Road Trip of a Lifetime

One of the exciting things about our trip to the Philippines was that we planned for it to be a purely overland one.

We thought we could have a good chance to kick it down a notch, get some reading done on the bus while the Filipino countryside rolled past us outside. We could also hop off at whatever town that happened to catch our fancy and just take the next bus out. It sounded like a rather romantic idea… with the added incentive of us saving some money by sleeping on overnight transport.

Along this line of thought, the road trip we were most excited about was the one that would take us from Dumaguete to Boracay.

We would take a bus from Dumaguete across the volcanic island of Negros to Bacolod City where we would transfer to a ferry that would take us across the Panay Gulf towards Iloilo City. From Iloilo City, it was another six hours (overnight) bus ride through Panay Island to Caticlan where we would take a one hour pump boat ride to Boracay.

On paper, it sounded like a great plan.

Our case was helped by our first look at the buses that would be carrying us. They looked relatively modern. Sure, not ALL of them had air conditioning, but the buses themselves looked well maintained, and we would have the wind in our faces as we did our relaxing and sight seeing.

Our Loyal Steeds

We forgot one very tiny detail about Countrysides.

The people in the Countryside use countryside roads.

BUMPY countryside roads.

Windy AND Bumpy countryside roads.

Windy, Bumpy AND Dusty countryside roads.

And so, that’s how we spent the next six hours being thrown around like rag dolls.

At one point, it got so bad that Jo had trouble falling asleep (It would take more than a bumpy bus ride hurtling towards hell to stop Jo from falling asleep).

We were right about the countryside being pretty though. The bus drove us past endless sugar cane fields framed by truly majestic (and sometimes smoking) volcanoes in the background.

We reached Iloilo City (incidentally pronounced as “Ee Low Ee Low” NOT “Ee Loy Low”) at 7 in the evening. We did a quick pow wow and unanimously agreed our butts could not take another six hours of beating.

We decided we should probably reward ourselves with a good dinner and find a hotel before carrying on again the next morning.

We stayed for two nights.

The bus journey was THAT traumatic. We spent three days and two nights getting the trauma soothed out of our system with many rounds of insanely good USD10 massages.

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Give? Or Take?

When we tell people we are going to be travelling together for a long period of time, two very common questions we would be asked is “Won’t you be fighting a lot?” and “Wouldn’t that be harmful to the relationship?”

Although we’d normally laugh and play it down, it is true that there are more possibilities for conflict when we are in each others’ faces almost 24 hours a day (this statement is literally true when we are travelling by jeepneys in the Philippines). There’s also more room for disagreements because due to the nature of travel, we are making more decisions together than we would otherwise. And then there are times when we would just be snappish towards each other because we are tired or just plain irritated.

But to us, I think, no matter how bad things seemed to be getting, no matter how pissed off we get at each other, we just need to remember one important thing: I am always Right!

Haha. I’m joking. Of course we all know that the only way to resolve any conflict is to have an open discussion about it in a non-judging environment and then mutually agree to do things my way.

Let me state my case…

We arrived in Dumaguete at 2pm in the afternoon after a five-hour bus-boat-jeepney transit. We checked into Harold’s Mansion and I felt that we’d had a pretty darn productive day. I was ready to call it a day and just wander around town and do some general bumming around.

Jo, of course, begged to differ.

She felt we could squeeze in one last visit to a waterfall that is an hour away.

“We can watch the sun set at the waterfall”, she said, among other completely unappealing things like “Look, it’s the most photographed waterfall in Dumaguete!!”, which she seemed to think would help to convince me.

Did I mention that the hour taken to reach the waterfall included commuting from jeepney to bus to habal habal? I was tired just thinking about it, not to mention the prospect of taking a habal habal did not really give me the warmest and fuzziest of feelings.

habal habal is a mode of transport designed to take Filipinos to places they could not reach by means of normal transport. Let me say that again, places that Filipino Drivers Cannot Access by Themselves. During our time here so far, we’ve seen these very same drivers bring their vehicles across dirt roads, up mountain slopes and through torrential rivers, squeezing ten abreast through a two lane carriageway, all the while balancing three kids and two crates of beer, talking on the phone and not looking at the roads. A habal habal is a vehicle used to bring us on roads where these people dare not go.

