Despite Amira’s actual birthday behind us, the celebrations for the month were really just starting to take off. School break started on her birthday (which if this happens years from now will be exciting, but at five was surprisingly upsetting), Grammy was still in town, and last minute efforts to impress Santa were in full swing. Mix in a trampoline birthday party, some time in the Manila outdoors (kind of an oxymoron) and a trip to Malaysian Borneo and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty good end of the year.
Having Grammy around was a great addition to the birthday celebrations and also a fantastic way to get into the Christmas spirit (the multi purpose visit is probably the best 2 in 1 advantage to having your birthday so close to Santa’s visit). While the warm weather and outdoor swimming continue to disrupt the more traditional Christmas season values, the omnipresent and overly elaborate decorations around Manila more than made up for it.
Having our second visitor (who happens to also have been our first visitor over a year ago…just sayin’) gave us that little extra motivation to check out a couple things around the local area that we had been talking about but procrastinating visiting. With lots of wild card entries and Christmas traffic in full affect, there were some moments of high anxiety, but with good company and blue skies it was a perfect mix of good times and authentically Filipino moments.
The biggest surprise of the visit was finding an area of woods within the Manila city limits to go hiking. Papa learned about the La Mesa Nature Reserve (not to be confused like we were with the La Mesa Eco Park just down the road) for the first time on a Tuesday and the family was there on Saturday. It was quiet, green and muddy – just what we needed! As a side benefit it proved to be a good testing ground for our trip later in the month to hiking in Borneo.
With birthdays behind us, before trading her flip flops for a white Christmas in Canada Grammy helped setup the Christmas decorations and further spread the Christmas cheer. It was a good consolidation for Amira who was not only losing her games partner, she was also losing the only person who would take her to the coffee shop every morning for a babychino. Amazing how hours of grandparents spoiling can undo months of parental influence. Grammy did give us the song of the month (based on Everett’s genetic and growing resistance to everything) before she left, and was a regular participant in singing our new favourite Christmas song (great for road trips). Not even Amira’s Chinese Christmas carols could out duel Bob Dylan and an accordion.
With school out, Papa’s work ramping down for the year, and Santa’s visit just around the corner, the transition from five to four went as smoothly as could be expected. New Christmas displays in the mall continued to arrive regularly (they stopped mattering after Everett found the all doggie display), we went back to the Ayala triangle for the Festival of Lights show for the second year in a row, and there was even a chance to visit Santa again in person. This time we saw him on Christmas Eve day (it’s still not clear how he had the time to squeeze this into his schedule, but we assume it had something to do with time zones). After sleeping through last years encounter this was really Everett’s first Santa experience, and he handled much better than his sister did at this age.
With Christmas Eve upon us, and having already checked in with Santa, there was just enough time to write and excruciatingly long letter to him before heading out for a beautiful Christmas dinner at the Peninsula Hotel. The hotel was immaculately decorated, the dinner was delicious, and it was great to celebrate with lots of friends. All you have to say is fancy dress and Amira is in, and she even behaves herself if you throw in one of Mum’s handbags for the night. Worth it. Everett in a bow tie was also an easy crowd favourite. The kids were asleep before we even got home and missed the chance to open one present.
Christmas morning arrived to much excitement and fanfare. Most of the excitement related to Everett stealing all of Amira’s presents which was expected, entertaining and disturbing all at the same time. At least for Mummy and Papa. Amira was initially mostly her overly dramatic self, but has subsequently come to grips with her need to share with her brother (who may or may not double as her biggest fan).
As exciting as Christmas morning always is, there was only so much time to take it all in before we needed to head off to the airport to get on a plane to Borneo (because where else can you find last minute Christmas availability). Up until about three days before the flight the plan had been to go and sit on the beach in Kota Kinabalu (a direct flight from Manila), but then Papa’s anxiety about beach vacations took over and next thing we knew there was a second flight to Kuching where there was a beach, but also caves, an interesting city, an orangutan sanctuary and great hikes. Of course nobody we knew had been there, but it was definitely the right decision. Phew!
