Manila and the West Visayas
14.12.2014 - 24.12.2014 30 °C
For three years, I lived within arms reach of the Philippines and never made the jump. I am not sure why I avoided the country for so long. Perhaps it was because the flights necessary always seemed like too much of a hassle. Perhaps because I held the impression that Filipino tourism revolved around beach culture, something I have never had any great interest in. Whatever the reason, I visited almost every nation surrounding the Philippines while never even considering a trip through the country itself. With ten days to spare between the end of a contract in Taiwan and the beginning of a family cruise in Mexico, I decided it was finally time to give the Philippines a chance. After all, Manila was only a hop, a skip and a two hour flight from Taipei and, to be honest, I really had no where else left to go in the region.
From the beginning, ten days hardly seemed like enough. I like to take my time when traveling, end up wherever the wind takes me and camp out until I feel ready to move on. I was never in a hurry and, often with months to spare, plans were unnecessary. But with a mere week and a half of travel time in the Philippines, some decisions had to be made before departure. Which sliver of this vast archipelago would provide the best short term travel experience? Having to choose just one area annoyed and frustrated me. I felt as though no matter where I went, I would be missing out. Based on the recommendations of friends, I narrowed the wide array of options down to three. Option number one was the island of Palawan. Known as the Philippines’ final frontier and home to its most breathtaking natural scenery, this island was perhaps best suited to my travel style. However, travel in Palawan was supposedly rugged and rough. Getting from one place to the next could take ages. With little more than a week to spare, I feared spending most of it trapped behind a bus window.
Option two was the Cordillera, a vast range of spiny mountains in the far North of the country. I love hiking and the Cordillera was said to boast some fantastic trails. But venturing into the mountains for a week meant never even setting eyes on the coast. In a country of seven thousand islands, this seemed unacceptable to me. Option three was the Visayas. These island havens, scattered throughout the center of the Philippines, boast a diverse range of adventure opportunities; from trekking, to diving to motor biking. Since they are well connected by ferries and small enough to see in a short period of time, I assumed they would make great short term travel territory. In the end, this was where I chose to go. I settled on three islands, Bohol, Negros and Cebu, all in the same corner of the Visayas. With plenty of sights and activities packed into a small area, I figured it offered the best bang for my buck.
To reach the Visayas, I had to pass through Manila. Most friends advised me to avoid staying a night, citing horrible traffic, widespread dangers and a lack of attractions. But not one to overlook any destination, I decided to give the city at least a couple days. I tend to enjoy giant crazy metropolises anyway. My flight touched down just after three in the morning and I made it to my hostel by five. I was tired and cranky, but the gracious and welcoming hostel staff were quick to lighten my mood. The night manager was a little old lady with beady eyes and a giant smile. “Someone looks like they need a nap.” She said playfully when I entered. “Let’s find you a place to sleep.” She allowed me to postpone the check in and go straight to my bed. I was out in minutes.
At noon the following day, I awoke just in time to join the hostel’s free walking tour of Manila. I usually avoid tours, preferring to wander the streets of a city by myself, but I had zero knowledge of Manila’s sights and the traffic outside my window alone convinced me that the streets were not well suited to wandering. We set out as a group of three just after one.
My first impression of the metropolis was not a good one. Exhaust fumes from large American made automobiles followed us everywhere we went. Beyond the occasional colonial church or university, most buildings were drab, run down, and lacked character. There seemed to be more fast food joints lining the streets than all other businesses combined. Their giant neon signs dominated the pedestrian paths making them difficult to navigate. Furthermore, our walking tour revealed little in the way of interesting attractions. Most were Spanish era relics or recently built monuments. In fact, my favourite part of the whole excursion was riding in a jeepney. Half tuk-tuk, half chicken bus, these privately owned and extravagantly decorated vehicles act as Manila’s primary form of public transportation. Costing no more than a few cents, they are by far the cheapest way to get around. Just don’t expect to get anywhere quickly.
When I visited Jakarta, I thought I had experienced the ultimate in traffic congestion. After all, Indonesia’s capital is a metropolis of thirty million people with hardly any public transportation system to speak of. Since Manila sported a light rail transit network, I assumed it would be at least a little more manageable. But with so many large American vehicles crowding its streets, Manila challenged even Jakarta for the title of ‘Worst Traffic in Asia’. I was made well aware of this while trying to reach Chinatown using public transit.
The journey began with a jeepney ride to the nearest LRT station. It took an hour to travel five kilometres. I probably could have walked faster. The next challenge was actually catching the LRT. Three consecutive trains screeched to a stop but were too crowded to board. Each stood motionless at the platform for several minutes as their doors repeatedly attempted to close themselves on the masses of people shoving their way into the cars. Coming from Taipei, which has perhaps Asia’s most convenient and efficient subway system, my patience was being tested. I had not dealt with the inconvenience of South East Asian travel in quite some time. The fourth train looked promising. Many of its cars were half empty. Unfortunately, the driver overshot the platform making only the last car accessible. It quickly filled up to overcapacity and I was forced to wait again. Forty minutes after arriving at the station, I was finally able to manoeuvre my way into a car. Squished from all sides, I was caged into a corner by trolleys and boxes. Apparently Manila’s LRT also doubles as a package delivery service. It was another thirty minutes before I reached my destination.
