Backpacking Bonus 13: Paradise Found in the Philippines

The Philippines is a country that is made up of 7,000 islands. Imagine that. Flying into the Philippines from Singapore, for some reason I was expecting something to go awry as I knew I was re-entering the “developing” world after leaving a place where everything had been so easy, but it was actually kind of refreshing that I had to “work” again to make things happen–they don’t just happen automatically in the backroads of developing nations. I think the Philippines is actually pretty advanced, but I haven’t researched it enough to know at this point.

Spending two weeks island-hopping in the Philippines was indicative of the closing of the middle phase of my journey, after which I knew I’d be returning to the mainland to ride out Phase 3, so I was really determined to soak up as much island time as I could. While getting in and to my first destination went very smoothly, moving around from island to island during those two weeks proved to be both expensive and slightly complicated as planes and boats were the necessary modes of transportation to get from place to place. On travel days, I felt like I was constantly getting up at the crack of dawn and rushing around trying to get to a ferry station or to catch a plane or a bus. While paradise is accessible from just about anywhere in the Philippines, you really have to work for it. First, you have to show “proof of exit” from the Philippines before they will even let you board the plane to go in, then there are terminal fees and environmental fees galore you have to pay for every flight or boat trip you take, and lastly, the tricky weather (for example, typhoons) can affect travel plans and sometime result in losing money over a missed connection.

GOING with the FLOW

First of all, people from the Philippines are some of the friendliest people a person will ever meet. They are also very direct and not afraid to speak up and say exactly what is on their minds. The first thing the van driver asked me when I climbed in for the ride to the ferry dock was, “Why are you alone?” I could have been worried–especially since I was the only person in that van for the transfer, but he was so open and helpful and took me exactly where I needed to go so I paid no mind to his inquiry.

Boracay

My first stop was Boracay (pronounced “BOR-uh-kī”), an idyllic island known as a tourist hotspot, honeymoon destination, and party place. I actually didn’t even realize where I was headed until I got there, and even though I arrived late in the evening and couldn’t see the beauty of the island in the dark, I felt a sense of euphoria and satisfaction while the driver of the motorized “tricycle” I was riding in through town to my guesthouse was blasting one of Akon’s typical songs about Africa on his decked-out stereo system. It was neat thinking that I had arrived on a tiny piece of paradise, even though I wouldn’t be able to really soak it in until morning.

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Boracay sunsets rivaled its daytime beach settings with spectacular colors and silouhettes of ships in the distance.

The first night, I just picked the first place I found, but I knew it wouldn’t do for more than a night. The following day, I resumed my search during which a young man showing me his available rooms asked me after I saw the third room, “Are you alone?” “Yes,” I answered. “Why?” he immediately enquired. “Because I want to be,” I responded this time. He smiled and said, “Oh,” and kind of nodded his head. Again, I noticed the straightforward way of communicating, but it was more interesting to me to see how concerned the Filipinos were that I was alone, and when I took my observation further, I noticed that Filipinos were almost never alone. Their society is based so strongly around family that they stick together through everything. Cousins, sisters, family, friends–they are always together. And they will immediately include anyone who is by himself because they can’t bear the thought of the person feeling lonely.

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Tides fluctuate so drastically on small islands such as Boracay that “parked” boats often get stuck in the sand at low tide requiring multiple men to war together to dislodge the boats and get them back on the water. This was a neat process to witness!

Another thing I absolutely adored about the Philippines was that everybody addressed me as “ma’am,” but it sounded like they were saying “mom.” I had to ask for a repeat a couple times to understand, but I thought it was kind of endearing that they call every woman what sounds like “mom.” Haha! It was always a very polite gesture toward other women and the islander accent just made it even more special.

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I don’t recall seeing a sunset sky filled with so much natural purple and red before this one in Boracay.

