My first visit to the Philippines
My first trip to the Philippines was a last-minute add-on to a planned Asia vacation: in January 1999 I was working at Swedish Hospital in Seattle and mentioned to some of my co-workers that I was planning to quit and travel to Indonesia and China. A couple of the Filipina nurses said "Why don't you visit to the Philippines? It's beautiful. The girls are so cute!"
I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "Philippines? Ferdinand Marcos and all those people living on a burning garbage dump? Why would I wanna go there?"
Little did I suspect the Philippines would grab me by my soul and hold me tight for years to come.
Sp I added Philippines on to the end of my trip and landed at Cebu's Mactan International Airport on March 9, 1999. I rode a jeepney out of the airport and across the bridge to Cebu City. I rode a bus across Cebu Island to Pangasama Beach, the diving resort of Moalboal. I spent four days scuba diving the beautiful tropical waters of the Tanon Strait. Fabulous!
Next I rode a ferryboat from Cebu south to Cagayan De Oro City on Mindanao Island, then a bus north and finally a small boat over to Camiguin Island. I stayed with the family of my niece's boyfriend. They were very hospitable and it was a pleasant few days on this island paradise.
Next I flew to Manila and rode a bus north to Olongapo, site of the former US naval base on Subic Bay. I spent three days diving the wrecks of Subic Bay.
The most famous wreck here is the USS New York, a US Navy armored cruiser. The boat was launched in 1891 and had a colorful global career including action in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Here is how the ship looked then.
The New York was scuttled by the US Navy at Subic Bay in 1941 to prevent its capture by the invading Japanese. It now sits at the bottom of the bay, and below is a composite photograph of how it looks now, taken from diving photos (not mine.) The dive was anti-climatic: there is so much algae in Subic Bay and visibility is so poor that I was unable to see the entire ship. On the way down my dive guide took me by the muzzle of one of the big deck cannon barrels and I could only see it from about two feet away.
Much more memorable was diving the "Subic LST." The LST (Landing Ship, Tank) was an amphibious ship used by the US Navy during World War II to land troops and vehicles on beaches during invasions of Japanese-held islands. This boat served in the war and was then decommissioned and scuttled in Subic Bay in 1948 off Grande Island.
I say 'memorable' because my Filipino divemaster guided me down to the ship at 30 meters, took me in through the huge front doors, and then started leading me aft through the ship. Unfortunately, he quickly swam ahead and left me to navigate through the hanging cables and rusty bulkheads on my own, emerging near the stern of the 325 foot ship alone and then swimming to the surface where I found him relaxing on the dive boat.
My final stop was Manila. What an incredible place, in all senses of the word. I walked all over the city.
I went to Tondo, to find Smokey Mountain, the infamous burning garbage dump where thousands of squatters were reportedly ekeing out an existence. To my disappointment, the dump had recently been closed, with workers erecting a new barbed-wire fence to keep out the "squatters" who had been "relocated" by the city government to who-knows-where.
After four days in Manila, I was exhausted. Like many first-time visitors here, I was disgusted by the poverty and squalor of the Philippines but also totally charmed by the friendliness of the Filipinos. And yes, Filipina women were very cute.
I flew to Hong Kong on March 26. I knew I would be back again.