Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Inner Space

There are two places in Asia that are very famous for wreck diving: Truk Lagoon in Micronesia and Coron Bay in Palawan. The first wreck we dived in Coron (the 120m warship, Akitsushima) was bombed twice during the attack on Truk, but managed to escape, only to be repaired and then finally sunk in Coron Bay. How unlucky is that?

The Akitsushima was nearly ripped in half by the explosion, but the two halves remain surprisingly intact – as do all of the wrecks. It’s an eerie feeling to swim through cargo holds and engine rooms and see all the machinery and hardware still complete, albeit coral encrusted. Inside the Kogya Maru (a Japanese freighter carrying construction supplies, intended for building a runway) it appeared they had tried to plug a hole with cement sacks – we could see this clearly in the light coming through the much larger hole above us. However the human evidence of the attacks has presumably been recovered (or stolen? I hope recovered), as the only human remains we saw was a single arm bone lying next to the Akitsushima.

And this leads to my one reservation about the wrecks: I couldn’t help feeling somewhat voyeuristic, diving in a war grave. Perhaps this is also what makes it so exciting - that idea of a precise moment of time and history, captured and preserved by the ocean.

In my head I have so many perfect images: dropping down to 36 metres and looking up at the towering hulk of the Irako; peering through a hatch and seeing a very surprised looking grouper looking back at me; watching a blue-spotted stingray gently burying itself in the sand at the base of a massive propeller; the speckled light coming through jagged holes; a lone ladder dropping down into a deep, black shaft; schools of jacks gathering around the crows nest… such beauty in destruction.

I would go back tomorrow and dive them all again.

I should also mention Barracuda Lake, which was without doubt, the trippiest dive I have ever done! It is a fresh water lake, in the crater of an old volcano. The scenery is dramatic: the approach to the island reminded me of King Kong’s Island! It’s a forbidding, but sunny, place. To get to the lake you must climb up and over some jagged rocks in full gear (I will never complain about shore diving again). And the dive! Blimey. On the surface the temperature is was 28ºC, we dropped and admired the same sheer cliff walls now underwater, at 12m we passed the first thermocline – a shimmering line across our vision and quickly I watched the temp gauge on my computer shoot up: 29…30…31….32….33…34……35…36ºC! Really! It was uncomfortably hot, I touched the wall of the lake and the sand was hot. Our guide was rubbing the sand, then suddenly a jet of hot water shot out… all very strange!

We kept descending: at about 25m the water turned into tea. Literally. There is a layer of tannin at the bottom of the lake. At 30 metres it was so stewed we lost our guide – he was no more than 50cm in front… and then gone. I was with two others – I held on to Claire! The other girl was a Divemaster, so I didn’t hold on to her – but she stayed very close. At 33m I could not longer see my hand in front of my face! It was absolutely black. And that was as far as I was prepared to go!

We found our guide at 20m and all was well!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

On holiday

I am on holiday! Hurrah! And what does a Dive Instructor, who lives on a tropical island, do for her holidays, I hear you ask? Well, obviously I’ve come to another tropical island to do some… guess what? Yep, diving!

I am actually very much looking forward to diving WITHOUT STUDENTS! I am looking forward to having a guide and not having to navigate and I am very, very much looking forward to looking at fish and not at the other divers.

We, (my friend Claire and I) have come to Coron, Palawan, one of the more remote spots in the Philippines to dive the wrecks here. In 1944 the Japanese ‘hid’ their fleet in Coron Bay, unfortunately for them, the Americans spotted them and launched an attack. The air-strike was sent from aircraft carriers 350 miles away – setting a new record for long distance raids.

There are 18 wrecks here – I am not sure how many we will get to do, but we start tomorrow! Hurrah!

Monday, November 05, 2007

50 minutes underwater

My brother often makes jokes about having an incomprehensible job – I have a job that everyone has heard of! You’ve all, no doubt, watched Nat Geo documentaries with divers, but do you actually know what I do on an ordinary day? Yesterday I was guiding, and it was a good day! This blog is about one dive.

I suppose I should start with all the paperwork, getting all the gear ready, the careful chat with my customer to establish how confident/competent/experienced he is as a diver and most important, how likely he is to panic! Then there’s the dive briefing, loading up the boat, setting up the gear… and finally, getting in the water!

We back-rolled off the boat and I swam round to Dave, my customer. Quick ‘ok’ and then I gave the signal to drop. As we sunk into 5 metres of water, I watched his body language, descent speed and positioning – from this, I could see that he was going to be an easy customer – great!

I looked around to get my bearings – nearby was Kate, another Instructor, with two customers - an older couple. Staying out of their way, I signalled to Dave and we headed out to the wall.

When I have a new customer, I particularly like this Dive Site, for two reasons: firstly, in the first few minutes I can take a route that is over sand, so if my customer is a bit ‘wobbly’ they won’t hit (and damage) the coral. Also, I can swim backwards without worrying about hitting anything. I like to swim backwards at the beginning to keep an eye on my customer – you can’t speak when diving, so you learn to read a lot by the way people move and react. In diving it’s important to spot problems before they occur. Secondly, on the slope down to the wall is an Eel Garden – lots of big Garden Eels. They look like grass from a distance but when you get close you can see they’re alive! It’s always good to show a customer something cool at the beginning of a dive – it distracts them from any nerves they might have.

At the bottom of the slope we turned left and started cruising along the wall, dropping slowly to about 20m depth. I got lucky! Looking down, I saw the shape of a fish tail in the rock! A Scorpion Fish! They are very well camouflaged and usually, I find them hard to spot – this one was big too. I signalled Dave to come and look – I watched him blinking uncertainly at the rock – he couldn’t see it. Carefully, I pointed out its’ shape again – they’re poisonous. I saw his eyes go wide when he spotted it. He grinned through his reg and I moved on.

