THE PHILIPPINES: Part 2
The second half of my trip is heavily reliant on stories. This is because either: a) I looked like a hot mess when we were sleeping in the airport or b) we were scuba diving and having once in a lifetime experiences where it was too deep for photos. Oh, or c) trying avoid being eaten by sharks. I think my mom put it best when she said, "such interesting adventures — memories to take with you through your life." So sit down with a hot cup of tea, read through at your leisure, and forgive the lack of photos. I hope you enjoy it nearly as much as I did.
DAY 8: Travel Day
When I finally closed my eyes to go to sleep that night, Brian and I were huddled by a wall in the Manila airport, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before our 5:40am flight to Cebu City. Suffice it to say, this was not what I had planned for the day.
Without getting into too much of the nitty-gritty, our flight out of Puerto Princesa had been delayed to the extent that we missed our connecting flight in Manila. Despite trying to change our flight at the Puerto Princesa Airport while there was still time, we were told we could only remedy this in Manila. And of course, in Manila we were sent in a run-around to different Cebu Pacific employees who eventually told us that we had already missed our flight, and there was nothing they could do.
We spent about an hour in the Cebu Pacific sales office, which operates much like a deli counter — take a number and wait your turn. I now refer to this as airport purgatory, as I think it's just shy of hell. By the time we got up there, we had missed the last flight out that night, and were forced to buy a new one-way ticket at twice the cost of our round-trip ticket. A quick Google search on Cebu Pacific reveals that we are not the only ones with gripes concerning the airline. Consumer Reports has them rated at a mere 1.25 stars.
Perhaps the only good thing that came of this terrible experience was the airport Siopao (pronounced "show pow") that I had for dinner. A fluffy rice flour shell, with barbecue pork inside. I'm not going to lie — I could have eaten a few of these.
DAY 9: The Way to Malapascua
I don't think I've ever been so happy to reach my destination. Upon finally arriving at the Cebu Airport, we took a metered taxi to the North Bus Terminal for about 200 pesos. Here we asked around for a bus headed to Maya Port. Ceres operates two buses, Ceres Liner without aircon for 170 pesos and Ceres Tours with aircon for 180 pesos. Needless to say, we splurged. It was a comfortable 5 hour ride with probably the best WiFi I had the entire trip.
It's necessary to take a boat from Maya to Malapascua Island, but how this actually goes is a bit unpredictable. Though a little out of date, I found the most thorough directions here. There is supposed to be a public boat with an 80 peso fare. However we were told (by a questionable source) that this boat doesn't come often and we needed to take a private boat. We were charged what I assume to be the tourist rate of 150 pesos. The locals paid 80, so I suggest haggling to try to get it closer to that price.
We stayed at Tepanee Beach Resort, which was closer to our western standards for a hotel, and therefore the most expensive place we stayed this trip. Truth be told, I expected more for the price of about 2,000 pesos. Upon arrival, we were greeted by two of the largest spiders I have ever seen on the side of our shower wall. And I don't mean of the Daddy Longlegs variety — picture about the size of your hand. Surprised when we learned that these guys could not only crawl, but actually leap too, we decided it was time to ask the hotel to remove them. Add in the roaches that came out of the woodwork every night or the rather rude owner we had qualms with, and I'd advise you steer clear.
Malapascua is a destination spot for scuba diving. To my knowledge, it's the only place in the world where it's possible to see thresher sharks regularly. The sharks have a symbiotic relationship with a small fish called a cleaning wrasse which eats bacteria from the sharks body. Therefore, even though these sharks are nocturnal, they can be seen in the early morning journeying to these cleaning stations. So naturally, finding a dive shop was next on our list.
I was open water certified when I was in my early teens and hadn't been diving since, apart from a confined dive refresher class. Finding an outfitter I was comfortable with was really important to me. Not to be dramatic but my life depends on the quality and maintenance of the equipment being rented and the knowledge of the dive master. This is not something to skimp on the cost of. That being said, more expensive doesn't always mean better.
