I left home in Cebu City on Tuesday morning and rode a bus north through beautiful Cebu Island.
Northern Cebu Island is largely devoted to sugar cane, and the roads were full of trucks heavily laden with fresh-cut cane.
From the town of Maya at the north tip of Cebu, I rode a pumpboat....
....to the stunning tropical paradise of Malapascua Island.
I stayed at White Sand Bungalows resort, on the southwest side of the island. Bungalows rent for 400 P ($7.40 US) a night, (mosquito-lovin') geckos no extra charge.
Come to think of it, the mosquitos are no extra charge also.
Luckily, the beds come equipped with mosquito nets.
White Sands is owned and operated by Kurt Jensen, a Dane whom I got to know over the years at McSherry Pension House in Cebu City, where he'd stay on his frequent trips to the city for construction supplies while building the bungalows.
I spent several days on Malapascua, snorkeling and walking around the small island, visiting the fishing villages. Things are getting tight for the fisherfolk, with fewer and fewer fish every year. Tourism is admittedly a two-headed coin, but it may offer the only employment option when the fish disappear completely.
One night Maldito's Club sponsored Malapascua's first "Bikini Open" contest. As a dedicated documenter of indigenous cultures, I felt a strong professional obligation to attend.
Next, I rode a pumpboat north to Masbate Island.
I met two friendly German backpackers on the boat, Johannes (L) and Jens (R), and we traveled together for the next three days.
Masbate is a large, poor island province full of mountains and small beach-front fishing villages.
From Masbate, we crossed over to the Bicol Peninsula, the southernmost extension of Luzon Island. We landed at the pleasant port town of Pilar.
Pilar has a thriving seaweed cultivation industry. The seaweeds are grown in offshore beds, then harvested, dried and exported for use in the food-processing industry as well as raw material in the manufacture of alginate, agar and carrageenan. This seems like a fantastic industry for the Philippines: small-scale, environmentally friendly, minimally capital-intensive, and profitable/accessible for small enterpreneurs.
Jens, Johannes and I headed to the nearby town of Donsol, Sorsogon.
Next morning we hired a boat to take us out to look for "butanding."
Butanding (Rhincodon typus)
is the local name for the whale shark, the largest fish in the world. They measure from 15 to 40 ft. long and weigh up to 40 tons. They are toothless, with baleen plates which allow them to filter out and eat plankton and krill.
The pumpboat motored us around looking for the sharks. When the crew spotted a shark (visible as a dark shadow on the surface), the guide would instruct us to jump in simultaneously and then swim furiously to the nearby shark, submerging for a brief view before the shark would dive out of sight. We thus saw about 15 butanding in a five-hour period.
The following pictures were taken with a disposable waterproof camera I bought at the tourism office in Donsol.
(Pop Quiz answer: Butanding skin.)
After five hours of vigorous jumping, swimming and then climbing back in to the boat, our boat took us back to the beach for a group picture. The tourist on the far right is a friendly Belgian with his Filipina girlfriend.
Since the discovery of whale sharks in 1997, Donsol has had a thriving whale shark ecotourism industry and has been listed as "Asia's Best Animal Interaction Site."
Whale shark interaction guide
Whale shark tourism information
Next we went to Legaspi City where I said goodbye to the Germans, who hopped a bus to Manila for their flight home.
Legaspi is a typical middle-sized Philippine city...with lots of jeepneys.
Central Legaspi is an old and run-down port city, but now it boasts the recently-opened Pacific Mall. It was packed and presumably will contribute to the death of downtown, just like malls do everywhere else in the world.
I spent the evening wandering around town. In the grotty port area, amongst the usual collection of loud karaoke joints and food stalls, I found a club with live music. The Good Psalms Band is an all-girl Rock & Roll band from Manila, touring southern Luzon. I won't hold my breath to catch them on the Emmy's next year, but it was a fun evening.
Click the thumbnail below for a short video (with sound) of the band.
Legaspi City's most noticeable feature is the nearby Mayon Volcano, which at 2420 meters dominates the town and is considered one of the most perfect l volcanic cones in the world. The next day I rode buses and jeepneys in a big loop all around the volcano, hoping to get a view. Unfortunately, clouds blocked my view the entire trip! Still, you can just make out Mayon's left flank in the background.
Although I didn't get a good view of the mountain, I did see some beautiful countryside. The south side of the peak, around the town of Basat, is covered with lush rice fields, thriving in the rich volcanic soil.
It was time to head home.
I retraced my steps to Masbate Island, then rode the overnight ferry MV Asia Brunei back to Cebu City.
When we arrived in Cebu, our boat was met by a fleet of paddling beggars. They held out home-made coin-catchers while ferry passengers tossed coins and food scraps. Not an easy way to earn breakfast, but then nothing's easy for those at the bottom of the food chain in the Philippines.