There was lot to see – a small school above us was being hunted by some snappers, which were darting back and forward and the corals are exceptional at this site – so I was able to point out lots to Dave and he was happy! As we reached the ‘corner’ I started to feel the current (pushing us round and out to sea), indicating it was about time to turn around, but first there was a nice big overhang to investigate – and what do I see there but a free-swimming moray!

Excellent! I pointed but I didn’t turn round – I didn’t want to take my eyes off it in case I lost it! Usually morays hide away in the rocks and all we see is a nose peeping out – so to see one free-swimming is always good.

I turned to see Kate and her divers behind me. I pointed out the moray to them and one of her divers planted herself right in front of me – which was a little rude – but then she’s paying I guess! Kate signalled to me that she needed to go up and asked me if I could take care of her two customers. I agreed and she signalled to them what she was doing. I looked back at the moray, it was now moving along the wall, in and out of the rocks. It disappeared into a hole and moments later a banded shrimp came charging out brandishing it’s tiny claws, looking very fierce! The moray had obviously frightened it!

I signalled my (now) three divers that we were turning around and coming up the wall. I had already briefed Dave on our Dive Plan and I know that Kate takes the same route as me, so I assumed the other two would also know where we were going. We turned and started to make our way up the wall. Dave followed me, but the couple followed for a few minutes and then dropped down again. I wasn’t impressed: regardless of what I had just signalled, once you start ascending you shouldn’t go back down – this is a basic rule that all divers should know. I signalled to them to come back and level-off at my depth, they saw my signal but ignored me. I continued watching them but did nothing: they are certified divers, they know the rules – so it’s their decision. After a few minutes they decided to come up and join me. When you start ascending you need to release air from your BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) in order to stay neutrally buoyant (i.e. neither floating nor sinking), again, this is basic stuff. Dave had already done this without being prompted. These two idiots had not. I signalled to them to release some air. The woman did, the man ignored me. I signalled to him again: pointing out that he was rising and needed to release some air now. The man gave me the signal for ‘relax’ or ‘chill out’. I was not impressed and he was still rising. I started to swim towards him – if he didn’t release some air he would start rising too fast and I would need to catch him and hold him down (this is exactly how I hurt my ears a few months ago). At the last possible moment he released.

Kate told me afterwards that, before the dive, he had got cross with her for doing a ‘Buddy Check’ (a last minute check that we all do to make sure our equipment is working and nothing has been forgotten). He told her he didn’t need a check because he was an "expert" diver, he knew "everything" and didn’t make mistakes. In other words he was a fool and he was going to be a headache for me! We continued along the top of the wall – lots of fish, lots to see, but I’m now watching this guy in case he gets himself into trouble!

When we reached the sandy slope back to the mooring line I caught sight of a large cuttlefish! It was the biggest I’ve seen around here so I was very excited! I really like cuttlefish – cephalopods are actually my favourite things to see in the water (Octopus are the best! With Squid and Cuttlefish as a close second. I have yet to see a Nautilus, but they do live around here so hopefully I will soon). One of the things I love about them is that they can change colour – this one was turning white as it swam over the sand and then mottled orange-pink when it moved over coral. Excellent! I turned to check on my divers – when I turned back I couldn’t see it. Arrrggghhh! Their camouflage is too good! This is why you should keep one eye on them all the time! I knew he was around somewhere though, so I decided to stay put.

First I checked everyone’s air: Dave signalled he had half a tank – great. The man signalled that he was ok. I asked again how much air he had and he (crossly) signalled ‘half-tank’, as did his wife. I told them all to stay around here and turned again to try and find the cuttlefish. There it was! I waved at Dave and he swam over, I then turned to signal to the couple – they were swimming back down the slope again. I was getting really fed up of them now! I caught the woman’s attention and told them to come back, pointing in the direction of the boat. I didn’t bother to point out the cuttlefish. Sod them! After a few minutes we started back through the shallows to the boat.

When we reached the mooring line, the woman signalled that she was low-on-air. She had obviously lied to me 10 minutes earlier when she said she had a half-tank. Why do people do that?! I put her on the line and told her and her husband to go up the line to the surface. She signalled ok and started up. Her husband went up to about 1 metre below the surface… and then started coming down again. I signalled to him to stay with his Buddy (for safety, we always dive in pairs, known as ‘buddy teams’. Buddy teams should always stay together) he ignored me. I got right in front of him, behind him I can see his wife also coming back down – obviously she had remembered they are a buddy team, but she is low on air! I told her to stop and signalled again to him to stay with his buddy and surface. Once again he gave me the signal to ‘chill out’ I was definitely not impressed and shoo’ed the pair of them up the line.

After a few more minutes in the shallows Dave and I came up. The couple were back on the boat – she was apologetic, he was pointedly ignoring me. I sat next to him and explained why I had sent him up. “I wasn’t looking at my depth gauge,” he said, as if that explained everything. I resisted the temptation to say “why not, you muppet” and smiled sweetly instead.

Chatted to Dave on the way back. Sold him three more dives and encouraged him to bring his girlfriend along to do a “Discover Scuba” session. Great dive, but fingers crossed I don’t see the other two again!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Favourite thing, that a customer has said to me, this week

Upon surfacing, directly in front of the hotel, after a Night Dive:
"You mean to say, that you knew exactly where we were for the whole dive?!"

Nb. My light failed in the first 10 minutes... and I didn't have a back-up (slap wrist!) which left me navigating in the dark. My response?
"Yes, of course I did!"

The truth? Ummmm, yeah! Well... sort of... mostly... more or less! Let's just say I was not surprised, but quite pleased, to see the hotel when we came up!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Forks and Spoons

Traditionally, Filipinos eat with their hands – Malay style – they scoop a ball of rice with their clean hand and dip that into whatever sauce or dish they have. Of course times change and these days all Filipino restaurants provide their customers with cutlery, although I notice my Filipino work colleagues eat their packed lunches (rice and a little something) with their hands. We all take packed lunches to work; there are no budget food places at our end of the beach. I take a sandwich, and for the first week, one of my colleagues would always offer me some of her rice, obviously very concerned that I did not have a 'proper' meal. A meal is not a meal without rice, as everyone knows.

