Philippine Signs

You spend a lot of time while travelling staring out of the window of your bus, train or other, less comfortable transportation, so when you see something written in English it’s a pleasant surprise. I always feel like it might give me some insight into the place I’m passing through.

These three signs are all from the Philippines. I wonder what they reveal about the people who live there.

My Teacher My Hero

I saw this one outside a remote village school on Negros. Despite all the houses nearby being little more than ramshackle lean-tos ith ragged cloth or plastic sheeting for doors, the school was carefully painted, planted with shrubs, had cut grass and home-made, wooden toys in the schoolyard. Clearly someone had taken enormous pains to give the kids in that village somewhere pleasant to learn in. Then I saw the sign.

Drugs Cause Cancer

These signs were all along the road leading to a high school elsewhere on Negros. Clearly the locals are trying to keep drugs out of their school. And why let the truth stand in the way of a good cause.

The Chop

This was on a wall in Dumaguete. I have no idea what the words mean. And I really hope that image next to the scissors is a pointing finger.

Indonesian Adventure

Put your backpack on, come on, come on

Put your backpack on, come on, come on

Planning ahead for our next country, Indonesia, has been on my mind for a while now. It’s a country I’ve been very much looking forward to from the moment I found out that we could walk up volcanoes there. It makes me feel like a little kid when I think how excited I will be to walk up a volcano. And what makes it even more fun is walking up one with 3 little kids!

As well as the volcano treks, there is an abundance of adventurous activities available to the backpacker who ventures into Indonesia. Of course, there’s Bali, but I think we’ll give it a miss seeing as we have seen so many wonderful beaches already. What really gets me excited is the chance to see some wildlife. There’s Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat.  Plus there’s a remote but fairly famous Orang Utan Sanctuary in a National Park on the Indonesian southern side of Borneo where you can live on a boat for a few days and spot them in the wild.

Plus, of course, Fergus wants to do some more diving.

However, joining the dots between the best volcanoes, the komodo dragons, the orang utans and the legendary dive sites leaves us with a daunting set of journeys on our hands. The initial flight to Indonesia is already a complex set of 3 airplanes with fairly long waits between them spanning a 26 hour period, thanks to schedule changes by Air Asia. And we’re 2 days travel from the airport. There’s no information online for the local companies who sometimes operate flights between our chosen destinations, and the Lonely Planet bus and boat estimates are wearisomely pessimistic e.g. 36-48 hour boat journeys – and, I quote, “Don’t expect a cruise ship.” Hmmmm.

However, I am refreshed enough by our time in the Philippines to face the challenge head on and see it as all part of the fun. The ‘travelling’ part of travelling is sometimes the best bit. I’ve seen some amazing things out of the windows of our bus/boat/taxi/train/airplane/helicopter journeys. So it is with an optimistic outlook that we set off tomorrow on what promises to be an epic, but awe inspiring, trip to Indonesia.

Falling for the Philippines

How kids should play

I’ve been feeling a bit homesick lately. Sometimes it’s the little things I miss: fresh milk; cooking my own meals; sleeping in my own bed; and of course the luxury of having no insect bites (my family call me the mosquito early warning system). I also miss the big things: seeing my parents; seeing Ferg’s family; our network of friends and family who support us.

However, over the last week or so I have totally fallen in love with the Philippines, and right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world but right here with my family.

How to describe the Philippines? After just 20 days, I’m not qualified. The country covers a vast area, and is made up of over seven thousand islands, of which we’ve managed to see only three. Even those remain stubbornly difficult to classify: mountains, volcanoes, beaches, rice paddies, lush green valleys. You name it; the Philippines has it. In the last 400 or so years, it’s been under Spanish and subsequently American rule, leaving a mixed legacy of thousands of beautiful churches, Christianity as the national religion, meatloaf on the menu, Graham’s cracker-based desserts, and perfectly spoken, USA-accented English.

It’s the people that have made the biggest impression. Everywhere we go we encounter big smiles, people waving and saying, “Hello!” and an endearingly polite, and yet somehow giggly, way of interacting with each other and with us tourists.

Water is a big part of daily life for a nation of islanders; it’s the only place we’ve been to where locals swimming in the sea outnumber tourists. The water is crystal clear; we thought we’d seen good beaches in Thailand but every single island here has it’s own deserted stretch of white sand, turquoise water and abundant coral reefs. And here, you get the beach to yourself.

