Philippines, Part 8: Please Don’t Feed the Sharks (Anilao)

Welcome back to our Friday in the Philippines. Last week we battled the cockroaches for possession of our new apartment. You can find that episode (and any others you’ve missed) here:

Philippines, Part 1: Have Baby, Will Travel
Philippines, Part 2: Do You Know How to XOOM?
Philippines, Part 3: Confessions of a Carseatless Baby (Vigan)

Philippines, Part 4: Strawberries and Cotton Candy (Baguio)

Philippines, Part 5: Hanging Coffins! (Sagada)

Philippines, Part 6: Voyage of the Icebox (Banauae & Batad)

Philippines, Part 7: Revenge of the Cockroaches (Manila)
Philippines, Part 8: Please Don’t Feed the Sharks (Anilao)
Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show (Field Study Research)
Philippines, Part 10: Luxury Travel, Filipino Style (Cebu)
Philippines, Part 11: Nuts to the Huts (Bohol)
Philippines, Part 12: If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island . . . (Panglao)
Philippines, Part 13: The Chocolate Hills (Bohol Again)
Philippines, Part 14: Trouble in Paradise (Malapascua)

People in my church love to talk about how the Church is the same anywhere you go in the world, which when it regards matters of doctrine, organization, and spiritual nourishment is pretty much true. But what delights me when I travel and visit a new Mormon ward (our word for parish or congregation) are the delightful, subtle little differences. And the fascinating people we always seem to meet, especially abroad. The ward we attended in Manila had more than its share of fun and interesting people. On our very first Sunday there, we met an American named Tennyson, and his Filipina wife Anne. They invited us home for lunch, along with another American/Filipina couple. Anyone who has ever traveled in a foreign country knows that unexpectedly encountering a few of your own countrymen can really make your day. No matter how much you enjoy the local culture, there is something about a conversation with someone from “home” that feeds your soul like something you didn’t even know you were craving.

In any case, we very much enjoyed those hours with Tennyson and Anne, and were delighted when they invited us to spend the next weekend with them scuba diving. Tony and I had gotten scuba certified while we were dating. In fact, now might be the moment to confess that I actually had no interest in scuba diving whatsoever at the time. I agreed to get certified with him for various reasons, among which: #1 I didn’t want my boyfriend to think I was a coward, #2 My parents disapproved of the idea as much as they disapproved of his goatee, #3 What if we really did end up getting married, and then he was always off scuba diving without me? For better or for worse, we did end up taking a scuba diving course together. We were taught in a swimming pool, and then open water certified in Lake Tahoe, which just for the record is ridiculously inadequate preparation for actually diving in the ocean. Our first real scuba diving experience was during our San Diego honeymoon. It was December, and the water was murky, filled with clammy seaweed and tiny little arthropodish things, and freezing. We did kiss at 100 feet below the surface, but it’s not exactly on my list of best kisses ever.

So we were pleased to have a chance to scuba dive in a tropical country, with the attractive possibility of actually seeing something interesting underwater. I was especially excited, since after our honeymoon dive, I was shivering so uncontrollably in my wet-suit that I was told (not by my new husband) that I needed to go on a twinkie diet to fatten me up for next time. In the Philippines, Tennyson assured us, the ocean is like a giant warm bathtub. You can dive in just a swimsuit.

As we drove out of Manila with Anne and Tennyson, it looked like the entire city had woken up that morning with the same idea as us. The traffic was bumper to bumper almost the whole way out. We finally made it to a lovely little resort at Anilao on the Southern Luzon coast, and it was all suddenly worth it. The resort turned out to be by far the most luxurious place we stayed during our entire four months in the Philippines (and by far the most money we spent too, when we ruefully added it up afterwards). It was in a little protected cove with gorgeous views from every bungalow. Ours was not only right on the beach, but was on stilts above the crystal clear water. Every evening there was a fantastic gourmet buffet. Our first night there, we got fabulous massages (not our first nor our last in the Philippines). Later, there was a dramatic midnight thunderstorm. We opened up the entire front of our bungalow and had an amazing view of the lightning dancing on the hills across the cove. It was one of the nights of my life that I would love to repeat.

The next day we dressed baby Axa up in the cute pink swimsuit I’d been dying to see her in, and took her for her first swim in the ocean. She mostly wanted to eat the sand. Then it was time for the big dive. Before I describe the dive, I should tell you a little more about Tennyson. He was six foot ten, and 250 pounds. In a country of diminutive Filipinos, he was a veritable Goliath. They just laughed and nicknamed him Tiny. He ran his own private security business, which when he described it sounded like something out of James Bond. He had set it up after retiring from the Marines. And it was also as a Marine that he had learned to scuba dive. He was certified as a divemaster, so we felt comfortable that our still-rudimentary scuba diving skills would be adequate. We would find out only later that his ideas of responsible diving resembled not at all what we had been taught in our long-ago lessons at the lake.

Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of my first visit to a coral reef. We descended gradually into an alien paradise, floating like huge ungainly flightless birds, and slowly accustoming ourselves to the yoga-like peacefullness of underwater breathing. Above us, the warm tropical surface slowly receded, and below we could see a busy fish city, teeming with active residents. When we reached the reef we were introduced to elegant moorish idols, important-looking gobies, regal angelfish, and bright yellow butterflyfish. A ribbon-like pipefish danced along out of the corner of my eye, and a baby barracuda cruised past us with a chilly smirk. Poisonous lionfish sulked in darker corners, and I knew that some of the bumps on the bottom must be deadly stonefish. Lurking in crevices were moray eels, mouths gaping in mock attack. Beside the reef, a group of diminutive garden eels swayed halfway out of the sandy floor, waiting for unsuspecting prey, and sank down into their holes as we passed. We even saw a Lapu Lapu, named after the famous Filipino chief who killed Magellan. We had dined upon that very type of fish just the night before.

Tennyson shined his flashlight into a crevice and startled an octopus, who squished in deeper and then reluctantly jetted away when he prodded it. He had also brought small plastic bags filled with something squishy, which he passed out to us. The something inside turned out to be bread broken into little pieces. Tennyson opened his bag and began distributing its contents to the nearest fish, motioning us to do the same. Within a few seconds, we were mobbed by hordes of colorful fish, gobbling greedily, and nipping our fingers and other exposed body parts (of which there were many, since we were in swimsuits). It began to feel uncomfortably like the scene from the movie Sphere, where the diver is stung to death by a cloud of unnaturally massing jellyfish. Fortunately, our bread soon ran out, and the fish departed without undue violence. Hopefully, we didn’t disturb the delicate reef ecosystem too irretrievably.

I was content with the beauties of the shallow-water reef, but Tony wanted more adventure. So he set out the next day with Tennyson on a shark-hunt. I pleaded motherhood and stayed home in a hammock with the baby. Tennyson led the group into a strong current, where they were tumbled over a coral reef, fortunately escaping with just some nasty abrasions on extremities. They ventured into very deep water, at one point reaching 125 feet (twice as deep as our basic scuba certification was supposed to allow). They kept their eyes peeled for sharks, but had to content themselves with blue-spotted stingrays, a large school of tuna, and some barracuda, this time full-grown. Eventually, Tony ran out of air, so they had to do a blue-water ascent as he buddy-breathed with Tennyson. My faith in Tennyson’s reliability as a sensible divemaster was irretrievably tarnished, but it didn’t matter, since by this time it was time for us to return home to Manila.

In between all the vacationing, we did manage to get in some actual research, although sometimes that turned out to be just as entertaining and culturally enlightening as the sightseeing. Stay tuned next week for Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show.

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