When Filipinos do use cutlery, they use a fork and a spoon. This was something that, for me, took a lot of getting used to. When I first arrived in the country I thought the waitress had made a mistake – being English, obviously I said nothing! After a while you realise that eating rice and sauce this way is much easier – but cutting meat with the edge of my spoon was something I struggled with for some time.

I've been here nearly 10 months now. I eat at a number of favourite local restaurants, with my fork and spoon and, honestly, it’s not something I’ve given any thought to for ages. Tourist restaurants will give you a knife, local places a spoon – one adjusts.

Then yesterday, I tried out a new Filipino café: looking at the menu, I was surprised to see "Bacon, eggs & baked beans on toast". Yum! Baked beans!

When the food came, it wasn't bad! The bread was sweet, of course. They had added sugar to the beans, of course (Filipinos like their beans and their spaghetti sauce very, very sweet) and the bacon was overdone, of course (English style bacon would be considered raw over here). But what really threw me was trying to eat it with a fork and spoon. It seemed, somehow wrong to be eating 'English food' in this way. I was all thumbs – just as I was back in January. Whilst trying to cut my bacon I flicked one rasher onto the neighbouring table. For some reason, I couldn’t work my fork and spoon! Suddenly I felt like a stranger in a strange land, once again. (Although, if I really want to feel 'foreign' I just think about Balut.)

It's the little things you see – the little things that catch you out. One of my English friends has recently started dating a Filipino. She has, of course, told him lots of things about her homeland, but only one thing has really startled him; caught his imagination and completely intrigued him... and that is brown eggs. He has never seen a brown egg and he is not entirely convinced that they exist. It’s always the little things.

The other day I was chatting with a friend from work (the one who kept offering me rice): she asked why I didn't live in England. I said that people in England spent too much time thinking about money. She considered this seriously and replied "here in the Philippines, we think mostly about food..." she thought for another moment and added "and enjoying our lives."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

a character

I have recently started a new job – I am now the Dive Instructor for a posh resort at the classy end of the beach. Staying at the resort at the moment is a woman whom I want to tell you about. I don’t know her name but I feel I should give her some title, because she is an Amazon! I think she might be Dutch or German – her English is excellent, but there is a trace of an accent. She is tall, slim and muscular with long legs, high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. Her fair hair is cropped quite short into a sharp, 30’s style bob. She spends most of the day on the beach – she likes to sunbathe (on the sand, without a towel) in a tiny, lilac string bikini and matching swimming cap. She also swims often and is obviously very fit. She is very polite to everyone and, by the way the waiters fuss around her, I’m guessing she is a good tipper, but she is quite imperious in her manner. It is clear, from her bearing and her attitude, that she expects attention and that she was once very beautiful.

She is old – I would guess in her 70’s, possibly even 80’s. Her skin is wrinkled and sags over her muscles; she has many age spots and dark, thick-looking skin that has seen far too much sun. Next to our dive shop is a little hut where the towels are kept and where the waiters often sit for a break. This morning she came over to get a towel and stopped to fix her swimming cap. Two waiters on their break started chatting and giggling in Tagalog, I guessed it might be about her. After a moment or two, she gave them a sharp look and then thanked them for the towel, very politely, in Tagalog. Both waiters looked horrified and blushed bright pink, as she strolled away, head held very high.

I can’t help but wonder: am I looking at a distant echo of what I will become? I am 35, but dress the same as I did at 20 and I’m in better shape than I was then. I am starting the feel my body begin to age, but so far have opted to ignore it – safe in the knowledge that I am fit and toned and so can still stroll around in my bikini without shame! At what point, if ever, should a woman start to age gracefully?

I like her. I respect her for swanning around in her lilac string bikini! But I see other people staring at her in surprise. The young men look disapproving of her decision to expose so much wrinkled flesh. I see the looks of scorn from the plump, middle-aged matrons that lounge on the sun beds, while their young nanny’s run on the beach with the children. I do hope that behind their scorn is just a tiny bit of jealousy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Waste of time (and space)

I was in a bar last night waiting for a friend. Sitting at a table behind me was a large Australian man. His look and demeanour screamed 'idiot-tourist': he had a cheap 'Boracay' t-shirt fresh from the market; shiny, fake Nike shorts and a shiny, sunburnt nose. He was rude to the bartender and when his drink arrived he got his mobile out and started bellowing into it. He was talking to a friend back home about a woman he had met. It quickly became obvious that this girl was a prostitute he had been 'keeping' for about a week. He was not happy:

"I’ve been doing my bit!" he said, "I’ve taken her out and bought her some clothes but she won’t f**king make me breakfast in the morning! She’s just lazy!" He went on to describe how he’d met her in bar and was impressed by her English, so offered to take her on as his 'girlfriend'.

This is a common arrangement struck by the 'better' prostitutes: no payment is made for sex, but the man is expected to buy everything the girls might need for the duration of the agreement. This includes all their food, nights-out (the smart girls will get commission from bars and restaurants) new clothes (which the girls return to the shop the following day) and sometimes even rent and school fees for their children. When I was in Mindoro, a man I was diving with told me how his girlfriends’ parents had lost their house in a typhoon and he was paying to re-build it. I thought this was a little odd because it wasn’t typhoon season at the time. A week later I heard the same girl telling another man the same story. The following day I asked her about it – she laughed and said, “My parents loose their house about once a month, whenever my boyfriend have the money!”

A lot of Western men, who are embarrassed about using prostitutes, prefer to have a 'girlfriend' but they end up paying a lot more! I’m told that the 'girlfriends' who are good hustlers can make around p30,000/month (the average graduate salary is p8,000/month). The girl I met in Mindoro told me she was supporting her parents and putting her four brothers and two sisters through school with her earnings.

