Cambodia. Temples, hippy islands, and a pause from the virtually connected world.

It’s 7 pm. Still in Manila, waiting at NAIA airport to catch my flight to Cambodia. A mix of emotions inside. Leaving these 7107 islands archipelagos and its amazing people gives me a knot in the chest. I am living in a transition from travelling with my mom, with almost everything is booked and organised, to what is the beginning of my solo trip where I’ll start following my internal compass on a free ride. It feels great.

 

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View of Resort World. My mom’s office (she likes to play at the Casino’).

 

 

Back in UK, when I was still planning the trip, I found a free school run by a local where volunteers can teach English and Japanese in exchange of a bed and 3 meals per day. This is Sokhoms story, the founder of Angkor Tree School.”The school became a reality because a Cambodian teacher had a passion to help the children in his village. When he was a young boy,Sokhom’s family was separated during the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. His aunts and uncles, as well as his younger brother were killed, but fortunately Sokhom and his parents survived. Through the help of friends and tourists, Sokhom learned to speak both English and Japanese, and with these skills was able to become a public school teacher. Even with this success, Sokhom longed to do more to educate the children in his community.

Sokhom’s dream became reality when he built a school in a village where no school existed before. In order to support both his new school as well as his wife and newborn son, Sokhom took on weekend and night teaching jobs. With hard work he was able to rent a small space of land and purchase the building materials needed to build the first Angkor’s TREE school in Trang Village. Although only minutes away from the famous temples of Angkor Wat, as well as the touristy Pub street and Old Market areas, Trang village is located in one of the many slum areas in Siem Reap province. Like most villages, kids in Trang have low education, no vocational skills and are unable to speak English. Living conditions are appalling, job opportunities are limited and food is rationed. Many of the men have been killed while serving in the Army, and more adults, both men and women, have died from disease. Children often rely on elderly relatives and siblings for care or are left to fend for themselves.

(taken from http://angkorstreeschool.blogspot.com)

 

 

 

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Cueing at the immigration at Siem Reap International Airport, wondering if they will let me in with no passport pictures for the visa..

 

 

 

3 hours flight and I am in Siem Reap International Airport. It’s 9 pm on the 3rd of February 2015 and there are 25 degrees Celsius. it is humid, but breezy. We reach the visa desks, and I get a bit concerned when I realise I forgot to do passport pictures, and I have just read on my Rough Guide about visas being denied for this reason. I go straight to one of the officer and ask what my destiny is. He answers me in Cambodian, and points another desk where some cue has already built up. I am lucky enough they have a photocopier machine and they will scan my passport getting the picture out of it. $ 25 fee, and my stay in Cambodia is legal until the 3rd of March.

 

 

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Money speak. Papers sorted.

 

 

 

I collect my backpack, which is the last to come out, and with my surprise I find out my bamboo where I carry my fishing rod is open, and all the fishing gear inside like hooks, weights and 3 lures are gone lost except for my fishing rod. It’s ok, I will gets some new ones when I’ll get the chance. Out the airport I get a tuk tuk. which should get me all the way to Angkor Tree School for $ 15. A fair price considering it’s night, and the road conditions in the area I need to go are bad. We drive away from the airport along a long road. It is dusty even if there is no traffic. I look around like a new baby born in a pram as everything is new to my eyes.

 

 

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On a tuk tuk, on my way to Angkor Tree free school.

 

 

 

I am buzzing inside. I am looking forward to meet Sokhom from the school and let this new chapter unfold. We arrive behind Preah Hen Kaosei Temple wher the school is. It’s a bad maintained country road full of bumps and holes, and the tuk tuk is being put at a real challenge here, feels like the link to the scooter can snap anytime. We make it to the school building, but is in the middle of nowhere, so I ask the driver to call a number. Sokhom replies and comes to meet us. We drive back for a couple of minutes and we finally arrive. Tired, sweaty, and with wide eyes open looking around, I enter my room. Hirouki is there a Japanese guy from Kobe, volunteering like me but teaching Japanese. We exchange a short chat. I jump in to the shower and lie down in my camp bed, as the double mattress is take by Hirouki, and it will be busy for the next 4 nights so the camp bed has my name till then.

Day one in Siem Reap, Cambodia, shall commence tomorrow with my first lesson of English at Angkor Tree School, and it will be an interesting two weeks.

Local fiesta in Makati and whale sharks in Don Sol.

We are back in Manila for a local fiesta. Once a year, the barangay (the local district) closes main and secondary roads and fills them with food stalls, street games, and fun. One of the main vein of the Bangkal barangay,, Evangelista road, hosts horse calessi races, where locals race each other’s, and modest bets are taken. The price is money, and a year of glory. When the sun goes down, coloured neon lights are on, and massive subwoofers pump heavy baselines from ridiculously tuned sports car during a street car show.

With the beginning of an ear infection and some fever, I miss all the day action and instead stay home and rest. I arrive at General Estrella road, where the party is already on. There is something to do for the kids, but also for the adults. Karaoke is an unmissable component, and volume as usual, is out of control. I am not really in the mood for a fiesta, but the happy mood are contagious, and it takes not long to join the laughs and the fun. Giorgio, a family fiend, is also visiting Philippines, and he will be here with us later on. He is a traveller, and he will be enjoying the time one hundred percent. Food comes regularly out in big batches. No new flavours, but all the goodness of home cooked food.

 

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Pick up a coin with the mouth in a basin of water full of flower petals. Not an easy one.

 

 

Any chance is a good chance to make money in the Philippines. While street parties are on in every corner, street performers come to spit fire, juggle, or animate Chinese dragons. Not without handing out a hat or a bowl to grab some spare change. As much as I try to be involved, my thoughts are all about tomorrow. My mom and myself will be heading to Don Sol, in the Sorsogon region, where hopefully we will dive with whale sharks. Is not only a very exciting plan, but it will be my last stop before coming back to Manila and then taking off to Cambodia. Then my solo trip will commence. I look forward, but I also look backwards and enjoy a great sense of appreciation for all the amazing moments I am having since the beginning of this new year. People, stories, places, sunrises, sunsets..it is very hard to turn emotions in to words sometimes, and it is all intense and overwhelming thinking that only a month of my five has gone.

 

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Karaoke is on, and our european guests seems to love it.

