I hit my one year mark in Korea, which means summer vacation. I wasn’t too sure what to do for vacation or if I wanted to do much of anything since I had only 10 days before I would have to be back at school. The cheapest flight I could find was from Seoul to Manila, arriving at 1am. The weather forecast predicted 10 days of nonstop rain and thunderstorms.
I tried to limit my bags so I wouldn’t need to check them. My bags were small enough but were still quite heavy. I was set on bringing my Pentax 67 I had 4 rolls of 400 ISO color film and 4 rolls of 400 ISO black and white 3 lenses and the Pentax 67 to EOS mount adapter for my 550D, which I brought over my 5DII for its small and light body. I also packed my relatively small tripod against my better judgement, knowing from previous trips that I rarely stop to use it. The last tiny pocket of space was reserved for my letterboxing logbook, a mini stamp pad, my signature stamp, a letterbox that I had carved a few days ago in preparation and 3 light weight outfits made of quick-dry materials.
As you might know I have traveled a bit around South America and am not a complete stranger to some poorer and sketchier neighborhoods but the ride from the airport to my hostal, along with some negative impressions from the web and a terrible experience recently had by an acquaintance, left me really concerned for my safety and questioning my choice of vacation spots.
The only thing I had planned or confirmed was a hostal booking that would give me a place to crash for 11 hours from the time of arrival. The hostal manager was helpful in suggesting some things which required booking flights from Manila to a few other of the 7,000 Islands in the archipelago. The problem was that my Visa had expired without me knowing, my Korean bank card was not working and neither was my American debit card.
I headed back to the airport, booked a some tickets and was off to my next destination, Cebu. Cebu was home to much of the Spanish domination over the Philippines. You can still see remnants of the Spanish rule. In the language, there are still many words and place names from the Spanish and architecturally you can see some colonial architecture but not much. The main feature of the city is the oldest Catholic church in the country and A Spanish fort that has been slowly decaying.
Every time you enter a transit terminal; bus, ferry, or air, you go through many metal detectors and your bag goes through an x-Ray machine. I Was concerned for my film but at the same time not ready to argue with security for a hand inspection of my film but by the end of my trip I had passed through at minimum 12 of these before I got really worried that my film would suffer negative consequences. At that point I began putting all of the film in a little bag and carrying it through and handing it to the Security guard. usually they would simply wave me through without even a glance at the small bag of film. one time i got a simple, “what is it, film? OK”. Now, after the fact I remember a conversation with a guy managing the hostal in Cebu, where I was staying. He said that most event photographers, weddings, baptisms etc…, there are old-school and still shooting on Film, maybe Security is used to film because of that.
After checking in to Tr3ats Guest House i put away all of my valuables and picked up my camera for my first walk through the neighborhood. I was certain I was going to be mugged or at least pick-pocketed as I walked the shanty lined streets that were veiled in smoke from barbecues manned by shirtless, flipflop wearing guys.
After checking out the Fort in Cebu, I headed next door to the ferry terminal and stood in line for an hour about to pass out between having not eaten breakfast and the 95 degree heat and humidity. My friend recommended a small island known for its black magic and spiritual healers and unspoiled, relaxing vibes. i managed to get tickets for the next day.
I still had all of my possessions, people seemed friendly or too consumed by their daily activities to even bother noticing me. I had gained a little confidence and went out for a late night walk in search of some food that seemed like it hadn’t been sitting out, unheated, for a questionable amount of time.
That wasn’t really possible and I ended up eating at a sort of outside cafeteria overlooking the river of diesel fumes that puffed and puttered out of the tailpipes of the Jeepneys, trikes and motor bikes that honked and jostled their way along and over the bumps and divots, hugging the center-line, making room for the stream of pedestrians also out on a Saturday night.
My chicken curry was luke-warm, heavily salted and held a minefield of bone shards but for only a dollar and change what could one expect. I questioned whether or not to eat the raw vegetables then threw caution to the wind. Overall I felt like every meal on this trip was like this, a sort of roulette. I even started brushing my teeth with the tap water. In Peru I ate fearlessly from the cheap and questionably-hygienic market stalls.
In the morning I was fine but who knows what a 5 hour boat ride would do to a seasick prone stomach. We were lead inside to our assigned seats; I need to be in the back of the boat in an aisle seat. My assigned seat was at the front next to the un-openable window. Just sitting docked while the other passengers boarded i was already feeling a but sick as our ferry bobbed up and down banging against the tires protecting the seawall.
Once we got moving passengers were allowed to go upstairs to the open air seating. I made a sprint for the back door and found a seat tucked in the corner where I could try to ride out the trip. I had bought two Dramamine tablets the night before while I was out just in case the sea was rough but somehow, maybe the fresh air, I felt fine and just tried sleeping most of the trip with one eye on my bags.
The water at the port of Siguijor was so clear I could see straight to the bottom. I have never seen water this shade of blue. In Florida I am used to the water being a shade of murky brown green and full of seaweed and other particles.
