Of Whales and Seals…. A Prologue

During our travels in South America so far, Jo and I had been following a ritual of sorts.

Whenever we arrive at a new destination, Jo would try to pack THAT VERY DAY with back to back activities, while I would persuade her against it by lying very still on the hostel bed.

And Puerto Madryn was no exception.

Arriving in town at 6am after an 11 hour cross-country bus-ride, Jo wanted to drop our bags at the hostel and immediately dash off to the Peninsula Valdes Nature Reserve for a full day ocean safari… so I made a very big deal about unpacking our bags and had a long coffee and conversation with the friendly hostel owner of La Tosca while Jo paced up and down the breakfast hall.

By the time we got around to asking about the ocean safaris, we found out that we’d missed the daily departures to Peninsula Valdes.

So, as you can see, when we departed the hostel to explore the town and the beach front area of Puerto Madryn, I was in technical prison terms, a “Dead Man Walking”.

Jo... doing a terrible job of pretending that she didn't want to kill me... I just realized me pointing the camera at her face and laughing loudly probably didn't help matters... sidenote: check out the very cool Argentinian wall of the hostel!

Jo… doing a terrible job of pretending that she didn’t want to kill me… I just realized me pointing the camera at her face and laughing loudly probably didn’t help my case… Sidenote: check out the very cool Argentinian wall of the hostel!

Thankfully, this lasted for all of the 10 minutes we took to walk to the beach front, because Jo saw (I shit you not) a whale jumping out of the water right in front of her.

Obviously, I was too slow to capture the "moment"

Obviously, I was too slow to capture the “moment”

Ok… not EXACTLY “in front of her”, but you get the idea… and this was followed immediately by a sighting of this…

For the pixel-y challenged, that's a swimming seal

For the pixel-y challenged, that’s a swimming seal

It was all very cool. At the very least, at that moment, it took a lot of heat away from me because who could stay angry when you have such cute creatures parading themselves in front of you, right?

Apparently I can…

You see… as we were walking up and down the pier for the 1000th time (I might be exaggerating the number a little here) that morning, I realized that we’d not had breakfast yet… in fact, the last meal we had was a sandwich the night before and it was fast approaching 2pm – the magical hour where all shop-owning Argentinians (especially the FOOD shop owning Argentinians) mysteriously disappear.

I tried to tell Jo about it, but I don’t think she heard me over the sound of her own hypersonic squealing when she saw things like this…

Yes... seals snuggling together for warmth under a pier is incredibly cute...

Yes… seals snuggling together for warmth under a pier is incredibly cute…

and this…

And that's ANOTHER whale... that we CANNOT eat...

And that’s ANOTHER whale…

That was the day I found out that Jo has the magical ability to eat cuteness… which I obviously don’t…

But that’s the thing about being with someone for more than 10 years. Eventually, Jo managed to tell from my subtle micro expressions that I might be a little hungry. Perhaps it was the way I twitched the corner of my eye ever so slightly, or maybe she saw the way I was crouched into a pathetic little ball on the floor. But more likely it was because when she asked me which Instagram filter she should use on her shot of a whale vomiting rainbows onto a baby seal, I calmly shouted,”GIMME FOOD, I NEED FOOD NOW!!!”

What can I say? A hungry man is an angry man.

But other than this little childish outburst, our detour to Puerto Madryn seems to be shaping into a pretty worthwhile expedition.

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A (formerly beach) resort

After two days of being hounded and (literally) chased about by some of the most persistent touts we’ve met so far, we decided that we’ve had enough of Tagaytay and shifted down the hill to the tiny village of Talisay.

Talisay is right beside Taal Lake and this move brings us much closer to Volcano Island. Moving to Talisay however, also means that we won’t be able to get a panoramic view we enjoyed in Tagaytay, but it was a fair trade off since it greatly reduced the chances of us being run over by some over-enthusiastic motorcycle-riding goon.

It’s the last of this view for us

While in Tagaytay, we decided to stay at the highly recommended San Roque Beach Resort.

Or ermmm…. San Roque’s (formerly Beach) Paradise Resort.

San Roque’s is more a family run B and B than an actual resort. Although it’s situated beside the lake, there is definitely no beach here. The closest thing we could probably get to frolicking in the water was a swimming pool that takes in water from the lake. BUT when we were there, this “swimming pool” had been converted to a fish rearing pond.

