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The Trials and Tribulations Of (The Otherwise Beautiful) Siquijor

So far, so good: sights have been seen, beaches have been beheld and life-threatening diseases have narrowly been avoided. After a few solid days of being Very Pale Tourists up and down the twisting roads of Bohol and Panglao, it was once again time to set out for open sea in search of our next destination – Siquijor (pronounced see-kee-hor), a remote-ish island known for its coasts, its waterfalls and its ancient witchcraft.

Another OceanJet ferry took us from Tagbilaran port to Larena (around P600), due south of Cebu and Bohol. Siquijor Island isn’t huge – a determined scooter ride will circle the coastline in around 2-3 hours – but the towns are relatively far between, usually reached via tricycle. Our destination was Buco Beach, an isolated stretch of sand and palm trees situated not particularly close to anything else: the perfect antidote to a few days of crowds and neon lights.

Some determined haggling at the Larena port tricycle stand eventually got us on the road, and an hour later we started to realise that his initial rates (450-500P) were actually quite reasonable. Teeth rattled and bums numbed by the rocky journey (tricycles are basically houses welded onto ancient motorcycles), we spilled out onto the soft gravel of Buco Beach Resort and were instantly mobbed by an enthusiastic herd of resident dogs.

Buco Beach is the postcard Philippines spot. The restaurant area is an open structure of wooden beams and woven reeds set in the shade of a palm tree grove, which leads immediately to the edge of the water with an ocean view impeded only by a small mangrove thicket. The local dogs swim, play and hump with abandon throughout the day, and there seem to be two weather settings: ‘glorious’ and ‘apocalyptically dramatic’. On any given evening in the Philippines, look out to sea and you’ll see a wrathful sky-god bullying an island somewhere in the distance.

The writer makes an effort.

The point of Siquijor in our journey was to take a bit of a breather and explore a small area at our leisure. After a bit of trial-and-error picking out the local scooters (old Vespas are stylish but alarmingly erratic with two riders, one of whom is rather large) we got our ride and went off for A New Adventure.

The plan was to check out a few of the local swimming holes and see what a circuit of the island would yield. Our first stop was at Cambugahay Falls, a spot known for its shaded, deep blue pools – but also the most popular with tourists, resulting in lines up and down the steep, 130-step forest path to the pools below. We’re travelling in the off-season, but it was still pretty bustling; if you’re looking for quieter scenery (albeit with fewer jungle-swings) then Lugnason Falls can be found a short drive past the local town of Lazi at the end of a rough track – a favourite with the locals, and less broadcasted to the minibus masses.

Our circuit took us through each of the island’s small cities; we stopped for lunch at San Juan right next to its glassy coastline, whereby the barely-vaccinated Meg immediately made friends with (and fed corned beef to) a battered old dear of a dog, much to the amused bafflement of onlookers.

The coastal road through San Juan, Siquijor proper and Larena is a winding spectacle of overhanging jungle and blue horizons, broken only by the occasional suicidal dog or emphysemic honk of ancient tricycles. Dotted randomly but frequently along every road in the Philippines are wooden huts selling hot food at around 20 pesos a dish (about 30p), as well as convenient Coke bottles of bike fuel for when you’ve been a bit cavalier with your motorised adventures.

Alas, our Englishness was to rear its ugly head after six whole days in the tropics, and we ended up being totally floored by (we can only surmise) a nasty reaction to actual sunlight for about three days – during which we rode out tropical storms, hideously large insects and one verbose but otherwise friendly gecko from our little beachside hut. The managers at Buco Beach Resort did what they could to look after us, but after the third plaintive request of ‘plain toast with a bit of jam’ as our entire day’s caloric intake I suspect they assumed we were dead.

After putting off our departure for two extra days, we made our slow, careful way back to Larena harbour for the ferry to our next destination – the southern point of Cebu Island. Precious water bottles clutched in weak hands, we shuffled onto the only-slightly-rusty container ship that would take us off into another spectacular Pacific sunset. We were full of expectation, medication – and only a muffled dread that the bloody boat wouldn’t have toilets on it.

So long, Siquijor – bring it on, Cebu.

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Sand, Crabs and Broken Toes

 

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Disclaimer: only part of the title is a medical condition.

