Manila is not an easy city to cope with. It’s sweaty, fairly criminal and busting at the seams with traffic. Many Westerners seem to view it as some sort of discount brothel or a stopover between resort destinations. I admit, it did have some charm that rubbed off on me. This was mostly thanks to the majority of people living there, who happened to be incredibly kind and, not to mention, a whole lot of fun. Either way, the loss of my passport had kept Lani and me in this city for three days too long. It was like I was being forced to repeat a class in school but there was no one to blame for the failure but myself. It was time to go.
Our flight out of Manila was delayed by over an hour but I didn’t mind. I knew that our trip was going to be back on track as soon as we landed at our next destination. And it was. Our first night, we met a lively group of backpackers as soon as we checked into our guesthouse. Most of the night was spent on our balcony, drinking heavily and discussing the fate of our species, as you do. Unfortunately, they were heading all the way up to El Nido at the northern end of the island.
El Nido is said to be one of the best tropical tourist destinations in the Philippines, if not the world. Many refer to it as “Boracay twenty years ago” and Boracay is, hands down, the most popular destination for tourists in the Philippines. El Nido is not only beautiful but also a huge pain in the ass to get to, which explains its reputation for being relatively unspoiled. Unfortunately, since our time in Palawan had been cut so short, we couldn’t justify going. It would take a seven hour bus ride each way, and we only had four days until we had to catch our next flight to Cebu. Even though we would miss out on this apparent unspoiled paradise, we still ended up with some pretty memorable experiences. Sure, our Instagram page may look a little less colorful, but it was a sacrifice we just had to make.
We ended up staying near Honda Bay, about two hours north of the airport, at a budget “resort” of sorts. There wasn’t much to do there other than relax on the beach, drink beer, swim and hang out with a domesticated monkey. Relaxation quickly becomes dull and uninspiring so we decided to rent a motorbike from the hotel, even though it seemed a bit busted. After all, a fully working motorbike in Southeast Asia is rarer than good beer in Saudi Arabia. We decided to take our chances and visit the “world’s longest underground river,” which, believe me, is not nearly as cool as it sounds.
The bike stopped several times throughout the day. But it wasn’t until our final leg of the journey that it wouldn’t start back up at all. Our broken bike had left us on the side of a windy road lining the coast between Puerto Princesa and El Nido. It didn’t take long for the residents of the closest house to come out and see me standing there, looking perplexed. First, some children noticed my predicament. After a good deal of pointing and laughing, they were joined by the adults in their family. Once I managed to communicate what was wrong, they ran inside and came to our aid with loads of smiles and a basic tool-kit. None of them spoke English very well but one of the few things I did understand them say was “big problem.” No one was capable of fixing my motorbike rental but they were capable of providing us with a tow to the closest mechanic.
The man who was willing to tow us did not own a car. He owned a “tricycle,” as they call it, which is really just their version of a rickshaw. Lani rode in the cab while I sat on our broken bike to steer the thing behind him. It was a little unnerving being tethered to something since I am not the most experienced driver as it is, but I made due and everyone who witnessed it got a good laugh out of it.
We left the broken bike at shady roadside mechanic and went on our way. Now we just needed to find a ride home. The sun had already set and twilight was fading quickly. The odds of flagging down a bus and getting back in time for dinner seemed low, so we figured that hitchhiking would be our best option.
The first car we waved our thumbs at stopped immediately. As the window rolled down on the passenger side of the red pick-up truck, we were shocked to be greeted by an old American man and four middle-aged Filipina ladies. The American did all the talking.
“Where you headed?” We frantically explained our situation and said that we only needed a ride twenty minutes up the road. He assured us that it was not a problem since the owner of hotel apparently owed him money for a turkey anyways. The only condition was that we had to ride in the truck bed since all the seats were taken. We had no qualms and hopped in the back.
Sipping on rum and conversing ecstatically about our good fortune in the back of a pickup truck, I began to feel that things were looking up for us. The greatest adventures seem to find you when your itinerary falls apart, and this was a perfect example of it. Palawan surely seemed to be a much needed contrast to the hustle and grit of Manila, that was for sure.
The following morning, we decided to spend our final day on Palawan, hiking to a nearby waterfall. The walk there was a miserable trudge through the jungle in the mid-day heat that left us drenched in our own sweat by the time we arrived.
The school year had recently ended. This was evident more at the waterfall than anywhere else we had been so far. Though most of the people there were about half our age, we still managed to make a ton of friends pretty quickly. The kids had a lot of fun egging me on to jump from the highest rocks surrounding the pool at the base of the waterfall. Being the outrageous daredevil that I am, I complied. Nothing beats the mid-day heat like public swimming hole.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we managed to actually meet someone our own age. Peter was a slightly taller than average Filipino man with a muscular physique. He was 29 years old, the same as me, and we hit it off pretty quickly. It didn’t take long for him to invite us to his friend’s house for some food and drinks. We accepted. After another long walk back through the jungle, we made it to his friend’s house, which happened to be just across the street from where we were staying the night prior.
We were greeted with hospitality and curiosity and I felt as though the family who was accommodating us had probably never had any Western visitors. The home was rustic but cozy, mostly consisting of bamboo with a concrete foundation that made the whole place feel surprisingly cool inside. We supplied the rum, they supplied some food and the location in which to drink. Peter and one of his friends kept us entertained with conversation and music as we passed the bottle around between the four of us.
