A Travellerspoint blog

Cindy's hard core Stress Test!!!!!

Last requirement before becoming a Dive Master...

Objective: To switch each part of your scuba gear with your buddy's (mask, fins, bcd, tank).

Rules:
1. The task has to be achieved while "buddy breathing", which means sharing the air from one tank, breathing from the same regulator which is passed between buddies every two or so breaths.
2. The switched gear has to be perfectly fit and secured to dive in on the person it's been switched to. That means nothing tangled, unplugged, lose or missing.
3. If a diver breaks the surface, the test starts over.
4. If a diver breathes from a regulator other than the one shared with the buddy, the test starts over.
5. The instructors are allowed to try make everything above seem impossible to you by tearing off your mask, throwing sand in your face, tangling your regulators, detaching your tank, blowing bubbles up your wetsuit, unbuckling your weight belt, inflating your BCD so float to the surface and -well- pretty much by doing anything they can think of to mess with you!
We had a great time!

Posted by juan y Cindy 04:55 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Philippines

Second Day.....

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I woke up early to the sound of pigs playing roughly and roosters welcoming the sun. I was glad to wake up still full of that magical feeling that surrounded this remote, mystical village. I stretched my somewhat sore back and headed to see the sun peek from behind the mountains to illuminate the beautiful rice terraces. Again breakfast consisted of rice cake and freshly brewed coffee. Francis wanted to get an early start and so I hugged Wang Od goodbye, to which she said "Guapo" looking straight into my eyes with her youthful expression. Before I left we took our picture together and as I was showing her the result I started to flick through some photos I had in my camera, to which slowly a small crowd gathered and hovered over me to glance at the pictures. Everyone wanted to see a picture of Cindy, they were puzzled at some of the marine creatures I had photographed and were most impressed when I showed them a picture of the temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza. "Maya Tribe" -I explained to the mesmerized crowd.

We hiked for four hours on a very steep trail without passing a single person, the views breathtaking and the sun as hot as ever. On top of a hill we met two kids next to a very small grass hut. I said hello to them and observed the simple roof they were sheltered under. Thinking it might be used to keep the harvested rice dry or something of that sort, I asked Francis what its function was.
-"For the kids -he said- it can get very hot so they go in, and for when it rains". I looked back to the kids: The girl must have been six and the boy almost a baby was not older than three.
-"But why are these babies here? It's hours away form any village and they are all by themselves all day?" -I asked incredulous.
-"Yes -said Francis- they scare away birds; that's their job. Bad birds can eat all the rice". I approached them and gave them a chocolate bar each. They shyly accepted and then without looking back at me focused all their attention to opening the package.
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Hours later, after crossing some of the most amazing terraces we had seen so far, we arrived to Tulgao. Filled with chickens and pigs as the other villages, Tulgao was a town in transition, some traditional thatched houses next to more modern ones of zinc. We went straight for a traditional hut, owned by Tayaan, a ninety three year old man that was chopping wood for the fire when we arrived. With no teeth and a curved back he was still strong. He showed us into his home; there were some tobacco leaves drying on the dark kitchen roof, a couple of deer antlers hanging on the wall and a huge rat or small opossum running away on the roof beams.

