Saturday, November 27, 2010

Up on the shore they work all day, Out in the sun they slave away, While we devotin' Full time to floatin' Under the sea

Tonight, I am writing from outside Chris and my room on the island of Panglao, just southwest of Bahol. It is almost midnight, I'm sitting on the porch shirtless, watching the nightly lightening storms illuminate the sky, listening to the insects and motor scooters driving past.

As I mentioned in the last post, Chris and I had plans to leave Cebu City for the day and visit the city of Tagbilaran, a 2-hour boat ride away. In what has clearly become Chris and my style, we really didn't have a clue what we were doing because we did no research and had no plan.

That night, while talking to some Danish girls Chris and Charlie had met earlier, we got some sense talked into us and decided to move our operations to the island of Bahol because we were told the diving was better than the island of Cebu. We had a 6am ticket, but called and were told we could change it to the 9:30 sailing, but when we arrived that turned out to not be the case. We had to argue with the manager for 15 minutes, but in the end we got on the boat without paying any extra money. 

On the boat, we actually met a group of 8 people from Seattle, who were a group with the Mars Hill Church. Interestingly many of the Americans I've met down here have been of the missionary type... Anyways, Cebu City was a bit of a dump with nothing really to do, so we were glad to get out of it.

But again due to our complete lack of research and planning, we landed in Tagbilaran, which is a small town that is not very nice and has nothing to do, it's just a jumping off place to the actual good stuff. It started off particularly irritating however, due to the ever present issue of prostitutes.  On the advice of the tourist office actually, we took a tricycle out to a place called D' Cottages, which they told us was a very cheap place to spend the night. Upon arriving, we were asked by a nasty looking white guy if we “had girlfriends” and told the place was 200 pesos not for a night, but for three HOURS. Yep, that kind of place. We walked out and wandered down the road in typical fashion, not sure what to do next. We ended up catching another tricycle back into the main part of town, and finding what was actually a very nice room at the Travelers Inn for 500 pesos. Once we had our room, we wandered out into the unknown in search of a dive shop to ask questions about where we should go and get an idea of prices and whatnot.

We walked and walked, and realized we were once again, in the middle of nowhere and that it was getting dark. And once again in typical fashion, a local helped us out (to make a buck for themselves of course) and everything turned out perfectly.  We got a tricycle to a Alona Beach, found out it was a really cool place, a local grabbed us, lead us to a dive shop (with competitive prices) and told us he could find us a room that was at our budget of 500 pesos a night.

While we had a room back in Tagbilaran, we spent the evening at Alona beach, eating amazing food, drinking fresh mango juice, and drinking San Miguel (the classic Philippine beer).  The area wasn't too crowded, had lots of Filipinos rather than just tourists, and had an overall wonderful vibe.  We sat on the beach listening to reagee and watching a lightening storm, then took a tricycle back to our place in the other town.

After breakfast and picking up a new book (on the Civil War), we took a jeepney (25 pesos) back to Alona beach and actually saw it in the daylight. Perfect.  We paid up on four nights (500 pesos a night) in our room, a pretty nice one at that, and went to talk to the dive shop.  Starting tomorrow, I am beginning my open water certification, which costs 15,800 pesos. It is a big expense when compared to the rest of the trip, but for that price (~$360) I get a private instructor, four days of class, four dives, boat transportation out to the dive sites, all the gear, and an international certification that will allow me to dive anywhere in the world down to 18 meters, all on a tropical island. Yah, it seems like a pretty good deal when put into perspective.

So once again, time to introduce my new travel friend. Chris is (coincidentally) also from Cape Town, South Africa, and is 25.  He works in finance back home and does Brazilian j-jitzu, but right now is taking a year off just to travel.  So far he has been spending his time here in se Asia, and is planning on doing some j-jutzu study here in the Philippines where there is a black belt to train under.  Like most fellow backpackers, he is a great guy, a blast to be around, and a wonderful companion for my journey.

With no other plans for the day, we decided to go snorkeling, which was my first time ever doing it.  Renting the mask, snorkel and flippers was only 100 pesos, and we rented them from an ex-Californian who runs a business at the beach and who we had run into in line for the boat to Bahol the previous day. Oh, and Chris has an underwater camera which is awesome, but is already giving him problems...

Having never done snorkeling before, I felt a bit awkward, and had a little trouble with getting water in my goggles and getting saltwater in my mouth, but it was still a blast. The coral even just off this main beach is very cool, I swam through schools of fish, saw bright blue starfish, sea urchins, clown fish, and countless other things, all in about 30 minutes out.

 Another cool coral formation.  Once I have done the first two dives that consist of just drills really, we will take the boat out to the real coral reefs, which should be absolutely amazing. I'm excited about seeing a lion fish and sea turtles!

