We spent our final 3 days of Nepal in the Kathmandu valley. Amid beauty, pollution, serenity and squalor. We have 3 other blog entries from our time around Pokhara that we would normally sequence first. But at risk of overwhelming with photos, I wanted to share with you some images of the beautiful side of Kathmandu before the quake hit. We know you’re seeing lots of the destroyed Kathmandu in the news.
Our trip back to Kathmandu from Pokhara was so much more pleasant than the trip to Pokhara. The sun was shining, we were again on the correct side of the bus for river viewing, and mostly, Jake wasn’t throwing up.
As you approach within 1 hour of Kathmandu from Pokhara you begin to climb out of the deep river valley. The sheer drops down to the river and the ubiquitous steep slopes take on new meaning now as rescue crews try to navigate to the outlying villages through landslides and instability.
Kathmandu suffers from high levels of pollution – especially air pollution.
We took the local buses around but they creep, amidst the crazy traffic. Face masks are a must, and we bought and wore them. I just couldn’t imagine commuting amidst this every day. But of course, you do what you need to do.
We spent our first few days of Nepal in the tourist Thamel area of Kathmandu. During these final three days we visited two of the cultural districts just east of Kathmandu – the Buddhist “stupa” (round temple) of Boudhanath and the ancient city of Bhaktapur.
Boudhanath is the largest Buddhist temple in Asia. It is simply awesome.
Built about 1500 years ago, it was traditionally a stopping point for traders coming to/from Lhasa in Tibet. It is still a very important Buddhist center. Buddhist monasteries surround the stupa and there are many educational workshops (meditation, thangka painting) for Buddhists and tourists alike. The monks are easily recognized by their maroon gowns with gold ornamentation. Most of them apparently are Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion/occupation who started arriving around 1959.
A number of music CD shops surround the stupa, and many of them pipe out the Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”. It became embedded in our consciousness. To help get in the spirit of Boudanath and Bhaktapur, click here to load the chant in the background while you read.
Boudhanath is a well known spot for “thangkas”. At a basic level, thangkas are phenomenally detailed paintings done on cotton by monks. But they represent much more than art. It takes anywhere from a week to a month of continuous work to complete one (sitting 8 or more hours per day) and this represents a form of meditation. Thangkas most often are done in one of two forms; the circle of life, and the circle of time. Both of these representations follow established forms, and represent many important Buddhist teachings. We went into one of the centers where Buddhists are trained in the art form, and saw the progression of talent from beginner to intermediate to advanced to master. We had no intention of making a purchase but were so taken with the stories and details represented that we bought one. The money goes to the school and monasteries for general use; the monk/artist receives nothing directly as a result of a sale and does not, in my understanding, do it as a commercial activity.
We really enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere of Boudhanath for a couple days. There were some fantastic roof-top cafe’s that overlooked the stupa, and we found some very cheap, tasty local eating spots.
Our guesthouse was on the higher side of our budget but accommodation is a premium here, with so much interest from monks and tourists.
I was happy to learn that the Boudhanath stupa itself survived the earthquake, and suffered only some cracks to the spire. The Buddha still looks out across Kathmandu. Buildings around the stupa were however heavily damaged.
We spent our last full day in Nepal in the ancient city of Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur was the capital of the kingdom of Nepal up to the 1500s and it represents the best preserved (until last week 😦 ) ancient architecture of Nepal. UNESCO designated the city as a world heritage site because of its buildings, wood and steel carvings and especially its temples.
Although the city is also popular for tourists, it is a fantastically alive, vibrant city of 300,000. We wandered the narrow streets, contemplated the temples, marveled at the carving, soaked in the music, enjoyed the momos, sipped coffee, and enjoyed the renowned Bhaktapur curd (yoghourt). Hopefully the photos below convey a sense of the city’s vibrancy.
Bhaktapur was breathtaking. But it was devastated in the earthquake. Apparently more than 50% of the buildings were destroyed. 80% of the many temples were destroyed. I don’t know the status of the temple 3 photos ago, but can guess. But I do know the status of the stone temple in the middle of my photo above. Look below.
I know many of these very sad before and after photos are surfacing in the media. We spent a few hours on our 2nd day in Nepal hanging out at Kathmandu’s Durbar square.
I take some comfort from knowing how strong Nepalis’ Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are. I read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my last week in Nepal and Kaia is reading now. We soaked in some of the Buddhist thoughts during our last several days in Nepal. They are compassionate people that will take care of each other. I saw the t-shirt below in one of the tourist shops that surrounded the Boudanath stupa.
I will leave you with my favorite photo from Nepal. This little girl came running out of her house to greet me as I was finishing my solo trek to Mardi Himal.
