A two hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and a transfer to a four hour flight east to Cebu in the Philippines. Both with AirAsia – the easyJet of Asia connecting hundreds of cities from India to China and Australia.
Initially, the airport environs of Cebu city seems like any other in Asia – the noise, smells and squalor. But after a while you notice that it’s something different. The faces are Latino and the voices are Hispanic – it’s more Americas than Asia. And it’s certainly more tropical than the Myanmar we have just left.
The Philippines was Spain’s biggest colony in the Pacific and latterly a colonial territory of the USA, hence the South American vibe. I don’t know much about the country but what I do know is this: It’s an archipelago of over seven thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean. It’s the karaoke capital of the world – they do it on the streets, at home and of course in bars (Jo and I are practicing a little Christmas number). They’re Catholic and mad about Christmas. They must be the world’s biggest exporter of nurses, nannies and domestic cleaners. It’s poverty stricken, not helped or probably caused by a massive population explosion from only 27 million in 1960 to over 100 million today. Oh, and the president is a populist that makes Donald Trump look like a wet liberal. President Rodrigo Duterte (some call him Duterte Harry – shoot first, don’t bother about the questions). Said he’d clean up the country’s notorious drug problem so he murdered drug lords, bent politicians, dealers and addicts. Asked to explain himself he says things like ‘I don’t give a shit. I have a duty to do and I will do it!’ I asked Marlon, our cab driver; you like President Duterte? Marlon says, yeah he’s tough, gets things done, clean up the drug problem, kill the gangsters. You like Trump, I ask. Yeah, says Marlon. I like him.
It’s the way of the world, everybody loves a tough guy.
A Red Horse beer at Toni’s Restaurant, Dos Mares
The bamboo hut at the northern end of Tulang island
But we’re here to rest up a little and get away from the city. We were stuck in Yangon for a week whilst Jo got over the worst of her chikungunya virus infection, but there are still some lingering symptoms, like a dull ache in her wrists that spreads to her fingers and elbows, and fatigue, so no running or trekking, more swimming and snorkelling. We get into the bookaway.com website (use this to book buses, boats and trains all over Asia) and book a two hour high speed ferry from Cebu to the small and peaceful Comotes Islands where we have a beach hut for four nights on the main island of Pacijan where the places have names like San Francisco, Santiago and Consuelo.
Jo calls the beach hut,; camping. The WiFi doesn’t work and it has only a cold shower. It could do with a lick of paint and somewhere to hang our clothes. The fridge is full of food in various states of decay, and rats in the outside kitchen are eating our Imperial Leather soap, more agreeable creatures are big red and hermit crabs. But the location is stunning – at the bottom of the owners garden on elevated ground by the beach, facing west so there are fabulous sunsets and massive tropical skies of huge clear white cumulus clouds soaring thousands of feet into the azure sky.
It’s peaceful but in the Philippines that’s a relative term as people are never very far away. There are fishing boats hauled up on the beach and shouting fishermen come and go throughout the night. And the children are squealing on the beach at dawn.
Armand worrying about the UK General Election outcome
We hire a motorbike from the owner and explore. Jo rides pillion and initially she clings on for dear life on the rutted potholed roads. We settle into it although Jo cusses the potholes. Forty minutes north up the coast is the tiny picturesque islet of Tulang where we hire a bangka boat (a wooden boat with stabilizing outriggers made from bamboo and a diesel engine at the stern) and skipper for the day (for £14). He ferries us across and waits for several hours as we explore the beach and discover a remote bamboo hut on an overhang of volcanic rock on the end of a peninsula. The island is surrounded by coral reefs. In the afternoon the skipper takes us around the island, dropping anchor for us to snorkel where the reef drops off into the deep ocean.
