Archive for the ‘The Philippines’ Category

We left the moody clouds of Sipalay gladly behind and rocked on down the coast to Dauin on Monday 9th. At some random village a ladyboy and her gay boyfriend hopped on. She-he decided to make a beeline for me and proceeded to share her-his life story for the next 20mins, much to the amusement of Muneeza and the other passengers. To be fair, she-he was friendly and quite entertaining but I still find it disconcerting to be looking at a person with stubble, man hands and lady bumps. Especially when she-he also has the lower body of a young girl. I’ve got no rub with people having the freedom to embrace their own unique sexuality; I just find the elaborate effeminism of ladyboys slightly odd. Oh well, good luck to her-he and the upcoming move to Bangkok to join the other ladyboys.

We arrived in Dauin early afternoon, hot and sweaty. I had a minor panic on arrival at Mike’s Beach Resort because my main bag was missing from the tricycle. Luckily we traced the route back and found it lying in the middle of the road. People were walking past, looking at it quizzically. I love the honesty here that ensures your possessions are relatively safe from plunder.

Having spent 3 days in a damp beach cabin, our clothes and bags were a bit funky. We were delighted to discover that the resort is new and the rooms all finished to a high quality with proper walls, tiled floors and fresh water shower. It meant we could get clean again. Well it meant I could do the cleaning while Muneeza embraced tropical diving.

Let the diving begin

Muneeza spent Monday afternoon going through the schedule for her PADI Open Water course whilst I lazed around by the pool. Her instructor, Hilary, turned out to be a really cool, easy going Irish lady who has been living here for 4 months with her husband and very cute 3 year old son Thomas. She immediately put Muni at ease and proved to be an excellent and patient teacher. We also loved her Irish humour, which mainly involved ripping it out of me and telling jokes about English oppression.

We got up early Wednesday morning for Muni’s first dive down at the Sanctuary at the far end of Dauin beach. The Sanctuary is a protected area of reef marked by a series of white buoys roped together. I was allowed to tag along and snorkel. The reef was sweet, with lots of bright colours and a good variety of fish. The water was warm and visibility excellent. Muni emerged about 45mins later having successfully descended to 7m sans problem. She took to the diving like a fish to water.

Big fish in the water, Dauin

I passed the time keeping myself entertained with a stick and some sand…..

Natural sand formation, Dauin

I became the admin king for the next 2 days, doing the washing, sorting accommodation out etc as my jani concentrated on her PADI and getting her head round the coursework. Yep, I am dull.

The highlight of the 4 days was a trip out to Apo Island about 1hr south of the mainland. Apo is tiny with only 1,000 inhabitants and no fresh water supply. It’s a diving Mecca with coral fringed coastline and turtle mating beaches drawing the tourist dollar.

Muneeza explored the depths to complete her 3rd and 4th dives, descending to 15m and 18m. I went off with a cool American lady called Connie, whose husband was diving, to do some snorkeling. The first spot was renowned for its Clown Fish City. We searched in vain and whilst we found a place where there were about 20 of these fish close together, we couldn’t find the mother load. We moved on to a second spot before lunch and after about 5mins of swimming around, I saw a large shadow in the distance. I assumed it was a large fish and set off to explore. As I got closer I saw the unmistakable silhouette of a turtle. As the sun emerged from a cloud, the turtle was illuminated in front of me. I followed close behind and it linked up with 2 other turtles. I spent the next 10mins following them, enraptured. It really was a stunning sight. Turtles are beautiful creatures and really elegant in the way they glide up and down in the water.

Turtle power, Apo Island

I waited on the boat to escape the sun and my jani emerged with a big grin on her face having successfully completed her PADI Open Water. I am really proud of her because she isn’t the most confident person in water but put her underneath with an oxygen tank and she’s as calm as you get. Hilary called her a natural, fair praise from an experienced dive master. Or maybe she says that to everyone to give encouragement. Muni loved the 4 days, even though she found the studying hard work at first. There was a genuine sense of camaraderie between the divers and I can see why people get hooked.

