"Billy Jean is not my mama..."
After the discombobulating (nice word, eh!) frenzy of Manila we decided it was time to pack our bags again and head for an island retreat. This in itself represented a bit of a challenge, after all, the Philippines has over 7100 to choose from and the largest area of coastline in the world. We decided to start in the Visayas, the archipelago that sits due south of Manila. With our boat scheduled to leave at 4 a.m. we stayed up late and then joined the long line of people queuing to go to Cebu City. Security is a massive concern in the Philippines and as we waited in line our bags were opened, put through a scanner and finally given the once over by a sniffer dog, an cuddly and docile Alsatian in magnificent condition. Having negotiated the check in process we found our accommodation for the journey, in the form of a shared dormitory with about 100 other travellers on neatly stacked bunk beds. The ferry itself consisted of several of these dorms and two restaurants, both with karaoke. Of course. “When you build a new house in the Philippines you make sure that the karaoke machine is installed before you put the roof on. It’s bad luck otherwise,” joked someone we met on one of the islands. The karaoke was on at 9 a.m. when we went for a cup of coffee and still going at 4pm that afternoon when I went to find a bit of fresh air. The same women, horribly tone deaf, was still hollering out Celine Dion. I was previously of the opinion that the theme track to Titanic could not get much get worse than the original. I was wrong.
We arrived in Cebu at about 10 a.m. a day and a half later. From the upper decks of the ferry, passengers threw coins and fruit into the waters below. Here women, children and men waited to catch the plummeting treasure, patrolling the water in small boats. Their dexterity was amazing: a coin would go hurtling through the air and beneath, a woman with two poles and a piece of fabric woven between, would deftly catch it and tip it back it into the boat. In the event that the throw was poor and the coin could not be caught, someone would roll off one of the boats and swiftly swim after the sinking booty before returning to the surface, usually triumphant. We were so caught up in the excitement that we nearly forgot to get off the ferry, which was continuing on to other islands further south.
Once we were off the boat and in Cebu City we made our way to the Northern bus terminal and then caught the local bus through to Maya, an hour and a bit north. The journey was great, passing through small towns, a thunder storm, a funeral procession and sugar cane plantations that stretched away as far as the eye could see. After about two days of travel we finally found ourselves on a banca (an old outrigger), making the 8km crossing between Maya and Malapascua island. Malapascua is a wonderful place to visit. It is still fairly undeveloped, for example there is no ATM and the electricity is only on in the evenings (which is of course more than you can say about Zimbabwe most of the time). There are a handful of resorts and bungalows along the beach, only two of which offer wi-fi, for which they charge the earth. As you walk through the village you see basket ball hoops fastened to the trunks of coconut trees, whilst the speed humps in the road are fashioned from dissected palm trees. Along the white sands of the beach, volley ball nets are strung up between more coconut trees and blithe children skinny dip in the 28 degree, turquoise sea. We found a diving school and did three dives whilst we were there, including a night dive where we saw the elusive mandarin fish do their mating dance and a deep dive on which we saw thresher sharks.
Sadly there are some elements on the island which seemed a little less idyllic. We met a young child who, aged ten, no longer went to school for lack of funds. One version of the story was that his parents had deserted him and run away to Manila where the streets are allegedly paved with gold. The other conflicting tale was that his ma and pa were alive and well, living on the island, but blind drunk for most of their waking hours. So, either way you look at it, he is without family. Nipun befriended him, schooled him for an afternoon and bought him some new clothes. The next day he was back with a friend who also wanted some food and clothes. Where do you draw
the line? Especially knowing the ephemeral difference that you will make. It is very sad, especially when contrasted against the back drop of a paradise where the rich come to dive and eat fresh Adobo and fish. A couple of days later the young child was then verbally abused and physically bullied off the property we were staying at by a foul, insane looking American dive school owner who claimed that the child was a known thief. The American was a crazed bully with a mullet that would have made even the most decadent of eighties pop stars blush. Thief or not, it seemed completely reprehensible the way the kid was treated. It made me very glad we did not do any dives with his company. The negatives are easy to dwell on but most of my memories of the island are good ones, and most of the children we saw were happy. The image of a boy of aged about four dancing through the street singing “Billy Jean is not my mama..” returns to me. He bounced along the road with his friends, making up the words as he went along. In some ways it reminded me of how I grew up in Zimbabwe, the freedom that you had as a child, which seems like an alien concept in the UK. From Malapascua we took the boat back to Maya, the sly looking boat owner telling us not to tell the other passengers that we had only paid 50 peso as he had charged them double. We only got the correct rate without argument as we had been befriended by one of the local touts who took a liking to us. He changed my almost universal dislike of touts, he was affable, helpful and not at all pushy. He had worked in Indonesia, was a carpenter by trade and had returned to Malapascua whilst the recession kicked in. I really regret not having gone on a fishing trip with him, he would have been an interesting person to chat with. Back in Cebu we found the immigration department and extended our visas. Then we left for Bohol for more diving, this time with massive shoals of jack fish forming slowly revolving towers above us and turtles. There are many things that I will miss when we get back from this journey, swimming with the fishes is one of them.
Our time in Bohol was predominantly spent on Alona Beach, Panglao island. The beach faces due south and boasts dazzling sunsets and sunrises. I got up at 5.30 one morning to shoot dawn and was astounded by the number of local people who were already up and about. By 5.45 I had already been asked twice if I wanted to charter a boat for the day. We met up with Anthony from Manila and some of his friends one night and drank far too much Red Horse, ate belut (yup, the egg with the chicken in it) and learnt the Filipino word for whatever - Umshigi. It became a catchphrase for the evening, and is used with the same mocking sarcasm that is reserved for “Whatever” in English. The inspiration came from a street kid that used to visit one of the groups (Raymond’s) work. One day the Raymond’s boss gave the child some money and gently told him that he was becoming a little to regular in his visits. “Here’s some money, but please don’t come back for a while.” The kid pocketed the money, then looked at him, smiled, and said “Umshigi!” The phrase stuck. From Panglao we went back to the port of Taglibaran, visited the famous chocolate hills and went to the cathedral. Taglibaran has a nice feel to it in spite of what the travel guide said, we ended up spending a couple of days there. I also ate more McDonalds there than anywhere else, ever. Why? They have free wi
-fi. At time of writing we are in Dumaguete, it is really hot here. I spent yesterday afternoon following a school leaving festival which was really, really good. The amount of effort that had gone into creating the costumes, the dances and the parade was astounding. And this was just a minor event in terms of Filipino carnivals, not even on the calendar. This nation knows how to party. The food is also getting better and better. Last night we had a whole chicken, barbecued on a rotisserie with a chilli sauce that was so lethal that even Nipun and I were feeling the heat. I really, really like it here. I just need those lotto numbers to come in now. Please?