01.12.2013 - 15.12.2013
On the flight to Cebu I meet two friendly and well to do women who are keen to offer me a lift downtown when we arrive. They have a lot of warnings about the city and drop me at a central place, close to hotels and safe enough for me to walk around on my own. I am also directed to the Elegant Circle Economy Hotel, a palace of concrete and plastic, no windows and totally artificial in every respect. But it has 24 hour electricity, air con, wifi that works and best of all, hot water. After the basic-ness of life on Palawan, I love it, I love it, I love it. To celebrate having a hot shower and being in the city I put on my nice frock and head out. There are lots of people living on the street including many children. One little boy, about six years old is fast asleep in the middle of the pavement, obviously off his face on something. No one seems to be watching out for him. I have a sick feeling in my stomach. A few beggar children tug at me, I try to protect myself but not be horrible to them. Then some older girls surround me and start tugging at my hair. I wonder what they are doing and realise they are trying to yank off my silver necklace. I think I am most shocked at the fact they are doing this when I am in a busy shopping street and surrounded by people. But I realise they are bored and looking for entertainment, if they really wanted the necklace they would have got it, in fact they would have taken my bag too. They were bored and I was the target for a bit of merriment. I understand this but am still a bit shaken. I try to find somewhere to eat, but the options look like Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds and I'm not willing to venture further afield after what has just happened. I end up in McDonalds, a McDonalds where the air con isn't working and a very old guy is being taken care of by a young Filipino man in a way, with a dynamic that is familiar to me from previous travel in South East Asia, it's Sex tourism. I feel sick and flee, cheese burger in hand, to the safety of my sterilised room. I double lock the door and make a plan to escape the city first thing in the morning.
I screw up with the ferry timetable and miss the one daily sailing to Siquijor. So my options are to wait to the next day or try a contorted route to Siquijor through a variety of other places. It takes me less than a second to decide. At the bus station everyone seems to be staring at me and I don't know why, but it certainly makes me feel uncomfortable. I board a rundown local bus and head out of town, following the coast south. I know that at some point in the journey there is a ferry to the island of Negros, so I hope to jump off there. After five dusty hours we pull up outside a shed and I descend unconfidently. Sure enough a small ferry is waiting and within thirty minutes I have arrived in Dumaguete, or so I think. But apparently it's not Dumaguete and I have no clue where I am. With the help of friendly locals I am loaded and unloaded onto various forms of clapped out tricycles, minivans and trucks and within the hour I am home and dry, having totally enjoyed the adventure of the day.
I check into the Bethel Hotel, a Christian hotel where smoking and drinking are not allowed. Fornication is not mentioned on the 'please refrain from..' signs, so I remain unsure where the management stood on that. I have a single suite; spotlessly clean with all the works, I even have cable tv and sanitised flip flops to wear around my room. What more could a girl ask for?
Given its a Filipino city, Dumaguete is do- able. In fact if it wasn't for the overwhelming heat and humidity I might even say I liked it. Busy streets, a Central square with church and belfry. The market is interesting and is full of little cheapo beauty parlours in which hair dyeing seems to be the whole rage, there ain't a manicure parlour in sight.
The waterfront promenade is full of western restaurants and expats. There are lots and lots of white men in their sixties, with Filipino women. It is a thousand times less shocking than what I've seen before in Thailand and Cambodia; the men aren't quite as old, as ugly, as scary. The women aren't as young, aren't as bought looking. In fact lots of them are probably in longterm relationships, even married. I know sex tourism and mail order brides have been an accepted part of the Filipino economy for a very long time, but that doesn't make it right. And I'm not judging the Philippines. Until the recent-ish past, marriage in Ireland was often a primarily economic transaction. Many young girls were married off to old men with big farms or healthy bank balances. That's the way it was. But knowing that doesn't help. My head starts to get a bit mangled. I notice that I when I look at a white man on his own and over forty, I assume he is here for sex. I might be right, I might be wrong. When the women look at me, I don't know how to read it. Is it just a confident woman looking at another woman? As straightforward as that. Or is it a woman looking to me for approval, for acceptance, I am one of you now? Or is she saying, I know what I am doing, so don't judge me? I have no idea. I would love to talk to the Filipinos about this, get their angle on it, but I don't know anyone well enough to bring up the conversation. I mention it fleetingly, after a few beers, to a tricycle driver. He suggests I go out and get myself a Filipino man.