 

 

The volume from the Karaoke gets lower and lower by the song. The last few beers are opened and drunk while singing the last few classics. As planned, Giorgio and his girlfriend Agnese had a great time, and they can’t help to shed a tear saying good buy to their new friends made in Estrella today. We put the guys in a cab to their hotel, and we jump in another one opposite direction. Another day of good memories to go to bed with.

Don Sol and the ‘concrete whale shark‘.

Don Sol is an hidden stretch of coast in the Sorsogon region, northeast of the Philippine Islands. From the airport, it’s an hour taxi ride to the Vitton Beach resort where we have a bungalow booked. An asphalted road, get us out from the little noisy town in to the jungle. There are very tight corners, going up and down these soft hills. Our driver is again on a race against the clock, even though we are far away from being in a rush. We reach the reception of the resort with our organs reshuffled.

 

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One of the corners on the way to Don Sol.

 

 

The place is, again, beautiful. Three ranges of accommodation are set around a small swimming pool facing the sea. There is almost no beach. The main reason why we are here is to observe whale sharks. These fishes are peaceful creatures who feed on plankton and small fishes. They were numerous about 15 years ago, when there was not even electricity available on the island. Now there are only a few left, and seeing one it’s a matter of luck. Boats are ready to go on the shore, waiting for reports of sightings.Swimming with one is never guaranteed. I am still curing an ear infection, so the plan is to patiently wait towards the end of the week, when I should be able to dive more safley.

 

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Vitton Beach Resort swimming pool and ocean view.

In the meantime, we live day by day on a relax mode never experienced before. The resort is extremely quiet. Staff very polite and discreet. After breakfast we move from the table to the bathing area after ordering a fruit shake. As we regularly wake up before 7 am, lunch comes around midday. Then a 2 hours siesta is a must. We snack with fresh fruit and another shake or an ice cold beer, have a swim in the pool or in the sea, even though this is not the cleanest. Hence why there are less and less whale sharks. To spice things up a bit, we book a fishing boat, but we come back with just the images of tunas jumping out of the water. I feel healthy like I never did before, with lots of sleep and good food. Fresh air, and early morning runs or work out. We hear stories from the few tourists visiting, about cruising the bay for hours and not seeing a whale shark. Some see a back fin for seconds and nothing for the rest of the day.

 

 

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Another one of those sunsets..

 

 

We have only two sleeps left before flying back to Manila, so really, we should book a boat and take our chance to swim with one of these bus sized fishes, but on top of the relative expensive cost, our high expectations and the scarce possibility to see them, we are still holding back. The news of some sightings tickles our minds, and we wait until after lunch to pay the fare and get on the boat. We have seen boats moving in circles around sprinkles of water, so we are pretty confident. Together with the crew we scan the horizon waiting for a fin. One, then two hours, pass by. I fall asleep on the deck. We return at the resort with a bit of extra tan and a long look at the concrete whale shark statue in the main garden. We have to postpone this long awaited encouter to the next time.

The next morning we hire a private van to get us to the airport. It is that time again to fly back to Manila. A time for a nap at 30.000 feet, and we land back at NAIA,. This was my last flight before leaving Philippines for good. Cambodia next.

I close this post with a couple of images that capture special moments of this last journey in this amazing country.

 

 

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5 am. Fishing tour. at this time in the morning the sea looks like a mass of oil, and the sky reflects on the surface melting in a unique canvas where the horizon disappears.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunset time in fron of Vitton Resort. Some local kids approach me, and I start chatting with them. The vibe and light are magical, and I can’ help to pull out my Iphone and take some snaps.

 

 

 

 

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Another little woman appears from behind the wall in front of the resort swimming pool. She asks me what is my name, and where I am from. And she disappears, leaving a gorgeous smile behind.

 

 

 

 

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Two little birds on the way to Don Sol town.

 

 

 

 

Surf lesson number 2. Not ready yet for surf lesson number 3.

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View of Cloud 9 view point. Not ready yet for lesson 2.

 

I was right. I closed the previous chapter, hopeful in what more was left to enjoy after trying to surf. But in reality, what is left to be enjoyed does not belong to the world of surfing.
After devouring breakfast, I lay down for a while, and wake up with red abrasions from my belly bottom, up to my chest. Caught by the excitement, I left the pain on the side and kept flaying my skin off while on the board. As some dude I chat with says, this is the sign I am doing things right. I could keep going, but I decide is not worth it to spend the afternoon bruising my skin, but better save myself for the following day.

 

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Tuna for sale at General Luna’s port.

 

Later in the morning we pop a visit at the local port, where fresh fish gets delivered every day. Enormous octopuses, cattle fishes, and many other marine creatures lay lifeless on one single counter, waiting to be bought and transferred to a tasty marinade or a barbecue. For tourists, it is common to buy fish and get it cooked by restaurants or bars for a small fee. So with Sharon and my mom, we decide to buy some fresh tuna and get it cooked for lunch. For the price of a small Mac Donald menu, we bring home almost 3 kilos of fresh tuna.

 

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Ocean’s 11 event suite. The spot for our lunch today.

 

We return to Ocean 11 where we have enjoyed the best food so far, and we ask for our fish to be prepared. Having my mom around sometimes can open unexpected hidden doors: at our request, we get offered the kitchen of the main VIP guesthouse, just next to the main restaurant. It is a 3 levels private villa, with a full restaurant on the ground floor, not in use at the moment as there are no special guests or event. Sweet.

 

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Upside down visions inside our suite kitchen.

 

Just while the girls are preparing lunch, I catch up with a secret contact I made, to grab some local produce. At the end of the day, this is an hippy town. And where you find hippies, you’ll find a way to get high. Mushrooms can be picked on the far inland mountains, and that is also where weed is planted and grown. It is of a very poor quality, but good enough to make some pollen with enough THC to lift the spirits high. So I get my stash delivered and why not giving it a try..It has been a few weeks now I am away from the regular routine of smoking, and after underestimating the powers of the asian bad looking stuff..I suddenly get hit by a steam train with no breaks. My heart beat is galloping like a horse going down hill..I can feel the THC filling my blood cells one by one..As toxic this may sound..I am enjoying this like a first timer..

 

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Mama in charge of the fires today.