But I digress – this particular 'girlfriend' was apparently not up to scratch. The Australian said he had expected her to clean the flat and do his laundry as well, he was angry that she didn’t seem to think this was her job. She apparently wanted him to get a cleaner. It seemed his friend was trying to placate him and in response he admitted that: yes, the bedroom stuff was f**king great and she was "good enough to show the boys". Then he said,

"Cos’ I’m looking at this as a job interview!" (I’m not exaggerating, he used those exact words.) He continued, "I mean, if this is what she's like after a week, what kind of wife is she gonna be? I’ve got three kids back home that need looking after – I’ve got no time for a lazy bitch! Nah mate, it’s no good! I’m gonna have to chuck her out and start from scratch with another one. F*cking waste of time…"

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A charming way to describe a leaky roof

"Of course you can leave your things here, but please to know that when it is raining outside, it is also raining inside"

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Culture Clash

Sunday was a tough day: I had a frustrating lesson in Filipino etiquette, which I must confess, I find incomprehensible at times. It’s only an ‘ordinary’ work anecdote, but here it is:

I had a Night Dive booked, it was the last dive of a Course and my student was flying home the following morning. The dive had been scheduled for a couple of days, but when Sunday came, the weather was ugly: grey, windy and rainy. I don’t think any of us really felt like diving, but it was my students’ last day – we had no choice. Although the weather was bad, there are sheltered areas on the backside of the island where it’s still safe to dive and that’s where I was planning to go.

At 4pm on Sunday afternoon my Boat Captain dropped a bombshell: he told me our boat was not licensed for Night Diving, and we couldn’t go. He apologised and shrugged. I know our boat does Night Dives – so I suspected he had a hot date he didn’t want to miss, or maybe he just didn’t like the weather - neither did I, but I wasn't very impressed. I was also surprised – usually this guy is a hard worker and very enthusiastic. I told him we had to go. He insisted the boat was not licensed and he would get a large fine, our Shop Supervisor agreed this was the case – p10,000 they said, an enormous amount. I sighed, and said I would get another boat. They both nodded earnestly, safe in the knowledge that the chances of me getting another boat at 4.15pm were very, very slim indeed.

I called my friend L, who is the Manager of a Dive Shop further down the beach. He confirmed that there is no such license. We just have to give a manifest to the Coastguard. I told the Supervisor, who pretended that this was news to him and promptly busied himself in the filing cabinet. Moments later he told me, with a shrug, ‘so sorry’ but they had run out of the manifest forms and so I couldn’t dive tonight.

“But the manifest needs to be given to the Coastguard” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “but we have no more forms”
“The Coastguard will have forms,” I said “take the names and fill out the form there”
“Ah” he said. He shuffled his feet and stared at the floor, then he said he would call the Coastguard.
“It takes a long time to get approval” he told me, “many other dive shops tell me this. I don’t think we will get approval tonight.”
“We don’t need approval,” I said “we just need to submit the manifest”
“I do not think this is correct – from who did you hear this?”
“The Manager, L, from C Divers”
“Ah” he said.

He called the Coastguard, spoke to them in Visayan (the local dialect) then told me, very apologetically, that the Coastguard said we couldn’t dive. “So sorry,” he shrugged. I asked to speak to the Coastguard. He spoke again into the phone, this time in English “I have an Instructor here who is insisting,” he said, and passed the phone over, looking nervous.

“It is very bad weather!” said the Coastguard “not nice for diving!”
“I agree,” I said “but I have a course to finish, we must dive tonight”
“Oh” he said “but it is not safe to go deep!”
“We’re not going deep” I said “five metres”
“But you cannot go far!” he said, “there are waves!” I wanted to tell him, it's the ocean – there are always waves! I realised my Supervisor had asked him to talk me out of it. I sighed, “We will not go out far – only to five metres depth”
“You could shore dive,” he said.
“That is not safe” I replied, “there are waves and many sea urchins
“Ah… yes,” he said.
“So we will bring down the manifest…”
“Yes… but… it is very bad weather!”
“I know, but it is still safe to dive at Tambisaan, isn’t it?”
“Yes… but, diving late at night is not safe.”
“We are not going late, we are going straight after sunset. So I will get the manifest to you now…”
“Yes” he said sorrowfully. The Supervisor and Boat Captain looked crestfallen. I hung up. We all looked at each other. “Please take the names to the Coastguard” I said.
“Ah” said the Supervisor, looking at his watch “but there is no time now,” he shrugged, “already it is 5 o’clock! So sorry.”

There is a very particular shrug, peculiar to the Philippines – half nonchalant, half resigned: it begins with a sad face which says – ‘that’s life and life is tough sometimes’, it continues with an upbeat shoulder-lift which says – ‘but hey! Things could be worse!’ Then it finishes with a hopeful half-smile which says – “and it not really a big deal anyway!’ Sometimes this can be amusing, even charming, but other times it’s very irritating. At 5pm on Sunday afternoon, I was finding it extremely annoying. We appeared to have reached some kind of gridlock. I was getting tight-lipped and slightly fierce; my Filipino colleagues were giving me that blank, impassive stare with which there is no reasoning.

I decided to try talking to the Boat Captain again; after all, we are usually friends. I told him that I sympathised, I felt the same – the weather was horrible, I didn’t want to go either, but I promised him we would not go far, and it would not be a long dive. But, I explained, I had to finish this course or I would not get paid. Lastly, I said, “they might tip!” He listened, but looked very embarrassed. Then he disappeared into the backroom for a conference with the other ‘backroom boys’. I waited.

After a few minutes he returned. He looked shamefaced and would not make eye contact – I was expecting some terrible confession. He took a deep breath and said
“Now it is low tide. Last time we make night dive in low tide, I hit a rock. It damage the propeller and the old manager make me pay – for long time I pay,” he said. He looked close to tears: propellers are very expensive and boat captains are not well paid. “I cannot pay again,” he said.
“No, of course not” I said. “I will speak to the manager.” My friend, the Boat Captain, looked absolutely dejected, I worried he might cry with embarrassment.

