and Typhoon Frank joins the party
01.06.2008 - 24.06.2008 25 °C
So I have just had to throw back an espresso and and a latte to start writing this blog, because I am completely buggered form the last few days of travel. As usual, this new blog entry comes a few days late anyway but what's new.
I am sitting in an internet cafe in Cebu City and its been a lo-o-o-o-ong day..!! And the three days before that were long too. Its not that a hell of a lot has happened actually - in fact, most of the time I have been sitting around waiting for a timid little super-typhoon (lets just call him Frank) to pass by. The issue was trying to get back to the main islands of the Philippines and renew my visa before it expired.
On Friday night I heard for the first time that a typhoon would soon be passing through the Philippines. At the time, this typhoon - Frank or Fengshen if you prefer - was possibly going to delay our flights by a day, our resort told us, since it would not actually be passing over the island of Basuanga, Palawan, where I have spent the last week staying. My impression was that it would pass by quite quickly. Instead the typhoon decided to drift over the Philippines at 13km/h carrying winds of over 160km/h inside it. So the whole of the country basically went into pause mode and attempted to get out of its path. It went right over Manila, and on Sunday morning I heard that a massive passenger ferry had been sunk north of Manila. At the moment, searches are still being conducted, but of the 800-odd passengers, only 40 or so have been found alive.
All transport seems to go through Manila, so everything was on standby. After two days of constant, poring rain the weather seemed to improve slightly and all the small local airlines decided to confuse travelers by randomly canceling flights and swapping passengers. The flight that I was on got canceled and a few of us at the resort decided to take the next super-ferry, despite that morning's horrible news. Not to mention, I has now heard the same CD being played over and over again for the last week, and there is only so much of Fergie's Clumsy and One republic's Apologise you can listen to before strangling yourself.
After being diverted that night due to big swells, the super-ferry arrived at Manila last night, more than 8 hours late, and with more than a few relieved passengers on - board (me being the most relieved I think).
I passed out at a backpackers last night and went in search of flights to Cebu this morning. The domestic airport was a complete disaster zone, not from any typhoon, but simply the chaos created by three days of delayed flights. Filipino's hate queuing, I learned, which didn't help the situation. Blocking ticketing office doors with your luggage is another favourite pastime. Eventually, some tout managed to get my business and confirmed a flight for me, and so I finally got to Cebu City late this afternoon, after about 6 hours of dealing with agents and airlines, and walking back and forth between 'guaranteed' flights. On top of this, I had to pay a little penalty fare for being overdue with my tourist visa at the immigration office here.
Manila and the Rice Terraces of Batad and Banaue:
Of course, a lot more has happened in the last few weeks since first arriving in Manila on 31 May.
For starters, Manila is easily the dodgiest city I have ever been in. One of the first things you notice is the level of armed security: a Johannesburg casino would be proud of the security that your average Quick-Mart has here. Security guards are not afraid to wander the streets with shotguns and big automatic rifles. I'm not sure who the culprits are at this stage, as I've been wandering the streets at night, and the only dangers are little kids bumming off pedestrians!
After two days in Manila, I headed north to the World Heritage Site of the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad for two days. I am going to be completely blunt: Banaue is highly unimpressive. Both Nepal and Bali had larger, more beautiful, although not as old, rice terraces. Batad on the other hand, is worth seeing. Its truly picturesque - basic bungalows look down over an amphitheater of terraces that descend into the little village of Batad. There is a magnificent waterfall on the far side of the terraces as well, which just adds to the natural beauty of the valley. To get to Batad, we had to trek a little for a couple of hours before entering the valley, which also contributed to the ruralness of the place. To cap it all, a tropical storm blasted the valley late in the afternoon - I haven't seen a storm like that before, and was pretty glad to have decent shelter for the night.
The transport there and back was once again an issue, with buses difficult to find and stop, especially when traveling in a group of seven. Anyway, got back to Manila amid another tropical downpour. The rainy season has really arrived in the Philippines.
Travels with Battygirl in Palawan:
I met Marianne (Battygirl) - a fellow backpacker - from Holland, in Thailand a few months ago, and upon hearing we were going to be in the Philippines at roughly the same time, decided to stick together for a while. It was awesome having a travel companion for a while. I must admit the road gets pretty lonely sometimes. So we decided to hit Palawan - the large island group to the west of the Philippines. We were raring to go, as Manila is not the greatest place to be stuck (too many lady-boys), and Palawan posters at travel agencies seemed to advertise a tropical paradise in Palawan. We landed in Puerto Princesca, and immediately hired manual/"automatic" bikes for two days. We didn't find any amazing beaches, but we did come across an abandoned hot springs, which resembled more of an Hollywood horror film set. The hot springs still worked so I took a dip. Marianne was being a nerd cos she thought a cloaked stalker was going to come out of the deserted mens toilet with a kitchen knife and chase her We also came across a crocodile farm and did some island hopping.