 

I arrive at our kitchen for the day, where Sharon and mom have take over. My mom especially, has been relaxing away from the housewife duties for a few weeks now..so putting her hands back on the stove..chopping and preparing it’s seen as a blessing from the sky. She’s loving it.

 

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Beautiful natural light in the suite’s kitchen.

 

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Functional worktop holes straight to the bins. Logical design is a win.

 

This space, is probably very close to what could be my dream kitchen. It is spacious, fully equipped, with a massive stone worktop sitting in the middle of the room. Still high as a cloud, I let myself deep in to a photographic journey which ends with the lunch being ready. We enjoy the fresh tuna, rice, some salad and other little bits of home made food, and ontop of everything the unmissable company of a few hairy four legged companions. The afternoon goes by chilling in the garden, contemplating the raising tide, and shadows of the palm trees, moving clockwise, while hiding from the sun.

 

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When words can’t be used, eyes do all the speech.

 

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No better view after a perfect lunch. View from the Ocean 11 bar.

 

The rest of the crew, as it is not surfing, has booked an island hopping tour for tomorrow. I would love to join in, but I also want to dig in the waves a bit more..hard choice. The conditions of my skin will tell.

I lay in bed right after dinner, with an immense tiredness on me. But is that tiredness caused from a healthy physical action, that releases tons of endorphins which are now hitting my brain, causing great satisfaction and happiness. I was expecting to wake up in the morning and not being able to get up from bed. Instead, I am physically great, but still not in condition to lay on that surf board waiting for me. Option two is an island hopping tour. Meeting is at 8am at the port. It will be Sharon with Edward, Otep, my mom and myself, plus Bentley, a chick from Pennsylvania and Ewout, a young gun from Holland.

The price of the boat for the whole day is only 1500 pesos (with a welcome free offer as we added Bentley and myself at the last minute). That is around £ 22.00 for the day, so £ 3 per person. I had doubts about doing another island hopping after the tens I did in the past few years in the Philippines. It will be same pieces of land in the same blue crystal clear waters..but I was wrong, very wrong. I am glad something made me decide to go as I have probably never seen such idillic reefs and islands ever before. This is the reason why I will cut the story short, and let the images do thei job. All of the following has not been filtered or retouched. And even if far from reality, will give you a close feel of our day out in Siargao’s archipelagos.

 

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About to approach Naked Island, few minutes cruise away from General Luna port. With no doubts the clearest water I ever swam in.

 

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View from the top of Naked Island looking towards the coast.

 

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Still from Naked Island, but looking towards the open sea.

 

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A local fisherman who sold us two cattle fishes just caught with his home made speargun.

 

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Da Ko Island (The Big Island). Our base for lunch wit the tasty grilled cattle fishes.

 

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Fishes deboned, and drying over a net on Da Ko Island.

 

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Cruising to Guyan Island (The Small Island) to end the day with an epic sunset.

 

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Sometimes home is where the backpack is. Just like this hermit crab told me..

 

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Clouds hidden the sunset away while on Guyan Island, but still got some spells on the way back home.

 

 

 

Surf lesson number 1. Paddle.

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Local girls surfing to the braking point.

 

 

It is 6 am in the morning, and I am sitting on the bed gathering thoughts on my blog. Excitement is building up. I can’t easily focus on my writing. The sound of the waves comes in from the windows, and the buzz from trying a new extreme sport makes my body itch. I shut my Ipad dress up with a singlet and swimming trunks, and head to Cloud 9. My teacher is booked for 7am, so I still got half an hour to check out who’s already having a ball in the water, since 5 am.

 

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Scenaries can magically change with sea tides.

 

 

Compared to snowboarding, surfing, has a more irregular, or better, broken up rhythm. You need to wait for the wave, and when it comes, you need to be able to catch it. Once you’re on it, there are good chances you can ride it. If not, it all starts from the beginning again. It all looks pretty easy sitting on my ass from a bench, but I know it won’t be. Sunny, my teacher, is a 22 years old local. He was born here, and knows the waves very well. He picks me up, and shows me where we will be practicing. It is a few hundred meters away from the serious waves of Cloud 9, and there are already some beginners in the water. We go back to Hippies, a surf shop born about 10 years ago, from the passion of an English girl moved to Siargao; her name is Hippy. We choose an 8 feet long board, wide, heavy, but stable. This is what you want to start with, learning first to catch waves, and stand on the board. Sunny gives me a couple of tips before getting in to the water. I lay on the board face down, and practice some push ups and the riding position which is regular. (this means left foot ahead, wether goofy is right foot forward).

 

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Amy waxing her surfboard before getting in the water.

 

 

Four or five times practice, and we are in the water paddling hard. Chest up..chin up..feet joined together..and paddle..paddle..paddle. The waves don’t even reach a meter. It is enough for now. It does not take long for the first wave start forming in distance. I turn my cruise boat and give my back to the coming wave. I’m in position. I wait for Sunny to give me the stand up call, and bang! Here I am surfing my first wave ever. I might be a late discovered surf talent..or it was just a rare slap of luck. I let the events unfold..but I tend to believe the second scenario more. I paddle back to the break point..It has been fifteen minutes or so in the water, and my chest and shoulder are pumped up like after a double dose of steroids. I start catching waves in series. I manage to ride most of them, thanks to my valid sense of balance and more than decent agility.

 

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Brad. English teacher from New York, in Siargao for a 2 months school break.

 

 

 

The physical effort needed is considerable. Paddling back it’s so exhausting then when I need to push myself up on the board strengths are scarce. It is an unreal sensation anyway. I am riding this mass of water that nature magically shapes into a form of wave, and thanks to the human vision and craftsmanship who has engineered the surf board this becomes all possible. It all brings me in a state of euphoria which I will never forget.

 

 

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Hippies surf shop.

 

 

Some pain on my abdominals gets me back on earth. The surfboards get waxed to improve feet grip when riding. My delicate city boy skin is all red from the friction of my abs on the board when I paddle. I keep going. I now got a good feel of how to catch a wave and stand up, so Sunny says I should try to practice some turns. With such a big, long board, the response is very slow. So I catch another series of waves, and awkwardly try to change my direction with very poor results. I try a few times more, until I get so tired, that I can’t even push my body up after paddling.

