Sunday, February 15, 2015

January Joys: the UAE & The Philippines

Warning: This a picture heavy post, and pretty long to boot. Forgive us- I tried to cut down but January was Written on February 4th.

It's our last day in the Philippines and Tom and I agree that this the saddest we've felt leaving a place. 
Don't get me wrong, tonight we land in Bangkok and a whole new adventure begins. I'm eager for whatever comes next, especially since we will be meeting up with some dear friends from home.

Still, somehow February has crept up on us and January, our seventh month of travel, is already gone. 
And what a marvellous January it turned out to be. 

Places visited: 

UAEAbu Dhabi and Dubai 

Philippines- Coron, Manila, Bacolod, Danjugan Island, and Siargao Island

An amazing moment diving in Coron


It seems like only a week ago that we celebrated the New Year in Abu Dhabi, barefoot on my friend Mattie's dock. I can remember (despite the champagne) the crack of not-so-distant fireworks and the fierce hugs that Byrd sisters do so well. I remember squeezing my eyes shut tight, thinking that if 2015 is as wild, weird, and wonderful as 2014, I might just collapse from too much happy.

After New Years we spent ten more days in Abu Dhabi and Dubai which consisted of a lot of family time, beach lounging, desert drives, shockingly delicious dinners, some fishing, and couple really fun nights out on the town.

At the Top of the Burj Al Arab, the tallest building in the world

On one of our last evenings in town we decided to visit the largest mosque in the world outside of Saudi Arabia, the Sheik Zayed or Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi. The mosque is the beautiful brain child of the late great Sheik Zayed, who was the countries first ruler post-independence.The golden light of the hour before sunset illuminated the white marble making it glow like something out of a fairy tale. We opted for the group tour and learned so much about the mosque, it's construction and purpose, and of course Islam.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was learning how many different people of varied backgrounds and faiths went into making the 32 domes, the ginormous carpet, the turrets, and the chandeliers. There was a chandelier made by a German, calligraphy by Turkish master, marble flowers climbing the walls crafted by an englishman and many more I've already forgotten.

For a detail oriented person like me, I was mesmerised. Each stone had a meaning, each flower was a story, everything was a reference or a remembrance. Sheik Zayed never lived to see his dream place of worship finished. Moments after the tour the sun sank low and the call to prayer sang out. It was strong and melodic, and even though I am not Muslim, I felt spirituality of the moment.

On the 11th we arrived in the little town of Coron on Busuanga, an island on the western perimeter of the Philippines. In Coron we took a crack at something Tom had wanted to do for years and that I had been absolutely afraid of for years: Scuba Diving.  

Wreck diving
My favorite picture from our dives
Coron is famous for it's eleven WII Japanese shipwrecks sunk with in the same two days back in 1944. With the goal of seeing at least the top of a wreck we decided to get certified. After only one or two moments of panic (have you ever cried with a mask on? It's weird), I let myself fall in love with it and we ended up going on a total of seven dives in seven days.

We dove with Rocksteady Dive, which turned out to be an amazing choice. Our instructor, Dennis was the most calm individual I've ever met. We refer to him as the dive ninja- he was super professional but also really funny and friendly. The crew was a mixture of Filipinos, Germans, Koreans, and an American and ALL awesome. 

Coron also is famous for it's various beautiful lakes and lagoons which are all accessible by public or private boat tour. We decided to go with the later and for only $28 we rented the whole boat, the crew, and a huge lunch. The boats can hold up to six people meaning that the whole tour can cost as little as $4.60 a head. One our tour we opted to visit just a couple spots so we could relax a little. We chose to snorkel at Siete Pecados, go lake swimming in stunning Kanyangan Lake, and chill out on Banol Beach.

*picture break*

Kayangan Lake

Snorkeling at Siete Pecados
Banol Beach

After Coron, we visited my childhood best friend in her family home in Manila. Lena and her family took us in and treated us like family despite the fourteen years since I had last seen them. In Manila we ate great food (mmm still dreaming about the molten lava cake), Tom killed it at trapeze school, and we met tons of Lena's lovely and talented friends.
Lena, Solo, and CAKE at Calle in Bacolod

Lena invited us to join her in her friend to visit Danjugan Island, a private island sanctuary reserve off the coast of Negros. The island is special, as are the people who live for it. Since it's purchase in 1991, the sponsors of Danjugan have been running various kids' camps focusing on conservation and preservation of wild life and natural resources. Prior to heading off to camp we spent a day and night in Bacolod, hosted by Lena's friends. They were the epitome of hospitality and generosity and we basically just ate cake every thirty minutes. My kind of town with my kind of people.

