Send a writer — worse, an ex-journalist — to a country with a tourism slogan that starts with “It’s more fun in the…” and all you will get is an article that will ruthlessly mock the catchphrase. In as many dimensions as possible. After all, what do you mean “more fun”? Compared to? (This is usually accompanied by disdainful rolling of the eyes — more than once for dramatic effect.)
But after the trip it appears all she really wants to talk about are, well, fishes. How fun.
That’s just a half-truth, of course. We — two adults and a three-year-old terror — arrive via a Dornier seaplane at Amanpulo on the idyllic Pamalican Island, part of the 40-strong chain of Cuyo Islands in The Philippines’ Palawan Province. Our beach casita with direct beach access is so spacious and loungey, the daughter would — if she’s not playing sand — ask if we could go back to the room after being out for a grand total of… 5 minutes.
We drive our personal buggy out anyway, and managed to make it just in time for the morning boat departure to feed the fishes further ashore, after a short bout of fish feeding waist-deep in the water, just several meters from the shore where one of the restaurants is situated. I had no idea the dainty black-striped fishes were a prelude to bigger things to come.
When the motor stopped, the magic began. Armed with a basket-full of leftover bread, we and our boat companions — a young Korean couple — began to drop pinches of the assorted bakes into the water. In no time, more and more fish darted around, trying to out-eat the others. Our snorkeling facilitator, a 27-year-old local, even free-dived and retrieved a starfish just a bit bigger than my palm span — the first time I’d seen such a radiant blue starfish.
Being in the company of so many golden-grey fishes, many bigger than your own body width, takes a little getting used to. It was initially awkward, a little scary even, to be heavily outnumbered and occasionally receiving a slap (or high-five?) from the tails of the fishes that appeared to have little inhibition. I was in an ocean, yet felt like a misfit in a fish tank.
The adrenaline rush that comes with this exercise, I must admit, was also a tad foreign. Even though I was not in the water long, there is still a buzz today whenever I recount the experience.
Giggly Maldivian schoolgirl
Barely a month later, she ends up in the Indian Ocean, in a sunny paradise that people never stop gushing about — Maldives. This time, in the company of five ladies in a familiarisation trip organised by Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts.
“What, you go to Maldives to work?!” my shell-shocked uncle blurted out one day. I could only manage an embarrassed smile. Nobody bothers that you have to meet deadlines in Singapore whilst attempting to look your best in front of industry peers. It takes supernatural effort to continue editing into the wee hours of the morning when all you want is lie down and enjoy the lullaby of waves, or prioritise emails over chilling in the hammock outfitted above the turquoise water outside my water villa during a rare hour-long break. But tell me again, who cares?
If there was indeed any resistance to being in a resort — have I mentioned that I’m really not a fan of water-based holidays — it must have receded the next day, when we headed out on a cruise boat to see the dolphins. The weather was holding up pretty well, despite the island having suffered a rainy bout a couple days back. But as with any wildlife sightings there was no guarantee; in fact the probability of seeing the marine mammals kept sliding as the day progressed.
Nothing could quite prepare us for the intimate spectacle that afternoon. Once the sighting began, it was as if something incredible had been unleashed. Group after group of dolphins swam along, closely following the speed of our vessel. The music was turned up, we were told to clap; it appears they enjoy rhythms. When we sped up, they raced us; many times, they were so near our feet nearly touched them.
If dolphins could smile, I must have met an entire level of giggly school children that evening. We must have seen easily more than a hundred, not that we could actually tell the number of unique sightings, of course. They were eager to impress — no one could actually keep count of how many flips we saw, it was, erm, flippant — absolutely. It was a pity we couldn’t go into the waters.
We returned to shore triumphant and in uplifted spirits — there is something about being in the company of creatures in their natural environs. It was to be an encounter we would share over and over again with anyone we can engage in a conversation.
And perhaps, just maybe, I’d factor in more time in the villa next time….