And so, I spoke to the manager and the manager spoke to the Boat Captain and, in just a few minutes, the tension dissipated, the Boat Captain was back to his usual happy self and we went out to dive; where he waited patiently, in the pouring rain, while we dived and afterwards greeted my customers with smiles and not one word of complaint. When we got back I got the beers in, and now it seems, we are all friends again.

What frustrates me is that he had a legitimate reason to worry – why not just say that at 4pm?! Or even the day before? It was because, so friends tell me, to give me the real reason, would be to admit two things: that he was nervous and that he might make a mistake. The Filipino man cannot admit either possibility. The sad thing is that I should have known this. Our Supervisor and the Coastguard were backing him up, because they understood, and did not want to shame the Boat Captain by making him admit this out-loud. By forcing him to spell it out, I shamed him.

If I had not been there to force the issue – the Night Dive would have been cancelled, and the guys, through various hints and off-hand comments would have slowly got the message back to our boss that they were worried about Night Diving on the backside during low tide. Nothing would have been said directly but over a few days it would be been dealt with. It’s true, the shop would have lost some business in the mean time – but [shrug] that’s life and life is tough sometimes… but hey! Things could be worse and, in the end, it’s no big deal.

I'm sure if one of my Filipino colleagues was writing this blog the emphasis would be on the strange Englishwoman who is mostly OK (I hope), but sometimes… ‘oh my God, she can be so stubborn, so inflexible – so unwilling to ‘go with the flow’ like a normal person. Worst of all, sometimes, she is so outspoken, so outrageously direct, that one hardly knows where to look!’ But I am a ‘long-nose’, a foreigner, and foreigners often behave very strangely – so I think I have been forgiven. I also think the beers helped.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cats and Dogs

I woke this morning to see sunlight filtering through my curtains – it was very exciting. I sent a text to the dive shop to see if the boat was going out; made arrangements to meet a friend for brunch; the day was full of promise... then someone turned the lights out and the taps on. Yes readers, it is rainy season – occasionally it can be sunny and fresh, but mostly it’s dark, grey and the rain is coming down in sheets. Monsoon: the kind of rain that will soak you to the skin before you’ve even reached the front gate.

Usually the rain is accompanied by a crazy wind – leaving a café the other evening, I was nearly swept off my feet! There’s no escape from the Habagat (wind) because all the shops and restaurants barricade themselves in to keep the sand at bay. Walking down the beach is braving a wind-tunnel gauntlet: there are 10m high windbreaks on your right and boards and screens to your left. The sand whips past, stinging and blinding. Bah! Some tropical paradise! There are rumours of a typhoon coming... I have mixed feelings: part of me actually wants to experience a typhoon; the other part knows it will be horrible and inevitably some (or many) will loose their houses.

From the Lookout, at the top of The Hill, you can clearly see that Boracay is really two small islands joined by low spit of land, practically a sand bar. I live on the sand bar and we are frequently flooded. Around me it’s rarely above ankle deep, but in the centre of the island it has reached mid-calf-nearly-knees a few times. Many of the houses are not linked to any sewage system, so I resist thinking about what I might be walking in. Many buildings are raised, but not all. There are a few houses around the corner, who are living ankle deep in water. They appear to carry on regardless: a few days ago I saw a family in their flooded kitchen, sitting around the table having supper. I suppose there's not much else they can do.

Yesterday, there was a large bull tied up next to the path – complete with horns – I think he usually lives in the swamp, which is currently the lagoon. I was a bit scared! Bulls are always larger than one is mentally prepared for. I hovered on the path for a few minutes, then a couple of small children waltzed past – so I thought perhaps I could handle it.

People try to time their comings and goings with the weather. When it starts getting grey we decide: do I need to be anywhere else in the near future? If yes, move now! It is always a tragedy to get stuck in a bar for the whole evening! When the rain stops, people emerge from their shelter, blinking at the sun like little bears in the spring.

Still, only a few more weeks, then paradise will resume... but I wish I taken Mrs Botogol’s advice and bought those wellies!

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Just got all excited: someone left a comment on my blog! "What could it be?" I mused. The name was unfamilier - so it's not just one of my friends leaving a 'sympathy comment' (not that I get many of those). It's a stranger! Someone, that I don't know, has checked-out my blog (wow) and it has inspired them to think something! Something that they wish to communicate. Fantastic! I didn't look at it straight away - I had some emails to reply to, so I decided to do that first and save the mysterious comment for later.

Just checked it out. It was a link to an adult videos website. Life is full of cruel disappointments. Blogging is standing on a big stage in a dark auditorium - talking blithely to the darkness.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How can I help you today?

I was reading a very interesting article in a Filipino magazine over breakfast. It was all about Call Centres. Call Centres are one of the fastest growing industries in the Philippines. There is even a Call Centre ‘district’ in Manila! It is estimated that 300,000 Filipinos are currently employed and the industry growth rate was 100% last year.

I am sure none of this will surprise you! When I was last in the UK I heard Call Centres often discussed with a view to how irritating it is to be transferred to Delhi/Islamabad/Manila when you have a simple question about the branch in Ealing. One bank, I noticed, is even using “UK Only Call Centres” as the major tagline on their latest ads.

Here in the Philippines, Call Centres have also caused some consternation. You see, at p16,000/month, the pay offered is twice that of the average graduate salary (p8,000/month). Most of the employees are, therefore, fresh from University and the crème de la crème! The job is so staggeringly well paid because it is considered to be a “high stress” job. Employees are expected to learn the internal workings of a company they have never even heard of, and the specifications of all their products upon starting. More importantly, they are expected to speak fluent, business-quality English – as well as understanding a variety of dialects, accents, colloquialisms and slang (again, from a country most will know very little about). They must also cope with different customs and culture – British and North Americans interact with considerably less courtesy and formality than Asians. Worst of all, they must deal with customers being (as the article put it) “unreasonably angry”!

