Indonesia: Diving in the Bali Sea

“Your dives will be 1.6 million rupiah” the secretary at Gecko Dive Center doesn’t bat an eyelash as she rattles off this jarring number.

The mere suggestion of a million of anything is enough to make my stomach drop.  That’s insane!  ONE MILLION?!

Of course, 1 USD is equivalent to about 14,000 IDR so in fact the prices were quite reasonable.  We double checked the conversions and shelled out the rupiah to dive in the Bali sea off of Penida island between Bali and Lombok.  And it was worth. Every. Last. Rupiah…

img_9216

We met our dive guide Maid (pronounced: Maddy) at 8am and enjoyed the island time as we slowly got our gear together and headed out for the day.  When we took off I found the ride rather rough, but Maid assured me that it was a nice day and the ride wasn’t bad at all!

When we neared Penida island we approached a few other boats that were casually smoking cigarettes as they guarded a capsized boat with it’s props in the air.  None of the Indonesians on our boat really give it much thought, we later asked Maid about the boat and we had to remind him.

‘You know, that boat we saw this morning that was flipped over?’

He says with a big ole smile, with no signs of concern in his voice, that it must have capsized this morning.  Dani and I just shrugged it off and checked out our dive gear.

GOPR8481_Moment(2)

We arrived at our dive site, Manta Point.  The dive site was below a sharp cliff, and the water was choppy as it bounced off the land and back towards the dozens of boats floating in the area.  Manta Point is a cleaning station for reef manta rays of the Bali Sea.  Manta rays are a migratory species so while some can get up to 5.5 meters (18 feet) in width, and up to 1.4 tons (2,800 pounds) (arkive.org), they can be hard to spot unless you know which reefs they visit.

The manta rays come to Manta Point to be cleaned by the reef fish.  They glide over the reef, and the fish come out of the crevices and rocks to pick parasites off of the manta’s body.  This is a symbiotic relationship because both the manta ray and the reef fish benefit.  The manta rays get rid of potentially harmful parasites, while the reef fish get a meal delivered to their doorstep for free!  This makes manta point a hot spot for diving, which was clear by the number of boats bobbing up and down in the water.

GOPR8481_Moment

We jumped in the water and hung out near a small seamount, where the reef fish sat waiting for their daily doorstop service.  We could feel the swells of the ocean’s surface up above as we bobbed up and down in the water column.  We also sat eagerly awaiting, for a second I wondered if this is how the reef fish felt.

Suddenly a manta appeared from behind the seamount!  It sailed over the divers with such ease.  As I followed the one with my eyes, I turned back to the start to find one swimming directly at me.  With thoughtless effort the ray rose just above me, just missing the top of my head.  Manta rays flap their triangular pectoral ‘wings’ to propel themselves forward, and they have little mouthparts that protrude forward, called cephalic lobes.  They appear to fly through the water column flapping their wings lazily and drift to the deep like a bird that has caught a steady updraft.  They’re playful animals and as they approach one another they seem to dance around.  Two smaller mantas encircle a larger one like children running at an adult’s feet.  As they swam around they playfully tossed their cephalic lobes back and forth as if to simply entertain themselves, like an elephant playing with it’s trunk.  Unlike other animals commonly spotted during a dive, their presence lost no novelty as the minutes ticked by.

GOPR8481_Moment(3)

We swam along the reef and spotted several smaller rays on the reef as well.  These rays however move by undulating their pectoral fins.  In other words, the mantas look like they’re flying underwater, while these smaller rays look like the edges of their body are creating waves that circulate around their entire body.  When we surfaced we were absolutely ecstatic unable to even count how many manta rays we saw.

When we returned to land we were coaxed into doing a night dive at Blue Lagoon.

Night dives can be a little eerie.  As you sink below the surface of the water, the reef that was seemingly playful during the day, is run by entirely different group at night.  Swimming through the dark, you begin to realize what a scary place the ocean can be at night.  You see the fish from the day hidden in the crevices of the rocks and corals.  In the back of your mind you wonder…should I be hiding from what they’re hiding from?!

GOPR8607_Moment

During the day, I like to turn away from the reef and look out into the ocean.  It’s a deep blue color and looks like it goes on forever.  At night it’s black, even with an almost full moon, the sea remains black.  During a night dive you have a torch, and while flashlights on land can light up an entire area, underwater torches only light up one spot.  The lamp creates a well-defined circle in the sand, and the edges of the light are met by immediate darkness.  I shine my light out into the sea beyond the reef, into the blackness, to see what I can see.  Thousands of little organisms’ eyes reflect off of the light and they scatter as I follow them with the lamp.  I turn my back to the darkness and avoid thinking about the large predators out there somewhere hidden in the darkness of the ocean at night.  I direct my light back to the reef, and see a whole new community of organisms, wide awake.