As soon as I left the station, dark clouds which had been threatening all day finally released monsoon like rains. Furthermore, I realized that I had disembarked in what appeared to be a rough part of town. Needless to say, I had no desire to stick around and decided to just go back to the hostel. My afternoon excursion had become a lost cause. In the interest of avoiding another two hour transit, I flagged down a cab instead of using the LRT. But in Manila’s traffic it took another hour and a half for even the taxi to make it back to the hostel. I decided never to venture far in Manila again.
When the rain had ceased and the sun had set, I took a short walk to the night market next to the hostel to sample some local food. Having never been to a Filipino restaurant, I was curious about their cuisine but I soon discovered why the Philippines is not known as a culinary heavyweight. Local dishes consisted of chunks of overcooked meat dowsed in bland sauces. Some things were extremely salty and others had no taste at all. A few bites and the overabundance of fast food restaurants in Manila began to make a little more sense. But the real treat of the night market was not the food, it was the entertainment.
In a courtyard between the food stalls were several plastic tables and a small stage where a local band belted out covers of American classic rock and pop songs all night long. They could play anything from Led Zepplin to Lady Gaga. They didn’t always play the best music but they always played it well. I was very impressed by their range and stage presence. Something about their attitude, their nonchalant ness, made them fun to watch. Such episodes would be repeated over and over again during my stay in the Philippines. I came to realize that the Filipinos are truly a musical bunch. It seemed to be very much a part of their culture.
The following morning, I made my move towards the Bohol; one of three islands I would visit in the Visayas. I shared a taxi with a Ugandan businessman from the hostel to the airport. The businessman and the taxi driver bantered back and forth constantly throughout the trip. Both Filipinos and Ugandans learn English in school from a young age but their accents were starkly different. Each had to repeat himself several times before the other understood. When the Ugandan made a pit stop at the gas station, the Filipino complained to me that he can never understand ‘black’ people. When the Ugandan and I exited the cab at the airport, he said the same thing about Filipinos. It was all very comical.
My flight to Bohol arrived in mid afternoon in the pouring rain. I hired a tricycle to take me to Alona Beach, Bohol’s tourist hub. I assumed this would be the best place to get my bearings. Unfortunately, I did not have any accommodation booked and each guesthouse the driver recommended was either full or too expensive. Eventually I was forced to trudge through the heavy rain alone in search of an affordable room. My bag and many of its contents were soaked before I finally stumbled upon ‘Chill Out’, a simple guesthouse ten minutes walk from the beach.
The place was run by a friendly local woman. Her energetic puppy kept all of the guests entertained. The relaxed atmosphere was a welcome contrast from the town itself which, from what I had seen so far, was too developed for my tastes. As a typical tourist beach, Alona had a couple of resorts, lots of reggae bars and a plenty of old white men with young Filipina women. The latter was something I would have to get used to in the Visayas. The typical expat in this area of the world was a tattood wrinkly old man in a muscle shirt with a small Filipina in a short skirt at his side. It was a sad scene which was played out over and over on these beaches. In fact, one of the first things I witnessed upon arriving at Alona was an elderly white man brought to tears as he pledged his love to a girl one quarter his age. She continually tried to shift the topic to the ‘expense account’ he promised her so that they could ‘stay in touch’. This was South East Asia at its worst.
Nevertheless, I had not come to Alona to experience the expat culture. I came to dive, and thirty minutes from the beach lay Balicasag island, one of the Philippines most famous dive spots. It was the reason for my visit. There was a plethora of dive shops all willing to shuttle me there and, with so much competition, one dive in this area of the Philippines was a mere twenty five dollars. But there was a catch. I had not dived in well over a year and most shops stipulated that I undergo an expensive review course before going to Balicasag. This meant paying to demonstrate dive skills in shallow water with an instructor. Confident enough in my abilities, a full review course seemed unnecessary. It felt like a waste of my time and money. After enough digging, I managed to find a dive master who was willing to compromise. On the first dive, he said I could quickly demonstrate only the most important scuba skills (take off and replace mask, buoyancy and recover regulator) before continuing into a coral reef. On the second dive we could explore a marine cliff. Furthermore, it would be just the instructor and I for both the dives. I had an exclusive guide. It was a good deal.
By nine the following morning, we were on a boat heading towards Balicasag Island. With thirty minutes to spare before arrival, I got to know my instructor a little better. His name was Bart and he had led an interesting life. Born in the mountains of Northern Luzon, he spent his childhood far from the coast working high-altitude farms in the remote areas of the Cordillera. When he turned eighteen, a cousin offered him an opportunity to move to the Visayas and learn to be diving instructor. It was an odd offer for someone who had grown up in the mountains. Bart had never even stepped foot in the ocean. But he took the opportunity anyway and has been living on the coast ever since.
