Sunday, January 04, 2009

Busuanga

An island much bigger than we expected, Busuanga depends on its fishing and nascent tourism industry. An hour flight south of Manila followed by a 45 minute bus ride and we ended up in Coron town, opposite Coron island. A week in the small town and it felt like home, with a local bakery to boot!

We were there to island/beach hop and scuba dive. There were never more than a couple hundred tourists in the town, staying at cheap backpacker places, though there were more staying on the ten or more up-market resorts situated on smaller (sometimes private) islands in the area. Coron was really just a delightful local rural town that bustled around its market and town square, especially on New Year's Eve with a popular outdoor disco and well attended firework display.

On the 30th there had been a competition amongst the motor bike + sidecars that are the main form of transport. They sit up to 10 tiny kids or 3 Western Men. With first prize of 700 USD, the quality of entrants was high: the goal to dress up the machines all christmassy and there were plenty of innovative designs and much hard work. Several days had been spent creating nativity plays on the roofs, painting a scuba-diving Santa, making lights and reindeer and all sorts. It gave us something to do in the evenings apart from eating and drinking with all the other divers in town, which kept us busy and happy all week. In fact the food in Coron was very good, particularly the chocolate mousse at the Bistro run by a French guy!

We spent two days on beaches around the nearby islands and exploring some lakes. The snorkeling was nothing too special but having a beach all to oneself with the boatman BBQ-ing some fish for lunch was nice! I spent four days scuba diving, getting my PADI advanced and also Nitrox qualifications. Nitrox sounds very cool, but is just breathing air with more oxygen in it than usual, which increases the time diving at depths. This is useful when you are 35m under water and swimming inside a 140m long Japanese ship from World War 2, something I did 6 times as well as a few smaller boats.

Exploring these wrecks was incredible. The sense of adventure and challenge; the sense of history and atmosphere; the sense of excitement and (limited) danger navigating through corridors, rooms and around pieces of metal all added to the usual thrills of diving. I was (using a torch in order to see anything) swimming through propeller shafts barely 1m x 1m, control rooms, storage rooms, engine rooms and holds looking at and touching bottles of beer, a tractor and a bulldozer and all sorts. Though visibility was not that great there was still lots to be seen outside the wrecks too, such as a crane used to life sea planes off the ship in to the sea and plenty of fish and coral life. I won't go on any more, but there is a reason why the area in in the top 5 in the World for wreck diving.

At the end of my trip I had another half a day in Manila which allowed me to visit the National Museum; which is actually very good. Of course, I am biased, as half of the displays are about the discovery, recovery and contents of a late 16th century Spanish ship and thus includes a lot on underwater archaeology. It was all very revealing and related to the diving I had done and I was easily sucked further into the underwater World.

This was the first time I had dived on a boat of 20 people and it made the whole experience more 'typical' than just small boats of a few people or diving off a beach. After the dive everyone bantered about how it was, who saw what etc. Interestingly for every dive, we had to pay a fee that went to the marine conservation park supposed to be monitoring and protecting the area from locals, but the locals still often took pieces of the ships to sell as scrap. Fees for the lakes on nearby Coron island went to the local tribe who had been given the island and thus maintained it as almost an independent country with their own laws and everything; probably getting fairly wealthy from tourism!

We saw and heard all about the bad practices of the local fishermen: using cyanide to stun fish and catch them which destroys the coral; staying underwater (to catch fish) for 5 hours breathing air from the surface down a tube which paralyzed tens of fishermen every year from decompression sickness and various others that poverty and over-population inevitably lead to. Philippine's ineffective government is trying to do something about it, but success will not be easy.

All over Busuanga and the rest of the Philippines, urban and rural areas alike, was, as last year, extraordinarily large amounts of evidence of Philippine democracy. Local elected officials never hesitate to show-off what good things they are doing for their citizens even when those good things (bridges, roads, markets, buildings etc) have not even started, or look like they will never be completed! Some of the signs by these projects really should embarrass some of these leaders as it shows their inability to get things done. Even for the motorbike competition on the 30th, there was a tent up with signs about who was responsible for bringing the event to the people of Busuanga!

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