After snorkeling, we walked back to our place and got lunch along the way.  For just 220 pesos, we got a whole chicken, and two plates of rice and two plates noodles with vegetables.  We both thought it was one of the best meals we had eaten on our trips, and it's so cheap!

After an early evening rain shower, we left our room and headed back to the beach, a five minute walk, to watch the sunset.  We missed most of it, but it was still quite nice.

Back on the beach we got a bit of food, chicken and veggies with rice, and watched two fire dancers preform. While we were expecting a lively party because of a sign that promised a 'laser disco' on the beach, we found no such event.  In all reality though, it's just as well. Alona beach is such a nice and mellow place, where you find cheap diving,cheap food and drinks and a truly wonderful atmosphere.  And once again, dumb luck and a few tips have lead us to something amazing.
Well that's it for now. Tomorrow I start my dive course and we may explore the island a bit more. Take care everyone, and feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions or thoughts. As always, please feel free to share my blog with anyone you think may be interested.  Peace!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cebu, I See You

Welcome back everyone, I'm currently writing from my room in Cebu City, on the island of Cebu, so let's get up to date.

So after dinner Sandy, Kathryne and I were all tired and looking to just relax, so we watched the movie Big Fish on their laptop sitting in our room. After the movie, we opened the door and found this guy, rather drunk and noisy in the hallway. It was a bit annoying since we were hoping to get some rest, but I ended up chatting with him. Turned out his girlfriend had just dumped him (“my girlfriend send text she no longer love me”) and was in need of a friend, so I ended up having a beer with him in his room, and counseling him a bit, including explaining the phrase “there are plenty of fish in the sea” since it was his first girlfriend and breakup. Naturally he then offered to take us to his hometown and show us around (friendly people, the Filipinos) but we had a tight schedule to for the next day and I declined the offer.

In the morning we left Bontoc, grabbing a bus for a 2 hour ride to Banaue (sp?) which is the jumping off point to the famous rice terraces. Upon arriving, we hired a local guide to take us and show us around. Because we didn't want to pay the outrageous fee of 2000 pesos for a private jeepney, nor did we want to pay for two tricycles, we crammed the three of us on a single trike. What that meant, was on this little Kawasaki motorcycle, we had the sidecar, driver, and three passengers (and we are all big white people, haha), all riding up a muddy, potholed dirt road. If you had asked me if this was even possible before I'd surely have said no, but the little bike just kept going for the 45 minute ride and got us there with no problems. On the way back actually, it started raining, turning the road into a bit of a river, but despite even THAT, we were keeping up with 4x4s on the road!

Speaking of rain, they had been getting heavy rain every day for the last month. As a result, the road up the mountain was totally washed out and unusable. What That meant was an extra hour of hiking up, which I did in flip-flops, the only footwear I have used thus far, and the only footwear I expect to use on this whole trip. On the way to the top, we passed a smashed jeepney that had rolled off the road, killing 4 passengers last year... Once we got to the top, we still had 45 minutes to hike down to the little town of Batad.

This is a section of terraces right before the 'main' ones, on a very steep hillside and irrigated with a stream that flows down the mountain.

Shortly beyond, we reached the Batad terraces, which have been used for something like 2000 years (but don't quote me on that number, I don't have the data in front of me...). Because we were short on time, having a 6pm bus to catch, we were unable to hike further down into the area, which was a bit of shame because another hour in is a a cool waterfall from what I understand. We had lunch overlooking the town and terraces, then hiked back out.

Back in Banaue, we caught our bus at 6pm for an overnight back to Manila. This time it was a pretty nice and modern bus, and the driver was even a rather slow and cautions driver which was a surprise. At 9pm or so, we stopped for dinner, and I got the first awful meal of the trip. I just wanted some rice with veggies and beef/chicken, and she said it was “meat” but really it was only some meat and mostly intestines and other unrecognizeable bits from an unknown animal. That in itself wouldn't be so bad, however it was tough, way too salty and COLD. ew.

We arrived in Manila around 4am which is not an ideal time to arrive in such a city. We sat around the bus terminal for a while, then hopped a jeepney to the Intramuros, the old walled city that was home to all of the various foreign powers who controlled the Philippines over the last few hundred years.

Looking for a place to sit down, at about 6am we somehow found a fairly nice hotel which was kind enough to let three smelly backpackers hang around their lobby and use their wifi. It was there that I bought my airplane ticket to Cebu, about 8 hours before I was flying, which cost me $77. We had a pretty good breakfast, but even there, the “orange juice” was I believe, powered Tang.

After breakfast, we killed time walking around for a bit and looking in a shop that had an art gallery, then we took a taxi together to the airport.