GOPR8610_Moment

While many fish are asleep, the draw of a night dive is that you see an entirely new group of marine organisms that hide during the day.  My favorite creatures we saw on this dive were the small cuttlefish.  Cuttlefish are a type of cephalopod.  This means they’re related to octopus.  Cuttlefish have chromatophores in their skin that allow them to change colors.  They use this ability for camouflage during the day.  One can swim completely by a well-disguised cuttlefish that looks like just another rock.   At night, they use this ability to lure their prey close.  The flashes of black and white run down the length of it’s body and it’s tentacles pulse the colors as well.  Once it’s prey wanders close enough to it’s beak, it snatches it’s prey out of the water with all of it’s tentacles like a lizard’s tongue! Luckily they can’t hunt humans because I was completely mesmerized by the cuttlefish and followed them for much of the dive.  Other active predators during a night dive include sharks and octopus.

GOPR8611_Moment(4)

As we swam along we came across a small coral catshark that darted in and out of rocks and corals looking for dinner.  We also saw a whitetip reef shark swiftly swimming close to the reef trying to spot an easy catch.  There were a few other species we still haven’t been able to identify!

GOPR8611_Moment

We came up to the surface absolutely thrilled once again, and I decided it was the best day of diving I had ever done.  Little did I know that in a few days time we would get luck enough to hop on a day trip to Sipadan island in Malaysian Borneo, a spot that has been recognized as THE best dive site in the world….but more on that later! 😉

P.S. check out the videos on my Facebook post, they completely surpass the photos! (WordPress won’t allow me to share videos without a premium account)

THE Close of Service Trip

The long awaited, the PCV daydream, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the close of service (COS) trip.

img_9126

PCVs spend the tougher days of service dreaming about the day PCV turns to RPCV and they finally get a little bit of cash to discover the region they’ve lived in for +2 years. So, upon finishing a scavenger hunt of paperwork to close out my volunteer contract with a few of my batchmates, the daydream was slowly becoming a reality.  We got ready to ring the COS bell, a Peace Corps Philippines tradition, but for some reason the excitement of the future was somewhat dulled by the realization that we were all now finding ourselves unemployed and without health insurance….  After the final checks were made, and we all turned into RPCVs we sat in Peace Corps office, wondering what we were supposed to do next.

img_9128

And after being coxed to leave the IRC by the air con turning off at 5, we wandered back to our hostel and in each other’s company, we pretended we were not freshly unemployed and played volunteer for a while.

img_8968

But now, almost two weeks since ringing the bell, the dust has settled and I’ve realized that COS trip is a amalgamation of backpacking, job hunting, sightseeing, and attempting to have it all on a shoestring budget (and by have it all, I mean a COS trip, student loan payments, and life starting money for the states).  Going from dollars to pesos was exciting! The return is a little nerve-wracking.  However, for now I’ve got a few more conversions before I finally find U.S. Dollars in my wallet.  My first step, the Indonesian Rupiah.

img_9163

We had a quick trip in Indonesia, but as with any new place there’s so much to talk about!  So, I’ve divided my time in Indonesia into 3 different stories. Island Hopping in Komodo, Diving in Penida, and Temples in Bali, all of which I’ll post through-out the week.  Next week I’ll get to this weeks adventures in Malaysia, including diving in Sipadan, renowned as the best dive spot in the world!

10 Things All Peace Corps Philippines Volunteers Know to be True

There are certain experiences we’ve all had as Peace Corps Volunteers serving in the Philippines.

As I celebrate with my batch mates the closing of our two years of service, I wonder what sort of things we will forget about as we move on to the next chapter of our lives. What are those little things we’ve gotten so used to these past two years? What habits will we find hard to leave behind as we return home?

So here it is, my best approximation of what experiences we’ve all had through-out our time in the Philippines.  This isn’t a static list so comment below and tell me what’s one thing you think all volunteers have experienced!

Happy early COS Batch Family!

10. You know FAR too much about your fellow batchmates’ bodily functions.

I don’t think this one qualifies as ‘something you didn’t notice you did here’ because it’s very obvious that we know way too much about each other’s medical history.  At home you don’t really know about someone’s medical ailments unless it’s a cold or a flu you’re worried about catching.  No one makes casual water cooler talk about the tapeworm they just passed, or the dengue fever they just got over.  But here, sitting around a table at Pension, talking about the last time you pooped your pants or passed a parasite is pretty basic conversation, it practically comes right after asking how site is.

