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.

Travel, Yoga

When Life gives you Lululemons

It took me a really, really, really long time to get into yoga.

For years I always thought of it as a series of odd stretches and a whole lot of awkward breathing. Getting into and holding the positions made me feel silly, and for the most part of the trial classes I attended, I alternated between looking at the instructor upside down between my hands and legs, and trying to process by listening which limb I was supposed to be moving. Here I was, flailing like a drowning spider, and everyone around me seemed to be coming out of these classes with an afterglow and a ton of fitness inspiration inspo hashtags. Friends swore by the mental benefits yoga offered. Encouraged by their testimonies, I persisted in different studios and under different instructors, and I still found myself confounded, bored, and hardly ever breaking a proper sweat. It felt like a much more productive use of my time to use the allocated exercise block to hit the ground running or body-pump at the gym.

Sometime in late 2016, a colleague invited me to join a private group class. It was only then that I finally came around. The solution to my years of yoga doubt couldn’t have been more obvious or simple – I just needed a good instructor.

And boy, was she good. All it took was one hour and she had me slipping on my puddles of sweat and struggling to lift my aching body out of bed for a good 2 days after every class. Getting your body into the right alignment made a world of difference. Some tiny adjustment here and there – a squaring of the hip, a tucking in of the ribs – and I finally understood what I was supposed to be feeling. It reminded of the times I got fitted for my prescription glasses; when the optometrist clicks the correct glass into place in those giant owl-eyed metal frames, and the letters and numbers on the chart magically come into focus.

When done correctly, yoga can give you a better workout than most machines at the gym. And more importantly, it has become both a mental stimulant and tranquilliser. Several years ago I asked a friend who smoked cigarettes continually throughout his waking hours how the very same thing could possibly keep him sharp and alert during the day but yet enhance the intoxicating effects of alcohol at night. He claimed that smoking his cigarettes heightened his concentration, and that allowed him to both focus better, be it contemplating a difficult problem at work, or intensifying that alcoholic buzz. I never got into smoking myself, but I imagine my post-yoga high to be the closest thing to this feeling he described.

These days, whenever I travel I always make it a point to look up yoga studios and to pop in for a class when I can. I have a strange habit of enjoying supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, and bookstores wherever I go. I have found that these are often the best places to observe the local inhabitants going about their everyday errands and living out their daily lives. It’s almost like a National Geographic documentary on the behavioural patterns of the native wildlife in their natural habitat. I like seeing how their cereal and fruit differ from the ones back home, and how much meat and vegetables cost. I like knowing how different people all over the world medicate themselves and self-soothe (homeopathy? salves? drugs?). I love spending hours browsing in the shelves of blockbuster bookstores and small independent bookstores, even if the titles are all in a foreign language I can’t read. The Strand in New York City; Eslite in Taipei; Shakespeare and Company in Paris; City Lights in San Francisco; Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo; Livraria Lello in Porto… everyone’s got their own Disneyland.

Visiting a yoga studio in a foreign land is a much more involved activity than popping into a grocery store. You can never get away with being a spectator, and there is always a risk of participating and looking stupid. I am excitable and loud by nature, and I always walk into a new studio feeling apprehensive, like a Bull surrounded by fragile gluten-free pieces of china. I always half expect everyone to be levitating visions of calm and enlightenment – people who have generally figured out the secret that is life and gotten their act together. I’ve now come to realise that most people are drawn to the mat not because they’ve gotten their lives lined up in orderly perfection, but rather because they’re desperately trying to do so. Yoga must be to the anxious mind what Christianity is for the despairing and the downtrodden.

In my short time as a yoga practitioner, I’ve practised in a village resort in Canggu (Bali), in the middle of the jungle in Malapascua Island (the Philippines), in a swanky neighbourhood in Sydney (Australia), and in a cozy studio on a small street in Seminyak (Bali) tucked away from the commercial madness it has now become. Desa Seni (Canggu, Bali) has been my favourite to date, with its sprawling grounds and hushed tones. The classes are held on open-air wooden villas with panoramic views of the surrounding greenery. It’s hard not to feel connected with nature in a setting like this, even for someone like me, who remains resistant to the spiritual element of the practice. It has been more than a year, and I still cannot bring myself to chant or even say namaste with a straight face. My cousin on the other hand, regularly plays the handpan drum in yoga sessions, and manages to get into the juju even without getting on the mat. We had trotted down to the yoga studio in Seminyak the morning after our cousin’s wedding and walked in to join a Vinyasa class. He boldly asked the instructor if he could play during her class and she unsurprisingly hesitated. The rest of the class grudgingly agreed and my cousin, completely unperturbed (as he has been his entire life), sat down and started to play. It took him only a minute or so before the entire class fell into a celestial haze by the ethereal sounds of the instrument. By the end of the class, the instructor had invited him back to Bali to play his handpan drum for her yoga retreat.

It is with no little irony that I found the class in Sydney the most ‘authentic’ as yoga classes come. The instructor had insisted on using only the Sanskrit names of the poses, and as a result I found myself twisting my neck to watch her while stuck in the most uncomfortable of poses, trying to figure out an Uttanasana from an Ardha Uttanasana. I did however end up purchasing some #activewear handcrafted from organic and ethically-sourced fabric – Anything to get me closer to that Adho Much Vrksasana right?

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?