And they must do all of this in the middle of the night. Filipinos don’t work at night – apart from Night Watchman of course! Certainly bright Filipino graduates don’t work at night, and nor do their friends. As a consequence, Call Centre workers are becoming increasingly isolated (and alienated) from their friends, family and normal life. One Insider Source, went so far as to say,

"We must do a better job of preparing people to enter the industry. It would be helpful to look at Call Centre employees as a new section of society"

So what is the result of this new sub-culture of young, rich, nocturnal Filipinos? I am imagining they might be cultural cousins of the “Loadsamoney” characters we had in the UK during the booming 80’s, who also worked long and often unsociable hours. Bright, young, vibrant and more money than sense! I can also affirm, as one who has experience of nocturnal life, it does distance you from the conventions of society. You eat, sleep and socialise at different times from everyone else, except your colleagues. I remember a birthday party in Sydney where we (nightclub workers) were shocked to discover the restaurant wasn’t serving a full menu – it was 8am. After only a short time your work colleagues are, inevitably, the only people you see and this leads to a strong clique mentality – from here, it is only a small step to creating your own group customs and conventions. In the Call Centre district of Manila, according to Marvie, a 22 year old from Makati, “it has led to a corruption of values”. Our Industry Insider put it even more succinctly:

“Imagine being young, working with many others your own age, doing stressful work in the small hours of the morning while earning more money than you ever have before. These conditions create opportunities for casual sex and philandering.”

Of course, since they only speak to each other and their western clients – it wouldn’t have taken long before they started integrating Western slang and style into their close-knit clique. And not long after that, come the ethics.

The Philippines is a strict Catholic country. The use of birth control by married couples is still sniffed-at by many. However, the convenience stores in the Call Centre district have reported a 35% increase in sales of condoms and 'vaginal wash' this year. Taxi drivers are reporting numerous occasions when they will collect workers at the end of a shift and take them directly to a motel. Some are accusing the Call Centres of corrupting the traditional roles of the virtuous Filipina and the caring Pinoy man. As casual sex becomes more and more prevalent (and therefore acceptable within the group), male workers are reporting that their female colleagues are becoming sexually aggressive and more confident than is proper! The article reported many cases of workers having multiple partners within the same office, and also stated that the same problems have been reported in India, where some have even called for mandatory HIV tests for all Call Centre employees. Here in the Philippines the possibility of giving free lessons in Safe Sex to all new employees is being discussed. One wonders how long it will take them to discover cocaine.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Long Haul

I’m at Hong Kong airport: it’s all shiny and lush and arched and grey and matt and I can’t find anything. I suspect I am in the wrong terminal, but when I asked, the charmingly sweet Information girls just giggled and agreed with everything I said – in the Asian style, which really could mean anything at all. There’s free Wi-Fi (doh! Obviously!) but it’s so slow – I am writing this blog rather than watching the wheel spinning over at Yahoo… arrggghh….

What I really need is to go to the loo. This is the one major drawback of travelling on your own: I will now have pack away my stuff and take everything with me and, no doubt, loose my nice table with the attractive view over the terminus… right. No point in putting it off! Here we go…

I have decamped and retreated to the dusty corners of Gates 1-4. It’s quieter here and more in keeping with my state of mind. Sadly there are no tables, so my laptop really is. Fortunately after my sojourn in the home of real ale, I am now able to balance my laptop on my ample tummy. Curses.

A few words about the signposting of Hong Kong airport: I believe it is designed to wind you up. They signpost really well… up to a point, then they stop. When I arrived I suspected I might have ended up in the wrong terminal (caused by several mishaps involving confusing signposting and over zealous staff). So when I saw a sign saying “Transfer Help Desk”, I thought that would be my first port of call. I following the sign to the left, I saw another pointing straight on and so continued. Then nothing. Nothing that looked like a help desk anyway. There was a large silver bean on a pedestal (oh how I love modern airports, with their surreal concept art – more cruelty to be inflicted on the long-haul passenger, anxiously rubbing our weary eyes: “Does it mean coffee?” we ask in bewilderment.) I turned in a slow circle, looking for a sign or some inspiration. I saw a sign, which read “Airline Services Desk”. “They might know” I mutter to myself hopefully, so I set off, to the right, then straight on, until there are no more signs… once more a slow circle reveals only one helpful sign: “Transfer Help Desk” it reads.

Upstairs there’s a food court (from where this post began) I ate some nasty fast food. It was a burger or noodles and I am putting off the realisation that everything I eat for the next 6 months will come with rice or noodles for as long as possible. Although, as I write this, watching my computer wobble in front of me I think it must be a good thing.

One hour to go until my next flight: just time for another Killer Sudoku.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I can’t get no sleep

“It's at night, when perhaps we should be dreaming, that the mind is most clear, that we are most able to hold all our life in the palm of our skull. I don't know if anyone has ever pointed out that great attraction of insomnia before, but it is so; the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instincts and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind. (…) Perhaps that's why some of us are insomniacs; night is so precious that it would be pusillanimous to sleep all through it"
Brian W. Aldiss
I suffer from insomnia and Brian W. Aldiss is an arse. I would just like to make that clear from the start, in case any one was thinking this was going to be some kind of arty little piece about the romance of the night. Bah. I found this quote at 4.46 this morning when, in the absence of anything else to do, I put “insomnia” into every search engine I could find. And he uses words like ‘pusillanimous’ – what does he do, sit up all night reading the thesaurus? How peremptory.

As for perceiving 'our vast backward inheritance of instincts' – could he mean Facebook do you think? Second Life? Living our lives in cyberspace at unusual times of the day and night? I do that. Facebook, MySpace, flickr, friends reunited; my favourite shop is Ebay and love Google Blog Search for that really bleak stretch just before dawn. I have become a virtual weird old man who wanders around the streets at night shouting rude and inappropriate comments at people having normal healthy fun.

