Hello Bohol: Beaches

There are a seemingly endless number of tiny beaches on the island of Panglao, and each one has pros and cons. I wanted to look at several to get a good idea of the best beaches for my tastes. While only the paid beaches (resort run) are “clean” in the sense of pristine sand and crystaline waters, the other beaches aren’t what I would think of as dirty. They do have natural debris, tree branches, leaves, seaweed, driftwood, etc, but I didn’t feel like any of them were trashed by human junk, a few pieces of litter sometimes. If you’re looking for a postcard beach, it’s better to pay the entrance fee for a resort. If you don’t care so much, just get a decent pair of water shoes and have fun!


Momo Beach

Momo was my first beach visit mostly because it was between two other stops we were making on Sunday, and it had decent reviews online.  Momo was almost eerily quiet. Despite the fact that it was Golden Week in East Asia and it felt like half of China had come to the Philippines, Momo’s only tourists besides ourselves were a diving class practicing in the shallows. There isn’t any deep swimming off the beaches of Panglao; it’s all shallow for a long way out, making it great for kids or weak swimmers, and it’s full of life which is fun for everyone.

The water at Momo was dark with the sea grass growing just beneath the surface, but it was so clear I could see all the creatures who lived there… including lots of spiky sea urchins. I waded out carefully, working to avoid stepping on anyone sharp, and tested out my underwater camera apparatus. In preparation of snorkeling, I’d purchased a phone bag that was water-safe, and a floater in case the phone strap broke. Although a cursory test of waterproofness had been done before, this was my first chance to try to take pictures underwater. It was harder than it sounds.

The touch screen worked great through the plastic above water, but went nuts as soon as the sea surrounded it. It took a while to get all the settings under control so I could launch the camera and take photos with buttons instead of touchscreen. In the end, I never did figure out how to get it to focus on what I wanted, so my underwater shots are a little hit or miss, but it was nice being able to take any at all. Along with the fields of sea grass and myriad urchins, I found a beautiful brown starfish, colored like a pointed Siamese, and managed to get a single focused photo without having to lift the creature out of the water, yay!

Alona Beach

Also on Sunday, we headed over to the famous Alona Beach. I had read that it was once a paradisaical white sands tropical beach which has become overrun with tourism and is no longer so pleasant, but I wanted to look anyway. Alona certainly is beautiful, but there is none of the quaint island charm that I found at Momo. The beach was better tended and the water cleared of sea grass and urchins, but other than a tiny marked off swimming area no larger than a pool, the ocean was covered in boats.  Just above the high tide line, the beach is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and diving shops.

Since we were on bikes, we had to park in a lot just off the main circumferential road and walk the rest of the way to the beach. (parking was only 5p, btw). I don’t think this is as bad as the blogs I read made it sound as long as you know what you’re getting into. We passed every kind of food, drink, cultural market, and tour group set up you can imagine. I didn’t want to join any tour groups myself, but if you need a tour experience, you’ll find it on Alona beach. Ok, that’s not totally true, I did want to join one group at least to get myself out to the island with all the turtles for some snorkeling, and I found that there too.

Once I hit the beach, I walked all the way to the right, scoping out the options for dive groups. It’s not a huge place, so within a few minutes I’d reached the end. Vendors were constantly calling out, selling tours, drinks, food, pearls… so many random guys selling pearls out of a box on the beach. They may be fakes or they may be cultured pearls, but I’d say if you like them, just don’t pay more than you would for costume jewelry. I have my grandmother’s pearls, so I’m set. I did cave in and buy from one street vendor: an older lady selling fresh mangoes. It was 20p, probably more than it cost at the market, but she peeled and sliced it for us on the spot and it was ripe and delicious.

I headed back the other direction, trying to figure out which of the diving shops I wanted to patronize. I wasn’t planning on diving (I’m not licensed and also it’s super expensive), but after some internet research and asking people who’ve lived/traveled there, I found the best bet for good snorkeling without being ripped off is to join a dive group and just snorkel from the boat while they dive.

At one point, I thought about doing a tour over to swim with the whale sharks (because how cool would that be?), but as I read more about it, I came to realize that the tours at Oslob are damaging to the environment, and to the animals. Although the sharks are rarely harmed directly (though sometimes by thoughtless tourists or bad guides), the fact is that the Filipinos feed the sharks to keep them there year round as a tourist attraction which interferes with their migration, breeding, and feeding habits. It also teaches the sharks that humans are safe, which is not true outside of Oslob, and it puts them at greater risk elsewhere in the ocean. Whale sharks are gentle giants who eat only krill and plankton and have no teeth to hurt humans. As much as I would love the opportunity to swim among them, I cannot do it in a way that endangers their future as a species.

However, while I was learning about this tourism tragedy, I found a dive shop in Alona that felt the same way and offered all kinds of conservation based dive classes for advanced learners. Even more hilariously, it turned out to be the same dive shop that an old high school buddy who moved to Manila an age ago had recommended, although he’d given me the name of an instructor rather than the shop at first, so I didn’t realize until later. With all that coincidence it felt like fate. This ecologically sound dive shop is called Sierra Madre Divers (on Alona).

