© 2015 Lindsay Cope

Pasko and New Year

The Christmas season in the Philippines starts early. I remember hearing the morning talk show hosts the morning of September 1st start the countdown to Christmas. Despite the national Christmas excitement, Pandan has not been too overwhelming with the Christmas spirit. And as you can imagine, Christmas in the tropics does not feel like Christmas. No gingerbread, no snow, no real Christmas trees.

Leading up the December 25, people attend 9 days of mass. The mass is at 4am. The belief is that if you attend all 9 masses, your wish will come true. I went to the first mass and Christmas Eve mass. I like my sleep far too much for 9 days of 4am mass.

There is no gift giving in the Philippines, at least not in the provinces. People came by the house all morning to collect money (small amounts of 10-20 pesos). I was relieved to escape the commercialized Christmas of home. The holiday here is really about celebration of Christ and spending time with, and taking care of, family. It’s wholesome and uncorrupted by capitalist interests.

After three months at site, we were finally allowed to take a vacation. Many volunteers from my batch traveled to Cebu City to pass a weeklong vacation spent mostly eating. I am not a very big fan of cities, and made plans to travel to Panglao Island, Bohol. Bohol is known for the Chocolate Hills and bug-eyed tarsiers. Unfortunately, one of the last typhoons of the season disrupted travel to Bohol.

My friend Tylie flew in from Seattle. I picked her up at the airport and we made our way to the Cebu port to make our ferry. However, due to the approaching weather system, ferry traffic in the Visayas was suspended. We quickly booked a room at the hotel where the other PCVs were staying as the other travelers scrambled to find accommodations.

To be honest, Cebu was not the best place to spend New Years Eve, though it is a great place to eat! I got to satisfy my cravings for Thai food, draft beer, cheese, wine and artisanal bread. Most Philippinos spend NYE with their families. In Cebu, there were fireworks (not that I saw them from the dark dance club I was in) and most places close shortly after the countdown. Although traveling in a large group can be a challenge (think dinner reservations for 20+ ) it was fun to spend New Years with a big group of familiar faces who really needed to unwind after our first three months at site.

As of the first of January, Tylie and I, joined by Maritza (also a MIIS student who came to the Philippines for a short course in Mindanao), took up residence at the Shangri La Resort on Lapu Lapu Island, Cebu. I adored the soft beds with the fluffy mold-free pillows, the expansive ocean view, and the incredible customer service. The international breakfast buffet was insane; each morning I loaded several plates with fruit, pastries, yogurt, cheese, eggs, bacon, you name it. While my jeans fit a little tighter, I  will inevitably slim down again since I now commute 30 minutes to and from work (yes, I moved).

One of the highlights of the resort was the Marine Sanctuary. I snorkeled every day, viewing the fish and corals. There were three species of Giant Clam, many hard and soft corals, tons of parrotfish and puffer fish, eels, lion fish (Tylie saw these, not me), and a massive titan triggerfish. While I enjoyed all the underwater splendor, I was frustrated by all the guests stepping on the corals and took it upon myself to inform as many of them as possible not to step on the Corals. Occasionally my warning was abrupt, but I did my best to be nice to the carelessly trudging tourists.

On January 2, Tylie, Maritza, fellow PCV Kalen, and I made the long early morning trip to Oslob, Cebu to swim with Whale Sharks. On the car ride south, I enjoyed watching the sun rise over the ocean, a rare site for those of us who live on the west side of our Islands. It was about 7am when we boarded our Bangka (boat) to paddle out to the viewing area. We climbed out of the boat into the water and almost instantly came face to face with a whale shark.

Whale Sharks are the biggest fish in the sea, their migration season in the Philippines is December through May. I have heard they swim through the Pandan Bay and I am hoping to see them in my own back yard. These endangered fish are the biggest in the Ocean. Whale sharks are gentle, not aggressive like one might assume of a shark. They are filter feeders, with wide mouths that gulp in water. Since they mostly feed on Plankton they are easy to spot near the surface.

Whale Shark viewing is an alternative livelihood opportunity for fisherfolk in the Philippines and helps to demonstrate that Whale Sharks are more valuable alive than fished. Despite the protection of this species, they are still hunted in parts of Asia. The economic multipliers of wildlife viewing are significant to compel conservation and can provide an income opportunity to communities that benefit from the migration of charismatic species. Visitors rent a driver to get to the site; we rented our driver for ten hours. Included in the tourist package are breakfast and lunch at restaurants adjacent to the staging facilities. Many visitors will purchase souvenirs such a commemorative T-Shirt or magnet, or even some Philippine beachwear like a sarong. Our tour package included a visit to a waterfall, however due to a landslide from the passing storm we were unable to make it there. The viewing sites are contrived, with fishermen adding food to the water to attract the whale sharks. Communities that benefit economically from charismatic species are committed to their conservation.

I have received push back from other volunteers for visiting Oslob. And I agree.  We were surprised to discover that our boat only carried us a little ways off shore.  We were also surprised that nearly a dozen boats filled with visitors were mooring at the same site.  When the whale shark swam by, attracted by food added to the water, many people entered the water and swam past it, around it, under it, in front of it.  It was a zoo.  I was pushed under and yanked at so people could get a better view, or get away from it.  Although it was cool being so close to something so huge, the experience was chaotic.  The problems with Oslob are many, but most importantly, any activity that intentionally effects the migration and feeding habits of any species should be avoided.  There are many opportunities to view wildlife while visiting the Philippines, chose responsibly.

Even after my vacation ended and I bid farewell to Tylie, the excitement didn’t stop. I arrived back to site, a day later than anticipated due to a three hour delay on my flight. When I returned, I received approval to transfer to my new home. I had a small window of opportunity to move or I would have to postpone another week (my landlord will be in and out of town and I will be completing my PADI course over the weekend) so I made the impromptu decision to just do it. Miraculously, I was packed and out of my host family’s house in two hours and mostly settled in by dinnertime. My landlord is my supervisor at the Municipal Agriculture Office and his whole family came as a welcoming party. We cooked dinner and they made sure I was settled in before leaving me alone in my new home. The first night I slept soundly and I awoke to the sun creeping over the mountains on the opposite side of the bay. It has been a good start to the New Year!



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