I am not lacking in imagination! I have already fed nearly every random name from my past (near and distant) into that great virtual haystack – I found an old school friend and didn’t find any ex-boyfriends – so pretty successful all round. Usually around 5am I get stuck into Blog Search – some of them are boring aren’t they?! I’ve been looking for my friend’s mystery blog: he is writing, but won’t disclose the web address. I am not certain whether he wants anyone to look for it – but insomnia reduces any ethical considerations to mere whimsy. Beyond 5.30am I’ll do just about anything to keep amused. "Anyway", I told him, "you might as go public – no one reads these things."

The problem is though, (as the narrator from Fight Club pointed out – Earths’ Biggest Movie Database) “when you have insomnia, you're never really asleep... and you're never really awake,” that’s because you’re very, very, very tired. I sit here as the hours tick by, too vague and disconnected to do any work, research or even write a decent blog (feel free to correct me on that point); putting stupid words into Google; attempting to trace my family tree or looking up quotes, lyrics, movie reviews (education, I tell myself) none of which I read. I just scan. I’m one of those machines on the supermarket check-out: ‘blip’ I say, ‘yep, seen it; next! Blip! Yeah, that too…. Blip!’ And yawning, I do a lot of yawning. I do full-body yawns which nearly throw me from my chair. Last night I discovered a ‘Traveller IQ’ test – which I did 9 times. I now have a ‘superior’ Traveller IQ and am ranked in the top 7,000 in the world. I am Jane’s complete lack of surprise.

What did insomniacs do before computers? Watch mindless TV I suppose. I don’t want to sound contumelious, I also watch a lot of crap TV, but that’s not worth blogging about.

It’s not just a nocturnal condition either: in the daytime, I am too tired and grumpy to do anything interesting. As a result: I socialise badly and I work poorly. I loiter, however, very well.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Habagat is coming

Sorry I haven't blogged in so long... it's been a funny time. I've been off work - which in theory means I should have more time on my hands - but somehow I've managed to stay pretty busy.

Boracay is getting quieter, which I am enjoying. There's more time to hang-out with friends. The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed - no-one's making any money, but also the pressure to make money is off for a while.

Why is it so quiet? [I hear you ask!] Well, the season is changing: it's getting humid; the rain is becoming a monsoon and there's a new wind in town.

From September to March the wind is called Amihan. Amihan comes down from the North East and is one of the reasons that Boracay is so very boralicious! Amihan keeps the temperature cool, the Kite Surfers occupied and, since it comes from 'the other side', White Beach and most of our dive sites are protected from any big waves that result.

From June to August Habagat blows up from the South West. The Habagat is hot and steamy. It comes onshore to White Beach, whipping the fine sand into a frenzy of stinging proportions. Soon all the boats will have to move round to 'the other side' to hide from it. We will no longer be able to dive off White Beach, because of the fierce waves [although apparently the reef on the other side is great].

All the restaurants and bars on White Beach are busily constructing giant wind breaks - some 10m high. I am told within a month or so the whole length of White Beach [about 6km] will be shielded from the Habagat.

Here's some pictures - it's quite surreal!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Door to Beach

A Photographic Blog: a series of photos taken between my place and the beach, starting with the view from my balcony.

Leaving the building...

This little boy was very interested in me taking photos and passed by on his bike a few times! He was too shy to speak to me, however!

My neighbour keeps [and trains] fighting cockerels. Terrifying birds [grin] but thankfully not as noisy as the ones in Malapascua.

Men at Work! They're building a new drain under the street. Will be nice - there was an open ditch there before - not pleasant on a warm day!

This 'Lagoon' [that's what they call it!] also smells! And someone is building a very posh-looking restaurant right next to it! Does the Developer not know?!

This is The Road!

A food stall... could even call it a drive-thru food stall!

Yes indeed! We do have a ferris wheel... kind of! It's smaller than most houses!

A "barhoop" seller [I am not sure of the spelling]. It's a health drink, which I think is made from Soya. It's popular in the morning and you hear the sellers walking the streets, calling out "BarHOOOOOP"!


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Positive Thinking

First the book... then, inevitably [grin] will come the movie!

Thanks M@! Class - I love it!

Right, so all I've got to do now is a write a damn book...! [sigh]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


I started my day with a Filipino breakfast - you have to be in the mood [smile]: Longanisa [a sweet pork sausage - tastes like chorizo fried in honey], garlic rice and a fried egg. Yummy! For dessert I had a stack of pills for my ears. [I'm on steroids! I keep thinking about Jeff Wode's head!] Then I had some jobs to do.

I am looking for a place to live at the moment. It's always hard to find a new place, wherever you are, although in some ways it's much easier here. The Filipinos are, as I have said many times, some of the friendliest, most helpful and accommodating people you could ever want to meet: the moment I mentioned to a few people that I was looking the messages starting flooding-in to say that someone's friend/uncle/cousin had a place I should look at!

However, the problems are as follows:

There are no road signs in Boracay. This is because there are only two roads: the first, known as The Road, runs from the Port at the S-Eastern tip, about two thirds of the way up the Island until... well... until the end of The Road, basically. About halfway up The Road is a right turn which leads to Bulabog Beach and then up The Hill. This is known as The Bulabog Road.

Of course these are not the only thoroughfares - oh no! Leading off & beyond both roads is a whole network of dirt tracks and alley-ways, which is where everyone lives. Most of the alleys are about 2-3m wide and passable by motorbike, some are winding tracks through the grass, others are tiny alleys between the houses. These can be alarming: only children can pass one-another easily. For adults if you meet any on-coming 'traffic' it is a fairly intimate encounter [I often feel I should, at the very least, introduce myself first!] involving sticking to the wall Spiderman style and squeezing past apologetically.

Since none of the alleys have names the locals find their way around using local landmarks. This works since everyone around here knows each other, and knows where everyone else lives. If you're a new kid in town, it's hard.

Today I went to look at a place which I knew was near The Bulabog Road. I started by texting the landlord [everyone text's here - texts are cheap, phone-calls are not] whose name, charmingly, was Dudes. We arranged a time and confirmed the price [the 'first price' obviously - there's always room for negotiation!] then came the tough bit - directions.