To be honest, his story made me a little uncomfortable. Ideally, I would have liked my instructor to be of the ‘I was born on this beach’ variety. My diving instructor was actually a mountain farmer. Once we had assembled our equipment and got under the water, however, I felt much better. He clearly had a lot of experience and knew what he was doing.
We began our first dive on a sandy section of the ocean floor. The water was clear and the visibility good. It only took a few minutes for me to demonstrate the basic skills. Then we moved onto the reef, where colourful coral and strange sea creatures awaited us. A curious sea turtle was our first fascinating find. He was teal green with a large round shell. His sub beak cropped the fields of sea grass on the ocean floor. It reminded me of a farmer tending to rice patties. As we continued into the reef, several more sea turtles appeared, one after another. I couldn’t believe how many there were. On previous dives, I would have been happy to spot one. Now I was surrounded. Some were massive, more than a metre long and weighing far more than me. They occasionally stopped to stare but generally seemed undisturbed by our presence. Most floated about the coral with no evident destination. We followed them everywhere they went, allowing the rest of our surroundings to fade into insignificance. Unlike the turtles, however, our tanks only gave us so much time in the ocean. An hour after we jumped in, we had to head back to the boat.
Our second dive began along a steep marine cliff. At nearly fifty metres in height, the rock face was blanketed in all sorts of colourful coral. It was a spectacular sight. There were plenty of interesting little creatures scurrying about the rocks. Many fish made homes out of the nooks and crannies. Some nervously charged us when we approached. But nothing was big enough to cause any harm. It was a very unique diving experience. In my short diving career, I had never really seen anything else like it. An hour down there passed in a minute. Before I knew it, my tank was nearly empty once again. I emerged from the ocean wishing I had paid for three dives. I even considered staying another night in Alona, but with less than a week left in my trip, it was time to move on.
Still wet with ocean water, I jumped on a tricycle heading back to Tagbilaran, Bohol’s capital city. From there I rented a motorbike and set off towards the jungle. My destination was a small eco tourism project set on Bohol’s biggest river deep in the interior. It was accessible only by means of a long and bumpy dirt path. I arrived at the main gate just after sunset. Above it was a wooden sign which read ‘Nuts Huts’. It was another five minute walk down steep stone steps to reach the front desk.
Nuts Huts was one of the most interesting places I had ever stayed. Cut off from all other island development, the entire complex was built from simple materials using traditional means. The large common area, built on stilts and covered by a straw roof, overlooked the slow moving Loboc river. A set of small huts, hidden amongst the foliage along the riverbank, provided several types of accommodation. Each gave one the feel of being at one with nature. The Belgium couple who owned the place organized a range of eco friendly activities, from Kayaking to jungle treks, and whipped up some tasty meals in their small kitchen. They served me a delicious chicken curry dish soon after I arrived then set me up in their basic riverside dorm room. My only roommates that night were a few shy spiders. I had the dorm all too myself. The sounds of the jungle quickly lulled me into a deep sleep.
I awoke just after sunrise. Save for the family of goats grassing outside the door of my hut, everyone was still asleep. I took advantage of the peaceful atmosphere to paddle up river in a kayak that was tied to the riverbank next to my dorm. The river was so lazy that its surface was flat as a mirror. Only the splash of my paddle and the occasional jumping fish broke the effect. Unlike most other jungle rivers I had encountered, its waters were not stained brown by sediment. It was a dark teal color which faded into a light blue at its banks.
I slowly padded up stream past local families taking part in early morning activities. Some were refurbishing old canoes. Others were preparing fishing supplies. Some were just going for a morning dip. I often received a wave or a smile as I approached.
The currents picked up as I came to a set of small waterfalls cascading over several rocky cliffs. Unable to advance any further, I could only park my kayak on nearby rocks and admire the beautiful scene. When I was ready, I turned back down river.
It was just after eight when I arrived back at the huts, in time for a hearty cheese and vegetable omelette. Their home cooked meals were truly delicious. Then I jumped on my motorbike and set off into the heart of the island by means of its windy cross-island roads. It was cloudy and spitting rain but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be cruising once again. I really do love motor biking.
Unlike backwater roads in most South East Asian countries, Bohol’s were well paved, well marked and easy to navigate. I passed several villages and towns along the way. Each was full of curious and friendly faces. Adults waved while kids ran along the highway screaming Christmas greetings. Although homes were simple, the locals appeared to be more well off than their counterparts in neighbouring South East Asian countries. Many lived in sturdy shacks and looked to be well fed. Each district had a large public school and local businesses always had customers. The interior was also dotted with some fantastic colonial architecture. Grandiose churches and imposing government buildings, some more than a couple hundred years old, could be found in even the smallest towns. These extravagant buildings were often surrounded by only simple shacks. The juxtaposition was just as confusing as it was interesting.
I soon arrived at my first tourist stop of the day, the Chocolate Hills. These large conical shaped mounds of grassy land are Bohol’s most famous attraction. They stretched from the highway all the way to the horizon, varying in height and width to create all sorts of bizarre shapes. It was a unique sight but, in the cloudy conditions, not as spectacular as expected. As was often the case during my travels, I enjoyed the trip to the destination more than the destination itself.
