Saturday, February 11, 2012

Home away from home: How I left Indianapolis, traveled 9,000 miles, and found ... Indianapolis.

Welcome to Donsol, a town in the Philippines that in some ways is like my hometown of Indianapolis.  Just as Indianapolis hosted a big event--the Super Bowl--Donsol is the gateway to one of the most spectacular traveler experiences--swimming within an arm's reach of the world's largest fish, a whale shark.  From what I've read, while visitors to Indy felt the Super Bowl was a great game, the real highlight of their visit was interacting with the wonderful people of Indy.  Likewise, while swimming with the whale sharks was every bit as incredible as advertised, the real highlight of our visit was interacting with the wonderful people of Donsol.  Click the link to see how far I can stretch this analogy!

For a few months every year, whale sharks swim the waters off Donsol.  They are the world's largest fish, and though they are sharks, they eat only tiny fish and are not interested in snacking on humans.  For years, Donsolites liked to snack on the whale sharks, but then they learned that the gentle giants were worth their weight in tourist gold.

Here, Beth, Nick, Shane and I stand in front of a miniature model of a whale shark.

After an hour of cruising the waters, searching for a whale shark, our spotter finally saw the creature, and we donned our snorkel gear and lined along the edge of the boat.  When our guide gave the signal, we jumped in the water and followed him to intercept the shark's path.

Once the shark reached us, we swam alongside and/or above the shark.

Here is what it looks like to swim with a whale shark.  (I didn't have an underwater camera, so this is just downloaded from the net.)  We were instructed to stay far away from its tail, because the swinging of the massive tail has seriously injured swimmers.  When I first jumped into the water and looked around for the shark, disoriented in the water, I suddenly saw a giant tail sweeping towards me.  As the tail came a few feet from hitting me, I admit I spit my snorkel out of my mouth and shouted a word into the water which might make a sensitive fish blush.  I gathered my snorkel and my composure, and I swam just above the fish, as pictured.  For ten or fifteen exhilarating minutes, I swam just a few feet above the gentle giant, my eyes fixed on it as it silently glided through the water.  It was a magical experience.

Here we are just after our experience.
But as wonderful as our whale shark experience was, as we left Donsol, all we could talk about was how friendly the local people were.

It started with Marilyn, the co-owner of the Auguluz Homestay, where we spend our three nights in Donsol.  The homestay is in a large home which has been in her family for generations.  And the guests are immediately treated as members of the family by Marilyn and her family.  Some of her family are pictured below:

Everyone's favorite member of the family, Ceil, seemed to genuinely love to sweep.

The friendliness was not limited to Marilyn's family.  Everywhere we walked around town, we attracted smiles, waves and greetings.  Yet no one asked for money or tried to sell us anything.  They simply seemed full of life.

Like Hoosiers, Filipinos love basketball.

This is a photo of Marilyn's son-in-law watching the Minnesota Timberwolves play the Oklahoma City Thunder.  The photo was taken while the Super Bowl was being played.  He could have chosen to tune in to the most-watched sporting event in U.S. history, but instead chose to watch a relatively meaningless NBA regular season basketball game.  That's how much Filipinos love basketball.
Just as Madonna sang during halftime of the Super Bowl, so Donsol has a singing diva of its own.  We ate lunch at a restaurant with a friendly server named Becky who encouraged us to return the next evening for a concert.  We showed up, and it turns out the concert was a solo singing performance by Becky.  And we were the only people in the audience!  Although she was singing only to a single table of guests, she belted out love ballads with the passion (and volume) of Madonna at her best.

At one point, Becky grabbed Nick from the audience (i.e., our table of five) and coaxed a few lines from him.

When it came time for us to leave Donsol, without anyone asking or really saying anything, we hugged Marilyn and her family, and took group photos with our camera and with Marilyn's camera ... just as we would if we were leaving the house of distant but beloved relatives. 
Donsol was a great place to begin our journey, and a place we'll not soon forget.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jay! Sounds (and looks!) like it was an awesome visit. Thanks for the great descriptions and photos of your time in Donsol. My personal suspicion -- and your's, too, I think -- is that the people of the world over are closer in spirit and goodness to those of Donsol, than not. It must be gratifying, as an unofficial subtheme of your trip, time and again, in country after country, to discover this.

Of course, it's also true that beautiful people bring out that same quality in others, around them! I'd say that you four are a pretty special group.

Cheers and love to you all!


Anonymous said...

And Jason, Happy Birthday!!!!!!


Anonymous said...

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!!! Jay, I know how much you love pizza (which I also like, but rarely eat), so today I think I'm going to order one of those ridiculous heart-shaped pizzas. If I think about it, I'll post a photo of the thing.

Jeff w/Maggie & Bruno -- Woof, Woof!

Jason said...

Thank you, Jeff, for the eloquent and kind comment!

Jason said...

Happy Valentine's Day right back at you, Jeff! I'd be interested in seeing the heart-shaped pizza. I'd be even more interested in eating it. Please give my love to Bruno & Maggie!

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