Inside I found a very frazzled young man running the front. I explained the desire to join a dive as snorkelers, but it turned out that every spot on every boat was filled for the entire duration of my stay in the Phillipines… by Chinese tourists. One day I’m going to get back on a holiday schedule that is not the same as a billion other people. However, he was kind enough to recommend another company. I figure all these dive shops have to know each other at least a little on such a small island, and I was more than willing to take his suggestion rather than try to filter through internet reviews searching for another by myself. He called over another young man who introduced himself as Rafi (short for Rafael) and told us he’d be happy to take us out the day after tomorrow, just show up at 8:30am.

We paused on the way back up the beach for milkshakes and as I sat on the bench overlooking the water, the most adorable tiny little girl came up to me with a ukulele and began to sing “I Wanna Be a Millionaire”.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of money scams in my travels. I still remember the little girl in Petra who gave me postcards “as a gift” but wanted money in return.  I like supporting the locals who are trying to make a living from the tourism trade by doing things like making and selling goods or food (the totally grown up women in Petra I made sure to buy handmade jewelry from, or even the mango seller earlier that day). I also like busking as a way to earn money, though I’m hesitant to give money to bad performers. Not only was this girl so adorable she could be on a cereal box, she was a very talented musician. Her uke work wasn’t complex, but it was solid and her voice was very nice. I am big sucker and I only wish I’d thought to pull out my camera, but she was so close, she was nearly in my lap, and I was genuinely enjoying the song so I didn’t think about filming until it was too late. Of course I gave her money, don’t be silly.

White Beach

The last beach of Sunday was another locals only kind of place. Despite being just up the coast from Alona, it was far less developed and by late afternoon it was occupied by Filipino families doing evening barbecues on the beach. The sand beneath the water was much less infested with urchins than Momo,and we waded out into a clear sandy patch where we could play around in the warm water that came only up to our hips. Some of the locals came by to make conversation, and I felt obligated in the growing darkness to lie once more about my marital status.

I haven’t done that since the Middle East, and I have to wonder if I would have done it in the daylight, but the sun was behind the trees and it was getting quite dark.  I felt exposed in the sea, even with another American woman beside me, as a man I didn’t know asked about my age and my husband. I want to believe he was just being friendly. I’ve learned that in many places the standard questions are “Where are you from?, What do you do?, How old are you?, and Are you married?” I want to be a proud single traveler. I want to scream from the mountain tops that I don’t need a man to do this. And yet, from time to time I feel less than safe admitting to my spinsterhood, as though by admitting I’m single it will become an invitation for attention I do not want, or worse be taken as an admission of promiscuity. So until the day women are safe and independent all over the world, I may sometimes have an imaginary husband in the US military to scare away unwanted male attention. Sigh.

We splashed around in the shallow water, trying to take selfies in the dark and watching the lightening pop in the distance until it got so dark we couldn’t see our bags on the beach. Looking back on it, I need not have been worried about the bags on a local beach, but at the time I didn’t know yet how things were, and although there wasn’t too much in the bags (phones and keys were with in the waterproof bags with us, money in the wallet was minimal, important ID was in the hotel,etc) it would have been a bad first day to end with them stolen. Plus we were getting more looks from the men as women and children became scarcer in the water. I still don’t think anyone would have hurt us there, but there’s never a need to take chances, and I wasn’t sure how long that lightening would stay in the distance before the thunderstorms hit. I did NOT want to be on a motorbike in the dark and the rain.

Dumaluan Beach

After getting a monumental sunburn while snorkeling on Tuesday, I figured a rest day would be in order and decided that Wednesday would be a great time to check out the “semi-private” beach at Dumaluan that had been recommended by both the hotel hostess and the taxi driver. Panglao has three types of beaches: public, private, and semi-private. Most of the very public ones are not what anyone would put on a post card, the sand has debris from the jungle and the sea, and the water has things growing in it that show it’s clean and healthy, but do not promote a turquoise tropical beach vibe. I personally find these places worth visiting, but there is also something deeply luxurious about the postcard beach experience.

There are a couple of hoity toity resorts with private beaches, and some of them will let non-guests use the beach for a day fee. Unfortunately, I found zero information on what that fee is, or which resorts do and don’t allow, or if there’s a limit, or anything really because all their websites are geared toward getting people to stay in the resort, not just stop by for the amenities. The Bohol Beach Club is supposed to be right up on the top of that list, and I had been thinking about checking it out, but when the locals told me about Dumaluan instead, I decided that was a better option.

Dumaluan is semi-private, meaning that it’s tended to and cleaned up, and there’s a small fee for use, but anyone can go. It’s attached to the Dumaluan Resort, but not exclusive to guests. The fee to enter the beach area is only 25p (about 0.50 US) and the parking fee for motor bikes is the same. Plus, there are little cabin/picnic areas you can rent out for the day. Ours was a “B” and cost 350p for the day. I only saw the B and C cabins; the B were granted an unobstructed view of the water, while the C were set farther back. I presume the A were possibly somewhere nicer and the D somewhere less desirable? I looked but never found them. The cabin area included bathrooms, showers, some entertainment options like volleyball and a karaoke room, as well as a little grill serving light meals, fruit shakes, and cocktails.