We were thrilled with our experience at Dan's Dives. While some of the equipment looked a bit old (my booties had a hole in them), we didn't have a problem. This small dive shop offers discounted rates based on the quantity of dives. More dives = less expensive. But it was our dive guide, Felimar that made it such a great experience. He was super conscientious about checking how much air we had left, was able to keep track of us all, and pointed out all sorts of interesting sea life. He had a knack for spotting even the smallest critters, one of which was perched on the smallest branch of a fan coral.
We ate dinner that night along the beach, which while still pricey by local standards, was worth it in my book. I had a mango shake and sweet and sour chicken that was the perfect end to a very unpredictable day.
DAY 10: Gato Island
At this point I have to give a shout out to one of our favorite restaurants on Malapascua, Ging-Ging's. Its mix of Filipino and western menu items at affordable prices made it our morning go-to, which we enjoyed in their outdoor seating area. They were even nice enough to wrap up lunch to take with us on the dive boat.
Two dives at Gato Island proved to be worth the hour boat ride out there. While I appreciated the first dive as an opportunity to get my bearings, the second one was clearly the highlight. We were given flashlights so we were well-equipped for the underwater cave we had been told about.
I'll be honest. I had been a little nervous about this. Second dive back in the game and here I was about to go through a cave. But I was promised by our dive guide, BIG cave openings, where it was always possible to see either the entry or exit. I think I had a "when in Rome" moment, and decided I was up for it.
So here we were in the cave, and our dive guide tells us to kneel down, motioning to stay put. At this point all I see are the silhouettes of other divers at the exit of the cave. But they're clearly watching something. And then I see them. Or more accurately, our dive guide points his flashlight right at them. There were sharks. Circling. Just before the exit. I had flashbacks to the cartoons I had seen when I was little with sharks circling and I instinctively grabbed the dive guide's hand. I fully admit I was freaked out, but I just kept repeating to myself to stay calm. We sat and watched, and then just like that, they swam away. At the time I was terrified, but looking back, these white tipped reef sharks were definitely a highlight. We saw sharks AND I avoided being eaten — now that's what I consider a good day.
Dinner that night was at Ristorante Angelina, the Italian restaurant with the same owners as our hotel. While it probably wouldn't have been my first choice, we had met an Israeli couple on the dive boat that day who invited us to dinner. Conversation flowed freely as we went through countless cultural comparisons and at times heavy conversations. The food was good, but nothing exceptional and at the cost of what I'm accustomed to paying back home. Perhaps I'm spoiled by the availability of good Italian food in NYC.
Sidenote: We wondered about tipping when it came to meals here. When we paid we always received exact change back in bills that weren't conducive to leaving a tip. We asked one of the dive instructors on our boat about this, as she had been living on the island for some time. She informed us that it's not a Filipino custom to tip, however some of the more western style hotels and restaurants have come to expect it based on their clientele. She did, however, urge us, that of we were to leave a tip, to hand it directly to the intended recipient.
DAY 11: The Reason We Came
If you told me a few years ago that I'd be waking up at 4am to get dropped in the open ocean and actively search for sharks, I wouldn't have believed you. But there I was, waiting on a dark beach for the rest of our group to arrive so we could get a move on. Though barely awake, the boat ride was rather picturesque. The sky turned a creamy sherbet color, brightening as we reached our destination. In fact, the only indication that we had reached our desired location was the numerous boats that surrounded us. Other than that, it appeared as though the captain had picked a spot in the ocean and pondered, "Yeah, here looks good," as if picking a vacant spot of sand to lay out a beach towel for the day.
But one by one, the six of us entered the water, and slowly descended. I had been warned that there wasn't much to see other than the sharks, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by the generally barren surroundings. As we descended it got deeper, and darker, until our dive guide directed us to kneel and wait. So here I was, focusing mostly on doing what I'd been directed, when I see a dark silhouette ahead with what could only be…the tail of a thresher shark. Success! I thought to myself. But others in our group had not been as lucky. Their vision was blocked by those in front of them. So our dive guide directed: stay put, we'll wait.
Once is lucky, but twice is a stroke of pure fate. But there he was, swimming toward us this time. The shark was merely ten feet ahead, as if showing off. He came around the back of us, slightly above where I was perched, but I was too scared to look up. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see him over my left shoulder for merely a few seconds. But that was all the time I needed to see this incredible creature up close. Brian turned to me waving his arms in a "that was so cool" motion. It's amazing how those hand signals translate underwater.