A few days later I take the ferry to Siquijor. I have a vague plan for when I arrive, a plan which is thrown into total disarray by the strident advice of a German woman I meet on the ferry. Thus I end up on the opposite side of the island to what I had planned, in a little 'resort', down a dirt road. It has four rooms, some chairs and a beach. The beach is rather scrappy but at low ride I am delighted by thousands of sand coloured starfish, camouflaged on the shore. Their movement is sensual, sensuous, rather than rigid and uptight. The water is extremely shallow and warmer than tepid, but swimming is off the agenda because the water is littered with sea urchins. When the heat dies down in the afternoons I stroll along the beach, gentle wind in face, singing along to my iPod and reminding myself of my mother Eileen. There is absolutely nothing to do and I find it hard to stay awake past 8 o clock, one beer and some food and I'm knocked out. Generally I spend my evenings sitting on a deck chair, getting eaten alive by unnamed insects. The electricity cuts out on the second and third nights ( they call it a brown out) and I notice the fireflies around the mangrove tree, an unexpected little piece of magic. It's lovely but I have a constant feeling that I am not making the most of being in the Philippines, that all this lounging around is not where it's at.
Next morning I stagger up to the main road where a man with a machine awaits me. One of the draws of Siqujor is that it has a decent paved road around the entire island and very little traffic. I'd met a few people who had rented a motorbike and loved the experience, so my intention had been to do likewise and enjoy the freedom. I'd never riden a moped before and the owner of the shop is openly pessimistic about my prospects. He stands shaking his head, huffing and puffing, he doesn't think I'll be able. His wife is in the background, full of encouragement, it took her a while to learn so why shouldn't I. I ask to be given a lesson and when this is done, jump onboard full of anxiety. I can't regulate the throttle at all and I'm either unable to get the bike to move or taking off at 100 miles an hour down the dirt track. I can't get the bloody thing to balance properly either, nor can I manage to turn it around on the lane. Husband and wife are nervously chasing after me, I can tell he is gritting his teeth and she is willing me on, for the sake of the sisterhood. I am drenched in sweat, even by ten o clock the heat is unbearable and my nervous system is pumping at overload. I suggest I sit in the shade for a while; drink some water, cool down, calm my nerves and then have another go. But when I do, I as am as disastrously bad as before and I know that if I rent the moped I will end up killing myself or someone else. So I admit defeat, offer the guy a few pesos for his time and lurch off, feeling about seven years old and wanting to cry my eyes out. I'm in a fury now and stomp back to pack my bags and get the hell out of there.
A gallon of sweat later I'm in an open top pick up truck and on my way to the town of Laurena. When I get there I buy a bottle of rum for 50p and hop in another truck for a ride to Siquijor town. Two more gallons of sweat later I arrive and find my way to the shared tricycle depot. Tricycles are totally amazing contraptions; basically a motorbike with a metal chassis for passengers over the top. They offer an ear splitting and bone-shaking ride and ladies, a strong support bra is highly recommended. I'd been on them loads of times, but never in a shared one. So now was my chance. The driver is on the bike, with two people sitting behind him. In the side cab is myself, three other adults and a child. My large bag and everyone else's shopping is on the roof. Initially the ride is exciting, then it gets uncomfortable, then it is nightmarish. Half an hour later I have to be pulled out of the cab. The place I want to stay is full and I end up in a run down motel which I fear is a knocking shop, but it will have to do. The room is bright and has a mirror and I am very frightened at the creature looking back at me. Despite December being one of the coolest months of the year, I am in constant struggle with the heat and humidity. I am permanently shinny, looking like I am doused in turkey fat and my hair has turned into a construction which resembles a collection of used Brillo pads. Sweat stained clothes and a constant pong just add to the overall effect. I make the decision to avoid looking in mirrors, it's the only thing for it really.
The next few days are great. I check into a room at another 'resort' run by an entertaining Filipino woman, her German husband and a gaggle of female staff in their early twenties. The girls are fun; bright and sassy, confident, lively and always laughing. They can stand up for themselves too. I like that about Filipino women, they don't take anything too seriously and have a fantastic sense of humour, but they pull no punches when they need to.
A few minutes walk away is a really posh hotel, replete with its own marine reserve, open to non residents for diving and snorkelling. At reception I am allocated to a female member of staff dressed in the hotel uniform, a foxy long black dress and hand bag. We walk through the beautiful grounds to the snorkel hire place, laughing all the way. Initially it isn't promising, I can't see anything but sea grass, but when it clears, once again my breath is taken away. Fish, lots of fish, canary yellow ones, cobalt blue ones, orange, red, black, even completely clear ones. Some are enormous, about the size of my torso, which scares me a bit. A school of fish casually swim past, no colour except for a very large black dot on their flank. Relaxed fish, in no rush to get anywhere, God it's such a privilege. My favourite cobalt blue starfishes are plentiful here; each must have their own personality or mood because some are rigid, standing to attention in typical starfish pose, others are lounging against rocks in a more sensual fashion. They are often near groups of ginormous sea urchins, with spikes maybe fifty centimetres long. They remind me of unexplored World War Two bombs, lying in wait.
