bay Watch Patrol for the rest of the night until we all got tired and went to sleep.
At 5 in the morning, their shift was over and they began to pack up. They woke us up, and we asked if we could still sleep here. They said yes. One thing you'll learn about people who speak English as a second language - they communicate well, but often aren't able to differentiate between tenses. The question "Can we still sleep here?" isnt too different from "Have we just slept here?". Because at 5:30, we were told with an air of finality "You have to leave now.". Apparently we are not allowed to stay here after they leave. If we want to snorkel, we have to leave and come back when the next shift starts at 9am. Bummer, but who are we to argue.
Unfortunately, with tides we had to leave just before 9, so our plans for snorkeling wouldn't happen. We needed to make a day trip and a night trip to arrive in Coron in 2 days to meet our other crew member.
We stopped in a cool little channel the first night, and got to get in our snorkeling the next afternoon, after we finished a morning of chores.
We did another night sail to get here in Coron before nightfall. Coron is a bigger town, and actually has a few tourists. Kind of strange to be back in this setting. I havent seen any of the town. Knowing that I could get a call from Alex that we need to go in the next hour, I am sending this out now. :)
Life on the boat has proved most interesting. We're learning a lot about sailing, as well as learning how to walk up from the kitchen holding a plate of food and a full cup of drink while the boat is rocking and not spilling anything. Its all in the timing, baby. We have a lot of BBQs, with Alex being the master BBQer manning the charcoal grill on the back deck. We've got our little routines of cooking, cleaning, reading, and relaxing. We even manage to get in a fair bit of excercise with push ups, sit ups, pull ups and some cool Thai kickboxing excercises that Dave has been teaching us. My room consists of a bed about 6foot by 4foot which I sleep in diagonally. Floor space in my room is about 1.5foot by 6foot. I prefer to sleep outside in the hammock or on deck, but in swells, its just not possible. The food is the best I've had in quite a while, and there is always plenty enough to go around even with big appetites.
I'm really falling in love with this sailing thing.
Hope you're well,