It is similar to what we know as a modified motorbike, but it looked closer to what we would technically define in English as a “death trap”.

The word “Habal habal”  is apparently (if Lonely Planet was not pulling our legs) loosely translated to mean “like habal“, and “habal” means “doggy-style coitus”. It’s so named because of the way the passenger is seated behind the driver. I’m not homophobic, but it’s a position I would rather not have to put myself in, especially over a long stretch of bumpy dirt road.

And yet, despite my fervent protest, we found ourselves on one of these habal habal each. (Ok, granted the protest was not that passionate, but I thought girls are good at picking up on those non verbal cues kind of thing!)

Long story short, I was clinging on for my life as our drivers laughed maniacally while we thrashed through the jungles. I might have been imagining the laughing maniacally part. I can’t really tell. I was too busy letting my life flash before my eyes as the drivers charged through (instead of going around) the numerous potholes on the ground.

No matter what some movie tries to to convince you, the odds will never always be in your favor. After (what seemed like) our 1000000000th pothole, the inevitable happened, I felt the weight of the habal habal shift to one side, and the next thing I knew, the world turned sideways.

My habal habal had skidded down a ditch. I managed to break my fall slightly with my hands, but what was worrying me more was that I was now in an even more compromising position with the driver AND the bike than I had been when we were just riding along.

After we got ourselves out of our Twister like position, we did a quick check on ourselves. There were a few abrasions, but thankfully, nothing was broken.

We decided to carry on to the waterfalls, and the drivers agreed to be more careful and reduce their charging speed from 150 km/h to 149 km/h (give or take).

So, there I was, trying to clutch onto my driver with bloodied hands (mine, not the driver) when a sign signalled the turn off to the waterfall. I happily hopped off the bike and realized that the waterfall was 3000 steps (give or take) down. We climbed down those 3000 steps and realized that the path leading to the waterfall had crumbled through because of an earthquake a few months back. I suppose it’s possible to climb our way through to the waterfall, but it’s probably not something I’d want to attempt with a split-open hand.

At that point, even Jo decided we had had enough, so we habal habal-ed back to the main village and sat down for the biggest $0.70 coke of all time.

Consolation prize

My point though is… isn’t this something we could have done a few hours ago… if SOMEONE had just listened to me?

Cheap at half the price

Diving was not really high up the list on our agenda when we decided to go to the Philippines. But since we got our diving license renewed and after the amazing dives at Balicasag, we were badly hooked and really wanted to go again.

Our Master Travel Plans for the Philippines was pretty much shot by now, so we decided we’ll just wing it the whole way. It’s a good thing we did that because we found out that the dive centres in Dumaguete organize dive trips to Apo Island.

It’s a big thing.

Apo Island is one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Besides the vibrant (read:unbleached) corals, Apo Island is supposed to have more marine lifeforms than there are uncredited background musicians in an episode of Glee.

And the best part of it all? Diving in the Philippines is a lot cheaper than it is in a lot of the other parts of the world.

While we were in Dumageute, we stayed in Harold’s Mansion.While it is more of a hostel than Bruce Wayne’s manor, it is pretty comfortable and comes with its own in-house dive centre. Harold quoted us 2500PHP (US$59 or 41 Westeros Silver Stags)/head for three dives out at Apo inclusive of pickup/refreshment/lunch/all equipment rental.

It was one of those few times when we did not need to do a comparison across other shops and just agreed to go along.

Even so, we (ok, I) was not particularly convinced and I was sure that there must be a catch somewhere.

First off, the rental equipment we checked out was pretty ok. They were not fresh off the rack, but they were definitely serviceable and more importantly (to my unprofessional eye) safe.

And then we were transferred via a pickup truck to our boat boarding point. We had to share seating space with the dive equipment in the truck. It was a bit of a squeeze and there was a period when I had my ass dangling out in Filipino traffic like a makeshift meat bumper.

I’m not kidding.

At that point in time, I was all prepared to make myself miserable and thinking, “AHA! NOW the cost savings come in!”

That’s when they brought out the big guns.

Exhibit A: The “boat” that was taking us to Apo… It’s comfortable, clean and comes with a very friendly crew. The pylons at the side can even be used as a improvised diving platform/monkey bar/playground.