I decide to call it for this morning. I return the board back to Hippies and walk home to get some breakfast. It is only 10 am. I feel super energised and ready for the afternoon. The tide gets low around this time in the morning, and gets back up after 3 pm. So lots of time to refuel. I barely scratched the surface and I know there is much more to come and to be enjoyed.

 

 

 

Surf and chill in Siargao.

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Landed on a wet Siargao’s airport.

 

 

So here we are again. Back to NAIA T3 ready to board another flight. About an hour from Cebu lays Siargao, a surfer’s spot gaining attention year after year.

One of the best known surfing waves on Siargao and the Philippines, with a worldwide reputation for thick, hollow tubes is “Cloud 9”. This right-breaking reef wave is the site of the annual Siargao Cup, a domestic and international surfing competition sponsored by the provincial government of Surigao del Norte. The wave was discovered by travelling surfers in the late 1980s. It was named after a chocolate bar of same name, and was featured by American photographer John S. Callahan in the United States-based Surfer magazine in March 1993. Cloud 9 also has a reputation for being a relatively cheap destination for surfers with many cheap accommodations and restaurants and bars to choose from. There are several other quality waves on Siargao and nearby islands, but Cloud 9 has received more publicity than any other surf spot in the Philippines. It is the only wave easily accessible without a boat, leading to overcrowding and the nickname of “Crowd 9” among surfers. Eager foreign and locally owned accommodation and tourist facilities have profited from the magazine publicity and the influx of visitors drawn by the annual Siargao Cup competition in September. Siargao is well known as “The Surfing Capital of the Philippines” with a reputation among surfers within the Philippines and the International scene (sourced from the web).

Although I have been in Australia for a few months, I never got myself to try surfing, and I am solid about giving it a go this time. We catch a 10 am flight from Cebu after a meal at our bed and breakfast. Together with the ravers and the uncontrolled decibels, the official jingle is gone too. At least from the speakers, as it is still playing loud in my ears and head..

 

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View from the cockpit of our Airbus above the clouds.

 

 

After some easily solved baggage issues at the Cebu Pacific airport desk, we head to our gate, board, fasten our seat belts, and fall in a power nap. I always been curious about entering the pilot’s room and take a look outside while the plane is flying. So I ask an hostess if I can do this, but I get a straight no as expected. I then ask if she can take a snap for me, and that turns to be a success. I get my phone back and enjoy the view from the small screen of my Iphone. Still, it is a pretty cool view, and I thank the flight attendant with my hands joined and a nod.

 

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Look down before landing on the island.

 

 

I feel the aircraft pointing its nose down, and looking outside the window, the earth starts getting closer and closer. It is a raw jungle everywhere, and the concrete only appears when we are just a few meters above the ground. We land on a wet airport. I get told that heavy rain has stopped the night before, and the weather forecasts give sun for the next few days. This is a good sign. I feel Siargao has some good times ready for our stay.

 

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Happy faces at the arrival at Villa Solaria Resort.

 

 

It takes the same time to reach our resort, as the time it took us to fly from Cebu. We check in at Villa Solaria, an eight bungalows resort managed by a Swedish family. The place looks amazing. The rooms are immerse in a flourishing nature, plants and palm trees growing everywhere, except on the narrow walkways connecting the huts to the little empty restobar. The interiors of our accomodation are simple in the decor, but well take care of. We shower and go for a walk to Cloud 9 observation point. It is a platform which extends a couple of hundred meters in to the sea, right in front of where perfectly shaped waves break. Siargao is a young, hippy hidden spot where surf passionate come and spend a few days or a few months, before sometimes deciding to live here. Life is raw and stripped down to basics. No street lights on the main road, and a sky filled with an unimaginable number of stars.

 

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A deserted main road immerse in lush green jungle.

 

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Surfers in action on Cloud 9 observation point.

 

 

Last time I have seen surfers in action it was in Australia, about 13 years ago. I have been a passionate snowboarder for a while, but never tried surfing. I now find it extremely appealing, and I book a surfboard and some lessons for the next 3 days. We grab some food at Ocean 11, an hostel and restaurant a few minutes walk from Cloud 9, and then go back to our room for a rest.

 

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Oscar. A new friend joins the crew.

 

 

 

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Another memorable sunset from Cloud 9 platform to close our first day in Siargao.

 

 

In the meantime, we have made a new friend. His name is Oscar, an adorable friendly labrador dog. He joined us while walking on the main road, and is now having a nap on our terrace. He’s been our shadow since we met him, and looks like we both like each other’s company. We emerge from a nap turned into a deep sleep, just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Fresh from another shower we enjoy a tasty dinner and a few beers before hitting our beds at around 9:30pm. I will pick up my surfboard tomorrow morning at 7am, while waters will be already busy from 5 am. Very much looking forward to this..

 

 

The hidden powers of the Sinlulog Fesival

 

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Sourced from the web.

 

 

Impeccable like a swiss watch, my body clock wakes me up just before 6am. My mom is in the shower. Otep is snoring. Finally a bit of a break after a the all nighter the neighbours decided to have. Bass was so heavy that our door has been shaking until the early rays of light. Fortunately I have a heavy sleep so not much of an issue. We go for breakfast and yes, with no surprise, the Sinulog jingle is still going, repeat, after repeat. I feel it’s like a Chinese torture, repetitive..pedantic..corrosive. I laugh at it and meet everyone else’s smile, not that I could let a song change the direction of my mood..or not yet..

We head to town walking to some rammed streets. Tourists, locals, kids, adults, all adorned with face paint, fake tattoos and colourful marks and decorations, wonder around all sweaty and joyful. And the parade has not started yet. We manage to lock ourselves in a shopping centre, and check out what the malls in Cebu differ from the ones in Manila. In pure honesty it is an exact same copy.

 

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Frogs turned in to coin wallets..

 

 

We grab some lunch, and try to get to a not far church, where the Magellan cross has been sticked in the ground centuries ago upon his arrival on the island. Unfortunately the roads are closed all around and the only way to reach the church is to walk a few miles. With over 30 degrees outside we decide to keep our heads fresh in the mall.

 

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Ayala shopping centre in Cebu city.

 

 

Filipinos take their shopping centres pretty seriously, that they also have a verb for such an activity. If you ask them what their plan is over the weekend, the possibly answer: ” I am malling, do you want to come?” They are little shopping towns where you can spend a whole day, from breakfast to dinner, going through some shopping of course, or some manicure while you leave your kids swimming or ice skating, then lunch, and dinner /after a movie. An hour long massage perhaps, if you get stressed from the crowd.