And then we were on the bus for the four hour ride to camp.
My friend and fellow camper puts it well:

"We visited the Marine and Wildlife Camp last January 23-25 at Danjugan Island, Cauayan, Negros Occidental. The camps are offered by the Philippine Reef & Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI), with usually two summer camps for children and one camp for adults annually. The camps were originally created to inspire children (and now, adults too) to become conservationists, and to raise awareness about past, current, and future conservation efforts.
The island itself is a place of wonder. It has 7 eco systems (in one small island!) and is teeming with beautiful wildlife. The camp hosts lectures on topics such as ecosystems, marine life, coral reefs, bats & caves, biodiversity, and climate change, as well as activities that genuinely inspire and urge us humans to contribute to conservation efforts."

Camp was ridiculously fun. It was basically the summer camps of my youth complete with competitive games and sandcastles but made adult by the late music and beer sessions. The combination of silly fun, the serious learning, and inspiring people made it an indescribably meaningful weekend. I can honestly say that those short three days on the island sanctuary made me think much more clearly about my own effect on the environment and for that I'll be forever grateful.

amazing campers
Our last week of January was fittingly spent in probably one of my most favorite places in the Philippines, Siargao Island. I know I can't properly explain the magic of Siargao Island. Tom and I have been annoying all of our friends with tales of how much we loved this place (Sorry Jonny). The combination of wide coconut palm lined streets, the relaxed surfer attitude of the people, and the startlingly untouched beauty of the landscape made it hard to leave. 

Like Budapest, Iceland, and Portugal- we extended our stay on our first day. Somehow we just know almost instantly. I remember walking the narrow cobbled streets of the Alfama district of Lisbon with our hosts, and the feeling would just settle over me like a warm breeze. Falling a couple steps behind, I looked at Tom and thought,"I think we're going to like it here".

Similarly, I was on the back of motorbike, holding onto a surf board, chatting to a Filipino surfer about life, counting palm and bamboo huts when I just knew it would be hard to go. We surfed about four days out of the seven. It was hard. I am not a very fit person but the adrenaline rush of catching a wave kept me going. I am still not a good surfer but I can say I am enthusiastic. I don't have any pictures of us surfing because...well...we were surfing at the time. I can officially add surfing to the list of new hobbies that I simultaneously love and suck at.

 Like Coron, there a bunch of tiny little islands dotted around General Luna. Together with two new friends from our fabulous surf hostel/resort, Kermit we went for a sun-drenched island hopping day. We visited Guyam Island which was tiny and covered with palm trees, Daku Island which was larger and inhabited, and Naked island which is neither people or trees on it.

As with many other places, the people were the most beautiful parts of life on Siargao. While traveling sometimes we make friends with locals, or expats, or visitors like us. On the sand-floor restaurant of Kermit Surf Camp we made friends with a seamless group of all three. Kermit has the perfect vibe- relaxed, clean, and with all the delicious food Tom and I could manage. We felt included and lucky.

Not-So-Awesome Moments

This month was filled with highlights. When I started jotting down ideas for this post I had twenty-one highlights, and realised I'd listed basically everything that we had done. Still this month hasn't been as perfect as the colorful pictures make it seem. No amount of time spent traveling is without a couple not-so-awesome moments. In retrospect the things I am about to list are really not bad at all. Mildly annoying perhaps but much worse things have happened since then.

First we burnt our selves to a crisp our very first day surfing. A big blistering red rookie mistake, I still have the rash guard marks and peeling skin three weeks later. Ouch. Similarly, I got a weird sinus infection in Manila that hung out for a week. The salt water forced into my head while surfing helped clear it up.

Because the Philippines is an archipelago there are two ways to get around: fly or ferry. We had a month and several places to go so we decided to fly the budget airline Cebu Pacific Airline. It tends to be a little cheaper and whole lot more unreliable. I can't tell you how many times we spent hours in the airport waiting for a flight that would either not happen or happen three hour late.

We also spent a far bit of money in the Philippines- about $2000 but we did fly seven times, and were enjoying all the great food. I don't regret a single Philippines peso.

And finally the worst moment of January was leaving the Philippines. We fell in love with the country and it's citizens and I can't wait to go back and continue exploring. 

a pristine lagoon in Siargao

Head Chef Gringo

What's next
Up next we head to Bangkok to meet up with a bunch of our friends from New Orleans, followed by four days in Koh Tao, and five in Chang Mai. Anyone have any advice?

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