It is often only once you are clear of an experience that you are able to recall it for what it was, as a whole, and with absolute joy. That is how I feel about backpacking around the Philippines with Clarissa. It was the best of times, and then, for a little tiny bit, it was the worst of times. Now we are back and everything is in order and it is the best of times again.
We flew overnight from Heathrow to Hong Kong and then on to Cebu airport. The Philippines is made up of over seven-thousand islands. We had two weeks. We would have to island hop at a rate of five hundred islands a day if we were going to do them all.
Q: How big does a bit of land have to be before it is an island?
A: It can still be smaller than a football pitch or an extra-large pizza.
Cebu City is nothing to write home about, except that is exactly what I am doing, so I guess I have to. In the way that The Beautiful South sing that it could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome, Cebu City could be anywhere, anywhere alone. It’s tall and it’s dirty and there are enough air-conditioned 7Eleven stores for all the backpacking white kids to get their toasted sandwiches and bottles of Hooch. We stayed in a hostel that seemed to be entirely populated by muscly guys in backwards caps and nip-slip inducing vests and their bleach-blonde, cup-of-tea-tanned girlfriends. They all talked the same way and had no idea about anything. It was quite nice to sit and listen to idiots. I hadn’t done so in hours.
We slept in bunk beds, using our towels as bedding and were up early the next morning to get down to the ferry port to try to make it to somewhere more interesting. Somehow we failed to get the ferry we wanted, to Dumaguete, and wound up waiting out the next one to Bohol by having breakfast in a local café. We swatted flies away and elected to sit at the table in front of the fan so we could attempt to survive in the humid new world we had found ourselves in. Brunch was an omelette and a delicious sparkling lemonade called Sparkle.
The ferry from Cebu to the Talagaban port on Bohol took under three hours. We took the cheap seats up on deck and somehow I managed to sleep, awaking to find my neck stiff and in need of WD40. We didn’t know anything about Bohol, having left our Lonely Planet in the company of an illustrated guide to the films of Wes Anderson and a signed copy of Simon Pegg’s Nerd Do Well. That was thousands of miles away on my bookshelf. We decided we would just follow the crowds.
When we got off the ferry, the taxi drivers kept asking us if we wanted a ride to Alona Beach. If that was where everyone else was going then we figured we might as well. We took a forty-minute trike ride across the beautiful island to the Tip Top hotel (that was the name of it, not the conditions in which we were treated) and we swam in their pool and wandered down to the beach in search of dinner as the sun set. I was mercilessly attacked by mosquitos as we sat with beers and vodka and pizza and pasta, hardly the veg and rice combo we were expecting of our trip. Afterwards we hit some of the bars along the beach and Clarissa took it upon herself to name all of the feral cats and homeless dogs we spotted. We were offered tattoos, massages, tequila and who knows what else. We decided to take up the offer to go on a tour around the island but when we got to the tourist office, drunk, they told us they were closed and we needed to come back in the morning. We booked another night at Tip Top and fell asleep despite the buzz of the air conditioner.
The next morning we joined all the other white people in Bohol on a mini bus tour. We thought we had just signed up to go to the Chocolate Hills but actually got a lot more for the £8 each that we paid.
The Chocolate Hills are worth the trip, a series of alien-looking mounds in the middle of nowhere. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but you have to expect extreme ends of the spectrum in the Philippines. We rode for two hours, with a brief stop to try and sell us tickets to see the biggest python in Bohol, before we got there. We trekked up two-hundred steps to parry away selfie sticks. It was hot and we were closer to the sun and arguably, to God.
Once you’ve got “the shot”, there’s not really an awful lot else to do, and the turnaround for viewing the Chocolate Hills is close to that of reheating a casserole.
Our next stop was a bamboo bridge. It looked cool but the tips of our flip flops got caught in the loose, woven reeds. Locals overtook us while casting the stink eye and I wondered if we were supposed to stand on the right like the escalators on the underground.
We took a river cruise with lunch. Our meals were limited by our decision to become vegetarian. There was a buffet, from which I was able to get some rice, noodles and fried vegetables. Everything else was dead animals. I also ate some watermelon, which may have just been a garnish. We were served iced tea while a pair of tiny Filipino girls who had taken both barrels of a shotgun loaded with make up to the face played covers of Ed Sheeran and The Carpenters through a blown speaker. The sun beat down on the green of the river and I watched a group of boys fishing off the bow. We pulled up alongside another barge where children danced and played ukuleles and their masters made international gestures for “give us your money now”.