We’re descending slowly  into a now more-than-fleeting camping fetish. Having successfully survived the arsonists and anally-retentive groundsmen of Sangju, we were eager to accept our friends and fellow colleagues’ offer of a joint-trip to the actually isolated coast of Sungpyeong; a barely-trodden expanse of glinting fool’s-gold sand with nary a soul to be seen nor heard (with the exception of a determined yet mysterious boat whose bi-daily routine seems to consist of throwing things overboard to pass the time).IMG_2091

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Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Being far more practical humans than ourselves, Nathan and Alysha are part of that expat elite who actually own their own car – all the better to fully explore the country, avoid a slightly tedious daily work commute and to accommodate their two beautiful yet affectionately heavy jindogae Fiona and Ingrid. The two Jindos dwarf, chase and are in turn right-hooked by our comparative runt of a dog regularly, made all the more hilarious/repellent by a thick layer of wet sand and salted fur.

The drive to Sungpyeong is reassurance enough that we have the place to ourselves: a little while off the highway and it’s nothing but mountains and mirrorlike, irrigated valleys as far as the horizon. We’re so far out in the sticks that, were we to wander aimlessly into the nearby villages, we’d be less of a mild curiosity and more of an exotic, sweaty fascination. The car pulls into the dusty, empty parking lot and all the signs of off-season are there: the toilets are conveniently-placed albeit not-so-conveniently locked, the bins are noticeably overflowing but sunbaked past the point of offensive and you can’t hear anyone competing for space on the sand.IMG_2163

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Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

From the car, we heft our camping gear on foot to Nate and Alysha’s pre-discovered Choice Spot, hidden amongst boulders and alongside a handy water and/or wine-cooling stream. From a distance, however, the beach appear to have a life of its own, with pebbles seeming to erratically rush towards and away from the oncoming waves. On closer inspection, we realise that we’ve simply disturbed hundreds and hundreds of tiny red crabs, all scurrying wildly away to their subterranean dens underfoot. Most succeed, with the exception of the three hapless crustaceans our fascinated dogs managed to seize. True to her nature, Millie totally failed to dominate even a tiny specimen; the Jindos on the other hand managed a grisly, acrobatic display of catch-the-crab before getting at least one leg each.IMG_2126

Following the dogs’ enthusiasm, we promptly hurled ourselves into the sea, quickly discovering that the water was A) emasculatingly chilly and B) a cunning camouflage for the sneakiest bastard rocks known to geography. After a few minutes of soothing drifting and violently spontaneous profanity, I reckoned I would do The Romantic Thing and carry Meg (+her stubbed toe) from the cruel waves. This lasted approximately three seconds before I kicked the rocks’ reigning champion, ultimately lacerating my foot and actually breaking at least one toe while dropping Meg back into the sea. Not a proud moment.IMG_2152

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One of the upshots of camping on a nigh-isolated coast is that one can let one’s imagination run wild vis-a-vis campsite customisation and driftwood furniture. Pooling our combined creativity and DIY skills, we managed to rig up a mostly-successful underground(/sand) cooler box, as well as an elegantly canopied, raft-remnants-and-polystyrene-box dining table, complete with almost-not-wet Styrofoam stools for the discerning diners.

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IMG_2441Evening entertainments included a live concert (playing Mumford & Sons from a mobile phone whilst drinking stream-cooled wine), a private cinema (Meg and Alysha escaped to a tent to watch Pitch Perfect on iPad) and a fully-interactive arts show, ie. Nathan and I scrambling over rocks while waving torches maniacally for the sake of light-trail photos.IMG_2471

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Still sadly un-equipped with a remotely spacious tent, Meg and I pretzelled ourselves into the (quote-unquote) ‘2-person’ tent for another night’s almost-sleep, with Millie’s small canine buttocks firmly clenching my shoulder for much of the duration.IMG_2474

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Luck willing, we’ll actually get our human-sized tent before the next inevitable, obsessively-documented expedition. Until then, I will contend myself with hunting down the elusive dunes of sand hidden in the crevices of every bag, shoe and sock I own.

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My Portable(?) Life

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Complete with sentimental message from Dad.

The digital and actual paperwork is through, and we are officially (going to be) On Our Way! To Korea. Again.

The best way to make friends with your neighbours is to play musical instruments constantly.

The best way to make friends with your neighbours is to play musical instruments constantly.

After a few days of convenient weekend getting in the way of actually telling the agency we got our visas, I woke up this morning to a +82 number shouting out of my phone. A very friendly Korean lady tells my bleary and underwear-clad self that our flights have been confirmed, and that we’d better get the hell out of Blighty by 9:25 tomorrow morning (note: some paraphrasing). It’s now 3:30pm the same day, and the living room is a chaotic sea of cables, slippers and knickers – which, on a normal day, might be less stressful.