Speaking of speaking, the official language of the Philippines is called Tagalog, but the really interesting thing is that some of the language sounds like Spanish and some of the same words are even used; for example, certain numbers are word for word in counting, and the national currency is called the “peso.” This is a residual effect from the Spanish influence in the Philippines dating back to the 1500s when the the Spanish colonized the Philippines, thanks to the “discovery” of the land by the Portuguese explorer, Magellan, commissioned by Spain to navigate the area. Had it not been for Magellan and the Spaniards, the Philippines would have become a Muslim nation, but to this day, the majority of the Filipino population practices Catholicism and honors Magellan for his leadership and influence. (Magellan was actually murdered by a tribal chief native to the Philippines named Lapu Lapu way back in the day, but I’m not going into the history of that here.)

Boracay is very touristy and it’s a total honeymooner spot. There are lots of opportunities for outdoor activities available for visitors including snorkeling, diving, island-hopping, parasailing, paddle-boarding, kiteboarding, and sailing. Other options along the main strip include hair braiding, massages, and plenty of partying. In the evenings at many of the restaurants, there are often live performances put on by musicians and/or fire dancers. It can get very crowded, especially in the northern part of the main strip between boat “Station 1” and “Station 2,” however the crowds are avoidable in places toward the south of the island near “Station 3,” which is where I decided to set up shop.

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Boracay’s beaches, like White Beach shown here, are some of the most sought after “perfect” beaches with their soft white sand and crystal blue waters. Boracay is a popular honeymoon destination!

The beautiful place where I found an affordable bungalow was situated in a manicured orchid garden about a 2-minute walk back from the beach. It was much quieter and very peaceful there than it was in the north, and I had to pay for wifi if I wanted it so I went without it for several days, taking advantage of time away from the ever-distracting worldwide web. I found a favorite spot on the beach just a few feet away from the water that was part of a beachside restaurant called Shantal’s Bar, where I had daily interaction with three sweet girls who worked there–they were cousins, and their uncle was the owner of the place. I spent afternoon upon afternoon there, writing, eating, swimming, drinking, writing, then swimming more. I definitely got my mango smoothie craving satisfied in Boracay as I appreciated the simplicity of being able to walk 10 steps in the sand and order one from a shack on the beach.

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Fresh fruit smoothie and beverage stands lined the main strip of Boracay’s beaches. This coconut stand offered “Coco Locos,” fresh coconuts cracked open and enhanced with rum.

Now for the water. All along Boracay’s “White Sand Beach,” there is a giant aquamarine swimming pool also known as the ocean. It was the most inviting ocean I have ever seen. Crystal blue waters beckon visitors to take a dip and go for a swim. The water was lukewarm, almost like bathtub water, and it was so clear that I could see straight down to my feet on the white sandy bottom. There were hardly any rocks, corals, or sea plants–only a handful of small white fish swimming around that blended into the sand. The best part was that there weren’t any big waves pounding the shore which meant no sand in my bathing suit!! I think many people can relate to the relief of that situation… It was so clean and perfect that I almost didn’t believe I was there. More than once, I was out in the blue water, floating and swimming around and I just started laughing in disbelief that I was in the middle of a scene from a postcard. All I did was hop on a plane, then a van, then a boat, then a tricycle and–BAM–I found myself in paradise.

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Mango smoothies were a daily treat I enjoyed between swimming and writing on my little beach spot on Boracay.

Something else I really enjoyed about the Philippines was that everywhere I went, there were love songs from the 90s being played on the radio and everyone was singing along. Tina Turner, Phil Collins, REO Speedwagon, Sara McLachlan–you name it. Philippines, in general, is a musical place and Filipinos have no shame in just opening up their mouths and singing whenever they feel like it–walking along the street, performing at live music venues, participating at church; they are such happy people and so I was not surprised to find them singing all the time. I was like, “Hey! I found my people!!” Of course, I would sing right along with them…

Being that I was on a dubbed “party island,” I knew I needed to check it out. And while I won’t go “party” by myself, I had two new friends whom I had met at the hostel in Singapore who arrived on Boracay just a few days after I did. Kirsty and Chloe, from Ireland and Scotland, respectively, are nurses in London who were on a traveling vacation together. They were absolutely hilarious and Kirsty was always getting hurt everywhere she went so each time I saw them, I could expect a great story about their latest adventure-gone-awry. I made the 25-minute walk along the beach to their hostel so we could all go out together two of the nights we were there. They were so funny and it was good for me to take a little break and be social, but honestly, I couldn’t keep up with them!! Both nights, I think I was in bed hours before they were. Great girls!!

