Southeast Asia, Part II

Region:  Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Indonesia, Philippines
Length:  6 week trip
Timeframe:  July-August 2013

I so enjoyed my first foray into Southeast Asia in 2012 that I decided to return to visit other countries during a transition from working before returning to graduate school.  I used the trip as an opportunity to more closely observe the current state and trends around developing regions and environmental resources.

Photos

 
Singapore
 
Malaysia
 
Myanmar / Burma
 
Indonesia
 
Philippines

Singapore
Greeting:  Hello

Before arriving to NYC airport for my international departure to Singapore I picked up an "N95" rated face mask, the government-recommended combat gear for the unprecedented levels of smog caused by fires in Sumatra, Indonesia.  After 4 hrs bus, 1 hr subway, a surprisingly pleasant 25 hours flying, 4 hrs layover... I am in Singapore and it is marvelous! Airport a wonder (walls of green plants, free internet terminals, customs a paragon of efficiency, $8 shuttle to my hotel, passing by beachside campers tents and a thinly smog-veiled view of beautiful skyline).  Was invited to the opening of a beautiful new outdoor space at SUTD, and for the fortuitous introduction to some of Singapore's urban planners and designers. Rendezvoused for trip to Myanmar consulate for visa... Denied! Contrary to what I read online, they don't issue here to US citizens. Then Colin and I visited a few eco-farms in Singapore's Kranji countryside: $3 for a full day's shuttle, picking up from metro station. We saw orchids, wheatgrass, mushrooms, fish that can cost $10,000 EACH, frogs, lettuce, and more. Later I visited hawker center for dinner in Chinatown, across from the grand Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.

I have such a crush on Singapore! It seems to embody nearly everything I aspire to be: well organized, tidy, polite, embracing of diversity, friendly without being smarmy, quirky, and hot (though i prefer a little less on the sultry side). 

Loved the 11km hike around MacRitchie reservoir and across the 250 foot suspension bridge across the forest canopy.

In preparation for graduate school, focused on water-related activities:  visit to Marina Barrage, Singapore's urban reservoir which provides potable water supply, flood control, and venue for water based activities. Also grabbed a delicious seafood lunch at the nearby "Satay by the Bay," an open air hawker center on the water. Excellent tour at Singapore's NEWater recycled water center. Learned about the 3-step process for cleaning water (micro filtration, reverse osmosis, and UV filtration), deep sewage tunnels, and water efficiency public campaigns. Also picked up some interesting tidbits.  
  • Singapore has 4 water sources:
    • rain (17 reservoirs; Singapore receives double the rainfall of what the rest of world gets, but not enough land to capture the water. 75% of Singapore is water catchment area; government wants to increase to 90%.)
    • buy from Malaysia (4 contracts; big one ends in 2061. 30% of water that Singapore buys from Malaysia they must sell back to Malaysia for half the purchase price.)
    • "new water" (recycled water system started in 2003; one third water used)
    • desalination. 
  • 60% of water comes from rain and Malaysia. 
  • Less than 5% of "new water" is put into reservoirs for potable use. It is too clean (no minerals) to drink pure. Rest is used for industry. 
  • Orange County, CA uses system that takes 6 months of natural filtration to clean water. Singapore borrowed the concept and its technical system takes 5 minutes!
  • Goal is to provide rainwater only as potable water. Singapore already self-sufficient, in case Malaysia severs the water supply. 
Here are some tidbits from Colin revealing its quirky side-- a bit overbearing really:
  • The government's Social Development unit automatically enrolled single people in their 20s in program to meet other singles... Big brother meets match.com!
  • Citizens can't buy subsidized apt if single and under 35
  • Residents must purchase expensive permit before buying car. Car permit lotteries for 10-year ownership are monthly; individuals put in bid and top 100 bidders win, but all pay the price of the lowest (100th bidder). Usually permit ends up being around $75,000, but at least once was $50!
  • Example of current social experiment: on Monday government launched 1 yr trial to ease morning commute congestion; free ride if you're off metro by 7:45am. 
Enjoyed forays into more local activities:  Sunday evening party and mah jong with Colin's extended family, and the girls night out over Steamboat seafood hot pot and the visit to the SEA Aquarium and Sentosa island attractions with Mei Pin. 