In case you hadn’t seen our update two entries back, we are now in Germany. We left the Kathmandu valley 6 days ago. The earthquake is so tragic – reminds us of Haiti, insofar as its emergency response capability is very limited at the best of times, and now much of it is damaged or destroyed. Most Nepalis live day to day, so the days ahead are difficult to imagine. We are also really sorry about the temples that were destroyed. We visited some of them last week and they are unique and majestic. Stay strong, Nepal. Nameste. Cam, Yvonne, Kaia & Jake
We arrived in Frankfurt Germany yesterday afternoon after 2 full-on days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi after leaving Nepal. We mastered Frankfurt’s very efficient train and bus system to travel a bit outside of town to a campground (even hostels cost about 90 Euro for the family! … campground was 25 Euro). Last night was a bit cold in the tent (5degC?) Today we will start the search for bicycles to purchase for the next two months of cycle touring, and hopefully the box of cycle equipment our friend Javier sent from Canada 6 weeks ago will arrive today (it was in Hamburg 2 days ago). Hoping to hit the road in a couple of days.
Lots of blogging ahead of us to catch up on the amazing time we had in Nepal. Please forgive the lull in entries. Our WordPress App updated itself 10 days ago and the new version is awful. I kept losing text and photos. And worse, believe it or not, Kaia lost another entire entry (remember her Hong Kong entry disappeared). So she had to start from scratch, yet again. After hours of searching around, I found a way to reinstall the older version and we’re back up and running again.
Anyone who knows me knows I love renewable energy, and especially love the promise of solar power. At home in Peterborough, we have 77 large panels installed on two roofs. I like looking at them. I like even more that they generate much more green energy than is used by the two houses, with the excess being sold to the electricity grid. And of course I like that they have been a good investment through the provisions of Ontario’s Green Energy Act. On this trip, I have always been on the lookout for how electricity is produced and to what extent renewables have been implemented.
There are a few things that are important to understanding Nepal’s electricity system.
1. Virtually 100% of the grid electricity is generated by abundant hydro power. Many rural areas are serviced by micro hydro generation that may or may not be connected to the main grid.
2. There is not enough grid electricity to supply the country’s fast growing demand (current capacity is 800MW, demand is 1400MW), so rolling blackouts (or “load shedding” as it is known here) are common throughout the country, including the two largest cities Kathmandu and Pokhara. We have experienced this every day we’ve been here.
3. Businesses, homes and institutions have installed small scale solar PV where they can afford it so they have at least some lighting during the regular blackouts. But most homes and many institutions have not been able to afford even these basic systems.
4. Nepal’s extremely rugged geography means that many of the remote areas are not serviced by the grid, and nor are they easily accessed for the transport of off grid solar components of panels and batteries.
Enter the Himalayan Light Foundation. HLF was founded about 20 years ago “to improve the quality of life of the remote population of the Himalayan and South Asia region via the introduction and use of environmentally friendly renewable energy technologies (RETs).” The organization uses very small scale solar technology to provide light and income opportunities to rural Nepal. In doing so it also reduces the health, environment and income setbacks of burning kerosene or wood for light. Many of the projects have partnered with local women’s groups. One of the HLF’s main forms of implementation is called Solar Sisters. This project “offers international traveler / philanthropists an incredible opportunity to visit some of the most remote and majestic sites in the world, live with indigenous communities, and promote environmental and social justice by sponsoring the installation of a solar energy system. “Solar Sisters” are men and women from across the globe, students and professionals, individuals, retired people and groups.
Project objectives include: – To offer solar energy to communities who could not otherwise afford electrical systems – To support the energy rights and roles of women and villagers whose limited financial resources results in oppression and voicelessness. – To fill the gap not covered by existing RET support programs which normally tend to reach the richer individuals. – To reach the poorest populations with these services. – To create harmony and understanding among the diverse and disparate peoples of the world by close and supportive, meaningful and immediate asistance. – To create an opportunity for international travelers, village residents to learn first hand about practical applications of solar electricity – To enable foreign volunteers to see South Asia in a more involved, useful and realistic level than simple tourism allows.
Typically, recipient organizations are schools, health centers, community centers and monasteries. They are paired with a donor/visitor according to system size (depth of donor pocket) and donor’s preferred area of travel.
So you can see why this caught my interest back in August when I was doing some planning for our Nepal leg of the journey. But I had difficulty finding contact info for HLF and emails I sent did not receive responses. Fast forward to 5 days before we arrived in Nepal. Remember my Hong Kong friend Mark? He was looking into expanding his business into Nepal and had made contact with a “fixer” guy in Kathmandu – the sort of person who knows lots of the right sorts of people and can make things happen. Mark put me in touch with this fellow and within a few hours I was in email conversation with Yadav Gurung, HLF’s Project Manager. We agreed to meet upon our arrival in Kathmandu which we did on the 1st morning. Yadav greeted us with a very warm smile, four symbolic red scarves, and we got right down to planning. Because we had not had time to plan ahead, he had only a small window of time open between two other installations, and this meant that we would not have time to travel/trek any great distance into a village like many donors like to do (In some instances the recipient villages were 8 days’ trek from the nearest road). He knew of a health center that had a very busy birthing center that was without electricity and lights most of the time. The village was a very rough 4 hr local bus ride from Pokhara (Nepal’s 2nd largest city) which itself was an 8 hr bus ride from Kathmandu. We wanted to use Pokhara as a base for trekking after the install, so this made good sense to us. We would miss out on the trek to the recipient village, but knew we’d have plenty of time for this later. The next day was spent (as Jake describes in the last post) getting organized and outfitted for the trekking while Yadav and his technician got the solar equipment together. We met the next morning at 7AM to get the “tourist” bus to Pokhara.