From the hills I rode through rice patties and over dirt roads to the second tourist stop of the day, Bohol’s Tarsier Sanctuary. Tarsiers are the world’s smallest primates and endemic to just a few islands in the Philippines. The sanctuary was created to promote the well being of this endangered species and educate the public about their precarious position in the animal kingdom.
A local guide met me at the entrance then led me into a walled area of forest. As Tarsiers are nocturnal, the woman knew exactly where to find them sleeping through the day. The first one we spotted was a middle aged female clinging to a branch only a couple meters off the ground. I could have touched her she was so close. It was a bizarre looking creature with the body of monkey, the tail of a rat and the large circular eyes of a lemur. She was so small I could have easily fit her in the palm of one hand. Much to my surprise, the guide began poking her with a small twig so that she would open her giant eyes and face us. It hardly seemed like an action appropriate of a conservationist at a sanctuary. I must admit, however, I was happy to get a good view of the Tarsier’s large brown eyes. They were mesmerizing. The guide poked and prodded the little female to such a point that she began showing us her teeth, after which we quickly moved out of her territory. After all, although docile during the day, these little primates can jump up to five metres and inflict a serious bite.
From the sanctuary, I rode my bike back to Tagbilaran in the hazy light of the late afternoon. Before sunset I found a quaint hostel on the edge of town. I would catch a ferry from the nearby port the following morning, but until then, I had some time to explore. Tagbilaran is a small coastal town with an even smaller infrastructure. The traffic was horrendous. There were so many tricycles crowding the streets that it was often quicker to walk than to drive. But the small island capital had its charms as well. A large beautiful church with an adjoining square sat in the town center. This was where locals relaxed, strolled and listened to busking musicians. Right next door was a tall shopping complex complete with a supermarket, a department store and a Pizza Hut. This was where locals bought cheap clothes, escaped the summer heat and stuffed themselves full of American fast food. I knew I wasn’t the only foreigner who had been through town when I found only travel size bottles of shaving cream at the supermarket. I also had an odd moment in the department store. While searching for a travel hat, I was caught off guard by an intercom announcement. A man who spoke English with a perfect American accent had begun reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I noticed that everyone in the mall had stopped in their place, fallen silent and lowered their heads. Not wanting to draw any attention, I quickly followed suit. The man spoke in a near hypnotic voice for several minutes. As he did, I stood there awkwardly, checking those around me to see if there was something I should or should not be doing. When the prayer finished, everyone continued about there business. I felt like I had just been a part of a flash mob. With no interest in taking part in another religious ceremony, I quickly grabbed a hat, paid for it and returned to my hostel.
Having been up early and on the go almost every day since arriving in Bohol, I decided to give myself a night to relax and hang out. After a quiet dinner, I took a walk through town to find a place to have a drink. I ended up at the town’s only sports bar where a local band was playing covers of Britney Spears. Enjoying neither the atmosphere nor the music, I soon moved on in search of another spot. As one might expect in a Filipino town of only fifty thousand, there was not much to choose from. But I was lucky to stumble upon a small wooden building with a sign which read ‘Martin’s: drinks and new friends’ out front. It looked promising so I decided to check it out. I was stopped at the entrance by a shy hostess.
“Hello sir, I’m very sorry sir, there is a music event and cover charge tonight” she said sheepishly.
“How much?” I asked expecting, by her bashful demeanour, to be asked for an exorbitant amount.
“Thirty pesos” she said, covering her mouth as if she was embarrassed by the price. I quickly did the calculations in my head. It was equivalent to seventy five cents. I smiled and gave her a hundred. She scrambled for change but had much difficulty finding any coins.
“Don’t worry about it” I said at last. “Just give the rest to the organisers. I like to support local music.”
I walked up a set of creaky stairs into a windowless room. The whole building appeared to be made of aged wood. There was a short bar on one side of the room, a small stage opposite and several tables in between. To my surprise, the tables were packed with local youth. I was lucky to get a stool at the bar. The ‘music event’ the hostess had spoken of consisted of performances by various local artists. Most sang covers of western songs but some played their own music as well. Every performer, without exception, was well trained and capable. I found myself once again impressed by the Filipinos musical prowess. They were undoubtedly a musical bunch. Even in this smoky bar on a sparsely inhabited island, the talent was outstanding.
After polishing off a couple beers, I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting at the bar next to me. She was a local student who appeared to be, like me, drinking alone. As it turns out, however, she was one of the event organizers and waiting for a large group of friends to arrive. We chatted about music and life in the Philippines. She was proud of her little town and its small music scene. Well versed in the history of each performer and each local song, she gave me a short insider perspective into each performance. I had certainly sat down next to the right person. Then again, this had become a common trend in Asia. It seemed as though every time I ventured into a bar alone, I ended up sitting down next to the right people. Making friends was never hard. In small towns like Tagbilaran, as one of the few foreigners around, I felt the same warmth I felt from locals all over Asia. But there was one key difference: the absence of communication barriers. Everyone in the Philippines spoke English. I could talk to anyone about nearly anything. It was refreshing.