The food is also a switch-change from the rest of South East Asia. Out with the chillies and fish sauce, no Little India or Chinatown meals here. It’s all about the BBQ chicken and the stewed meat. As long as you enjoy pork, you’re fine. In fact, I think they may be trying to compensate for the below-world-average consumption of pork in the surrounding Muslim nations. It’s delicious, but seriously fatty. The fish ‘sinigang’ (a kind of sour soup) makes a healthier choice, and the rotisserie chickens are divine.

I’d challenge anyone not to fall in love with this place. With kids playing on the beach; locals swimming & fishing in the sea; all the smiling faces; the luscious countryside; outstanding trekking; historical buildings; relaxed dress code (women wear shorts and vest tops – hooray!); clear waters; brilliant diving & snorkeling; delicious food; some of the cheapest beer in the world; local rum that is cheaper than drinking water; all topped off with glorious sunshine and sunsets to remember forever, why would anyone ever want to go home?

Thank you Philippines. Homesickness: cured.

Busy Days on Sequijor

After a long laze in Sipalay, we wanted to speed things up a bit, but – wow! – the last three days on Sequijor have been so incredibly full that I could fill a blog post about each, individually. However, it’s getting late and we’re packing up and moving on tomorrow so I guess I’ll just get it all down as best I can before my kids come running back from the coconut trees on the beach to tell me how starving they are and none of it gets written down at all.

On our first day here on Sequijor, we decided to go exploring. Wandering up to the main road, we hailed a tricycle (a Philippine euphemism for a rattle-engined motorbike with equally rattley home-made sidecar) and asked the to take us round the island, stopping at the sights. It was awesome!

We visited a local park in St. Juan with a “swimming pool” (pond) where the girls swam. We stopped at some beautiful, 4-level waterfalls where we all swam, including swimming right under the falls into a hidden cave behind.

Then a coastal resort where they had built water slides and diving boards into towering cliffs over the sea. The slides were closed and partially collapsed, an unfortunate testament to ambition over realisation, but the diving boards were relatively stable-looking, so we climbed up and had a look over the edge. It was a long way down. The kind of long way that made the 10m board at the Leeds pool where our girls took diving lessons seem like jumping off a curb into a puddle. The kind of long way that would give a Mexican cliff diver second thoughts. So, of course, me and the girls all immediately jumped off.

In between, we stopped at old Spanish churches, little farming villages, a 500 year old balete tree said to be home to a powerful spirit (and which Evie climbed most of the way up when our backs were turned — no curses have yet made themselves apparent, though, so I’m guessing the spirit didn’t mind), a co-operative dairy selling real cheese and pasteurized milk (rare luxuries nowadays for us) and a few pretty view spots, eventually returning home exhausted, stimulated and still rattling from hours aboard our guide’s bone-shaking sidecar.

The next day we decided to climb a mountain. There’s only one here on Sequijor (called Mt. Bandilaan) and details on reaching the top (both on the web and our guidebooks) were kind of sketchy so weren’t entirely sure what to expect or even how to get there.

In the end, it was a very easy walk. There was a narrow paved road all the way to the top. The greatest difficulty, in fact, was convincing the various Filipinos we met along the way that we actually wanted to walk. No-one could understand why we wouldn’t use a vehicle when we could afford one.

We did get a bit lost trying to find the path to the actual summit (the road only passes nearby) but when we eventually found it, the 360° view around the island was gorgeous.

On the way down, our trike driver came and met us near the top. Once more, it took quite a lot of explaining to get across the idea that we wanted him to go back and wait for us halfway up the mountain. As he drove away, he shot us the most astonished and puzzled look I’ve seen since telling a porter in Nepal that we wanted to carry our own bags.

As the mountain had proved so easy to conquer, we decided to spend the afternoon swimming in the sea. Under “suggested places for snorkeling” in our Lonely Planet, it said “strap on your mask and fins and dive in anywhere”. So that’s what we did. Swimming out from our resort (the lovely but only-just-within-our-price-range Villa Marmarine) we saw sea grass, hard corals, tropical fish, lots of sea urchins and generally had fun splashing around in the astonishingly clear, turquoise water. Me and Jem even swam right out to a bangka moored in deeper water where we could free dive down to even more impressive reefs.

