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The Aquatic Heights and Depths of Cebu Island

At the beginning of this chapter of the Philippines, the protagonists are slumped on a rickety plastic bench nailed to the aft deck of a battered old shipping vessel. Siquijor has become a scattering of faint lights on the horizon behind us, and ahead of the ship the mountains on either side of Dumaguete and Lilo-an are ablaze with dying sunlight. On the flickering TV nearby is a hypnotically terrible Bollywood film which is successfully distracting everyone from the natural spectacle and the drunken swaying of the ship.

After forming an alliance with yet another group of like-minded Europeans, we disembarked and haggled relentlessly with the waiting minibuses before getting a lift to Moalboal from Lilo-an – a good two-hour trip up the western coast of Cebu Island, for a total of 2,500P. A bit pricey for the bohemian backpacker, but manageable between a group of five. Had we more time we would have held out for the far cheaper coastal bus, but it was well into the late evening by this point and options were becoming slim.

I should say a ‘projected’ journey time of two hours, but our driver clearly had things to do that evening; I’m sure he must have lifted off the accelerator at some point but don’t remember being consciously aware of slowing down. The outside world became a Millennium Falcon-esque lightspeed blur of sporadic pedestrians and animals briefly illuminated in the van’s headlights before being aggressively honked out of the way and vanishing back into the night. After barely an hour’s rollercoaster along a pitch-black coastline, we screeched to a halt outside Soul Travellers Guesthouse, unclenched our backsides and slid out of the vehicle.

Soul Travellers is a short drive outside Moalboal, just north of Badian- either a tricycle ride or a scoot from anywhere – and is a quiet oasis for the weary traveller to fall over and be looked after. The owners, Jocelyn and Bear, immediately made us feel at home; the guesthouse is relatively new, but word of mouth is spreading in the backpacker community. A number of guests – ourselves included – plan to stay for just a night or two as a stop on their journey, but end up crashing for multiple extra nights just to soak up the sunsets.

I can’t recommend the place enough; it’s quiet, comfortable, festooned with enthusiastic dogs (and one less-enthusiastic but vocal cat, appropriately named Protest) and barely a minute’s walk from the coast. They have brand-new scooters for hire as well as diving and snorkeling paraphernalia, and will either arrange for specific tours or just point you in the right direction of the numerous local sights if you’re exploring for yourself.

Though we’d intended to embark on the famed canyoneering adventure at Kawasan Falls, we were still in somewhat of a delicate state and didn’t yet feel up to hurling ourselves off cliffs into bodies of water, but we got ourselves on a scooter to check it out from the bottom. Kawasan is Cebu’s most famous waterfall, with good reason – but, like Cambugahay in Siquijor, with proportionate marketing efforts and tourist popularity.

The walk up from the scooter park takes you on a winding jungle path to the first set of falls, where you’ll be ushered to rent a locker (200P) and table (300P) and buy food (300+P) and rent life jackets if you want to swim directly under the falls(50P); rather than being corralled into the tourist pen here, I’d instead recommend walking a little further up to the second, much quieter set of falls.

Being the tourist-trap-phobe I am, I insisted on a secondary excursion to the elusive Montpeller Falls, as suggested by our hosts. It lies at the end of a long mountainside trail, which itself is hidden near the top of a long mountainside drive; we actually only succeeded in discovering it on Day 2, after missing the sign twice. The friendly WELCOME banner painted on a rock was partially obscured by a car, so we’d missed the …TO MONTPELLER FALLS bit and assumed it was just a nice greeting. Our trials were finally rewarded with a totally isolated mountain pool with a spectacular view of the Palawan strait.

Other girls demand sunset #instagram photos. Mine demands I take a photo of her looking like a corpse.

The second highlight of Cebu came as a bit of a surprise. While feasting on a freshly-prepared meal and local rum at Soul Travellers, we were offered the opportunity to visit a floating platform in the middle of the bay. As it was long past sundown at this point I asked why we’d do that at night rather than enjoy the reefs during the day.