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Chloe (left) and Kirsty (middle), two nurses from the UK, were the funniest girls I met during my travels. I went out with them a couple times in Boracay and we had a blast together, but to be honest, I couldn’t keep up with these two firecrackers!!

A sad observation I made during those nights was how prevalent prostitution is in that area–consistent with many of the touristy areas in all of Asia. There were Filipino women throwing themselves at foreign men on every block. This is the lifestyle they live and there is no shame whatsoever–their bodies are the asset they use to make money. And on the flip side, foreign men play into is, enabling the behavior. I was almost inspired at this point in my travels to change the theme of my storytelling, switching it to a documentary about how young male westerners behave while on vacation or traveling abroad. I figured I had collected enough evidence from Bali, Gili T, and now Boracay, the tipping point, that I could really shed some light on the situation. But I thought that it might not be fair to men who don’t behave in that manner. I wouldn’t want the stereotype to go viral, no matter how prevalent it is…

Sure enough, while I was in Boracay, a typhoon, called Typhoon Lando (Signal 1, the least serious on the typhoon grading scale of 1 to 3), arrived to the Philippines, sweeping across the country with gale-force winds, huge ocean waves, and heavy rains. The beautiful, calm blue waters immediately lost their serenity and came alive with the thrashing winds. Swimming wasn’t so fun anymore, and lounging on the beach was not so relaxing, but I did find great entertainment in watching the kite surfers glide across the water.

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Stormy seas make for some mesmerizing scenes of nature!

I was amazed at the transformation that took place on the island, and the thought of getting on a boat or a plane at that point made me feel uneasy. During one particular stormy day, I grabbed my umbrella so I could walk down the street to a restaurant, and I unfortunately ended up with an umbrella casualty. You know the scene from Mary Poppins where all the ladies’ umbrellas flip inside out when the winds pick up? Yeah. That happened. My umbrella will NOT be accompanying me back to the USA.

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When Typhoon Lando swept across the Philippines, it transformed Boracay’s pristine beaches into unwelcoming stormy sands and seas, with winds roaring through the island at high speed.

I stayed in Boracay for six nights, perhaps longer than I needed to considering that I only had 2 weeks total in the Philippines, but I came down with a one-day cold while I was there so it was good that I had the opportunity to rest and wait for the storm to subside.

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Even though I had to get up at 5 AM to catch a boat leaving Boracay to get to the main island so I could get to the airport early and catch my flight, I was rewarded with an enchanting pre-dawn snapshot of an island waking up…

Coron

My next stop was the island of Coron, to the west of Boracay, but instead of catching a direct flight from one local airport to the next, I booked two separate flights (Boracay to Manila, then Manila to Coron) which, combined, still only cost me a fraction (like one-fifth) of what it would have cost to fly directly. And despite the typhoon, both flights were smooth.

Upon arriving to Coron, I met a Filipino family–a widowed mother and her four grown daughters–that was on vacation in Coron. While the girls and the mother were all very curious about me and what I do, I was delighted to see local Filipino people vacationing around their own country. It is not a foreigner-dominated vacation destination. The people are welcoming and have the means to enjoy their own land. That is always nice to see, especially when in many tourist destinations, it would be impossible for local people to ever be able to afford to do the activities that visitors do.

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Coron was such a small town that THIS room in a municipal building was THE post office for the island. And that is Coron’s proud postmaster.

