~ Into a Volcano, and Paradise Found (Palawan, Philippines)
I'm writing from my "office" (beach cabana on remote Miniloc Island, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines), and Thursday's flight from JFK to Manila seems like it was ages ago. 16 hours JFK-Hong Kong, then the 2-hour Hong Kong-Manila connection would normally be fairly gruesome, but I had plenty to do (books, DVDs, knitting) and the security of knowing that I had brought my own meals and munchies. Arrived in Manila in fairly good spirits, despite having lost sight of my anklebones somewhere over the Bering Strait.
Manila and around...
After Mik arrived separately from Beijing, the first couple of days in Manila were occupied with seeing family. Having been in the Philippines last in 1999, I was really surprised at how much everything had changed, especially in Makati, the main business/shopping district, where we were staying at favorite uncle Joel and his partner Butch's very cool townhouse.
The adventures truly started on Monday, when Mik, Butch and I visited the still-active Taal volcano, which sits in the middle of Taal Lake (which is in an extinct volcano caldera itself). Taal volcano, in turn, has a lake in its crater, which, you guessed it, has a small island in the middle. In this photo, the "outside" body of water shown is Taal Lake, which is within the mainland of Luzon, which obviously is an island itself in the Pacific Ocean. It's sort of a similar Russian-doll type situation (you know: me, floating in water, with baby, floating in water, inside) that I had tried to focus on as I slogged across the 50-meter pool at Tito Joel's club on Sunday (I'm used to 25-meter pools, and needed something to occupy my mind during the interminable hajji back and forth across the Polo Club pool).
Though we had intended to sail a Hobie catamaran from the mainland to the crater island, the wind was absolutely dead when we arrived, so we decided to catch a ride on a motorized banca instead (a banca is a skinny canoe-type boat with outriggers for balance; they are commonly used throughout the Philippines). Arriving on the volcano proper, it was obvious that the trip to the rim of the crater would be a hot, tough 45-minute hike, so I opted to go on horseback instead. Not as alarming as it sounds, because I kept to a walk, and here we're talking about slow, short little nags anyway, quite pathetic really, but we rationalized that hiring one would at least help provide them with some oats to eat. After a few photos down into the "inner" lake and island and chugging a few liters of water at the rim (which Mik, on foot, had gamely schlepped up the hill for us) we headed back down, across the lake, and back into the heavenly air conditioning of the car.
On the way back to Makati, we stopped for a delicious traditional Filipino lunch, followed by dessert at another scenic spot, and just to prove that we really know how to reward ourselves after a tough morning, got massages at a beautiful, secluded, tranquil B&B and spa called Sonya's Garden. My masseuse obviously knew how to take care of a pregnant woman, easing out all the kinks in my shoulder and neck area and getting the blood flowing in my legs, while being really gentle with my lower back and staying away from those reflexology points in the feet. Aaaaah.
Paradise found (El Nido, Palawan)...
The 1 hour 15 minute flight from Manila to El Nido town on the mainland of Palawan on a sunny, clear day gave us an opportunity to take loads of great aerial photos of the islands we passed. After landing on the dirt airstrip, we were greeted with singing and a snack before being transferred to a waiting speedboat, which conveyed us through a mangrove swamp to the archipelago, where we transferred to a banca for the 30-minute trip to "our" island of Miniloc. I'm at a loss to describe just how beautiful it is out here. The waters range from a clear bright turquoise to deep mysterious midnight blue, and most of the islands have a strip of white sand beach and then lush green rainforest growing on limestone cliffs inland. These islands are geographically unique in that they are actually part of the Eurasian plate (as are the islands of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Guilin in China), and only joined the Philippine island group about 15 million years ago, so they are unique even among the islands of the Philippines, not to mention lush and relatively protected and undeveloped.
As we approached the resort and made the final banca-to-speedboat transfer (amidst more singing from shore), I could see that Mik was literally wagging his tail in barely-contained excitement. He did manage to sit still long enough to have his welcome cocktail and a late lunch before we joined a guide and some other guests to explore one of the nearby lagoons. It soon became obvious that neither of the other two couples had ever kayaked before, and were making so much noise that they were going to scare the bejesus out of any animals we might come across, so we broke away from the group early on and were able to enjoy winding our way around the small, room-like sections of the unreal lagoon in relative quiet. On our way back to the resort, I also spotted a beautiful, brightly colored, toucan-looking bird, which Mik wasn't able to see because it was mostly red against the green background.
So far, we've sighted about half the animals on the resort's frustratingly kindergarten-ish "Eco-guide," including hornbills, egrets, macaque monkeys, schools of giant jacks and parrotfish, and rays, but we've seen tons of other animals as well. Besides what were probably hundreds of species of other fish with every possible combination of spots, stripes, and color, we also came within a few feet of a blue and black sea snake and a roving gang of teenage (3/4 meter) blacktip reef sharks that were cruising up and down the shallowest part of the beach of a neighboring island we visited. Snorkeling, even just off the boat dock steps in the resort's "home reef," is like dunking your head in an aquarium. Because I still tend to get a little freaked when I run into big fish in the ocean, Mik has been sweet enough to let me grab his hand (or leg, or hair, or shorts) whenever we're in deeper water. Earlier today, we ventured much further than usual, and it was so peaceful as we listened to the fish making their little noises as they picked at the coral. I wondered if the baby could somehow sense all these other creatures in the water, and I thought about Mik, patiently holding my hand and thinking of what a great dad he'll be, and I'll admit that my mask may have fogged up a little.
More next week about fishing, kayaking, hiking, sailing and other adventures on Miniloc and the surrounding islands - after the first day, we were given our own guide, who was probably assigned to us specifically to make sure that the hyperactive white guy and his pregnant wife didn't get into any trouble. To balance out the active pace, I've been making sure to carve out a few chunks of cabana-sitting time every day, too, with the beach bar bartender sending over a tall glass of ice water for me every half hour or so. Ahhhh paradise.