Our next stop was a church or museum that we refused to go into in case we instantly burst in flames. It was worth taking the trip to see what was on offer. Bohol was cute but there were still a lot of other places we wanted to see. We didn’t want to get stuck in one place.
We booked a flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa and arranged a car to pick us up at five in the morning so we could be at the port in time. We went back to the beach and tried to explain vegetarianism to a waitress before being served anchovies. We looked like fussy and preposterous idiots. We got a buzz from buy-one-get-one-free cocktails in a reggae bar.
The next morning we got up, got dressed and headed to the port. We slept on the ferry as terrible karaoke versions of even worse songs played loudly on the static-blessed TV above the seating area. We woke up in Cebu. It was eight in the morning and we didn’t have anywhere to go or anywhere we needed to be until our flight that afternoon. We decided to go and get breakfast in the mall and ended up stuck there all day.
For some people, the idea of being trapped inside a shopping centre for a full day is the stuff of dreams. I am not one of those people. We spent the first two hours sucking Wi-Fi up in the “Travel Centre”, a weird corridor with USB sockets and showers. We then sat in a supermarket café drinking watermelon-heavy tropical juice drinks full of pulp, sap and pips. The mall opened and people threw themselves under the up-rolling barriers like there was a 50% off sale on weird behaviour. We explored everywhere before realising we should have taken a bit longer about it. We searched for breakfast and ended up chewing mushrooms and eating garlic-coated spinach with noodles and iced tea.
We watched the Cebu chess competition and then booked tickets to see Guardians Of The Galaxy 2. That’s what you do when you’re in Asia right? Go to the cinema? The film was great. I only cried a bit.
Afterwards I needed to replenish vital liquids I had lost because of my stupid feelings so went to Starbucks, refuge of the white person travelling. Our barista was very excited that we were from England. I told her I was in Harry Potter and she gave us the Wi-Fi password. I went to the bathroom and two small boys mimed playing basketball which I think was a comment on my height. I felt like I was Gulliver on his travels. The people of the Philippines are very small.
We got a taxi to the airport and had to switch out layers of clothing to make sure our bags, which were small enough for carry on, were under the weight limit. 60% off my bag was taken up with snorkels. We didn’t need an awful lot else.
I was amazed at how quickly we were out of the terminal on the other side. We literally walked out the door. From there we took a trike to our hostel to change for dinner. The driver proudly told us that there was a new international airport opening that week.
We tried to book the underwater cave tour of Puerto Princesa, the only reason we were in town. We were told we would not be able to do so until the following day. We decided to go out for food and plot our next step. We got a trike back to the centre of town, which was a crossroads. There was a loud tiki bar and very little else. We ended up back at the restaurant next to our hostel, trying to explain that we didn’t eat meat, or fish. We were then offered crab. The plus side was that the beers were cheap.
We decided we would get out of Puerto Princesa, and head north to El Nido. We had been told it was full of tourists. What difference would we make? The difficulty was in getting there. It was about six hours away by road and we had no transport. We managed to book a minibus for the next morning. I should have realised that for the price there was no way it was a private hire. I think we paid 2,000 pesos (£30.00) for the privilege.
The following morning we were up, packed and ready before 9am. We had our complimentary breakfast of eggs and coffee before waiting for our lift. They were late. I sometimes forget that not everybody is as uptight about time keeping as I am.
Eventually we were all loaded into the van. We drove for fifteen minutes before stopping at some kind of human filling station where every other seat was given up to a butt. We sat there for half an hour, without the engine and the air conditioning running, while women in rags offered us bags of apples, waiting for our driver to be ready. We drove for a couple of hours, long enough for me to fall asleep. It was raining when I woke up. We pulled under a wooden awning. Water ran along gutters and splashed down heavily in designated areas. Motorcyclists pulled in to attempt to dry off. In the tradition of Asian people wearing t-shirts with random English phrases on them, one of the motorists had Damp on his shirt.
We continued on. Eventually the rain stopped. We dropped some people off. We picked up some more people. The average number in the car remained the same. We pushed rice paddies and farmland and headed up into tight mountain passes before coming back down the other side and into El Nido.
The driver let us off and pointed roughly in the direction of our guesthouse. Either someone else’s luggage or the rain had soaked through Clarissa’s bag. As soon as we got to our room she had to unpack everything and hang it outside. There were crosses on the walls and psalms in wooden frames. The Wi-Fi password was JESUSCHRIST (All capital letters-no space). I waited to burst into flame.