I hopped off the boat and took a trike; a 100cc dirt-bike with a welded on semi-enclosed sidecar. we rode for about 20 minutes passing only a few scooters and maybe one car. it was all banana trees and palms with huts in their shadows and a few block structures until we got to Tori’s backpackers Paradise.
So, far despite the prediction of bad weather there were only these 3 minutes of rain on my way to Tori’s. I got checked in to the dorm room based on a traditional bamboo and woven straw hut called a Nipa. All of the beds were empty and there was a drastic change from the constant horns and busing of motor bikes and rumbling of jeepney engines. I only heard the water lapping at the shore and a few crickets. occasionally the stray scooter would go by in the distance but was hardly noticeable so far from the main road.
I hung out in the hammock staring at the sea not knowing what was next. There wasn’t much to do, go walk the beach, sit at the beach, … that’s all really. after I had enough I went up to the common area where they serve food and met another traveler. I knew at some point on the trip that I wanted to rent a scooter and cruise around. The girl I met also wanted to do that. 20 minutes, 5 dollars and a signature later there we were on our scooters tearing out, onto the main road.
Apparently I missed the memo to grab a map of the island at the ferry port but luckily my new friend had one. Even so, we were unsuccessful at locating some 500 year old tree that we went to find, then got lost on our way to find some waterfalls and realized our scooters were nearly out of gas. It was easy enough to find gas; just look for a little hut on the side of the road with one litre glass coke bottles full of red or green liquid, gasoline. the store keeper will flip it upside down, sticking the neck into the gas tank, give it a swirl to start a vortex inside and in a second or less your tank will be full.
We got to the waterfalls we were after with about 15 minutes until they closed. The parking attendant too a few cents and offered to watch our bikes and helmets for 15 minutes and advised us not to leave our belongings unsupervised.
After returning to the hostal I met some of the other guests and we all had dinner together, a benefit of there being nowhere else to eat nearby. A German couple decided to join us in the morning as we continued our scooter tour of the island. I already bought a return ticket for the ferry for the following afternoon so I wouldn’t have much time to spend with them.
We agreed to an early start; 8:30, and with not much for nightlife on the island I thought it sounded reasonable. WRONG. We finally left the hostal at about 10. But we did make it to a second and much more impressive set of waterfalls where I got to swim despite not feeling so hot, actually I had a fever and felt weak and my stomach was really upset and my arms were now thoroughly burnt from the two hours of scooter riding the day before.
An american guy had been living in the area and leading a volunteering effort to make the Falls a tourist attraction and to make it more accesable to locals too. he and his team of locals had dammed the base of the falls and dug a pool about 8 meters deep. The water was a milky teal color. When my foot touched the bottom I realized what gave it that milky quality. It was full of really fine clay silt that left my skin silky smooth when I got out.
On the way out from the falls we got turned around again. I stopped to take a few pictures and lost sight of the other three, Speeding along the windy gravel roads dodging rocks and potholes, trying to make it back to the hostal in time to check out and meet my trike driver who I scheduled to take me from Tori’s to the port.
I arrived at the hostal 5 inutes past 12, threw all of my crap in my bags, ran to check out and pay up. I hopped in the trike and got to the port with an our to kill. Here is where that Letterbox i carved comes into play, but that’s for later.
Reverse the 5 hour boat trip, back in Cebu, back to the hostal where I stayed before, the following morning back to the Cebu airport and off to my next stop; Puerto Princessa. The night before i realized that my flight from puerto Princessa to MAnilla was teh same day as my flight from Manila to Seoul and it only allowed 3 hours between flights. i knew this was a bad idea and i stood a high chance of missing my flight so I changed my flight from Puerto Princessa to Manila to a day earlier, which would give me a little time to see manila before heading home.
For now though I am in a van heading to El nido at the northern tip of the island of Palawan. We drove around for 45 minutes picking up people all over the city before finally starting the 5 hour trip. I heard that a few years back the trip could have taken 12 to 24 hours and if it had rained the road may have washed out making the trip impossible.
The town of El Nido is now experiencing a boom and is a mecca for island hopping and scuba diving. the development reminds me of a story I saw online. It’s a really cool video but quite a depressing one too. Anyhow I had the impression I wouldn’t like the town much but what I was really after was the island hopping, like many.
I got to El Nido late and my van left me about 2km from the actual town of El nido. I didn’t have a ton of cash at this point so I opted to walk along this shadowy, mud-puddle ridden road.
As I strolled into town obviously a bit lost I could feel eyes on me. I just walked around a bit until I found my hostal, it’s a really small place. I walked in gave my name and the receptionist looked a little confused. I assured her I had made a reservation and could check my email confirmation if they gave me the wifi code.
In my last minute planning panic I read so many reviews and had become confused about which I had actually booked; my hostal was down the street a bit. I got checked, made a friend and reserved a spot on a boat tour for the next morning. Lunch would be included as would snorkels masks and life jackets. We would Set off to 5 or 6 different spots. It was crazy to think but I haven’t swam since I was in Devils Lake in Wisconsin over one year ago. Snorkeling was amazing there were so many fish and different types of coral; one looked just like an underwater rose except that it was a beige color not red.