The cabin had one long table between two benches, and was covered by a thatched roof, making sure guests would have plenty of shade. There were also lots of trees around which helped keep the area shaded and cooler. Although the sun on the beach was bright, making the sand and sea pop in white and azure, there was a nice breeze and I felt comfortable in my shady seat. It seemed once again we were the only tourists there. There were people at the restaurant, in the karaoke room, and in a few other cabins, but as far as I could tell they were all Filipinos. The cabin next to ours was having a big family birthday party for one of the kids and they’d arranged to have a whole roast pig delivered in for their picnic! We were generally surrounded by (but not crowded by) happy families and playing children throughout the day.

And dogs. So many dogs. In Thailand, there was a profusion of semi-wild street dogs which (other than on Koh Lipe where an animal shelter works to keep them safe and healthy) they are generally scrawny, sick, diseased, injured, and very shy of humans. It’s sad. When I got to Bohol and saw dogs everywhere I was worried it was going to be a similar situation, but as I got settled in, I found that most of the dogs here were better cared for and while collarless, seemed to have good relationships with the humans. Someone told us that they were really family dogs who just wandered around at will. I guess they’d have to be well trained or the chickens and baby goats that also wander around unattended wouldn’t last long. Either way, however many dogs I saw, I never saw a single leash.

Many times throughout the day, a dog would wander over and hop up on a bench to lay down in the cabin. I don’t want to  judge, some people might like that. I don’t hate dogs, but I am allergic, and I also had no idea if these were trained, well behaved, or just thought they owned the park. There are safety concerns with unknown dogs when no owners are nearby. I tried to shoo them off with great difficulty several times until finally one of the Filipino neighbors noticed our predicament and told me what to say. For all the world it sounded like “sit” to me, perhaps with a less aspirated “t”? And when I said it the dog obeyed at once getting down from the bench and moving on, so it was clearly a well understood command and a well trained dog. Later on, I found a list of Tagalog dog commands, but none of them seemed phonetically similar, and the island dialect Boholano is too small to be well documented or have a Google Translate option, so I’m afraid I can’t accurately relay the “go away dog” command for I was taught that day.

The beautiful sun made the water more attractive, but I didn’t want to risk worsening my burn, so I hid under the cabin and partook of the snack bar, which was decent, but not really on par with the amazing food I had elsewhere on the island. Finally the sun retreated behind some clouds or trees, and the beach was no longer quite the burn threat. By this time the tide was in full retreat and it was amazing to see the huge swaths of land revealed. The beaches around Panglao are all very shallow for a long way out, so when the tide goes out, it really goes. I got up to have a walk around the beach and try to take some nice pictures. The clouds there are basically stunning all day, so that helps.

Kids and families played around in the wet sand, hunting down clams and other critters that had dug down during the tidal retreat. There were places where the sand was a little deeper and the water hadn’t gone out with the rest of the sea, creating miniature ponds replete with tiny fish who were trapped until the next tide returned. I waded around the shallows, but had avoided wearing my swimsuit that day to let the burn work on healing. Instead I contented myself looking at the textures in the sand, the piles left behind by digging clams and the ribbons left by the retreating waves. I found a few places where cool water came from under the sand, including one where it emerged with such pressure it almost seemed to be boiling, but it was ice cold.

There were resort workers out raking the piles of debris to keep the sands clean and white. I played a little game of how far out can you walk before the water hits your knees (quite far), and had some fun taking pictures in the glassy reflections of the tiny pools left behind.

Doljo Beach

The last beach I visited was a quick stop I made between two other stops on Thursday just to see if it was a beach I wanted to return to a different day. Doljo is another small, local, free beach that’s far away from the resorts. By the time I made it there, the tide was out, leaving a fleet of boats stranded on the wet sand, but I could tell it was still a pretty place. There wasn’t much around, a couple of huts that were falling apart and some guys selling fresh coconuts to a family of Chinese tourists. It’s small, and a little out of the way. I gather there is at least one resort over there which gets good reviews, but I would have been happy to go there when the water was higher, or even stayed with the low tide to see the sunset. It was amazingly quiet and private. However, sunset wasn’t an option for that day, since I’d already booked an evening activity, and I never did make it back, opting instead to spend my final day of holiday chasing waterfalls.

Conclusion

I think a person could easily visit 3 beaches a day for a week and not see them all. Choosing a beach on Panglao depends a lot on your goals, but regardless of your plans, I would advise:

  • looking at a tide chart because the water goes far far away at low tide and although it is still fairly shallow at high tide, it is much more beautiful and easier to swim in
  • getting water shoes because only the pay to play beaches are safe for tender bare feet (although the locals might have Hobbit blood because they don’t seem to mind)
  • using more sun protection than you think you need because you will burn. Double up, sun screen and covering clothes. The locals swim in street clothes, only tourists go in only swimsuits, so you’ll actually stand out more in a bikini than you will in a covering, skin-saving shirt.