Malaysia
Greeting: Salamat pagi

Batu Cave
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is hazy and hot and bustling with high rise construction and train commuters peering at their phones. For street-side stall breakfast ate a fried cake with full shrimp-- eyes and legs included-- embedded.  Cheap street food is delicious.  (Ok, so I used the large toothpick they gave me to remove the head.) Hotel street last night at 10:30pm unnavigable with a hundred vendor and food stalls; this morning, a normal street with car traffic. Hotel shower right above toilet; is that supposed to be efficient? I found a cockroach squatting on my toothbrush this morning; my fault for leaving it out. But all worth it because the
Myanmar embassy accepted my visa application!  

The city redeems itself: $0.30 modern train ride (RIP, US public transportation) from downtown to the gigantic Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu sites outside of India and absolutely spectacular. 272 steps lined with assertive monkeys lead to the main cave and its temples.  

One of more sublime pleasures of travel is reading a book based on where you currently are, and I'm especially grateful to have discovered and devoured "Garden of Evening Mists," a beautiful and complicated novel by a Malaysian author which takes place here, in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, which I rushedly and reluctantly finished this morning. Today I hiked along jungle trail 9A past waterfalls, through a topless elderly woman's backyard, up and down and back again slippery stub trails, and then along a stunning long road bisecting farms of eggplant, lettuce, chili peppers, and tomatoes to reach the gorgeous plantations of Boh Tea Estate. Savored a yummilicious pot of their orange peoke hand picked tea overlooking acres of tiered tea fields and was further rewarded for my efforts by a breeze so deliciously fresh that I actually had to put on my raincoat (for 2 minutes). Lovely rain showers accompanied me on final leg of journey back. An A+ day.

Arrived Sunday to Tioman island in a burst of 3 miracles-- just made the bus from Singapore to Mersing, just made the last ferry of the day, and then on ferry met super cool adventurous scientist from Berkeley CA, my new home! 

In Salang village on southern end of island, which I realized after leaving ferry is accessible only by boat (or a 2 hr very hilly jungle hike to next town, where you can take scooter to the following town, and then taxi back to main town). My tiny beachside cottage is $13/day. Have been doing jungle hiking (spotting flying lizards, 5 foot long monitor lizards, dozens of bearded monkeys, a cacophony of songbirds), speedboating around island under Malaysian flag, which looks suspiciously similar to US flag (must research further), swimming in gorgeous clear bath water, snorkeling around mini islands to see thousands of iridescent fish, barracuda, enormous angelfish, and jellyfish, chatting with the very few other English speaking tourists, and resting. The best snorkeling I've ever experienced-- such amazing sights I'm wondering if diving could be much better. Thumbs way up for Tioman!

Since yesterday I crossed the island east to west and north to south and observed dozens of macaque monkeys spying on me and felling coconut tree branches, obnoxious roosters crowing on my porch at ungodly hours (let me sleep!), flying foxes hanging upside down, bats frantically flying before dusk, stray kittens clamoring for food scraps, monitor lizards over 2 feet long (and one 3 feet scratching at the door of toilet as I was coming out!), six flying fish, a snake I almost mistook for a tree branch, a worm being eaten alive by black ants, six practically perfect, mostly empty swimming spots, and, while lying on beach at night: four shooting stars. 

I also discovered, while virtuously scrubbing my sweat- and salt-soaked clothes in a random plastic bin in my sink less bathroom, that I was mistakenly using lavender floor cleaner in lieu of detergent. Oh well. At least the floor is deodorized. 

Final day in Malaysia barely redeemed from misery. Tiny hotel room has no toilet paper and walls reverberate with sound of a nonstop loop of Chinese opera-laden announcements playing from the loudspeaker outside since 6am. Ladies at "Massage parlor" next to hotel aggressively canvassing only for male customers. Forestry institute canopy walk: closed for renovations. Bukit Nanas forest walk: closed for renovations. Masjid Jamek Islamic mosque: closed for renovations. Exhausted, hot, I take refuge at central market. Ilyana Kuziemko's sage counsel echoes in my mind: if all else fails, throw money at the situation. I emerge with a gorgeous Bahkit fabric design jacket and silk minidress, as well as a firm rub down from above board masseur. Hurray!


Myanmar/Burma
Greeting: Min ga la ba

My Lonely Planet 2010 edition guidebook might as well have been written in 1950 based on the accuracy of describing this country over a year after the April 2012 by-elections, overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy.  Dramatic change is afoot, as our taxi driver informed us during the 2 hr (11 mile) ride from the airport on newly paved roads. First ATMs installed at airport last month, and no more black market. Traffic is worse than Los Angeles-- dramatic increase in imports and ownership since 2011. Cars are starting to import from Japan and now there are cars with both right and left steering wheels on road. In traffic queues there are vendors selling newspapers and others selling-- kid you not-- copies of Myanmar's Import and Export Law and Constitution Law, since there are so many travelers. Railroad station over 100 years old-- it's a beautiful building but empty since no one uses trains.
 
