Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Philippines with no Reservations


Foreword 

I enjoy traveling through developing countries, like the Philippines, much more than the high profile "first world" sort. Some may see the country as less clean or less technologically advanced but I find that there is more beauty in the people and more opportunity to have a truly memorable, altering experience in such a country. If you can look past the dirt and pollution and rather look into the eyes of the people, you will find these places to be more welcoming than even your home town.
Along with these opinions above, there are some very concrete benefits to traveling in a country like the Philippines. 

A Jeepney in Tacloban City
The public transportation here is impeccable. Buses and Jeepneys travel from town to town on a regular, frequent schedule. In towns and cities motorbikes, tricycles, multicabs, and taxis are in high supply. Even bicycle drawn cabbies are cursing the streets in small towns. Frerrys take daily trips between islands with close proximity and less frequent trips to further destinations.
Accommodations run from five-star quality to very basic. A basic room has a bed, a fan, and a bathroom with a bucket to shower and flush the toilet with. Even the most luxurious hotels are    cheap compared to U.S prices, which brings me to the benefits of the currency exchange.


Cozette's favorite cheap breakfast - Corned beef w/ egg and rice
Twenty dollars a day is more than plenty here to travel and have fun. This is an average daily cost when paying for long journeys, hotels, food, basic supplies, and unnecessary pleasures like snack foods, internet cafes, and nights out. When not on the move from town to town cost of transportation is greatly reduced. Fifteen dollars a day is a very realistic cost if staying in one place for multiple days. Food is simple, and therefore cheap. Expect to eat rice with every meal, including breakfast.


All of these factors make it easy to travel and see a wide variety of things and people in such a country. So, we travel on a whim. If there is something to be seen we go. It's freedom in the purest.


The following is a brief recount of our two month journey through the Philippines and details of our route through the islands.

