Sunday, July 21, 2013

I saw sharks... Sipadan

Divers n turtle in the distance by Ms N
Divers and a turtle in the distance (Photo courtesy Hugh Diamond, a fellow diver)
Deep deep blue waters. A reef wall that seemed to go down to an endless abyss. My first shark sighting. Colorful corals. Fabulous fish. 18m underwater was never this beautiful.

Our first dive of the day was at South Point. This was the big day of diving as we were diving at Sipadan, one of the top dive sites in the world. I was excited. I was also nervous. Nervous, because this is my first time diving at a site where we couldn’t see the ocean floor. On my left shoulder, was the reef wall, but when my back was turned to it, all I could see was the deep blue. It is one of the most exhilarating and the also the most disorienting feeling. Nervous because I was hoping to see a shark for the first time – I was excited, but I was worried it would come out of the blue and smack into me (now I know where the phrase out of the blue comes from).

And then into the far, we saw spotted the outlines of some of these beasts. The white tip reef sharks. I was just wondering if that was it, when not long after, we saw some swimming closer to us, but down below. And as we moved through the site, many resting on the sandy beaches. And finally, we got as close as a meter to one of them!
A white tip reef shark which we played hid and seek with. Got within 1m distance! by Ms N
A White tip reef shark resting on the sandy bottom (This one was actually shot at Barracuda point, but decided to include it here. Photo courtesy Hugh Diamond, a fellow diver)

While in most dive sites, you can see typically the bottom, which is at a depth of 70-80m. At Sipadan the sea-bed falls sharply down to around 600m. Sipadan is actually the top of an ancient volcano around which living corals grew. (It is the only volcanic island in Malaysia, and the volcanic activity has made the sea rich in minerals ideal for marine life, and the depth of the sea bed allows for bigger fish to nest). The island has an army base and some facilities for divers, but people aren’t allowed to live or overnight here to protect the island as a marine park.

We finished the dive by shoring up over an expanse of the most vibrant and colorful corals I had seen in a while. Most of the other islands around this parts that I had been diving at had sandy bottoms, and this mêlée of colors was an assault on the eyes.

I couldn’t stop smiling after the first dive. In fact I couldn’t stop smiling for a long long time.

What we saw- White tip reef sharks, Green turtles, Titan triggerfish, Chevron Barracuda, Great Barracuda, Trumpet Fish, Trevally, Big nose surgeon fish, Black potted puffer, Sweetlips

PS: huge thanks to my fellow diver who shared his photos with me, which makes me recall the dive memories even more vividly.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We write...

... to taste life twice. In the moment and in retrospect.

 – Anais Nin

Friday, May 31, 2013

We must love it....

Words that resonated with me...

the fool will go through life
at the same time life goes through him 
he will pour himself past the brim
and swim through the mess he has made
knowing that he played his part
the only way he could
that he stood still when asked to move
he did this to prove
that the only things that belong to us are the choices we choose
that we lose everything by risking nothing
that we bring about our own ending
by pretending away our pain
as if we were somehow above it 
the fool steps blindly reminding us 
we cannot not simply bear what is necessary 
we must love it.

From the poem 'Tarot'

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tioman … then and now, untouched as ever!

Canoes by Ms N
Canoes stacked by a beach cabana, Paya beach
The full moon is silhouetted against the sea, smothering the waves with silver reflections. Sitting on a dune, we watch the continuous ebb and flow, each with our own thoughts. For me, the sea has always been a confidant, a friend absorbing all it is told and never revealing those secrets; always giving the best advice — its meaningful noises can be interpreted any way you choose... The fresh wind fills the senses with the power and mood of the sea; everything is transformed by its touch; even Comeback (the dog) gazes, his odd little nose aloft, at the silver ribbons unrolling before him several times a minute.
-Che Guevara, Motorcycle Diaries

This is why the Motorcycle Diaries is amazing. It’s not the greatest piece of writing or doesn’t have lofty observations. But it has layers… every so often, you will re-discover a passage, a part of the journey that will make you think, ‘Dang! That is exactly how I felt when I was at so-and-so, and when that happened’. This book could have been anyone’s journey … it could have been your journey!

