March 2008- photos for this post here.

The Bicol Peninsula of Luzon is known for its spicy food, convoluted coastline, and active volcanoes. On my first visit to Bicol in December 2007, fellow fulbrighter Rissa introduced me to her aunt’s coworker, Cam, who offered to show me around the coal-fired power plant where he worked. In March, Cam generously took the time to host me in Mauban, Quezon Province, and explained to me the inner workings of the plant. It was amazing to see how organized, professional, and clean everything was inside the plant. There was a big fence around the whole area, a loading dock where coal from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is delivered, the furnace and smoke stack itself, and a small village housing the employees. My first impression of the community was that it was almost too perfect, similar to the dharma initiative village in Lost. Everything was running smoothly. Cam even explained to me the prolific, and extremely specific, environmental control measures the power plant employs, many of which go above and beyond the requirements set by the government regulator. I was especially impressed that the company had planted hundreds of trees on their property, and actively defended the stand from timber poaching. In sharp contrast to so many other experiences I had had in the Philippines, this place was actually functional. It reminded me too much of the United States! I was almost experiencing reverse culture shock by the time Cam dropped me off again at the Pagbilao bus terminal.

Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, have long been associated with Donsol, Sorsogon, my next stop in Bicol. For years, fishermen from this sleepy town cursed the giant butanding for breaking their nets. Then one day a German tourist came and photographed more than a dozen whale sharks in a single day, and before long hordes of foreigners descended on Donsol. Now tourism is a mainstay of the local economy, and a huge shark mural adorns the elementary school wall. I was not disappointed in my own attempt to see these majestic creatures. It was fantastic to swim beside a fish the size of a school bus, even if the sheer number of other tourists in the water made it difficult to avoid getting finned in the nose occasionally. Later, I met up with a South African, an Australian couple, and a beer-drinking local tour guide who professed to be a member of the enigmatic Iglesia ni Cristo religion. They convinced me to postpone my return to Manila so I could join them in visiting a small island off the coast of Masbate, where a waterfall plunges off a cliff directly into the ocean. The S. African guy and I swam under the waterfall, and there were tiny red corals growing under the churning water. It was really fun to be pushed down to the depths by the force of the torrent. The tour guide and the boat captain cooked a fantastic lunch, including grilled liempo (kind of like a pork chop), mangoes, and an excellent marinated fish kebab. I spent my final night in a cheap hotel in Legaspi, and ended up chatting for hours with a gregarious medical supply salesman from Ilocos and the hotel staff, who convincingly pretended to be amazed at my Tagalog skills, and asked to take pictures with me. I never ceased to be amazed by the kind-heartedness of such people. The joy of sharing laughter and fellowship with new friends is the greatest reward for the weary traveler.