“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe”
~ Anatole France
30 June 2009
23 June 2009
The Huixin Infant Orphanage is set back on a dusty, tree-shaded lane on the north side of downtown Shanghai. I finally took the opportunity to join the volunteer group 'Bean' for one of their weekly events. Spending a few hours with these kids was the highlight of my weekend. The orphanage was swelteringly hot, but the kids didn't care ... we had a great time coloring, singing songs and playing music.
Most of the kids at the orphanage had mental and physical disabilities, which only compounds the the need for more caretakers ... the several women working at the home clearly had their hands full. The conditions at the home were better than I expected, though I really wonder what lies ahead for most of these kids as they grow older.
Bean is an international service organization that combines social networking with service in the community. I look forward to becoming a part of the group and finding more time in my schedule to volunteer ... it really helps me put things into better perspective
11 June 2009
03 June 2009
"Do you want to hold him?" he asked, though he didn't wait for my response. With a wide spacy grin on his face, he thrust a frog into my hands. "Doesn't he look beautiful?"
Two huge frog eyes stared back at me from my cupped fingers. "He looks terrified," I replied, handing it back to him.
The frog must have caught a whiff of Mark's island rum-soaked breath, because he made a heroic leap for freedom and did a bee-line for the beach. He stumbled after it, attempting to call it back like a family dog. Harmony and I turned to each other and laughed.
Funny the people you meet on a remote island beach in the Philippines. Our brief stay at Taka-Tuka Lodge was filled with a potpourri of people. A Canadian TV commercial director living in Manilla. A German of Korean descent living in Bangalore. The widow of a sugar plantation owner from Bocolod. An older British man with his Philippine wife ... about half his age. A labor rights lawyer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania working in Vietnam.
The allure of a secluded beach and pristine waters clearly does not discriminate.
We touched down in Manila shortly after 4am on Thursday after a three and a half hour flight from Shanghai. We groggily stepped off the plane in search of our bag and a cup of coffee. The Manila airport is truly a crossroads. We stood in line at the check in counter behind a man hauling boxes of live chickens. It seemed only appropriate that rooster calls were echoing out of the breathing holes in their makeshift mobile homes. It was just prior to sunrise, after all.
"Will this require us to admit to'close contact with live chickens' on the health declaration form?" I wondered aloud to Harmony.
Having re-checked our bag for the onward flight, we went off in search of a free bench on which to while away our four-hour layover. Almost immediately after leaving the rooster calls behind at check-in do you encounter the other side of the spectrum. The smell of poultry feathers is quickly replaced by the sweet aroma of espresso beans and fresh donuts.
"Is that a Cinnabon?" I asked rhetorically.
A crossroads, indeed.
We both managed to catch some fried dough-incuded sleep waiting for our plane to arrive. I drifted off while reflecting on the Cebu Pacific Air tagline printed on a wall poster: 'Its time every Juan flies'. Pretty clever.
Our taxi driver hurtled down the new two lane road with one had on the wheel and the other poised on the horn, just waiting for opportunities to use it. He found plenty.
Leaving the dusty city of Bocolod behind, the scenery outside transitioned into a vibrant green.
"All of this here," gesturing to the head-high slender plants rising on both sides of the road, "is sugar cane."
The images passed by the window like a silent movie. Water buffalo being used to plow fields. Homes made of bamboo walls and thatch roofs. Colorful laundry left to dry in the sun. Jeepneys so packed with people that some stand on the back bumper.
The three hour drive from Bacolod to Sipalay followed a repeating pattern: the driver would approach the back bumper of a slower moving three-wheel trike, give a polite honk of the horn, then whip his Isuzu truck into oncoming traffic while throttling the diesel engine. He thankfully would get back in his lane at the last possible moment before a head-on collision. We decided it was best to just keep our heads down.
Sugar Beach cannot be reached by road, so the driver left us in a little waterfront village where we were to catch a longtail boat. The day was already getting hot and the sea was calm. The village was quiet, except for some chickens pecking around in the sand and a few kids playing in the water. The driver sat down with us while we waited for our boat.
"All of the men in the village are out fishing," he explained. "Many of these families will have eight, nine or ten children. Thats just the way it is here in the Philippines!"
Indeed, a young boy walked over to us and curiously poked at our backpack. The taxi driver asked him how many siblings he had. Eight brothers and four sisters was the reply.
We waved goodbye to the driver and the boy as we left on our 20 minute boat ride to our final destination.
Taka-Tuka Lodge is a collection of eight rooms set back from the beautiful crescent of sand that is Sugar Beach. Swiss brothers Kalle and Marc opened the lodge eight years ago and have really poured their hearts and souls into its design. 'Taka-Tuka' is a reference to the story of Pippi Longstocking -- the girl who lived in a whimsically-designed house with her pet monkey while her father was away at sea. Pippi ends up traveling to the island of Taka-Tuka to rescue her father from pirates.
Each room is designed around a theme and is completely unique. Our room was called 'Mad Mix' and featured an eclectic mix of random objects attached to the walls, an upside down toilet on the ceiling of the shower out of which the water came out, and windows installed at 45-degree angles. We paid US$18 per night.
Sugar Beach is about 300 yards long and is pure sand sloping at a perfect angle to the crystal blue water. There were only a handful of small lodges on the beach, but most seemed empty. We practically had the beach to ourselves. Luckily we weren't there for the nightlife.
A day to relax, get some sun and catch up on sleep was just what the doctor ordered. The food at Taka-Tuka was a lot better than expected -- fresh mango juice, coconut shakes and a lot of vegetable-infused dishes. The Swiss owners of the place even had some of their comfort foods on the menu like rösti and hand-made sausage.
Back-rolling over the edge of the long-tail dive boat, we were suddenly submerged in a world of deep blue water and colorful coral. The sea felt warmer than did the air. The benefit of diving in the off-season is that you have dive sites to yourself. The two of us, alone with Marc, explored underwater worlds with names like "Sunken Island" and "Disneyland".
Descending no deeper than 60 feet, the diving was quite easy and incredibly peaceful. Marc knew the reefs intimately and guided us around them like someone proudly showing off their home. He would gather us at a coral head to show us a seahorse the size of a thumbnail. Later he would shine his flashlight on a rock to reveal it as a well-camouflaged frogfish.
Currents on the side of one reef turned our dive into a 'drift', sending us floating above the coral shelf as if we were flying.
With rain coming down above the surface, we chose a great day to spend beneath it.
As I dove beneath the surface of the water, a trail of light followed my fingers through the water. A type of luminescent plankton reacted to every stroke by giving off a flash of light, like underwater lightning bugs. Laying in the water and staring up the sky on our last night, I couldn't help but think how special a place the Philippines is. What it lacks in historical and cultural significance, it more than makes up for in natural beauty, solitude and friendly people.
The fact that it is relatively inexpensive only guarantees that we will return.