Coron was a cute little town and definitely not overrun with tourism so it was a nice change of pace from Boracay. I stayed at a Backpackers Guesthouse that was built on stilts right on the water: at hide tide, I could see the water through the slats in my floor; at low tide, there was just moist, stinky earth and garbage below me. I walked around the town my first afternoon there, then just as the sun was setting, I climbed Mt. Tapayas for a panoramic view of the city. This is a popular hill to climb for both locals and visitors, and the people have built a cement staircase with 720-something steps from the bottom to the top.

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On the afternoon I arrived to Coron, I climbed up Mt. Tapayas and was lucky enough to catch the sunset across the neighboring islands.

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Many homes and other shops/restaurants in Coron are constructed on stilts that are built over the water. The shabby building in the middle is Coron Backpackers Hostel, where I stayed in a private room (it’s much nicer on the inside!!) while I was on the island.

The main reason people go to Coron is for diving. Coron is known for its wreck diving as there is an area with 10-12 sunken World War II Japanese warships a little way off of the island. I had never dived wrecks before so that was my motivation for the trip. I signed up with Rocksteady Divers for a full day of diving that would include three dives, lunch on the boat, and beverages. On diving day, my group consisted of one other man, Graeme from Australia, a local Filipino Divemaster named Ronaldo who would be leading our dives, and me. We couldn’t have asked for a better day–we had a break from the rain so the weather was absolutely perfect all day!

Our first dive of the day was at a place called Barracuda Lake which is very unique in that has both freshwater from the mountains and seawater from an opening deep in the lake that connects to the surrounding ocean. Also, Barracuda Lake in known for its “thermocline,” a change in water temperature based on the varying depths of the lake caused by thermal vents that open into the lake from below. Not only did we have to swim to the island from our boat, then climb over some rickety bridges with our tanks strapped on our backs in order to access the lake, but we also dived without wetsuits–only in T-shirts–because the temperature of the water was up to 38 degrees Celcius (~100 degrees Fahrenheit!!) in some areas and very cold in others. While there was hardly any marine life in the lake besides some catfish here and there, it was an amazing dive. In some places, we could see a film separating the fresh water from the seawater and it was so cool because I could stick my head up across the film layer into the freshwater and my head would be cold while the rest of my body remained below the film in the hot seawater!

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Just over the rock wall by the light turquoise water near this island (just 20 minutes from Coron) lies the famous thermocline Barracuda Lake, where we did our first dive of the day.

After that, we had a nice break while we rode out to the dive site of the wrecks. (Breaks are necessary in between dives because they reduce the risk of decompression sickness from being too deep for too long without allowing the body to stabilize with proper oxygen flow.) The first wreck dive was not so good for me as my mask was leaking slightly and for some reason I was very anxious, but it was still interesting to explore a sunken ship.

After lunch on the boat, we went in for the second wreck dive–this time the ship we explored was lying on its side–and it was SO cool! I thought exploring sunken ships would be kind of creepy, but it was actually very interesting because all the marine life under the sea, including corals, giant clams, all kinds of fish, anemones, sea stars, sea horses, sponges, shrimps, crabs, and lobsters, have completely taken over the ships and made them their homes. We swam in and around multiple chambers and explored the dark corners by the light of our flashlights. I was so impressed by how the marine life adapted to the intrusion of gigantic man-made objects and found a way to benefit from it.

Diving day ended up being a blast overall. Graeme was a fun dive partner and I appreciated that he “looked out for me” as he has much more diving experience than I do. I had a great conversation with Ronaldo that day asking about tourism in general and how locals feel about it, how he feels about foreigner dive instructors on the island, and what kinds of issues untrained local “fisherman divers” have from diving unsafely. He reported that the majority of tourists to Coron are European and that Chinese tourists (in general) are the worst divers/swimmers because they kick too much and end up destroying the reef. He said he wishes the foreign dive instructors would have to pay the same taxes and fees that local Filipino instructors and dive masters have to pay (right now, foreigners pay nothing to work on the island). Lastly, he mentioned that local fisherman end up with paralysis from decompression sickness because they go on deep dives for two to three hours at a time searching for lobsters and other seafood; even if they get treated and go back to normal, they immediately start diving again because more fish equal more money and they have to feed their families. Ronaldo was frustrated with the lack of education local fisherman have about diving.