At over 3x the size of the UK, Borneo is the the third largest island on the planet and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia (who call it Kalimantan) and Brunei. It’s covered in rainforest which makes it really hard to navigate beyond the coastal areas. The Malaysian territory is split between two states (Sabah and Sarawak) which are isolated from peninsular Malaysia and actually required their own independent customs and passport controls to transfer between. Needless to say, there was a lot of state pride and independence propaganda around. Sarawak was also very Christian (as opposed to predominantly Muslim peninsular Malaysia), so there were a surprising amount of Christmas decorations. Kuching is the capital of Sarawak as is know as Cat City, which meant that in addition to all the amazing temples and other cultural sites, it was covered in statues and sculptures of cats…which was different.
The city was pretty central to all the different sites, with everything about an hour drive away. The locals warn of traffic, but after being in Manila it’s really hard not to laugh at people when they say “traffic here is bad”. Most things also took less than a day to visit so it meant that we had lots of time to explore around town. With a great riverfront promenade, a scattering of Chinese Temples, a Little India, and a great Bazaar area with Papa’s kind of stores there was no shortage of things to see and do. We also learned that when variety wasn’t enough, a watermelon shake can be used to resolve anything.
The first day we visited the Wind and Fairy Caves to the south of town. None of us are spelunkers by nature and there was a lot of concern that the girly girl would lose her mind in the dark and scary cave, but she was probably the most into it of anyone (likely because she didn’t know that being scared was the normal response to being underground in the dark surrounded by bats, guano, and spiders). She’s so complex. Wind cave was full of fruit bats and had a boardwalk setup throughout the inside with multiple entrances and exits out into the jungle. It was super dark, but you could rent flashlights. Fairy caves had about a 10 storey set of stairs to climb before you arrived at a ladder only access you needed to squeeze through to get in, but once inside it opened right up with the large opening and lots of light. It was pretty impressive even for non “cave people”.
The second day was reserved for the trip to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which was an expected highlight of the trip…and did not disappoint. In fact it was so good we decided to go back two days later. It’s an orangutan rehabilitation centre, which means the orangutans that are there arrived injured, orphaned or rescued. They are also breeding so there are some new babies in the mix. They are described as semi-wild which means they are fed twice a day but are free to roam or leave the 740 ha (1828 acre) reserve as they choose. Visitors are only allowed to visit for a one hour period at the feeding times of 9AM and 3PM and the orangutans may or may not show up. As the rangers point out, if they don’t show up that means they are getting enough food in nature and the program is working. We came for the 3PM feeding and waited ever so patiently until 3:57 for three to arrive. The rangers said they are a 96% genetic match to humans (orangutan literally translates to “person of the forest”) and watching them move left little doubt of the close connection. We were luckier on the second trip where we got to see them for longer, but still only managed to see three of them.
Day three we were off to the boat access only Bako National Park. The tide was too low to get into the park when we first arrived at the docks, so we waited in the rain for the ocean to rise. Once we arrived we were immediately greeted on the beach by some proboscus monkeys with their ridiculously large noses, a really tame Bornean bearded pig, some macaque monkeys, and a super poisonous green viper snake (that we’ll just ignore for the purposes of the update but were told antivenom was available for). The day only got better from there with a hike through the jungle to a remote beach. While the practice hike in Manila was a great introduction for the kids, it didn’t even begin to compare to hiking in Bako even if only for a couple hours.
Although we never got a proper beach holiday, for our last day we did stay out at Damai Beach. While the resort was super weird, and the beach just OK, we met some great people from Canada of all places, and the kids are never going to argue about a chance to play in the sand (or so Papa believes).
Not wanting to miss the Philippines fireworks display we returned to Manila just before New Years. Unfortunately Presidential instructions made a much more subdued show this year, which in the interests of public safety probably makes a lot of sense. While the fireworks weren’t up to what we have come to expect in Asia, Mum was able to celebrate her big day with Everett’s first bike ride, which was more than reason enough to be happy. And besides, Mum has a whole other year to prepare for her impending “big one”.
After an insane 2015 with new jobs, moving and Everett arriving, 2016 was in many ways far more normal but given it was an entire year based in the Philippines the basis of normal has shifted somewhat, which is just how we like it! Looking forward to more great adventures and another year of happiness in 2017.