Saturday, January 7, 2012

Party with some Whale Sharks

New Years in the Philippines is culturally a family celebration where people stay home, eat and shoot off home-made fire crackers. Of course this differs a lot from the American tradition of going out, staying up late and counting down the New Year. So most volunteers make travel plans to party places in the Philippines. My friends and I decided to spend the weekend in Cebu, an island in the Visayas that none of us have spent much time in. We planned on staying in Cebu City for the big night since there are lots of food and bar options, also hoping to see some good fireworks shows. But Jensen and I decided to head south first for some diving in Moalboal, Cebu.

Its a three hour bus ride to the dive town of Moalboal where the atmosphere is chill with lots of places to eat and drink along the beach, and a dive shop around every bend. The reserve near Moalboal is Pescador Island and we had already decided we wanted one of our dives to be there. But for some reason a lot of the dive shops were not going to the island, even though it was a really close 10 min boat ride away. But after walking around the beach strip we were able to find a shop that would take us for a morning dive to Pescador Island. We also opted for a second dive in the house reef. 

The weather was a little gloomy but that wasn't about to stop our dive plans. Despite the overcast and a few showers, visibility was great and we had two fun drift dives. The dives were walls of reef, tons of coral and fish. The highlight of the trip was to see four Green Sea Turtles and a good size frog fish. We didn't have a dive camera but for those that don't know, a frog fish is one ugly creature! However it is really neat to see on a dive. Below is a picture I pulled off the internet just to give you an idea of what we saw:

He thinks he is camouflage... the one we saw was actually sitting on a coral that resembled his colors. I think this one is confused...
I really enjoyed the dive town of Moalboal (called Pangasama beach by the locals). The atmosphere was really chill and quiet. There were a lot of foreigners there, some just visiting and others liked it so much they live there now. It is a nice beach strip with seafood restaurants and bars on the water but still has a small town feel, unlike the over populated and overcrowded Boracay. It was a great morning of diving in Moalboal but our adventure was not over yet!

Heading to Pescador Island reserve.

Had a great time with Nelson's Scuba!

When we had walked around to find the dive shop, we kept hearing word that there were Whale Sharks at a small town on the other side of the island. Most people head to Bicol to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines but it's a long ways away and we hadn't made the trip yet (its around a 12 hour bus ride from Manila). But this town was just on the other side of Cebu from where we were. After our dive we headed back to Cebu City to meet up with our other friends, but on the way we decided that we just couldn't pass up the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks when they were so close to where we were.

In case you don't know, whale sharks are sharks and not whales. They grow very large, with the largest documented whale shark being over 12 meters (36 ft), making them literally the largest fish in the sea. These massive fish, despite being part of the shark family, are actually gentle giants that are filter feeders. Because they are so large but eating such small food, they move quite slowly. Snorkeling with whale sharks has become a popular tourist attraction and has been on my 'bucket list' of Philippine activities for a while.

So after having dinner with friends in the city, and getting a few hours of sleep, we got up and headed out on a 4am bus (the whale sharks are only out feeding in the morning hours). We rode a packed bus, standing room only, for three hours, as we headed back down south. The driver knew right where to drop us off for the whale sharks (where all the foreigners were headed haha). We brought our own snorkel and mask but rented fins and paid a small fee that goes to the local fisherfolk.

The whale sharks showed up in this small town two months ago when fishermen were out in the early morning trying to make a catch. They were very surprised when this big shark bumped against their boat trying to get the small shrimp the fishmen use for bait. At first the whale sharks were seen as a nuisance but then the locals realized that they had a great tourist attraction in their waters. So they have been getting the word out the sharks are there, enticing tourist to come snorkel.

Jensen and I headed out to the water and were amazed at these huge and beautiful creatures! They move slow and gracefully through the water, sometimes surprising us as they swam underneath. It was an amazing experience that I am sure I will never forget!

These were the "little guys" at around 4 m.

I am swimming with the biggest fish in the sea!!!

One big shark!
After our adventure with the whale sharks we made it back to the city utterly exhausted. And of course New Years Eve was upon us so we rested up with a 4 hour nap before getting ready to hit the town and bring in the new year!

