We travel by taxi from Cebu City to the northern port of Maya – a four hour ride costing about £40. Sounds like a deal but it’s another extravagance in what is supposed to be a budget conscience trip. We are heading for the beautiful tiny island of Malapascua, famous for its resident shoals of Thresher sharks that rise from the deep every day at dawn to be preened of skin parasites by obliging fish – there will be lots of diving, snorkeling and fishing, or just lounging on the tropical beaches.
It is sunset when we arrive at Maya and the last ferry of the day for the 30 minute crossing to Malapascua is just pulling away from the dock. So now it’s a test of nerves. We don’t want to stay in Maya – a dismal port, so we stay to haggle with some dodgy seafarers. The best deal is £12 with a captain who looks like he should still be at school. We walk away from each other twice before that deal is struck. I part with the cash to his first mate and they both disappear into the dark. On the jetty we get chatting to an attractive young man called JR and his boyfriend (who we don’t chat to at all during the ensuing episode as he’s too immersed in his device). Jo likes JR but not the boyfriend who she says is not good enough for him! A snap judgement I think but probably right.
We hang about for half an hour. Our boat is anchored out at sea – I can see the lights. And there’s shouting and banging going on. Eventually the first mate looms out of the dark and thrusts my £12 back into my hand. JR explains that our boat is inoperable. We may be stuck in miserable Maya after all. JR owns a backpackers hostel on Malapascua, he is carrying boxes of supplies and I can tell he wants to get there tonight. He disappears down the dark jetty to return a few minutes later with an optimistic smile. Come, he says, I’ve found a boat. Well done JR. We’ve been joined by a young German couple who have been fleeced to £20 for the short crossing. Everybody’s happy except the boyfriend who remains impassively dedicated to the game on his smartphone.
We load our gear and climb aboard. And wait. And wait. And wait for about thirty minutes. The captain climbs aboard and informs us that there is a problem. There’s no radar and only rudimentary navigational aids in these waters and boats are not supposed to head out to sea after dark. The coastguard has told the captain that he may not set sail. Our previous elation is quashed (except for the boyfriend). The charming and resolute JR stands up and says, wait here I will speak with them. He heads off to the port office where he negotiates for half an hour and returns with a big thumbs up. We go, he says. What a hero. I love him as much as the boyfriend does, possibly more, it’s difficult to tell. I ask how he managed to turn them around. Some pleading, some charm, some inflating of egos. Lots of patience and persistence.
In forty minutes we have made the crossing to Malapascua and we’re sitting at a table on the beach front drinking beers and eating a very good pizza. Online we find a cheap (£12) room that looks ok. Foolishly we book it only to find, when we arrive, that it’s right next to an ear bashing pumping techno disco. The room is physically vibrating. We return the keys and check into a more expensive, comfortable hotel room on the beach front for the night. The island has a good feel about it. It’s two days before Christmas and it’s a beautiful balmy evening. Wonderful. What could possibly go wrong?
There are bats flitting around the palm trees and swooping over our heads. I look at the large wooden deck and the bar with its thatched roof. Our room for the night is just to the right of it. On Christmas Eve, the bar I’m looking at will be no more and the roof of the room we’ve just checked into will, after we’ve vacated it, be ripped off and dumped down the beach. Tropical Storm Ursula (internationally called Phanfone) is a few hundred miles east of the Philippines (30mph winds gusting to 60mph) and barrelling this way. I make a joke about it being the best Ursula to come out of the ocean since Ursula Andress in the Bond movie Dr. No. But this quip, in retrospect, will be in bad taste. Storm Ursula isn’t a joke.
