Richard and I tried a new scuba resort this weekend. Dive Solana is south of Anilao, advertises itself as a 2 to 3 hour drive from Manila. Not for us, not on a Friday night it ain't. Things started slowly, as I had to drive across town to pick Richard up from a social event with the MaSci teachers. It was hair-raising, because it would always turn out ooops, you can't turn at that intersection or whupsie, there's a one-way the wrong way that's not marked on my map... and some of the side streets were the kind where you really, really wish your big white car with the diplomat license would become invisible, or at least magically as narrow as the motorbike tricycles which are the really only practical vehicles for those streets...
Anyway, I got to the mall where they were having merienda, and once I had a navigator in the front seat beside me, it wasn't too hard to find our way -- just tediously long. And tricky again, once it got dark. There were many parts of the route where we were slowed to walking speed.
At one point on the major highway connecting Cuenca to Bauan, our southbound lane was the only one open. The northbound lane was completely held up by a long parade that combined a beauty pageant and a devotion to the Virgin Mary. What do you do when all the main streets of so many towns are also the highway -- and there are simply no other long parallel streets for people to use for their own community lives?
So, one thing and another - the 130 km drive took us four hours and that is not counting the hour across town to go fetch Richard first.
But then... we got to Solana. After following the guy with our suitcases down over 200 steps, we emerged in a setting of natural wood and thatch with all the mod. cons - a reasonably quiet air conditioner, embroidered linens on the beds, lots of Filipino arts and crafts everywhere, hot water in the shower, and a tasty chicken, fish and veggies dinner that they hastily whipped up for us. (By the way, all the meals were just excellent - if a bit heavy on the chicken, fish, pork and beef and rather light on the veggies.)
We managed three dives in all, including two new experiences for us. Each time there were only four on the trip - the divemaster, a Manila neurosurgeon, and Rich & me.
Saturday afternoon we dove a wrecked barge that had wide open sides and a lattice work top, so not so spooky as most wrecks, but still with the most fascinating soft corals all going to work on turning it into a rich fish habitat. Saw a huge - probably 80 cm - spotted puffer fish and a couple of triggerfish that, fortunately, were minding their own business (this is breeding season for them and they can get aggressive and bite divers). On the first dive we saw giant clams - half a meter long and with extraordinarily suggestive white-and-purple fleshy parts. On the barge there were clams with precise razor-cut zig-zag openings. Most unnatural-looking. The only downside of the wreck dive was that it was in a narrow channel where the nearby village's garbage just hung around in the water. Coming up through that was beyond icky.
After a day of diving an snorkelling in the bay in front of the resort, we were ready for a mild stroll along the beach and sitting in the deck chairs watching the sun go down.
If you look closely, you can see Venus peeking through the palm leaves.
Sunday morning we went out early to an underwater mount - like an island that didn't quite make it all the way out of the water. The top was at about 7 metres' depth and quite current-swept. We anchored and then we all went hand-over-hand down the anchor rope. Unfortunately that left me with no idea of whether I had my buoyancy balanced or not, always a challenge for me in any case, and the strong current didn't help. So the divemaster had to take me by the hand (blush) while we navigated through a crevasse down towards the sheltered side of the mount. There we hung while I finally got my buoyancy neutral, and then we swam along the sides, getting a bit deeper but not over 15 metres, and getting turned back from the strong-current side no matter how we tried to approach it. I think the divemaster would have liked to take us there but the three of us were not that great swimmers or that confident. And I was getting rattled because my spare mouthpiece (regulator) was leaking air and we couldn't make it stop. Only a bit later it occurred to me, duh, stick that regulator in your mouth, then, and leave the main regulator dangling. That one DIDN'T leak. Problem solved. At last, I could pay attention to sights like a moving nudibranch (brilliantly coloured slug) and a moray eel all the way out of its burrow. Also more great soft corals and sea stars.
On our way up through the crevasse the divemaster once again took my hand, but I insisted I could Do It Self. Now I have a nice long scratch on one hand that's probably going to turn septic, because, naturally, at one point I bumped into the coral on one side of the crevasse. Oh well... as they say, "A bad day of diving is better than a great day at the office." And we really did learn new things. We'll just have to go out diving very soon again to consolidate some of these skills.
The drive back was a fantastic end to the weekend. We took the other way around Lake Taal and in fact stopped to visit in the pretty little town of Taal. Grand old basilica, old two-storey Spanish houses with the second storey all capiz-and-wood lattice work that lets the breeze in. The houses on the outskirts of town were set back from the road with all of summer blossoming in their front gardens. Lovely.
Then we rode a hair-raising switchback road up, up to the crater lip above Lake Taal - ravines dropping away from us on either side, huge vistas to the mountains and ocean on one side, and the lake and its volcanic cones on the other side. Fab-u-lous. And then -- eek!!! You know the trademark Disney castle? Well, someone's built a huge one overlooking Lake Taal, but painted it in all the colours of the rainbow. Sadly... no photos from us... maybe you'll get something if you google Fantasy World Taal? [RPT: I found an article in the Manila Bulletin Online. No pictures, but the text gives you some idea why I didn't want to bother stopping.]
Oh, I forgot to mention the mangoes. You know I have gradually come to appreciate Philipppines mangoes. WELL. It turns out that Batangas mangoes are even better than the others. Sweet, smooth, not a trace of fibrousness, like the best of peaches with a spicy finish. And since we were coming back by way of Tagaytay and Santa Rosa, not only was it obligatory to buy a huge bag of mangoes before we left the Batangas province, we had to buy about ten pineapples in Santa Rosa as well. Time for some serious giving-away tomorrow.
The first thing Nita did when she saw all the mangos was to send us out for the ingredients for Mango Tiramisu. Wow! Layers of graham crackers, sliced mangos and a mixture of whipping cream and condensed milk.