We sat our bags down in the small room upstairs and came back down to have our lunch. No surprise here: it was rice. As I was eating my rice cake with my hands, as is accustomed, I watched Tayaan as he loaded his bamboo pipe with a tightly rolled tobacco leaf. I offered him a box of matches which he gladly took. He then grabbed a bamboo instrument I had never seen before and with no ceremony started playing it (I later learned it's called a farnifang). This hollow bamboo cane produced vibrant sounds as he rhythmically banged it on his palm. Again, the dark room with the fire place, eating the sacred rice with your hands, listening to this old man play a traditional instrument and slowly being enveloped by the smoke from his homemade pipe transported me to the older, more basic world I felt I was experiencing. The spell was enhanced and then interrupted when thunder announced the upcoming rain and we decided to take a nap. I excused myself and laid on the wooden floor of the loft. My body was tired and the rain made it ideal for a good rest, so I closed my eyes and then realized someone was singing. It was beautiful and mystical; it sounded far away and it wasn't loud, more like a woman singing to herself. I stood up and looked through the window. I couldn't see where the singing came from, but I figured it was from the hut next to ours. The song entered my ears and came out delicately with every note through my skin. It seemed so ancient, so holy, so peaceful... I drifted off to sleep.
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"Juan, Juan!" Francis was calling my name. I had slept for two hours and the rains had ceased. "We go now to hot springs". We made our way through the rice terraces and had an amazing overview of the valley. From here I could see five huge waterfalls far away but clearly. We had to cross a big hanging bridge, and to my relief I met the first hand railing on my trip thus far. We arrived to a big waterfall. It might have been fifteen meters high but with such a huge volume you could feel its strength from far away. Close to the waterfall volcanic waters spurred from the ground, making the natural pools snug and warm in various intensities, but for some very unusual reason I wanted to jump into the cold river first. The water was ice cold but I felt it energizing me and I stayed in it for quite a while by myself as everyone was enjoying the hot springs. Francis and two local boys were taking a bath in one of them; I laid completely horizontal on the shallow waters while I watched them choosing a medium size, oval, smooth rock each. They used the rock to scrub their skin thoroughly, taking turns scrubbing the other's back. One of the boys was about thirteen and the other around seventeen, their young bodies much more defined than you would expect on a teenager, a sure sign of the heavy physical work they were used to in the fields.
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Francis was on the other end, also cleaning himself meticulously with a rock. I noticed a scar on the side of his rib cage; it looked like a stab wound... I had to ask.
-"Francis, what happened here?” -I said, pointing to my own ribs.
-"Ahhh, here too!”- he answered, showing me an identical scar on the opposite side. -“Doctor cut me because body like this” -he continued, gesturing with his arms lifted in curves by his sides like a barrel and puffing out his cheeks. -“Seven years ago, jeepney fall, seventy two meters. Eight died, all very bad hurt. Doctor cut to take blood out..." Ohhh boy, I was not looking forward to my ride back on the jeepney roof!

We walked quickly back to the hut as it was getting dark. The fire was burning and a woman had come over to cook us some rice for our dinner. We all gathered close to her and watched her glow with the fire flames as she cooked our meal.
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As I was preparing to go to sleep I noticed a broom on the side of the room. It was just a broom, the traditional one for this area and used as any other broom in the world, yet if I gave it to anyone I know odds are they would hang it on the wall as an ornament rather than use it for its intended purpose. So beautifully crafted, so much effort in producing an otherwise irrelevant object. These people were gifted craftsmen and everything they traditionally used to make had amazing finishings. This broom was but a remainder of a slowly disappearing culture of detail.
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Laying in my sleeping back, I asked Francis about the woman that was singing earlier. I described the song and asked him about traditional songs...
-“Yes, it's tribe song. We have many songs, happy songs, victory songs, songs for when you are sad, for the seeds.. On the field you sing all together, because if you sing you don't feel tired. It makes you strong!”
Francis was tired; his face showed it, but still he laid down telling us a story (joke) about the time he had cheated a monkey into giving him the fish it was catching by the Chico river. He then told us he had guided people from many many countries, and the particularities they all had.
-"Japanese, very interesting people: they come, take photo-photo-PHOTO! And then they leave. Very busy people" -he concluded.
Now I don't know if it was because I was so tired or what but I laughed at that last statement until I had tears in my eyes! Francis was amused to see me laugh so much. Then in a more serious note he added -"They are very polite people, but before very mean people. Very mean in World War II”. Those were his last words of the day. He was asleep. I quickly followed.

Posted by juan y Cindy 05:19 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Mabul, my little ocean home

