Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mythical beasties

"I don't believe in seahorses"

I've said it many times. Usually in a voice full of bitterness and resentment. I thought they were mythical creatures, like mermaids and sea-badgers, de profundis, dreamt up to temp potential aquaphiles to take that giant stride into the blue.

So when they told me yesterday that I might see a seahorse, I scoffed! "Two different species" they said, I mocked. "Look in the soft corals" they said, I bah'd!

But nevertheless I searched, spent the first 30 minutes or so head down in the corals before finally remembering that I don't believe in seahorses! They don't exist! There were six different species in Roatan [where I used to live] - I never saw one! Friends would come back from dives saying they'd seen so many... I would go to the same place and see nothing. Bah!

I tried experimentally doing some bah's through my regulator. I didn't really work but it made me feel better. I decided to look for reef fish instead. Two seconds later six brightly coloured butterfly fish cruised past. Ha! Much better.

Continued finning along, then out of the corner of my eye I saw a funny looking piece of coral... "that bit of coral looks just like a horses head" I mused to myself, "how odd." I actually kept going for a second, before the proverbial penny dropped. Then I back flipped for another look... "that bit of coral has a tail!"

I very carefully moved some of the soft coral to get a better look, the tiny seahorse quivered slightly and looked at me. I moved back a little, not wanting to frighten him. Oh my, he was a pretty little thing! Peachy orange, slightly mottled skin, delicate tail wrapped around a soft coral, maybe three inches from tip to toe. Very, very cute!

So I take it all back! Seahorses do exist! Tomorrow I'm not coming up till I've found a sea-badger.

NB. The following day I saw another seahorse, an even tinier black & white one, hiding under a rock. I also saw a sea-moth... don't even ask, I'm still a bit freaked out...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Manta Ray

Manta Manta Manta Ray!

I've been grinning from ear to ear ever since! As some of you will know, seeing a Manta Ray has been Number 1 on my 'Wish List' of 'Things to See Underwater' for some time now [years!].

The day before yesterday, I finally saw, not one, but two!

The visibility was not that good as we dropped into the blue, about a mile out to sea. Felimar, our guide, led us to a Cleaning Station on the edge of the wall. As we settled into position, I peered over the edge of the 600m drop into the black depths. I could see the shadowy shapes of snapper and grouper circling below.

And then we waited...

Out of the gloom she appeared - a majestic 6 metres from wingtip to wingtip. Slowly, but so graceful. She came straight toward me, then turned effortlessly and hung in the water as the tiny cleaning fish rose up to meet her.

If my mouth could have hung open it would have been! I had thought I might get giggly, but I wasn't. I had a moment when I felt my heart beating and a warning voice inside me said 'calm down Jane, don't breathe too fast - you'll burn all your air and get sent up early!' I took a moment to focus on my breathing... and realised I wasn't! 'Breathe! You fool!'

She circled slowly a few more times and then she was gone.

We waited...

To pass the time I amused myself by winding-up a small clown fish [aka Nemo] that was fiercely defending his Anemone territory. I also took the opportunity to move forward, a little closer to the edge.

Then 'ding ding' - I heard Felimar tapping his tank and looked up - nothing. Looked out to the either side - nothing. Looked ahead again and... aah yes! There she is! [Felimar has good eyes - made a mental note to dive with him again!]

This one was smaller, only [only! Ha!] 4-5 metres. And closer! I was looking straight up at this Manta, so close she was nearly above me. She hovered, turning elegantly on a wingtip, whilst the reef fish cleaned her.

She had a very jealous Remora on her belly who seemed upset at all the commotion! Mottled underbelly, but smooth silvery grey on top, huge gaping mouth. Thicker than I was expecting, more muscular. Bright watchful eyes.

Beautiful. Really, really beautiful.

So what's at the top of my Wish List now? Well, to be honest - Another Manta Ray! But this time I want to swim with them.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Tiny island - maybe 2k by 1k. Not many people, thousands of cockerels. The 'dawn' chorus is deafening and starts at about 3am. It goes on all day [breaking only for the extreme midday heat] until about midnight.

I lie in bed dreaming of having some heavy artillery. Perhaps an automatic rifle or a machine gun. I could finish off a few hundred of them from my bedroom window - cock a doodle doooooooarrrraaaawk! Hahahahahahaahahhahahaaha... feathers everywhere! [sigh] It would be bliss! [grin]

The rest I would pick off with a sniper rifle from the top of a very tall palm tree which [in my daydreams] I can climb easily. Cock-a-doodle-phfffit. Smack, all over and I sleep!

But these are fighting cockerels, proud bird-warriors who glare at me with imperious and knowing eyes as I pass by. They're probably packing a pair of pistols under those feathers. I wouldn't win.

I give in, get up and go for breakfast.

Breakfast at Ging Ging Cafe

Sitting at the table next to me are a 'typical' couple: older, greying, overweight Western man with his beautiful Filipina girlfriend, barely 18 years old. He can't stop touching her, has an arm around her, pride oozing from every pore. He keeps trying to catch my eye and those of the other Westerners in here. His body-language is clear: "Look what I possess! Look at me! I may be old and fat but this beauty wants to be with me!"

They are cooing lovingly at one another, she speaks very little English. He is taking her photo, many times, directing her, posing her for his holiday snaps, "no, no!" he says "just look over there... like, so... yes, that is good!"

Can he really have no idea she is a prostitute?