I was re-reading the Motorcycle Diaries around the same time that I had gone to Tioman for the first time, couple of years back and I recall thinking how aptly the above words fitted the few days spent idling on this island. There is something to be said about just watching the endless ocean, and letting the motion of the waves take over you. Every single activity seems to take on an added depth when watching the sea – the coffee you sip, the book you are reading.   The sea here is calm and beautiful and it is easy to lose yourself in the beautiful interplay of blue and turquoise even as the day's heat seduces you into a lazy lull. And that first splash of cold when you dive in. And after all this, there are still the nights…

When I returned to Tioman, this time to Tekek beach, I was a tad worried it wouldn’t live up to my memories. But I was overjoyed and even surprised to find it just the way it used to be – rustic and under-developed, even after 2 years. My last trip had been on a long weekend, and we were scrambling to get the accommodation and travel sorted out and it seemed as if every single “resort” was booked out. Was this the ‘untouched’ island people spoke off? I expected to see crowded beaches and half of Singapore camping there. But when we arrived at Paya beach, it was a heady relief to see we had the beach more or less to ourselves.

Once past the not-so-pretty Tekek ferry terminal, the island opens up with the thick tropical forest rising in front – tall, green and dense, and almost reaching the skies. The road branches into 2, following the curve of the sea. Along the way are some wooden long houses, randomly dotting the roads, some have small grocery stores or restaurants, the odd souvenir shops, a garage… and there is that odd broken truck by the side. In the distance, there is smoke from some cooking fires. The road itself curves into the forest, which takes you through the heart of the jungle to Juara, the beach on the other side. The so-called resorts are in fact collection of wooden long houses, quite basic in the luxury they afford. Life takes on a slow and unhurried pace. So did our routine. 

I do wonder if I will tire of beaches, and it feels like I will after every trip. But within days of returning to regular life, all I long for is the calm of the seas.

Some FAQ:
Getting to Tioman is still a bitch (sorry, but that is what it is). But may be that is what keeps it rustic too. We tried a taxi (highly recommend it) for $150-200 one way from Singapore to Mersing. The ferry from Mersing to Tioman, however, still demands patience and god’s grace. Also see this link for 5 ways to get from Singapore to Mersing.

Choose a good beach too. Personally, I found Salang beach had too many chalets lined up one after the other. Tekek, is the main town on the island and the airport is also here. But this beach still felt more spacious. From Tekek, one can get to ABC beach and also Juara quite easily.

Try the Sunset cafe in ABC for some divine pizza's. The walk from Tekek to ABC can be quite nice too.

Also, the jungle walk to Juara is interesting. It takes around 2 hours, and it is recommended to hike in decent shows (i.e. not flip flops).

Untitled by Ms N
S at work, building a cabana by the beach...

Untitled by Ms N
Ayer Batang beach at night

Sunday, May 19, 2013

To be built and bruised, to taste it all...

Loved this quote on "Life" that I came across! This is by the guy who runs Things We Forget , leaving post it notes across public spaces in Singapore. This post-it is from here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Grueling the alleys of Cebu City Pier…

As written on the road
After 2 days of pure transit (from Palawan to Cebu), met with my first hiccup of the trip. I arrived in Cebu City to find there were no ferry tickets to Leyte as Christmas weekend was around the corner. I was jumping from pier to pier in the blasted midday heat (apparently, having a centralized ticket office would be too easy for tourists), but finding no luck. Trying to remember why I think unplanned travel is fun. I sincerely miss friends who would have had the foresight to think about or enquire after availabilities and such practical matters. They would have no doubt also taken the trouble to book in advance. Cebu City pier is also definitely not a place to be ‘hanging about’ – no coffee shops or the likes to rest or get a drink. Also, I did run into a shady old man who was wildly gesticulating at me (I think) and seemed to be cursing in the local language (Cebanos?) and it was unnerving to say the least. Although I have encountered several such characters in the past, it is still unnerving. I was ready to throw the towel after few hours and wallow in self-pity, but, but, I managed a ticket in the very end. 3 times the price works, always!!! Anyways, I am telling myself it will at least be a good story for later. :)

PS: I ended up in a slowest of the slowest ferries and a quite a cattle class ferry at that – yes, the ferry also carried a couple of roosters, which wouldn’t keep shut. I woke up at one point during the night and thought I couldn’t have possibly heard what I had heard – roosters crowing. But I wasn’t wrong, and it seems cockfights is a popular sport in these islands.