Arrival


 We arrive at 1am in the Ninoy Aquino International airport in Manila. We have been up since 6am and have been flying or waiting in airports all day. As we shuffle forward and get in line to pass through the immigration checkpoint, I suddenly catch sight of the sign on the booth reading "you must present your visa and departing ticket..." this makes me a little nervous since we have only purchased a one way ticket into the country. When we get to the booth I explain to the clerk that we do not yet have a departure ticket, we didn't know it was necessary. She motions for someone and we're quickly whisked to the side into an office  where our passports are taken from our hands to be held behind a desk somewhere. If you have ever traveled internationally you know how nerve racking it would be to give up your passport to and official who precedes to examine and then leave the room with it in hand. Slowly, he returns and asks us how we plan to leave the country, if no return ticket has been purchased. He seems almost accusatory with his words. As if guilty of trying to illegally immigrate into the country, we quickly explain to him that we plan to buy another one way ticket to our next destination, we're only travelers, visiting and then moving on. I emphasis again, as convincingly as possible, that we did not know we needed a departure ticket. Another official with a badge of some sort steps into the office and the man we have just been explaining ourselves to brings him up to speed on the situation. They speak in Tagalog and I can't pick up any sort of emotion in the unfamiliar language. "How much trouble are we in?", I wonder. After they finish speaking they both turn their gazes to us. One of the men has his brow lowered, his eyes scanning back and forth between Cozette and I, the other repeatedly taps the edge of a stack of papers against the table top separating us. It's obvious they are both thinking about how to handle the situation. Some high up representative from Korean Air walks into the office. We flew into Manila on the airline and they are taking a fine for letting us enter the country without a departure ticket in the first place. He too is informed of the predicament. Cozette and I just stand waiting for questions or instructions or something. We feel pretty helpless with the situation. Two security guards lug our bags from the carousel just on the other side of the immigration booths. It's like looking across the border to freedom, it's so close. For a moment I wonder if we can just sneak through when everyone is busy. That bubble bursts as soon as I realize that that is exactly why they have taken our passports. Besides, that would land us in a lot more trouble, and in an entirely different kind of room than the one we are standing in. After 10 minutes or so of sitting and waiting in the office with nothing being done, we manage to communicate that we have a laptop, and if there is wireless internet, we can buy our tickets right now. They tell us to try it. We walk back and forth in this small area of the airport, stuck between the immigration booths and the security desk in the hall way leading back to the terminal. There are three network connections available but one is down and the other two are password protected. No one we ask knows the password, of course. An immigration officer comes from the office every five minutes or so to check on us. He knows we have no working internet connection but has no present solution. After half an hour trying the internet and asking for help from various security guards, info desk clerks, and other airport personnel, no one seems to have access to the internet. The officer returns and tells us that immigration will be closing at 3am, if we don't come up with our tickets by then we will be put on a return flight to Honolulu, where we had come from. We would be deported before we could even enter. My heart quickens a little. It's already 2am and we have made zero progress. We are trapped between checkpoints in a foreign airport, we're tired and under stress, and it seems as though immigration is hanging us out to dry, offering as little help and sympathy as possible. To make the situation even more difficult, communication is only half clear most of the time. We ask an airport employee if they can go to find an airline representative, maybe we can arrange to book an over priced ticket out of the country. The employee leaves, looking confident enough and walking in the right direction. Five or so minutes pass and we soon realize that the employee is not going to be our savior after all. We ask three people in all to help, none return. We are on our own, we realize, no one really cares. As Cozette and I start to freak out a little, searching for options and having no luck, the representative that had taken the fine for Korean Air returns. "Do you have a credit card?", he asks. We hand it over quickly, anything to get us through immigration to freedom. If he has a flight to book for us we will take it! We're desperate at this point. "You will be flying back to Honolulu", he says commandingly, as if the decisions is final. "We don't want to fly back to Oahu!", Cozette replies in her own authoritative tone.  "It's the only option, you will have tickets for the 28th of August." he responds. "No, we're not going back", we both explain. He looks around him and then motions for us to walk with him as he turns his back on the immigration office. A few steps later, he says in a hushed tone,"Fake. The itinerary will be fake, just to get you through immigration." This seems like serious business, Cozette and I exchange glances. "A fake ticket?" I ask. "Yes, I will have someone bring them over. It's the only way." We give this some thought. "Can we do that?", I ask. "Yes, just play along, say it was the only flight available, and you will make it through." "Ok, do we need to pay you though?" "No", He says, " The airline has already taken a fine, it's late and I just want to go home."
In five minutes someone brings us two printed itineraries for a flight to Honolulu on the 28th of August. They are completely legitimate. Someone has actually paid on a different credit card, to be canceled by the airline, I assume. Everything looks correct and our names appear next to the ticket numbers so we collect our luggage and passports form the office, explaining to the officers how we are so bummed we will be going back the way we came. We're lying through our teeth. We pass through the booths with no issue, our tickets are flawless, and we walk into the pick up area breathing sighs of relief. What a night! After an overpriced taxi ride to our hostel we finally relax into bed sometime around 3:30 am. It seems like the night has been a nightmare, but on second thought I decide it's just part of the unpredictability that comes with traveling, and that it will make a good story. Next time though, we will be more careful. We drift to sleep and don't wake until late the next morning.
Our route through The Philippines

The Hospitality of the Philippines

San Miguel - the Philippine original
We stay in Manila for a week. We meet a new friend named Edgar on couchsurfing.org.  He lives in Makati, Metro Manila. A few days are spent touring around the city and nights are spent out dancing, enjoying the night life in the Capitol city. It's a good time, the three of us, plus Will, another couchsurfer from Australia, sharing Ed's apartment. We came to the Philippines with no real plans, we didn't know much about the country or it's attractions. This ignorance , making the place so alluring, is what pushed us to visit the islands in the first place. We've picked the right person to stay with because Ed just happens to be a travel writer himself. Having seen almost all of the Philippines, he becomes our trip planner and concierge. Within a day or two we learn from him all of the places to go, and people to meet. He boasts a very well written blog - www.eazytraveler.com , and he is a fantastic photographer. With Ed's recommendation we have our plans to take dive lessons in Davao and enjoy the Katayawan festival there the following weekend. 
Couch surfing party at Ed's place in Manila. Photo by Will Hoffman

In Davao, we are greeted by our divemaster, Frank, a Danish man, at the airport. We go back to his house where we stay, and are made to feel at home, for three weeks in Davao. For more about our time in Davao read my previous posts, "Salamat Davao", "A Day of Diving" , and "A Filipino Family Experience".