Yadav had booked our tickets and made sure we were sitting on the right side of the bus. Most of the trip is spent winding along beside several very scenic rivers. We must have passed at least 30 pedestrian suspension bridges over the river and hundreds of rice fields.
The journey was long but pleasant for 3 of us with two nice stops for food. Jake was less enthralled with the trip though because he threw up four times. He does struggle with car sickness but this experience was much worse than usual.
We were to head off to the village early the next morning. But Jake kept throwing up and we came to realize he hadn’t been car sick but instead had something more serious. He did not do well through the night. Yvonne had been sick the night before we left for Pokhara and her stomach was still off. Then Kaia threw up in the morning. Clearly they were not fit for a 4 hr bus ride on a crowded bumpy bus. Pushing the installation back wasn’t really an option because Yadav and technician Hira had to get back to Kathmandu in a couple days to start the next install. So we had to make the difficult and disappointing decision that only I would go to help with the install and the other three would try to catch up to us in the village if/when healthy. We had envisioned this as a family project.
Yadav, Hira and I got a taxi to the bus station early morning and were the only ones on the bus when it left. I remarked “Wow, we get our own private bus!”, but Yadav assured me that the bus would fill up.
It took about an hour to just get out of Pokhara, with the snarled traffic and many stops to pick up passengers. The seats were now full. We then made our way past Begnas Lake which is scenic and a popular spot for tourists wanting to get out of Pokhara.
Then the real journey began. Up up up we went, into the forest on an increasingly rough and rutted road. By this time the front cab area of the bus had 12 passengers including myself. The main seating area was full and the standing room aisle jammed too. This daily bus is the life line for the villagers as few own motorcycles and virtually none own cars.
We immediately walked the short distance over to the health center for introductions and orientation.
All in the group introduced themselves. Next to Yadav on the left is Dr. Dharmadhi, medical assistant Samjhang, widwife Namila, me, nurse Ranjana, and office helpers Tikaram and Narayan. They were pleased of course to be receiving the light system and explained their challenges of birthing by headlamp.
Our lunch was delayed so we immediately got to work. We assembled the panel mounting system and had the panel mounted on the third floor balcony before heading off to lunch.
Short lunch and right back to work. Hira had an incredible focus. He knew exactly what he was doing and did not stop moving. I helped but he was so competent and task oriented I felt like he must be just tolerating my help. But I know he has been given very clear direction from Yadav to allow the sponsor/volunteer to help wherever they want so they feel more ownership for the final result.
Once the panel was connected to the battery and the charge controller installed (the charge controller ensures that the battery does not overcharge, and shuts off the feed to the lights if the battery runs too low), we started stringing wires into the rooms for the lights. One light in the inpatient room (4 beds), 1 in the store room/pharmacy, 3 strategically placed in the birthing/procedure room, one in the outside verandah so arriving patients can find their way and 1 in each of the two initial intake/examination rooms.
During the afternoon an interesting challenge arose. The nursing staff & families live upstairs and of course live by the same intermittent power realities as the health center. At a personal level they were encouraged by the solar installation because they hoped we would electrify their apartments. But it is HLF’s policy not to provide lighting to personal accommodations because invariably they would become charging stations for all village mobile phones and this, with the additional lighting loads can overload the system and compromise the core function of birthing center lighting. But Yadav explained to me that in this culture you can’t really say “no” to such requests. Instead he told the staff that he would try to meet their requests but only after the core functions had been taken care of. Sure enough, when we’d finished the system we’d installed 8 lights and had two bulbs left over for replacement, so he apologized for not being able to accommodate their wish. In Canada, with two more bulbs, we would have installed another two sockets/switches to max out the lighting. But here, with the LED bulbs being so expensive and hard to procure, HLF has realized that they must leave some extras. Burned out bulbs are not likely to get replaced.
I explored the health center while the installation was in progress and was quite saddened by the facilities. Overall, things were in a very run down state of affairs. Clearly, health care dollars in these rural locations are limited, and the staff here are stretching to provide the best care they can in difficult circumstances. The birthing room was really nothing more than two beds (one for examination, one for delivery) …. I did not see any intervention equipment in sight. Similarly, the pharmacy appeared to my untrained eye to be stocked with only the most basic sorts of things: vitamin boosters, stomach antacids, pain killers and antibiotics. And one that rather surprised and amused me … look carefully at the label below!
We (OK, 90% Hira, with us helping by handing him things and moving the desk that served as the ladder) finished the installation in the fading daylight using a headlamp.
