Diving, Travel

Of an Afternoon’s Dream

Many a Malapascua afternoon was spent burrowed in this hammock reading in crisp jungle air, or chatting lazily on the beach while scrunching toes in the sand.

On one particular afternoon I sat out a dive and listened to the manager of the dive shop talk about his hopes and dreams for his son. On this little island, where every tiny business enterprise hangs on the continued existence of the thresher sharks swimming 30 metres beneath the surface, nobody dares to dream too big of an education and a career in a big city. How could you here? When even the nearest hospital is a good hour’s boat ride away? But thanks to his German customers-turned-friends (after more than a decade of their Malapascua dive trips) – he now does. Somewhere between their millionth dive and the surface intervals, the couple had turned to their trusted dive guide and volunteered to sponsor his son’s university education in Europe.

Can money buy happiness? From the look on his face as he spoke – Yes, I guess sometimes it can. That along with gratitude, pride, and hope.

Diving, Travel

Strike a Pose

Looking back at my collections of travel photos, I often wonder if I should have taken more photos of myself in the surroundings, instead of capturing the surroundings as I saw them. Should I have gotten on the other side of the camera lens and posed for posterity? Should I have mastered the art of taking a selfie? Should I have invested in a tripod and a selfie stick?

As a general rule I never spend more than three attempts posing for a photo, because every minute spent trying to get that perfect shot (be it for The Gram or otherwise) is a moment wasted in the present. There is little photographic evidence of my presence in the places I’ve been to, but I’ve thankfully got my stories all stored up somewhere in my memory banks (at least while I’ve still got my mental faculties).

This photo is perhaps one of the rare few with myself in it, caught in a moment where I felt completely free – and for that reason this is one of my all-time favourites and sits in a frame in my bedroom. It was a time in my life where I had closed the page on a chapter that I was very glad to leave behind. This was taken on a little island in Southern Leyte (the Philippines), where we had hopped off our dive boat to spend our surface interval between dives. A private barbecue lunch was being prepared for us, and I was reading in the shade when I spotted the local children playing by the water. They were taking turns to climb the tree and swinging from the rope as far out into the water as they could. After some apprehension I went out to join them, and they were soon laughing (not with me, but at me, I suspect), as I crashed pathetically into the water, flip-flops flying into the air and me desperately running to save them before the waves had them for lunch. And yet it felt completely liberating to be flinging myself from shore to sea, like a child of the island. That was a delicious day of blues.

Diving, Travel

Malapascua Magic

As they always say, the more painful the journey, the prettier the underwater sights promised.

This one had us on a bone-rattling car ride after a flight to Cebu City; up North to the port of Maya (I say port but it’s really a jetty – a drop-off point with a little pier leading up to tiny boats anchored to the shore with ropes). This is followed by a bumpy boat ride to the island of Malapascua. All things electronic were stuffed deep away from the splashing waves. The clothes on our backs weren’t given that luxury.

Everyone comes to this island for one thing – and it’s the same thing that drives the entire economy on this island of around 4000 people. There are no hospitals, a handful of schools, and a smattering of villages. Everything happens on one stretch of beach – and it is on this stretch that we gingerly disembark, awkwardly lifting our bags of dive equipment over the seawater and across the sand.

‘Just two years ago, this was all jungle’. My dive guide waves carelessly at the throng of foreigners perched on the sand. His wife works at the restaurant on that same stretch of beach which we eat at every day. His brother is a fellow dive guide on our boat. Their sister manages the front desk at our resort. I wondered just how those thresher sharks would feel, knowing that the livelihood of so many humans depended on the sharks’ very existence; and the amount of money and effort spent by humans to observe these sharks casually going about their day.

It is a painful start to the day. Call time is 530am, so our alarms go off at 5am and we trudge down to the dive centre in the dark, shivering as we pull on our damp wetsuits in the cool dawn air. To say that the boat ride to the dive site was bumpy is somewhat of an understatement – the image of Jesus calming the storm in that biblical miracle kept coming to mind. Alas, this particular prayer was not answered and we all jumped in with a negative entry and descended quickly to 30 metres. It suddenly hits me just how far down we are; but before my mind can properly process the columns of seawater above me, a dark shadow looms in the distance and grows larger as the shark approaches – the unmistakeable outline of the thresher tail. Unbidden (and entirely unwelcome), the Jaws theme starts to play in my head. Once the initial nervousness fades, I can finally start to admire them. These creatures are majestic, and utterly unperturbed by us. They swim well within the clearing, which has been carefully marked out by the locals, using ropes to set out the boundaries which the divers shall not pass. Many minutes go by before another sighting. Everyone waits patiently. All around us are bubbles from the many other divers – we must outnumber the sharks 50:1. It is a constant exercise to fin away from the bubbles to prevent being lifted by them to the surface. Again, I found myself wondering what these thresher sharks thought of us humans, going through this entirely inconvenient process to view them in their natural habitat. Here we were, the alleged intelligent human apex predators, merely guests in this vast ocean and expanse of the dark unknown.

Back on shore, Happy Hours are happier and the sunsets more vivid than those back home. Divers piled on beanbags with sand between their toes, sharing their ‘battle stories’ of the day’s dives and photographs of the macro underworld. A mix of dated nostalgic hits and current chart toppers plays through the speakers. Time moved at a different pace here. Ever had that feeling where you had all the time in the world?