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My diving day in Coron entailed good food (fresh fish, veggies, and a Filipino signature dish–chicken adobo over rice), new diving experiences, great company and conversation with my diving partner, Graeme, and our Divemaster, Ronaldo, and loads of fun in a beautiful place. It was a prefect day!

The next morning, when I arrived at the ferry dock to catch the boat to El Nido, I was told, “No boats today. There is a gale warning. Try again tomorrow.” Instead of being disappointed, I actually relished the fact that I was just gifted a free work day where I could lay low and take care of emails, errands, calls, and upcoming travel arrangements. It felt great to be so productive after such a fun day before. I got a boat the following day and was on my way to my next destination!

El Nido, Palawan

The boat trip from Coron to El Nido on the island of Palawan took about 8 hours and was transporting both locals and foreign travelers. The bottom deck had lots of benches, but anyone down there was subject to some serious splashing and a lot of noise from the engine. While many people on the boat either got seasick or very wet, I found a great spot on one of the only benches on the upper deck underneath a sun cover where I enjoyed a quiet, easy ride and could gaze across the crystal cerulean blue waters, wondering just how many ways I could describe all the different shades of blue ocean there are in the Philippines.

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After spending nearly 8 hours on a boat trip from Coron to El Nido, Palawan, we were blessed with this sun peeking through the clouds and illuminating the karst island formations across the sea.

El Nido, Palawan is one of the most magical, paradisiacal places that travelers report visiting. A traveler friend of mine was actually the one who suggested that I visit, but unfortunately with my travel delays from bad weather, by the time I arrived to El Nido at 5 PM one afternoon, I pretty much had to gear up to leave the following morning to catch a flight I had already booked days prior from Puerto Princesa to Cebu. (I tried to change the flight, but I had bought it as a “promo” so there were no refunds or changes allowed.)

While I was bummed that I was only going to have 16 hours in El Nido which meant I wouldn’t be able to go on one of the fabulous day tours to see perfect beaches, marvel at limestone cliffs, and kayak around enchanted lagoons with jewel-colored water, I decided that I would be willing to get up before dawn to go on a sunrise hike up the tallest peak in town so I arranged that through my hostel. (I needed to do something while I was there!) I also decided that day that I will just have to go back to the Philippines again to have another shot at some things I missed along the way.

So the “sunrise hike” was a unique experience. I was the only person hiking that morning with one guide, Brandon, and we started walking at 5 AM. When I signed up for the “hike,” I didn’t realize that we would be scaling limestone cliffs in the pitch dark with only the light from my cell phone. And Brandon was in flip-flops! I don’t know if it was the dark, the spiders, the intensity of the climb or a combination of all three, but I was more nervous than I had been on other other activity I had done since I started my trip.

At the first rock, I was like, “Holy moly–that’s a vertical rock. And we’re going up it.” I kept thinking there might be a trail of some sort, but no–it was just limestone rock throughout the forest. After 3 or 4 vertical rocks in a row, I knew that is what we were going to be facing all the way to the top. I wouldn’t call this safe by any means and this type of “tourist activity” would never pass safety standards in a developed/westernized country. Good thing I was in the Philippines!

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I snapped most of these photos on the way down from the hike to demonstrate what we were facing IN THE DARK as we hiked up the mountain to catch the sunrise. The bottom right photo was taken at the top and shows how sharp these limestone rocks were. Easily one of my most thrilling adventures during my 4-month trip in SE Asia.