So, we test the system and …. voila 8 new bulbs light up 6 different rooms. Applause went up all around, and then I had the team pose for a few photos.
Doctor Dharmadhi gave me a passionate thank you, and we then went to the (unlit) meeting room upstairs to enjoy some food and drink together. This was a lovely feeling to sit with these folks. Of course I felt happy that my family could help in this small way. But I was humbled and overwhelmed by the need here, and felt it simply the least our family could do to help. Especially in light of the fact we are jetting around the world this year with beautiful medical insurance!
I went to bed with a very full belly after another round of dal bhat and learned before retiring that Yvonne and the kids, while mostly recovered, would not be making the trip to see the health center and solar install. There is only one bus per day (early morning) and the install was finished. So they would spend 4 hrs on the bus, have 2 hrs to look around, then board the one afternoon bus for a 4 hr return trip. Yadav and Hira would have already left. So sadly, I realized that my family would not really be a part of this project. Perhaps on a return trip to Nepal?
We returned to the clinic early next morning to meet with the area’s head Doctor (Soti) who had been at a TB workshop the previous day (TB is still a problem in Nepal). He too expressed gratitude and signed the official HLF document to verify the install.
We noted in the HLF office in Kathmandu that many of the hundreds of solar installs over the past 2 decades had been indicated on a country map. And there was a book of photos. But I remarked to Yadav that it would be excellent to have a little GIS map page on their website to geo-reference all the installs where prospective donors/visitors could pull up project photos and descriptions by clicking on the recipient villages. He said this was on their wish list but they did not have a budget to implement it. When back home, I hope to connect with the GIS program at Sanford Flemming College in Peterborough to find a student who could do this as a course project.
The Himalayan Light Foundation does important and innovative work. Those who want to help but can’t make their way to Nepal can donate directly to support all or part of a new install. Yadav is very committed to this work. He has been at the helm for about 20 years and before that was very involved in community based reforestation work. Thank you, Yadav. I really hope my family can do another install some day and go back to Rambazaar to meet the health team again and see the simple wonder of solar technology at work.
This is the 100th blog entry from our travels this year and we are pausing, electronically and physically, to reflect on our travels. We’ve been traveling for 7.5 months, visited 14 countries, and gotten over 8000 views on the blog. We’re enjoying some rare slowed down time here in Pokhara and thinking about upcoming entries.
We’re hoping that our regular readers might take a few seconds to click through the poll questions below to give us some feedback on our blog. We work hard on our entries, and they are mostly for our own memories, but we do try to make them accessible to family, friends and others interested. Your responses to the survey questions are anonymous and appreciated. Can’t promise any specific changes but we’ll certainly consider your feedback. Thanks from all four of us!
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We’re now back in Pokhara, Nepal after 10 days out on the Annapurna Base Camp (“Sanctuary”) trek. Wow! It will be hard to choose the photos for that blog entry!
Mark Garvie was a good buddy of mine back in my University of Waterloo Systems Design Engineering days. He is a Sarnia boy with a booming voice, thunderous laugh, great smile, big heart, and very flexible right arm that allows him to imbibe alcohol at rates that would tear lesser folks’ elbow tendons. We were athletic colleagues too, on the class “boatracing” team. If you don’t know what engineering society boatracing is, I’ll leave it to you to look it up on google. But Mark was our very valued anchor man that helped take us to many final matches. Mark never lost this “athletic” prowess as the years progressed after graduation, and this was made clear to me when we visited the Garvie family in Hong Kong.
Mark married university sweetheart Krista Bulman from Brighton, ON and not long after (1997) opened an Asia office in Hong Kong for IT consulting firm Cap Gemini. Soon after they began building their family with Fenton, Shivahn and Shea who are now 15, 13 and 10. The family has been there long enough now to be officially known as “Honkies”.
Mark and Krista would often come back for Christmas and/or summer and our UWaterloo gang would get together.
Mark and Krista bought Krista’s grandmother’s farm near Brighton and now use it as their base for summer visiting. Krista and kids come for the whole summer, Mark for one month. We’ve enjoyed visiting them in such close proximity, and have so often remarked that we’d never seen their Hong Kong digs. It was because they are there that we put Hong Kong on our itinerary this year.
Mark moved on from Cap Gemini to open a Hong Kong office of an “off the shelf” legal products company (Legal Studio) then opened the Asia office of the French company Oberthur, which puts security electronic chips in bank/credit cards and any other place that makes sense. He’s a busy guy traveling, with offices in Philippines, China, India, Australia and Indonesia reporting to him. But fortunately for us, he was around during our week-long visit.
Krista runs her own “Stretch and Grow” business where she or her employees conduct on-the-spot fitness/movement classes for primary schools. She is also the family investment specialist and has made some savvy choices in residence location.