I was the only non-local who seemed to be headed to Leyte (Southern Leyte), which made me question my choice of destination. Definitely, Leyte too isn’t on the popular tourist map. However, I met this Filippino girl who kindly offered to share her berth…

Friday, February 15, 2013

When inspiration turns into a trip... lost in Palawan's islands

5 days of exploring deep blue seas, remote islands with no names, white sandy beaches lined with swaying coconut trees and many sunsets. From Coron to El Nido, Palawan.

It was one of the busiest, intense times at work – I can’t remember when exactly – and I was taking a moment to decompress, flipping through NY Times when I read about vacationing on a bunka (boats), off the islands of Philippines. The author wrote – “We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat. We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat.” And I remember thinking that this is how one ought to explore islands. This is exactly how I wanted to explore islands! And that is how the trip to the Philippines came about… I considered different destinations and kept discarding options, I recalled this article, which had seemed like a dream then and thought, why not?

Unlike the popular variety of 1-day island hopping trip that were offered by tour operators in Palawan, TaoPhilippines offers a 5 day expedition starting from El Nido or Coron. My introduction to Tao itself was there website, which is extremely forthright in stating that ‘This is an expedition… we don’t promise that all will go well. And if you aren’t prepared for this or for camping and roughing-it-out, this is not your thing’. Which was exactly my kind of thing. Tao itself was started when 2 friends ran out of money exploring the islands of Philippines, so they decided to take other travelers on their journey’s to make money.

Untitled Our trip started at Coron (in the North of Palawan) and over 5 days we sailed towards El Nido (a beach in the South of Palawan). We were 22 of us along with around 10 from the crew. I had read it would be 5 or 6 people on board, and in my mind this number was a big crowd. But it turned out to be perfect – in many of the islands, there were almost none others but us. There was no set itinerary and each day we would set sail, with the expedition leader deciding the route and destination for the day. Through the day we would stop at different spots to snorkel or enjoy a beach or visit a small village. At nights, we docked at an island and we stayed in open huts or cabins. Sometimes the islands had big settlements; sometimes it was an island that was 15 minutes wide, walking. Dinners were simple and were around a big table where we came together and kicked back over beers.

At one island stop, the boys-on-board played basketball with the local kids. At another, one of the village houses had an age-old karaoke plugged into a TV, and we whiled away the night singing all from Bryan Adams to Elton John to Billy Joel. On one of evenings, as I was enjoying the sunset, I was surrounded by the local kids, and unlike the usual ones who tend to be shy of strangers, demanded I take photos of them. On the last day, the boats rudder broke and we had to sail straight through the day while the crew was manually guiding the boat.

I imagined I would have loads of time on my hand during the trip to idle away. Idle away, I did, but time flew too quickly and looking back those 5 days have meshed together to one long image of the sun, sea, starry nights and happy faces. It was a trip like no other for me!

Read the NYTimes article here. For more details of the trip, go to TaoPhilippines. Don't forget to check their FAQ page which has quite a lot of details about getting to Coron/El Nido in Palawan.

PS: Now that I do go back to article to link it here (funnily enough, I hadn't read through it for my planning), it sounds very very similar to my experience, including the karaoke!

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Coron... Where it all begins

There is something nice about walking out of an airport straight into the heart of the place... No highways, no crazy taxi queues, getting lost in figuring out exits... Think Leh , think Kilimanjaro, think Basuanga in the Philippines. It is the gateway to Coron, one of the towns in Palawan. You walk straight into the rolling hills and tropical green and take an old-world shared van to head to Coron town...

 Coron town itself was extremely small, and surprisingly untouristy despite its fame (may be rising fame) as a wreck dive spot. The town has literally 2 dive shops, 4-5 restaurants and 1-2 bars (which unlike those in other backpacker towns are still not trying to cater to travelers), few groceries and fewer money changers.

