Sunday, June 26, 2016

Of Diving, Faith, and Everything Else in Between

I have been on a hiatus for quite awhile and this is not because of the usual work-related toxicity that I would always complain of. Three weeks ago, my mother underwent major surgery for what we initially thought was just an ordinary, nothing-to-worry-about ovarian cyst. Little did we know that her case was advanced already, subjecting her to a longer, more complicated surgery under the good hands of Dr. Jay Arnold Famador, a gynecologic oncologist at the Makati Medical Center. The operation, which originally would only take about two hours had it been just a total abdominal hysterectomy by my OB-Gyne, Dr. Marinette Sto. Domingo, lasted for a grueling six hours. Six bloody freakin' hours of not knowing what was happening inside the delivery room--the longest six hours of my life. At that time, I could only pray hardest (or shall I say beg? plead?) and let all my tears run dry. For years and years, I haven't cried buckets like I did during that time. My tears won't stop; my chest as if about to explode with a melange of emotions. The pain was just too excruciating for me that I was so speechless and numb. We then stayed another five days at the hospital and everything went fast and busy that I don't even know how was I able to cope up. Well, I guess God gave me all the strength, right? I knew he was beside me all the time, no doubt.

These things happened amidst my PADI Open Water certification course with no less than Sir Bell Cruzet, a PADI IDC Staff Instructor who has been diving for over 20 years now. Sir Bell is very good friend of my friend, Susan Lara (of Arts of Asia fame), who convinced me to take the course after showing me the photos of their dive trip in the Maldives. I will forever be thankful to Ma'am Susan for introducing me to diving, and to Sir Bell for patiently guiding me all the way until the end of the course.

The Course
As you may know, the entry-level PADI Open Water certification course consists of a series of lectures to understand basic principles of scuba diving, confined water dives (usually in a pool) to learn basic scuba skills, and lastly, open water dives to use your skills. We did most of the lectures in Makati City for two nights, the contained water dives in Tali Beach, and finally the checkout dives in Anilao, Batangas. During the contained and open water dives, we were taught some skills that would be helpful in case of problems underwater. It is very important that you master these skills for your own safety and survival. After all, scuba diving is not just all about fun and recreation--you'll never know when things will go wrong. There's a final written exam in the end to assess if you understand all these principles. Should you pass all these, you will be conferred your PADI Open Water certification, which will enable you to dive into a maximum depth of 18 meters or 60 feet.

Checkout Dives in Casa Bahia Dive Camp
Sir Bell arranged for a weekend dive at the Casa Bahia Dive Camp, a homey lodging and dive operator in Anilao. The property is just a stone’s throw away from Arthur’s and Koala dive sites, and a short boat ride away from the iconic Cathedral dive site.

Casa Bahia Dive Camp
Casa Bahia Dive Camp features cozy and tastefully designed rooms, as well as open spaces perfect for lounging after a day out in the sea. The rooms are spacious and can comfortably fit up to three people. The bathrooms have hot and cold shower, as well as basic bath amenities and clean towels. There's also a safety deposit box for your valuables. I must say the property is well-maintained and staff are all friendly and efficient. Payments can be by cash or credit card, although the latter requires an additional surcharge and the signal can be intermittent at times.

The room
The bathroom
Dive packages at Casa Bahia Dive Camp usually come with full board meals prepared by the in-house cook. All our meals here were hearty, some sinful. =) The dining area commands beautiful views of the sea as well as the nearby islands of Tingloy and Sombrero. At dusk, sunset can be best viewed from here or from the roof deck.

Charming accents at the dining room
Glass windows wrap the dining room
The Dives
For the weekend, we were required to do two dives per day. To kickstart the day, we set up our gears on our own and with direct supervision from Sir Bell. It is important to know how to properly set up your tank, BCD (buoyancy control device), and regulator so you'll be able to check if everything is working properly before you take the plunge.

Next was an orientation of which dive sites we would be exploring as well as what exercises we would do underwater. For the first day, we went to Layag-Layag and Koala dive sites. Anilao has a plethora of dive sites to choose from, be it for beginners or advanced divers.