The Garvie kids all attend HK’s Chinese International School. Their classmates are a mix of Asians, Asian-Canadian/Americans and a few with both parents from abroad. Most of the school’s grade 9 year goes to a sister facility some distance away in mainland China for the year – that’s where Fenton is this year. All three kids are fluent in written and spoken Mandarin (and can get by nicely in HK Cantonese), which REALLY impressed us, given the completely different sounds and alphabet involved.
All three kids are up to their eyeballs in sports, which also partially surprised me. Fenton plays hockey at a high level, Shea plays on two teams – one as a goalie and one as a skater. They play softball and basketball and Shea is REALLY into parkour (very cool emerging sport … look it up). Shivahn won player of the year on her rugby team (awarded while we were there) and plays netball and soccer. The sports fields/rinks are scattered over HK, so you can imagine how busy Mark and Krista are with shuttling.
The Garvies took amazing care of us. Krista met us at the airport on the very far side of HK and was our tour guide extraordinaire all week. – Kaia will share some of our HK touring highlights in an upcoming entry. Krista’s 18 yrs in HK give her a great perspective on culture, economics and in particular the changes unfolding in Hong Kong since the changeover to Chinese control in 1997. Krista and their live-in Filipino helper Caren kept us fed with food we’d been craving all year; lasagna, smoked salmon, tacos, curry, good cereal, bacon and eggs, and fresh green salads of all sorts. Mark handed me a Molson Canadian beer upon arrival, took me to his hockey game, fed me beer & whiskey all week, and told many stories of HK and Asian life in general.
Mark and Krista used to live beside the ocean in the HK town of Stanley but 6 years ago moved to near Sai Kung and live high up on Razor Hill. They have a 1.5 storey flat with a fantastic terrace that gives views to the city and up to the mountain. But we visited during the cloudy month of the year and only twice during our stay could we see more than 100m from their place due to the cloud/mist (and smog?).
I was happy to head to Mark’s weekly hockey game on Wednesday night. There are a half-dozen rinks in HK – Mark plays on the rink on the 10th floor of the MegaBox office/shopping complex. Taking an elevator up 10 floors to a rink is a new experience for me.
Like me, Mark started playing hockey only 4 years ago. But anyone who knows Mark knows he is a fierce competitor (I told you about boatracing already). The Huskies needed a win that night to advance to the playoffs, and the team was a bit tense before the game. There are announcers for the league, and the very first announcement during the game was “Huskies first goal, scored by number 9, Mark Garvie” !! Mark lobbed a high shot that bounced off the goalie’s neck and into the net. Atta boy, Mark! Huskies won 4-2, so the atmosphere around the post game beer in the stands was pretty euphoric. The Huskies are best known for their post-game performances (read “drinking”) and other teams’ players joined us. We drank through the next two games as Mark and buddies recounted the nuances of their victory, we watched them cover the rink for the night (keep in mind it is 25-30 degC in HK) and ended up finishing the beer on the sidewalk in front of the complex after it had closed. It was fun to connect with various Canadians who had transported their lives and families to HK. A few were teaching at International schools, there was a pilot and several other business folks.
Mark and Krista have invested (as partners among others) in a couple of food/drink enterprises and they took us out for dinner/drinks and dancing the last night while the four kids went to a movie and had pizza. Mark was turning 50 in a couple week’s time and apparently is very hard to surprise, so Krista organized a birthday do well in advance, and to coincide with our visit. Their “Shores” restaurant is downtown HK on the 3rd floor and we started with drinks on the terrace. Even though we’d been there for a week already, I was still gawking at the crazy high towers rising at every point around me. We then moved inside for dinner, and what a dinner it was! Yvonne noted in her International Water Day blog entry that meat (especially beef) takes vast quantities of water to produce. But Shores specializes in steak. The manager is Canadian and the beef is from Alberta – really! So we set aside all “sustainability” thoughts for the evening and split two cuts between the four of us. The entire meal was without a doubt our best meal of the trip so far, and the Tomahawk steak (that’s actually what it’s called on the menu … see photo below if you’re not sure why) was the best piece of meat I have ever tasted. Thanks for dinner, M&K!
Krista had timed things perfectly so that when we returned to the patio for more drinks there was a cadre of Mark’s friends awaiting with a big hoot of “surprise”! And he was. I recognized a few from the hockey team and met many other fascinating types doing all sorts of things, including transplanted Canadian, Mark Daly, who runs a legal firm that specializes in Human Rights. He handles some of the most high profile cases where citizens had been prosecuted for standing up for democratic rights against the new HK (mainland China) government. He actually now fears travel to mainland China because of the cases he has worked on.
From the party at Shores we walked down to the main nightlife street where Mark and Krista’s Typhoon bar was located. It was a Saturday night and at 1:30AM the bars were still hopping.
We closed their place down then walked a few blocks to find the night scene still in FULL swing. At one dance bar one live band finished up and another came on to start their set … at 3:30AM! Mark is known to keep his Canadian guests out till breakfast but Krista kept us all in line and had us home for 4:30 or so … which for Yvonne and me was about 8 hrs later than our usual travel routine of 8PM (with uncomfortable beds, overheating and lots of very early morning noise you have to log more hours).