Lunch at Burmese teahouse, tea and beer at The Strand Hotel (vestige of colonialism), jaw drops at Shwedagon Pagoda complex, walk through city over crumbling sidewalks next to newly-paved streets, and phenomenal multiple-dish north Burmese dinner with Katchin wine at Jing Hpaw restaurant ($10). It was worth the wait! Seems like Havana meets Kuala Lumpur here. 

Adventures abound in Bagan, Myanmar, home to over 3000 Buddhist temples. We arrived at 4am and checked into the sublime Blue Bird hotel. Highlights from day: bicycling through paved and dirt roads to see a small portion of the temples; enjoying fresh Burmese vegetarian food and lime/ginger juice in shadow of Ananda temple; sneaking a Myanmar beer at speakeasy stall; lapping up Colin's supreme navigational skills and ability to
translate Southeast Asian English into American English; being escorted by local painter to the second tier of an empty temple to watch sunset over the Bagan landscape; having Colin's bike pedal fall off in the dark, miles from the hotel, and biking to nearest intersection to flag down local motorcyclists who called a friend with pickup truck to bring us back to hotel-- he refused to accept tip; enjoying a languorous backstroke across the infinity pool of hotel while witnessing two shooting stars.


Indonesia
Greeting: Apa kabar or Selamat pagi

The lodging gods understand karma. Booked special deal online for 1 night hotel in Bali for $18 and got upgraded to a small 2-story house with marble floors, mahogany stairs and 4-poster king sized bed, sliding glass doors overlooking rice fields on one side and a swimming pool on the other. This is, my friends, a far cry from the windowless, TP-less, sinkless, grungy rooms of past week. 

Today was treated to extended private tour and philosophical treatise on Hinduism by Ubud man, visited various Balinese artist studios, tasted the highly prized Luwak coffee (made of a special kind of monkey feces from coffee cherries pooped out by Asian Palm Civets; it's not as bad as it sounds), and was asked twice if I'm married (sadly, my future husband is not here to enjoy this lodging with me tonight). Met some entertaining fellow travelers and reserved 5 nights in private room with local family. Looking forward to yoga, hiking, Balinese dances, and more tasty meals.

Ubud Bali is much larger, more noisy, and more touristy than I had hoped, but by Day 2 I'm in love with it. The new family homestay is wonderful-- there are even babies and impromptu language lessons! I sipped tea while watching the daughter place flowery offerings around the courtyard (see photos; these mini bouquets wrapped in banana leaves appear on ground in front of statues, doors, and windows throughout the city). Learning to navigate the quiet back streets instead of main thoroughfares. Watched slow-motion decoration by Balinese bachelors (with other friends idling at a distance) of groom's entranceway; wedding celebrations will take place over five days (see photo). 

Found very reasonable unlimited yoga classes in gorgeous studio nearby and today took a "hanging yoga" class led by an acrobatic Spaniard, where we spent two-thirds of the class suspended upside down, like flying foxes. Fabulous meals and fresh fruity drinks for a couple bucks. 

And I stumbled into what may be Bali's strongest and best masseuse, a woman named Mira who kneads her craft in an unsuspecting beauty shop owned by a flamboyant transvestite named Henny. You can't make this stuff up! And for $8/hour you can't go wrong. As the Terminator says, Mira: "I'll be back."

Bad news: the resident population of geckos are apparently eating too much fiber and using my bathtub as their toilet; I can't rent a motorcycle to get to rice paddies and caves since I don't have an international drivers license; and the Ubud tourist center says there are no group tours scheduled this week and they need at least 2 people to make one happen. Good news: despite only 4 words in common (including 2 for thank you), a local seamstress transformed the dress I bought in Malaysia into something I can actually wear in public!  
Fantastic news: the bad news is neutralized by the stupendous fire dance and trance performance I just saw. For less than the price of movie ticket I nearly fell into trance myself with the chanting and dancing and watching a dancer leaping over embers and sparks. Now I understand the source of Julie Taymor's inspiration! 