Island Hopping

Our three weeks in Davao fly by and I'm more than ready to get out of the city. We've spent a month in the country already and have yet to leave a metropolitan area. The bus to northern Mindanao promises time spent in small towns, villages and rural parts of the country. We speed down the road in an empty, air-conditioned bus through the mountainous center of Mindanao. 8 hours later we step off in the town of Cagayan De Oro on the northern coast of the island. We decide that the air-conditioned buses are not for us. The chilly air blasts the entire time, forcing us to bundle up in jackets and blankets, and the higher price keeps the locals riding the slower, "non-aircon" buses. Riding with the people is half the fun. As we transfer to our next bus, the non-aircon heading further north to Balingoan, we get many curious stares as we push and squeeze our way to the back of the very full bus, avoiding hitting people with our large backpacks. Every bus and jeepney ride from here on out will resemble this. People ask the basics, where are we from? Are we missionaries? Are we enjoying the Philippines? The people have no shortage of kindness and are more than excepting of our awkward presence among them. 


The "Non-aircon"


We barrel down the snaking road at speeds that would make a car passenger uncomfortable, weaving in and out of our lane as we pass slower traffic. There are no windows on this bus, the cool night air blows freely through. As the bus comes to a slow roll to let people off, the crowd thins out and pretty soon it is only me and Cozette to the end of the line. We pull into the small port town at 10pm. It's raining and the town is empty. We will catch a ferry the next morning but since there are no hotels or lodging houses in town, our bus driver escorts us to a house by the pier where travelers awaiting the ferry can rest and wait. We tip him and head to sleep. 

View of Camiguine from Balingoan



One of the island's many falls
The Sunken Cemetary
The island of Camiguine is an hour and a half ferry ride to the north of Balingoan. We arrive before noon and find a budget hotel for our base camp. The tiny island cannot be more than 50 miles in circumference and a coastal road hugs the sea all the way around.       Because of it's size we rent a motorbike and spend the next day touring and eventually circumnavigating the unspoiled island. This island of volcanic conception is home to some refreshing waterfalls and sweeping coastal views. We spend some time snorkeling at "The sunken cemetery", which was swallowed by the sea after an earthquake in 1871. It's since become a home for corals and fish in the warm shallows surrounding the monumental cross that memorializes the site. It takes only one day to explore the island on our motorbike and the next day we almost miss the departing ferry to Bohol. Arriving at the wrong port town only fifteen minutes before the ferry is due to leave, we quickly hire two men with motorcycles to get us where we need to be. Racing through the curves along the winding road with our 40 lb packs almost dragging us off of the back of the bikes, we make it to the right port, 10 kilometers or so away, just in time. With windswept hair we set off to the island of Bohol. 






Google image of Chocolate Hills
Google : Tarsier
Bohol has two main tourist attractions. The first of which is The Chocolate Hills, a large frequency of clustered, perfectly shaped hills, that turn a chocolate color during the dry season. Science has discovered the hills to be remnants of prehistoric ocean reefs, while Filipino legend tells that they are tear drops from a giant. The second of the islands popular attractions is a critter called the Tarsier. It's the world's smallest and oldest living species of primate. We decide to skip both of these attractions. We are told by a guide that the Chocolate hills were actually deforested to create their bald, ferry tale like, grassy covered slopes. This immediately takes away the wonder of the strange hills for us. The Tarsier, doomed by it's cute and cuddly appearance and it's over exposure by the Philippine department of tourism, has, for the most part, been illegally captured and caged for tourists to photograph and gawk at. We weren't about to support this industry so instead we spent a couple of days in Tagbilaran City with close proximity to Pangalao Island. 