The following day we ride a three hour round trip across the island over a concrete causeway surrounded by mangrove swamps and onto the more rugged island of Poros. Smashed by typhoon Yolanda in 2016, it is lush, coconut palms, bananas, mangoes and pineapples, and it’s sparsely populated. The Rough Guide recommends a visit to Hussy waterfall to swim. Don’t go there – the pool is a derelict concrete pond and the waterfall dribbles. Better was the visit to Bukilat subterranean caves at the very east of the Island. Here you can swim in the briny warm waters of the cave under stalagmites and flocks of tiny swiftlets. Jo swims naked – something she does at every opportunity.
Next to the caves is the Dos Mares Restaurant owned by Toni an expat Spaniard from Majorca. Just opened for business two months ago it is the island’s only restaurant and were his only customers today. We order gin & tonic, red horse beer, steamed crab and imbaw shellfish. It’s tasty seafood and the best (only) selection of beers on Poros.
Toni leaps at the opportunity to chat and he has loads of great tips for island hopping in the Philippines. It starts to rain – the first we’ve experienced since leaving the UK. Dark clouds are gathering and we decide to head back. We reach the beach hut before sunset with time en route to stop for beers and another look at the local fish stall. Yesterday we bought fresh tuna. On the slab today is a metre long Dorado fish. I have a friend who used to fish for these things. I send him an image and he responds immediately to say it’s a female and I should buy it as he has a great ceviche recipe. Alas it’s too big for us.
It rains hard all night. I lie in bed listening to the rodents scuttling around in the kitchen. I’m thinking we won’t cook in there again. Tomorrow we’ll make plans for another island – Bohol.
Travel days are different. For a start they’re more expensive. Our budget is £30 a day each for five months. For that you can stay, if you’re lucky, somewhere decent, clean and with some charm, or if you’re unlucky, a dirty forgettable doss house. And you can eat well and have money for doing things like hiring a boat s skipper all day. But on travel days we blow the budget on ferries, taxis and food on the go. Travel days are also full of incidents.
Our host loads our bags into his decrepit Kia diesel 4×4 – everything rattles horribly, the doors won’t open from the outside, it’s smashed up and the engine barely turns over. Will we make it to Consuelo port? We do but when our host turns the ignition for his return home it won’t fire up. Myself and a mob (how quickly they gather) of Filipinos push is down the hill and it jump starts in a cancerous cloud of black diesel fumes. Walking back up the hill I see a field of jeepneys – public transport vans vaguely descended from US WW2 jeeps. That have psychedelic paint jobs and are adorned with elaborate airhorns and banks of spotlights. Back in England, Jo and I are having a van customised by Ian at Pioneer Campervan in West Sussex. I send home some images!
Blind People Giving Massages at Pier 1 Cebu City Port
We have an hour to wait for our ferry so make ourselves comfortable on the standard issue Asian white plastic chairs. I go to the gents to change into shorts. I’ve discovered that to meet fellow travellers all I need to do is leave Jo alone for five minutes and some affable fellow will engage her for a friendly chat. When I return from the gents Jo is in conversation with her new German friend who introduces himself as Reinhold – you can call me Rhine. Tall, bald, bit of a beer belly, Rhine is from Bavaria and he’s suffering from a a hangover – yesterday I drink maybe fifteen Jaegermeister’s he says (some uncharacteristic lack of certainty here). He has friends in the Philippines and would like to spend the winters here. He’s a regular visitor and tells me that he was in Cebu for the earthquake a few years ago – the room was shaking he says. Maybe it was the Jaegermeister’s I tell him. He raps my stomach with the back of his hand, a little too hard for my British sensibility. You are making a joke I think, he says. Who says they don’t have a sense of humour. Rhine is a man of no ifs, buts or maybes. Europe is finished he says. Germany is going into the negative (recession? deficit?). It is all built on sand. Next year or in five years it will be the end of the EU and the Euro. Finished. The end he repeats, of this I am certain. I ask him what will happen then, but he has no post apocalyptic theory. Just the end!
I tell him that yesterday the UK gave a massive vote of support to the political party that will eject us from the EU. Rhine says, ja I think this is good for you.