Untitled by Ms N
Coron Town main road... found these bike-converted to rickshaws cute

On the night that I arrived, the hostelier of the place I was in was supposed to be jazz jamming in a bar with friends, but cancelled plans. And that was the length and breadth and also end of entertainment options! I can see how many would get bored, but I loved that life seemed to go on just as it should, without frantically changing its rhythm to suit the demands of those who pass through it. (Little did I know I would be seeing more of these towns during my trip).  And this is where it all began!!! 

coron backpacker guest house by Ms N
The way to my guest house...

I was here just for a day, so I spent the evening soaking in the hot springs (I recommend it, beautiful at sunset), before rushing into my pre-trip briefing... Also got to see the Barracuda lake - a mix of fresh and sea water lake which makes it interesting. The lake was straight out of picture post card and perfect for sunning and a good swim - didn't see barracuda's though!

Untitled by Ms N
Barracuda lake

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My first hackathon...

Jumping away from beaches and travel, just coming fresh off my first hackathon. I am no techie, but the topic was 'reducing environmental impact'.

Tons of thoughts and learnings -
* very inspiring to learn about earth hour and the momentum they've gained
*didn't expect to benefit, but really loved the thought process around app development
- the goal, what are you enabling
- the audience, or who is driving it
- of course, ease of use
* loved the format of hackathon... Tech or non tech. Why aren't we doing it more back home? Or are we doing it more and I just don't know
* once again, a refresher on interpersonal / team skills
* amazing, to think through  implementing a solution for a simple problem...
* figuring out that I probably work better when there is someone as excited to the project  as I am
* getting myself also not to give up....
* but also know, that one can be blindsided by it!

Don't know if all this makes sense, but feeling pretty good about the past 2 and a half days!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Easy, breezy...?

It was easy…  is the one thing that keeps coming back to my mind, thinking of my first solo trip.  It was like a breeze, with days flowing one after the other. And just like that, it was over! I did prepare myself for a lot of ‘me-time’, but through the trip I ended up meeting people who found their way to me.

The highlight of course was the island exploration trip in Palawan - when I was reporting in for the trip, the lady at the counter asked if I was alone and gave me a curious look. I asked if there were other solo travelers, and she scrambled through all her papers for the longest time and said, ‘don’t worry, there is M also’. 2 out of 22 - you do the math! But from the moment I walked into the pre-briefing room and squeezed in between R and W, and one person took a dig at my vegetarianism, I knew it was going to be ok. And it turned out to be fabulous – over the next 5 days, I’d like to think we all discovered a little bit about each other, swapping travel and life stories, had some in-depth discussions on love, life and such matters with a few, and sang karaoke like no one was listening (well, no one was listening in fact. We were in a remote island with a handful of houses and using an age old TV-karaoke set up at one of the villager’s homes). It was the best and has made me have a re-think that ‘group’ trips, which I am usually not a fan of, may not be bad after all.

On the other hand, there weren’t major earth-shattering revelations or self-discovery moments.  But as always, I love hearing other people’s stories and their views on life and what they want out of it.  And of course, fellow travelers want to know more about India, and there were good many debates on the country and for myself, if I was / should be doing more.  All this leading to a many introspective moments.

I probably packed in a lot less in the itinerary than I would have if I traveled with someone I think. I gave myself more time so I could figure things out as I cruised along, and sometimes that means delays and change of plans too. (All of which, could be entirely avoided if the trip was fully pre-planned, but where is the fun in that?). And sometimes, I did get a bit lazy too… But hey, the feeling that there is nothing that is a ‘must-do’ is liberating.

All in all, I do realize, it may not always be this easy, but I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

PS: I did post from time to time on FB some of my reflections, so some speak-easy style posts on their way!

PS2: And yes,  Palawan definitely has some crazy beautiful beaches!!! some photo highlights here...

2012-08-20 12.59.31
The many islands we passed over the course of 5 days, Palawan

One of the beaches we stopped at...

Divers caught in action

Bohol's Chocolate hills...

The church at Loboc, which was my base in the island of Bohol