After lunch, out we went to our first stop, the Layag-Layag dive site just a short boat ride away from Casa Bahia Dive Camp. We were supposed to go to Caban dive site but the waves were unforgiving, and so Sir Bell decided to take us to the former instead. Layag-Layag is perfect for beginner and experienced divers alike as it features an extensive shallow area of scattered big boulders, rocks and widespread of coral formations teeming with marine life.

We were told to gear up and do the backroll entry, which I was so skeptical to do at first. I have fear of heights and  imagining myself falling even from minimal heights gives me butterflies in the stomach. But heck, I have to do it because there's no other way I can enter the water without doing the bloody backroll. My first attempt was wrong, as I was full of hesitation that halfway through the backroll I held onto one of the boats pillars. My instructor said never to do that again as I nearly hit my head. Doing the backroll requires you to let go...of your fears; of everything you are holding on to. Just like what I realized when we I got to accept that mom has the big C--I offered everything to God and let go of all my fears.

Sombrero Island from afar
Our next stop was a dive site named Koala. Again, we were asked to do the backroll and while this time I did it better than the first, I still feel the fear lurching in my tummy. I have to get over this, I told myself.

We then descended through a reference line, making sure to equalize as we go deeper. The views underwater were surreal; it made me forget all the negativities of the past weeks at least for awhile. Breathing my first breathe through the regulator while under the clear seawaters is such an experience that I will forever remember. It's amazing! We swam ahead and saw beautiful corals and rich marine life. Each frame in front of my defogged mask is "Instagrammable" if I may say so.

Sir Bell Cruzet, one of the pioneer dive instructors in the country
Tin, Aween, and Mica


Add caption

Koala from Matet Garcia Reyes on Vimeo.

On our second day, we went to the iconic dive site, Cathedral (also known as Cathedral Marine Park Sanctuary), a marine sanctuary swarming with different kinds of underwater life, and the Classroom where we were supposed to finish the exercises to complete our certification course.

The Cathedral is perhaps the best site we've visited that weekend. It features a giant rock formation that looks like a roofless underwater dome and between the two is a small cross. planted at 50 feet by former Philippine President Fidel Ramos in 1983 and blessed by Pope John Paul II. Again, we were told to do the backroll here in order to enter the water. I was more relaxed, albeit still a bit scared, this time. There's still that fear of falling into God-knows-how-deep-water, but slowly, I must get the hang of it. I just need to learn how to effortlessly let go.

Fish feeding at the Cathedral is awesome so make sure to bring some bread or crackers with you. Don't forget your underwater camera, too!

Hey, Pong!

Do not touch the fire corals!

Cathedral from Matet Garcia Reyes on Vimeo.

Capping our dive weekend was a visit to what they call the "Classroom", a dive site that is perfectly conducive for scuba diving exercises.

Diving taught me a lot of things including discipline and managing my fears. You have to listen to your instructor and practice what you've learned, paying attention to even the simplest safety measures he'd teach. No matter how experienced a diver you are, you still need to double, triple check everything before going underwater. Also, I've learned that the more you hesitate, the more you'll be in danger. Just follow rules and let go. You are in for a fun and relaxing activity underwater; recreational diving was not designed to give you anxiety. Just like in life, the golden rule in diving is that you breathe slowly, deeply, and continuously.

So here I am, letting go and lifting everything to God, positive that he has good plans for mommy and claiming that he'll guide us along the way in this difficult journey. Just like diving, I take it slowly, one breathe at a time.

'Til our next dive!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Treasures of Taytay, Palawan

Isla Blanca
The Dalai Lama said, "once a year, go someplace you've never been before," and I couldn't agree more. How exciting it is to go somewhere new each and every year. More than that, how fulfilling it is to immerse in a different culture; to meet new people along the way; and to delight in the untouched, wonderful gifts of nature. This quote inspired me to travel often and explore the country and its many hidden corners. While others are going gaga over the more popular destinations, I try to find peace in unadulterated islands or coves; in roads less-traveled. This year, one of the destinations I've set foot on was Taytay in Northern Palawan.

Once the capital of Palawan (then called Calamianes during the Spanish times), Taytay played witness to the Philippines' historic past in this side of the archipelago. One of the legendary sites in this town is the Fuerza de Santa Isabel, a military station used to defend against Muslim warriors. Built in 1667 under under the Augustinian Recollect Fathers and named in honor of Spain's Queen Isabela II in the 19th century, this famous relic was completed in 1738. To date, the fort's small chapel and cannons are still intact.