Every night I walk fifteen minutes along the main road to a restaurant that serves good food. I love the walk. It is lined with people's houses, the odd little grill place and a few sari sari shops. People are lounging around; texting, chatting, combing their hair, listening to the radio. I am constantly amazed at all the greetings I receive; the waves, the "good evening mam", the big smiles. However I am not the main initiator of these greetings, sure I smile at the usual suspects like kids out playing, but in the main I want to leave people in peace, to let them get on with their quiet evening. I am so charmed at this natural friendliness. So charmed by the starry sky as I walk there and back. I feel almost completely safe; a woman on her own, walking down a dark road at night, in the Philippines. A challenge to many peoples perceptions I would guess. I think about Central American and the need for danger assessment at every corner, that low lying fear being always in my belly. Cebu and Manila were rough, but that's been it. Occasionally I see men or woman who look a bit scary, it's mainly men and it's mainly because they are poor and look malnourished and unkempt. My response it to flash them a big smile. Immediately they are like puppy dogs, big eyes, big smiles and if they had tails, they would be wagging. All credit to the Philippines and it's people.
One day I hire a tricycle and driver to take me round the island. We head up to Mount Bandilan, the highest point in the island, I spend an hour swimming at the lovely Cambughay falls and then sit under the island's famous Bayan tree, while fish in the stream beside it nibble at my feet. I have these places all to myself, there is not another tourists in sight. Yet it is supposed to be peak tourist season and these are the main attractions on the island. Everywhere seems so quiet, so empty. When I speak to the locals they say it's business as usual and deny that Typhoon Yolanda or the recent earthquake on nearby Bohol has had any impact on tourist numbers. At my request we drive to a butterfly breeding/conservation place that I have read about on the Internet. It's really tiny and there are only a limited of species, but they are beautiful. The owner is an intelligent and thoughtful character and he tells me there have only been two other visitors this past week. This has been the trend since the Bohol earthquake. The entrance fee is his only income and he tells he may have to close if the situation doesn't change. Whom to believe?
On my final day in Siquijor I take a tour, run by the posh hotel, to Apo Island. The boat trip is lovely and when we get to the island, we don our snorkels and are told to follow a local guide we have been allocated. After a while there is a bit of a commotion and in the blurry distance I see what is supposed to be a turtle swim past. I don't take much notice. I've been told we will see turtles, but I take that with a pinch of salt. I swim off and a minute or so later I am two arms length away from a huge turtle, it's head is bigger than mine, it's body really huge. I really can't believe this is happening. Soon there are a lot of us all hoovering around it and I feel like we are caging him in, so I swim off, ecstatic to have had my moment and content to enjoy even more beautiful coral and amazing fish. As I'm pottering, all on my lonesome, a big turtle swims past me, just like that. I let him pass me by and when I turn around to look back there are two more of them, merrily going their way, off to do their shopping or something. I am such a lucky girl. The final snorkel is after lunch, in a really deep part of the sea. The coral here is probably the most spectacular that I've seen and the whole experience is enriched by our guides. My favourite, dressed in an outfit of trousers, t shirts and flip flops, takes off like a seal, diving down really deep, flip flops now in his hands, occasionally, naughtily, balancing on his tippy toes on a coral tree. Part fish, part old man really and a total joy to behold. Half way through the trip back to Siquijor the staff are at the front of the boy, singing and madly clapping. They are a great bunch, lively and fun and irreverent, but I wonder what all the commotion is about. Then I know. Suddenly we are surrounded by a school of dolphins, not five or ten like I have seen before, but forty to fifty. They are swimming on all sides, close to the boat and far away, jumping up into the air, twirling their tails, showing off. It goes on for an age, it is really beautiful and I am almost in tears. Like I said many times before, I am a lucky girl.
So yes, my three weeks in the Phillipines had offered me many an idyllic moment. Yet, at the very back of my head I was still unsatisfied with my experience there. I think I needed a dose of Filipino reality, a sense of Filipino life not involving beaches, glorious sunsets and mango juice. Sometimes I need to more careful about what I wish for.