Don’t forget to go over to my Facebook page to see more beautiful sunny beaches! Why? Because WordPress charges more for photo storage than Facebook, and I’m putting off the day I have to beg for money to supplement this blog. Enjoy!


It’s hard to reminisce about beaches in December with below freezing temperatures outside. I’ve been busy job hunting for my next posting, and while I know the responsible thing is to try to get hired for the spring semester, a tiny beach bum part of my brain can’t help but wish for a fall start and the chance to spend 5 months living on a beach in SE Asia while I wait. It seems like I’ll be ok either way, but no out of country trip this January :/ I’ll have to make do with a winter wonderland weekend in the snow instead. 

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Hello Bohol: Balicasag with the Turtles

Bohol is especially well known for the excellent diving spots, including Balicasag and it’s famous sea turtle conclave. I had hoped to take a diving certification course while there this year, but alas, my root canals ate that budget and I had to settle for some stunning snorkeling instead. Join me on a little sailing jaunt under deep blue skies to a world of magical coral reefs, tiny territory defenders, and lazy giants. Bonus: this time I managed to actually take some of my own photos underwater!


Choose Wisely

When I was planning this trip, an old high school buddy who now lives in Manila told me, “you have to go to Balicasag, it’s like a sea turtle old boys club down there”. I love snorkeling, and the chance to meet amazing and rare sea creatures in their home turf is not to be missed. However, it can be tricky to make sure you’re doing the responsible thing. I had already made the decision not to see the whale sharks at Oslob because of the environmental impact on the animals, but I was excited about Balicasag. As far as I could find, there are no damaging practices that draw the turtles there, they just like it.

While trying to make my plan of attack, I read a few dozen similarly disappointing stories of snorkeling and island hopping around Panglao online, most of which shared three basic themes:

  • You’re rushed when you don’t want to be and sitting around doing nothing other times
  • You’re stuck haggling over prices and then dealing with hidden fees and expectations of tips even with lousy service
  • The standard island hopping tour is not a good way to do snorkeling

The best experiences came from people who were lucky enough to find a private boat owner to drive them for the day where and when they wanted to go (very hit or miss), or from the people who went as tag-a-longs with a diving group.

This advice led me to Sierra Madre divers (the people who published that article on the whale sharks I linked to and teachers of marine preservation diving classes). Sadly, they were booked solid for the whole week with Chinese tourists in for the holiday. The guide was very kind, despite his overfilled schedule, and introduced us to his neighbor Rafi at Valm Dive with whom we made a verbal reservation.

20171003_134327.jpgRegardless of who you choose to go with, make sure you ask about any extra fees for Balicasag. Some activities do require paying the national park fee and others don’t. It’s never fun to be caught by surprise once your in the ocean. Valm Dive wasn’t planning to go to any of the pay areas, and so we were only on the hook for our ride and equipment (mask and snorkel only, no fins. I think they would have let us use them if they had extra, but they had to supply the divers first and ran out). Total cost: 500p or about 10$ USD.

A Three Hour Tour?

20171003_082402That morning was one of the few rains that happened during our active times. On any other morning, we could have just waited for it to stop, but Rafi had told us to be at the dive shop at 8:30 and we didn’t want to be late and run the risk of losing our spot on the boat. We waited as long as possible, and it didn’t take long for the downpour to become a drizzle. Driving on the wet roads wasn’t nearly as difficult as I feared, but getting a face full of rain made seeing a little challenging. I thought again about what kind of gear to use to prevent that if I ever had to drive a real distance in the rain, but it seemed like all the locals, in addition to shunning helmets, only wore ponchos while driving in the rain, leaving their faces, and eyes, open to the wet.

Despite the rain, we showed up at the shop at 8:30 as we’d been told, and although Rafi was running around like a nut getting things ready, he spotted us eventually and gave us a friendly good morning and made sure things were set for us too.

Nothing starts on time here, and there’s no point in worrying about it. While we waited, the rain cleared up and the sky began its transition from gray to a deep vault-of-heaven blue filled with towering, crisp edged cumulus clouds. It wasn’t long after that when we all boarded the boat. This involved walking through the shallow water to a ladder on the side. I underestimated the depth and rolling up my pants was not enough to keep them dry.20171003_085545.jpg

Our boat mates included a very serious Japanese man who seemed to have a personal assistant with him taking care of his every need, but not diving herself (she was Filipina and had a tourism badge on, so I feel safe calling this as an employer/employee interaction). There was a Chinese couple who had some intense underwater photography rigs. It made me wonder if they were professional photographers on assignment. And finally and Australian couple who seemed just to be out to have fun. None of them were beginners.

A word about the boats

In Thailand we rode on the longtails nearly everywhere, and by now you’ve probably seen a few boats in my beach photos and have noticed that these boats are quite unique. The Filipino outrigger canoe style, called bangka or bangcas, is distinguished by the two slender bamboo poles on either side called katig. They help to balance the boat, and also mean the main boat needs less keel and can be lighter weight while still being ocean stable. Sailing versions are called paraw or parao. The outrigger canoe plan is most used by Filipino, Malay, Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people today.

