Summing Up the Year That Was

I am blessed.  Blessed to be able to explore the world, albeit not as extensive as I want to but I’ve had some fair share of adventure and fun last year.  So I’m not complaining.  Last year was a good mix of local and international travels, small and big trips. Rounding them up, there were highs and lows, great satisfactions and some disappointments.  Here’s a run down of my best and not so best experiences of 2008.

The Disappointment


Donsol – in pursuit of the elusive whale sharks (Feb)

We were ready to jump anytime but the whale sharks were scarce.  There were way too many boats, way too disorganized and so we caught a glimpse of its… tail.  Oh well… this calls for another trip sometime in the future.

One Miserable Climb


Mt. Pulag – rained out! (Feb)

We started the trek with just overcast clouds, then it drizzled and when we reached the campsite, it poured.  It let up a bit just so we can go to the loo and cook our dinner.  Then it started again.  Rained the whole night and the whole day, next day.  Needless to say, the summit was foggy and really, really cold!  No sunrise, just slippery, flooded trails.  Good thing this was not my first time here and I’ve seen a glorious sunrise in 2002.  But we still had fun.

My Favorite Asian Destination (thus far)


Luang Prabang, Laos (Mar)

The jewel of Indochina and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded by mountains at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan River, Luang Prabang to me is a city where time stood still.

It was a wonderful 5 days of various adventures. One day was spent trekking to the Kwang Si falls, another learning to cook Lao dishes. There were a lot of walking, eating (Lao and French meals), sunset cocktails and we even had a taste of a traditional Khamu massage. It was fantastic.

A Delightful Road Trip


Viaje del Sol (Apr) – a blend of good food and the arts.  From Kusina ni Salud (for dinner) to Ugu Bigyan (for lunch and his potteries) to Carlito’s (for coffee, mangoes and his sculptures) in one weekend resulting to another follow-up weekend.  This time, we stayed in Casa San Pablo, checked out Kinabuhayan Café, and had a satisfying lunch at Sulyap Gallery Café, a restaurant cum antique gallery.  There definitely will be a 3rd trip to this Viaje del Sol sometime in the future.  Perhaps we’ll try a meal at Kinabuhayan Café, try that famous buko pie locals are raving about and do an overnight at Sitio de Amor.

Wonderfully Surprised


Dolphins Galore at Puerto Bay (May)

Didn’t even know that they had a lot in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.  There were tons of ’em.  What we didn’t see in Donsol, these dolphins made up for.  We didn’t even need a spotter as they were all over the place.  Never saw so much in my life.  Tons and tons of them.  Hope to dive there someday.

A Junk Experience


Cruisin’ Halong Bay, Hanoi (Jul)

When in Hanoi, one must experience cruising along Halong Bay in a junk at least once. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the bay features calm water and thousands of limestone karsts and islets in various shapes and size.  Something like Palawan.

A Star-strucked Moment


Dinner at Restaurant Bobby Chinn, Hanoi (Jul)

Even if he wasn’t around, I was excited to be there.  Totally am infatuated with this celebrity chef of Travel and Living’s World Asia Café series.  And the food did not disappoint.  Maybe because I’m so infatuated. Hee Hee! Expensive but superb.  Sorry but no photos of the food and the place except from across the street.  It was a treat from DBF to cap our Hanoi adventure and we agreed no cameras, besides the place was too dark to get even one decent photo.

Great Amusement


Watching the traffic of Hanoi at the Old Quarter (Jul)

We spent hours atop a restaurant sipping beer, relaxing and watching the traffic below with amazement.  The chaos of Vietnam traffic just amused us no end.  Watch and be amused.

The Best Reunion Ever


A San Francisco get-together with my high school buddies (Aug)… some I haven’t seen in 26 years.  It was a trip down memory lane but more importantly, it was literally a food trip as well.  Our friend and classmate, JT, now a chef cooked a superb dinner for us!  They’re actually planning another one this year… a US trip 2 years in a row is out of my budget if I want to explore other new places as well, so boohoo for me.