For tea we got our own back on the trepidation that all the sea urchins had given us while swimming by ordering sea urchin spaghetti from the menu. Revenge, it turns out, is surprisingly tasty.

Day three. I wanted to do a dive trip and as there was no-one else at our resort who was a diver, we were able to hire the entire boat to ourselves. I would dive while Janet and the girls snorkeled.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe the guy at our resort when he said the local marine sanctuary (Tulapos) was just as impressive as Apo Island (a famous marine sanctuary 15km from here) but it was probably the best dive I have yet done. The soft and hard corals, rainbows of fish (too many to mention), sea snakes (yes, another banded krait but this time as big as a python), gigantic lobsters and surreal nudibranches alone they would have been enough to make for an amazing dive. But while under, I swam with not one but two massive sea turtles, fulfilling a diving ambition I’ve had since I learned at New Year.

After returning, as I still had plenty of air left in my tank, and the dive boat was moored in very shallow water, I gave Jemima and Scarlett an impromptu SCUBA lesson, giving them my secondary air source and sinking down to the sea floor to explore. They loved it.

All that alone would have made for a memorable day’s diving but on the way home something even more astonishing happened: a huge school of dolphins appeared near our boat, then, when the crew started clapping and thumping the deck, swam over and raced alongside us, leaping, twisting, diving, pairing off, skimming the surface… And all the while, the long, flat-decked nose of the bangka meant we could stand right out over the water, surrounded by dolphins playing on three sides. It was magical, and, according to the crew, incredibly rare in the waters around Sequijor.

Whew! Three days of intense and thrilling experiences and I feel both awed and exhausted. Tomorrow we move to a new resort with a pool. I wouldn’t be too surprised if we ended up being less ambitious and just spend the day recovering at the poolside.

Sugar Beach (Far Away in Time)

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Tomorrow, we move on again. But for a change, it’s after a (for us) long pause in one place. We’ve been here at Sugar Beach, near Sipalay, for a whole week, after deciding that our girls would benefit from slowing down for a while.

Whenever we ask them where they’ve like best, all three girls invariably name the places where we’ve stayed the longest – Chitwan, Savannakhet, Ko Tarutao – even though their favourite experiences aren’t necessarily from these place at all. I think they just like these moments of stability where they can get to know somewhere and feel like they’ve got a home from home.

After racing though Malaysia, never stopping more than three nights anywhere and dashing around Singapore for six very packed days, we decided to head to our girls’ top type of location: the beach.

Unlike most beaches in the Philippines, Sugar Beach is good for swimming (others tend to be too corally, too rocky, too tidey or too sea urchiny), it has nice, wide sand and lots of Western-run places to serve up the kind of comfort foods our kids love (spag bol, sandwiches, pizza, bacon and eggs, fried rice, French fries) but at the same time is remote enough to feel off the beaten track and for the resorts to be idiosyncratically-small scale enough for me and Janet not to feel like we’re in a tourist trap.

Each day here has consisted of little more than trying to ensure our kids at least brush hair and teeth before letting them run off to swim, pet the resorts’ dogs, dig in the sand, climb coconut trees and make friends with the staff, then, later, trying to round them up to scrub the salt, dog and sand off them (and patch up coconut tree grazes) in time to eat. They’ve loved it.

The other thing that we’ve noticed makes them happy is routine. Too much idleness and there’s a noticeable increase in bickering and boredom. So staying still was also an opportunity for homeschool. In between running wild, we’ve been corralling our girls and working on more maths or letting them carry on with long-form stories they’ve been writing since Nepal (after 2 draughts, we’re finally onto writing them up).

Towards the end of the week, however, while the kids were now ecstatic, me and Janet had begun to get restless. Particularly Janet, who I sensed had maybe had enough lazing around on the sand when she screamed, “Aaargh! I want to climb a mountain!” over breakfast, There weren’t any mountains. But we did walk over the nearest hill that afternoon to snorkel in a remote, uninhabited bay.

In fact, we got rather lost going up the “mountain’, a wrong turning taking us into a rather smelly section of forest we realized rather too late served as the village toilet. We got to the bay eventually though and had a magical time. The bay was coated in sea grass so felt like flying over a strange, otherworldy moor; a moor dotted with enormous, brown starfish and inhabited by beautiful but highly poisonous banded krait sea snakes, sliding sinuously through the “air”. We swam right up to them, marvelling at their elegance and thrilled by the danger.