20171003_115304.jpgThe Wall

Balicasag is tiny island some 40 minutes to the south of Alona Beach. I never set foot on it, so I can’t tell you how it is. Our dive boat stopped first at a reef called “the wall” because there was a goodly stretch of shallow reef and a sharp drop off that for the divers below was actually a rising wall. We were asked to wait until all the divers were in the water and then given about 45 minutes to do all the snorkeling we liked. They pointed out some Chinese snorkelers a little bit away, and warned us about the current before turning us loose.

20171003_101601.jpgThe corals were lovely, and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. It was my first real chance to play around with my new underwater photo taking capability. Almost as soon as we got in the water, I spotted my first turtle hugging the edge of the drop off. I did my best to keep pace with him, but especially swimming against the current, I had no real hope of catching up to a turtle, no matter how lazily he seemed to be swimming. Finally, I had to give up. I swam using as little energy as possible, but it was hard going because the current was much stronger than I was used to and it was impossible to hold still while taking a picture.

20171003_100627I wove back and forth above the stunning coral shapes, trying to get my camera to focus when I was spotted by a little rainbow wrasse, maybe 5 inches long. It was clearly watching me, swimming back and forth in front of me in quick zipping lines, and once it was sure it had my attention too, it swam straight at my face. I was honestly worried it was going to hit my mask, not for my safety, it was a small harmless fish, but worried that it might hurt itself bashing into the plastic. Fortunately at the last moment it turned aside.

20171003_102013It seemed like a strange behavioral anomaly, but the fish came back and did it several more times. As I got used to the pattern I tried to get a picture. I wish I could have done a video, but I hadn’t quite figured out the trick I needed for that with the waterproof cover.

Eventually I let it chase me away and went on exploring more beautiful coral shapes. I got so focused on getting a working photo that I drifted into a whole shoal of fish without realizing, and at one point when I looked up I was entirely surrounded by tiny flashing fish bodies, not unlike being in a blizzard. I saw larger fish in the hazy waters just past the drop off, fading in and out of the misty darkness. At one point there was a school of silver fish that were more round than narrow and as they passed between me and the dark open ocean beyond, they reminded me of nothing so much as cherry blossoms falling in the wind at night.

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Less Coral, More Turtles

All too soon it was time to swim back to the boat, a healthy challenge in the current without fins, but we made it and the boat moved off to the pick up point for the divers. They had to spend an hour on the boat between dives, but the snorkelers have no such restrictions. We were invited to head back into the water while they waited. The pick up point was not as interesting as the drop off had been, but the water was cool and refreshing and it was nice to just float around and watch the few fish that were braving the desert landscape between reefs. I saw a few more turtles there as well. Despite the poor quality of my pictures, the in person experience was captivating. The water was so clear that I could see the patterns on their shells and fins. I watched each one that passed through as they dug in the sand or chewed plant life growing on the bottom. We also saw a couple turtles surface for a breath once we were back on board.20171003_110919.jpg

The second dive site for the day was all about the turtles. The divers started getting ready well before their hour was up so they could hop back in the sea as soon as it was safe. Once more, we waited for everyone to get in and head off to the goal. Apparently, there is a sort of sea turtle metropolis down there, and we were parked over in turtle exurbs. I’d already seen more sea turtles in the first two stops than I’ve ever seen in the wild before, so I didn’t mind too much.

At first I was a little disappointed because there were still no corals like we’d seen at the first stop. I didn’t want to head too far from the boat, as my last two trips had resulted in very tiring swims against a strong current to get back and I didn’t want to risk getting too worn out in the ocean. However one of the boat hands came in the water while I was swimming and began helping me spot turtles. The first one was chased avidly by a nearby boat of Chinese tourists. A couple others passed by too far for a good look, but then a giant beauty showed up right beneath us. The guide held my elbow to keep me steady so I could try for a better photo, and then when the turtle began to swim away, he motioned me to follow and we swam under the boat to keep the turtle in sight.20171003_121442.jpg

Unlike the turtle the Chinese tourists were chasing which was close to the surface, this one was on the bottom and I was not about to try to free dive to reach it, so I don’t think we were being invasive. We followed it for a few minutes and I managed to get some of the best photos of the day as well as a short video clip. Of course, my phone in a plastic waterproof bag has an upper limit on quality, but I was excited about it.

Finally, I put the camera down and just watched. When the turtle swam on again we didn’t follow but returned to the boat where we motored over to the final pick up point of the day.

With the divers back on board, we made the return journey to Panglao. I happily gazed into the horizon watching the monumental cloud formations and being totally oblivious to the horrendous sunburn I was developing.

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If I Could Change One Thing?

Ideally, if I went back it would be with the time, money, and intention of actually getting my PADI certification and going on those dives, but if it turns out that snorkeling is on the table, then just two main changes: wear a shirt! No amount of sunscreen is enough. I think the reason I didn’t burn on the snorkel trip in Thailand is that it was overcast (and yes, UV happens on overcast days) which meant there was no reflection off the water as there is on sunny days which massively magnifies the cooking power. And get fins. Again in Thailand although it was tricky at first, it was not a hindrance to go without fins because the water was calm. But the current around Balicasag was intense, almost like swimming in one of those resistance pools, I had to swim as hard as I could just to make any forward progress at all, even gentle swimming could result in me drifting backwards.