I decided to phone:

"Walk down the Bulabog Road," he said, "past the swamp" [not kidding], "look for the little Church," [it was a shed] "then turn right down the alley next to my Uncle Ronnie's house..."

"aaah. What does your Uncle Ronnie's house look like?" I asked. There was a pause.
"You don't know Uncle Ronnie?" he sounded surprised.
"Ummm, no" I replied, slightly bemused, I have never met Dudes!
"But he is the Uncle of your friend Noel also!"
"What? Noel?!" [I do have a friend called Noel, we work together.]
"Yes! Noel is my cousin!"
"Noel! Your friend! From work!"
"Yes, yes, I know Noel! But how do you know where I work?"
"You are Jane, right?"
"And I think you are English?"
"So you are Jane, the new English Instructor who works with Noel! Flowers!" [I have a tattoo of flowers on my back]
"Aaaah, right, yes"
"So you know Uncle Ronnie?"
"No, I've never met him."
"Oh! Then you must come round!"
"That would be lovely, but for today - what does his house look like?"
"Oh don't worry, I ask him to sit outside. He knows you!"
He did, nice chap!

Every house I visit it's like this! After Dudes place I went to see two places owned by Oscar. We met at his daughter's Cafe. Oscar was surprised that I didn't know where Bing's Cafe was. "Just down the alley!" he said, "by the green 3-storey house!" I found the house easy enough - 3 storey's! Not many of those around! The alley involved walking through someones back garden - under the washing line, carefully manoeuvring past a gang of fierce Warrior Cockerels and climbing over some building materials. Being careful not to wake the man sleeping on top. And I didn't like the room.

Next, I had to buy a new watchstrap - mine snapped at breakfast. I was directed to KC's place ["Just down the alley! The one by Jo-Jo's house! What? You don't know Jo-Jo?! But he is the cousin of the husband of your friend Anna-Lou!"] KC makes hand-made flip-flops on an ancient hand-powered sewing machine. English readers may well have seen one, if you've ever been to a Museum about the Industrial Revolution.

He took my watch and compass and threaded them onto a thin piece of binding, he then mounted them onto a thicker piece of binding, stitching it all carefully. I explained I was a diver and that if the strap came loose I could loose my watch into the depths. He emptied a sack full of clips, in various sizes, onto the floor. We found one the right width, but it was very chunky. He produced a very sharp blade and pared it down to the right thickness - perfectly! The strap then looped through the clip and Velcro was added, made to measure for my wrist. Finally he stitched an extra 'catch' on the end so the strap couldn't slip back through the clip. Brilliant! I have a perfectly designed, beautifully made, diving watch strap, with integrated compass! It took half an hour and cost me a pound!

Later this afternoon I am meeting Noel to go and see his Uncle's [not Ronnie] friend's place. Aparently, it's just off The Road, near the bike shop - you don't know where is the Bike Shop?! But it's owned by the brother of Junas, who you know from...!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


There is a brand of condoms here in the Philippines called "Fullup"! [chortle] They come in two varieties: "Zero Wrinkly" and "Tony Wrinkly"

I have no idea what this means!

Monday, May 07, 2007

At the Clinic

I went to the Doctor last night [I've hurt my ears - boo.] The doctors here are excellent but the clinic is bereft: one tiny room which opens onto the street, in the corner there is screened cubicle for examinations. But other than that there's no privacy, no space, the patients sit on two benches, whilst the doctors sit on a plastic chair in front of them. We all listen to each others complaints and sometimes other patients will contribute their own thoughts on whatever ailment is being discussed. It is embarrassing and can be uncomfortable, but there is also a certain amount of solidarity between the sick!

On really busy days, the nurse will put a couple of plastic chairs on the pavement outside, where she will take blood pressure, etc, before the patient goes inside. Children often gather to watch.

Last night, however, there was only one other patient besides me: a little boy, about 7 years old, who had stepped on a Sea Urchin. It was awful - he was screaming. I don't mean frightened or frustrated screams... I mean real screams. Screams and sobs of pain and bewilderment. At one point he was shouting at his mother, who was also sobbing, I think he just couldn't grasp what was happening to him. I don't speak Tagalog, but I am pretty sure he was saying something like "make it stop".

An older lady, Grandma I expect, was also with them. When the mother couldn't cope anymore she stepped in to hold the boy still. He tried to fight her, to break free, but she silently gripped his wrists, whilst tears streamed down her impassive face.

The Doctor was very calm and patient, but I could see she was also becoming distressed by the situation. The little boys foot was starting to turn black and there were still spines to remove. He was getting more and more distressed, he was drenched in sweat, his hair sticking to his face, he eyes were becoming bloodshot and his distress was making it hard for him to breath. But the Doctor couldn't give him a break - the longer the spines stay in the more effect the poison will have.

In the street outside was a group of children - friends, brothers and sisters - silent brown faces with dark, round eyes. The littlest ones were trembling, but none of them ran away, they all stayed. There were others, people who had heard the screams as they walked by and stopped to see if they could help. The three women who run the food stall on the corner closed down and came and sat with the children. The nurses put some chairs out on the street and and a tiny girl, no more than three, curled up on a chair, sucking her thumb, with her other hand wrapped around her head, to shut out the noise.

My doctor, Jonas, grimaced at each new scream while we talked and he examined my ears. Before I left I asked about the little boy: "one more spine to go" he said and shrugged, "there's not really anything else we can do." I asked how frequent were Sea Urchin injuries. He said this was the ninth this month, but usually it's adults, "at least they understand" he said.

"Tonight," he gestured towards the boy and lowered his voice "only three spines. Two weeks ago, a man came in, I must remove 33 spines from his feet, it take more than 3 hours, " he shook his head sorrowfully, "but he will be OK.

The strange thing is, as a diver, I see Sea Urchins everyday. They are no threat to me: I am not standing on the bottom and they don't move [during the day]. I quite like them. They are pretty - often the colours are beautiful. I know they are poisonous and I always warn my customers not to touch them. But really I don't give them much thought. I think I'll see them differently now.