Soon my new friend’s posse arrived. It was rambunctious group of students. They introduced themselves one at a time. Each seemed friendlier then the last. There were so many I had trouble keeping all of their names and faces straight. When the performances finished, we all moved to a large table. That’s when the real mayhem started. The party was kicked into top gear as everyone began ordering beers three at a time and finishing them within the hour. A bottle of tequila landed on the table after which every glass of beer offered was laced with a shot of Jose Cuervo. Shrimp chips and crackers were the only protection against the onslaught of boos. Needless to say, the entire group was smashed by midnight. As the bar cleared out, we moved tables out of the way to create a small dance floor. Everyone took turns showing off their best moves. When I sat down, each member of the group took a chance to sit down next to me and chat. The guys were all keen to tell me about their escapades with the women. The women were all keen to tell me about their foreign pen pals. At three in the morning the bar finally kicked us out. There were so many long drawn out goodbyes on the street corner, you would’ve thought the group was parting forever.
Makisig, one of the guys I had spend much of the latter half of the night chatting with, insisted on driving me back to my hostel. Even though I had no interest in riding on the back of a drunken Filipino’s moped, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. At any rate, I knew my hostel was only a four blocks away and I convinced him to stop for fast food.
As Makisig and I sat at Tagbilaran’s only MacDonald’s, chowing down on hamburgers, I told him how lucky I felt to meet such an entertaining group of friends. Makisig found this all very amusing even though I was trying to be sincere. “Really, you guys are a great group. Everyone gets along well and you all seem to be so close. I really feel lucky to have met you all.” Perhaps the tequila was doing some of the talking for me at this point.
“Yeah, I am lucky to know them. I think we are friends because we need to be.” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we all have family problems. Without friends, some of us would have no one. In our town, friends are everything.” His tone was a little more serious now. There was a moment of silence while we both took another bite of our hamburgers.
“What kinds of problems?” I finally asked, unsure of whether he wanted to expand on the subject.
“Different problems… Some dads hit. Some dads are gone… Some moms cheat… you know. Just shit like that. Everyone in that group has a different story.” He said this all as a matter of fact as he shoved large handfuls of twister fries into his mouth. “You remember Tommy? The skinny kid with the big hair?” he asked. I did remember him. He had been one of the most rambunctious of the group, laughing and dancing all night, and he indeed had a very unique hairdo.
“A year ago, Tommy watched his father die in front of his eyes. It was some drug thing. He was shot in Tommy’s house and Tommy saw the whole thing. Now He lives with his grandmother cause his mom left a long time ago.” I was immediately taken aback. By the way Tommy was acting, it never would have occurred to me that this poor kid had gone through such recent trauma.
“He seemed so laidback and happy tonight.” I muttered in disbelief.
“I know he smiles a lot. But it’s fake. When were alone, he cries. He cries a lot…” I didn’t even know how to respond. I had no experience in my life to relate to such a heartbreaking story.
“Fucking hell. I can’t imagine.” Is all I could muster. There was another long moment of silence.
“Do you know how old we are?” he asked, looking up from his French fries for the first time in several minutes.
“I assume you are all university students. Early twenties I guess.”
He laughed. “Not quite. Preat (the girl you met first) and her cousin are in university. I think they are twenty one. But most of us are still in high school. Actually, I’m only seventeen.”
“Seventeen!” I was flabbergasted. He certainly did not look nor act like a seventeen year old. I wondered if I had spent too much time in Taiwan, where anyone who looks seventeen is usually twenty seven. Regardless, never in my life had I seen Asian high school kids drink so much. I began feeling somewhat awkward about the whole situation. I quietly shook my head, trying to wrap my head around it.
“Don’t worry. We go out like this every weekend. This is the Philippines.” He said, noticing the distress this new piece of information had caused me.
“I’m just… surprised I guess…” I muttered.
“Haha, Let’s get you home. You look like your going to fall over.”
“Agreed. I can’t drink like you young bucks anymore. I’m about ready to pass out.” I think it was the first time I had ever referred to someone as a young buck. I bid farewell to my underage friend and sheepishly set off towards my hostel, still bewildered by both Tommy’s story and Makisig’s age.
The streets were still busy at four in the morning. There were large groups of people hurriedly walking about. ‘How could such a small town have so many people out partying this late?’ I wondered to myself. It was a strange sight. To add to my confusion, I noticed that these groups included kids as young as four and adults as old as eighty. Everyone was very well dressed and chipper. I realized that these were not partygoers. These were mass goers. It was Christmas time and the most devout of the city were on their way to church for morning prayers. This realization made me feel even guiltier about getting wasted with a group of underage teens.
When I awoke the next morning, I was hit with the type of hangover that many of those kids won’t experience for years to come. I sluggishly made my way to the harbour, bought a ticket for Negros and plopped myself down in the overcrowded waiting room. I had nearly nodded off when I heard my name called from across the room. I turned around to see Preat, the music event organizer, pushing through the crowd towards me. The night before we had discussed a compilation CD she had recently put together. It was a mix of Bohol’s best music. She was doing her best to promote it. Since she had not brought any copies with her to the bar, I promised that if she met me at the pier I would buy one. I had forgotten about the whole affair until I saw her face on the opposite end of the waiting room.