Jo has booked us an A frame cabin made of wood, bamboo and canvas at a small encampment to the north of the island, away from the bars, restaurants and dive shops. To get there, it’s a thirty minute walk along a narrow dirt track or a hair raising ten minute ride on the back of a motorbike. The camp has the potential to be peaceful, idyllic even. It’s called Neverland. I don’t think it was inspired by anything in Peter Pan other than the fact that everybody here could be perpetually young. I will soon christen it Never Again Land. The average age of the guests is about 22. Lots of very thin, healthy, smiley volunteers help cook and organise events, and are very happy and earnest. An enthusiastic young woman from Scunthorpe is organising a lunchtime Christmas day party at the camp for some local kids. It’s a military operation involving her directing a small team of Filipinos doing lots of painting, cutting and pasting. It’s a new age holiday camp. All the food is vegan which is a shame, given the abundance of wonderful local fish. There are yoga classes at 7.30 every morning and I don’t manage to attend any of them. I am the grandfather at Never Again Land and Jo is the mother.
Our hut is too small to accommodate our bags so we chain them to a couple of bamboo posts. A short walk over a hill there is a lighthouse and a small beach with a bar. Two hundred metres offshore is a Japanese wreck to which one can one swim and snorkel. We walk there, drink beers, eat ham and cheese sandwiches and I swim over to the wreck.
Attempting to get Gary’s boat off the beach
Never Again Land is not idyllic. It’s right next to a huge diesel electricity generator. After 9pm is declared to be quiet time, all the better to hear the generator. We get to meet a few of the young guests from Germany and Romania. We tell them we’re going to explore the lighthouse. Vegan means no eggs or milk for breakfast so we decide to head back to the beach bars for a proper Full English. We explore the beaches and restaurants. We book a table at an Italian for dinner on Christmas Day. It’s a small island, one can walk around it in four hours, one minute you’re standing on a west facing beach – Logon Beach, lots of fishing boats and locals – next minute you’re on a South facing beach – Bounty Beach, tourist accommodation, restaurants, dive shops. It’s all very pretty and tropical.
We’re walking along Logon Beach. A Filipino guy is overseeing a team of locals and tourists trying to get a small fishing boat, called Prince, high up onto the beach, out of harm’s way from tonight’s storm. They’re rolling it on several logs, to little effect. I drop my bag and offer to help. After lots of tooin and froin it’s as far up the beach as it will go. But tonight it will be a pile of shattered planks. The Filipino owner of the boat is Gary; small, fit, moustachioed, middle aged. Hi, where you from? He asks. England we say. Where you staying? He asks. Neverland, we say. Storm coming he says. You don’t want to be staying there tonight. You should find a room here away from the beach. At eight tonight the wind will be blowing directly onto this beach and by midnight it will swing round to hit Bounty Beach. What are the predicted windspeeds I ask. 60mph gusting to 90 mph. We thank him for what proves to be a fantastic bit of advice and we check into a hotel that he recommends. All our bags and clothes are still back at Neverland. We decide to just leave them there.
Christmas Eve late afternoon: Jo is overjoyed by the novelty of a hot shower. Now there’s a Christmas treat. We’re at a funky bar on Bounty Beach for happy hour (actually happy 3 hours!). It’s full of young Dutch folk and there’s a party mood. Cocktails are two for one and Margaritas are on the list. The rain is steadily increasing. What we don’t know is that tropical storm Ursula has been upgraded to a typhoon with wind speeds of 75mph gusting up to 100mph. It’s massive and will get bigger throughout the night. The Beach bar calls time at 10pm: still relatively early but the staff want to get home. We’ve had four whopping Margaritas each and are… there is no other word for it…pissed. As we splash home through the now torrential tropical rainstorm, Jo sings A Fairy Tale of New York, by the Pogues. Back at the hotel we are drenched. Did we shower? Can’t remember. I go to bed and sleep through Ursula’s swift devastating onslaught. Jo doesn’t though:
Merry Christmas hangover. I awaken, moan and go back to sleep. Jo goes for a walk. She returns an hour later and says that it’s devastating, what’s happened out there. Houses, businesses, boats, hotels, bars and restaurants have been damaged and in many instances completely destroyed. Rooves have been peeled off or ripped away. Boats are semi submerged in the small harbour and others have been smashed up against each other and wrecked on the beach.
