“If I don’t leave now I’m never going to leave,” I declared as I was baited into staying Duma-side by one last lechon (suckling pig) feast.
Abandoning the fattened piglet to the birthday hoards, I fled for Cebu across that lovely Liloan crossing again and jumped a bus up to Moalboal, a pretty little spot famed for good diving, and indeed some canyoning through expat company, Planet Action Adventure. I didn’t go myself, but it was nice to know I could. Most divers come to see the shoals of sardines off Pescador island but there is a nice white sand beach up the coast and plenty to see in and around the village too. I happened to journey with Norwegian-Spanish bloke Andres who travels for about five months of each year when perma-frost prevents him from working in landscape gardening back at home. Interesting man. We spent ’nuff time pigging out in the local restaurants and eateries.
One morning I ventured up the coast in search of the White Sand beach and came instead upon a rudimentary shipyard with a bunch of kids playing around on the beach in front. There is nothing that kids love better than to have their picture taken by strange long-noses so we whiled away some time taking many photos. They also used the opportunity to get close and touch my skin, finding it endlessly fascinating. Lovely little gang.
There was a lecherous vibe I didn’t quite like about Moalboal and a vibe that I’ve been consistenly getting on this trip to the Philippines, a complete curveball based on last time. Those seedy expats have moved in looking to buy hot young wives – not all, I hasten to add. Some are nice normal blokes with happy wives and good businesses – and they just bring the tone down a bit. Perhaps I judged the place on the deeeesgusting German man who sat on the veranda of our guest house chain smoking and coughing for the entire day. Like many in his shoes, he’s been through a few wives since he’s been in the Philippines but seems to have been careless with the last. On the morning that I was leaving at 6am, he materialised from his room with the kettle for coffee, wearing only some baggy Y-fronts, a curled lip and a lascivious look. <Heave.>
From here I headed North, to the very North of Cebu where the small island of Malapascua lies. It is a gorgeous, sugar-sand island of 5,000 people and has become something of a popular destination in recent years. I would estimate that there are 15 resorts, plus a profusion of shacks/home stays to stay in around the island. One of the resorts sells rum and cokes which decrease in price the more measures you add in because, I think, rum is cheaper than coke. Excellent if you’re into throat-skinning triples but also good for those who prefer supping doubles.
Sometimes the obvious contrast between rich foreign resort and poor village shack – without even electricity – was a bit stark for my liking. There isn’t a medical service on the island and one lady, Roqueza, was telling me casually in conversation how two of her children had died for want of medical attention. Her one-year-old daughter fell out of a hammock and sustained fatal head injuries while another son got diarrhea (well difficult to spell) and died on the boat over to the mainland to get help. Tragic, although, in their defence, the dive shops did all they could to help the little girl with the oxygen facilities they had. Also by the same token, the tourists supplement women like Roqueza’s income as she provides massages and manicures on the beach, earning her 2-300pesos a time. With her husband earning 200 pesos a day in construction, it makes a big difference.
The island is famous for the thresher sharks who live here at the Moad Shoal. They’re quite deep-water creatures with big, bulbous eyes as a result and tend to live at about 200m. Each morning they come up to a cleaning station at 35m, just before dawn, to allow a certain type of fish to eat the parasites from its gills. It’s a perfect symbiosis, which is also seen in other fish who are allowed by sharks to nibble the meat between their teeth. Threshers use those mental long tails to herd and stun their fishy prey on the hunt. They look awesome.
One drawback is that I am only Open Water certified so should only technically go down to 18m. The sharkies come up to 25-35m and none of the proper outfits down on Bounty Beach would take the risk. I needed a cowboy. Luckily I found them in the form of the ironically-named Safety Stop who were also very safety-conscious when on the dive proper. Fun&Sun are another dive shop rumoured to be more lax about the rules whereas Thresher Shark Divers are reputed to be one of the most professional. Their shop is certainly a shining example and sells Fray Bentos pies to those Brits who are missing a gristly slice of home.
At 5am one morning, we mustered at the dive shop and headed out on the open waters with probably another 40 other divers on different boats. Everyone heads on down to 25m to sit on the bottom and wait in a neat line. Unless you have camera equipment in which case you roam around like a nut job looking for decent shots, knocking people and regulators out the way as you go. We were lucky and within 5 minutes of being underwater, the threshers had done a fly by for the masses. Very decent of them. Lovely dive and back on the surface before 7am ready for a hearty breakfast.