Gorgeous 9+ km Campuhan ridge walk and an unexpectedly lovely snack beneath thatch hut overlooking rice fields, and the Cudamani group gamelan music and dance rehearsal. Fascinating! And met a dancer from Vancouver who invited me to the show she choreographed and will perform in at the Ubud Palace on Friday.

Extraordinary day of pinching myself with surprise and delight for Balinese culture. Visited a host of Hindu temples that rival Ankor Wat but are relatively barren of tourists-- including 2 largest temples in Bali, with terrific company. Then attended another spectacular performance, this time of Legong and Barong dance and live gamelan music, which made me shiver with pleasure. I will try to post videos as well!

One thing I love more than hiking is sleeping, so it was with real effort that I woke up at 2am to climb Bali's Mt. Batur volcano for sunrise. Unfortunately at the hour of sunrise the summit was so shrouded in dense fog that we didn't even know which way was east.  The photo shows the volcano on a clearer day. 

In better news was enraptured by performance last night at Ubud Water Palace featuring gamelan musicians and dancers from Ubud... and Vancouver! Was especially entertaining to watch Balinese musicians' reaction to the Canadian contemporary dancer. 

And, speaking of cultural exchange, was musing yesterday (while in a temples tour with an Indonesian and hodgepodge of Europeans where everyone was struggling to communicate in English) that 20-30 years from now when I'm traveling it may be some bemused Chinese girl laughing at my attempts to speak in Mandarin, which could well become the new universal language. 

Reminder to remember this blissed-out feeling: 4 hour spa experience of a lifetime including high-pressure 4-handed massage, coconut body scrub, yogurt cleanse, bath in a layer of rosé petals, cucumber and honey facial, avocado hair treatment, lunch, and lots of additional mini massages from a master masseuse (total price: $57). Picked up deliciously clean laundry. Luxuriated in restorative yoga class to the sound of hard-falling rain and live didgeridoo at the gorgeous Radiantly Alive studios. Bali, terima kasih! Suksma!

Bliss, continued: Despite having pre-paid a hotel that is undesirable (which I will soon remedy), I am reveling in Labuanbajo on Flores island, a dusty fishing port and launching point for famous diving sites. Soaking up warm breezes and some unexpectedly warm encounters with locals. Diving shop highly recommended to me by tourist in Malaysia seemed genuinely surprised and delighted when I asked to join their dives tomorrow. 

Attracted by thick stream of non-white faces heading to and from boats I wandered out to piers and took a seat for waterside sunset entertainment with Islamic call to prayer in background. Flaunting my paltry Indonesian Bahasa ("Selamat Malam!") I made a few friends-- sweet faced teenage boys-- who thronged around me in order to practice their 10 words of English and share some of my snacks. It's the kind of shy, friendly encounter that's worth taking a rickety plane ride for. 

Now sitting on bean bag in beautifully designed restaurant serving food grown in their garden overlooking pier lights shimmering on water surface. Sipping fresh papaya juice, reading an ebook about a couple's adventures in Flores. 

Mulling over whether to spend rest of the week in and around islands (snorkeling, diving, island trekking) or head east to some of the volcano trekking inland traditional villages. Opinions welcome! I already wish I had more time to explore here.

Three perspectives on water in Indonesia: 

1) Completed my fourth fantastic dive today near Flores. Spoiled for riches in the abundant and colorful coral reef! The names alone are glorious: Saw a dozen manta rays (with wing spans of 12+ feet, including 2 black manta and an eagle ray), turtles, lionfish, giant lavender starfish, crabs, cuttlefish, pufferfish, Napoleon Brass, clown anemonefish, sweetlips, butterfly fish, giant sea slugs, unicornfish, scorpionfish, Giant Travelli, large thorny oyster, etc. Thanks to yoga-trained breathing I had enough air to stick with lead divermaster and stayed down 79 min. with max depth of 75 ft... The extra time enabled me to see the blackfin SHARK!

2) Another unusual July afternoon rain shower in Labuanbajo! More time to read, rest and revel in the dueling Islamic calls to prayer (my hillside bungalow is tucked between the town's two mosques). 

3) Finished excellent travelogue of Flores and now reading surprisingly non-dry McKinsey report on Indonesian economy. Water-relevant facts:

  • Today only 17% of households have piped water, and 82% of population has access to safe water sources (including from wells and the tourist staple of bottled water). 
  • By 2030, 20% of the population could lack access to basic sanitation. 25 million could lack access to water of decent quality-- 15 million of which will live in cities, given Indonesia's rapidly expanding urban growth. (The number of Indonesians living in urban areas is projected to increase from 53% today to 71% in 2030.)
  • Opportunities abound for water efficiency improvements. Today, nearly half (and 51% in Jakarta!) of piped water supply is lost in transmission. Rehabilitating water infrastructure could save up to 20% of shortfall expected by 2030, but would cost $47 million/year. 
These big challenges wet/whet my appetite for going back to grad school!