“Wow, you actually found me!” I said, genuinely surprised as she approached.
“Of course, I knew where to look.” She puffed, still out of breath. “Here it is.” She held out a CD case which read Bohol’s Best Music on the cover. I paid three times the marked price. After all, she had gone through lots of trouble to get it to me. I think it meant a lot to her to get her work in the hands of a foreigner. It was her way of promoting Bohol’s music scene to the world. I think we both left the harbour happy.
I was on my way to Negros, an island two hours away by boat. It was a short ride but I sat pinned between two massive men throughout the journey. Their rolls of fat spilled over my armrests, jiggling against my shoulders in the choppy seas. Exhausted and sick to my stomach, this made for a painful ride.
I arrived in Dumaguete, Negros’s capital, at around noon. Upon exiting the port, I was immediately taken aback by the appeal of this happenin’ little town. After passing through Manila and Tagbilaran, I had come to expect the worst from Filipino capitals. Congested and rundown, they were typically far from charming. Dumaguete, however, was different. Its long sea side boardwalk was well manicured and relaxing. Its roads were not terribly congested and its mountainous backdrop made it especially picturesque at sunset. With several universities within a stone’s throw of the town center, there were a fair share of student centered businesses and plenty of cheap meals around. Accommodation was also reasonable. I found a great little hotel with clean single rooms not far from the waterfront for a killer price. To my relief, I was finally able to sleep off the hangover which had been following me around all day.
When I awoke several hours later, it was already after dark. But this was not an issue in Dumaguete. Being a university town, there was plenty of after-hours entertainment to keep one busy, especially on a Saturday night over Christmas break. After devouring some fish tempura on the seaside boulevard, I began searching for a place to hang out. I somehow found myself at a small videoke bar. Videoke is like the poor man’s KTV. In the corner of many run down bars in the Philippines, you often find what looks like an arcade game from the 80s. Instead of playing pac-man, however, it belts out karaoke covers of western songs over images of recent basketball highlights or ocean views. Bar patrons (usually middle aged men) pass around a microphone, taking turns to sing. I often found videoke bars to be somewhat depressing establishments and this one was no exception. I finished my beer quickly and got the hell out of there.
With the goal of finding a livelier crowd, I went straight to Dumaguete’s most famous disco, ‘Why Not?’ It was recommended by many in town and, upon entering, I could see why. The bar catered to all types; there were pool tables, lounge chairs, arcade games, a shot bar, a cocktail bar and a bottom lit dance floor; something for everyone. Patrons included college girls, young professionals, middle aged couples, pool sharks, international students and old expats. I was not crazy about the atmosphere. Although the crowd was eclectic, witnessing old white men (and their prostitutes) sharing the dance floor with young university girls was depressing. I went home early without any great desire to return.
Early the following morning, I woke up to the sound of a ringing phone. I wasn’t even aware my room had a phone and fumbled around in the dark to find it. The front desk was calling to inform me that a man had come to the hotel to rent me a motorbike. I recalled that I had talked to this man the day before about the possibility of renting a motorbike but had made no commitments. He was supposed to wait for my phone call. I guess he was too eager. I agreed to take the motorbike anyways.
The mountains behind Dumaguete were my destination for the day. It was fantastic biking territory. The road twisted and turned its way up steep inclines and past small hill top villages. The vegetation was dense but occasional openings revealed stunning views down the coast of Negros or up into the peaks above. After more than an hour on the trail, it ended at a pair of serene lakes which lay side by side high in the mountains. Their waters were calm and surrounded by drift wood, rounded stones and forested peaks. It was the perfect place to take an afternoon stroll or to just sit on the shore pondering life.
The ride down was a challenge. Thick storm clouds moved in and began to spill grape-size raindrops all over the road. Completely soaked by the time I reached the coast, I stopped at the first roadside restaurant I could find to escape the downpour. It was a small barbeque chicken joint. This brought a smile to my face. Filipino food is certainly not something to write home about, but if there is one thing they do well in the kitchen, it’s barbeque a chicken. Every barbequed chicken I had in the country was succulent and delicious. This roadside restaurant’s offering was no different. In fact, they served me one of the best half chicken meals I had all trip.
Once the rain cleared and the chicken was eaten, I continued up the coastal highway. The road was long, straight and passed through nothing but rice patties. It was painfully boring compared to the mountain roads from which I had come. When the clouds began threatening once again and I decided to just turn back. Dumaguete had a colourful sunset waiting for me anyways.
After a quick shower at the hotel, I went back to the seaside boulevard. Soon I was sitting at a small dive shop/restaurant with a plate of fish and chips in front of me. I was the only customer but the restaurant’s two waitresses, Tammy and Sada, were good company. They seemed to take much pleasure in getting to know the various characters who passed through their place of work. After my meal, I sat sipping beers and chatting with them about local attractions. When they began closing down the joint, I suggested that we continue the conversation somewhere else. They suggested a small disco down the street called Zanzibar.