The massive burn did teach me one interesting fact about fashion. I now know the only valid excuse for a tube top. I don’t own any, but I had to fold down a regular tank top to wear in tube top style for the next several days in order to avoid horrible pain. Thanks mom, for always making us wear shirts over our swimsuits at the beach!

Don’t miss out on the photo album over on the book of faces.

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Hello Bohol: Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers

Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.


Bilar Manmade Forest

Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.

As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.

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The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.

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Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.

Chocolate Hills

20171002_103406.jpgAfter 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.

Once Upon a Time

The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.

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1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.

2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.

3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.

Getting the High Ground

20171002_105544.jpgWhen going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.

The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.

20171002_104853.jpgOnce we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.

20171002_105639.jpgI took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak,  took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.

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Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’

Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.

20171002_111127-PANO.jpg Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but  has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit,  we began to descend the stairs.

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On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.

During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.

Just Another Adventure Park

With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.

12274756_10154324072564838_1412251690201222453_n.jpgOne of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.

I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.

20171002_145050.jpgI read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?

20171002_145135.jpgWe headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.

20171002_134923.jpgWe waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.

Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.

On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.

Park for the Less Adventurous

There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.

20171002_143134.jpgIf you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.

There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.

The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.

20171002_144552.jpgAfter the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.

Tarsier Conservation Area

20171002_164035.jpgFollowing a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.

The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.

Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.

20171002_162736.jpgI can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.

While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.

20171002_163905Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.

Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary

20171006_093344.jpgSeveral days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.

20171006_093938While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.

20171006_094314My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.

20171006_094405The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.

Tarsier Mythology and Preservation

20171006_094201.jpgIt was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.

In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.

Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.

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Feel free to check out the full albums of the Chocolate Hills and the adorable tarsiers over on my Facebook page 🙂


It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤

Letters From China (Holidays 2007)

As the year slides to it’s final months, let’s take a look back a whole decade and see what my very first holiday season overseas was like. In many ways it seemed like western holidays were a bit of a novelty in China (not unlike how Chinese New Year is in the West?). Thanksgiving Dinner specials at expat restaurants were the only place to find turkey and cranberry sauce; and Christmas was entirely bereft of religious overtones (not a single nativity, angel, or baby Jesus anywhere!) focusing instead on Santa, beautiful lights, and fun gatherings, which since I’m not actually Christian are really my favorite parts. Happy Holidays!


Nov 23, 2007 at 10:21pm [American Thanksgiving]

It was strange to celebrate this holiday so far from home, but it turned out pretty good.

I had a class in the early morning, so we headed into Beijing after lunch. We did some shopping, and stopped for coffee in a shop that was playing Christmas muzak, which was vaguely cool.

We had reservations at a place called Grandma’s Kitchen, and we had a small map to it on the back of thier card. The interesting thing here is that it was in a Soho compound, and there are about 80 of those in the city, and the girl who made the reservations thought it was the one at Dawanglu, when it was actually at Yong’anli, 2 subway stops over. I managed to figure out what part of the city it was in from the map, but even in that complex there were like 7 Soho buildings, labeled by giant letters in front (I should have thought to take a pic, but we were lost). It took us quite a while, and three times asking directions (in Chinese) to get there, and then one of us (Kevin) had to go back to the subway station to meet Michelle, because she was meeting us there and went to the wrong place.

After much adventure, we all arrived. The place was empty at first, although by the middle of our meal it was packed. I was really surprised to see so many Chinese people there for the holiday dinner. The menu included a full 5 course dinner, not all of which was traditional American T-day stuff, but it was all tasty.

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The first course was a choice of bacon wrapped shrimp or stuffed mushroom, I ordered the shrimp, but traded one out for a mushroom. Both were good. The second course was salad, I got the spinach and pear, it was also nice. The third course was awesome, a rich pumpkin soup.

The main course included turkey with gravey, sweet potatoes which were mixed with a touch of cinnamon and the white thing on top is a marshmallow with a little lemony bit in the middle, which was a really nice combo with the cinnamoned yams, carrots (mediocre), bread stuffing that I avoided, cranberry sauce which was quite nice, and for no apparent reason, baked beans (they were out of mashed potatoes). And I chose the pumpkin pie for dessert, which was almost, but not quite, as good as mom’s.

Over dessert we went around and said what we were thankful for, and for me this included my friends and family at home who support me in my crazy life, finding a decent job here in China, and finding good people here to share the experience with. We told stories of Thanksgivings past, and generally had a really good night. I took some pictures of us, and had some pics taken so you could see the people as well as the food.

From left to right its Bill, Kevin, Michelle, Erwin and me.

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I love and miss you all, I hope you had wonderful Thanksgivings wherever you were.

Dec 4, 2007 at 9:28pm

Although I have actually seen a couple Christmas trees around town (amazing though that is), I decided the only real way to have my fill of Christmas spirit was to decorate!

