Bobbing for Butandings
Like my mood, the sky was graying over and our trip was beginning to feel more like an endless boat cruise rather than the exciting search for Butanding it had started as. Our captain seemed unfazed, plying circles around the Bay of Donsol, as he lit a continuous stream of cigarettes from the fading butt of the one before. In his John Cena wrestling swim trunks he deflected the pestering questions of the desperate travelers with a nod or a thrust of his chin toward a different part of the bay. We had another hour or so before we had to turn towards the shore and call off the search.
“This is the worst trip I have been on, yesterday we saw about five sharks and the day before about six or seven.” The one guy on the boat who had loved his experience so much he had returned four days in a row really knew how to make everyone else feel better. Everyone acknowledged him with a grunt and turned their frowning faces back towards the water. The sky had been slowly closing in and the visibility had shrunk as the sun disappeared behind heavyset clouds. It seemed as if our chances were dwindling and you could see the hope fade from the faces on the boat.
Suddenly the call went out, one of the lookouts from another boat stood atop his mast and pointed towards a spot on the navy blue surface. Like hunters fixed on their prey all of the boats charged toward the mark. This wasnt the first time we had all lined up like penguins and waddled off into the sea but it might be the last so hopes were high that the day wouldn’t be a bust. Not one to be in a hurry, I took my spot last off the boat and fumbled with my goggles as I flopped into the sea.
Bobbing in the water I looked around for a cue but all I could see were frantic flippers going in every which direction turning the entire surface into a wash of foam. Not wanting to waste the opportunity I ducked my head under and scanned the depths. With the low clouds overhead hiding the sun, I could barely make out my own feet in the dark blue below. Pulling my head back again for a look at the surface I could see the chaos continuing as snorkels trolled back and forth like lost children all hopelessly searching for their parents.
I dipped down below again and like an owl, pivoted in my complete search of the abyss. Suddenly, through the cloudy darkness directly below I spotted what looked like little stars emerging from the night sky. I squinted as the stars grew larger and filled my entire frame of view. I quickly threw my head back and saw I was all alone, the closest snorkels were twenty feet away moving carefree about the water. Within half a second my head was back under and I froze as the body of stars floated up towards me. I wanted to swim away as fast as possible and get help before I got eaten and disappeared without anyone even realizing.
After the few necessary moments of panic that accompany the thought of a 35 foot long shark swallowing me whole had passed, I turned and followed in the wake of the giant beast. Its body seemed to glide effortlessly with its entire mouth agape as it sucked in plankton from the bay. Still in shock, I let the entire length of this bus of the sea drift past for what seemed like an eternity as I played the Jaws soundtrack in my head. Underneath its massive belly, a small school of fish was catching a free ride from their massive bodyguard. Finally his flapping tail fin came into view as it pushed enormous sheets of water back and forth, propelling it along. Like a giant door that kept opening and closing his tail fin was taller than me and could have thrown me aside with the weight of water it was moving.
Slowly, each and every boat in the water caught up with the whale shark and dumped their human cargo in its path. One girl, clearly a bit nervous as evidenced by the erratic flapping of appendages, was plopped directly in front of the 4 foot wide gaping mouth. With her head above water she must have received some sort of warning because at the last second she peered under to find herself only feet in front of a wide open door that was vacuum cleaning plankton from the sea. Even with goggles and a snorkel blocking her face, I could see the terror in her eyes as she churned like a cat thrown into a pool to get out of the sharks way. Without a care in the world, the shark altered his path and continued his lazy lunchtime stroll.
Eventually, it was time to head in and one by one the human cargo retired to their boats and shared stories about nearly being swallowed whole or facing death head on. Back on board, the mood had changed and people were talking to each other again. The guy that was on his fourth trip in a row spoke up. ”That was probably the biggest shark I have seen all week and it stayed near the surface for a long time. That could have been the best swim I have had.” Our John Cena captain flashed a smile between a change of cigarettes and the man on lookout relaxed. Now that his job of scanning the water was over, he threw his arms behind his head, leaned back against the post, and stared out over the sea.