Earlier I laughed when our dive guide told us that thresher sharks are friendly sharks. But the more I learned and from what I saw, I completely agree. The remarkable thing about this shark is the length of their tail, which is used to stun their prey, which they come around and sweep up after. We were told these sharks live at great depths, but their eyesight isn't very good when they come up to the cleaning stations. All things considered, this probably isn't the shark that's going to take a bite out of you. And all things considered, I'm really glad he didn't.
That night we found our way to Kiwi's Restaurant, which we had heard so much about. Situated away from the main beach, Kiwi's has a few tables in a outdoor garden, with a tv perched up on the building's corner. We were warned that there was almost always a long wait for the food, but it was certainly worth it. When we arrived, I understood why. The owner of this restaurant makes everything to order. If it's Coca-Cola you want, she sends a small boy around the village to pick one up.
The menu there is merely a guideline. Most likely she will heavily suggest you have whatever she made for the person who ordered before you, and therefore has ingredients for. "You try my fried fish," she demanded of Brian and I. "Looks like that," she says gesturing at a table to our left. "You like it. You both try." We caught on when we had also ordered lumpia and predictably, the group next to us ended up with a few plates as well. This shouldn't be a deterrent thought. The fried fish we had was remarkable. It was served whole (head and all) with a spicy soy-ginger sauce and topped with thinly sliced veggies. I've got to hand it to her —this woman can cook.
DAY 12: Winding Down
It's funny how every vacation reaches a point where I'm forced to come to terms with the idea of going home. Today was the day that it hit me, and I was hell bent on making the most of it. I think some people would refer to this as denial.
Largely spent as a travel day, we made our way back to Cebu City the same way we came. We once again took a boat to Maya and then the 5 hour bus ride to Cebu City. From there we managed to figure out the jeepney system with the help of a stranger. These colorfully decorated vehicles function as the cross between a bus and a taxi. Everyone gets off at different stops along the route as you would on a bus. However, you still pay the driver as you would in a taxi. It was definitely an experience. (Read: people thought we were nuts.) It's tight inside and our large backpacks had to be passed one-by-one down the line of people sitting on the bench next to us. Regardless, it brought us closer to the airport where we could find accommodation for the night.
We walked around the area and checked out a few places. One apartelle was cheap at about 880 pesos, but a glance around the room and I gave Brian the "not what I had in mind" look. Another hotel we found to be way too expensive. We were standing outside discussing when a friendly security guard directed us to a place down the street that might be closer to our price rage. Thank goodness for him. We were at the point where I was tired, cranky, and hungry from traveling. Brian was literally feeding me dried mango as walked. We settled at Dulcinea Hotel for 1900 pesos. It was perfect for what we needed, and we made full use of the free breakfast offered in the morning.
We set out to explore the area for dinner and happened upon what seemed to be an outdoor barbecue put on by the town. For about 400 pesos we had some pretty amazing pork, chicken, beef, and chorizo served on skewers and even tried some stingray soup (not my favorite). While many of the restaurants we ate at this trip were larger and frequented by locals, some of the best food I had was served by roadside vendors. I'd advise trying the lumpia, siomai, iced buco or whatever else strikes your fancy. I've found that one of my favorite things about traveling is trying some of the local cuisine, and I was lucky enough that none of it made me sick.
Day 13 + 14: That's a Wrap
The days that followed were largely travel days. Brian and I flew back to Manila, where we stayed with Melissa, Nate, and family for our final night. It was a pleasure to end our trip with friendly faces. They were once again gracious hosts. And of course, it wouldn't be a visit without Tita Yosa's amazing cooking. We had some delicious pork adobo and naked lumpia — recipes I'll have to try to cook myself at some point.
I can truly say that I was sad when it was time to leave, but I think I was ready too. It was a bit of a shock returning to the land of modern plumbing and fresh tap water — but nothing I couldn't get over after a nice, long, hot shower. Now THAT, I can say I missed.
photos by Amanda Dennelly unless otherwise noted