Sunday, January 6, 2013

Postcards from Camiguin

A one week break from all research activities on a beautiful volcanic island in Northern Mindanao.

December 21
Greetings from Kingfisher Cottage in barangay Agoho!

After an exhaustive day of traveling, we are settling in nicely at our new abode. We had an early start to the day - with the intention of arriving in Camiguin early to mid afternoon. Our plans, however, were thwarted by:
a) an uncanny absence of taxis looking for passengers to drive into the city,
b) traffic entering CDO,
c) a long line-up of passengers waiting to alight the CDO-Balingoan bus (which worked in our favour by giving us time to use the bus station's CR (comfort room) - the cleanest public bathrooms I have ever seen in the Philippines), d) traffic leaving CDO,
e) construction on the national highway,
f) an hour delay in the ferry departure, and
g) an aging ferry whose running time, we are told, has increased steadily from one hour to two hours in the past few years.
We were glad to have asked Ralph, one half of the German-Filipino couple who own the cottage, to pick us up at the Benoni wharf.
Our first glimpse of a mist-covered Camiguin Island from the Baligoan-Benoni ferry.
On the way, we stop at the "one decent grocery store" to pick up some supplies in the capital town of Mambajao. There's a small combined wet (fish and meats) and dry (vegetables, fruits and rice) market across the road. We buy a few bags of pre-cut mixed vegetables for a stir-fry (at ten pisos a bag, it's a steal), some potatoes and a few skewers of barbecued pork (10PhP), fresh tuna (25PhP) and a fish whose name escapes me (30PhP). Masarap (delicious)!

Daylight was fast fading by the time we left the ferry terminal. The beauty and charm of the island remains a secret ... at least until tomorrow.

P.S. Frank noticed two lizards perched atop the ceiling beam over the kitchenette. We named the larger one 'Iggy' and the smaller one 'Pop'. We enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy every night of our stay in Camiguin) watching them clamour after moths. They appeared to enjoy watching us too, and perhaps even amused when we try to engage them in conversation.

December 22
Maayong odto (good noontime) from Mambajao.

Today's the day for wandering the streets of the capital city, sampling local fare and strolling along the beach. The carabao (water buffalo) in the rice paddies along the beach fascinate Frank. The picture below is one he snapped from the beach looking up towards one of the island's majestic volcanoes, Mount Hibok-Hibok.

December 23
Today we experienced the world from a whole new perspective ... underwater. There's a beach resort / dive centre called Camiguin Action Geckos just down the hill from our cottage. It offers introductory SCUBA courses; your first dive is at one of the island's incredible coral reefs. After watching an educational video (that was probably made in the eighties or early nineties judging from the hairstyles), we hopped in a jeepney and headed to the Catarman dive site on the southwest side of the island. Exploring the reef is like jumping into a BBC nature special - except you get the full sensory experience, complete with the taste of salt water when your respirator escapes your mouth. Fish and coral of every imaginable shape and size, and more colourful than a painter's palette.

A roadside carinderia lunch included a delicious monggo bean and cabbage soup. The woman who sold it to us generously shared the recipe. (We're planning on trying it when we get back to CDO.)

In the afternoon, Frank had his turn underwater. He explored a reef just off White Island, near Action Geckos. Among the marine life he saw were two sea snakes and the silhouette of a sea turtle.

December 24
Joyeux Noel!

It's raining (again). It's amazing how the weather is so different from Cagayan de Oro City, less than one hundred kilometers away. CDO has not had a single full day of rain since we arrived mid November, while we have not yet experienced a sunny day in Camiguin.

A rainy day is a great day for visiting one of the island's waterfalls. We opt for the highest ones: Katibawasan Falls. It's a 75m drop. We charter a motorella for a 'special trip'. The lack of good maps and street signs means that you're less likely to get lost if you ride public transit than if you venture out on your own with the tourist map.

The young boy riding shotgun in the motorella wore an Armani t-shirt. His father, the driver, probably makes less than 200PhP a day. Armani clothes are probably sold for bargain prices at the town ukay-ukay (used clothing market).