Not much gets my adrenaline going anymore, but this did. I was sweating bullets not more than 10 minutes into the hike and it took us about an hour to get up. By the time we were close, the limestone was becoming razor-sharp, jutting up from the ground toward the sky. “One un-focused move and I’m toast,” I thought. I stepped very cautiously, and all the skills I have acquired over years of indoor climbing–balancing, shifting my weight, keeping my hips close to the wall, staying low when necessary, and carefully calculating each move–totally came into handy. This was an adventure in every sense of the word.

I asked Brandon if people who come on this hike turn around before the top and he pointed out three or four places (right in front of the first couple of vertical rocks that need to be scaled early on during the climb) where people regularly stop and say, “No way. I can’t do that.” I wouldn’t recommend this activity just because of the risk involved. There were a few times when I questioned whether I should move forward. I guess most people do it during the day so that is a little different, but in the dark?? I’ll admit it was a crazy idea. I had no idea what I was signing up for.

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A little slice of heaven. The sunrise created cotton candy skies over El Nido Bay, a view that can only be seen from the top of the karst mountain that towers over the tiny town. This view made the pre-dawn hike worth every drop of sweat and every ounce of concern while scaling this rock in the dark.

But watching the sun rise over El Nido Bay was totally worth it. From the light blue and pink hues streaked across the sky before the sun rose to the bright yellow and orange of the sunlight stretching over the vibrantly green cliffs, I felt like I was experiencing a little slice of heaven. At the top of the peak, I was trying to balance taking in the stunning view with processing the experience I had just had where my mind and movements had to be sharper than those cliffs. But I couldn’t “turn off” my mind yet–we still needed to climb down. (More people die climbing down mountains than they do going up; it’s easy to lose focus after the “goal” of reaching the top has been achieved.)

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Top: The sun rising from the East as seen from the limestone mountain in El Nido, Palawan. Bottom: Me soaking up the thrill of the hike that got us to this viewpoint of El Nido Bay at dawn.

I didn’t relax until I took my last step out of the forest. I survived!! Wow. What an experience. And we got back to the hostel with just enough time for me to shower, eat breakfast, and catch the 9 AM minivan that would take me to the airport in Puerto Princesa (5-6 hours south on the island of Palawan), where I boarded my flight to Cebu. Although my time in El Nido was brief, everything worked out perfectly.

Cebu

Initially, I planned on spending my last 4 nights in the Philippines on the island of Cebu, but what I hadn’t realized was that Cebu City was the second largest city in the Philippines which inevitably meant crowded, noisy, hot, busy, and fast-paced. There are a lot of things to do and see in Cebu City and it is the gateway to many other tourist destinations around the island. I found a nice little “permaculture” eco-friendly hotel called the Mayflower Inn (recommended by Lonely Planet) that I checked in to for my stay, and I thought to myself, “Well, I can have some stability here in this nice place for the rest of my time in the Philippines.” And then I slept. And slept. And slept.

I realized that for the past five days in a row, three of those days had been travel days (in transit from one place to another), and I had been up between 4:30 and 6 AM every single day–to catch a boat so I could catch a flight, to go diving, to try and catch another boat (the day the boats weren’t sailing), to finally catch that boat the following day, and then to go on a sunrise hike. I was exhausted and had no motivation to take on a big noisy city or even leave the hotel. And so I didn’t. I spent the entire next day in the hotel and even took a long afternoon nap. I kind of felt like a bad “tourist,” but I needed to veg. My body needed rest.

Cebu City just wasn’t doing it for me so I decided to ditch it and escape to the tiny Malapascua Island just off of Cebu’s northern tip for my last two days…

Malapascua Island

I figured that to end my island-hopping phase, I needed to be somewhere that felt like an island, not a city, and even though waiting at the bus terminal, riding the crowded public bus for over a 5-hour trip, and chasing down the last [affordable] bangka (the Filipino term for a boat) as it was pulling away from the dock after dark took more than half of a day, I was so happy I made the decision to get to this island. I couldn’t have asked for a better last full day in the Philippines.