Taytay's seascapes is as rich as its history. Dotted by a number of islands and marine sanctuaries, the town is indeed a diving and snorkeling haven.

How to go to Taytay:
While Taytay has an airport, exclusive commercial flights operated by Island Transvoyager, Inc or ITI (now AirSWIFT) ceased to fly this route. However, the fastest way to get to Taytay is still via a direct flight from Manila to El Nido (also operated by AirSWIFT; semi-exclusive to El Nido Resorts' guests) and from there, take about an hour drive to Taytay. The deep-pocketed may charter a plane, helicopter or seaplane, which will directly bring you to Taytay, or in heli's and seaplane's case, to the island resort of your choice.

Meanwhile, for those who aren't blessed with a deep pocket like me, the cheapest way to go to Taytay is via a flight to Puerto Princesa and about four hours land travel to Taytay. There are regular van shuttles and buses that ply the Puerto Princesa-Taytay route. If you are a group, you might also consider hiring a van so you save more time. You may opt to stay in town or in one of the islands, in which case you would need to arrange for your boat transfers. Most of the island resorts offer regular boat and speed boat transfers.

Where to Stay in Taytay:
While Casa Rosa is arguably the most popular, there are other accommodations available in town. Together with the Team Snorkeling, we stayed at Pems Pension and Restaurant. It's a good choice actually since the family-owned and -managed property lies at the heart of the town, just a few steps away from the Fuerza de Santa Isabel. Compared to Casa Rosa, the rates are cheaper and the location is easier to access since the former is nestled atop a cliff and would require "leg power" going up and down.

Pems Pension and Restaurant is run by Chan Lee Deluna, who shares with us that his family used to be in the furniture business, thus, one would see beautifully crafted wooden furniture all around the property--from the reception to the restaurant and the cozy rooms. There are fan-cooled and air-conditioned rooms, both fairly priced and relatively cheaper than Casa Rosa. Rates of the air-conditioned rooms include a generous serving of plated breakfast.

The single-detached rooms are clean and well-maintained that imbibe a warm ambiance with its lighting and rich-colored furniture. The bathrooms are tiled and tidy, albeit there are no water heaters. Each room has its own veranda that looks out to the charming Fuerza de Santa Isabel. At night, the view is beautiful with glowing lampposts as if reliving the events of its glorious past.

Pems Pension and Restaurant's reception area

The main restaurant
Al fresco dining
The single-detached rooms
2-in-1 room (can be fan-cooled or air-conditioned, good for 2 pax)
The air-conditioned room good for 3 pax
The bathroom of the air-conditioned room
A view of Fuerza de Santa Isabel from our veranda
Breakfast is served
What to do in Taytay:
Visit the Lake Danao 
Dubbed as Palawan's largest freshwater lake, Lake Danao (also known as Lake Manguao), this massive body of water spans 660 hectares and provides habitat to 124 different species of birds according to a Western Philippines University research project.

Lake Danao is about 15 minutes away from Taytay town proper. You can hire a motorcycle or van to go here. Please note that the lake may be inaccessible during the rainy season as the path going there may be muddy. The water from the lake also extends broader during this season, and thus, some paths may be impassable. 

You can also ride a raft or kayak so you can explore the lake and the three islands within it. This may be arranged at the town's tourism office located at the Fuerza de Santa Isabel.

A wooden boat reminiscent of Lake Sebu's owong
Another boat that resembles the iconic faluwa of Batanes
A tree house where you can rest and enjoy the views
Take a raft ride
Explore the Fuerza de Santa Isabel
The historic fortress can give you capsule info about the town's glorious past. Here, there is a small museum that features artifacts that played important roles in Taytay's history. The fortress also has lush gardens and vibrant blooms, as well as a chapel and a park. If you have time, try going here in the morning and in the afternoon towards sunset. Special arrangements can be done if you wish to explore the fortress at night.  
Students usually flock to the Fuerza de Santa Isabel in the afternoon to play football
Carved on stone

The chapel

The chapel radiates solemnity
Hollywooding Taytay
A view from the fortress' second floor
Choose your seat!
Low tide?
Stark contrast: blooms and cannon
Dive or snorkel at the Lopez Reef
When you go island-hopping, make sure that you make a pit-stop at the Lopez Reef.  It may not have the most expansive sandbar but its beauty is well-tucked under its clear waters. While the current might turn you off, I suggest you still give it a try--the corals, the life down under, they look like you just jumped into Dory and Nemo's territory! Wear fins so you can swim your way back to the boat easily.