At the airport, I said my goodbyes to Sandy and Kathryne, who had a flight later in the day to Malaysia. My flight was just an hour to Cebu, and the idea was to meet up with Chris, also from South Africa, whom I'd met at the hostel in Manila on my first day of the trip. I misunderstood his schedule and thought he was arriving the same day, and I could not get online for some reason (the airport wifi wasn't working), so I sat around the airport for an hour and a half waiting for him before giving up and hopping a taxi to Cebu City, where I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing.

(sorry for the lousy photo, Chris). I told the taxi I wanted a cheap place, and he took me... somewhere. No idea where I was really. The hotel he took me to only had a room for 1200 pesos, which I was NOT going to pay. Luckily, they had wifi in their lobby (god I love traveling with this computer, it's been SOO helpful) and I was able to figure out Chris was already in Cebu, and where he was. I also managed to chat via Facebook with Nick about our plans for Cambodia.

So once again, I set off in this totally unknown town trying to find the hotel where Chris was staying, no idea if it was blocks, or many miles away. After wandering for an hour or so, I asked some police who helped me and let me use a phone to call Chris. Turned out I was only a few blocks away, which was pretty amazing. Chris had met a fellow traveler whom he had been with for a few days already, Charlie from England. I got a room for 245 pesos, and we then set out for food and drinks.

A number of Red Horse Extra Strong beers (40 pesos) and a bottle of the local rum (65 pesos)later, we were suddenly transformed into karaoke gods. Ok, maybe not, but we did our best which quite frankly was awful, but quite fun. The people here just love karaoke, so you can't come here and not do it, honestly.

From the karaoke bar, we wound up at a club, which is something I would never do at home, but had a great time anyways.

And a photo of the room here at the Famed Lodge. Amazingly, not only is it one of the cheapest places I've stayed so far, but each room has a private bathroom! Not only that, but it has a shower, the first I've seen, since everywhere else just has a tap near the floor and a bucket to pour on yourself. The room ain't pretty, but it does the job.

After a slow morning recounting last nights events, we went in search of a beach to go lay and relax at. Along the way Chris and I bought tickets for a day trip on a boat tomorrow to another island, then our beach search resumed. We didn't have a clue what were doing, and it showed. We ended up taking 3 jeepneys for two hours, and wound up in a dead end road with no beach in sight. Hope was fading.

Luckily as we wandered, a local came to our rescue, and took us through their gate and down a little path to a little beach! Saved!

There, I went swimming and got my first taste of tropical waters. When I first stepped in, I was just blown away. The top layer of water was nearly bathtub warm! Coming from the northwest swimming in Puget Sound, this was just madness. There were many small fish, amazing looking blue crabs, flying fish, and these little fish that climb out of the water and onto the rocks, all fantastic and new to me.

We ended up just laying out at the beach for a few hours in the sun, just taking it all in. Wonderful, just wonderful. Once we'd had our fill for the day, we took a jeepney and then a taxi back to our room where I am now.

Tonight, we are meeting up with some Danish people Chris had met earlier, then in the morning we have a 6am boat to another island for the day tomorrow.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Cave To Remember

Today, I am writing from our hotel in Bontoc after a fantastic day in a cave. But starting at yesterday:

Yesterday, we awoke to another beautiful day in Mountain Province. The weather is in the 70s or so, the air is clean, and humidity is low. Very different from Manila. This is the view from our hotel, Sonnorah's Inn, Cafe, & Restaurant (highly recommended by the way).

Our plan for the day was mostly just to walk around and see what the options were. It is a fairly small town with one main drag, containing stores and restaurants that look the same as nearly every other small town we have passed through. I don't say that as a bad thing, it is very pleasant, it's just difficult to decipher one mountain town for another. The photo here is one of the tricycle taxis, and a particularly nice one at that. These things are quite funny, most have English phrases (often religious) like "She think my tractor sexy" on them, and frequently have names like “Red Red Wine”, “Sandy” and “Gumbler.”

According to the Lonely Planet guide, the Bontoc Market was supposed to the be the thing to do in town, so naturally we checked it out. The downstairs was food: fruit, vegetables, dry goods, meat and so on, where we looked at pig brains and intestines, and watched kids blow-torching (already dead) chickens, plucking and cleaning them on the spot. Upstairs was the same type of stores you see everywhere in the Philippines, pirated movies, cheap toys, t-shirts and cellphones and accessorize, as well as booths for cooked food which we had for lunch (pancakes and a rice/egg/chicken soup).

While most people in the Philippines are very friendly towards us, none more so than the small children. They are always saying “Hi!”, smiling at us and asking our names. Naturally we try to be as friendly in return. In the last town, Sandy and Kathryne bought some bubbles, which these kids were just loving.

A little farther down the road, we found a playground, and spent some time playing with the kids who were there. While I was at it, I also did some climbing and exercises, gotta fit it in where I can!