Mark drove us to the airport for our Kathmandu flight.
Hong Kong had been a wonderful contrast to our experiences in rural Indonesia and Philippines. But I can’t imagine visiting HK as a tourist arriving “cold” from the airport. It is a complex, vast, fast moving and at times expensive place. Thanks Mark and Krista for being such great hosts, and thanks Shivahn and Shea for giving Kaia and Jake a chance to get away from their parents for a few hours!
We are in Pokhara, Nepal right now and will be heading out trekking tomorrow morning. We’re doing the rather straight forward “Poon Hill” trek (5 days) and if all is going well we’ll extend to the Annapurna Base camp in the “Annapurna Sanctuary” area. We have 2 guides and 10 porters hired to help us with our Annapurna summit (8091m) attempt. We picked up some extra socks and packed some extra coffee, because we understand that this can be quite a difficult climb and the weather can be sketchy at this time of year. If we are successful we’ll be the first Canadian family of 4 to summit Annapurna. Oh .. Yvonne’s calling out … a change of plans … apparently as of 2012 191 climbers had successfully submitted Annapurna while 61 died trying. With a family of 4, the odds aren’t perfect for us. So I think we’ll just turn around at the base camp 😉 OK, how many of you were still with me? Actually we have hired just one guide and our high point would will be 4100m which hopefully will be manageable. We were a bit higher in the Andes but had much more time to acclimatize to the altitude. So, we”ll be offline for a while … don’t worry if you don’t hear from us. We’ll have some Hong Kong entries ready when we get back. I am really excited … have dreamed of this for many years.
Another long travel day awaited us in our journey from Whitebeach to our next destination of Sablayan. I had been fascinated the night before with the dueling Ladyboy shows that Jake described, but otherwise was anxious to leave the overdeveloped and tacky feeling Whitebeach. We were still hoping to head out to the highly touted Apo reef for one last hurrah of diving. But it really seems that from anywhere to anywhere in the Philippines is far. The overloaded tricycle habit continued as we made our way to board the boat at Balatero cove.
I really didn’t think it wise to try to put all us and our stuff on one trike but the driver insisted. I was sure we’d blow a tire or worse. The Canadian in me worries that short term financial imperative overrides good long term business thinking.
But … he got his 4 fares with his trike intact. He knows best.
After a rather perilous disembarkation from the boat (in high seas, dodgy gangway, 15 ft above the water) at Abra de Ilog we were rushed onto a bus that sped its way 2hrs south along the coast to the town of Sablayan. The road was covered in drying corn and rice – so much that we were swerving violently side to side. But it all works out. We got talking on the bus to Christo from Belgium who had a great approach to travelling … moving slowly, staying with families wherever possible. He had a wonderful way about him and we ended up spending the next 3 days together.
Sablayan had a refreshingly authentic feel to it, especially after having come from the touristy Sabang and Whitebeach. Not another tourist it sight here. It did have a modest “ecotourism” office that connected us with two Apo Reef dive operators and we immediately headed off to “Gustav’s Place” to see what we could do. Gustav is off the beaten path … really off the path. We left our bags at the tourism office and grabbed a trike down one twisty gravel road after another, ending at a river. On the other side of the river was a welcome sign for “Gustav’s Place”. OK, so we needed to take a boat to cross. Gustav’s Place had some bungalows and was otherwise very understated, as was Austrian Gustav himself. His boat going out the next day to the reef was full with divers, but we negotiated to be taken along as snorkellers then dropped on Apo island to camp for the night. He would send his boat out the next day with our diving gear and a dive master. Sounded pretty good! Expensive, but good.
Apo reef is the second largest continuous reef in the world (after the Great Barrier reef) and is located about 30km out to sea from Sablayan. The core area is 34km square in area. It was protected in a National Park back in the 1980s but fishing continued. In 2007 the boundaries were expanded, a buffer zone was put in place and fishing (including the destructive dynamite fishing) was stopped within park limits. Divers were then courted to provide income for locals – especially the displaced fishermen. It is known for fantastic biodiversity, including huge schools of pelagic fish, sharks, turtles and manta rays. We were really excited!
We rushed back to town and headed straight to the local market to get food for our overnight outing on the island. Christo offered to work up a curry; we didn’t argue. Veggies and rice bought for dinner, eggs, onions and cheese for breakfast omelettes.
Back to fetch kids and bags at tourism office then back to Gustav’s Place. Unfortunately his boatman had his earphones in grooving to some tunes so we had to work pretty hard to find a boat to cross the river this time. Some 10yr old girls found one and got us across. We squished into a tiny bungalow with Kaia and Jake on thermarests on the floor.
Something I’d eaten didn’t agree with me that night … I hardly slept a wink. And we slept in for our early morning (6:30) boat departure. We’d hoped to leave half our stuff behind … that wasn’t to be after sleeping in so we threw all our bags into the boat and away we went.