We had a great view from the top of Cebu City to see all of the hundreds of fireworks shows down below!
 It was lots of fun celebrating the new year with good friends in a big city. The volunteers who have become my friends over the past year are my friends for life. We are able to share all of our frustrations, stresses, experiences and celebrations with each other and have become more like family. I don't know how I would get through all of the ups and downs of this experience abroad without them and I look forward to another year together serving in Peace Corps Philippines.

Guimaras volunteers celebrating the New Year!

Fireworks! Happy New Year!

So I hope everyone had a very happy New Year! I look forward to 2012, and all the experiences that await me!
Next week I leave for Thailand and Vietnam! I will be sure to post when I get back about my adventures!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Diciembrye sa Guimbal

Wow this holiday season really flew by! Since I am on my last year here in the Philippines, I really want to make the most of every moment. Christmas last year was still new to me with culture and food and the language but this year I have a better understanding of the culture here so I feel I am able to participate more in the traditions instead of being a bystander. Christmas in the Philippines really is more about the weeks leading up to Christmas day. There are lots of fiestas and Christmas parties and of course lots of food!.

My LGU (local government unit where I work) held a Christmas party the Thursday before Christmas weekend. There were lots of Christmas decorations everywhere, especially the star lanterns that are so popular here. This year Stacey (the other volunteer at my site) and I were asked to prepare the games for the Christmas party. Because it can be difficult to explain a game in another language, we decided to use a lot of Filipino party games that people are familiar with but also add a little bit of new games we know from the States.

A classic Filipino game is 'longest line' where there are two teams that must make the longest line they can in a given time by using only things they are wearing. It is pretty funny to watch as people take off shoes, belts, jewelry and anything else they can use to add length to their line.
Making the line long!

These lines even made it outside the building!

Another one of my favorites to watch the employees play was the 'hoola-hoop' game. In this game the teams had to pass the hoola-hoop down their team line without breaking hands. There were a lot of nice moves going on to get the hoola-hoop around their body and on to the next person in the line. And some of my co-workers were on the winning team!
moving that hoola-hoop down the line!

he must have some great dance moves too

All in all I think everyone enjoyed the games and Stacey and I enjoyed putting them on.
Next was time for food! My office bought a 'baboy lechon' or roasted pig! It is a favorite party food and can feed a LOT of people. There were also the Filipino staples of rice, milkfish,  and pancit noodles. I made some deviled eggs, which my co-workers had never tasted before but seemed to like.
posing with my co-workers' kids

time to butcher the baboy lechon!

the food line in my office

After lunch we all hung out in the office, chatting and playing card games. One of my favorite Filipino past times (besides singing kareoke) is to play tongits, a Filipino card game. It is somewhat similar to rummy but with an added betting element. I really enjoy playing with my co-workers even when I end up loosing 20 pesos ( I can just make it back the next game).
playing tongits in the office

Christmas in the 'Pines really culminates on Christmas Eve when everyone goes to midnight mass and then comes back for a late night fiesta. Last year I went with my host family but this year I decided to head to Guimbal (the site of Elliott) for the Diciembrye sa Guimbal Festival. It is a week long festival that Guimbal puts on every year. The entire lawn of the Municipal Building is covered in lights and every night there is lots of food, drinks and dancing!
Lights lights everywhere!
 Elliott's parents were visiting from the states and they treated us to dinner. It was really nice to have that added American family, especially during the holidays when we are all missing our own families so much.
dinner with the PC family (plus E's parents)
 On Christmas day we were invited to Elliott's host family for lunch. They prepared a big spread of Elliott's favorite Filipino foods. There were also three cakes in celebration of the family birthdays in December.
Lola (grandma) seems to be guarding the cake...

Our American-Filipino Christmas Family
After our Christmas lunch we hung out with the family and played with the kids as they opened their Christmas presents.
Renz thinks Ty is a mountain to climb

The kids playing with their new toys

Renz is so happy to wear his Georgia shirt, xmas gifr from Elliott's parents

So that was my last Christmas in the Philippines! Stay tuned for a recap on my New Years adventure complete with Whale Sharks!