Thus far, one of the biggest differences between the Philippines and the States, and one I expect to see throughout this trip, is how active street-life is. Unlike the empty streets of America, where everyone goes into back yards or inside to play, the streets here are almost always noisy and throbbing with life. While most of these people don't have a lot of material goods, it seems to me like they probably have much richer social ties than we are used to in the western world, and I see more smiles here in a single block than I do any day of the week back in America.

In the afternoon, we split up and I wondered around town by myself for a few hours. On the other side of the bridge, is actually (from what I gather) a different town, that is literally one road. I walked to the end, found a group of kids who told me where to access the river, and went down to where more kids were playing. After sitting by the river and relaxing for a while, I ventured off the single road up the hill. This brought me into a poorer area than where we are staying: a hillside of 3-foot wide paths between homes, and more pigs and chickens than I could count.

That evening, we had a great meal of chicken beef and veggies over rice, and Sandy and Kathryne found a local church where they attended a service. Like many Asian nations, the Filipino people love their karaoke, and church is not spared from this. At the service, they told me during a time to sing hymns, after someone else had stood up to sing once the group singing was done, another man stood up and did his own completely tone-deaf hymn, after which he apparently was very proud of.

We then went to the same bar as the night before, where we saw the same band preforming songs like 'Eye of the Tiger', 'The Final Countdown' and Guns and Roses. This time the band seemed much more energetic, and there was even a decent guitar solo, where he played behind his head.

In the morning, we hopped a jeepney to Sagada, about an hour away. As usual, the driver was a maniac on the steep winding roads, but nothing I was worried about. Once we got there, we found a tourist information booth which was very helpful, and got us a guide to take us to see some 'hanging coffins' and take us into the cave. His services cost 500 pesos for the three of us, and he was very helpful and friendly.

The area is full of limestone, which has created these fantastic stone pillars. If you look at the bottom of that picture and see the horizontal lines, those are actually coffins. The people here in this region have been putting their dead in coffins on the cliffs for a few hundred years (from what I was able to gather) because it allows your spirit to be close to god, as opposed to being buried.

Further down the road, our guide took us into the entrance of the limestone cave. It was wet, and very noisy with the sound of bats on the roof, as well as slippery from the guano on the ground below them, haha.

Without a doubt, this tour was one of those “it could never happen in the west” kind of experiences. All we had for light was a single kerosene lantern, all we had for footwear was flip-flops, because our laundry was being done, between us we were wearing a swimsuit, a dress and jeans, and other than some stone steps getting to the entrance, we were climbing and slipping down guano covered rocks into the depths.

A ways into the cave, the rock changed almost exclusively to this orange/brown limestone, and we continued on barefoot, wading through the surprisingly comfortable water, and climbing down some pretty steep sections.

Our descent ended down another steep section, where there was a deep pool we could jump into. Again, the water felt amazing. Swimming in pool, in the end of a cave maybe 200 feet below the surface, by a single kerosene lamp, was an incredible experience. Turns out my wearing a swimsuit was the perfect thing! Naturally, I had to climb all over the place, and some brief rock climbing above the pool, then jumping in again.

Sandy (in jeans and a t-shirt) joined me in the pool as well, and then we all climbed out of the cave and back to the outside world.

Due to a very common lack of information, we discovered the last jeepney out of Sagada back to our hotel in Bontoc left at 1pm, which cost 40 pesos each, and if we missed it, we would have to hire one for 1500 pesos. As a result, we only had about 3 hours to see Sagada and the cave. That was unfortunate because I could have spent all day in the cave, but even so, we all had an amazing time. It's only a week into my 4-month trip, but I expect this cave to stand out as a highlight.

Kathryne, riding in the jeepney back to Bontoc. On the jeepney, we shared cookies with the other riders and struck up a conversation with a missionary from New York, who has lived in the Philippines for the last 30 or so years.

Another thing we have constantly noticed, and is surely connected to the issue of strong social ties, is the old fashioned human-networking that seems to go on. For example, today on the jeepney, we stopped at a tiny little hut on the side of the dirt road, the driver honked the horn, a woman came out, and was handed a cellphone charger that she must have needed. On the way back, we just stopped in the middle of the road, a woman got out, and right away, another bus appeared behind us. She got on the other bus, and a passenger of that bus got out and jumped in our jeepney. Infrastructure may be limited here, but despite this things just seem to run so smoothly, it is rather amazing.

Back in town we talked to the missionary a bit longer, picked up our laundry (which cost 60 pesos more than we were told it would 'because it had underwear in it' ) and got lunch. We ordered one of these meat-stuffed sweet rolls and two pizzas, but due to a miscommunication ended up with 3 of the rolls instead. No worries, we ate them up, and the pizza as well.

It is now evening, we are about to have dinner in a bit, and probably a lazy evening. Tomorrow we are headed to the famous rice terraces.

(oh, and I'm watching some 3-inch lizards climbing around the walls and ceiling right now, I wish I could catch one!)