Our Ride

Exhibit B: The Dive Master, Toping was crazily cheerful and very detailed in his dive briefs. So detailed he even brought along a white board to supplement his brief. Although halfway through the day, we suspected the white board was for him to wean off a DrawSomething addiction. He was also really patient with the two bumbling divers he had to string along.

The Master… Diver…

Exhibit C: The Crew. We never felt so pampered in our lives! The only “equipment” we needed to “prepare” ourselves was the wetsuit. The support crew prepared all the gear and readied all the equipment for us.

Prepped and ready!

They even help scaredy cats SOME divers off the boat with a gentle push.

Exhibit D: The Diving. It IS one of the top ten dive sites in the world. There’s the wall dive which is reminiscence of our dives in Balicasag. And then there are the volcanic plateaus which, for us, is like floating through a dreamscape of bubbles. One of those experiences we’re really glad we had.

Wall diving

Hard/soft corals along with tonnes of marine life attach themselves to the wall. It’s quite surreal, actually. Kind of like an M.C. Escher sketch.

Stages of Turtle spotting: Discovery, Creeping up, And trying to spot the turtle again

Turtle!

The dives were also a bit simpler than the ones we had before. Many of our dives are at depths of 7 – 20 meters. The currents are relatively gentle so we don’t have to exercise that much. More importantly, these are also depth that my DiCAPac casing works in! So, great cam whoring opportunities abound!

Floating… just keep on floating…

Total Cam Whoring

Did I mention that Apo Island itself is really beautiful? It’s on par, if not better than some of the Thai resort islands that we’ve been to. The boat anchored off various points around the island before and after every dive for us to take a break.

That, in itself was probably (but not really) worth the price of admission.

Just chilling…

and goofing around…

Youth is not wasted on the Young

It’s funny how things work out some time.

Just as I was complaining about the quality of food in the Philippines, we were treated to a steady stream of awesome eating places in the university town of Dumaguete.

The whole reason we were in Dumaguete was so that we can do some diving at Apo Island.

Stepping off our boat from Lilo An in Cebu, we thought Dumaguete looked just like any other Filipino seaside town.

“Just” another Filipino seaside town

We were soon struck by how “different” Dumaguete felt compared to the other Filipino cities so far.

There’s a very “young” vibe that seemed to just permeate through the town.

It’s hard to explain, but there’s a feeling of… invincibility and an implied promise that “WE WILL CHANGE THE WORLD!”. Corny as it may sound, it’s a promise that had not been tempered by cynicism and jadedness yet.

This can be seen in many places, but the most prominent of which are the walls of murals lining the streets. Every exposed area is painted over with messages about peace, recycling and other “causes of the month”.

See what I mean about jadedness?

Murals!

That aside, what’s the best part of being in an University town?

Definitely the student priced food!

We were able to suss out a few student run cafes/restaurants (not that hard since they are all within the… ermm.. campus grounds) and we managed to while away quite a few evenings cafe hopping and pretending to be young again.

Chic coffee joints with ermm… poppy!

See the half eaten muffin (poppy velvet cream cheese), and the empty cup of coffee? Indisputable proof that we are not cut out to be food photographers.

We also discovered (according to Jo) THE BEST CHICKEN IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

What started out as a “hur hur, let’s try something from this restaurant named after you” quickly became an obsession for Jo.

Can you smell what the Jo is cooking!

We were supposed to share one chicken meal since it comes with unlimited rice (and also because we are NOT greedy).

We ended up ordering three sets of chicken.

Figuring out where to start biting into the succulent piece of chicken. The only reason why I am able to snap a complete piece of chicken thigh? It’s our third piece…

Whaaaaaaaleeeee of a time

We’ve swum with Whale Sharks!

We’re not bragging. It’s a fact!

Ok, we ARE bragging…

To be honest, when we came to Oslob (specifically the barangay of Tan-awan, as we’ve been corrected), we came with the expectation that we would have a chance to go out on a boat to see the whale sharks. The experience we had far exceeded our wildest dreams. I have to say this again… WE GOT TO SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS!

It’s cliche, I know, but it’s really hard to put into words the experience of being in such close quarters with these majestic creatures.