Bikini Beach, Pangalo Island,


Cave Swimming pools
A pristine and expensive dive location, Pangalao has many world class dive resorts. We take a day trip to Bikini beach, one of white sand and warm shallows, where we do more snorkeling. Pangalao also has a small cave with an underground swimming hole consisting of both fresh and salt water. As we make our way through Bohol's interior, in a northeasterly direction, we spend a night camping in Rajah Sikatuna National Park. The Park has seen better days, it's mostly abandoned with a few scattered empty buildings and only minimal necessary staff. The camp ground is a large cleared area with dense forest surroundings. In the fading light of the evening a clan of monkeys comes swinging and crashing through the canopy. We hear them calling to each other long before they can be seen and like a gang, ten or so of the primates make their way to the ground and head straight for us. They sit only a few yards from where we are in the progress of setting up our tent. They study us for awhile and then, realizing we won't be offering any food, they move elsewhere. Later, we spot a flying lemur gliding to a jack fruit tree in our clearing for an evening snack. After a night of steady rain, we accompanied the park's bird watching guide on a walk through the dense tangled rain forest. He can identify every bird by it's call and he even plays his own recordings to try coaxing the birds down into view, but the birds are high and out of sight. Instead we walk and he points out insects and lizards and tells jokes along the way. That's good enough for us. We spend another uneventful night in Ubay, on the NE coast of the island and catch the ferry to Leyte.


A night in Maasin is occupied by drinks which leads to singing karaoke with the locals. Karaoke, by the way, has been a popular evening activity ever since it was introduced by the Japanese. It's hard to go a day without hearing someone's shameless rendition of a popular tune blaring from a bar or eatery. It's not always pleasant to the ears but it offers a challenge to the singer and a good time.
In Padre Burgos, in the south, we find a perfectly secluded beach with clear water and great views, sometimes hard to come by in the Philippines. We camp so close to the water that the rising tide threatens to  flood our tent in the night. The beach has good snorkeling with corals right off shore. It's a hangout for locals and fisherman, children wrestle in and out of the water all day.

Camping near Padre Burgos.

We make our way up the Leyte's west coast to Ormoc. On a Saturday night the strip along the harbor is filled with people.Vendors line the street selling popcorn, peanuts, chicharrones, and lechon manok (grilled chicken). An "Ormoc Idol", singing competition, is being held in the town square. Kids of varying ages sit in small groups in the park. Restaurants all around sit guests outside who sip beer and feast, enjoying the pleasant evening, just a typical Saturday evening in the town of 200,000 or so. We join in on the fun, relaxing in a restaurant and listening to the live music. Cruising the streets, we get lots of stares, smiles, and "Good evenings!", as do we anywhere.We sleep in a budget room and head for Tacloban, the island's provincial capitol, sometime the next day. In Tacloban we find a lodging house where students attending the nearby university board. It's a large, old house owned by an elderly lady. We accidentally scare her a couple of times as we come into the large living area, and again, later when we try to pay her, she doesn't hear us approaching. The house has many rooms, a large courtyard for hanging laundry and it's close to good food. We are tired from moving from place to place so we relax and stay here for 3 days before heading on to the next island of Samar.