Stranded on a rock out at sea
Gary’s boat Prince, crushed under another on the beach
The only clothes I have are a sodden leaf covered mulch outside our room. I hang them up to dry. I drink lots of water. After a cooked breakfast, which remarkably, the hotel has the resourcefulness to provide, we dress in damp clothes and walk. We meet a young couple who occupied the Neverland hut next to us. They say it’s an uninhabitable mess. They look shocked. Thirty three guests, assorted cats and a dog were huddled into a dormitory hut built to accommodate twelve, to ride out the storm. But they failed to alert this couple, who remarkably spent the night drenched and shaking in their bamboo and canvas hut, in fear for their lives.
I’ve seen news broadcasts of disaster scenes from the Caribbean and, when attempting to describe them, it’s difficult not to resort to hyperbole. There’s an eerily quiet and calm resolve as people go about clearing up the mess. It’s as though they’ve been through all this before, which or course they have. There are no emergency services:- fire, ambulance or air sea rescue. Most of the destroyed buildings are constructed from wood, bamboo and corrugated iron. So this stuff is everywhere. There’s a sweet smell of sap in the air, from the thousands of broken and uprooted trees. The only time I see excitable distress is from a small crowd on the beach who’d spotted a man stranded on a high wave smashed rock about 500 metres off the shore. God knows how he got there. I hope he waits calmly all day for the heavy seas to subside and for a boat to rescue him.
The most rudimentary houses have been swept away, and the objects of everyday life; clothes, beds, sofas, TVs, are drying in the sun. It’s like the world’s most dismal car boot sale. I pass such a disappeared property that was the home of an elderly woman. She is surveying her meagre possessions with an air of confused detachment. I stop, not sure what to say or whether to say anything. I wish her a happy Christmas. She looks up, smiles and wishes me a merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Bless her. They don’t seem to get much solace from their Government, or anybody else. But they have their God, and Jesus seems to be a very popular guy. I don’t know how they rationalise a benevolent deity with this visitation from the heavens on Jesus’s birthday.
Fish cast onto the shore
Christmas is over
I tell Jo I’m going to take a motorbike to Neverland to see if our belongings have survived. She will try to find another hotel room for tonight. The track to Neverland is a mass of debris and muddy water but, throughout the day, intrepid (reckless) riders get me and all our luggage back to the beach hotel. Never Again Land has been trashed: shower huts and outbuildings gone, trees uprooted and everything sodden. But our bags are still there, heavy with water but intact. The chirpy youngsters of a few days before now look tired, shell shocked and bewildered. One girl described the night in the dormitory as the most frightening experience of her life.
When we booked new accommodation behind the beach on Christmas Eve, we sent a message to Neverland Management stating that we would not be returning. They responded but failed to pass that message on, so throughput the night people were genuinely worried about us. You went to the lighthouse and never came back! said our Romanian friend. Neverland Management occupy a formidable breeze block house next to Neverland yet they left those youngsters, who would not have a clue of what to expect, out there to fend for themselves. Thoughtless and irresponsible. We had booked to stay for four nights but in the end stayed for only one.
Christmas Day evening and the Italian restaurant is open for business. But it does not fare well for me. Something I eat or drink (raw carpaccio fish, bottle of red wine – the first for two months, lasagne) instantly fricassees my guts and I’m bedridden for the next 36 hours. I so wanted to have a Christmas chat with my daughters, Hannah and Phoebe. As the Pogues song goes: Happy Christmas your arse!
Ah Boxing Day. I always like Boxing Day. Christmas is over. Bubble and squeak! But I’m not well. Up all night evacuating, and I have a fever. Jo spends the morning by the pool. I don’t remember much of the day and what I do recall I’d rather forget. I’m up early the next morning to get off the island. On the five hour bus ride to Cebu I write this blog. I’m still feeling pretty rough, I’m dosed up on immodium and paracetamol. Things are looking up – a bit.