The rooms at San Roque’s are housed in a bungalow-style building that comes with its own courtyard (complete with swings, hammocks and water feature). The rooms are air-conditioned, the beds are comfortable and most of the rooms offer amazing views of Taal Lake and Volcano Island.

But the best part of our stay was definitely the interaction with the matronly Mdm Lita, the owner of the resort.

Mdm Lita and her family tried their best to make sure that we were well taken care of throughout our stay. She arranged to pick us up from Tagaytay so that we do not get road blocked by touts on the narrow road down to Talisay (apparently a common occurance).

When we wanted to go to Volcano Island, she arranged for her son to bring us over for 1500 PHP (quite cheap compared to what the rest of the touts were offering). Before we left for Volcano Island, she made sure we brought enough water and even gave us some protective head gear to shield our heads from the sun.

Sure… the head gear looked ridiculous, but it’s the thought that counts… right?

And you can tell that ONE OF US enjoy wearing the silly hat more than the other

I’ll be honest, beyond going to the Volcano Island, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do in Talisay. San Roque offered us a brilliant atmosphere to kick back, relax and do this nothing in.

We spent many hours just sitting at the lake side pavilion with a cold beer in one hand and a Kindle/PSP in the other. (actually I need two hands to hold my PSP, but who’s counting?)

From the pavilion, we could see village life “row” by…

And the sunset over the Volcano Lake is pretty surreal too

Let Lazy Dogs Lie…

One of the reasons why we enjoyed our time in Boracay so much was because while we got to enjoy its craziness and the mad energy that perpetually surrounds White Beach, we were able to put that aside and get some great rest when we needed to

You see, we stay on the “not so happening” side of the island.

Bulabog Beach is a 10-minutes walk away from White Beach, and because the sand is not as fine (and… white?) as those on White Beach, it is not as popular. There are fewer tourists, less resorts, and almost no cafes/restaurants on this part of the island.

And therein lies its charms.

Bulabog – Not as good as White Beach, but seriously, it’s just because the bar had already been set pretty high

Bulabog Beach (also known as Laguna de Boracay) lies on the east side of the island. The prevailing winds blows from the East during peak (read: non typhoon) season. The crazy-strong winds on Bulabog, combined with the non-choppy, reef-protected waters make this beach a Mecca for people interested in windsurfing and kiteboarding.

In contrast, during the same period of time, White beach (which lies on the west of Boracay) would be sheltered from this wind. The water could also be glassy smooth when the 10000001 jet-ski/banana boat/tourist yachts are not busy cutting about.

Kite Surfer alert – We figured this was a view we could get used to

To be honest, I was a bit panicky arriving at Boracay on a Friday of the Peak Season without making any reservation for our accommodation. The rates online were quite crazy, so we figured we could scout for a better deal by looking for non-listed resorts on the island ourselves.

We keep forgetting a lesson we’ve learnt (over and over again): Strutting around in the hot sun with huge backpacks to look for accommodation is a sure way to put us in a grumpy mood.

Surprisingly, our luck held out (this time).

The Lazy Dog Bed & Breakfast was the first resort we stumbled upon on Bulabog Beach and I knew this was the place we wanted to stay the minute we stepped into the compound. Their case was helped further when they showed us the rooms (and the room rates).

At 1500 PHP a night for a standard room and breakfast during peak season, the Lazy Dog definitely offers a lot of bang for our buck. I mean.. the rooms are clean, the beds are comfortable and there is a strong wifi signal in the room. Coupled that with a really unique “back-to-nature” rain shower. I think that’s all we really needed.

I know… putting the picture of the room beside the picture of the toilet is probably not the best of ideas… but can you see how they even arranged our towels into little heart shaped flowers? Nice Touch

The Lazy Dog is right beside Bulabog Beach, and its lush surroundings gives the place a charmingly laid back feel. The relaxed atmosphere is further enhanced by the hammocks and cushions that are generously spread out over the garden cafe/lounge area.

The lounge area… the perfect place to have the orgasm-inducing mango omelette breakfast

Special Kudos must be given to Joyce, the lovely girl at the reception. She was unfailingly polite and really helpful even when I asked stupid questions like, “What is the best food in Boracay?”  Instead of rolling her eyes, she (very patiently) mapped out the places we could try around the island. She was also really helpful in suggesting place we should go and things we could do over the period of our stay. This was crucial for two non-planners like us.

