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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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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 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.

After The End

An-yeong, OnamI’ve been writing this blog – erratically, I’ll, admit – for over a year. My very first posting I planned for before I even arrived in Korea, just to show my dedication to self-publication! True to human nature, my last posting comes with slightly less exact timing with relation to the end of my year in Korea; I’ve been in England for almost two weeks. But no matter! I can round off one adventure and still keep the story alive.

He said.

My last shot of (other) home.

My last shot of (other) home.

Last Galbi

I write this, be-robed upon the same bed I sought to terraform for a year before Korea, full of oblivious optimism, self-satisfaction and the most hideous English cold conceivable. It figures that, regardless of the East Asian proclivity for weather extremes, it’s vague English meteorology which bungs me up like a cork. Adjusting to England has been a strange process; wheras in Korea I was comfortable with the ten words or so I was capable of squawking at the staff in shops, I have no excuse not to communicate like an intelligent ape-descendent with my fellow Englishfolk. My first extended shop transaction, I forgot basic grammar, my name, how to use CHIP & PIN in the shop and where the exit was. I felt exactly as foreign as in Korea – but I think I’m getting the hang of it now. Also, I have found it’s more of a subtle art swearing at people who actually understand the profanities you’re using.

Buglife Last Run Last LakeDragonspy

The last known location of Josh & Chris.

The last known location of Josh & Chris.

Outta IncheonOur return-journey from Korea, I’m ecstatic to say, is OVER. Not because I’m glad to be rid of Korea – far from it – but, in the grand scheme of Enjoyable Adventures, this particular journey wasn’t. Our flight route took us from INCHEON – MOSCOW – PARIS [stay in hotel overnight] – CALAIS(train, then meet with Meg’s family + car) – LONDON. Now, to clarify: I try very hard not to adhere to cultural stereotypes. Some are funny – English people are insufferably polite, Americans are hilariously noticeable in a social situation, Korean people REALLY like their reflections etc. etc. – but generally I assume that, to quote Depeche Mode, ‘people are people’ regardless of what you expect of them due to their origins. However – every Russian staff member on Aeroflot scared the hell out of me, and almost every Parisian milked our wallets dry and made us angry (a €25 taxi fare for a four minute drive? Really?). C’est la vie.Under The Seat

Cup DrinkerOn the positive side, Millie was a star the whole journey. Of course we were sat within spittle-range of at least two bawling infants between Korea and Russia, but Millie remained horizontally invisible in her little bag under the chair or on our laps.

 

[NOTE: For anyone wanting to bring their smaller, harrier family members from Korea to England, fly with Aeroflot. The service is diabolical and the water is non-existent, but they will take any (obviously, rabies/tapeworm, etc. – inoculated) animal up to 6kg on the plane with you, saving a WHOLE lot of chaos and worry on your part! Flying to England itself, however, will cost you a hella fee in Heathrow to move your pet – so, as we did, I’d recommend flying to Paris and travelling by land. You’ll save THIS much money and your dog/cat/ferret/pig/flying monkey can stay with you the whole time.]

Parisian RainWe were in Moscow for a total of twenty-five very rushed minutes, and spent the trans-European flight chatting to a lovely bearded Frenchman about the merits of travelling. After this point, however, the journey gets a bit squiffy. Remember, we’re carrying three huge suitcases, three cabin-bags and a dog amounting to exactly 99kg between us – and, helpfully, the third of our enormous bags is naught but torn fabric and purely theoretical wheels by this point.Paris Boudoir

 

 

Spiral Stairs

The bags stayed PUT.

Carting that amount of luggage across the world is a Herculean feat, particularly when it comes to physically carrying the buggers yourself. Wobbling and sliding our ways through the labyrinthine Gare du Nord was somewhat undignified, as was attempting to lift said luggage up four floors of serpentine Bohemian staircases when we finally found our Moulin Rouge-esque hotel. Va te faire foutre, quoth we, and instead just took out whatever clothes we needed, leaving the behemoths downstairs.Armed Youths

Paris, yeah?Gare du NordIn the morning, we succeed in returning to the station (only €12 for three minutes’ journey this time), avoiding truant youths attempting to cheat money and cigarettes out of passers-by before themselves being chased, screaming, out of the station by enormous guards; navigating through the crowds of passengers and alarmingly fully-automatically armed soldiers, we found our train. All 18 carriages of it. Of course, due to the unwieldy size of our luggage and excruciating effort in carrying it, and to the general nature of the world, we were in the furthest conceivable carriage, a little under a kilometre down the platform, with five minutes until the train left. Those five minutes were, quite possibly, the worst of the whole bastard journey.

Frenchland

IMG_2894 IMG_2898 IMG_2901 IMG_2912

Meg's LandFrom that point on, the journey’s effort and reflections we passed onto the family. Meg’s mum and brother, having just driven from London to Calais via the cattle-grid-esque le Shuttle, retrieved our weak forms from the train, squashed us into a slightly-too-small-but-bloody-comfortable vehicle and, thankfully, took over the rest of the navigation. I believe we were on a train under the sea at one point, but surely that’s delirium talking.

So, here I am, in England. I remember this place.Familiar Countryside