I guess travelling as a family requires a lot more compromise than travelling alone or as a couple. Just like normal life with a family does. Janet likes seeing sights best, the girls like getting to know one place and my favourite part is the actual adventure of trying to get around, not knowing how it will turn out. Although, to be fair, we all enjoy all of these things to lesser extents. And, of course, we all enjoy eating our way around the World.

So, while all three girls seem rejuvenated by our time on Sugar Beach, it’s time to move on now. It’s been good for them to get a little R&R. After all, we’ve been on the road for a long time and our next destination is Indonesia, which everyone warns us is exceedingly hard work.

But tomorrow we’re leaving. We’ll be spending the next seven days on another Visayan island: Sequijor. And this time we plan to be much more active. There’s old Spanish colonial buildings to visit, waterfalls, caves, coral reefs, even a mountain (well, a big hill). And the whole place has a spooky reputation as the home to witch doctors.

True Story

Sitting in a café in Dumaguete, we met a Norwegian man who advised us that although the Filipino people are very friendly, we should never invest any money here (we weren’t planning to). “They will rip you off!” he declared as he staggered away.

“There’s a man with a chip on his shoulder,” commented Fergus.

Then we looked up and saw this:

Man with a Ship on his Shoulder

How we laughed!

The Philippines: First Impressions

Perhaps it was coming directly from Singapore but it’s taken a little while to work out what’s different about the Philippines. And what’s familiar.

The people look very much like those in Malaysia but noticeably poorer. Designer fashions and branded trainers have made way here for threadbare t-shirts and flip-flops. And, of course, there’s not a Muslim headscarf in sight. Mostly Christian — a legacy of 16th century Spanish explorers — women here dress in the same kind of warm weather clothes you see in Hindu and Buddhist countries. Janet can finally put aside her long trousers and get back into shorts.

Like Nepal, there’s a home-made look to many of the houses, even concrete ones. And it’s not unusual to see an abandoned, half-built house alongside a beautifully tiled and painted one on one side and a giddily-angled wooden-stilted one the other. But the roads are in much better condition than Nepal. Not completely without bumpy, unsealed stretches but without the spine-jarring potholes that make Nepalese bus travel so arduous.

The food is a strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar, not helped by my finding Tagalog words rather difficult to fix in my memory (Sinigang, longganisa, kaldereta…). But the names aside, one thing is very clear: I wouldn’t want to be a vegetarian here. Everything has meat in it. In fact, meat seems to be something of a national obsession. There are roasted chicken shops on every corner in the city, as well as burger stands and restaurants fronted by a dizzying array of meaty stews and soups. As for flavours, after Thailand and all the Indian food we ate in Malaysia, it seems a little bland, relying on savoury flavours rather than spices, salt, sugar, lime juice or chillies. Still, now my palate has lowered its expectations, it’s really rather delicious… More like European or South American cooking than much of what we’ve had while abroad.

And it’s cheap. Not just compared to Singapore. Compared to anywhere else we’ve been. Dining in one of the nicest restaurants in Dumaguete, each dish only cost around £2. Pastries from a bakery cost 3p each. A 2km taxi ride cost 15p each. I feel surprisingly wealthy.

But our new-found wealth comes at a price. There’s poverty here. Lots of it. I’ve not seen a single overweight person – something I’ve come to realise represents GDP fairly accurately over the countries we’ve moved through. And we’ve seen kids begging for the first time since Nepal. But despite the hardship, everyone is incredibly friendly. You can smile at and make jokes with strangers. People are helpful. And everyone speaks great English with a charming, half-American accent and American-style tendency to call strangers “sir” or “ma’am”.

Finally, the landscape here is both beautiful and unlike anywhere else we’ve been. Made up of so many islands, we’ve never been far from the coastline and ferries or bangkas (outrigger-style wooden motor boats) are required for a lot of journeys. But the interior is lush and rises dramatically away from the seafront, with plant-life that ranges from familiar banana plants and coconut palms to more deciduous-looking trees I’ve yet to identify. And, for the first time since we left home, there’s a breeze.

It’s refreshing to be somewhere unfamiliar. Having to take in even the little details seems to slow time down, and I’m enjoying having to think on my feet rather than rest on experience when making my way around. My first impressions have been very pleasant so far.