The rest of the staff were just as nice. They were always friendly and smiling. I think they are one key reason for the unpretentious vibe at the Lazy Dog. Somehow, this makes staying there feel like a really intimate and personal experience. We found that this was something that was sorely missing from most of the other cookie cutter resorts on White Beach.

The Burning Question on everyone’s mind: Is there really a Lazy Dog? Yes! There’s this monster dog called Whisky. We only managed to catch glimpses of him during our stay (probably because he is Lazy). We did have many close encounters with this ridiculously curious cat though

In Search of the Gentle Giants

Beside swimming with looking at for dolphins, the other thing that we really wanted to do in the Philippines was to go whale shark watching. The original plan was to make a three day detour to Donsol (where we could go on a whale shark watching tour) when we got nearer to Manila. Three days because the waters off Donsol are supposedly rather murky and the sighting of whale sharks is not guaranteed. I think we would have been rather pissed if we made the Great Journey to Donsol and didn’t get to see any. Given our luck with things like these, it was a very likely scenerio.

While we were in Panglao, we heard of a small town called Oslob. It’s a three hour bus ride from Cebu City and whale shark sightings are GUARANTEED!

There were two small problems with that.

One: The reason why the whale shark sightings are guaranteed is because the fishermen in Oslob feed the whale sharks. The whale sharks would go up to the fishermen (on little boats near the shoreline), expecting to be fed. This practice is generally frowned upon by people who are concerned about marine conservation. The good people at Sea Explorer (specifically Raphael) gave us “tut tut”s of disapproval when we asked if they organize dive trips to Oslob.

Two: The fishermen feed the whale sharks from 6 am to 1 pm everyday. The conventional wisdom is that it is better to go out with the first boat because the whale sharks would be at their most active. This means that people would take the bus from Cebu City at 3 am in the morning, so that they can arrive at Oslob before 7 am. There was no way in hell we would’ve been able to wake up so early.

We figured we would solve both these problems the Singaporean way – by searching on the Internet.

Actually that didn’t make sense…

We did do research online for Problem Two because we wanted to find accommodation in Oslob. It was a desperate attempt so that we could wake up at 630 am instead of 3 am (a tremendous effort for us, as it is). We were supposed to solve Problem One by sneakily denying to Raphael and gang that we were even going to Oslob (another Herculean effort for us because of Jo’s awesome ability to put on whatever is the opposite of a Poker Face)

For a rather “touristy” spot. there was not a lot of information on Oslob on the internet. We definitely could not find listings for places to stay on either tripadvisor.com or hostelworld.com, two of our favourite websites. Couch Surfing was of course, totally out of the question.

Despite not being able to find a place to stay online, Jo and i decided that the chances of us waking up at three in the morning were so minute that we would rather take the risk and just head on down to Oslob anyway. We figured the worst that could happen was that we would beg a villager to take us in for the night… or we could just sleep at the sea side in our sleeping bags.

True Story.

Even though we tried to be nonchalant about it, I was actually seriously worried as the bus passed through the townships before Oslob. I could see no signs of hotels or hostels along the bus route. Our entire game plan was built on the fact that “It is a tourist place, so there must be tourist accommodation there”.

This fear was compounded by the sun setting on us just as we passed a sign saying “Oslob” and all we could see was a rather run down village with no signs of THE BEACH. In my mind, I was already contemplating taking a three hour bus back to Cebu City and leaving again in the wee hours of the morning for another three hour ride down. I know. Fear makes us conjure up some truly irrational thoughts.

Half an hour after we passed the “Oslob” sign, we were sure the driver had forgotten to tell us to get off. Just when I thought we could take the bus all the way to the end station of Lilo-An where we knew there is a (VERY) pricey hotel that could put us up for the night, the driver stopped the bus and asked “the two passengers going to see the Butanding” to alight.

Till now, I’m not sure how we could’ve missed the numerous signs along the road, like this one…

The bus driver had dropped us right in front of a guest house.

I was so grateful to see the guest house that we just scrambled in and said we would take a room without asking about the price. At that time, unless they asked us for a literal arm and leg, we would have taken their room.

Good thing that the room was relatively cheap (800PHP each). At the very least, the beds were clean and we did not need to wake up (so) early the next day.