We walked to town. There were beautiful bronzed people in vests and flip flops everywhere. Some were drunk. Some had accents. There were stalls and bars and a beach. We explored. We bought spring rolls and pasta and pizza from a restaurant on the beach. We had cocktails and beers and decided to get a trike out to the other beach to watch the sunset. We got a lift with a man who told us his name was Police. He looked like Rufio from Hook. He said we would wait for us. There were thousands of trikes everywhere. I doubted I would ever see him again.
We climbed down to the beach, had beers, swam in the sea and the sun went down. This was what travelling was supposed to be about. I felt more relaxed than before. When we got to the top again, Police/Rufio was waiting. We got a lift back to town and decided to get blind drunk.
We had every cocktail on the menu. We ended up at some hideous Ladies Night at a bar on the beach. I remember scowling at someone who told me to smile. I remember dancing like Vincent Vega in Jackrabbit Slims. I remember shouting in someone’s face about Bohol. The next thing I knew I was back in the guesthouse and my head was spinning and there was Jesus Christ on the wall and JESUSCHRIST in the Wi-Fi and I was being sick. Clarissa joined me. We yin-yanged over the bowl and she passed out on the floor. I went to bed and returned to be sick moments later, stepping over her unconscious body. I repeated this four or five times and then passed out. I woke up and threw up in the sheets. Clarissa was in bed. She told me to go to the bathroom. Women make a lot of sense.
The following morning the phone rang and broke my mind. When I picked up the receiver I was told that breakfast had been served. I put the phone down and passed out again. Half an hour later there was a knock at the door and our breakfasts had been put on the table outside, surrounded by Clarissa’s clothes that were still drying. We stumbled into the light and I slowly forked pancakes This was holidaying. We decided we should probably leave. We checked into another guesthouse up the road and took our hangovers to the beach.
We all know that it is important to stay hydrated. My friend Emma shouted “hydrate or die” at me for a week while we were in the Sahara desert. I am going to blame the hangover for the fact we walked the length of the beach before settling down under some palm trees. I swam in the sea, snorkelled for a bit and then stretched out to tan up. The next thing I knew I was burnt. I was burnt and dizzy and still hungover and very thirsty. We hobbled back until we found a café to get some food. My legs started to change colour. My back did the same. It turns out that spending a long time floating face down in the water like a corpse does wonders for tanning. We eventually headed back to our guesthouse and I napped until the evening. I started to feel really ill, worse than the hangover. I still don’t know if it was the hangover or food poisoning or good old fashioned sunstroke but the next few days went by in a blur. I couldn’t get up or do anything. My stomach hurt and I lost my appetite and I got really pathetic and needed my mummy.
Clarissa had to tell me I was being pathetic a number of times before we were able to move past it. We decided we needed a change of scenery so checked into Double Gem, a place that was at least three times more expensive than anywhere else we stayed in the Philippines. For that price, a young man carried my bag to my room and there was a complimentary toothbrush. We relaxed in the pool and heard the most hilarious exchange.
A couple swam past us. I presume they were a couple but he was clearly gay. It’s difficult to tell. A lot of Filipino men seem to be gay. Kind of like the British. As if they wanted it to become a hilarious anecdote, he turned to her and said “How are you feeling? Still itchy?”
We looked at each other incredulously. She looked at him in horror. We have repeated it as a catchphrase every day since.
The next day, with my head clear and my bottom no longer a risk, we headed out on an island hopping tour. Not only did we have to pay over the odds for the trip because we were staying in a swanky pad, but we also had to pay a Riverboat Fee for pollution or something. Watch out for that. We were joined by a Filipino mother and daughter, a guy from the US and a young German couple, who may or may not have had a Fritzl-like relationship. I couldn’t possibly say.
We headed to another beach. There were palm trees. There were a lot of boats and therefore a lot of people. I tried snorkelling but was constantly worried about coming up only to be smashed in the head by a passing boat. It was like something out of a Hollyoaks episode. The next beach was teaming with people. Some couldn’t swim and kept their life jackets on, even when sat on the sand. All around of us, young locals tried to take selfies. A couple of them tried to sneakily take photos with us. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. I hadn’t experienced anything like it since Peru. Eventually we conceded and posed for these photos. We then wondered what they possibly did with them. What was the point of having photos of white people?
Somehow the crew were able to put together lunch for the seven of us using just whatever they had on the boat. Of this, we ate rice and mango. The fruit was so good that I couldn’t have wanted for anything else. I followed it up with cup after cup of Coke. Why does Coke taste so much better when you’re overseas? That’s rhetorical. It’s because they don’t have to abide by our silly laws on the contents of fizzy drinks.