ABCD surf beach
North of Tacloban is a bridge spanning the channel between Leyte and Samar. We take a bus across and down to the small town of Guiuan on the southern most tip of Samar. Samar is one of the poorest islands in the Philippines, it can be seen from the windows of the bus as we pass through villages not on our map or in the travel guide. Dwellings in rural areas are open air huts made from bamboo wood and palm leaves. The bus weaves around squares of rice spread on the road tops to dry, the only flat place suitable for the necessary, life sustaining, process. It's a reminder of how basic the laws of existence are; eat and survive.
Guiuan is a small and simple town. The main source of transportation are petty cabs drawn by bicycle. During WWII Guiuan was a strategically placed naval base for the U.S to launch attacks on Japan. There were 150,000 troops stationed here. Remnants of the base are still seen today. The island of Homonhon to the south is where Ferdinand Magellan first landed in 1521, claiming the Philippines for the Spain. He was murdered soon after by Chief Lapu-Lapu near what is now Cebu City.
We venture to the nearby Calicoan island and stumble upon the one of the archipelago's best surfing spots, ABCD beach. The beach holds an annual surfing competition October 7th-9th, attracting local and international competition to this long stretch of Pacific facing coast.The surfers invite us to their hut and we spend the afternoon chatting, watching people ride the waves and generally having a good time. The location is pretty remote so we wait 30 minutes or so for someone to pass, offering us a ride. We are back in town by dark.
Cozette enjoys the 4-hr ride on the roof of a Jeepney


The next day before we leave, we go snorkeling in the harbor by our hotel. The water is murky with low visibility and as we swim Cozette has a run in with a jellyfish and she gets stung on her arm and feet.We end our snorkeling promptly and Cozette makes a new enemy.The stinging subsides in an hour or so and soon we are on the move again. We catch a jeepney heading north. there's no more room inside so we opt for a ride on the roof, The breeze is refreshing and the views of the countryside and rural villages is unmatched. We arrive in Borangon where we do nothing for a couple of days and then we go to Catbalogan.


Catbalogan may be one of Samar's only real tourist destinations. On the West coast, Catbalogan is the jumping off point for many of the Philippines best caves. Joni Bonifacio has a business here guiding people to the untouched caves, waterfalls, and gorges in the islands interior. We meet with him the next morning and spend the day in Lobo cave. To read more about our caving experience see my post, "Caving in Samar".


We leave Catbalogan and after one day of travel by bus and an excruciatingly delayed and unorganized journey by ferry, we arrive in Matnog on the southern tip of Luzon. Matnog is a small town with no real hotels, so we are guided by someone so conveniently waiting for us to come off of the ferry, to a small house where we pay too much for a room. The next day is spent in Legaspi, a city at the foot of a dangerously active volcano, Mt. Mayon, who's last eruption was in 2009. My intention for coming to Legaspi was to photograph the perfectly shaped volcano, but the clouds were stubborn and we never saw the top of the cone.
Google image of Mt. Mayon


A ten hour bus ride put us back in Manila at 4:30 am on a Friday morning. We finished our tour where we began. We spend the next couple of days at Ed's place preparing for the next leg of our travel, and we have one more night on the town to celebrate with our new friends.


Afterthoughts


The Philippines is a destination worthy of my return and of anyone's exploration. I only had the time to explore a fraction of this Nation, there's much left unseen. It's home to hospitable, friendly people. Everywhere you go, from villagers living the most basic of lives, to busy Manila residents, you are sure to be welcomed with a smile. The Philippines is a place of beauty; sprawling, reflective rice fields lay at the base of palm covered volcanoes, and uncounted numbers of beaches offer inviting aqua-colored waters, provoking long days of sun induced laziness. Reputation often warns people to avoid this SE Asian Archipelago, but if you believe seeing is believing, you will be taken back by the abundant experiences you will have, and humbled by the way of life that the islands are home to.

 

6 comments:

Pop said...

You guys are a hoot!! It is almost unbelievable how you two always fall into safe and supporting arms. I think you have developed an instinct that will carry you safely through the rest of your journeys, wherever that may be. Love u both.

Pop said...

Cozy, I forgot to ask, did you order your eggs "medium well" in the Philippines too?

Wade said...

There's only one way to order eggs in the Philippines... No baby duck Fetus Please!

Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap said...

Wade - spectacular post! Your route was so off-the-beaten track. Love it!

Katt said...

This is so inspiring! I've been to different countries around the world but haven't even been to half of my own. I have to start exploring the Philippines more!

Mikoy said...

hey, a Filipino invented the karaoke.. haha! "allegedly".. great post Wade. hope you guys are enjoying your trip! keep us posted through this blog. :D