 

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Image sourced from the web.

 

 

So, after a few hours of ”malling”, we leave the girls with some shopping. Otep and myself decide to go back to the room to have our daily nap. We know that the way home will be tough one, but we don’t really know how tough. We get out of the chilled air of the Ayala centre in to a choking hot air and burning sun. I can feel the sweat dripping down my legs. Ambitiously we stop a cab, and ask the driver to take us as close as possible to our B&B. He says he will try. Driving through a thick crowd, we only manage to cover less than a mile, pay the fare and step again over a sizzling road.

 

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Our taxi driver hair styled for the occasion.

 

 

Confident in my internal compass I take charge and begin a zig zag towards what I reckon is the right direction. The parade is showing off, pushing the spectators on the side of the road behind marshals holding ropes. Apparently there is no way to cross from a side to another one. We get stuck. Everyone around is standing still on their tips trying to take a look with their eyes, or a shot with their phones mounted on selfies sticks. Otep gets the chance to take a couple of good snaps. I notice some people crossing the ropes and the marshals, so we decide to give it a go and move to the other side where people are moving forward. It works, and we are on the move again. Another road block, and we decide to jump in to the parade. It is a mess all around so we manage to mix up with the official photographers and find ourselves walking against the coming parade. It’s a vivacious mix of colourful shaped costumes and trucks. As much as I want to get out of this, I can’t help to stop and enjoy a bit of the show.

 

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Snap of the ongoing Sinulog parade.

 

 

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Home made outfit representing a local barangay (city suburb).

 

 

We keep walking, looking like we are official staff of the parade..no marshal really cares, and they look at us with a smile. We get out of the main road, and is with extreme disappointment that I realise that we just arrived where the taxi left us about an hour ago. Great. Clearly my internal GPS has failed big times, so I turn on the 3G on my phone and reset my bearings. We are still far from the B&B, but now I have a clear picture of what road we need to get.

 

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Healt and safety in Asia is a pretty loose concept.

 

 

Back on track, we continue our zig zagging through hundreds of party goers. The sun is coming down, and keeps hiding behind trees and buildings giving us a break from the heat. The air is still hot. I am squeezing my second one litre bottle of water, and look around to buy another one. Finally I recognise a familiar intersection. I give an hi five Otep with the happiness of an explorer approaching the promised land. We made it.

As much as I did not want to take part to the Sinulog Festival, its hidden power dragged me into it no matter what. Probably the only way to avoid it should have been not to come to Cebu this weekend. We walk in the B&B reception with the Sinulog jingle still banging from the speakers. It only catches my unconcious attention at this stage. In a pool of sweat, I close the door behind me with two hands, and jump in the shower. It’s time to get our well deserved nap now, before possibly heading out for our last meal in Cebu. Siargao is next.

Back to Cebu for the Sinulog Festival

 

 

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Sourced from the web. Image of Saint Niño and a festival goer.

 

 

We are driving through the outskirts of Cebu, entering the city. Our bus has no air conditioning. Windows are open. Although the unmissable warning signage, someone lights up a cigarette and smokes it all. No one complains. The more we drive into Cebu, the less the green I see outside, the more the pollution. I can’t breathe the thick dusty air so I wrap my mouth and nose in one of my spare t-shirts. Traffic is no different from Manila. Chaotic, undisciplined, dangerous. I am looking forward to get in my B&B room. While the typhoon is slapping palm trees back in Malapasqua, the preparation for the Sinulog Festival are in full swing. Merchandise is being sold on the street while stands for the parade are getting assembled on the main street. Everyone seems to be ready for tomorrow.

 

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Local artwork on a local dog.

 

 

Sinulog is one of the Philippine’s biggest and most attended festivals, in honour of the Senyor Santo Niño. It is an annual event with a massive display of lively and festive street dancing. Various groups join from all over Cebu and other provinces on the third Sunday of every January.

 

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Religious dedication can get expressed in all various forms.

 

 

We get to our B&B and they welcome us with a cold drink. There is the official festival jingle playing in the background. It is a playful happy song, about 2 minutes long. When we finish our mango shake, I already know the song by heart as it has been playing on repeat for about 5 times. I am sure someone will turn that repeat off. We check in the room, shower and relax for a while, then head out to meet some friends. When we walk out the the room and pass reception, the song is still playing in all its happiness.

 

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High moods ready for the festival.

 

 

We catch up withTita Edith, my mom’s school friend with her daughter April, together with Sharon a friend from Puerto Princessa, and her husband Edward, from Germany. We all meet up at ‘Double A BBQ”, a big eatery where you choose your food from a window display, and they grill it in style for you. Marinated squids, prawns, white fish, chicken, pork, sweet sausages, skewers of all types..aw yes. We order a bit of everything, and a few beers. There is a pleasant fizzy festival flavour in the air. We clear plates and glasses and we hit the main street to check out what this Sinulog is all about.

 

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A snap of the main festival road.

 

 

I have never been a fan of large festivals generally speaking. They gather lots of people, they get messy, and there is a cue for everything, from the bar to get drinks and food, to the toilets when you need one. As this would not be enough, moving from A to B, is not an easy task. A festival could be doable enough; a street festival gets a bit more chaotic. The Sinulog it’s an experience out of the extraordinary.

Rivers of people are already hitting the streets now, at 10pm. Many will carry on till tomorrow morning. Drinks are flowing, and the effects are not always pleasant. There is police everywhere, and some cases require their action to be controlled. After a few beers on the main road, we get back to the B&B and the Sinulog jingle is still playing on a loop. It is slowly scratching the surface of our patience, and with a smile, we start coping the fact that it might be playing for the whole length of our stay. Since the initial idea was coming to Cebu for this festival, we have now changed our plan. Weather is expected to reach 30 degrees, and the taste of chaos we had tonight, is enough for my mom and myself to choose not to join the street parade. We will avoid the main show from lunch time onwards, and catch up with the rest of the group later in the afternoon for a few drinks. Or at least..this is what I believe is going to happen..

Respect for the powers of Nature. Lesson 2. A typhoon warning.

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A countdown for the typhoon’s arrival has started.