Cindy and cuttlefish in AWAS

Cindy and cuttlefish in AWAS

When Juan and I visited Sipadan on February 7th this year, I never imagined I would soon be guiding such an exciting dive destination!
We arrived in Mabul one afternoon after our four day stay in the jungles of Danum Valley. Mabul is the nearest island to Sipadan, and the base for anyone who wants to dive in this world famous marine park for which there is a long waiting list to even get permission to enter. Feeling slightly conscientious of splurging over our budget on a three day diving package, we had decided to give in anyway and visit this place we had only just heard about from other back packers along the way.
Ever since Tio Luis introduced me to diving when I was about fourteen years old, I fell in love with it. Growing up in an ocean-loving family and only twenty minutes away from the warm beaches of Yucatan, being in the water has only been natural to me. I have dreams of waking up at the bottom of a cenote or a pool, watching the light filter through the surface and onto the walls, rippling brilliant, silent energy all around me, and suddenly realizing I’ve been there, underwater, observing and BREATHING!
Diving is like this dream to me. I enjoy it regardless of the site. I just love getting in the water and being a part of it; to descend into this liquid world and flow with it, feeling the changes in temperature, seeing the different shades of light at a depth, floating along with the current and just breathing peacefully as the dive goes on.
When we first arrived to Sipadan, I was as excited as I would be about any other dive. I geared up, jumped in and enjoyed it as I would any dive site, and when we came upon a school of Bumphead Parrotfish and later a Devil Ray swam right up to us, the events seemed to me as beautiful as they did natural. I didn’t realize until later how special they really were!
Still, knowing how much I loved diving, during one of our walks around the back of Mabul island, Juan sensed that I might like to stay longer and easily convinced me to enroll in the Dive Master training program at Scuba Junkies (the dive company we were with), even if only for the experience and to get a little more diving into the trip. THIS WAS THE BEST DECISION we’ve made in a long time!
The idea of the Dive Master certification is to prepare divers to be able to not only become very skillful in their own diving techniques, but to also be fully capable of rescuing, guiding and helping out other certified divers under water and assist in training student divers in their courses. At Scuba Junkies the Dive Master Training program is both strict and fun, allowing trainees to soak in knowledge from the most qualified instructors and to gain experience with unlimited diving in Mabul island during the six week course, which ends with a very strenuous Stress Test, after which -believe me- you’re mentally prepared to react calm and assertively to pretty much any situation under water!
I never knew it possible, but during the course MY LOVE FOR DIVING GREW exponentially! Every single dive became to me even more natural, and at the same time tremendously exciting! As I learned more about the aquatic species of the area I started to appreciate the countless variety of life forms, to pay attention to the details and learn where to find them. More so though, after diving the same areas over and over three and four times a day, I realized the beauty of simply being still and letting life around me BE. Just like in my dream, to stay motionless and breathe softly watching the light touch all that is in this liquid space was what brought the most precious experiences. My favorite thing to do was to gear up and just jump off the jetty into AWAS, a sandy dive site famous in the area for large turtles and great muck diving. I would go there not for that but for the school of squid. Even as I write this blog my heart warms and beats at a different pace. I wish I could find the words to put into your heart just how magical it is to see them living right with you! Their diaphanous, ethereal fins rippling gently in the soft current, their tentacles stretching and curling in unison, their intelligent, knowing eyes appearing pair by pair through the planctonic mist, first suspicious, then curious, then comfortable as they decide I’m not a threat, that I’m a part of their world for a moment, and finally continuing their eternal dance, shifting from dark brown to white as they feel at ease, hovering in the cool particles of the salty water.
I remembered how to connect with nature the way that is most precious and real to me. A humble silence where I am equal to the creature I encounter, where we’re each a momentary transformation of ancient energy, part of the same matter and music. A life and a life.
By the time the training program ended I was so enamoured of life under the sea and of the great friends I had made at Scuba Junkies that I could not help but stay and work for a while, and with my enthusiasm it was easy to persuade Juan to do the same and also enroll in the Dive Master program! These have been some of the happiest months of my life, guiding people under water who share the same love for the ocean as I do, being able to help new divers acchieve better diving skills and sharing exciting adventures with people from all over the world, but one of my most exciting moments was when I was chosen to guide Sipadan. This was completely unexpected for me since Scuba Junkies is very selective about their guides, but I was ecstatic to find out I had made the cut!
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Borneo, a volcanic mount that breaks the surface of the sea, rising from depths of up to two thousand meters! One of its dive sites, Barracuda Point, constantly features among the top dive sites in the world, and in the last article by CNNGO, it appears as number one! In Sipadan you find ancient coral gardens, dozens and dozens of Green Turtles frequently more than two meters long, Hawksbill turtles, huge Dog Tooth Tuna, a school of over one hundred Bumphead Parrot Fish as big as myself, hundreds of Chevron Barracuda tornadoeing all around you, thousands of Big Eyed Trevally in a cloud you can swim through and lose orientation from the intensity of their number, Giant Trevally hunting in silver bolts of power, enormous Grey Reef sharks and graceful White Tip Reef sharks swimming up to cleaning stations where a myriad of colorful reef fish nibble off impurities and light up the impressive topography in bright blues, yellows, oranges... all glistening under the light of thirty meter and plus visibility.
My first day guiding there I realized how much I had changed as a diver. The ocean expanded before me! Once down there I was not only enjoying the breathing and the sight of the fish, but I appreciated the immensity of the island. I was aware of my depth, of the time, of my nitrogen build up, of the diver I was guiding, his skill and comfort in this new environment, of the dark abyss and monstrous wall I was floating along... I cracked up at the sight of my diver fully concentrated in taking a picture of a turtle while a white tip shark about his size hovered curious only half a meter above him. I automatically took mental notes of the topography for orientation, pointed out interesting creatures (although there's really no need to since they're swimming all around you), and all the while I was completely relaxed and having a marvellous dive!
One of the most attractive features of Sipadan is not only the vast amount, sizes and variety of marine life forms you see, but also the probability of spotting unusual creatures who inhabit the area at different depths and sometimes visit the island. Among these are Pilot Whales, Marlins, different kinds of dolphins and -my favorite, my dream, the ONE animal I had on my life's wish list to see- the HAMMERHEAD SHARK! There are nine species of hammerheads in the world, and two can be seen in Sipadan occasionally: the Scalloped and the Great hammerhead.
Opposite to Mabul, as you guide Sipadan you pay less attention to the detail of the beautiful coral gardens and more so keep an eye out for the bigger things that swim by in the blue, which can be anything from huge turtles to different kinds of rays to bigger sharks. Actually one of the typical dives during a day tour to the island is what we call a "blue dive", where we guide our divers ten minutes off the wall to a point where there is no point of reference: just blue above, blue all around and blue until the deepest depths. I imagine it to be the closest thing to being suspended in space, with even fluorescent scales of plancton to resemble the stars. This is where I saw it: My first hammerhead!
Kevin was ahead of me that day with the first group, and we had been swimming into the blue for several minutes without having seen anything but jellyfish to that point. Afraid my open water divers might become uneasy after so much time with no visual reference, I was looking at my compass deciding to head back to the wall when all of a sudden I heard Kevin's tank banger going crazy! We rarely use our tank bangers at all, so I knew he had seen something special and with no hesitation I turned to my divers and effusively urged them to race behind my furious finning! It took us no time at all to reach the other group, and as I frantically searched in the dark blue waters for the object of their excitement, I saw with a swollen, abruptly slowed heart the mystical shape of my shark: the graceful movement of his long tail moving slowly from side to side, the smooth grey-brown back reflecting ever so little light at thirty meters' depth, and the iconic flattened hammer-like head with an eye on each extreme, watching us cautiously as it swam, knowing what only sharks know in their world.
My whole being swells with love and longing when I think of the time spent in my home undersea, and I hope with all my heart you can plunge into this world of water and life, in Mabul or wherever you are and learn to see it for all the wonder that it is.