Surprised by joy... in the past 36 hours I went a few hours inland and was commandeered by some boys to become the unscheduled VIP English-speaking star of local high school classrooms, slept at a convent, and rode on the back of a local's motorcycle to visit a traditional village and the phenomenal spider rice fields. 

Compared to Labuanbajo's size the city of Ruteng feels like Jakarta, but without a shred of the tourism infrastructure. By luck I secured the last room at the Santa Maria convent (a relative lap of luxury: hot water, flushable western toilets, good lighting, firm mattress!). I set out to explore and was soon approached by two boys who looked by size like they were 10, by turned out to be 16 and 17 and eager students of English. Johann, Stefan and Narco (another friend soon joined our roaming troupe) were eager and sweet, though have a lot of room for improvement in guiding tourists (everything was 2 to 5 meters away, according to them, yet they were unable to find me a restaurant for overdue lunch). I couldn't understand a quarter of what they said, though was tickled that every time Johann, the leader, spoke in English, his friend Stefan would obediently repeat the same words in a whisper with a 1-2 second delay. I provided them and their many friends who passed by with my signature in their school notebooks. 

At their frequent request I agreed to be the guest of honor for the afternoon session of their vocational high school (they said everyone will be so proud of them for finding a tourist) and I followed them to a nearby village where I was welcomed like a rock star by the principal and the head teacher of English. After some small talk and coffee I was led into a series of classrooms where I answered a similar barrage of awkwardly worded questions and did my best to ingratiate the US to the next generation of Indonesians. I was very flattered to hear many say that I was "so beautiful," though it wasn't just my ego that was saddened to infer the compliments were for the lighter color of my skin. The head teacher echoed many of the same complaints and recommendations about the urgent state of Indonesia's education system that I read in the McKinsey report-- primarily around class size (the average is 50 students), teacher salaries, facilities and technology. Though the teacher has a Facebook account my new teenage friends confirmed they have never used the Internet. 

I invited my new rail-thin friends to dinner at a nearby restaurant, where entrees were $2 - $2.50. After we sat down the students said they had never eaten at such a nice restaurant or even traveled outside of the Ruteng area. Johann's father passed away a few years ago and he moved in with his friend Stefan to continue school; his mother gives him $3 a month for food, but with 8 siblings I'm sure she has her hands full. Johann said many times that school and improving his English are the most important things he can commit to. Despite our imperfect communication I was moved and charmed by the kids, who insisted on escorting me back to the convent with an ever-enlarging entourage. 

After a very early wakeup today my previously arranged motorcycle driver arrived to the convent. Though I didn't know how to translate "precious cargo" into Indonesian Bahasa I climbed on back and was relieved at his driving. We passed though glorious rice fields and small villages where a couple tiny kids pointed at me and shrieked "tourist!" with delight. We stopped at a traditional village with about 10 houses and 100 people, and then drove to the phenomenal spider rice fields, where I was guided up to the top of hill
for better views by 3 cute boys from the village. (When I entered the village I was invited into a home and asked to sign their guest book while they turned on a rather large stereo system and played music from Flores. Then we sat in a plastic chairs smiling awkwardly at each other for a few moments before I was invited to pay the customary $1 donation.)  All this and 2 trips along a mostly paved, twisting, hilly section of the "Trans-Flores Highway"-- gorgeous views of mountains and rice fields. I'm a happy camper!

Today saw 5 Komodo Dragons, wild boars, buffaloes, jungle turkeys, monkeys, goats, and my favorite... Thousands of "flying fox" bats soaring overhead from Kalong mangrove island for a sustained 15 minutes at

twilight, in search
of dinner.  And another first: after snorkeling and a nap, I watched the mid-afternoon sun set and dissolve into the horizon, and then as our boat motored back to island, lay on my back on the stern for 2 hours and watched the stars appear and shimmer. Magical day. 