We stand and watch the ferry arrive at the dock. It’s an hour late. A fellow passenger looks at it in dismay. It’s a “new” ferry he says, a piece of Chinese shit with a new paint job. It’s the first time it’s docked at this pier and the captain is clearly having problems? He manoeuvres around the pier for fifteen minutes before the ferry is secure. But it all works and two hours later we are back in Cebu city. A quick local ferry takes us to Pier 3. All we have to do is get to Pier 1 and buy tickets for our next island destination, Bohol. Simple.
Pier 3 is a hot and crowded. I ask for directions to Pier 1 and the office for tickets to Bohol. I’m directed away from the pier to a busy crossroads where there are lots of ticket offices – this is the ferry hub for many islands. I see a sign that says Bohol and join the short queue. A tricycle taxi rider has clocked me and knows I want to get to Pier 1. 150 pesos he says (about £2). I soon have two tickets and the guy in the ticket office tells me that Pier 1 is a short five minute walk.
Mr tricycle is hassling to give us a ride to Pier 1. I know it’s only £2 but if I took a taxi for every five minute walk we’d bust our budget every day. So I say to him – no we’ll walk. I strike out west with Jo behind me. But Mr Tricycle is on my case, pointing in the direction I’m walking and shouting Pier 1, I take you, I take you. Then Jo says, you’re going the wrong way, we need to go back to the seafront and go west. But I’m committed to my route and want to shake Mr Tricycle who is more and more persistent. The pavement is a nightmare, big broken slabs of concrete pitched at all angles, the kerb is a 20cm drop, the road is busy and we’re dragging 20kg bags on wheels. I see a big beautiful cockerel on the pavement. Nothing unusual about that – there are often cockerels and hens strutting about. Then I see another beauty tethered to a post, then another, and another. I realise – these are fighting cockerels and this is where they are traded. It’s a cruel and violent sport, banned in most countries but hugely popular in the Philippines. These cocks have razor sharp spurs attached to their feet and they are trained to fight each other to the death. The cock traders on the street don’t look like the sweetest Phillipinos I’ve met. They scowl at me. I’m having real problems dragging my bag over the wrecked pavement, Jo is struggling too, and telling me that I’m being stupid and going the wrong way and Mr Tricycle is abreast of me pleading for my business. It’s all madness. I stop. And in a brief moment of clarity I think, Christ what the hell am I doing here.
Of course it’s not a gentle five minute walk. The guy in the ticket office has clearly never walked it in his entire life. It’s more like twenty minutes of hell. I have to scream abuse at Mr Tricycle to finally get rid of him. Jo is twenty metres behind me exhausted, threatened and mightily cross. I abandon my bag and go back to help her. Don’t touch me, she says, leave me alone. I wrench the bag from her. She storms ahead and grabs my bag. We finally arrive at Pier 1 in a right state.
And Pier 1 is like an airport terminal on a bank holiday weekend. Queues, security checks, baggage check-in. We eventually take a seat at gate number 8 where there are teams of blind people giving head and neck massages. Jo is having some sort of migraine headache so we both have a twenty minute massage. It’s wonderful, just briefly curtailed by the necessity to board the ferry.
A Fine Looking Dorado
At 7pm the travel day is over and we finally relax over a few beers in the garden of our hotel. There is a karaoke party going on across the road and I wander over to take a look. It’s three young guys sitting opposite an old TV connected to terrible karaoke machine. And the guys can’t hold a note. When I return, another affable fellow has latched onto Jo. He’s a Canadian expat in a red baseball hat. Nice enough to engage in conversation but like lots of western expats in Asia he’s a chancer, a dropout, earning his living making loans at exorbitant interest rates – he’s a loan shark with bleak tales about the reality of life in Cebu – only three hours of water supply a day, violence (what you expect from a loan shark), asphyxiating pollution, congestion on a scale you can’t imagine – seven hours to do as many miles. But he says it’s better that the -21 degrees in winter Ontario. He doesn’t get out much as this is his first visit to Bohol and he’s been living here for thirteen years! He finishes his beer, wishes us luck and, like some minor hood in a Raymond Chandler novel, wanders into the night. I tell Jo that I’d really like meet a shark of the oceanic variety.