Zanzibar was loud, overcrowded and hardly a good place for conversation. We were caged into a small corner of the bar with little chance of escape. But it was enough space to order drinks and dance. That was all we really needed. Actually, we were having a blast. I even got the feeling that Sada was a little interested in me. It was shaping up to be a fun night. Then two young Filipino men suddenly joined the group. They turned out to me Tammy and Sada’s boyfriends. I didn’t even know they had boyfriends. The two men both gave me fake smiles which conveyed a subtle hint of annoyance and quickly skirted their girlfriends away from the random foreigner. I was left dumbfounded and standing at the bar alone. I quickly finished my beer, grabbed a late night snack and went back to the hotel, irritated by how the night had ended.
The following morning I packed my bags, walked to the pier and boarded a boat bound for Cebu. This island would be the last stop of my Filipino adventure. As one of the Philippines’ most developed islands, I had no interest in spending a lot of time there. In fact, I really had only two reasons for visiting. First, flights from Cebu City back to Manila were dirt cheap. Second, Cebu was one of the few places in the Philippines where I could swim with whale sharks. Ever since I had heard about the possibility of swimming with these giant fish, I was dying to give it a try. But I first had to reach Oslob, a village on the southern coast of the island, where the whale shark sighting was centered.
On the boat over to the Philippines I met a local driver, Tal, who shuttles people to and from the whale shark viewing area. He seemed friendly enough and offered to help me organize my transportation and accommodation. His price was reasonable and I liked his laidback attitude, so I agreed to make him my guide. Tal set me up in a cheap dorm room and prepared my transportation for the following day. Then, he took me to his favourite videoke bar to drink beer and play pool. He played horribly to begin with, then started sinking every shot with ease. I got the feeling he was a bit of a pool shark. Fortunately we weren’t playing for money.
When we split the bill at the end of the night, I realized that I had a problem. There were only a few notes left in my wallet and no ATM for miles around. It was a silly mistake. I still needed to pay for the hotel, the whale sharks and Tal before leaving. Whether I could squeak by with the money I had left, only time would tell.
I had to wake up at 5:45AM the following morning. Apparently, the earlier the better when it comes to whale sharks. Tal drove me out to the viewing area where I was told to sit and watch a safety demonstration. It was all very serious. The speaker told us to maintain a four metre distance from the sharks at all times, avoid touching them and refrain from wearing sunscreen. Breaking any of these rules would result in a hefty fine. The twenty dollar price of admission included a snorkel and a mask. I also shared the cost of renting an underwater camera with two German sisters who were dying to get some pictures of themselves with the giant fish.
Next thing I knew we were paddling out into the open ocean in an oversized canoe. From the shallow waters we could already see the dorsal fins of several whale sharks a few hundred metres away. I was surprised by how close they were to the shore. It wasn’t long before we spotted one directly underneath us. Its long wide body took the form of a shark while its head resembled that of a whale. Distinctive white spots covered its dark skin. It poked its large nose above the water, directing plankton into its gaping mouth. One was followed by another, then another. Before we knew it, there were at least ten of them, circling the shallows around us. At first, I couldn’t understand why they would congregate in such numbers so close to the shore. But the reason quickly became clear. There were men in kayaks, paddling along side the sharks, throwing chum into the water. The sharks were being fed. They followed to kayaks closely, as if on a leash. It was all very controlled.
I didn’t hesitate to jump in the water. The longer I waited the more daunting it would become. The two German girls and our camera man followed suit. We were immediately in the thick of it. Everywhere we turned, whale sharks were approaching. They were several metres long and intimidating. I knew they were harmless, but setting eyes on the mouth of a giant shark swimming towards me was nerve-racking nonetheless. It was difficult to stay out of their way and impossible to maintain a four metre distance as instructed. I was often caught in the leg by a tail or fin as they passed. Their bodies were hard as wood and clearly held immense strength.
As more swimmers entered the water the whole scene became somewhat ridiculous. The sharks were encircled by tourists, each trying to get a perfect shot of themselves with the world’s biggest fish. But the sharks just kept following the kayaks with complete disregard for what was going on around them. Their only concern was being fed. I sometimes felt trapped between all the sharks, boats and swimmers. It was borderline claustrophobia. Our cameraman only added to the stress. Every time I resurfaced he would yell “SHARK COMING! DOWN! DOWN!” I could barely stay up long enough to get a breath. The scene was a far cry from the serene and magical experience I had concocted in my mind. In fact, I emerged from the water a little disappointed.
Tal was waiting for me on the shore when we returned. He could tell from the look on my face that the experience had been a bit of a let down. I assumed it was a look he had seen a few times before. Furthermore, having spent the few pesos I had left in my wallet on the underwater camera, we would have to go to the next closest town to find an ATM. He had no issues with this. The next town was only forty five minutes away and, of course, he would be paid for the journey.