The platform is a haven for backpackers during daytime – you can hire a local paddle boat to take you out and go snorkeling, diving and drinking with your mates. It looks fun, if a little crowded in the afternoon.

“No,” I was reassured, “you can’t go in the day, too busy. Go at night – you will be on your own, and you can see the bioluminescence.”

My Attenborough-nerd senses tingled. Unbeknownst to most of the local area – and even the hostel owners until recently – tiny, luminescent plankton gather around and under the platform when the sun goes down. We immediately got in touch with the captain (who’d personally discovered the phenomenon) and headed out on his vessel, an eight-foot wooden hull with bamboo outriggers which is slightly less narrow than a large English man but fit Meg perfectly.

O captain, my captain.

Due to it being nighttime (and to my current lack of underwater camera), photos of the bioluminescence was, alas, impossible. At first we thought we’d missed it, but then our guide told us to swim in the shadow under the floating platform. Immediately, we were enveloped in clouds of flashing blue lights as we disturbed the tiny creatures floating in the water. It’s hard to describe how weird and magical it feels to be surrounded by an electrical swarm of sparks underwater, but suffice it to say I’m going to come prepared with camera equipment in future.

Even photos on the platform itself were a struggle, as long-exposure photography does not lend itself to bobbing bamboo structures in the middle of a tropical bay. I wasn’t about to let this stop me bloody-mindedly taking photos anyway, shaky though they may be.

The whole point of improvised backpacking is to have new, memorable and weird experiences, and this was the perfect outtro to our time in Cebu. True to the pattern of Soul Travellers, we extended our stay by two nights to get the most out of the area – but in the end we had places to be, and long bus journeys to get us there.

Bidding the guesthouse farewell, we hauled our gear onto a long-suffering tricycle to Badian in anticipation of the bus to Cebu City, far on the other side of the island across mountains, jungles and a particularly nasty tropical storm. Good thing I brought flip-flops.

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A Cross-Countries Trek

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We’re actually in Gwangju, South Korea. Finally.

Four-year anniversary breakfast.

Four-year anniversary breakfast.

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This would normally be the point where I’d use a cocky expletive to proudly declare our arrival at our destination – however, as it stands I’m just bloody glad we’re in the right hemisphere. Who knew, suitcases with broken handles aren’t much fun to pull?IMG_7140

We’ve been staying in a rather fabulous little hotel (not a love motel, as it turns out – either that or we just haven’t found the expected ‘vibrating bed’ function yet) for a few nights now, kicking the final throes of jetlag by totally escaping sunlight and accidentally sleeping until midday. We’ve managed to make a bit of a Korean tour up until this point (appropriately, our hotel is the Hotel Food & Tour, whatever that actually means), the timeline for which started as such:

Meg's reaction to being woken up for this photo.

Meg’s reaction to being woken up for this photo.

Step one: Actually succeed in claiming seat/s on Etihad’s aeroplanes. The journey was essentially successful, save for the vast majority of things which seemed to go miserably wrong.
*despite best intentions, my suitcase was STILL too heavy and I had to throw away two beloved pairs of trousers. RIP, light blue scuffed jeans and tan chinos
*an Abu Dhabi security machine ate my credit card

Abu Dhabi's bafflingly shiny airport interior.

Abu Dhabi’s bafflingly shiny airport interior.