In a fit of self-indulgence, and because the caffeine’s worn off, I’m using an ill-earned break to remind Future Me what he actually needs to bring with him when he has to carry his entire life abroad for a year, having already decided against a good percentage of my original booty for the sake of packing. As English expats, we get but a single suitcase to take in the plane’s hold (I gather some of our more fortunate Western colleagues get two bags, which doesn’t fill us with murderous jealousy one bit).

My personal haul is as follows:

A whole bunch a’ clothes – which, owing to the fact that Korea actually has seasons (and how) have to be suitable for both blizzards and heatwaves. As such, I have socks ranging from itty-bitty trainer things up to inch-thick Chewbacca feet protectors, and jackets to match:

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Ranging from cool-weather to death-in-the-snow weather.

Ranging from cool-weather to death-in-the-snow weather.

Day-to-day Zombie Apocalypse messenger bag for all situations – for when I have no idea what I’m doing (ie. most days) and need to know that I’ll have something to do wherever I am. Pictured:

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1 – my beloved Scaramanga Leather bag, worn smooth by bashing into my backside for a few years

2 – my wallet, feigning wealth by cramming itself full of receipts from the last decade or so

3 – the single reliably living USB drive I own; a novelty DSLR keyring thing

4 – one pair of abused sunglasses, carrying on the accidental ‘brown’ theme

5 – Meg’s old iPod (so-named Orangensaft), thieved from her while she wasn’t looking

6 – my iPhone 4; not actually as battered as it looks thanks to the invincible case (given to me in Korea last time by a very, very generous Hailey)

7 – because I’m lacking brown leather things, one notebook for ‘ideas’ (ie. surprisingly violent stick-men doodles and bad Hangeul attempts)

8 – my trusty Victorinox penknife, which will NOT be going in my hand luggage (note to self)

9 – iPhone/iPad charger, for when I just can’t get enough Angry Birds in one day

10 – a battered Zippo lighter, because shiny

11 –  SD card reader for my iPad, for when I have to impress people in coffee shops with my incredible artistic ability

12 – Amazon Kindle ebook reader; my phone has about 8 hours’ battery life but this baby has 8 weeks on it. Used to give the impression of intellectualism while reading Terry Pratchett in secret

13 – iPad; slightly douchetastic but 100% essential if I’m running the risk of actually making conversation with people on long journeys

14 – Canon Powershot G15, my backup baby when it’s far too silly to carry an SLR about the place. Good for stalking friends when they don’t realise it.

Meg bullies the luggage.

Meg bullies the luggage.

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And, last but not egotistically least, the ever-present and indispensible camera gear. Very sad to be leaving the battery grip and flash triggers behind for a year, but streamlining must occur somewhere and I’m already down to a single pair of underwear for the year (colleagues-to-be: this is not actually true, please don’t avoid me in the corridor).

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1 – personalised wrist-strap (an alternative to a neck strap for more acrobatic shots), as given by my headteacher Eric last year which I love with all my heart

2 – Canon Speedlite 430EXII; a VERY nice flash irresponsibly gifted to me by my overly generous mother

3 – an all-rounder, slightly antiquated 28-105mm f/3.5 lens, with the slightest of chips in the glass from when I nearly fell down a bloody mountain last year

4 – one variable Neural Density (ND) filter for landscape/sky shots

5 – a slightly tackily-packaged lens cloth I forgot I bought in Korea last year

6 – my beloved 10-22mm f/3.5 lens for when I have to stalk everything in the room in the same moment

7 – one long-loved Canon EOS 60D, which I couldn’t possibly love more if it were my child

8 – the aforementioned backup Canon G15, because it IS a camera after all

9 – after much deliberating, the most practical of my camera bags to bring; the straps don’t really work but it IS stylish

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So, now I’ve publicly stated exactly how pickpocketable I am for the coming few days, I’ll get back on with actually packing. One 4-5am wake-up call and an 18-hour journey to go, and we’ll be jetlagged and confused in Namyangju for a few recuperative days before travelling to the uncharted territory of Gwangju.

Faintly interesting exploits to follow – if you’re really lucky, I’ll get Meg to take a photo of my uncomfrotably pretzel-like form as I sleep ignominiously on the plane.