April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

(Continued from Part 1) After Ranau, I tried to catch a bus to the coastal town of Sandakan, but since no bus arrived, I ended up hitchhiking 3 hours with a bunch of carousing Muslim Filipino guys from Zamboanga City (Mindanao) instead. This was probably not a wise decision, because whenever you read about terrorists or kidnappings in the Philippines, the reporters always write about it from Zamboanga. It’s only a stone’s throw away from Basilan, which is considered the island base of the terrorist “Abu Sayyaf” group. Nevertheless, I had a great time chatting with them in Tagalog, and they never bothered me except asking for a few ringgits for gas and constantly pressuring me to visit a nightclub with them when we got to Sandakan, which I politely declined. Interestingly, they listened to a mixture of loud heavy metal music, Van Halen, and something that sounded like an Indonesian version of the Backstreet Boys on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

In Sandakan, I stayed in a hostel and joined an extremely friendly guy named Gordon to visit the Sepilok Orangutan observatory (did you know orang-utang is Malay for “Man of the forest”? Similarly, “orang-laut” means “man of the sea”. I guess we are all orangs somehow), where I was equally mesmerized by the massive number of British and German tourists as the orange, fuzzy, and definitely cute Orangutan babies swinging through the trees to get a banana. Predictably, for every five bananas set out on the platform for the orangutans, probably four of them were stolen by sneaky Macaques, possibly the same species Macaca fascicularis that the Aytas had to chase from their farms in the Philippines. Later that night, I met up with a new friend from the hostel named Zaity and joined her and her friends to go out dancing. She taught me a popular dance similar to the electric slide that is apparently the rage in Indonesia called “Poco-Poco“. It was a ton of fun, and I was the only non-Asian in the place, but when a heavily make-upped individual of ambiguous gender approached me asking for a dance, we decided to head home.

The next day, I walked around Sandakan and stumbled across a large Mosque on the outskirts of town that was under construction. I was surprised to find out that the laborers spoke no Malay nor English, but were actually Muslim Filipino migrants from Jolo (an extremely impoverished and dangerous island in the Sulu Archipelago). They invited me to visit their home, which turned out to be in an enormous slum constructed with rickety wooden planks suspended over a wide mud flat along the coast. Apparently almost everyone there was from the Philippines, and even though they have the same ethnicity and religion as the locals, the relatively wealthier Malaysian government won’t grant them any legal rights, and they survive as day laborers, essentially invisible to the rest of society. My new friend explained to me that he would rather face the discrimination and bleak employment outlook in Sabah than go back to Jolo, which is constantly ravaged by pirates, gangsters, and territory disputes between terrorist groups and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Furthermore, the largely Catholic Philippines government in Manila was not necessarily a better friend to his family than the Malaysian authorities. I found out later that an ancient border dispute exists between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah and Sulu, dating to pre-colonial times when a Sultan ruled over the area, and President Marcos even planned at one point to invade Sabah and take it from Malaysia. This historical animosity has so far prevented the Philippines from establishing a much-needed consulate in Sabah, because it would effectively end the Philippines’ claim on Sabah. Stepping tentatively across a gap in the wooden planks, below which all manner of trash and human waste floated in shallow water, I reflected with bewilderment at how ordinary people could suffer so much through no fault of their own, just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Furthermore, despite the fact that I was completely vulnerable in the slum, no one tried to rob me or even ask for money. They all just smiled and asked how my day was going.

(click here for photos)
Apologies for the delay in the postings. I’m actually back in the US right now, but I’ll continue to write about my experiences in the Philippines. In fact, I have more than 100 pages in my personal journal, and very few of them have been posted here!

I left off at the end of the January, when I had started to meet a lot of interesting people. Sometime in February, I joined my friends Nicole Fox and Brian Wright on a week-long trip to Coron, Palawan. Brian’s girlfriend, Liz Drotos, and his parents also joined us. Coron is part of the Calamian Archipelago, a collection of several small islands northeast of Palawan proper.

On the flight, I was surprised to see that almost everyone was a foreigner! There were Australians, Germans, and a few Americans. One guy was a very gregarious life-long bachelor from San Diego who had recently joined the Navy Sealift Command. He told everyone a lot of funny stories about his experiences on the high seas refueling battleships.

Palawan in general, and Coron in particular, is famous for its biodiversity and beautiful coral reefs. Furthermore, during World War II a surprise attack on a large fleet of Japanese warships left many wrecks around the islands. Consequently, Coron is considered one of the best places in Southeast Asia to experience wreck diving. Our group spent a day ‘island-hopping’ in a bangka, or double-outrigger motorboat, and snorkeling around the reefs. We saw thousands of fish, including lion fish and bat fish. While the corals were spectacular, and the beaches idyllic, I was somewhat disappointed to see damage to the coral from boat anchors. According to a local guide, the situation is even worse in the ecotourist mecca of El Nido, on Palawan Island itself. Furthermore, many of the beautiful white sand beaches were marred by the sight of trash or even glass bottles washed up on the shore.

On the next day, Nicole and I went SCUBA diving in some of the wrecks. I was afraid to go inside the wreck, having only the basic SCUBA certification, but the guide said, “walang problema!” so I did it anyway. We penetrated the hull of the Kogyo Maru at about 30 meters. It was surreal to see the shadows of huge guns and camouflage netting still preserved in the murky depths. Enormous schools of silvery fish lurked in the darkness as well. When we finally came out the other side of the ship, my heart was pounding with excitement. On the top of the ship were many corals and sea anemones. At last, we reached the surface and I said a prayer of thanks that I survived. I later discussed this with an Austrian friend who is an expert SCUBA diver and he was shocked that I went INSIDE the wreck. He said it is one of the most dangerous things to do underwater, and that I was lucky to be alive. The chances of getting snagged on a piece of metal, or blinded by the underwater dust and disoriented, without a clear path to the surface, are too high. While the Kogyo Maru was an experience I’ll never forget, I suspect it might be the last time I take the chance of
going inside a metal cage deep under water!

The final highlight of our time in Coron was getting to sit in on a rehearsal of the local band Tribu Calamianen. The group of about four men played a variety of instruments, including many different kinds of hand-made drums. They even let us try out the drums, and a trio of Spanish tourists joined in with dancing! We all bought a copy of their CD, and if you like you can even listen to one of their songs, by clicking the link here: Tapyas. The title of the song refers to the mountain directly behind Coron Town, which I climbed on the evening before my departure to Manila. Watching the sun set as fishermen’s boats returned to the harbor below, I wondered when I might return to this beautiful place.