Two and a half hours later we arrived at the first dive site on the reef. We donned our snorkelling gear as the divers set out. Snorkelling was a bit of a bust as we were in at least 8m of water. The second site was better though .. we saw schools of huge bump headed parrot fish ( 2-3 ft long) and some lovely turtles.
Lunch was enjoyed under a thatched roof on Apo Island. The island is small .. maybe 500m x 200m. Great lunch, shared with the dive clients. We then had the afternoon to explore, snorkel, swim and otherwise chill. This was ocean paradise.
We had just enough time after dinner for a trip up the island’s light tower to catch the sunset.
I slept soooo well that night after my horrible previous night and the fact that there were no car/kareoke/dueling ladyboys/rooster noises – just the lap of the sea. We had time for a leisurely breakfast before the boat/dive crew appeared off the horizon to meet us.
The diving at Apo was phenomenal! On all three dive locations we descended to the ocean floor then made our way to the “dropoff” (yes, Marlin .. the dropoff!). The 15m deep floor ends abruptly and you look down into deep blue nothingness.
It was so thick with fish .. of every shape, size and colour. It’s impossible to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by such vibrant beauty in such a quiet, peaceful place. You want to call out your amazement to the other divers but can use only your wide open eyes to communicate. The photos here come nowhere close to capturing the visuals … but they at least remind us.
The coral was in such great shape here, so there were infinite little things to gaze upon in the nooks and crannies. Colours fantastic. Every now and again Albert would tap is metal pointer stick on his tank to get our attention, to point out sharks, turtles, jack fish, Napoleon fish etc etc. It was all quite overwhelming.
Perhaps that’s why I ran through my air so quickly. I am always the first in our family out of air. I am relaxed in the water, and try to breathe slowly. But clearly I am doing something different. We all start with about 200-220 “bars” of pressure. When you get to 50 bars you need to be near 5m of depth so you can do your 3 minute “safety stop” at that depth (to prevent nitrogen release into the blood) and still reach surface with a reasonable amount of air left. I would hit 50 bars around 35-40 minutes while Kaia, Jake and Yvonne would still be at 120-150!! At Sabang we all came up when I ran low on air, which meant the other 3 were cut short in a way. I am the week link! I asked Albert if I could do my safety stop and surfacing on my own and he said that would be OK. So he pointed me in the direction where the coral rises and I made my way up to 5m. As I was waiting my 3 minutes I came across a large school of large bumphead parrotfish that were more or less indifferent to me. They are huge, and a bright blue/green colour.
I have to say it was lovely to be alone in the sea like that and have these giant fish to myself. Clearly there is safety in numbers/buddies. But I was only 5m from surface and knew I could easily reach the surface in one breath. I just hovered with only fish moving around, and only the sound of my own bubbles. Ahhhh..
I surfaced and hailed the boat over for a pickup, then waited about 20 minutes for the others to surface (they stay down for about an hour, air permitting).
You need “surface time” between dives to ensure nitrogen levels are down before starting the next dive. So we relax/snack on the boat while the crew changes our tanks over and the captain maneuvers to a different part of the reef.
I had a plan for staying down longer on the final 2 dives of the day (3 total). All divers have secondary (breathing) regulators attached. It can be used if the primary fails. But mostly it is to be used by your “buddy” if they run out of air – “buddy breathing”. This is supposed to be done in emergencies only, but I asked Albert if I could buddy breathe from one of the kids when I run low so I can stay down for the full dive. He said that would be OK. So down we went on 2nd dive, this time with current, ,so we descended the anchor chain then headed “up current” to this second reef dropoff. Equally enthralling!Sharks were cruising by in the deep the schools of fish surrounded us.
True to expectations I ran out of air much before anyone else. So I linked arms with Kaia (the hoses are short) and took my regulator out and put her secondary in. Though we practiced this in our training, it is still unnerving as a new diver to take your regulator out when you are 18m down. But all was fine and away we went together. Thanks for the air, Kaia! Together we lasted the full hour which was a nice change for me.
Lunch was taken onshore again and we had time to explore the island a bit more.
Third dive after lunch was equally sublime. This time I buddy breathed Kaia down to 70 bars so then set off to mooch from Jake who helped me get through to the full hour. I knew there was a good reason to get my kids certified for scuba!
And so ended the diving on our year adventure. Kaia was so right on an earlier blog entry where she noted that our diving experience has given us new appreciation of what’s at stake in our oceans – an emotional attachment if you will. It is stunning, precious.