Cindy and Juan on a surface date

Cindy and Juan on a surface date

Cindy and Juan on an underwater <br />date

Cindy and Juan on an underwater
date

Mabul Lucha Libre

Mabul Lucha Libre

Tire pushing: one of the most popular games

Tire pushing: one of the most popular games

Spiny Devil Fish

Spiny Devil Fish

Batfish following Green Turtles

Batfish following Green Turtles

Sand boats

Sand boats

Frog Fish

Frog Fish

Pink Frog Fish in Kapalai House Reef

Pink Frog Fish in Kapalai House Reef

Red Frog Fish in Smart's Artificial Reef

Red Frog Fish in Smart's Artificial Reef

Yellow Frog Fish in Scuba Junkie's side of AWAS

Yellow Frog Fish in Scuba Junkie's side of AWAS

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

My magical squid!

My magical squid!

Squid meet fish

Squid meet fish

Flamboyant cuttlefish

Flamboyant cuttlefish

Blue Ringed Octopus: One of the most beautiful and deadly creatures on Earth!

Blue Ringed Octopus: One of the most beautiful and deadly creatures on Earth!

Black Finned Snake Eel

Black Finned Snake Eel

Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish

Sponge crab

Sponge crab

Decorator Spider Crab

Decorator Spider Crab

Hermit crabs with anemones and debris attached to their shells

Hermit crabs with anemones and debris attached to their shells

Mantis shrimp in its bottle home

Mantis shrimp in its bottle home

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Spotfin Lionfish

Spotfin Lionfish

Common Lionfish

Common Lionfish

Zebra Lionfish

Zebra Lionfish

Scorpion Fish

Scorpion Fish

Mandarin Fish

Mandarin Fish

Mandarin Fish

Mandarin Fish

Blue Spotted Ribbon Tail Ray

Blue Spotted Ribbon Tail Ray

Blue Striped Snappers

Blue Striped Snappers

Two Spot Snappers

Two Spot Snappers

Juvenile striped catfish

Juvenile striped catfish

Spiny Stone Fish

Spiny Stone Fish

Spot Face Morray Eel

Spot Face Morray Eel

Giant Morray Eel (this is Elvis at Kapalai House Reef)

Giant Morray Eel (this is Elvis at Kapalai House Reef)

Great Barracuda in AWAS

Great Barracuda in AWAS

Cow Fish

Cow Fish

Seahorse in Semporna night dive

Seahorse in Semporna night dive

Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish

Posted by juan y Cindy 21:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (5)

Tribal Philippines

Day 1 out of 3!