PCV 1: How’s site?

PCV 2: Good, did you pass that worm yet?

PCV 1: Yeah! Wanna see a picture?!

PCV 2: YES

9. You can identify a fellow PCV based solely on their water bottle.

PCV1: Did the guys from Leyte arrive yet?

PCV2: yeah I saw their water bottles in the lobby.

8. The couch in the Information Resources Center at the Peace Corps Office is the comfiest couch you’ve ever touched.

I don’t know where this couch came from, it’s probably so comfortable thanks to the generations of Peace Corps Volunteers who have napped on it before us.  But it is so very comfortable and you can’t help but fall asleep a little whenever you sink back into it’s soft lumpy cushions.

7. You’re never further than an hour from a jaw-dropping gorgeous once in a lifetime paradise getaway spot…

…but because you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer and you live here, you’ve used the word ‘okay’ to describe this location.

Tourist: The sunsets here are AMAZING!

Jaded PCV: Yeah, tonight’s is okay.

6. You haven’t completely realized how much tagalog has infiltrated your regular speech until you have your first non-PCV visitor.

You: It’s bawal

Them: It’s…what?

5. The amount of acronyms you passively understand is a little disturbing.

CR, PCMO, VICA, CD, PNB, AL, PM, CRM, CYF, EDU, LBC, CP, MST, IST, PST, IO, COS, PNVSCA, CBT, DPT, LPI, PDM, PCT, PCV, USPC, PC, CIC, SM, RIICE, WeUp, IRC, VAC, RM, SM, PA, TCF, LCF, RPCV, PCRV, PCT, HCA, LGU, MRE, VRF, LPA, C2 to name a few…

4. Your proudest Peace Corps accomplishment is your impeccable budots form

Budots is a Filipino dance craze and as a Philippines PCV it is your duty to master the art of budots before you close your service.

3. You’ll never get sick of the double take tryke drivers do when you’re vacationing and you hit them with the local language.

PCV: Magkano ang pamasahe, Kuya?

Them: MAROON ANG (insert local language here)?!

2. The kindness of the Filipino people is some of the most generous kindness you’ve ever experienced.

Whether it’s your host mom sending you with 2 bushels of bananas and 5 avocados for baon, or a stranger offering you their umbrella to shade you from the sun, the generosity here is overflowing and genuine.

And Finally…

1. Whether it’s a tryke, jeepney, or a PCV vacation…

There’s ALWAYS room for one more!

Mount Bulusan: The Place Where The River Flows

Living near volcanoes is not something I had ever experienced before living in the Philippines.  When I arrived at my site, I found my Municipality snugly tucked between two sleeping giants; Mount Mayon and Mount Bulusan.  Both of these volcanoes have been active during my service.  Mount Bulusan was raised to Alert level 2 when I first arrived and I could see smoke pouring from the crater from my house.  Mount Mayon has only just recently calmed down from her activity earlier this year.  Mount Mayon was raised all the way to Alert Level 4 and I could see the crater glowing from the Casiguran pier.

img_8304

But with both the giants subdued, I can sit peacefully on the pier in the early morning and gaze at the volcanoes on either side of me.  I can only see Mount Mayon on clear days.  The iconic cone peaks above the Sorsogon Mountains from across the Sorsogon Bay.  Mount Bulusan is hard to miss. Directly opposite of Mount Mayon, inland, Mount Bulusan towers over my little Municipality.  Unlike Mayon’s perfect cone, Bulusan is far from perfect with it’s flat, slightly lopsided, top.

img_9574

In Bicol, Bulusan means the place where the river flows (Gintong Aral).  This name couldn’t be more accurate.  Mount Bulusan feeds a number of freshwater springs, lakes, and waterfalls, that run into 4 different municipalities.  If there’s one thing I’ll miss, it’s an impromptu day of discovering the hidden uniqueness to each spring and waterfall running down the sides of Mount Bulusan.

Coincidentally, most of these spring hopping adventures have the same beginning.  Me and my sitemate, sitting drinking coffee or tea with our friend Kenny.  During a lull in conversation, he would ask:

‘Have you ever been to Masacrot Springs?’

or Bayugin Falls, or Nagsipit Falls, or Buklad River, all places that would one day take the place of Masacrot.

Most times Perri and I would reply ‘not yet!’

‘Well,’ Kenny would start,

‘We should go there! Let’s go there now!’