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oh my god dak galbi I missed you

*we intelligently bought FOUR LITRES of classy-bastard alcohol without considering the weight implications for the rest of the journey across the world and then Korea
*we were stuck for (not exaggerating) a full decade at the passport booth with slowly-dislocating collarbones under the weight of baggage
*due to aforementioned passport delay, it took so long for us to get to baggage claims that they’d declared our bags as ‘abandoned’ and would have incinerated my socks (and everything else) had we not stopped them
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IMG_5519*upon finally succeeding in crossing onto Korean soil, we discovered that our solitary remaining credit card didn’t work abroad and prepared to make a life for ourselves within the airport à la Tom Hanks in The Terminal (soon rectified by the fourth attempt at Skyping the bank; danced like insane people and scared a family)
*laboriously pulled ourselves through what felt like every single Seoul subway station we managed to avoid the first time around, and managed to break off my suitcase handle (nearly causing a human avalanche of surprised Koreans when it got stuck on a moving escalator).

Familiar directions...

Familiar directions…

Meg's tactical coat-baby (like a clothing turducken)

Meg’s tactical coat-baby (like a clothing turducken)

However, I list these purely because misfortune is more entertaining than success. To make use of our gleefully-gotten free days before teaching, we opted to push ourselves on our lucky friends and colleagues in Namyangju to see a few familiar sights before Korea 2.0 began. Armed with our duty-free rum and wild, jetlagged stares, we usurped fellow Osan Crew member Hailey’s old room while staying with likewise Korea veteran Lori; in the space of two days we managed to see our old stomping grounds at the lake, briefly meander through the lichen-tastic Jinju Apartments, gorge ourselves to the point of masochism at my desperately missed Dak Galbi restaurant and scared the hell out of our old school director whilst baffled ex-students milled about us. It was wonderfully surreal to see our old workmates, getting soju-slurred with Eric and caffeine-twitchy with Monica respectively – however, one does not marinade in nostalgia when one is expected elsewhere.IMG_5428

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Lori sees you.

Lori sees you.

Ceremonious lakeside gibbon-run.

Ceremonious lakeside gibbon-run.

IMG_5498Fast-forward a day of relative success discovering and figuring out the cross-country KTX bullet train, we left our comfort zone and ventured to Korea’s southern half. Immediately, Gwangju feels different to Seoul; most notably, there’s green stuff lining the streets and you can actually see the sky without branded buildings reflecting it back at you first. Our area, Chipyeong-dong, has everything you need from a built-up commercial district while also being a few minutes’ walk away from long river walks and marshy horizons along the outskirts of the city.

Fleeting doorway shot at Kangs.

Fleeting doorway shot at Kangs.

As it turns out, we have.

As it turns out, we have.

IMG_5478From our (non-pornographically clandestine) hotel  we’ve ventured out to our home-to-be at Landpia (details to follow once we actually move in), and met up with four of our fellow colleagues-to-be at Hans School (same promise as above). Due to self-inflicted terrible timekeeping, I’m actually writing this after our first day of work – however, (see above two addendums) on that note.

Our non-clandestine hotel.

Our non-clandestine hotel.

This Blog Took A Year To Make.

Seasonal Types

All The Seasons  I actually had the idea to do this blog a little while before coming to Korea. My style of photography – something which I’d like to change slightly, if I’m to imitate professionalism at all – tends to focus more on the spontaneous world than the staged wonder so many artists manage to capture. I’m fairly confident that, if there’s a big ol’ bird circling above, I can snap it before it dive-bombs into the nearest tree; I can usually manage to capture the gargoyle expressions of friends as they theatrically emphasise their foreign-ness in very public spaces – but the ability to actually plan anything eludes me. Premeditated, orchestrated photography – model shoots, actual art, patient nature shoots – is something I have wanted to explore for a while, but this year’s focus on educational professionalism rather than artistic has taken me back a bit.

That being said, low-level OCD has its perks. I wanted to start, carry out and complete a year-long project documenting the shifts and changes in my local Korean environment and geography; the schizophrenic topography of Korea means that, depending what time of year you visit, there’s a completely different country awaiting you, and I wanted to (try and) capture that.Lake Bridge

My plan, as scribbled onto the back of a 2012 Sainsbury’s receipt for Monster Munch and milk:

1)      Take a photo and/or panorama from the same spot, in the same way, every time I happen to be there.