We were keen to head up to the underground river of Sabang, another world heritage site - the beaches were proving to elusive in Puerto Princesca. The tour was pretty nice, if not short, but I'd say the highlight was the village itself - tiny, remote and beautiful. Electricity only comes on for a few hours each eveing, thanks to a generator behind the bungalows. We chilled out in hammocks for the day and took some ridiculous action poses as the sun settled over the sea which turned out pretty well. This local guy was also chopping down coconuts so he made a coconut drink for me, which I enjoyed in the shade of the hammock, before taking another 30-degree swim. Ah, the rigours of island life...!
We took a boat trip to El Nido, the much-touted northern paradise of Palawan. Once again, we got screwed over by local businessmen. A "5 Hour" boat trip turned into a 10 hour ride. Along the way, we stopped at an awesome little island retreat for an early lunch. It turned out that the retreat was empty of tourists, and the managers there convinced our boat crew to tell us tourists that the boat engine had now failed and we'd have to stay the night! Ah! So that's what all the commotion in the kitchen was about when we ordered our lunch! Battygirl was having none of this, and commanded me to deal with these blatant liars. After a brief "There is nothing wrong with that damned banka and you are going to take us to El Nido right now" conversation, our journey continued, and miraculously the engine managed to work the entire way (luckily a German guy was backing me up with a stern look on his face behind me while I bravely told them off, otherwise they would have laughed at me I think).
El Nido is an average town surrounded by heavenly beauty. The islands are plentiful, the limestone cliffs rival Ko Phi Phi, the coral is great for snorkeling. Its just a great place to spend a few days. My highlight was Taraw cliff - it overlooks the town. I climbed it one morning with the aid of a guide and the views are spectacular. The heat was insane and hordes of mosquito's almost flew us to the top. Luckily, my exploration abilities held fast and I conquered it in an hour.
Coron and the Japanese WWII Wrecks:
The town of Coron is world-renowned in diving circles for having some of the best wreck dives in the world. These are not just wrecks that you float over and point at some old gun lying on the sand and head back up the surface. On every large wreck (ie. supply boats of 120-160m in length) you penetrate the hull and swim right through the passages, cargo holds, impact points from the torpedo strikes, and any other area that allows you to swim through it. IT IS AWESOME AWESOME DIVING!
Marianne had decided to try a Discover Scuba course ("High Five!"), and so on the first day I joined her at the local training reef. What a pro - she handled it well, and continued on with her Open Water course for the next three days. This gave me an excuse to try the wrecks and at the same time do a Nitrox course. Nitrox allows you to get more bottom time because you change the air mix in your tank to a higher Oxygen content.
Wreck diving is an out-of-world experience. For starters its very eerie. The top surfaces of most of the wrecks lie at about 18-25 meters. From here you work your way down the hull and the guide takes you to a small opening in the wreck (say 26-39m). The visibility is not great so it gets a little dark at the sandy bottoms. There were a few occasions when all I could see in front of me was a pair of fins kicking into some dark opening on the wrecks! You flick on your torch/flashlight, and follow in! After a while your eyes start to adjust to the gloom and kicked up silt and you find yourself in a small passage or boiler room, or cargo hold or something to that affect. There is constantly this ghostly and quiet feel to the ship. There is very little fish life inside.
I did 6 wreck dives - all the ships were destroyed on the same day in 1944 by a massive US aircraft - carrier air force. The ships had been hiding in the bay and were spotted by reconnaissance planes who alerted the aircraft carriers to attack. Its pretty weird diving on the ships and seeing where the torpedo's hit.
So, 20th June was my birthday. Battygirl, myself, Englishman Joel, Finn Okiss, and German Bengf headed to one of Coron's (or maybe the only) nightspots - Hard Rock. We had already warmed up at the Hell Diver bar (named after US WWII plane) and things got pear-shaped fast. Before we knew it, we were drinking 1.1L Red Horse beers (puts many hairs on your chest) and entertaining local lady-boy Ena, who confirmed that yes, she actually isn't yet a full woman, and went into great detail explaining the anatomy and stages of lady-boy development. He/she sat with us all night and there may be some incriminating photographs (Marianne is a budding professional photographer) from some of the members of our group that may be used as blackmail in the future... I'll leave it at that!
I retired to bed from our dive resort balcony when I heard someone getting a wake-up call from reception later that morning.
So now I'm in Cebu. Battygirl has headed to Thailand - more dives on Koh Tau await, and then her international travels end and she'll have to go back to Amsterdam. I still have four months, but I am dreading my turn!
Tomorrow, I'm off to Malapascua Island on northern Cebu - should be awesome I hear.
More updates soon, salamat!
PS. The beard is gone. Has been for three weeks. I hope some of you regret what you've said about my immaculate, and deceased, beard.