With 7,107 islands, I don’t think you’d ever be finished with the Philippines. I could spend many more moons exploring the hinterlands but the authorities only grant a 3-week visa on arrival and Air Asia had seen through my fake onward flight booking and made me book a flight to coincide with the visa expiry. I couldn’t be arsed to change it so I left my itinerary, as usual, in the hands of fate.
That meant getting back over to Cebu, one of the country’s transport hubs, and working out the route northwards to Manila. Investigations revealed that I could fly any time in the next two days…or take a 24-hour ferry. Now, it’s actually cheaper to fly but I figured that the arduous boat-ride was a rite of passage in the quest for a true Filipino experience. As luck would have it, there was a boat scheduled for departure at 9pm, just a few short hours away.
Headed down to the port after finally extracting ticketing information from a combination of sources, bought my passage and setted in to the waiting room at the terminal. 9 o’clock came and went. ‘Should we be boarding?’ I cautiously asked one of my fellow waitees at 8.45pm. ‘The boat isn’t here,’ he grinned at me. It wasn’t for another two hours that we were invited to embark. Out of our control so may as well settle in for the long-haul.
It turned out that the only tickets left were in steerage, where I found myself in a gargantuan room filled with bunks, families and boxes of cargo. No one but no one travels without taking with them a few boxes trussed up in string.
These are no paltry sailboats, they’re full-blown passenger ferries. Depending which boat you get, some have swimming pools and basketball courts to entertain passengers for 24-hours. Without fail, all have a karaoke bar that blasts out at full volume from 8am, and a ladyboy live band by night, not forgetting the livestock pen for animals in transit, lest you miss the two most familiar sounds of the Philies (roosters crowing and 90s ballads being butchered).
There were just three white people on the boat, and I was the only girl, causing much giggling, staring and curiosity from everyone else on board. The staff quickly learnt my name and constantly called it to check I was ok. It was a friendly curiosity, not hostile, so I became inured to it fairly quickly.
Made friends with Pol, a Filipino from Maya (the jumping-off port for delectable Malapascua) who was taking a fighting rooster up to his cousin in Manila and stopping in for a week’s visit. Chatting with him over the course of the journey I learnt a lot about student and family life in the country, as well as hearing yet more terrifying stories of why you shouldn’t linger in Manila. He told me that twice he’d been robbed at knifepoint in the jeepneys and on one occasion they slashed his clothes to get at his tuition fees.
Of the two other whiteys on board, one was the lovely Donald, a consultant from the UK who had been coaxed out of retirement for a project in Manila for a month. He was taking a long-weekend tour in the South of the country and had splashed out on first class. He invited me to join him in the first-class section of the canteen for meals and also to watch sky TV away from the screeching karaoke. Wonderful.
The other… Well. He was an American and approached me in the terminal before departure, dressed like an airline pilot with a grey overcoat over his arm and John Travolta sunnies on, to ask me some mundane questions and launch into a boring monologue about his life, as Yanks are prone to. He casually mentioned that he was working as a Buddhist missionary in the Philippines and had been for four years, talking in passing of his wives, medical training and military experience.
‘That’s nice,’ I said, before turning to my Filipino friend to check if we were boarding. American man drifted away.
The next morning I awake and he’s standing at the end of my bunk.
‘Oh! Good morning!’ he said, with mock surprise, and asked how I slept. I am at this stage still sleepy and amused but a bit annoyed that the student ferry staff on board have been circulating since 6am with trays of convenience items for sale, bellowing their produce at the top of their voices. This continued until lunchtime. I lost count of how many times they came to ask if I wanted to buy souvenir mugs, toothpaste, bog roll, sandwiches and cakes.