2)      Make sure there are spots in the area I actually visit on a semi-regular basis.

3)      Make sure the photos are neatly arranged on my computer so I don’t spend a solid four days rifling through the bastards in order to actually do the project

4)      DON’T FORGET TO DO THE BLOODY PROJECT

Incredibly, the lust for Monster Munch throughout the year may have subliminally propelled me into doing it.Under Construction

Crossing View

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View From A Bridge

Many/most of these sequenced landscapes are taken from Onam Lake, the actual name of which still eludes me – the frequency with which I’m there with the hairy tongued beast (Millie, to clarify) and its proximity to the house makes it a no-brainer. In addition to the trees, however, I’ve included a few shots of the work-in-progress (and catchily named) Lotte World Premium Tower as, aside from its curiously Lego/Minecraft-like construction process, it will be the tallest building in Korea when it’s finished and we’ve watched it grow over 20 floors since we got here.

Now, a quick detail of Korean seasons and the accompanying weather, from a year’s veteran’s point of view:

September – October(ish): AutumnAwesome Autumn

Korean Autumn is spectacular. All of those movies with Chow Yun-Fat and Andy Lau (yes, I know they’re Chinese) where they duel dramatically under unrealistically kaleidoscopic foliage? That is precisely how it looks and feels to walk through woods while the trees shed their bright yellow/red leaves. Meg politely asked me to stop making ‘sword-swishing’ sounds with sticks in public. I politely persisted.

Autumn weather is ideal if you’re a pasty-skinned Englishman unfamiliar with direct sunlight; it’s just cool enough to warrant a light jacket, but not so cold that you have anything to mutter about while waiting at the bus stop. Unfortunately, for the aforementioned reasons it’s also the single most popular time to be in Korea, so be warned if you’re going to the more popular spots – although, as we discovered when hiking Seoraksan, sometimes the rage for one’s fellow man is worth the sights atop an orange mountain.

November-February(ish): WINTERWicked Winter

I really can’t capitalise ‘winter’ enough. I love the cold; any excuse to hide beneath an enormous coat, or wrapping up thoroughly enough to make identity, gender and/or species totally indistinguishable is welcome to me. However, the measly -5°C we’re used to in Blighty is poor preparation for the casual -26°C sprung on us mid-winter in Korea. However, the country does winter properly – with snow an’ blizzards an’ monochromatic landscapes an’ that – and it’s unnervingly exciting to take a stroll across the massively deep lake’s surface being supported by a slightly harder form of water.

March-May(ish): SpringSplendid Spring

Spring is rather like the anti-Autumn of Korea; the weather is similarly mild (if generally warmer), with the foliage performing an energetic reversal of Autumn’s natural disrobing by throwing on an enormous coat of green, pink and yellow. In contrast to the April showers expected by English custom, Korean Spring is surprisingly dry, making it fabulous for walks, Korean exploration etc. before THIS happens –

June-August(ish): SUMMERSodding Summer

I capitalised WINTER due to the excruciating temperatures experienced at the time, and I give SUMMER the same treatment for very much the same reason. My vampiric Englishness did not prepare me for the months-long feeling of being part-man-part-slime while cursing my past self for not bringing more shorts. If you like flammable weather, it’s great; bright blue skies (mostly), bright green scenery and the perpetual justification for throwing oneself into bodies of water have their perks – but, if you’re a sociophobe like myself, prepare yourself for the throngs of like-minded campers who set up seasonal residence with huge tents in every spot you might personally like to have had a picnic. Also, in contrast to my expectation of ‘summer’, it’s the wettest month in Korea – so, prepare thyself for moistness.

And so, I present to you the life and times of Korea. I’m going to absolutely pine for the Korean seasons and their bipolar conflicts with one another when I return to the ‘what season is it now?’ ambivalence of England –  but, if I don’t miss the countries I temporarily call home, then what’s the point of travelling?

Progressing Panorama

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