Welcome to the Torrid Zone

November 8, 2012: The torrid zone is the name given to one of the three geographical zones on Earth. Otherwise known as the tropics, it straddles the Equator and extends 23.5 degrees of latitude north and south all the way to the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Symbolized by the palm tree. Hot, sweltering, sultry. It’s the region where the sun is directly overhead at least once during the year. Now that’s something the temperate (tepid) and frigid (polar) zones can’t claim! And one of the primary reasons we left tepid Vancouver Island behind!!!

It’s here in the midst of the torrid zone that we’re starting this little adventure of ours. If Chris has his way, we may never leave!

For now, we’re calling Subic Bay in the Philippines our home. For the next year, we’ll be based out of the Subic Bay Yacht Club located at 14.8 degrees of latitude north.

What’s it like here? I thought you’d never ask.

The yacht club has been around for about a dozen years. A year ago, on our first visit, we arrived in the dead of night. Even in the dark, you could tell it was getting a bit long in the tooth. An impressive, imposing property, just in need of a serious cash infusion to bring it back to its glory days. Not unlike a lot of places in the tropics.

Although our room was very large and probably had been really nice at one time, it was musty and in need of some repairs. When we checked out the marina the following morning, it was more of the same. Broken tiles and timbers on the boardwalk, with a red tile roof more black than red. But they’ve been making an effort. The pressure washer was out the other day and the main building has been painted recently. Unfortunately, it makes the marina office and other buildings look even shabbier by comparison. But the gardens are nice and the pool, should we ever get to use it, is big and inviting.

The marina itself is home to a large number of boats. Some power. Some sail. Some mega yachts. Some foreign owned. Some local. Some with full-time residents. Some with caretakers. Some just visiting. Some who came and never left. And MOKEN. We’ve only met a couple of our neighbours so far. I know, I know…I should make more of an effort. Apparently we’re on the quiet dock. The party dock is the second one over.

The yacht club is located in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, a special duty free area modeled after Singapore and just a 130km drive from Manila, although sometimes it takes more than three hours to cover that distance. SBFZ has wide tree lined boulevards, sports complexes, two Starbucks, international hotels and restaurants, schools, beaches, a carnival, dockyards, a golf course, aquarium, zoo, large duty free stores, grocery stores, an airstrip and a brand new, air conditioned shopping mall called Harbor Point. Did I mention Starbucks? It’s all very quiet and relaxed. Workers keep the area clean and look after the landscaping. Traffic is light. Police and security guards have a very visible presence.

Cross the river to Olongapo City and enter a different world. “Gapo” is crowded with people, traffic and buildings all tightly squeezed together. The noise can be overwhelming at times, with shops blaring out different loud music to get your attention and colour-coded jeepneys beep-beeping their horns. (Yellow to the market, blue to Barrio Barreto and orange to, well, somewhere.) Power lines crisscross the roads in a jumble. Street vendors sell fresh fruit and local delicacies. Shops sell everything and anything imaginable. There are two local markets. Colourful venues with fresh meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables and flowers, plus all the usual household stuff. The city is alive with sights and sounds and smells. Watch out for the trikes!

You see Gapo’s motto “Fighting for Excellence” and “Aim High Olongapo” on the transportation jeepneys and trikes. The power of positive thinking is alive and well! And the prevailing mood really does seem to be pretty upbeat. I don’t feel uncomfortable walking around in the main areas after dark…although I probably wouldn’t stay out too late on my own.

How did these two neighbours evolve right next door to each other? Following the Spanish-American war in the late 1800s, Subic Bay became a U.S. naval and marine base. It was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, but the American’s regained control and eventually turned it into the home base of the U.S. 7th Fleet.

In its heyday, Subic Bay was home to the largest U.S. Naval Base in Asia. Olongapo grew up around it providing support and services and fun.

Mount Pinatubo Erupts on June 15, 1991 (“borrowed” from http://www.defence.gov.au)

And then Black Saturday arrived on June 15, 1991. That’s the day Mount Pinatubo, less than 50 km to the north, erupted. It covered Subic, Olongapo, nearby Clark Air Force Base and everything in between with volcanic ash. To add to the misery, Typhoon Yunya arrived at the same time. As a result, the wet ash collapsed many structures and more than 800 people died.

Not long afterwards, the Americans pulled out completely. They were slated to leave anyway. Apparently, the Philippines government had voted not to renew their lease at Subic. The Pinatubo eruption just spurred things along. Recovery from the disaster took years. Recovery from the economic impact of the American withdrawal is still ongoing. It took some time for Subic and Clark to reinvent themselves into commercial zones.

Cleanup begins at Traders complex (“borrowed” from http://www.subicbaypi.com)

Cleaning the greens at the Binictican Golf Course (“borrowed” from http://www.subicbaypi.com)

U.S. naval ships continue to arrive for repairs, refueling, supplies and R&R. When the big ships are in, it’s a good time to avoid the line-ups at Starbucks. The dockyards are busy with retrofits to ships like Logos Hope and ferries.

Today, the giant Korean shipbuilder Hanjin employs more than 19,000 local workers at a shipyard across the bay. Opened in 2008, they’ve already produced 42 large oil tankers and bulk carriers, several of which are anchored in the harbour. I’ve heard there are plans afoot to expand and add another 10,000 workers.

The old Clark Air Force Base is now known as Clark International Airport and is the home of cheap flights to Hong Kong and other major Asian gateways. A great option close by if we have to make a visa run.

Subic Bay is a deep natural habour and protected anchorage. It’s an excellent place for us to figure out how MOKEN works, provision, begin exploring the waters and islands in the area, and sit out typhoon season, which usually lasts from May through October.

They say that late October to February are the coolest months, but with temperatures already hovering in the low 30s, I’m not sure I’m ready for the heat that comes from March to May. Torrid? You bet!