Indispensable personal philosophy: Better Late Than Never
12.1.10 - 12.14.10
Our final stop was the Philippines. At high tide, there are 7,100 Filipino islands (and another 7 that surface when tides recede), so with less than two weeks in the country we had to be selective. Brie and Swhite flew straight to Palawan, a long narrow island that protrudes into the South China Sea to the west of the Filipino archipelago. It’s the island that friends at home and fellow travelers kept telling us is a must for the stunning beaches of El Nido. One of my co-workers at Saturna, Maria, is Filipina. She is from the central Visayan island Cebu and made arrangements for me to visit her family there. For the last time, our traveling team split up for a spell.
Our first and only night in Manila was spent figuring out how to ride a jeepney to the Mall of Asia from our hostel near the airport (we were too far away from downtown Manila to venture into the heart of the city). We quickly realized that seemingly everyone there speaks English extremely well. Later I read that the most successful, and longest lasting, impression that the United States made on the Philippines during its occupation (the first half of the 20th century) was in education. The first non-military Americans to arrive where educators and the Philippines was left with a healthy education system.
Day 2 in the Philippines I flew to Cebu, while Brie and Swhite took off for Palawan. Here’s Swhite’s write-up of their stay on El Nido:
~Sarah & Brie on Palawan~
We separated for the final time when Melanie went to stay with friends in Cebu and Brie and I headed
to the island of Palawan. We flew into Puerto Princesa, where we later reunited with Melanie, and spent
one night there before catching the 5am local bus to El Nido. After the 6 hour journey we made it to
sleepy little El Nido. It was exactly what we needed to end our perfect trip. It was a small little town with
a beautiful stretch of white sand and teal water.
Gabrielle and I searched around for a cheap beach front
place to park for the week. We settled on one that had a view down the hallway of the beach, and two
beach chairs out front with our names on them We both just wanted to soak up the sun and enjoy our
last week on the beach before heading back to freezing Washington, and that is exactly what we did.
We planned out our week around our beach time. The first day was spent ‘exploring’ the little town,
which consisted of one main road and two turns, so that took all of 10 minutes. We spent the rest of
the day at our private beach. We planned an island hopping tour for the next day. The day was a mix of
beaching it and snorkeling. We had a lunch break and our boat drivers cooked us some fish they had just
caught (maybe not but it sure looked like it!). We made the mistake of asking one of our boat guys to
take a picture for us, and from then on he was our private paparazzo.
At every stop he would ask for our
camera and say ‘come, come, take a picture!’ so we had plenty of honeymoon shots from the day.
We found a little trail that headed away from the main town area and decided to see where it led.
We found what must be the residential area. There were kids playing everywhere and cute little
The following day we rented a kayak and headed over to some of the islands that we
discovered on our tour. It was amazing to have a private section of beach all to our selves. The water
was unbelievably clear and it was so peaceful there. After a few hours of playing there (and taking some
awesome under water pictures) we headed over to a different island. Again we had the beach all to
ourselves. Gabrielle had never buried someone in the sand before, so I volunteered to let her make
some sand art around me. We decided a sand penguin was the best idea.
And it turned out amazing! I
did suffer a few sand flea bites but it was definitely worth it! We then headed back to our hotel to return
We had one final beach day and then got an early night to catch the 5am local bus back to Puerto
Princesa and meet up with Melanie for the final few days of the most amazing trip ever!
~Melanie on Cebu & Bohol~
Arriving in Cebu, I emerged from the airport to see a waving sign that read “Welcome to Cebu Melanie!” We took an hour cab ride from the airport to Danao City, where Josef is a high school assistant principal at Sabang National High School. Josef had prepared his guest room for me, and while I napped on the ultra comfortable queen sized air mattress, he and Donald made dinner. They ate while I continued to sleep (oops), and when I woke up their friend (and a teacher at Josef’s school) Jenny had arrived. We chatted while watching TV. Filipino evening programming is dominated by So You Think You Can Dance? style group dance competitions, and telenovela-esque half-hour soap operas that air every weeknight. I love group dance numbers, so I was enjoying it. Then I found out that the next day at the high school was a special game day, similar to Homecoming week all wrapped up into one day. Festivities were going to kick off with a cheer dance competition between all the grades, and I was going to be a guest judge!