So I went to Wal-Mart and got a little plastic tree (20 kuai), and a string of lights to put on it… (16 Kuai), and some cute little painted pine cone ornaments (honestly the most tasteful ones available, most were gawdawful plastic do-dads, there were some nicer glass ball types, but they were too big for my mini-tree), and a Santa topper (ok, not really a topper, its really an ornament that I cut the string off of and poked a hole in the bottom of so I could shove it on the top of the tree, but hey…14 kuai)

However, the lights were blinkey, and not in a nice way, in a terribly erratic way, and like so many Chinese things, they were broken 5 minutes after I got them, and the middle of the strand stopped lighting at all, I have no idea why. So I went to the local store and bought new lights in the shape of little presents, which I like much better. (10 kuai)

And so as not to waste my blinky lights, I hung them in my window which faces the street to spread my Christmas cheer to all passers by.

Dec 16, 2007 at 7:21pm

Its been strange, building up to Christmas in a place where every street isn’t lined with decorations, houses aren’t competing for the biggest, brightest light show, department stores aren’t spouting Christmas carols 24/7 and there are no bell ringing Santas out front of the grocery stores. Some days it seems like it must still be November.

There are a few trees and decorations here and there, plastic trees and paper Santas. I’ve got a tree, of course, and my window lights, which are the only Christmas lights on display I’ve seen in Yanjiao.

I went to Wal-mart in Beijing today, though and there are bigger trees. It looked like some workers were setting up a light display, and there was even a store that had reindeer out front.

I treated myself to a gingerbread latte at Starbucks, and sat amid the Christmas music and decorations and almost felt like I was just in another city in America… almost.

But one of the amazing things I noticed in the middle of all this complete lack of Christmasosity (I can’t even find candy canes), was that my students, 20+ tho they may be, are like little children about Christmas. Its still magical and amazing to them, because they haven’t done it every year of their lives.

I downloaded some classic Christmas tv, like Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph and of course the Grinch (the good cartoon version), and as I sat in the darkened classroom, watching these cartoons for the umpteenth time and taking some solace in the sameness and familiarity of them, I realized something really amazing.

As I sat there listening to my students laughing out loud at the Grinch’s dog Max *for the first time in thier lives*, it was an amazing experience for me to hear that laughter and realize that these young adults were enjoying Christmas tv for the first time.

Say whatever you want about Americanization, cultural pollution or even the evils of Christianity, but the fact is, I’m not Christian, and Christmas is older than America, and whatever these kids have in their own culture, there isn’t a winter holiday that’s getting pushed aside to make room for Christmas, so if they can find out from me that Christmas is joy, and cheer and goodwill and cookies, then that makes me pretty darn happy.

Dec 17, 2007 at 9:37pm

Despite the fact that most of you seem to have forgotten I’m in the future, and that today was my birthday… and more gruelingly the fact that I’ve got a horrible cold, and that I’ve finally broken into my third decade, as my mother was so kind to point out, and its freezing cold and I had to start giving finals today… it turned out to be a good birthday after all.

The morning was ok, I woke up too early, but it gave me some extra time to chat online. All my students wished me a happy birthday at the exam this morning, and a couple even gave me presents. One boy gave me some dried fruit snacks and a girl gave me a lovely Peiking opera mask miniature of the monkey king.

100_0693After the exams I went to lunch and enjoyed some hot soup, then came home to grade papers, not really thinking much of the day. The school sent over a cute little cake which i decided to hold on to until I could share it with some folks at dinner tomorrow. I graded papers, looked at more evil forms and watched some X-files, all the while becoming more icky feeling and more cold.

Finally it got to be time to go to my evening class, which I didn’t want to go to cause I’m tired and sick and have to be up super early tomorrow for another final. But I drag myself across campus in the cold, I get up to the 9th floor and see one of my students going into the classroom and closing the door behind her.

I thought, ‘well that’s odd, I could swear she saw me’. Then when I tried to go into the room, another student asked me to wait outside, and when they finally let me in, they had prepared a birthday cake with candles and everything, and they sang me “happy birthday” in English and Chinese.

I couldn’t blow out the candle on the first try (probably because of my cold) but on the second try I actually blew it over (fortunately it was out first). The cake said “We ❤ U” with a picture of a heart, and was decorated with a huge frosting Santa. The cake was quite large enough for everyone in class to have a big piece. I didn’t have my camera, but several of the students took pictures on their phones and I asked them to email the pics to me, which I’ll post once they do. *(they never did)*

I honestly don’t remember the last time I had a surprise party. I’ve been organizing my own birthday parties for so long I figured here I am so far from home and I haven’t invited anyone to celebrate with me, so nothing will happen. It was so sweet and thoughtful of these students to organize even a simple cake and singalong that I feel like I really have had a happy birthday, in spite of some pretty overwhelming odds.

If this is anything to go on, I hope the whole decade is full of such happy surprises.

Dec 19, 2007 at 11:17pm

Wow. I have just gotten back after 4 hours of dinner and party.  The dinner was held in the hotel next door, in a huge room decorated with a Christmas tree and other festive decorations. We had so much good food, most of which was far less oily than my usual, and they even had french fries, which were fun to eat with chopsticks. They also had lots of booze, wine, beer and baijiu, as well as a homemade “wine” from one of the women there.