Day 1

So once again I had to leave Borneo on yet another visa run. Sad to leave Cindy behind I decided to travel to the Coordillera region in North Luzon, Philippines, where I had some of the most authentic and cherished experience I have had so far on this amazing trip. But first let me tell you a bit about Philippines.

A short flight from Borneo Philippines is quite different from the rest of South East Asia, about 90% of the population claims to be Christian of which 80% are Roman Catholic. They were colonized by the Spaniards for over 300 years and still today you have remnants in their Tagalog language, and it seems to be the most random words: cuchara, basura, guapo, abrelatas, plato, uno, dos, tres, Pare! To stop the jeepny… but other than that Tagalog seem as different form Spanish as any other Asian language.
There are also 11 regional languages and 87 dialects along its 7107 islands. Almost immediately after gaining the independence from the
Spaniards they became colonized by the very same ally that helped them defeat them: The United states. The USA ruled over Philippines for the next 40 some years, during WWII the United States and the Philippines fought the Japanese together sustaining heavy casualties before they prevailed. The devastation of the Philippines during WWII was very profound. The country was granted its independence in 1946. Today most Philipino can speak English, there’s quite a lot of American food, they have an American form of government (presidency, congress and senate), their electrical plugs are the only ones we can plug our iPod in without a converter, and basketball is the national sport. You will find
Basketball courts all over in their most creative forms and in the most unthinkable places (pasture land, on a concreate highway just before a curve, rims hanging from trees), and of course their national hero is Manny Paquiao! If it’s your first time in Manila, it’s easy to think that the Philippines has been completely westernized, but looking further you will encounter a unique culture still very true to itself.

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After riding some twenty two hours by bus in the last two days I finally arrived to Bontoc. Described in travel books as the last western frontier and a place where local tribal men still came down from their villages to sell their products at the local Sunday market I was sadly disappointed to find a modern, very busy town, lacking charm. I checked in at the only hotel in town and set out to make the most of the afternoon before I left town the next morning. There was not much to see and you could not walk long before you found yourself leaving town, so I entered a local restaurant to have dinner before going to bed a lot earlier than I had planned. A man
at the restaurant looked at me.
-“Good evening"- I said
-“Good evening”- answered back the local with broken English-“Where you from?"
-“Costa Rica”
-“Ahh Latin America!”
-"Yes!"- I answered very surprised that he knew where Costa Rica was, as no one seems to know of Costa Rica’s existence on this side of the world (including immigration officers!)
-“Are you a vegetarian?”
-“No”- I replied, immediately regretting my answer.
-“Try, its dog meat. Very good, if you have girlfriend makes you very strong!"
I politely declined the canine aphrodisiac.
-“Where you going”- he asked, continuing conversation.
-“Banaue”- I answered (listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site for the millenary rice terraces of the Ifugao people didn’t seem a bad choice).
-“Ahh Banaue… Banaue- Sagada, Sagada- Banaue… That’s all tourists do! Very commercial. Not good."
-“Do you suggest I go another place?"- I asked, grateful for the advice of a person who knew the area.
-“You come to my town: All Natural. I show you real tribe, rice terraces more beautiful than Batad, old women with tattoo. I take two Philippine girls from Manila tomorrow, you can come”.
I was kind of expecting that Banaue or Batad would be quite touristy as amazing as it might be, so I decided to accept his offer. We would
meet the next morning at 7:00 am to buy gifts for the people.

I woke up early; my guide Francis Pa-In was nowhere to be seen. I decided to find breakfast by the market. It was Sunday morning and the
streets were busy around the Market. All sorts of fruit and vegetables were for sale and the meat laid unrefrigerated with the head of the
original owner hanging next to it. For the first time I noticed a group of old women, all wearing red skirts and colorful beads adorning their necks; many had their arms completely tattooed. This group of all women was trying to sell their weaved baskets to a man, and seemed to be negotiating intensely. I kept walking and more and more old women seemed to appear, always in groups or at least in pairs. I noticed a lot of them were completely bent almost at a ninety degree angle, going around their business supported on their bamboo canes as if nothing was wrong with them.