When drinking in someone’s home pretty much anywhere in Asia, it seems to be an inevitability that eventually everyone will be singing karaoke. After watching many of the home’s residents sing songs about Jesus and the like, it was our turn to grab hold of the mic. Lani sang a very… special rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls” and I aided her in laying down some phat vocals on Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Too drunk to be embarrassed, but still knowing when it was time to leave, we departed as gracefully as we could and hopped on a bus heading to the city.
The Philippines is notorious for its love of cover bands playing Western pop music. We met Peter at a bar that showcased a prime example of one of their top-notch resident musical acts. The band that night was highly provocative and choreographed. With three singers alternating between backup and lead vocals, the show was part strip show, part 90’s high school talent show and all around bizarrely entertaining. We drank several buckets of beer and attempted to converse over the blaring music from the stage in front of us. Peter did his best to point out to us, on several occasions, that we always had a friend in Palawan, should we ever decide to return and I truly believed him. We would have undoubtedly spent more time with him if we didn’t have a flight to catch the next morning, but we had to meet up with an old friend of mine the following morning in Cebu.
Marsha has always exuded positive energy and a willingness to travel anywhere at the drop of a hat. Adorned with colorful tattoos and a contagious smile, she had always been one of the most likely candidates to meet me on the road and travel out of any of my friends back home. We’d grown up together but really only started becoming tight in our early twenties. This would not be our first time traveling together. We had spent several weeks in Thailand on a previous trip traveling together. Though we had some great times during our journey, we departed under somewhat negative circumstances due to my unhealthy infatuation with a girl that was by no means mutual. This time I was determined to make it up to Marsha by being a bit more present and appreciative of her decision to travel with me again.
We met her in front of some dumpy hostel in the center of Cebu about four hours later than we originally planned. Our flight had been delayed again, this time by more than three hours. She greeted me with an enthusiastic hug before I introduced her to Lani. We had not traveled together in a good while but, more importantly, we had not seen each other in years. It was a wonderful reunion and I immediately felt comfortable in her presence. We were picking up exactly where we had left off and I was happy to keep the ball rolling with her input and impetuosity.
Cebu reminded me all too much of Manila with its rivers polluted with trash and sewage, its poverty-stricken youth and ever so present sex tourism industry. After one night there, we decided that it would be best to head elsewhere. There was a small island called Siquijor not too far away. With white sand beaches, easy motorbike access and a relaxed environment, it sounded perfect. The best part about it was that it was, apparently, only about three to four hours away from Cebu. We left around 10 am the following morning, figuring that we would be on the beach by lunchtime.
Ten hours later, we arrived at our destination. Apparently, estimations on bus and boat rides in the Philippines are almost entirely arbitrary, though the long journey proved to be worthwhile. There were, in fact, many white sand beaches, beautiful waterfalls and the type of relaxing atmosphere that we were looking for. Most of our three days there were spent either swimming or riding around on motorbikes. One of the most interesting encounters had to be with a rustic and seemingly drunk local fisherman who referred to himself simply as “Mr. Morales.”
Wearing nothing more than decade-old board shorts and equipped with a bag of fishing nets and a half empty bottle of rum, I was pretty surprised that this guy was so interested in talking to us. I’m sure it had something to do with the girls’ bikinis. His English was not fantastic, but after casting out his lure for conversation and finding Marsha hooked on the other end, there would be no easy way to exit the situation, at least not gracefully. It’s hard to recall exactly what it is we talked about. Mostly, we just tried to convince him that we were, in fact, not exceedingly rich just because we were American. Marsha had already been conversing with him about god knows for about 15 minutes before Lani and I walked up. In this time, Marsha managed to learn an interesting fact about this character: find a dead sea urchin, no matter how old, and this man would crack it open, wash out the guts in the ocean and scoop out the rotten roe with his thumb to eat it. He even offered me some of this “delicacy.”
Now, I love sea urchin, but the stuff he was eating clearly required several years of building a tolerance to some unknown, toxic bacteria that I was sure my body was not accustomed to. It smelled more like some teenage girl’s period panties left in her gym locker over the summer than something that you would put in your mouth on purpose. We realized pretty quickly that we weren’t going to understand much of what he was saying and, honestly, just felt a little creeped out, so we waved goodbye and hopped on our motorbikes.
After a couple days and a few epic motorbike journeys, we knew it was time to leave the slow-moving island life of Siquijor. We decided that Boracay would be our next destination, despite the fact that it was going to take us two days by land and sea to get there. We knew this meant that everything would be overpriced and very little would seem like an authentic Filipino experience, but spending a good amount of time in the Philippines without visiting Boracay seemed out of the question. We also did not mind the prospect of finding other people to drink with.
The journey from Siquijor took two days, three boat rides and two very long bus rides. All in all, Boracay turned out to be exactly what we thought it would be: an over-saturated, over-priced, over-crowded tourist hot-spot with neon colored cocktails and fire dancers. This was not all bad, however, as we were craving a bit of a party environment after several days of lounging on a sleepy island. It most certainly was not paradise, but it was still a lot of fun with the exception of one bullshit boat tour that I’d rather not discuss. Let’s just say that there were enough life jackets and selfie-sticks to go around. Anyone who reads this blog has heard me complain enough about crappy tours, so let’s just move on. No, I don’t understand why I keep falling for them either.
After only a few days of getting drunk and laying around, it was time for us to head back to Cebu so I could grab my passport.
At this point, I was blissfully unaware of what the rest of my trip had in store for me. I wish I could say that my Filipino experience continued as a positive one until we caught our flight to Kuala Lumpur. This was not the case. Obtaining a new passport would only exacerbate my situation. Losing a passport is a difficult ordeal, but losing your visa in the Philippines is immeasurably worse. Looking back, I see now how the shit storm had only just begun.