So there I was, ready with fins, snorkel and mask. The spotter yelled, Go, Go, Go and I slipped off the skiff and into the waters of the South China Sea. I opened my eyes to stare in the face of the biggest fish I've ever seen! The butanding (whale shark) had a mouth more than four feet wide and a body perhaps 35 to 40 feet long! What an awesome sight. They are big, lumbering, sweet creatures. They are brownish-gray and covered in white spots. They look like sharks but are the size of whales. We swam close enough to touch them and followed them until they swam deeper under the surface. They seemed not to mind too much having a bunch of crazy tourists (me, three other PCVs and two German tourists) swimming by their side.
The butanding are my new neighbors in Donsol, Sorsogon, which will be my home for the next two years. The butanding were discovered off the waters of Donsol in 1998 and the Philippine government moved quickly to declare the area an eco-tourism area to prevent poaching. The whale sharks put Donsol on the map. The town is only one of a few places in the world where you can swim with the whale sharks. Their presence makes my new home a special place. I'm already comtemplating making them my secondary project at site - perhaps an environmental education program and mass cleanup (badly needed) of the beaches near town. Anyone have any ideas about how to get the kids excited about cleaning up the environment, please send them along.
I flew from Manila last Sunday with a fellow volunteer, Pauline, and landed in Naga, in the Bicol region of the Philippines, on a single landing strip in the middle of rice fields surrounded by beautiful mountains. A three-hour bus ride (including time to fix the flat tire!) later, Pauline and I parted ways in Legaspi City, the closest city to my rural site. She headed north to Bucacay, I, south to Donsol. My new supervisor
picked me up at the airport and was eager to show off one of the regions most magnificent sites, Mount Mayan volcano. They call it the "perfect" volcano
...and it is! Stunning. We took in the view
from an observation point halfway up the volcano before heading to Donsol.
The road to Donsol winds up and over hills and is shaded by trees along the route. An old cemetery with family crypts sits at the edge of town. The "downtown" has two main thoroughfares, San Jose Street and Tres Marias Drive. My host family lives on Tres Marias Drive, just down the street from the high school where I will work.
The rest of the town has small little streets lined with mostly bahay kubo, native Filipino houses (huts) made of bamboo. Very simple homes. There is a new, grandly built Catholic church in town, St. Joseph's, and a dilapidated public hospital at the top of a hill with very little equipment, medicine and no bed sheets!
There is a palengke (market) in the center of town with lots of fresh fish and veggies. There is a pizza joint called Nanay's (Mother's) and a karoake bar called the Whale Shark. There is a simple concrete pier with street lamps that runs along the waterfront,
where small bahay kubos stand on stilts in a couple of feet of water and surrounded by mangroves. There is garbage everywhere though I did see a group collecting some trash in one swampy residential area. A good sign?
Donsol is a gold mine waiting to happen. A local congressman managed to get some infrastructure put in -- a bridge from town to the beaches, where two modest resorts with huts are operating to cater to tourists who come from all over the world to see the butanding. The road to Donsol was also paved a few years ago. You used to have to hike in when the weather was bad! A river runs under the new bridge headed north to an area where you can take a skiff to view thousands of fireflies at night, another tourist attraction trying to take off. Much of the future of this sleepy little town rests on its potential as a tourist destination.
Here are some more pictures of my new hometown:A welcome sign was hastily posted while I made my first visit to the high school.Local kids in Donsol clowning for my camera A shelter at the local beach. The sand is gray and a bit dirty-looking. Residents burn trash on the sand.Here's a street near the palengke in the center of townFrom left to right, teachers Muriel, Marilyn and Marla were my tour guides for the dayThis is a little "harbor" area near the town centerAnother view of the harbor. The house in the back is typical of the bahay kubo in town.A view from the bridge of the downtown waterfront