It was a picturesque drive down the East coast of Cebu to Tamuluege. With time to spare, Tal allowed me to stop at a few scenic stops along the way. Unfortunately, when we finally arrived at the bank, we were met with a line up which stretched around the block. The ATM was out of money and it looked as though it had been that way all day. But the locals weren’t waiting for nothing. An armoured car had arrived on the scene. Two men with large guns guarded the machine while the specialists refilled it. It took them over an hour. Then it was another forty minutes before I made it to the front of the line. All this time, Tal waited patiently. I gave him a nice tip and bought him lunch before he returned to Oslob.
From the small town, I boarded a bus directly to Cebu City where I would spend my last night in the Philippines. It was a short ride to the city. As soon as I arrived, I was ready to leave. Cebu felt like a miniature Manila. The traffic was just as horrendous and the surroundings just as drab. I spent almost an hour desperately searching for a cab in a thick sea of exhaust fumes. After successfully flagging one down, it was another thirty minutes of battling traffic until I reached my guesthouse.
It was a dingy old building with gaudy furniture. The floor was splintered and the walls were falling apart. The bed in my single room smelt of old cheese. But this was still a haven in the middle of Cebu City. Only when my empty stomach was crying for food did I feel an inclination to leave. Fortunately my second excursion into the city was more pleasant than the first. I found myself in the modern downtown center where the pedestrian pathways were relatively spacious and relaxed. A central park also offered a nice area to avoid the exhaust and horns. There were even a few fancy modern buildings.
I had no great desire to experience Cebu’s nightlife, but as my trip came to the end, I felt as though the occasion called for at least a commemorative beer. Not willing to venture far, I found the closest bar to my guesthouse. It was called El Gecko and, upon entering, I quickly realized that it was just another sad establishment where old white men go to pick up young Filipinas. These places seemed to be everywhere in the Philippines. Needless to say, I quickly moved on in search of another watering hole.
A couple blocks down the road, I stumbled upon a small Irish pub. There was a band playing western covers on a make shift stage and a nice selection of beers on tap. It looked much more promising. As I had done several hundred times before during my travels, I walked in and sat down at the bar alone. It occurred to me that this would likely be the last time I would do such a thing for a long time. It was a bit of a sobering realization.
While waiting for my drink, I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He was also a foreigner, also alone and appeared to be about my age. He told me he was an English teacher and had been living in Asia for the last three years. With a little time off, he had come to the Philippines for a short vacation. As we drank and chatted about life overseas, we discovered many shared opinions and ideas. We had come to many of the some conclusions about life in Asia. We seemed to agree on everything. It was a little strange. Save for the fact that he had been living in Japan instead of Taiwan, we were like the same person. In the sea of old white men and surfer dudes, it was nice to have found a like minded foreign friend in the Philippines.
He soon left to go meet someone at the airport, but recommended that I check out a club nearby. Now feeling energized by good conversation and beer, I followed his recommendation. The club was a massive place packed full of strobe lights and gaudy décor, but it put me in the mood to party. I went straight from the door to the dance floor. The music sucked but I didn’t care. It was my last night. I just felt like dancing. I stayed on that dance floor all night.
I awoke to the sound of my phone’s alarm early the following morning. My flight would leave in a couple hours. My trip was coming to a close. I dragged myself out of bed and into a cab. As the taxi battled traffic towards the airport, I recounted my experiences of the past ten days. Island hopping, diving, motor biking, jungle kayaking, bizarre animals, night life, whale sharks; I had packed a lot into a week and a half. On paper it was impressive, but it really wasn’t the way I like to travel. I much prefer to take it slow and relax, alternate days of activity with days of lounging about. With so little time and so much to see, I guess I felt the need to keep moving. Every time I heard about something interesting I added it to my itinerary. My list had begun to outweigh the number of days I had left. In the end, I was scrambling to see it all. Perhaps I should have given myself some limits and taken more time in each spot. But I had enjoyed myself anyways. There was no need for regrets.
A world apart from the rest of South East Asia, the Philippines is undoubtedly an interesting country. I found it difficult, however, to put my finger on what exactly makes it unique. Heavily influenced by centuries of Spanish colonialism then decades of American rule, I felt as though the nation had developed a cultural void. Although I saw only a sliver of the archipelago over a short period, there was little in my experience which struck me as inherently Filipino. Most locals ate American fast food and listened to western music. People spent their time in shopping malls or drinking in western style bars. Locals mixed Tagalog (the Filipino language) with so many English and Spanish terms that I was usually able to follow the topic of any conversation. Furthermore, Catholicism seemed to dominate while Eastern religions were strangely absent. In the end, I had such a hard time grasping Filipino culture in the Visayas that I began to wonder if there is much to grasp in the first place.
As the last country I visited in East Asia, the Philippines was in a difficult position to impress. I unconsciously and automatically compared my experiences to those I had in neighbouring countries many of which, to be frank, were better. But I must say I enjoyed my stay and would recommend a visit to nearly any type of traveller. Even if some areas may be lacking in cultural richness and full of creepy old men, the Philippines undoubtedly has its charms. Beautiful white sand beaches are commonplace. Striking colonial architecture can be found just about anywhere. There are plenty of adventure activities to keep a backpacker busy and, most importantly, the people are open, warm and easy to talk to. As is often the case, the people are what ultimately make this country special. They alone are worth a visit.