A Cove Truly Breathtaking


Anawangin Cove (Sep)

This could pass as my runner-up for the Most Miserable Climb too.  I am a clumsy person and more often than not, I fall and hurt myself.  So during the trek I was already asking “why do I do this to myself”? when I banged my knee in the course of what I thought was an easy trek. I’ve seen beautiful pixes, read and heard so much about this “not so secret” place and finally am hours away from it. Thrilled and excited as I started the 7.3 km trek to Anawangin Cove, I was 3rd to arrive at the saddle (which had an awesome view of the cove, by the way). Not bad, if I may brag… Many months of lifting, walking on a machine (that goes nowhere), puffing and pushing is finally paying off.  THEN… without warning, I slipped and fell about 30 minutes through our descent, all because I was not paying attention to the trail. It was agony from then on. Let’s just say that I trudged downhill, passing rocky streams for another 2+ hours before I reached the camp… From 3rd to last! Thirsty, tired and in pain but dampen my spirits it did not as it was indeed so BREATHTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL! Picture this, Agojo (imagine pine trees as it looked so much like it) forest on the beach with a meandering fresh water stream that flows out to the sea. And that is why I keep doing this to myself.

An Adrenalin-filled Birthday Weekend


Rafting the Chico (Oct)

Been doing this for almost a decade but never on my birthday.  So that’s new.  If you’ve never tried this, you should!  You will experience one heck of a weekend, a totally worked out upper body, and the thrill of a lifetime.  Contact Anton Carag of AEPI for bookings.

An Incredible Underwater Experience


Mantas and Sharks up close in Yap (Nov)

Amazing… is all I can say.  An experience of a lifetime.  Read more about it here.

Gotta Love Nitrox!

nitroxrulesLove it so much it’s got a post all it’s own.   Divers breathe nitrox as a means of extending the amount of time they can stay underwater or what we call bottomtime.  Got myself Nitrox certified prior to our trip to Yap so I (or we as a group) can stay longer underwater with the mantas (and sharks).  And I’m glad I did!  If you came across my earlier post (here), you would know that on our first dive, I only had 7 minutes left when the mantas came appearing, which also meant that I only had 3-4 minutes of “up close” time with them.  That’s what one gets for scrimping — didn’t wanna pay the extra $8 for Nitrox air. Haha!  From then on, it was Nitrox all the way baby! 😉

Aside from it being safer as it reduces the risk of developing decompression sickness (DCS), another reason to use Nitrox air is it does not drain you out at the end of the day.  We were partying till the wee hours — ok, that’s an exaggeration but we were up till almost midnight at least, considering that we had to be up by 6 every morning.   Nitrox Rules! 😀

Nitrox Air – is a breathing gas that many scuba divers use to extend bottomtime & increase safety while diving.  It is simply a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen but with a high concentration of oxygen than normal air.  Also called Enriched Air Nitrox, Safe air, or EANx.  Strict adherence to guidelines and procedures can allow divers to safely use Nitrox.

Ok… I will stop being dorky now.   I’m off to another (hopefully) great weekend out of town.  Hope to be back with new finds… until then, keep safe and enjoy your long weekend, which officially started this morning. 😛

Yap’s Top side

On a lighter note… let’s talk about the other side of Yap.  It’s more than just the land of mantas and sharks, it’s also known for its intriguing stone money and (stimulating?) betel nuts.

So where is Yap?  It is one of four states that comprise the Federated States of Micronesia (the others are Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae).  Close to Guam, Palau and the Philippines, Yap is steeped in ancient traditions and peopled by one of the most distinctive cultures in the Pacific.

Land of Stone Money

stone money
stone money

Notable for its stone money made of crystalline calcite (primarily found in the walls of limestone caverns), many of which were brought from as far as New Guinea but most came from Palau since ancient times. Difficult to steal, the stone money was placed outside the house to denote wealth and stature.  The bigger the stone, the higher their rank in society.  The scarcity of the discs and the efforts required to obtain them made the stones valuable to the Yapese.  The canoe journey took days (depending on the weather) requiring good sailing skills.  Today, although they use US$ dollars in their daily transactions, the stone discs are still used for more traditional or ceremonial exchange.

Betel nut 101


Split a juicy round green betel nut, sprinkle with lime (not the fruit but powdered limestone), wrap in a pepper leaf, pop in mouth and chew.  Spit out the juice, do not swallow.

betel nut
betel nut

Betel nut chewing combines 2 pleasures, they say – the relaxing rhythm of rumination, like chewing gums and mild stimulation, something habitual coffee and tea drinkers enjoy.  They say that it makes them relaxed and alert at the same time.  I guess, the chewing relaxes them and the caffeine-like property of the nut makes them alert.  Makes sense to me!  Nowadays, many add tobacco to their chew.  Why?  Dunno!