As I was heading back to find Francis an old man stopped me. He must have been over a hundred; there is no way I can know his age, but it felt as if I had never seen such an ancient person before: his body was weak and fragile, yet his eyes were not defeated. He spoke to me in who knows what dialect and I answered back in English that I couldn’t understand him. That didn’t seem to matter as he just kept trying communicate. In search of a translation to his unintelligible words, I concluded that he wanted to cross the road. I offered him my hand, which to my relief he took and we started to cross the main road slowly as the mayhem of tricycles and jeepnees made the crossing challenging even for me. When we got the other side, he wanted to sit on the sidewalk and that’s where I left him. As simple as it may seem that was a very intimate experience for me. This was a man that lived a tribal life in the headhunters' days! He had lived his life in a way so foreign for all of us, it was like I had travelled back in time for the brief moment I held his hand. There’s was more to this town than I had judged.
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I met Francis and went on to buying the gifts. Gifts consisted of matches. We bought about a U.S. Dollar worth of matches which bought us
around forty five boxes. He explained that the people smoked a lot. They smoke tobacco and grass (meaning marijuana) and they need it to make fire for cooking and burning the fields before planting them again. After packing our matches and meeting the two girls from Manila, we made our way to the Jeepney.
-“Its full”- I said, stating the obvious.
-“Lots of room on the roof”- was the answer I got.
-“Oh yes, the roof looks pretty empty”- I replied sarcastically.
We climbed to the top of the roof and by the time we left it was not empty by all means. With about twenty four people on the roof we set off,
dodging the electrical cables was a scary feat but after leaving the city it ceased to be a concern.

It was a beautiful sunny day, clear blue skies had few white puffy clouds. The insanely overloaded Jeepney drove on what must be one of the most scenic and terrifying roads I have ever been on. The road is barely wide enough for the jeepney and it is a small cut in the mountain’s winding edge. From the roof you could not see at times the road beneath you, just the 400 meter abyss; every few hundred meters there were landslides that had recently been ”cleared” to open the path, and huge boulders larger than cars were common on the road. The signs of “Caution: rocks falling” were almost a joke! What was I suppose to do on the roof of a Jeepney to prevent a huge bolder from squashing me? But if your petrified eyes looked further you witnessed amazing rice terraces, beautiful rivers and humongous mountains which, naked from thousands of years of agriculture still remained beautiful.
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-“Do you ride on roof in Costa Rica?”
-“ No”
-“Very beautiful. You put it in your diary tonight”
-“I might”- I said, laughing at his quite accurate assumption of tourists
-“Besides it's better, because if bus falls you jump to other side”
I was not laughing now. This is what I had been thinking all along but to know that the locals were thinking about it did not help my nerves!
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Almost three intense hours later we arrived at our last Jeepney stop and quickly started our way up the mountain following a small trail. I was prepared for cold weather as this is pretty high in altitude, but the clear blue sky posed no resistance to the striking sun which I felt hotter than ever. About three hours into our hike we met two women that belonged to the tribe we were headed for. They were wearing beautiful colored beads that I learned later to be heirlooms passed generation to generation and quite expensive to get in these times. Both women where probably in their thirties. They striked me as beautiful, with feminine features yet extremely strong hands, arms and fingers. Hands that without doubt had worked hard for many years. They were each carrying a twenty five kilo bag of rice, which I naively offered to help carry. They did not want the help, and I was lucky because it saved me from big humiliation as it was clear minutes later that I could barely walk with what I was carrying! To my surprise both women picked the bags up and placed them straight on their heads, where they would carry them all the way to the village, most of the time without touching them with their hands. I was surprised at how easily they seem to carry 25kg on their neck while keeping their balance up and down a trail that was not more than a foot wide and had at many points almost vertical drop-offs the kind you would not survive if you were to fall. An hour after we had met the two women we arrived at a beautiful waterfall between two huge mountains were many kids of all ages, completely naked, jumped from rock to rock before plunging into the pool of water. We made a stop here to take some pictures and regain
energy as the two women disappeared in the distance with their heavy loads.
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“We are almost here! This is the village of Buscalan tribe we only need to get to the top”- said Francis enthusiastically.
Taking a look at the brilliant green rice terraces ahead, I could easily see the top was at least 3000 steps up. We had to stop every twelve minutes to catch our air and let the pain from our burning legs dissipate.