 

 

Considering the slight concern at the back of my mind, I still manage to get a good sleep until the earliest light comes through the window. At this point the curiosity is eating me alive, so I get out of bed, wear the first pair of shorts I find, and walk to the seaside to see if we can get out of here before is too late. I walk out the room and it’s windy. Great start. While I get in to my flip flops, still looking down, I can feel the sky is grey, a bad grey. I look up and I can confirm my feeling. I reach the shore, and I see a small boat leaving with some passengers on it. That is a very good sign. The sea, as far as I can see looks fine to me. But it’s a 40 minutes cruise to Maya, and as history teaches, things can get nasty in a blink of an eye. I approach a crew, busy working on their boat. I ask if there is any services to Maya port today; who seems to be the man in charge, replies with a firm right to left head movement. As Filipinos sometimes give an answer even if the did not understand the question, I ask a lady walking toward me with a vague helpful look. She gives me the same exact answer, telling again that because of the typhoon hitting in 5 hours there is no boats to Maya, just special deliveries with no tourist passengers on board. Frustrated by this outcome, I start walking back to the room head down, to give the news to my mom. From the back, I hear a female voice trying to catch my attention. I get approached by two Finnish young girls, and they tell me that the same boat crew I have just spoken to, offered them a lift to Maya for a fee of 3500 pesos. Woemen’s look you see.. I am beyond confused now. With Otep and my mom and the two chicks we would be 5 passengers. 700 pesos each (£ 9.00) so money wise this is totally doable. I get back to the boat with an annoyed investigative look, to confirm we are all on the same page. Apparently so.

 

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Sourced from the web.

 

 

I get back to the room to deliver the news, and another challenge comes up. Back in the year 1970, when my mom was 16 years old, a weekend trip was planned with a few family members to lake Taal, in the city of Taguig, 60km north of Manila. A newly purchased boat was ready for the first roll out. The new toy could only carry 4 passengers, and the boys who wanted to give it the first try were already 5. One of our uncles popped by the kitchen in Manila, where my mom and my granny were preparing food to be sold at her their street shop. He invited my mom to join the weekend ride, but my granny Ina did not give her permission, as she needed help. My mom bursted in tears for the disappointment.

It was early morning when the boys left Estrella Street in downtown Manila. A sunny day in September, was the perfect weather together with high moods, to give a first go to the new boat. In the meantime, in Manila, by lunch time, the dinner was prepared, and put on the side, ready for the return of the hungry men. History goes that no one ever came back to enjoy that food, as an infamous and unexpected whirlpool swallowed the boat and the five passengers on it. That sunny Saturday will be remembered as one of the darkest in my family’s memory lane. The scar has left in my mom, always turn in to an open fresh wound every time she has to face any sort of rough waters. And today that wound is about to bleed again. She is totally not up for this potentially dangerous cruise, and I don’t blame her at all. As much as I do understand her and do not want take any risk myself, I also believe that no boatman would put his life in danger for 3500 pesos, and not even for any higher fee. This gives me enough confidence to trust these sailors and their knowledge of the weather and the sea they live in. I explain this concept to my mom, and manage to persuade her to pack up our things and get going.

 

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Waiting the two finnish girl to come on board and leave Malapasqua.

 

 

We load the boat with our bags and wait a few long minutes for the two Finnish girls to show up with their backpacks. They did not have enough money with them to pay the boat trip so I offered to pay for them and get paid back once we reached Cebu. That sounded like a pretty clear deal.

 

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The captain giving direction before directing the boat to Maya port.

 

 

We start reversing the boat to head towards Maya port. Wind gusts are increasing, and by the time water gets deep, waves are seriously intimidating. I can see the look on my mom’s face getting more tense by the minute. We are now in the open sea. We sail through a few meters high waves, with a pretentious relaxed look and open, but stiff body language. We are all at test; from the captain driving skills, to the boat flexibility. The current comes strong from the right, forcing us to a sickening seesaw roller coaster. At times, waves are so tall that the horizon disappear from our sight. After I see the good behaviour of the boat going through those tough moments, I relax a bit, as expected this is hard core but sustainable.

 

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Probably the roughst seas I ever sailed through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The sea conditions get worst and worst while Maya port gets closer.

 

 

The boat crew asks one of the two Finnish to move from the right to left bench to balance the boat out. I sit next to the one who’s suffering the most, and I have the amazing idea to tell her that her friend has been moved next to my cousin because the crew will kill them first. She pulls out a fake smile I will remember forever.. We are getting closer and closer to Maya port. As the tide is low, we might have problems in getting close to the shore with the big boat we are on, so for an extra fee, a small wooden dingy will come and collect us. Very well planned locals..

 

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Still with our fingers crossed we move to the smaller boat, a few hundreds meter from the coast.

 

 

We moore a few hundred meters from the shore. Now, we are actually 4 km south from our destination as waters in front of the port were too angry still, for us to be dropped off. For another extra fee, 3 scooters are waiting, ready to drive us to Maya. The same crew who picked us up 5 days ago at our arrival, is now taking us back on the same old wonky piece of wood with a motor. Moving from the big boat down to this dingy is the final step. Sea is wavy enough to make it a pretty hard transition. A good timing is the key. We all make it though, together with all the bags. A short cruise and we finally put our feet on a steady, firm piece of land. A short fifteen minutes ride in the rain, at the back of some scooters take us to Maya bus station.

 

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Worst has gone. Just a 20 minutes ride to Maya bus station.

 

 

 

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My driver and myself closing the group.

After all the quiet and relaxed times we had so far, today’s experience has definitely added some spice. I am glad we made it, and glad I am here writing about it. The 5 hours bus journey to Cebu via those twisty suicidal roads is a piece of cake. We arrive in the festive town ready for the Sinulog mayhem, leaving a strong typhoon behind, hitting Malapasqua by the early afternoon. No serious consequences are recorded this time. When the time to get my money back from the two chicks comes, they pull out a surprised face, saying they have also paid the boat fee straight in to the captain’s hands. With even more surprise, I ask them to pay me back anyway as the deal was that I would have paid for them. I also thought they were winding me up, but they looked too young and lost, far away from being smart asses. So I get half of the borrowd money, thinking about that cheeky captain who got some extra cash on that day. I live and I learn. And Karma will do its job. It always does.