Apo reef marks the northern tip of the “coral triangle” which stretches through the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Coral experts describe it as the epicenter of marine biodiversity and it “seeds” reefs and fish through the Pacific & Indian oceans. Coral reefs cover just 1% of the ocean floor but harbour over 25% of the oceans fish. A heathy square km of coral reef can provide over 40 tonnes of food. It has been noted by marine biologists many times over that “as the corals go, so goes the ocean, and so goes the world”. If we can’t protect the coral, the ocean is in a dire position. Ocean and terrestrial die backs are historically linked to vanishing coral. It is now well known that our coral reefs are in trouble. Over fishing, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, pollution, sedimentation and climate change are taking their toll. In the Philippines and Indonesia only 5% of reefs are identified as being in good condition. It is with this knowledge that these countries have been setting aside marine protected areas (MPA) like the Apo reef. The Philippines leads the charge, with 500 MPAs. Encouraging is the fact that many if not most of these MPAs, including the Apo reef, are the work of local communities/governments. Discouraging is the underfunding of the management programs; one estimate has only 1/5 of the MPAs possessing sufficient resources to actually protect. The rest are “paper parks”. Further complicating protection is foreign fishing. Chinese and Vietnamese boats have been found with enormous numbers of endangered turtles aboard, to say nothing about the actual fish.
Since full protection of Apo was put in place in 2007 (and corresponding opening of the ecotourism office and alternative livelihoods program), the reef has shown some very promising signs of recovery. And the MPA financing means for Apo are unique. Almost all the management funds come from an initiative of regional Cebu Pacific Airlines where fliers are encouraged to donate to the Apo reef MPA as a means for offsetting the (climate change) damage of their flights. Have a look at https://www.cebupacificair.com/WWFBrightSkies/index.html
I wish we had known this when we flew with Cebu Pacific twice …. but we didn’t see anything.
Here are the words of WWF Philippines president Jose Lorenzo Tan: “In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense. Our work in Apo Reef and other protected areas focus on more than just biodiversity conservation: should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine resilience will provide the building blocks needed to restore natural mechanisms which provide food and livelihood for millions of people. This is a natural investment.”
Where will our next dives be? Hard to say. But we’d all like to rent for a dive on Kennisis lake at the family cottage this summer.
We were all lost in thought as we made the return trip to shore, arriving at sunset.
We had a couple more days before needing to get to Manila for our flight out so took some time to lay low and explore Sablayan. We enjoyed the always vibrant markets, delicious (but repetitive) road side food stalls otherwise roamed around.
The kids were really a novelty here. Philippines is not a huge family destination, and most of those that do come end up at resorts. Eyes lit up when they spied the blondies and often pictures were requested. But it was done with grace so K&J didn’t mind too much.
Christo spent a day at Sablayan’s 2nd biggest tourist draw – the large prison just outside town. Really! You go part way into the prison security and chat with prisoners and maybe buy some of the crafts they make. It is a garden-prison – the inmates have to largely feed themselves. Although the Lonely Planet says you can only meet with the low and medium security prisoners, Christo had some very moving conversations with two 2nd degree murder inmates. We considered going, but the kids weren’t super enthused and kids can’t really get past the gate so we left that experience to Christo’s stories.
On our final day Kaia and I made our way about an hour out of town and climbed to the Mindoro Pines. I had arranged a guide but he did not make the bus on time so I thought we’d do it alone, but he found a friend to zoom him out behind the bus on his motorcycle so we had guidance … two of them as it turns out. The hike starts out at a Mangyan village. The Mangyan are Mindoro’s indigenous peoples and are known as the indigenous group with the best preserved culture in the Philippines. This despite continued interference and persecution by just about every group that has since occupied the island. Remote Mangyan villages are still very traditional (including non western clothing) but those like the one we passed through have partly embraced new ways, including the use of cell phones.
Kaia and I were glad to stretch our legs, even though this wasn’t a particularly memorable hike. Jake wanted to stay back at the hostel to work on his blog and Yvonne was happy to have a down day. After we left however, they had a visit at the hostel from “Bert” who we’d met the day before. Bert used to live and work in Brampton and has 8 children all over the world, including one in Mississauga. He really liked Canada but his wife insisted that they return to the Philippines. Bert invited Yvonne and Jake to lunch at their house his wife and cook put on a great spread of Filipino food and shared stories of their globetrotting children and their time in Canada.
We caught a bus 2hrs south from Sablayan later that afternoon, to the city of San Jose. I had a major boil at an inopportune place at the top of my leg that pretty much prevented me from sitting down and I couldn’t get my head around the 10-12 hr bus/ferry ride north to Manila. We could catch a short flight from San Jose instead. San Jose was absolutely bustling that evening and we savoured our last street-side dinner and tricycle rides in the Philippines. We were airborne for Manila by 9 AM next morning and lifted off for Hong Kong later that afternoon. Philippines had offered up some rich experiences. People were welcoming always. We loved the tricycle as a means of transport. I would LOVE to make one back home as a car alternative (groceries, running the kids around). Can you imagine the look on the cop’s face as I drive by?
Looking back, I think we could have done better with our planning. 2 weeks is really short in the vast array of large Philippine islands so for this time frame we would be better to have looked for just one island – maybe Palawan – with a multitude of experiences. I do wish we’d been able to visit the villages in north Luzon with the spectacular rice paddies. I’ll throw a net photo in in case you haven’t see the visuals before.