Later that evening, whilst my jani lost herself in email world, I got stuck into a heated debate with two American chaps, Mark and Kevin, staying at the resort, essentially a discussion about whether or not the world would be a better place without arms (as in weapons, not your body part). Unsurprisingly GI Joe was pro-gun and I was anti-gun. It was one of those conversations that can only happen when fuelled on booze. One of the guys retired to bed and left me and Mark to carry on until the early hours, arguments augmented by a continuous supply of beer. We never reached an agreement but I enjoyed the mental jostle.

Saturday was lazy day. Unsurprisingly I awoke with a thumping head. Muneeza proceeded to run through what I had said and done when I got back to the room. To some people I am entertaining; luckily Muni is one of those peeps. We spent our last day in Dauin lying in bed watching shit films, ignoring the beautiful sunshine in favour of the darkness. Sometimes you have to do nothing.

Love jamer & muneeza x

Our first night on Negros in the Visayas was rather forgettable. Although 11th Street B&B in Bacolod was nice and friendly, the 24hr security detail insisted on playing music all night. Our room was above the reception area, so sleep was hard to come by. We had to get up early again to make the 8am bus from Bacolod to Sipalay, our first beach destination on our island trip.

The bus journey was not the greatest. The people were friendly as always but the bus itself was uncomfortable. Narrow seats, little legroom and basting heat that left us a little jaded. When we stepped off at Sipalay we were relieved. Our instructions from Peter, the owner of Driftwood Village where we had booked a cabin for 3 nights, were to head to the beach and find Driftwood Restaurant. From there everything would become clear. And so we did. We found Dexy, the eldest of 5 sisters working for Driftwood, who bade us wait while they fetched the boat from the creek. We were intrigued. 15mins later, we were asked to board the boat. The small wooden boat chugged merrily along the stunning coastline for about 20mins. In the distance we saw an inviting secluded beach, enclosed at both ends by rocky outcrops above dark caves. We hoped that Driftwood would be somewhere near. Inside I leapt with joy when the boat pulled up in the middle of that beach and the sign for Driftwood Village soothed weary eyes.

Sugar Beach, Sipalay

Driftwood is run by Peter, an affable Swiss-German chap, and Daisy, his beautiful Filipino wife. Helping them are Daisy’s 4 sisters, whose names all begin with the letter ‘D’ as well; Dexy, Dina, Divine and Dorothy. They also have 5 brothers; guess what letter their names begin with. Yep. In Daisy’s words, “crazy parents”. The village is paradise. I’m not using those words in vain either. Set back about 20 yards from the beach, the entire village is made from local wood. The accommodation comprises bamboo and thatched wooden huts on stilts with private bathrooms. Whilst rustic they have ample room (2 double beds with squito nets) and an outdoor porch area with tables, chairs and the requisite hammock to seal the relaxation list.

Near the beach is the reception, bar and restaurant. The restaurant is on two levels with an upper suspended balcony area offering nice views of the shoreline. Perfect for sunsets. The bar is set-up for fun with a pool table and table football. Well-tended gardens surround the buildings. We’re also miles from any town or road so the noise level is minimal.

To the caves

On our first afternoon, we hit the beach and I took a swim down to the caves at the far end whilst my jani walked along the sand snapping merrily away with her SLR. I had a brief look inside the big cave we had seen from the boat and discovered a mini beach inside with lots of rock shelves covered in crabs. Absolutely stunning. As Muni didn’t have her swimmies on, we agreed to come back the next day and enjoy the view together.

We headed back to our shack for a siesta. We got up with no idea what time it was and decided to eat. As soon as I opened the door, I shouted at Muni to get a move on. I could see the sunset in the distance and it looked incredible. We hit the beach and sat on a large piece of driftwood. We sat in silence as we absorbed the bright colours of an incredible sunset; orange, red, pink and yellow colliding to create an intoxicating skyline.

Sunset on Sugar Beach, Sipalay

We sat with Leah, a chatty Swiss girl, for dinner, hatched a plan to snorkel in the morning and retired early to catch up on sleep. After days of city din, the silence was deafening.

Beaten by the weather

Despite promising ourselves a fat lie-in, we got up at 07.30 to meet Leah for breakfast having agreed to go snorkeling together. Peter advised us that the mornings are better here as in the pm the water can get choppy and cut visibility. Local knowledge can be a good thing.