 

 

Respect for the powers of mother nature. Lesson 1. An unexpected sea storm.

 

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View from the Big Blue restaurant during lunch.

 

 

Used to the hectic rhythms of the London life, there is nothing better than slowing down and match the pace of the Filipinos. Apart from diving and fishing, there is not a big deal of things to do here at Malapasqua. So I wake up in the morning, go for a walk or a run, write or read under a cooking sun, then have a nap before lunch; nap again, then write again sipping a few beers..swim in a broth warm water, just enough to get hungry, and feed myself again. Grilled fish, chicken or pork. Fresh fruit shakes, all for monkey money. I understand that you do not have to be dead to be in heaven.

I met some Israeli travelling Asia for fishing and diving tours. I start chatting with one of them who owns a fishing tackle shop back in Haifa. His voice makes me smile as he sound exactly like Adam Sandler in the Zohan. He tells me that they have organised a boat to go marlin fishing. 30 kilos fish is an exciting fight, when you catch one of course. The plan sounds very exciting to both my mom and myself, so we get the details of the fisherman and we organise a day out for the following morning. As many other local things here in Asia, the fishing equipment is stripped down to the minimum essential. There are no fishing rods or reels, only a few hundreds meters of nylon rolled up on a disc made of palm wood, and a lure ora hook attached to the end. That is, really, all you need to catch a prey, on top of a good dose of luck. We are off pretty early in the morning, as this is the preferred time for marlins to hunt. Sun is still behind the horizon, and a soft light reflects from the sky down through the clouds. A whole palm tree is getting shaped in to a narrow boat, and got filled with water from last night rain. I can’t resist to capture the play of the reflections.

 

 

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Reflections from the water gathered in a palm tree canoe.

 

 

 

 

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Kin. Our boat captain for the day.

 

 

Sunny is sitting in his boat, waiting for us. We join him on board, while he is still preparing a fresh fish bait to use for stroll fishing. We will be cruising at slow speed with two lines in the water, one on the surface, and another one at mid depth using a 100 grams lead. A confident pull at the rope around the flywheel, and he starts the engine, lawn mower style. A regular thing on most of the boats here.
Malapasqua Island gets smaller and smaller while we outdistance from its shore. We don’t need to be in open sea to fish for marlins. A good couple of miles is enough. We drop the lines with the baits, and start sifting the waters waiting for some action.

My past as a fishing passionate goes back to my early years. My filipino grandfather has always been a seaman. I do not have clean memories, but thanks to some precious family albums I reminisce that time we visited Philippines with my entire family. It was in 1988. That was my dad’s first and last time in Asia. Weird enough, he does not like it here. We had a fishing trip organised from my mom and grandpa. Premi was his name. My father still had some interest in life, but he mainly came to accompany an 8 years old kiddo hyper excited about a fishing adventure. We travelled for 8 hours to reach this remote rural village in Calatagan, where electricity was a luxury for a few. I remember that on the way to this village, a lorry carrying medicines had flipped on its side while probably speeding on a corner. The accident must have just happened, as there were no other vehicles preceding us, so we find this scene in front of our eyes: the lorry laying on its side, was half on the road and half on the grass. Boxes of medicines were spread on the pavement, and tens of locals, including mothers and their kids stuffing their broken short’s pockets with pharmaceutical goods they probably have never used. In this never seen scenario, a bleeding driver incapable of taking any sort of action, was observing like the few passers by. As there were already people helping him out, our driver kept going. We arrived in this village late afternoon, and shared an early meal made of fried flying fish and a bowl of rice. It was 6 pm, and dusk was about to turn into night. The village and its people were in sync with nature up to that degree. While walking towards our room inside this bamboo hut with no door neither windows I remember seeing a dog playing with a pig, both playing with a little cat. On our mattress, a mosquito net was hanging. Great idea as the place was infested by insects. Even though precautions were taken, I will never forget the sleepless night I had, perhaps because the net had been put too late, or because there were holes in it, I woke up looking like I had been playing with a wasp nest. My father’s face and legs were also unrecognisable. At least the fishing day went really well. We came back home to Manila with as many catches as the bites on our skin, and also the indelible memory of locals fishing with dynamite. Only a few WHS tapes and a few film prints have recorded those times. I will try to get some scans in the next months.

 

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A sea storm fast approaching while we are still fishing.

 

 

Back to our strolling along the coast of Malapasqua Island. It has been more than an hour so far, and waters are quiet, no signs of marlins, neither bits of interest in our baits; not even their fins cutting through the surface. We keep going. The weather in the meantime is taking a slight turn. The early morning oily look of the sea is getting wavy, to the point we sometimes struggle to keep the balance even while sitting down. We are facing north, and cruising against the current to cut the waves perpendicularly. Grey clouds are coming from the back of the island towards us, and drafts of cold air give me goose bumps. My mom chats to Sunny, and they both agree that it is a wise choice to head home. By the time we pull the lines back on the boat, waves are over a meter high, and because of the small sized watercraft, splashes are coming from all sides. The engine is struggling to turn on. It is also raining now. I can see the look on my mom’s face has changed. We must be just a few hundred meters from the shore, but it looks more. Rain is steady and strong. It comes down on the skin hitting like tiny needles. It takes less than a minute to get totally soaked. We are now seconds from being back to land.

 

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Back on land, I look at the storm heading south.

 

 

The sea storm is behind us, we can still see the downpour between the sea and the clouds, but we are safe. We all got a little fright, especially because of being on such a small boat. We might have come back with no catch, but we brought our skin back and that is a precious win. Back to the resort, we get the news that a typhoon is on its way. Is expected to hit Malapasqua in 24 hours. We are due to leave the island in 18 hours. I have never witnessed a typhoon, and I probably could live without this experience, but by the look of things I sense there is room for this adventure as well.

When on an island you are on an island. And if you can’t cruise the sea to reach mainland, you stay on the island. We have a B&B booked in Cebu for the Sinulog Festival. It is a massive celebration that goes on for a whole week and peaks on the Sunday, with an enormous street parade, from 10 in the morning till 5pm. If we can’t make it to Maya port, therefore to the bus station, plan B is to pay an extra night on the island and loose the night we have booked in Cebu. There is not much to stress about though. We are at the mercy of the weather. So if tomorrow morning the sea allows, we will pay a boat and go. If not, plan B is ready to roll, and we’ll see what a typhoon is all about.