Another day I went for a lame jog around the 3km island to visit the other villages. The resorts have their place, but it was marvellous away from them. Arriving at the basketball court, I watched a few minutes of the latest match and was mumbled at incoherently by a wasted fisherman whose work for the day was done before 11-year old Kati attached herself to me and guided me on an impromptu tour. I shot some hoops with another band of basketballers and met people building boats, fixing nets and threading bait for the following day’s haul. Elsewhere people were hauling water from wells, washing clothes, singing karaoke, drying fish, riding around on bikes or – for the kids – rolling tyres down the dirt tracks.
I went to the beach to watch a sunset, one of those rare ones where the burning disc sinks over the line of the horizon. Last one I saw like that was so memorable I can even tell you where and when: January 2003, Palolem, India, sitting next to Loin Cloth Man. As you’d expect in the world’s 12th most populous country, and one that doesn’t know a condom from its elbow, it wasn’t long before I was accosted by a rabble good natured kids. They *love* having their photo taken and showing up for the foreigners.
Much as I loved Malapascua, my Filipino visa was running out and Air Asia had already stung me for a flight out from Manila so I left on a high and took a boat back to the mainland, dusty bus and trike combo to the port of Haynaya and then the slow boat (an hour for really not very far at all) over to Santa Fe on Bantayan. The island had been recommended to me by many locals so I thought I’d go check it out.
I’m not *quite* sure why the Filipinos love it so much. Sure, the island has lots of beaches, but so does the rest of the country, and they clean many of those. Regardless, I was quite taken with the little town of Santa Fe itself, even if getting there from the port and finding accommodation stressed me out in the extreme. In India, for example, you get used to being confronted by a crowd of aggressive touts at the end of each bus or train journey, and you learn to use and abuse their services as best you can. In the Philippines, that doesn’t happen normally. They’re so laid back that trike drivers will give you directions even if you tell them you’d rather walk the 15km to your destination.
Not so in Bantayan. Possibly because of higher levels of poverty, the crowing over the white tourists at the port is out of control. Firstly, before you’ve even docked, porters run – literally – onto the boat and make a scramble for your bags. If you politely decline, you often have to prise your bag back off their back anyway. Then when you get to the pier proper, the trike drivers (again, the fact that they are push bikes, not motorbikes is perhaps a sign that they are poorer here), all of them, follow you at close proximity for the full 750m green mile, badgering you to take up their trike services or go to their resort. Being as it was that I was flying blind and had absolutely no idea where I was going, what the attractions were or what day it was, making a call was a bit more difficult. I tried to ask a few questions of the port people but they didn’t have any idea what their island could offer either, plus the trike drivers followed me to these people too, hassling and getting in the way at every turn. I was moody.
Unfortunately, you pretty much need a bike wherever you want to go so I relented. Monsieur le driver dropped me at a couple of scabby resorts on a nice beach just up the road and a bit of hunting around led to a very pleasing guest house named Juanita’s. I was drawn in mostly by the crap, hand-painted sign on the roadside and was not disappointed by cute, newly-refurbished rooms and landscaped yard, even despite the lady caretaker who took a full two days to crack a smile.
The little town of Santa Fe is very pretty and laid back. It has an old school marketplace and clutch of casual local restaurants, resorts and bars. The large church is a central point in the town and there is a tennis club on the main square. On arrival one Sunday afternoon, the local women’s volleyball league were playing matches in the town sports hall, men were napping, splayed across their tricycle seats and the church bells were clanging belligerently. If anything would put me more off going to church, it is that discordant, high-volume hullabaloo.
However, it turned out that it was part of the Lent procession of the cross, which solemnly marched amid swarming villagers through the town, stopping at a series of impromptu Jesus shrines along the way. I watched with interest as I enjoyed happy hour street-front beers.
Bantayan’s main economic activities are fishing and chicken farming. 1.4 million resident chickens on the island produce 1 million eggs daily. How about that?
Took a scooter one day to go for an explore around the island. Mostly it’s a bit average in terms of tourist sites and the beaches on the East shore were covered in flotsam that had swept in from the sea and not been cleaned up for some time. Randomly, a lot of shoes. Who is dumping all these shoes at sea? A couple of little barangays were special and worth a mention. Baigad is a beautiful little village of rustic huts, smokey fires and lush mangroves. Okoy is a cute town with its very own plaza, health centre, children’s park and beach park. The roadside within the barangay boundary is lined with colourful flags in an array of colours. Sitting alongside one of the roads was a young boy painting small boats in yellow with blue stripes down each side.
‘What are you making?’ I asked him.
‘Ships,’ he smiled shyly, ‘to beautify our village.’ Melt.