And just like that we would be in a jeepney, tryke, or car, off to see some part of Mount Bulusan we had never seen before.  Although they all have the same source, each spring and waterfall in Sorsogon is unique in some way.

img_7217

Masacrot Spring is shaded by giant crawling jungle trees, the water is a deep blue-green that compliments the sandy colored stones that line the pool.  The name Masacrot Spring is after the water found there.  The water is ‘masacrot’ which means acrid.  The water tastes as if it’s been carbonated.  I asked Kenny why it was like this and he said “it’s because of the mineral content of the water.  It’s a soda spring, so the dissolved solids make the water taste that way.”

At Nagsipit falls, just above Urok cold spring, the green layers of moss, leaves, and vines crawl forward as the falls erode backwards sinking further into the forest.  It makes the place look like the perfect watering hole to spot water sprites taking in the dewy breeze rushing out of the narrow cove.

img_8659

San Mateo Hot Spring has water so hot you can’t help but respect the sleeping giant looming above you as your muscles melt to mush.  Kenny told us his favorite time to visit the hot spring is when it’s raining.  It happened to be raining when we visited, and I realized exactly what he meant.  As the pool elevates your body temperature, you can feel the refreshing but sharp contrast of each individual rain drop hitting your face.

Bayugin Falls is back in the middle of the jungle.  Before arriving at the waterfall, there is a long metal bridge that passes over a canyon that has grown deep into the earth.  The canyon meanders through the forest and leads to a waterfall.  The water of this waterfall doesn’t all fall down, it seems to spray in all different directions.  The jagged boulders at the bottom of the falls have not yet smoothed.  So the water falls downward, but is then launched into the air by the jagged rock. The water flows down to a pool that is bordered by a tall wall of green.  At the top of the wall giant trees appear to float on air as their branches grow away from the crowded jungle out over the edge of the wall.

Bayugin

Buklad River, the perfect spot for an early morning walk, the sunlight streams into the crystal clear water and the rocks that peak out of the water just a bit are the perfect height for sitting and combing your mermaid hair.

These are only the few falls, rivers, and springs , I’ve been able to visit while here.  There are so many others I won’t get to explore, this time around.  I’ve always been a salt water girl, but fresh water is alright…as long as it’s in Sorsogon, of course.

My Little Peace Corps Life: The Sea Wall

This is one of those stories I wrote about a while back but never ended up publishing.  This one is from around early to mid-October 2016, right at the start of my life at site in the Philippines.

img_6156

When I lived with my host family, I discovered a spot that still remains my favorite spot in my entire municipality.  The end of the sea wall in my home situ Storom.  The situ is named ‘Storom’ because it started out, quite literally as a storage room when the national highway was being built.  But now, it’s a cute little concrete and dirt pathway snugly tucked between houses of all different sizes, materials, and colors.  My host family lived almost at the very end of this little pathway.

My occasional walk home, when Kuya Bilyo didn’t take me home in his tryke, was down the sharp downhill turn from the highway, around the a few bends waving to my friends posted on their porches, working at the sari-saris, and in the woodworking shop.  I’d walk past a few small rice fields, across the basketball court (even the tiniest of situs has a basketball court!) and down the straight path filled with friendly faces and tiny kids yelling ‘hello! I love you!’.  When I arrived home, I would quickly throw my things down, change out of my work clothes, grab my tsinelas, and walk to the seawall.

img_6518

The sea wall bordered the entire situ, keeping the river from putting the whole place underwater during the rainy season.  I’d walk down towards the only house further than my host family’s and climb up the concrete stairs to the sea wall.  The sea wall was flat on top with a raised portion in the middle making it so 3 people could walk side by side.  Usually Bochoy, the family dog, would jump up onto the highest tier and accompany me on my walks.  I’d walk down the meandering sea wall, the river on one side, and a sea of rice fields on the other.  My favorite part of the sea wall was, aside from Bochoy and I, there were barely any people on it.  Just he occasional fisherfolk returning from the sea.  Here, my neurons could take a break.

At the point where the river opened up to the sea, the sea wall ended.  I would sit and hang my legs off the end, and process what was almost always a hectic day.  On the days when the tide was low, I could walk out through the grazing cattle and carabao, to a few mangroves and a sandy tidal flat.  I would wander around that area, try to get some steps in from my mostly sedentary days, and watch the beautiful sunsets.

img_6180

One day I was wandering close to the few mangroves that were growing on the riverbed, the ground was sandy so I thought nothing of it.  My feet sank slightly into the sand and I stepped a bit quicker to prevent myself from sinking deeper.  Big mistake.  Instead of landing on firmer ground, I continued on to spots that were sinking faster and faster.  All of sudden one of my legs was sucked up by the earth to above my knee.  I tried to use my other leg to leverage myself out of the mud, but it too was sucked up!