Lopez Reef
Stay a night or two at NoaNoa Island, Flower Island, or Apulit Island
If you have the budget and the time to do this, push! We all know that these island resorts come with a hefty price tag, but I am sure the tranquility that you would experience here is priceless. Live like a boss for a moment and just indulge in one guilty pleasure.

NoaNoa Island
Go island hopping 
The Taytay Bay is dotted with many islands fringed with white sand and rich underwater, so make sure to check them out. For those staying in town, there are regular boats being rented out for island hopping activities. The resort or pension house you are in can also arrange this for you. Trip Republic ( arranges island hopping tours in Taytay.

The usual itinerary for island hopping in Taytay includes a visit to a snorkeling site (Lopez Reef or an alternative), lunch at either Isla Blanca or Dinamayan Island, and spelunking and snorkeling at Elephant or Pabellon Island. After getting amazed at the colorful underwater in Lopez Reef, head off to Isla Blanca, an island that features an expansive white sandbar and a vast coral garden. According to the boatmen, it is an island owned by El Nido Resorts and it is where Apulit Resort (one of El Nido Resorts' properties) usually set-up private lunches or sunset dinners. In case there are in-house guests scheduled to go to Isla Blanca, walk-ins are not allowed to enter the island. We were lucky that no one was there during our visit and so our team was able to explore the island and its marine sanctuary. Our boatmen also cooked our food for us and I must say they were good at it.

Approaching Isla Blanca
Isla Blanca
From the sandbar, we could already see NoaNoa Island
Blanca, indeed!
Isla Blanca (also called Quimbaludan Island) is a paradise...a haven that will make you succumb to the art of doing nothing. If you are tired of the noise in the city--the nightly partying, the annoying traffic, the hopeless MRT, and a lot more--this is a perfect refuge for you.

At Isla Blanca, only the whispering breeze and the sound of the waves tickle your senses. Add to that, the glistening sand and the crystal clear waters give you that dream vacation you truly deserve.

Our lunch

Here are some underwater shots taken from Isla Blanca:

After a scrumptious lunch at Isla Blanca, the next destination on the list was Elephant Island. Also known as Pabellon Island, it features a lagoon, which can be accessed through climbing the rock formations and then jumping into the cold water. If this is not your thing, you can still enjoy the vast coral community surrounding the island. Beware though as we've spotted some jellyfish down under!

Elephant Island, a.k.a Pabellon Island

Off to the next destination
 The last destination on the list was Dinamayan Island. The boatmen said it is also owned by the owners of Casa Rosa, so guests billeted there can go to this island free-of-charge. However, non-guests are required to pay Php 100/head entrance fee. We begged the caretaker to give us a discount since it was already 4:00 pm and we will only stay on the island for barely 15 minutes just to take photos. He told us we can give whatever amount as "donation". So we gave him, Php 30/head. We were 10 people in the group.

While Dinamayan Island has an expansive shoreline and vibrant underwater teeming with marine life, it still does not beat the allure of Isla Blanca. Given a choice between Isla Blanca and Dinamayan Island, I'll choose Isla Blanca without batting an eyelash. However, if there is an option to check out both, then go ahead!

Dinamayan Island

Below is a compilation of the underwater videos taken from Lopez Reef, Isla Blanca, Elephant Island, and Dinamayan Island:

Taytay, Palawan from Matet Garcia Reyes on Vimeo.
Music: "SKGB's Alternate Adventures in Dubstepland" by SKGB (

Sunset on our way back to the mainland
Taytay may not be one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines, but that's exactly what makes it more interesting. It's mysterious charm makes you want to stay and live the simple and quiet life by the sea. THe glass-like water lures you to dive in and take the plunge. Palawan, for the nth time, you did not disappoint!


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