At the falls, there is a group of physiotherapy students from South Korea. They are volunteering in CDO. They tell us the water is cold, but wonderful for a swim. The water is definitely colder than what we've grown accustomed to here in the Philippines, but infinitely warmer than the Quebec rivers we kayak in early spring.

One of several pools at Ardent Hot Springs
We spend the latter part of the afternoon relaxing in the warm soothing pools of Ardent Hot Springs. The natural pools are warmed in the neighbouring Mount Hibok-Hibok volcano. If you concentrate, you can smell a faint whiff of sulphur, but it's not the overpowering stench of rotten eggs. There are a series of beautiful little pools and waterfalls the same temperature as a baby's bathwater. Ada revels in this gigantic bathtub.

P.S. Tonight was Frank's night for handwashing diapers. Daily diaper washing has become a necessity because it takes so long for the diapers to dry in such a wet and humid climate. Before going to bed, Frank jokes that he never imagined that his first Christmas Eve in a tropical paradise would include such a dirty job.

December 25
Merry Christmas from Kingfisher Cottage! 

It's another rainy day so we've opted for a leisurely day.  Breakfast is French toast (the preferred breakfast of dads-on-parental-leave), fresh pineapple and mango, and instant coffee. After eating, we opened a few gifts while listening to the Puppini Sisters Christmas album. Ada's favourite present was the box.

The cottage owners, Ralph and Suzie, invited us to a Christmas lunch buffet. Like other family-based gatherings in the Philippines, there were copious amounts of food.  We spent several hours eating and conversing with a dozen or so guests. We had a particularly interesting discussion with a Camiguin-based couple, a Swiss man married to a Filipina woman, about grandfather aged foreign men starting a second family with a several decades younger Filipina woman.

I managed to sneak in a short run up to Ardent Hot Springs then down to Action Geckos before dinner. It was raining, so it felt like a late spring run in Montreal ... except for the coconut trees, roosters and pigs.

View of White Island from Kingfisher Cottage

December 26
Kamusta ka!

Despite soaring temperatures, we enjoyed a white Christmas. We spent late morning and early afternoon (with the time difference, this morning can be considered December 25 in Canada) on White Island, a gorgeous white sand island about a kilometer from the coast.

We shared a bangka (boat) from the mainland to the island with a newly-married couple on their honeymoon. He's from Ottawa, working in Calgary (and he's a Habs fan); she's from CDO, working in Calgary.


Frank and I took turns swimming with Ada in a shallow pool, and snorkeling around the reef. It was absolutely stunning, and we failed to notice how strong the sun had become. Only the baby, in her full-body UV suit and Australian lifeguard-inspired hat managed to escape sunburn.
Lesson learned!

December 27
Have you ever wondered about giant clams? They are perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring life forms.

Our visit to Cantaan Kabila White Beach Giant Clam Sanctuary was the most amazing day of the trip. Six of the nine species of giant clams found worldwide are raised here. The small entry fee pays for the maintenance of the centre and its research activities, and provides a source of livelihood for locals. It's more profitable for locals to maintain this biodiverse gem as an ecotourism destination than to harvest its marine life to sell at the market.

A visit begins with a short introductory biology lesson on the life history of the clams, and is followed by a tour of several aquariums with giant clams and fresh water tilapia. After, a local guide takes visitors on a "snorkel tour" of the giant clam sanctuary and reef. Even though the reef was partially destroyed by Typhoon Pablo, it still boasts some of the best snorkeling on Camiguin. You have to be especially careful where you step because the force of a giant bivalve slamming shut can easily sever a limb.

After snorkeling, we ate the best and probably freshest meal we've had: calamari, grilled emperor fish and Filipino-style chop suey (vegetables). The sanctuary maintains a fish pen where they raise fish for their restaurant. They catch a few fish or squid each day to transform into gourmet meals for hungry snorkelers.

December 28
Sniff, sniff. It's time to leave this tropical paradise and head back 'home' to Cagayan de Oro City. We're excited to see our CDO family again, but will miss adventuring in Camiguin.