I did a quick survey of the area, the LAST thing I wanted was for some horrified Ate or Kuya to find me stuck in the mud in my favorite wandering spot!  My host family would never let me come back! There was no one, only the carabao who lazily looked at me.  The carabao, if they were thinking about my situation at all, were probably jealous that I found such a good mud hole, not the slightest bit concerned that I was Indiana Jones style stuck in the mud.  I struggled a little and began to sink deeper.  I sat for a moment and laughed at the situation I appeared to be in.  Sucked up in the mud, on an abandoned beach, in the middle of the provincial Philippines, what a sight, what an experience, what a life.

img_1308Too cozy to come to your rescue

Composed once again, I surrendered my tsinela and used my arms to pull hard on the left leg, my right one sank deeper, but my left leg began to pull free!  Once at the surface I found a stable spot to pull my right leg out.  With my legs no longer holding the mud apart, it sank into the holes I had created beginning to take my tsinelas with them!  I quickly reached in and pulled them free as well.  I looked around again, legs covered in mud, still no audience, thank goodness.  I quickly darted out of the quicksand area, and to the sea to wash my legs, arms, and hands.  I sat back on the beach and laughed.  I think back to all my past selves.  The one who applied for Peace Corps, the anxious high schooler who packed her bags for university, the little 5th grader who dreamed of being a marine biologist, the kindergartener who wanted to be an astronaut.  I think of them, and I think of what they would think if they saw me now.  Muddy, wet, laughing, by myself, on a beach in the Philippines.  As an avid overthinker I really love the moments I can’t predict, the ones that really surprise me, the ones that I sit back and think about, and say ‘wow, I really didn’t see that coming’.  Probably my favorite part of living in the Philippines is saying those words so very often.

Close of Service Conference and My Little Peace Corps Life REBOOT

I just glanced at my last blog post and it was nearly 5 months ago! I lost my momentum there for a while.  Hopefully my plan for the next two months will make up for leaving you all in the dark for so long! Check it out…

*

*

*

Nearly two years ago, we were given this neat little piece of paper that enumerated each part of service.  Each one of our conferences was on there with however many months at site sat between them.  But no matter how close it drew, Close of Service Conference always seemed like a distant event.  The last Peace Corps Philippines Conference I would attend in my service.  Even as we pulled up to the same hotel for the last time.   The one we were at for our Work Partners Conference in September 2016 and our Mid-Service Training in October 2017, all I could think was ‘there’s no way it’s almost been two whole years!’

PCStaging2016-01

Of course, it absolutely has.  So, we walked into the same hall for our ‘Welcome Dinner’ and as we looked at the chairs and tables arranged in the center of the room, we noticed how our group had shrunk over the past two years.  We went from a group of +70 individuals at our Staging Event in Los Angeles to now just 35 tough cookies** at our last Peace Corps Philippines Conference.

**We had a few interrupted service cookies who had to end their service early for a variety of reasons but would have made it to COS Conference had Peace Corps allowed them to!

COS Conference June 2018 01

While we waited for our Training Director to make his opening remarks, we all peeked over at the dinner buffet.  Sir Boni always tries to treat us to some western style food at these gatherings, to give us a little taste of home.  Let me tell you we were NOT disappointed by a pizza pie the size of a small child AND a burrito/taco bar.

The next three days were spent eating cheese, discussing the end of service, talking about what life might be like when we return to America, and of course, celebrating having made it to the final countdown.  On the last day staff surprised us with confetti cannons and balloons.  COS Conference in it’s entirety made me realize this two-year adventure is quickly drawing to a close.

good version COS June 2018Picture Credit: Jessica Schulte

I’ve spent roughly 700 days in the Philippines up to this point.  THE longest amount of time I’ve spent outside the United States in my entire life.  When I signed up for this trip just about 2 and a half years ago, that was all I knew I was bound to achieve when it was all over.  I had absolutely no idea what to expect, or how to even begin to imagine what I would be like at the end of this experience.

IMG_1541

It’s been a long bumpy road getting here and looking back at the stories I’ve chosen to share here with you all, I’ve realized there are plenty of stories I haven’t told.  Either due to their passing too quickly, or just accepting them as a part of daily life.  So, in my last two months of service, I’d like to retell those stories I’ve omitted.  The stories that have slipped through the cracks but are no less important to the wholeness of my time here in the Philippines.  Some will be short, and some will be lengthier, but I hope to post about one a week up until my COS date in August.

T-minus 55 days…