Our boat kept having issues, something about the battery. Sounded like the motor was having a hard time cranking so they had to keep opening the hatch beneath my feet. I could see down into the hull of the boat; There was a few inches of black oily water sloshing around. one of the crewmen would pop his head down into the hull do some magic and the “Banca” would fire up and we would move along.
The following day, since I had almost no money I just took it easy and walked the beach, and sat and sketched and looked for interesting things to photograph. While sketching a group of 4 – 2nd or 3rd graders came up to see what I was doing. They were climbing over my shoulders to see. they started playing with my hair and tried to teach me the word for mountain and ocean in their language. They hung around curiously for maybe 10 minutes and then ran off when one of their elder siblings came looking for them.
The next morning my van would be doing the 5 hour reverse trip back to Puerto Princesa at 530am. I woke up before my alarm at 4am and couldn’t go back to sleep so I packed my last few things under the low red light of my head lamp trying not to wake up the others in my dorm room. I sat on the steps leading down to the common area waiting for the hostal staff member to wake up and open the door. He said he was going to accompany me out to get a trike at 4:45. at about 430 all of the the sudden a silence fell over the hostal and it echoed across the whole town. then the sound of a few generators kicked in. Our hostal stayed dark and silent and the sound of mosquitoes buzzing my ears was more pronounced with the fans now at a standstill.
Our van sat coughing out diesel fumes for over 30 minutes at the terminal before finally we were motioned to enter. Zig, Zag, honk, honk 5 hours later and i’m at Puerto Princesa airport stupid early for my flight. had some of that adobo pork again, cant get enough of that tangy, vinegary soy sauce flavor.
Got in to Manila, argued with taxi drivers trying to rip me off. Seriously, ask someone how much you should pay before you get to the airport. finally a police officer and a taxi driver came over to me asking where I was trying to go. and how much i was willing to pay. The police told me to follow him. he went all the way to the edge of the taxi pick up line still with the taxi driver on foot in tow.
Taxi driver slips police a 5 dollar bill. Taxi driver says follow him. I’ve got a weird feeling about it but what the hell. so we get to a parking-lot full of unoccupied taxis. He unlocks my door and I get in the front seat as he gets in the driver side. he motions to lean the seat back, to recline my seat. He explains in his best English, ” passenger, I pay guard 20 pesos. no passenger free.” laid back I see the top of what looks like a guard shack as my driver waves and says something in a language that I guess to be Tagalog.
A minute later he motions that it is OK to sit up. and we fight our way through heavy manila traffic until I am back at the hostal where I spent my first night in the Philippines. There was a food festival across the street so I went out for some Lumpia sariwa, like an eggroll or springroll but not fried. Delicious.
The next morning I signed up for a free manila city tour knowing I would have to leave before it was through. It got started an hour and a half late. and the guide failed to mention how much time on public transportation we would spend. In the end we got to see Rizal park which is famous for many reasons, it was a place where many people were put on trial and sentenced to death, then during the American occupation it was rebuilt as a nice park that today is home to music festivals and relaxing shady benches away from the chaos of Manila.
My time was running out and the guide kept pressing more and more but finally I had to tell him enough is enough and get me a cab. I had three hours to get to the hostal, grab my things and run back out and get to the airport. The ticket information was sort of confusing and i wound up at the wrong terminal. Manila’s airport is a disaster, 4 terminals that feel as if they were on opposite sides of the city and no dedicated airport traffic lanes to get from one to the next. I made it to my check in counter and was told that there were five minutes until departure. I was not allowed to check in.
There are three airlines flying Manila to Seoul, My flight was the last of the day with Air Asia. I went to Philippine Airlines to hear that their system had crashed and wouldn’t be restored until and unknown time. so i crossed the terminal to Cebu Pacific airlines, waited in line 20 minutes to be told I had missed their last flight of the day by 30 minutes.
The cheapest flight would be the next morning at 7am on Air Asia my original carrier but neither of my cards would let me book online so i would have to book in person. The booking office for Air Asia, despite departing from terminal 3 is actually in terminal 1 about 45 minutes away. Off I went in a rage. Booked the ticket and decided what the heck lets try to take one of these jeepneys, its super cheap and sort of a must-do-experience.
Despite my initial bad mood it really cheered me up having made it back to the airport terminal 3 by jeepney. I found a quiet place where i could charge my phone and laid down hugging my backpack, hoping no one would steal everything while I slept.
At 5:30 I checked in and everything from there out was smooth sailing. I still had 4 rolls of undeveloped film that i was actually considering throwing away for fear of wasting money developing what was surely ruined by so many passes through x-ray machines.
I found one article that gave me a sliver of hope. A guy who had traveled with film for a few months never bothering with having it hand scanned and having no effect on the film. I cant be certain there was no effect on the film but I am glad I gave them a go.