Philippines
Greeting: Hello or Kumusta kayo

I arrived to Manila via layovers in Bali and Singapore sans luggage, thanks to the completely inept Tiger Airlines.  Now restless in rainy Manila. Underwearless (my single pair is still drying while I await my missing luggage), I forayed into the bowels of local mall to forage for food. Found a kooky bento hole-in-the-wall cafe stocked with vintage tributes to a bygone era, and surrounded by a disproportionate number of shops selling frilly and brightly colored dresses. Full meal and drink for $1.20. If I had
stopped to imagine what Manila actually looks like, these appended pictures would be it. The scene contrasts sharply though with a lengthy account written by a female American teacher who came to teach children in sleepy Philippines provinces for 7 years starting in 1898, under fast-changing time of American rule (great read, in spite of the racism), but I can still see the threads of that idiosyncratic cultural vibrancy. 

What went wrong with the city of Manila? Is this what happens when a selfish megalomaniac like Marcos prioritizes his needs over providing a beautiful and functional city to its residents? Waited 25 minutes to get on train at 10am this morning and finally gave up due to completely packed cars; read story that city is prohibiting public buses from outlying areas to the outrage of transit-less residents; witnessed trash piles, abandoned buildings, shanty shacks, and huge potholes in sidewalks and streets; tried walking along harbor front for proper glimpse at water and gave up-- severely blocked with fences and large empty buildings; saw sign posted in fast food stall for young single female employees only. 

Read Manila Times local paper and was not surprised but saddened to see the headline in photo: "Philippines Among Least Favorite Tourist Sites in Southeast Asia."  I feel the Philippines and I were set up on a blind date and it's one of those disasters where two individually fine folks bring out the worst in each other, nearly everything that could go wrong goes wrong, but they need to stick together until the end (in this case, my flight back on Aug. 5). 

Trying to prevent my experience so far from thoroughly unraveling me. I wasted time on fruitless emails and calls to Tiger Airlines in search of my missing bag, gave up trying to enter packed public trains at 10am after 30 minutes of waiting (besides, 1 of me + my backpack = 3 locals in terms of volume), caught up on a lifetime's supply of Hollywood movies from the 90s, was awed by the grittiness and scandal of some 1940s Turner Classic Movie channel films, and sang along (solo and completely UNinebriated) in front of the Manila skyline in my hotel bathrobe to 80s songs on the Philippines' All-Karaoke TV channel.

After 54 hours without my luggage I finally staged a humble intervention operation at the Manila International Airport (humble because upon my righteous arrival at 9:30pm they made me cross airport to apply for a visitor's pass so I could enter baggage claim area). Lo and behold, 5 flights later Tiger Airlines decided to include my bag... But my souvenirs from Indonesia are destroyed and I wasted 3 days waiting in an uncharming city. 

I secured a ticket to Cebu, not a top choice, and after wilting at the mini-Manila have spent the entire day on a bus surrounded by crying babies and locals speaking Tagalog (sat on bus with motor running for 1 hour 45 minutes before it budged an inch, and driver has penchant for incessantly honking horn which seems to have been installed so that the loud noise projects INTO the bus) to cross past thousands of coconut and banana trees and flimsy wood and tin shack homes to southern tip of Cebu island, then the bus rolled on to a massive ferry for water crossing. 

The Filipina woman sitting in front of me on the long bus ride started talking a bit as we got close to the final stop and after she found out that I am from the US she absolutely insisted that her son give me a ride, and then that I join her for a very late lunch, and then that I join son and grandson for a tour of gorgeous surrounding area that I'm sure I wouldn't have found on my own. Soon I'm back at her house (really, a compound) sipping whiskey with her husband, who used to live in Bay area, playing hide and seek with her adorable nearly 4-yr old grandson, and eating dinner.  So the moral of this chapter of the story is that sometimes bad things (marooned for 3 days in Manila) lead to good things.

Experience of a lifetime: Snorkeled with the whale sharks off Cebu. Eight sharks surrounding and brushing up next to me at one time... One of the most marvelous, magical, mystical experiences of a lifetime. These gentle giants are between 11 and 25 feet-- and these are just the juveniles (adults grow to 60 feet). A bit overwhelming at first since I couldn't get snorkel mask to work properly and I was being surrounded on all sides. But then I just melted in the beauty. Went on 3 dives yesterday at Apo island but that now pales.

Such a great final day to my time in Southeast Asia: hike to awe-inspiring Casaroro waterfalls, swim in natural pools at Forest Camp, impromptu roadside karaoke, surprise goodbye visit to Prima's family, 1-hr thai massage for $4, and vegetable coconut curry dinner on hotel rooftop.

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