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Finally we made it, and as soon as some kids saw us they came running to us, asking our names and if we had candy. I was sorry not to bring any with me. Francis lead us to the house where we were going to spend the night and presented our host, a ninety two year old woman.
“This is Wang- Od, the last tattoo artist”.
I thankfully said high to the woman with long braids, full arm and neck tattoos and a jovial smile that caught my attention. We stayed on the
top of the hut on a wooden room with not a single piece of furniture.
I left my things there and immediately asked Francis were I could fill my water bottle. He recalled a pipe we had passed not five minutes before getting to Wang-Od's house and I made my way there. As I approached the water I noticed a fully naked young woman taking a bath where I was supposed to refill bottle. She was probably in her late teens or early twenties, very beautiful, her full and firm breasts were the last thing I had expected to encounter! I stopped short and not knowing what to do, pretended to take pictures in the opposite direction while I waited for the water pipe to become available. A minute latter a couple of other women came and I decided to leave as I was not familiar with their customs.

We decided to take a walk around the village. This is one of the few villages where not everyone has replaced their Cogon grass roofs for
corrugated iron. Small wooden two story huts gather closely one to another. They have a breed of pig that’s very small and all black and these little guys are everywhere. As you walk between the huts you need to climb small fences made out of sticks that keep this livestock close to their owners home. Even though everywhere you looked there were chickens and pigs it did not smell at all.

As I was walking by the narrow walkways between the huts, Francis stopped to speak to a woman. I waited for Francis when I realized I
was steping on a grave. I was scared it might be very disrespectful and jumped to the side. I was later explained by Francis that the dead are traditionally buried in front or next to the house, since in that area the houses were pretty close together they bury them on the walkway. I
was to find dozens of these graves around town. It turns out it's not disrespectful to step on them.
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We continued to walk about, passing two topless women washing their clothes, a young kid pounding rice with unexpected strength and
determination, children running around. We got to a hut were three very old women lived; the three of them had tattoos but one was very proud of them and wanted me to take a picture of her tattoos as she showed them to me with a wide, toothless smile. She kept talking and laughing and I kept asking Francis what she was saying but all I got was that one day I will have white hair too…
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On our way back the rain started to pour and we foudn shelter at the blacksmith's hut. There three men were working on making beautifully
crafted knives. They make the metal blade but the wooden case is were their art can be best appreciated. The blacksmith was working on a
case giving it form with his knife while his three year old rested on his lap. It was interesting to see this guy so concentrated in his work
and yet having his kid sleep on his lap for hours while doing so. One man was putting together two pieces of wood and was applying a sort of
glue. When I asked about it they explained that it was a natural glue they use; it comes from a plant they called Lituka, probably from the ginger family, of which they use the roots (rhizomes). I was amazed at how strong the bond was on the wood and asked if I could see the
plant. They explained that at this moment the plant is inside the ground but that it grows when there is lots of thunder (probably
meaning the rainy season). I also asked about their red smiles: the three of them were chewing betel nut. Basically they use the nut of a
palm, a leaf from a vine and crushed snail shells taken from the rice fields and put under fire then crushed until the final product is a
white grey powder. The combination turns your mouth into a vivid blood red and the effects are similar to that of chewing tobacco and
the practice of constantly spitting out red spits. How on Earth did someone find out that the combination of the leaf of a vine, a nut
from a palm, and the shells of the snails would be something to try?!

As we walked back to Wang-Od' house two very old women walked by, both of them completely bent like the many I had seen at Bontoc. I asked Francis about this and he said it was from years of planting rice and carrying heavy loads. It was shocking to see so many old ladies, many with this condition, yet I encountered few old men.

We arrived to ther hut; it was getting dark and Wang-Od was starting to cook the rice that would become our dinner. I sat by her side just
watching her in the dark kitchen start up a fire, carefully weaving some green leaves to serve as the base of the pot to prevent the rice
from sticking to it and mixing in a bit of the native red rice called Unoy. Kalinga has four varieties of Unoy red rice: Bolinao, Mimis, Gomiki and UPL – which are known for distinct aroma and taste.