Can you imagine the same scenario in Europe? Middle-aged man picks up a hooker from the red-light district and takes her down to his 'local' to show her off! He would get laughed out of the pub!

They finish breakfast and he gets the bill. It is very cheap but he only has a big note - p500 [about 5 quid - a huge amount here]. The waitress takes it without expression. She is an archetypal Filipina waitress: slow, patient, speaking no more than absolutely necessary. She walks away very, very slowly, letting her flip-flops drag on the paving stones behind her - shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh...

She consults the Cafe's matriarch and returns... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh...
"I cannot change" she says abruptly. She is not being rude.
"You cannot change it?!" he seems surprised [I wasn't]. She shakes her head,
"No change" she says.
He picks up his wallet from the table and starts leafing through a wad of p500 and p1000 notes, looking for something smaller, "no no" he murmurs "I do not think I have... You have some change?" he asks his girlfriend.
He looks up sharply, "you have no change?"
Before he has finished speaking she is already shaking her head.
"No change" she says firmly.
"No change?" he asks with an indulgent smile, "nothing at all? Not even a few peso?"
Then he laughs, but it is a laugh of realisation and sounds a little desperate.
"But you must have" he speaks quietly, embarrassed by the presence of the waitress. "What about the present I gave..." his voice trails off. His girlfriend is shaking her head. Hands folded neatly in her lap, eyes demurely downcast, but the shaking head is resolute.
"No change" she says quietly.

He turns back to the waitress, who has watched their exchange without expression.
"So you must get change!" His tone is brisk, his smile artificial. There is an increasingly fragile air about him - I can almost hear his dreams shattering.
"No change" the waitress repeats.
"Then you must go somewhere and get some change! And quickly please!"

The waitress looks at him calmly. He is making extra work for her and she doesn't like it. There is no readable emotion on her face. The two young Filipinas are so still, so quiet, so inscrutably Asia.

She turns and walks away... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... disappearing into the trees behind the cafe.

There is an uneasy silence. The man laughs again, fake and nervous.
"So you have nothing!" he says "Even after I..." his words hang in the air unsaid. The girl has not moved - small feet together, hands folded in her lap, eyes downcast. Then finally she looks up and meets his gaze with cool eyes.
"I don't pay" she says quietly.

Silence. It is very hot, there is no breeze. Minutes pass, the man shuffles in his seat and wipes his head with a too-small napkin.

Shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh...

Wordlessly the waitress hands him his change and she waits.
"There is no tip!" he says, too quickly. She shrugs and... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... shoosh... she is gone.

The couple stand and leave. His girlfriend walks two paces behind him and smiles at me as she passes.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Lablita is four years old. She has only very recently moved to Boracay to live with her sister, Asa. They come from Mindoro, a nearby island, from a very big family. Asa is the oldest at 24 and Labli is the fifteenth of sixteen children. Asa tells me her mother is in trouble with the Medical Clinic: they told her she mustn't have any more children as it may kill her, but she didn't listen and is pregnant again at the moment. I ask why. She tells me, "my mother does not want to know about family planning." I don't say anything, not wanting to judge. But I think my face betrayed my feelings, because Asa continued, quite sharply "it is not the same for other women here. Many women do want to know."
I say, "that is good" and she nods.

Her mother has to work very hard to feed the family. "It take more than 2 kilos of rice every day for us!" says Asa, raising her outstretched palms, at the sheer impossibility of such a thing. Her mother works at a restaurant. She takes the baby to work with her, but Labli is too old for this and "runs around too much". So Labli was left at home, alone. Asa tells me her mother would leave Labli in her crib, with 3 bottles of milk and her toy [note the singular]. Her mother works 10 hour shifts. Labli would never drink more than 2 bottles during the day. Asa thinks she was always careful in case her mother didn't return.

After Asa's last visit home, she invited Labli to come and live with her, here in Boracay, "because" she says, quite seriously "in Boracay there is more food."

Labli sits beside me while we look at a glossy magazine. She is very tactile, touching my hair, my leg or holding a handful of my tee-shirt in her tightly clenched fist. She likes to point at the pictures and for me to tell her the English words. She is quite absorbed in this. We reach a page of recipes, there is a photo of a colourful pasta dish. Labli claps her hands and says "Happy Birthday" in English. Asa laughs and says "she always say Happy Birthday when she see a full plate of food" then she looks a little sad and shrugs "for her, this is what birthdays are." I ask Lablita what is her favourite food. She grins, hugs herself and says "bread".

Sunday, February 04, 2007


"Excuse me sir! You want to go sailing?"
"Sailing trip sir? very good price!"
"ba, duuuh huh" [wobble stagger]
"Oh sir [sigh] Ok sir, no sailing for you today. But you had a good night, I am thinking?" [smiles]
"Huh, raaaa, a huh, guh" [chuckles]
"Ok sir, this way! No sir! You live this way, Grand Pacifico, this way!" [pointing]
"Gra n Pa-i-co! Huh, wa?"
"Yes sir, I speak with you before sir, yesterday! You remember? You say maybe you come sailing today [sad smile] but maybe you come tomorrow sir?"
"Wa huh" [nodding]
"This way sir, you want I help you?"
"Huh uh" [stumble fumble]
"Oh! [laughing] no sir! There is no charge for walking sir! But maybe you remember me? My name Torek, yes? Maybe sailing tomorrow! [sigh] This way sir"