The event was supposed to start at 8, but Jenny wasn’t concerned about us sauntering over to the covered basketball court/assembly space at 8:30. The competition didn’t get going until almost 9:30 because no one knew where the Juniors (last year’s victors) were. They were texting with their teachers saying they were on the way, but their hair (Jersey bouffant) make-up (dark and heavy) and costumes (their uniform plaid skirt folded under to half their normal length) took longer than they expected to prepare. “It’s not Filipino time,” Jenny explained. “Filipinos were on time until the Spanish arrived, and now this country works on Spanish time.”
When it was time for the judges to take their positions at tables in front of the audience I was introduced and received a roaring round of applause from the kids. Filipino high schoolers are generally aged 12-16. The first years were pretty shy, but I was incredibly impressed by the most of the performances! They looked like live music videos. The stars were unquestionably the young gay boys, who danced front and center with the girls. The other boys had separate parts of the routine that featured breakdancing moves instead of hip swirls.
Here are the third year students showing their spirit before the competition began:
The Philippines are the first Catholic country I’ve visited where homosexuality – especially at such a young age – is displayed so openly. I asked Jenny about it and she said it was no big deal. Boys weren’t allowed to wear girls clothes to school, but they were free to behave however they pleased.
After the dance contest there were supposed to be “parlour games” all afternoon before the school started preparing for a beauty pageant that night. Jenny was in charge of the parlour games, but she accompanied me all day (Josef had to go to a conference in a nearby city).
Because she had taken me into Danao City to buy mango and spent a few hours giving me Visaya language lessons, the parlour games never happened. She shrugged it off. Another stall in school plans: a group of stranded Girl Scouts. They were supposed to go to a Girl Scout competition a few hours into the mountains, but their driver had showed up drunk at 11am and by 2pm no one had found another driver.
A guidebook explained that beauty pageants are a ticket to instant fame and fortune in the Philippines. Winning a pageant young means sidestepping education as a means to succeed, it’s a direct line into the Philippines entertainment industry. The Filipinos I met were surprised that I’d never been in a pageant growing up, they have them in every arena from neighborhood high schools on up through national competitions.
For the pageant at Sabang National High School, Jenny explained that they’d had to convince enough girls to participate. “It’s good for them,” she said. The girls were judged on a group dance number (done in Santa themed dresses), casual wear, evening gowns, and on their response to a Christmas question. All night long everything was in English. The girls had to respond to questions like “How do you and your family celebrate Christmas?” “What’s the best gift you’ve received?” Many contestants had short and jagged answers, a few were excellent – poised, eloquent, and well rehearsed- and there was one epic fail. The poor girl’s English wasn’t very good, her question was “what would you change about Christmas?” The MC repeated it 3 times in English, then translated it into Visaya for her. She looked like a deer in the headlights for a few minutes before she managed to eek out a response in Visaya.
Josef, Donald and I rode a Jeepney into Cebu City to do some sightseeing.
Cubu’s most historic monument is Magellan’s Cross, marking the place and time where Magellen brought Catholicism to the Philippines.
Sunday morning we woke at 4:00am so we catch the ferry from Cebu over to the island of Bohol. From the port town of Tagbilaron we took a 2 hour bus ride to Sagbayan, and then a 30 minute motorcycle jaunt to the Danao Adventure Park.
The scenery all across Bohol was dominated by a lush green that I just couldn't get over. I took far too many photos...
All three of us ziplined across a canyon, and Josef did “The Plunge”, a 300 foot drop into a swing across the same canyon. We wrapped up the day with a trip to the Chocolate Hills. An inexplicable geological phenomenon that is Bohol’s most famous attraction. We arrived just after the sun had disappeared over the distant hills and all was aglow with a warm light. So gorgeous!