Slumber Party at the Great Wall
“I think I can see all the way to China from up here!” Few wiser words have been said from the vantage point I was enjoying atop the roof of a hulking watchtower atop a large mountain range atop the Great Wall of China. Hours earlier in Beijing, the sun was beating down on the crowded streets as we haggled over prices for the 2 hour cab ride up to the wall. The price had been set the night before during a brief phone call but now, like always, something had come up, we would have to pay more. Either his friend didnt have the “right license” to drive to the wall or they had to bring different cars than they had thought or they were worried about getting caught as undercover taxis and having to pay fines. There were always a number of clever excuses to open up the line of bartering again to try to squeeze a few more bucks out of the deal.
After being sufficiently worn down, the middle of the road price was fine as long as we got moving. From Beijing we would take one of the massive boulevards out of the city and into the mountains where we would switch to a different set of vans that would take us to a parking lot from which we would weave through a warren of stalls selling everything Great Wall related and continue walking until, at last, we reached a gate for the great wall. In both directions the wall stretched out and up the backbone of the mountain range for miles.
We had been walking for four hours when we finally came to a high point on the wall. A guard tower from which we could see in every direction and one that was suitable for spending the night. With a flight of hundreds of stairs right outside our door, we could see down the length of the empty wall that we would have all to ourselves for the night. The sun was setting as several locals lingered around our group trying to sell postcards, posters, and drinks. These locals would climb up the wall everyday to sell a few things to the tourists who made it out this far and then descend in the twilight to their homes scattered amongst the trees thousands of feet below.
It was barely 6pm as we settled into the guard tower and sat on the edge of the wall with our homemade sandwiches staring out at the setting sun. Beneath our feet the earth dropped away and I couldnt imagine even trying to climb this mountain yet alone scale the massive brick wall on top of it. The Mongolians must have been a terrifying bunch in order to justify this undertaking on such an epic scale. In its interrupted and haphazard entirety, the Great Wall is nearly 5,500 miles long.
As the sun set it became clear that no one in the group had come completely prepared for the undertaking. I guess everyone was thinking the same thing I was, we would hike along the wall, find a place to sleep then wake up and hike some more. What we would do between sunset and sunrise was largely left out of the equation. Between our group of about 12 people, someone had managed to pack a few candles and someone else had swapped their sleeping bag for a small stereo so we had a few creature comforts. Besides that, we had a few small bottles of alcohol and a guard tower full of scorpions, bugs, and biting winds to keep us entertained.
You ventured off to the bathroom by the light of your cell phone and stumbled along the crumbling steps of the wall in the dark. At the same time the booze ran out we discovered we had neighbors camping at the tower next to ours. Their small fire was our beacon and cell phones were our torches as we dispatched a small party to befriend the neighboring tribe who “probably had drinks”. In our quest for the perfect view we had chosen the tower that towered above the rest and the dispatched group had to abandon the mission barely minutes in as it proved a bit suicidal to descend hundreds of uneven 2 foot tall steps in pitch darkness.
One by one, our group tired and sleeping bags were unfolded throughout the tower. The cold uneven stones were unforgiving and our $10 Wal-Mart sleeping bags did little to make up for it. The brave soul who had traded his sleeping bag for some music had to spoon his friend for warmth. The unlucky ones who were last to sleep got the most uneven stones or the spots underneath the open stone windows where the stinging rain would blow in during the night. My spot wasnt perfect but at least I was somewhere toward the middle of the tower so I had to worry less about scorpions paying me a visit. A melody of snores reverberated around the stone room and people shifted their sleeping bags with the changing wind blown rain.
A handful of hours later we were marching down the wall. Everything was wet with the morning fog and the sun was just barely creeping above the horizon. The wall slowly came back into view through the mist and not a soul could be seen. It was a rare moment in China, to have a place all to yourself without tailgating hawkers or noisy beef jerky wielding tourists. An hour into the hike we passed another tower where a group of migrant workers were repairing the wall. This tower had yet to be refurbished like ours and had maybe two complete walls with a roof open to the stars. In the corner was a small pot for boiling noodles and a stack of ripped sleeping materials. Everyone in our group had gone without sleep or not slept at all but no one was complaining.