First off, they are HUGE (duh)!

Man to whale shark ratio… and we were told this was just a baby one (Not the man, the whale shark)

Beside feeling utterly dwarfed by these beautiful creatures, this poses a problem for us photography-wise because it is almost impossible to take a photo of a full shark.

For most of the shots, we either got the head of the shark…

or the tail of one…

And as you can see, we got to be in really close quarters with these behemoths, even though we’d been warned to keep at least 3 metres away from the whale sharks. Jo claims there was an instant when one of them brushed against her.

We couldn’t help it, the whale sharks just followed the fishermen who were hand feeding them from their little dug out canoes.

It was actually a bit scary being so close to such a large creature that was in a state of feeding. A creature whose mouth is a vacuum bigger than an average human being…

Praaaaaaawwwwwwnnnnsssss…. but seriously, the suction the whale shark creates from opening its mouth is crazy. We were close enough to feel a pull towards the whale shark whenever it opened its mouth.

The fear was not allayed by the rather bad visibility.

If I were the whale shark, I’d totally be playing the Jaws theme in my head

You never know when a whale shark is gonna pop out beside you. Some of us figured we should watch the fishermen feeding the whale sharks, but I found a better way… a secret technique, if you will.

Insider Tip: Listen to Jo. She lets out the most hair raising shrieks whenever a whale shark is within 10 metres from us.

Jo: My Very Own Human Whale Shark Detection System

To be honest, we felt a bit guilty being there. We know that the practice of feeding the sharks is totally unnatural. It causes the whale sharks to associate small boats with food… Not entirely a good thing considering that some of the small boats in other regions are actually out hunting them for their meat and fins, not to mention the very real possibility of them being accidentally injured by the outboard motors on some of these vessels.

Raphael had also told us stories of abuse by tourists swimming with the whale sharks. Apparently there were pictures circulating on Facebook of a girl “surfing” on one of the whale sharks. Although the location of the incident had since been confirmed to have occurred with a stranded whale shark in Booljoon, given the proximity we were able to get to the whale sharks, the same thing could easily have been replicated here.

From what we’ve seen, although we were given quite a detailed briefing on the do’s and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks (no feeding of the whale shark, keep at least three metres from the whale sharks, no strobe photography, ABSOLUTELY no physical contact with the whale sharks), the operators running the boat trips are not THAT sharp on stopping us from going too near to the whale sharks. To be fair to them, tourist attention came very recently and very suddenly upon them. They are still learning and steps are being put in place so the whole operation can hopefully be more smoothly run after some time.

Marilyn (from our guest house) told us that the villagers at Tan-awan had actually been feeding the whale sharks for decades. Every year, when the whale sharks migrated to the region, they disrupted the local fishermens’ livelihood because they scared away all the fish in the area. The local fishermen initially tried to get rid of these “pests” by chasing them away with spears and throwing rocks into the whale sharks’ open mouth. One of the villagers turned to another tact.

He “befriended” the whale sharks by feeding them prawns and luring them away while his partner did the fishing. It seemed to be the only way that worked and the method caught on. Some fishermen would lure the whale sharks away with prawns caught the night before, while others fished.

Befriending the Whale Shark

This move paid off when a dive centre nearby saw what the fishermen were doing and paid them to bring the whale sharks closer for their divers. Word spread, and these days, the fishermen probably make more money with the tourists than they do with their fishing.

Now, the local municipal government tried to control the deluge of tourists coming in by limiting the number of fishermen “allowed” to feed the whale sharks, as well as the number of tourists in the water at any one time. The price for seeing the whale shark was also sharply increased for foreigners (on the VERY day we arrived in Oslob) to generate more cash for the conservation of the whale sharks (or so they say…). Cheapos that we are, this is also the story of how we were registered as Filipinos “Romeo” and “Juliet” in the signing up sheet. True Story.

As far as we know, there are three main operators that bring tourists out to see the whale sharks in Tan-awan. One such operation runs out of M8 Sunrise View where we stayed. All the operations link up with the 14 fishermen authorized by the government to feed the whale sharks.

Disclaimer:

No matter what you saw from 0:17 of the video on, let me assure you that no man or (screaming) woman was harmed in the making of this video.