After the hills we managed to squeeze into a bus that was already overflowing with people. Josef and Donald climbed on top and I held on for dear life just inside the open door. It was on this bus that I finally had the quintessential travel experience of riding on a bus with a flapping chicken (fighting cock, to be precise) crammed in beside me. Cock fighting is legal in the Philippines. Along with skin whitening cream, TV ads for champion feed for fighting cocks were some of the most regularly played commercials.
Josef and Donald continued on home when I jumped off the bus at a backpackers’ haven called Nuts Huts in Loboq. The hostel is situated 750 meters into the jungle along a road so horrendously bumpy it took the motorcycle 10 minutes to maneuver to the entrance. The driver dropped me off peering down a seemingly endless cement staircase that cut into the lush foliage. Over 400 stairs later I made it to my room, the only furniture a small table and mosquito net shrouded wooden cot.
The next morning I paid 10 pesos to be ferried across the river in a canoe in order to walk along the water into Loboq.
The town proper was tiny. It consisted of one block of shops, one church, and a few arms of residential streets snaking out from the center. I asked directions to the cross on the hill and was pointed along by friendly Filipinos at every corner. I really love poking through small towns. It’s cheesy, but it’s so fun plod through winding streets. Taking in my surroundings and the people grinning and calling out hello or starting conversations is part of what makes travelling exciting for me.
It took me about an hour to wind my way to a hilltop with a giant white cross overlooking Loboq and beyond to the coast.
Given our lack of exercise on the trip, I was tuckered out by the time I dragged myself into the outdoor sanctuary. On the way back through town I discovered a delicious treat: carmelized maduro bananas. The banana man laughed when I came back to his table 3 times within an hour.
Loboq is known as being home to the world’s smallest monkey, the tarsier. Tarsiers are not monkeys, but they are a 45 million year old primate! My camera was locked in the Nuts Huts safe, so I don’t have my own photos. But here it is:
I walked into a small walled in forest under a sign reading “Do not touch the Tarsiers!” A teenage boy followed me into the open air enclosure, saying his dad owned the place. He told me that the tarsiers were nocturnal, they swoop down to the river to feed on insects at night. With my hands respectfully behind my back I was leaning to peer at the tiny furrball when the boy grabbed it from the tree and plopped it right down into my hand. The tarsier had the body of a hairy frog (complete with the long knobby toes) with an enormous head, massive (terror stricken) yellow eyes, and a hairless rat-tail. When I lifted him close enough to the tree that he could glimpse the branches through his hugely dilated pupils (result of a nocturnal creature opening its eyes in broad daylight), the poor creature leapt into leaves and disappeared up into the high reaches of the tree.
That afternoon I made my way to Alona Beach, a scuba diving hot spot on the tip of Panglao Island (still part of Bohol). I signed up for a two drive trip the following morning to Balicasag Island, one of the Philippines most popular dive sites. My only prior diving experience has been in Thailand and where I got my certification in Honduras. In comparison, the Filipino dives were breathtaking! An incredible abundance of neon fish, beautiful coral, and TURTLES! I saw one with a shell that looked easily 5 feet long!
Next up on my agenda was flying to Palawan to meet up with Brie and Swhite. The weather was iffy, but we enjoyed meandering around Puerto Princesa our last few days in the Philippines. We ate delicious food at a Christmas fair, took a day trip out to a sub-terranean river, and went to the hospital for a malaria scare (turned I just had a wee virus).
Though I just experienced a tiny portion of it, I LOVED the Philippines! It was a fantastic ending to an incredible trip!
I'm hoping you all are supporters of the better late than never approach. This blog entry was written over a year ago... Brie and Swhite have been teaching English in Seoul, South Korea since last March (check out their blog) and are both incredibly excited to be done in less than two months. They're going to head back to South East Asia for round 2, with a few stops in Europe on the way.
As for me, I spent nine fabulous months in the Methow Valley. I lived in an adorable little cabin, made some wonderful friends, and spent as much time hiking and biking in the mountains as I could. Next up for me: New Orleans!