Wang-Od's sister came to visit her from a near hut, holding a splint of a native pine tree that burns slowly yet produces a bright flame. She
entered the hut and stared at me, then with a smile greeted me in her dialect as Francis came in and made a joke about her natural
flashlight. I sat there quietly listening to both women speak in their native tongue, the flames casting shadows on their faces. I was
mesmerized by the two women. They have lived this way for almost a century. When it was done we had the rice in a cake-like presentation. We ate in our room, sitting on the floor and drinking coffee harvested from the nearby enormous Robusta trees. A few minutes later Wang-Od came back and with a big gesture, she offered us some Carabao meat. Lucky for me (I find it very hard to try new meats), the huge pieces of bone had pretty much no meat in them. It was pretty dark and I picked the a bone that was pretty much clean... by the end of the meal you could not tell I hadn't touched my protein serving.

It turns out that Lars Krutak, a recognized tatoo anthropologist had met Wang-Od a few years ago and had written a Book titled "KALINGA
TATOO, Ancient and Modern Expresions of the Tribal". And I began to read laying in my sleeping bag and using my head lamp. From the book I learned that Wang -Od learned the art of batok (tatoo) from her father Oggay and started tattooing at just 16 years old. Over her life she tattooed more women than men, mainly for two reasons: one was that for a man to get a tattoo he had to be a Head Hunter, something that didn't happen all that often, the other was that the payment for the chest tattoo was very expensive and sometimes it took weeks or months to raise the necessary funds to pay it. It narrated the first time She tattooed her first warrior, a young man named Sagmayao from
Buscalan. The marking of his chests and arms took four days and she said she was really nervous, not because it was her first time
tattooing a warrior but because of his fierce reputation as a Mingor. She also explained that it took only one kill to be able to receive a
full complement of tattoos, because the Americans sought to abolish the tradition early in the twentieth century and the traditional rules
associated with it were no longer in place. In some regions Kalinga warriors were even ordered to give up their head-axes to the American
authorities because they had been outlawed altogether. Wang-Od recalls that she might have tattooed two dozen men in her life.

Women got their tattoos early, many before puberty, as they believed that once the hormones kick in the tattooing became more painful. It was a thing of beauty and even believed to increase fertility. Some women could receive additional marks if their male relatives received some
for success at war.

I kept reading more and more, about the way the tattoos were made, how they believed that when you died you leave everything material on
earth before going to heaven and the only thing you take is your tattoo, about the village wars between tribes and their sacrificial
rituals... As my eyes were closing down I realized how lucky I was to be sleeping in the floor of the Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist.

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Posted by juan y Cindy 01:21 Archived in Philippines Comments (4)

Danum Valley

Sabah's last natural stronghold

Bornean Flying frog Ranchophorus nigropalmatum

Bornean Flying frog Ranchophorus nigropalmatum

Juan and Cindy on top of tree platform

Juan and Cindy on top of tree platform

Straight after the mixed emotions we had in the Kinabatangan river, with its fascinating wildlife trapped in such a thin stretch of forest, we entered an entirely different scenario.
Danum Valley is an enormous area of untouched jungle with trees that reach over eighty meters in height and the strangest-looking creatures lurking around every corner. The feeling of being in such a pristine natural environment is something we cannot wish enough of for you.
We think especially of our younger cousins who, although are exposed more than we were to some degree of environmental education, are growing up in a world ever more detached from nature.
In Danum Valley we sensed the connection with eternity, that feeling of peace and humility you get when you take the time to sit by the sea and contemplate its vastness in silence, just breathing in the breeze, the salt and the sound of the waves against the sand. Here we had it by the cool river under centennial trees, and the difference was we knew the feeling was shared with millions of unseen individual forest inhabitants. They were there under rocks, on tall branches, behind our beds. A perfect temporary product of a never-ending evolutionary sequence, resulting in colors, shapes and habits we're only beginning to discover and will always have more to learn from and admire.
Here are some of the pictures =).

Welcome to Danum Valley: The king of the jungle watches us from a huge tree.

Welcome to Danum Valley: The king of the jungle watches us from a huge tree.

Cindy climbing down a forty meter ladder.

Cindy climbing down a forty meter ladder.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Snake

Snake

Ancient burial site at Danum Valley

Ancient burial site at Danum Valley

Pot in burial site

Pot in burial site

Red Langur

Red Langur

Whiskered treeswift

Whiskered treeswift

Cindy on scientist's bridge

Cindy on scientist's bridge

Leeches!!!!!!!!

Leeches!!!!!!!!

Posted by juan y Cindy 03:41 Archived in Malaysia Comments (3)

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