Red teeth are common throughout Yap as the reaction of the nut with the limestone brings off a bright red color that discolors the teeth when chewed regularly.  And yes, even the foreigners who made Yap their home possess the distinct red teeth.

Vain that I am, I will never dare try this stuff 😛 Our friend A was the only brave soul who tried it and he was awake the entire night haha! 😀

Other attractions that highlight this remote island:


A handmade seaside Men’s house – can you believe that women (and that includes me!) can’t enter to this day?


Cultural villages


World War II remnants – Yap was once occupied by Japanese troops and was regularly bombed by US ships and aircrafts.


Cultural dances – that’s Rihka our guide entertaining us while we wait for our hot dogs and burgers


Mangrove forests


The island was opened for tourism in 1989 and has seen a good amount of tourists visiting not only for diving but to catch a glimpse of the culture as well.  Yap’s indigenous cultures and traditions are still strong compared to other neighboring islands.  You still see some topless women roaming the streets.

Sleeping Arrangements:


ESA Bayview Hotel – we stayed here.  I know… it looks like a motel but REALLY the rooms are comfy and they have nice balcony overlooking the bay.


Manta Ray Bay Hotel – top end lodging with an infinity pool.


Pathways Hotel – interesting tree houses, very native.  If we weren’t on a budget, this would have been a nice place to stay.


O’Keefe Waterfront Inn – romantic; perfect for honeymooners!

Good Eats:

ESA Bayview Restaurant

Ganir Restaurant Tel: (691)950-1205

Manta Ray Bay Restaurant

The Pathways Restaurant

Jhun’s Oasis Restaurant (owner’s a Filipino, can you tell?  They have great food too!)

Life is fleeting

…I learned when I was diagnosed with the Big C a few years back.  Although prognosis was good and I am doing fine today, since that fateful time, I am learning to live life to the fullest and to enjoy every second of it.

Death manages to jolt me every time, whether it is someone close to me or someone I just met.  It gets me pondering over how I’ve lived.  My accomplishments, its significance. Do they really matter?  Am I living my life according to my dreams, my passions?  You know… those kind of (deep) stuff.

Dave Vecella, owner of Beyond the Reef, a soft-spoken, kind man, impressed me with his “ready to serve” attitude.  He concerns himself with little details even driving us around Yap on our last day.  He heard that we had wanted (just for a change) to have lunch one day on a beach between dives, and because that wasn’t possible, he instead arranged to have a barbeque lunch in a park at the end of our day tour.  Wasn’t that sweet?  What a nice guy! He and his staff were the best, ever so attentive and ready to help underwater and above.

One day he was cooking hamburgers for us and 2 weeks later, he was gone.   It was a diving accident, I read on this blog.  (This blog post no longer exist, you may instead go to this blog — edited Jan. 14).  They went deep (on a technical dive) taking with them 2 tanks, leaving the 2nd tank on a slope thinking that they could return there and change tanks before they’d ascend.  Strong currents impeded their return, he was able to help one companion but he sadly didn’t make it.  He died in the Recompression Chamber.  Well, that’s the short version of the story.

I write this because many of us live in the past or for the future when what really matter is the right now.  Not to get me wrong here, I believe that how we live our present life determines our future but we need to learn to smell the roses. Live one day at a time.  I read somewhere that we all have equal time in this world.  No one has more or less.  The difference lies in how we use our time.  Dave lost his life while he was doing what he loved doing.  I believe that he saw his work as a big playground rather than work per se and that’s what I call living each moment.

Life is short.  Live. Love. Laugh. Seize every opportunity to live each moment significantly.  Try not to let life pass you by.  Get up and follow your dreams and you will see that anything you want, you can achieve.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.” – John Lennon

And on that note:  In memory of Dave, here’s a video of our awesome Yap adventure.  This is for you, Mr. Vecella.

Yap Yap Hooray!

small, sleepy town
small, sleepy town

It was 3 AM (1 AM Manila time) when we arrived at a small, simple looking airport in Yap (looks like one of our small city airports back home).  We were met by Dave, a soft-spoken, burly man who runs Beyond the Reef and who briefly advised us on pick-up times and what to dos for the next few days.  We were tired but elated for what lies ahead. There were only a handful of us that got off the plane en route to Guam (so you think that it would be quick and easy getting through?  We had to wait for one of our friend’s luggage as it did not get off the plane and was on its way to Guam… which they say is a normal thing — Yikes!).  The 5,000 visitors last year were mostly divers.  With a population of only 13,000, this sleepy town is known mostly for it’s marine life, more specifically for Manta Rays.  Sightings are almost always a sure thing.  And so we travelled a long and winding route to this Federated State of Micronesia hoping for some encounters with the Mantas.  Because the flights do not connect, we had to stay the night in Palau both ways, which allowed us practically 2 days to kill.  And killed we did by shopping till we dropped.  Not that we don’t have those PX goods and those dive paraphernalia back home BUT um I rarely go shopping when I’m home.  A lame excuse ya?