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It actually turned out to be pretty fun, as every 2-3 minutes someone else came by our table to make a toast, so we all got pretty toasty. We sang a Christmas song, and the Chinese sang us a song about friendship, then we went across campus to see the show the students had prepared.

The show was put on by the business department, so none of my students were there (there’s another party on Sunday night for that, I hear). There was singing, dancing, and performances by many unique instrumentalists (both the instruments and the players were unique).

There was a student dressed up as Santa Claus who gave us all Christmas cards and candy (I even got a Santa hat!).

I’m going to have to buy more batteries so I can take pictures of the parties in my classes and the one on Sunday night, as well as our ‘teachers only’ dinner on Christmas eve.

I thought for a while that I would miss out on Christmas by being here in China, but the faculty and students have gone out of their way to make us have a good Christmas, and even though the traditions aren’t quite the same, I definitely feel full of Christmas cheer.

Here’s the show: dancing girls, rapping guys, singers, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, accordion player, and a whole crowd of audience.

 

The students threw glitter and spray snow all over the teachers.

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Dec 26, 2007 at 5:20pm

I had 6 parties in all, one you’ve already seen was the department party, then there were 3 class parties and a school dance, and our teacher dinner. This post will have 2 of the class parties (the third one wasn’t much to look at), and the school dance.

Here’s the first class, they’re advanced conversation. They went to town decorating the room.

Here’s the school dance, I was warned it was going to be like a middle school dance with the girls on one side and the boys on the other, but there was a performance, which I missed most of because Kevin wanted to get drinks first.. the VP of the college asked me to sing. I couldn’t exactly refuse, so I sang one verse of silent night. And I got dragged out to dance quite a bit, and I noticed how much the smog affects me, since my lungs stayed on fire way worse than even at the Merc [a Seattle dance club]. But it was fun, and there was certainly lots of dancing.

And here is the last class party, once again, there was an abundance of decorating. In both cases the class monitors brought speakers to hook up an MP3 player to so we had music, people brought snacks and decorations, I brought Christmas bingo, a puzzle game and taught them some Christmas carols, including the 12 days, which was hilarious, at least for me. There was also dancing in the classes as well. They really like singing and dancing.

Merry Christmas from all the Chinese kids!

Dec 29, 2007 at 2:53am

The long awaited Christmas Eve Dinner. We went to a place called Cafe Europa, it was in the same giant shopping complex as Grandma’s Kitchen, but a totally different atmosphere. It was elegant, but not overstated, which was nice, since so many Chinese Christmas decorations are like 5 yr old meets raver kid style. There were 9 of us, and 9 is an auspicious number in China, so who knows, maybe we get some good luck.

Erwin, Michelle, Rebecca, Jonathan, Bill, Peter, Terry, Louise and myself.

It was a pleasant evening, the restaurant never got too crowded or noisy, but we weren’t the only people celebrating. We had some champagne and beer, and a (mostly) pleasant conversation, tho toward the end it devolved into “first date deal breakers” thanks to Peter.

The menu was very nice. We started off with a small foie gras appetizer, served over a tomato vinaigrette salad, entirely too many people were hesitant about the paté, but I thought it was lovely. This was followed by a salmon appetizer with a quail egg and salmon roe in addition to the normal onions and capers. This was my first salmon since leaving Seattle and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Then there was a lobster bisque, nice and rich.

Followed by I think the biggest pile of prime rib I’ve ever been served, huge thick slices, tender and well seasoned. YUM! It made me glad I hadn’t eaten much all day. Dessert was a mousse plate, there’s a white chocolate mousse which tasted a lot like devonshire cream, in a chocolate dish, and a milk chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.

On our way back to the main road toward a taxi, we passed these pretty lights and Peter redeemed himself by singing Christmas carols in harmony with me, which was fun.

Christmas (11)

When we got back to Yanjiao, we went to a local bar and stayed out drinking until 4am. (the people working there kept going to sleep behind the bar between rounds, but they never asked us to leave) I somehow got roped into doing tarot readings with a deck of playing cards, which amused everyone, and we finished off the evening with a rousing game of “I never”. Maybe not the most Christmassy ever, but there was a big tree decorated and lit up in the bar, and we had a toast at midnight to welcome Christmas in.

I won’t say that it hasn’t been hard to be away from you all during the holidays, but given the circumstances, I had a pretty good Christmas.


It makes me cringe just a little bit to read how totally Americentric and culturally illiterate I was back then, but on the other hand, it was having experiences like these that helped me grow into the person I am now. We all have to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe in another ten years I’ll look back on my current blog entries and groan.

I can also see the slow detachment I’m having from Western holidays. I still like going to expat dinners, and I definitely still like decorating my home for Christmas, but every year it’s easier to focus on the holidays that the country I’m in is celebrating rather than pine for the celebrations I’m missing. Buddha’s Birthday has been one of my favorites here in Korea when everyone decorates in beautiful lanterns.

However you celebrate, and whoever you celebrate with, I hope you have some very happy holidays this year!