Pictures of the Guest House taken the morning after. I swear to you, at night, it did not look this rundown. It looked like a beacon of light and hope… probably because it was the only house with lights within a 200m radius…

*Travel Directions* 
To get to Oslob, we went to the South Bus Terminal in Cebu City. From there, numerous buses make the three hour trip towards “Bato-Oslob”. The two main bus companies (from what we can see) are Ceres and Sunrays, and buses depart every half hourly. Alternatively, get on a southbound bus towards Lilo-An, and just tell the driver you want to see the Butanding (whale shark) and he should be able to drop you off.

It’s also possible to get to Oslob from Dumaguete in Negros Occidental. Just take a ferry to Lilo-An and take the Cebu bound bus, dropping at Oslob along the way.

Insider tip: Try to get a seat on the left side of the bus if heading to Oslob from Cebu. You’ll be rewarded with a sea side view for most of the trip. Truly AWESOME… if you are not nodding off the whole way down.

Insider tip #2: The Guest House we stayed in was M8 Sunrise View. We were lucky to get a room, but if you want to call ahead to make a booking, you can give a call to Marilyn at: 09065869895 or 09335895736.

Next: A morning with the whaaaaale sharks

End to End control

I’m a little late to the party but I’ve just finished reading Steve Jobs’ autobiography by Walter Isaacson.

It’s a fascinating read.

One of the things that struck me the most was the big ideological battle between Steve Jobs’ idea for a close operating system with end to end control by the manufacturing company and Bill Gates’ preference for an open system that allows multiple end users to tinker with and make changes to the basic operating system provided by Microsoft.

I’ve never owned a single Apple product in my life (*GASP*) because even though the products look absolutely gorgeous, the tight control by the Company feels a tad too Big Brother-ly for my comfort.

While we were in Yuan Yang (元阳), we stayed in a place called Pu Gao Lao Village (普高老寨 )(yes… Pu Gao Lao) in the Duoyishu area (多依树)(yes… Duoyishu).

Beside sounding like a sailors’ favourite adjective, Pu Gao Lao is a place that people in Yuan Yang find “remote” and “difficult to get to”. To put things in perspective, Yuan Yang is four hours of bumpy/windy mountain road away from the next nearest township.

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Yup...STILL wearing THAT jacket

While we were in Pu Gao Lao, everything we ate/drank/shat/slept (吃喝拉睡) was pretty much controlled by the two Guesthouses in the village – Sunny Guest House and Jacky’s Guest House. (We eventually chose Sunny through a very deliberate and extensive research process of walking into the village and stumbling upon it first)

I know it’s a bit of a stretch to compare computer operating systems and the workings of a tourism spot, but I think that the two Guesthouses having a monopoly on the end-to-end experience of its tourists is comparable to the Apple philosophy. The user has no control and no alternative, so the service providers don’t need to give a flying sh*t what their customers think.

Luckily for us, they did.

Even though we asked for the cheapest private accommodation, we were given a room with a gorgeous view of the rice terraces…from the side. The owners were lovely and never behaved like they were the only ones that could provide us with a bed for the night. They could, but they didn’t.

One of the biggest (and most important) things the Guest Houses control was definitely the food.

We were told that the Guest House serves dinner, but it was not compulsory for us to eat there. Seeing that the alternative to that was to chew on raw (and unripe) rice stalks from the terraces, it wasn’t that much of a choice to us.

Dinner at Sunny’s was served at a communal dining room. Again, they could’ve charged us the moon and served us whatever food they wanted (including raw and unripe rice stalks). We’d have no choice but to eat it, but again, thank goodness they didn’t.

Instead, for a princely sum of 30Rmb, the owner took to the kitchen and churned out dish after dish after dish of wickedly tasty food using herbs and vegetables plucked from his own backyard. (Yes, the rice was from his own terrace too. Yes, they taste superb. No, there was no taste of feet from the thousands of tourists trampling over them)

He was still merrily preparing dessert when one of the guests shouted that his stomach was going to explode from all the food.

My key take away is that this demonstrates a closed system can only work if the owner of the system cares enough to give a flying sh*t about what his customers want instead of just obsessing about the bottom line.

Having said that, I still believe there’s a lot of room for abuse in a closed system.

Exhibit A: The only bus service that could bring us the full 13 hours to Xishuangbanna (yes..Xishuangbanna)

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Nope...that's not a smile on Jo's face

No, I am not using this post to make a commentary on the public transport system in Singapore.

Or am I?