Not too hot…

divers weaving through
divers weaving through

Of course we went to several dive sites but I have 2 favorites that I will rave about later. First, let me briefly acquaint you with some of the “not too hot” sites. Not that they’re a real disappointment but perhaps we just weren’t there at the right time.  The first would be Yap Cavern, had fun weaving in and out (as it was my first time in a cavern) but kinda disappointing coz we missed the schools of jacks and the barracudas that usually hang out at the end of the cavern.  What we had was a rare episode, I heard  So I wouldn’t generalize this one experience.  It still is a pretty site even without the schools.  Next was Miil Channel and likewise a let down for us, as the Mantas were nowhere in sight, while the reviews raved of schools of Mantas (sometimes reaching up to 8 at a single sighting) when in season.  We thought that we perhaps brought some bad luck with us?  We found out after, that we were a month shy of the season. No wonder, no mantas!  While Fanif looked like a ghost town underwater with just a smattering of reef sharks (am I spoiled or am I spoiled???), Magic Kingdom on the other hand boasts of beautiful coral beds — reminding me of Twin Rocks in Anilao but pales in comparison to my 2 favorites so hang in there, stay with me and read on.


schools of sharks
sharkies lined up

School of sharks — black tips and gray reefs everywhere. Babies, teenagers, full growns, fat ones, thin ones– all sizes just below our boat. We didn’t even have to swim far.  At one point, I counted 23 sharks. TWENTY THREE!  It’s like watching a 3D movie with front row seats.  Amazing!

We came back on our last day to cap off a great dive trip.  Good visibility, noblack tip

currents, beautiful reefs, plenty of other fishes — sweet lips, surgeons, wrasse, etc. A no brainer.  We just had to have our group shot here, and we did.

The second time around, I counted only 7 sharks wandering around but they were swimming so close, we could almost touch them.  Well, that really isn’t a good thing, is it? But I’m still alive so I guess it can’t be such a bad thing. 🙂  Ok, there are some rules to be followed like stay on the reef, always face and never swim out to the blue (that’s the deep blue water where the sharks are).  And for as long as you follow those rules, you’ll be okay.  I got to see the sharks up close and personal.  Love the black tips with white borders the most.  A perfect finale indeed.

Valley of the Rays

swimming so low we could touch them if we stretch hard enough
swimming so low we could touch them if we stretch long enough

Love the name, and the rays love this place. It succinctly describes this place.  Here, manta rays abound because here, planktons and remoras are aplenty.  They come for the cleaning (from the remoras) and the feeding (the planktons).  I think that is why it is called a cleaning station ya?  Now I wonder if it is also called a feeding station? 🙂

For three days, our schedule looked like this… up by 6, breakfast at 7, on the boat by 8, and at “The Valley” by 9. The mantas are there early, we were told. And they were indeed. As soon as we approached the station, they were there, at least 2 if not 3 at a time (except for the first day when they appeared 7 minutes before I had to deco, read: I only had less than 7 minutes before I have to ascend, or else! hehe!). And they did not disappoint. These gentle giants with wingspan of approximately 10-12 feet wide, were swimming, gliding gracefully above us, in front of us, all around us. Sometimes playing hide and seek, sometimes posing for the camera, sometimes just watching us, hovering so close above us we had to stay close to the ground or risk getting hit.   An experience hard to top, eh?

up close and personal
up close and personal

It’s Sooo Worth It!

an underwater group shot in Vertigo
an underwater group shot in Vertigo

We came to Yap primarily for the Mantas, and we got Mantas. E.V.E.R.Y.D.A.Y!  The sharks were a a pleasant surprise and a bonus.  Despite some disappointments, Yap in my opinion is money well spent.  If Mantas are what you’re after, I recommend Yap.  If you want to see more than just Mantas, Palau would be more practical where Mantas aren’t guaranteed but you’ll encounter a whole lot of pelagics.  Best if you can do both.  Close encounter with the Mantas (and sharkies). Check!

Credits:  All underwater photos by Wilson Lei.