 

 

 

 

Malapasqua Island. A diver’s heaven in a typhoon’s hell.

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A ferry carcass on Malapasqua north shore after typhoon Hayan hit in 2013.

 

 

November 2013. Weather forecasts announce that a strong typhoon is on its way. It is so powerful that no records to match it can be found. It’s gaining force by the hour, and it receives the lablel of Super Typhoon Yolanda. The regions of Visayas, and Leyte are on Yolanda’s path. The weather bulletins confirm that evacuation is the only way to save lives, as the typhoon will change the look of everywhere and everything it will hit.
With everyone hoping for a trajectory change, hands are joined to pray every known God. But it is all hopeless. Yolanda and it’s devastating force hits merciless, leaving a trail of unreal devastation.

 

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Palm trees showing their scars on Malapasqua’s main beach.

 

 

This is something I can personally only compare to one of those natural disaster movies. But now, it is no special effects and no happy ending.
6021 people lost their lives, 28,626 are injured, 1,785 missing. Number never seen after a disaster of such entity. Many survivors could not go back to their villages as it was all unrecognisable. Roads, churches, fields..all became a meaningless smudge of matter. I have heard stories of people who saw goats being taken in to the sky.

A bit more than a year later, I get the chance to visit one of the areas hit by the tragedy. Consequences here were not as bad as in other areas, but still, palm trees have been ripped from the ground, and roofs flown away who knows where. Fishermen boats treated like in a washing machine on a heavy cycle.

 

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Maya port and its mafia at work.

 

 

Arrived at Maya Port, we wait for our boat to be ready. It is all a bit dodgy here, compared to the other holiday spots we have been so far. Most of the locals are staring at us behind their t-shirts wrapped around their head. Even my mom is lost as the dialect they speak is unknown to her. Is no easy way to get down to the first little boat which will take us to a bigger one; we walk down some slippery rocks with our luggages. All around, these locals screaming and laughing in their jargon. We manage to sit in this piece of wood with an engine, and I am evaluating what the best options would be to save our luggages, in case we don’t make it to the bigger vessel. A touch of humour though, puts a shy smile on our faces..

 

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Hi speed connection on a boat that does not even starts?..

 

 

It all goes well. We leave behind that wooden dingy, and sit on a more solid boat. After a few tries the engine starts, and the far away Malapasqua Island, slowly becomes bigger while we approach it. We pay the fee and jump off on the shore filled with broken corals and shells. It is not pleasant for my soft skinned european feet. We ask direction for Slams Resort and within 2 minutes walk we are sipping a pineapple juice and chatting to Christopher, a young man who co-runs the resort.

 

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Intimidating sky on the main beach.

 

 

The room is clean and cozy. We unpack our bags, freshen up, and then go to fill the gap, and of course our curiosity to explore this new place. With our big surprise we notice that the island is not as clean and tidy as it could. Clearly some areas are marked with the scars of the typhoon. Palm trees are left where they have been dropped by the winds, and rubbles have vegetation growing on it. It could be a sign of procrastination, or maybe who used to live there, has not survived. I don’t know. Still, we can’t let the beauty of the surroundings go unnoticed.

 

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A fisherman cleans his boat after a day of work

 

 

On the main beach front walk, many diving centre advertise their tours and offers. You can do a day excursion or get a full instructor certificate, dive with thresher and whale sharks. I have an issue with my right ear after some cliff jumping and snorkelling so diving is off the list. Still we can go fishing, and simply enjoy the quiet white sand beaches around the island.

When you meet someone working for the resort you are staying, it’s very likely they will have enough connection to organise your days with fishing trips, or island hopping, and scooter rental if you need. Within the time of a welcome drink, Christopher became quickly a friend. He has a cousin who can take us for a little fishing tour around the island. We can then hop off on a beach and grill our catch. Everything for the price of £ 7.00 per person (500.00 Php). Music to our ears..we’re in, and we have a plan for tomorrow.

 

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Antoher view of the main beachfront at dusk.

 

 

 

 

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Pushing the boat back to the open sea with a long bamboo is how they do.

 

 

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View of the north west side of Mapalasqua.

 

 

Nothing better than chilling on a boat, sipping cans of iced beer, waiting for that line to pull your finger. We leave around 12 noon, and sail the boat one mile away from the shore. We drop the anchor, bait our hooks, and in a blink of an eye, my mom pulls up the first catch of the day. Seems like it is a very active reef we are floating on. Fishes keep eating our lines regularly, and beer after beer we laugh and enjoy a glorious weather. Can after can, my walking on the boat gets pretty funky.

 

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Our catch of the day.

 

 

Hunger is also coming up, so we decide to move to our private beach and grill our bucket of marine yumminess. Fishes are small, but a fair size for us to make a meal out of it without ruining the local fauna. While the rest of the boat crew, Alan and Marlon light up a fire on the beach, Christopher shows us the way to the island’s light house. We climb this few hundreds meter hill, and in the middle of it I stop for a wee.

 

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Along the trail to the lighthouse.

 

 

Just when I am done, I get back to the trail and feel an intense itch all over my feet and legs. Looking down, I see the bottom of my limbs full of little ants, and with such a strong itch that I start jumping like I’m walking on a bed of burning carbons. I quickly wipe off the little bastards, and speed up my steps to reach the concrete block, where the lighthouse stands. The view is very nice and we can’t hold back from taking a couple of snaps.

 

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View of the bay from the lighthouse.

 

 

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Local kids after their morning class.

 

 

Climbing back down the hill, we bump in to a class of kids who are just done with their daily class. The are so adorable, with something special in their smile. I am already having a great day, but their happy souls, shifts my mood to a next level. Lunch is ready and served. Fishes are grilled to perfection, and the meat literally melts in the mouth. Some unmissable steamed rice and some corn chips fill up our plates, everything washed down with some just fresh enough beer.

 

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Locally sourced lunch.

 

 

A short cruise home takes us back to our resort and a fresh shower. It is still early afternoon. The time for a reinvigorating nap before heading to Maldito, a lovely bar and restaurant just a minute walk from our room. They’re mango and banana shake is heaven, and as this would not be enough..get treated to a surreal sunset.

 

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Could not ask more from the end of a day.