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Using public transportation in the Philippines usually means getting cozy with the locals, as seen here with the random guy who fell asleep and ended up leaning on me and the other guy standing in the isle who couldn’t help his arm from bumping into my head occasionally as we bounced along the 5-hour journey from Cebu City toward Malapascua Island.

Malapascua Island is well-known for being a place where thresher sharks can be seen early in the morning at a particular dive site called Monad Shoal. Most of the dive shops on the island run a 5 AM trip out to this dive site. Even though I was going to be on the island for two nights, I only had one shot to do this dive because I had a flight on the second day and for health/safety reasons related to decompression, there needs to be a buffer period of 24 hours between a dive and a flight. I arrived to the island late on the first night so I rushed off to find a dive shop that was still open and could add me to the trip the following morning. Success. And I settled for some simple, cheap box of a room close by the dive shop just for that night.

Preparing for the early morning dive was neat despite the fact that we were all still half-asleep because we loaded onto the dive boat at twilight and got to see the sunrise from the water. Almost immediately after we submerged, we had our first spotting of a thresher shark just a few meters away from us. We descended further and settled in at relatively shallow spot by a “cleaning station” where we stayed for a while and had sightings of two more thresher sharks! The thresher sharks normally reside very deep in the ocean, from 30 meters and below; however, in the early mornings, they ascend to shallow waters, to between 15 and 25 meters, where there are “cleaning stations” at which small cleaner fish latch on to the sharks and suck off all the bacteria and other junk that has accumulated on their skin.

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After spending nearly 8 hours on a boat trip from Coron to El Nido, Palawan, we were blessed with this sun peeking through the clouds and illuminating the karst island formations across the sea.

As we were observing the thresher sharks, a crowd of divers almost instantly appeared along the cleaning station rope boundary. I looked to my right and there were two or three people, then I looked my was left and was shocked by the sight of about 20 new divers all lined up staring in the direction of the cleaning station. I felt like I was at a movie theater and we were all watching a show!

When we started to move, luckily, our dive master was savvy enough to take us in the opposite direction of where that giant crowd was headed and just the three of us witnessed a fourth thresher shark swimming around as well as a white tip reef shark. It was so interesting to note the differences between the two types of shark. The white tip reef shark was smaller, had rough, jagged movements, and looked shark-ish, whereas, the thresher sharks were larger, had bigger, rounder eyes and tail fins that extended upward like cats’ tails, and moved so calmly and gracefully in the water with their tail fins slowly swaying like ribbons above them that they just looked like beautiful, peaceful creatures. It was such an amazing dive and we were so fortunate to see five sharks when on some days, people don’t spot anything!

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This is what a thresher shark looks like! (I snapped this photo of a post card I bought.)

After that dive, I had breakfast at a local spot, dropped off my laundry with the same local lady who made my breakfast, then switched lodging to a place just a little way down the bach called Aabana guesthouse (also known as Mike and Diose’s). Mike, a German man, was one of the first people inhabiting Malapascua Island nearly forty years ago and has watched the place boom as his business with his guesthouse has grown steadily. He gave me a great deal for a lovely, spacious room with a porch and hammock and I kind of felt that he was keeping an eye on me in a fatherly sort of way, advising me which parts of the island to steer clear of by myself at night and other such things. I really adored him and his wife and they made my experience feel so personable.

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At Aabana Loadge, I stayed on the the lower level of this bungalow and had the porch, hammock, and a beautiful view all to myself. A delightful spot!

My last day in the Philippines was absolutely perfect. Although I had the opportunity to hang out with some new girls I had met, I decided to continue being anti-social instead. I didn’t know I could be so anti-social and love it so much!! (I knew I’d be with friends and family soon enough…) I wrote in my journal, enjoyed sipping on some sweet tea as I swung in the hammock, laid out in the sun on a cute little white sand beach in front of the lodge, strolled Bounty Beach on a postcard hunt, stopped at a place for happy hour to do some writing and much on some snacks, had a very relaxing massage, ate a delicious dinner, and slept like a baby. I was so happy. Everything just worked out. Even when I left the following morning, I had the best luck with the timing of everything transportation-related all the way to the airport.