Having filled our bellies they let us back on before we jetted off again. Five minutes later we pulled in beside a cliff, they lowered the ladder and we had to swim to the next bay as there were so many other boats. The cliff right-angled and we followed it in. There was a small opening in the rock face that people were crawling through. This was the Secret Lagoon. With scraped knees and banged heads we made our way inside. There were sheer walls all around us and a small bay where people safely paddled in water up to their knees. We queued to come back out again. It wasn’t all that secret and it wasn’t all that exciting.
We snorkelled with fish drawn to the boat by the leftovers that the crew threw over the side. Clarissa was overwhelmed by the numbers of fish. She has a thing about creatures that flap – butterflies and pigeons and the like. It turns out that the thought of the fish touching her was too much. She quickly got back on the boat.
We were dropped off at the north end of El Nido where there are great chasms and rocks to kayak in and around. I let Clarissa sit up front and steer. We only collided with one other boat before we worked out what to do. After that we were an Olympic-grade rowing team. We swapped over and she commented on how the skin on my back was falling from me like carved meat from an illuminated kebab van. My legs were peeling too.
Kayaking was great. By the end of it the pair of us had decided we would invest in one when we got home and take it out in the Estuary. People talk bollocks when they’re on holiday, don’t they…
We got back on the boat and stopped in another bay. We all went swimming, including the Fritzl girl and the two Filipino women. After a couple of minutes I heard one of them screaming and flailing. Without a thought for my own safety I swam over and held her up while the crew found their way over. I thought I had saved the day. It turned out that her legs had stopped working which is not a real malady. She was in a life vest as well. It really put some perspective on the ridiculous things I panic about.
We got back to our shore. There were crabs and starfish in the crystal clear water. We picked up our bags and headed onto the next place to stay. I felt a bit like a hermit crab, constantly crawling along in the sand with a pack on my bag, searching for somewhere shady, my tiny bug eyes and pincers scanning the immediate area.
We found a place right by town which meant we could go out for another dinner I couldn’t stomach before getting back in time for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Minority Report. The trip was a real lesson in the works of Tom Cruise. He’s made some great films but there’s something deeply unnerving about him.
We took another internal flight, back to Cebu. We got a ride to Moalboal to spend the rest of our days in peace. The rest of our holiday I mean. We got a privately hired minibus with a cool driver called Benjie. He let us stop for snacks and sang along to the radio as we lazily dozed. He offered us a lift back in three days time, when we would be heading back to Cebu to fly home. It seemed like a good idea and we gave him a deposit which Clarissa said we would never see again.
We were in Moalboal for one reason, Kawasan Falls, the famed canyoneering site everyone heads to. We checked into yet another place and realised we didn’t have any food. The resort didn’t offer anything aside. We found a weird German/Filipino hybrid restaurant. Yes, that’s a thing. It was a hut with the feel of a German beer hall. They served schnitzel and bratwurst and pad Thai and chicken abodo. We had chips. The glamorous life of a vegetarian.
The following morning we had another breakfast of eggs and got a lift to the Falls. We were given helmets, life jackets and contracts to sign before being loaded onto the back of a motorbike and driven up into the mountains. I hadn’t been on the back of a motorbike since I was a kid. It filled me with a renewed sense that I needed to learn how to ride. Another promise to myself that would seem empty once I got home. We were dropped off and had to walk through the jungle and to the falls. I instantly forgot our guide’s name and called him mate for the rest of the day.
It was one of the best experiences we had. The scenery was beautiful, beams of light breaking through the canopy of trees overhead as you wonder about safety and exactly how far thirty-five foot is.
The key thing is learning how to fall with style. It took Clarissa taking a tumble on our second jump before our guide decided to teach us that you simply stepped off with one foot and then used the other to push you away from the edge. There’s a lovely GIF of the fall somewhere.
We returned to our new accommodation, next door to the original, battered and bruised and ready for food and sleep. We ate very well while we were in Moalboal, everywhere had something we could eat.
We took another boat tour out around the islands and saw the sardine runs and a sea turtle being hassled by locals. There’s something incredibly freeing about snorkelling and watching nature. I could have stayed below the waterline forever.
We spent our last day chilling by the pool and trying to remember exactly how we were supposed to function in the real world. It turned out that our driver got a better offer so sent someone in his place. Someone who turned up fifty minutes late. After sitting in traffic for two hours we arrived at Cebu airport to be told we had missed our flight. We then had to sleep in the airport hotel before booking onto the flight out the next day. We then missed the connecting flight out of Hong Kong. It took us fifty-five hours to get home. Those were the worst of times.
Like I said, with all of that nonsense out of the way I can appreciate how incredible the trip was and how lucky I am to enjoy a place that is yet to be completely ruined by people just like me.
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