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Pristine blues, greens, and whites are the colors that dominate the natural beauty of the tiny Malapascua Island.

I think I spent more money in 2 weeks in the Philippines than I did in any other country. I know I’ll go back to the Philippines. It is a great place but I hardly scratched the surface and I had to rush through in some places so I did not have the opportunity to dig in. While the people were warm, I didn’t particularly connect to anyone here. It was kind of lonely, actually, not having any of “my people” to go and visit, but I know that is because I wasn’t ever in any place for long enough to form relationships (besides Boracay) and I was very focused on my writing. Also, in the Philippines, I started getting tired. Traveling can be very exhausting sometimes. And while I love everything I have been doing, it is natural to get a lull in energy and motivation. I wasn’t quite ready to come home yet, but I definitely started thinking about it.

TRAVEL TIP: Earplugs. I was almost going to make this one about not bringing rolling luggage to a tiny, perfect, white sand beach island for vacation, but I realize that most people only own rolling luggage, not big backpacks, so I will just have to advise all of you “rolling luggage people” that you WILL be a source of pure entertainment to people like me, barefoot with my bum in the sand and a drink in my hand, laughing as you try to roll those wheels across your paradisiacal beach. It’s a funny sight, just sayin’, so you might as well laugh at yourself, too, when you discover that there really is sand on islands out in the middle of the ocean. Ok. Back to earplugs.

Bring earplugs, several pairs if you can so you have a back up if you lose them. (They are that valuable.) In places like the Philippines, everything is so loud everywhere you go. Annoyance: roosters crowing before the crack of dawn; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: babies screaming or crying non-stop on a plane or a bus; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: loud music blaring from nearby speakers when you’re seeking peace and quiet, trying to work, or reading a book; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: obnoxious boat motors roaring right next to you during a long journey across the sea; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: local lady shouting into her cell phone during a trip in a public van filled with 15 people in close quarters; solution: earplugs. Seriously, I used my earplugs all the time. They are great for when I want to sleep on a plane because plane cabins can be so loud, and I even put in my earplugs one time at a restaurant in Cebu City because the traffic from the street and all the horn-honking was driving me crazy! My earplugs have spared me from a lot of discomfort and will be one of the first items I pack every time I travel from now on.

All my love,
Alexandra

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Elease
    Jan 15, 2016 @ 15:18:31

    I enjoyed reading this. I loved how you pointed out about loving being anti-social. I often feel that way. I felt sad to think about how true it is that people in their own country cannot afford tourist destination like Cancun or Jamaica or so many other places. I didn’t realize there were that many islands wow. It must have been stunning flying over that many islands. You are so brave to have taken on that spiky adventure in the dark! You didn’t mention, are these safe sharks? Were you frightened? Sounds like only something you’d experience in a movie or a dream. How interesting about the thresher sharks. It’s so sad about prostition. I couldn’t get myself to finish “Half the Sky” because of how very sad it is and how many millions of men buy into it all over the world. I admired your positivity in your writing even when you hit a few bumps or expected a different plan for your day. I can’t wait to read all of your blogs. This is a treat for me to learn more about you, more about culture and traveling and the world and more quiet time to myself. Thank you Ally for sharing your chapter with us on the Phillippines. And PS Yes I have experienced at work how Filipinos are Blunt and love to sing out loud even acapella in silence. You got to love the culture and their happy nature !! I’m so grateful to have shared much of my life in high school and now in the nursing field I have more opportunities to learn from the Filipino culture.
    PSS you better believe I printed this out- a whole 33 pages and read and highlighted all the parts that I enjoyed and drew me in. Have a fabulous day!

    Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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