Alas we awoke to pouring rain. It was like opening the curtains on a grey winter’s day in London and shrinking back under the covers hoping it will pass. After breakfast we sat with the sisters for a chat, pondering the value of postponing the snorkel trip. With the clouds persistent we decided to wait and instead go for a wander down to the cave I had explored yesterday.

Muneeza and Leah set off by foot and I opted to swim, trying to inject some healthy living. We all swam out to the cave and discovered it was high tide, so the big beach I had seen before was now just a small smattering of sand. Nonetheless it was a cool place to explore and the view back out to sea was nice.

The hidden cave, Sipalay

We walked back to Driftwood along the sand and headed back to the cabin for some chill time. Our hopes that the clouds would lift were in vain as the rain returned and fell heavier. Snorkelling was off the cards but relaxing was back on. It’s a hard life.

We hit the hay hopeful of clear skies on Sunday so we could go kayaking along the coast. Alas we awoke to the tempest. Dark grey skies abounded and the rain was torrential. We sat down with the 5 D’s and found out more about their family. You couldn’t meet a lovelier family – all the girls are fun, friendly and caring and very pretty [note to Muneeza’s female friends – the princess herself pointed out to me how beautiful the girls were, so you’re not allowed to get all defensive on me!]. If you were a single male traveler, this place would be appealing.

Instead of a day exploring the area, we sat with the others beneath the large thatched open-air restaurant and idly passed time. It was a rather muted affair though the conversation was interesting thanks to a widely travelled Swiss chap whose knowledge of global politics got my attention. There was no let up in the weather in the afternoon, so we sat indoors and read. There’s not much you can do on a beach during a storm.

Despite the poor weather, we loved Driftwood. For me it’s the perfect place to come and escape life and it may well be my favourite place on this trip, which given the fun we’ve had is a big compliment. The exit reminded me of the simple joys of travelling. We walked along a deserted beach in the early morning haze, waves lapping on the shore. After passing through a tiny village a boatman paddled us across the narrow inlet and river. On the sliver of mainland, Sunny, our tricycle driver, was waiting and whisked us to the bus stop on the main road. We had just missed the bus, so he accelerated and headed to Sipalay town to get ahead of it so we didn’t have to wait another 45mins for the next one. We got on the bus and 5mins later it stopped abruptly. Sunny had driven after the bus to hand us a bag that I had left in his tricycle. That is genuine kindness and wonderful customer service.

Love jamer & muneeza x

After our wonderful time in The Cordillera, we headed back to Manila for an overnight stay before our flight down to Legaspi. We traded up to a plush apartment at the A Venue Hotel Suites and though expensive for Asia, at £50 we had a big suite with our own lounge and kitchen. After 8 months of budget travel we were living large and even had our own DVD player.

Our flight was at 09.10 so it meant another early morning. It seems to be a bit of a habit this. Even though we are free to do as we please, we always seem to have early morning journeys. On landing, despite the vocal pleas of the local taxi militia, we scooted to the Immigration Office for the small matter of our visa extension. For the princely sum of $60 each we got the required stamp. Rather annoyingly, in the Philippines you get a free 21 day visa on arrival but the only extension option is for an additional 38 days. You can’t just have 1 more week like we needed.  Oh well. Sting city.

Despite taxi drivers offering us a ‘bargain 1,000Php to Donsol’, we remained firm and took a tricycle to the bus depot. 45mins later we were on our way in a shared mini-van for only 75Php per person. Patience can be a virtue. We arrived around 1pm and checked into Giddy’s Place Dive Resort, having already booked ahead to guarantee a touch of luxury. My tiredness made me initially think we had been conned as the place looked nothing like the website photos but on further inspection it was pretty sweet. And later that evening we discovered the swimming pool and veranda that I thought had been fabricated for the website. Yes, I do make inaccurate snap decisions, quite often.

Having checked-in with our whaleshark adventure company and watched the briefing DVD, we headed home for an early night to prepare for the 6am alarm call.

Waking up for whalesharks

It’s not often I’m able to get straight up at 6am but my excitement got the better of me. After a rushed breakfast we took a tricycle down to the tour company office and awaited our departure. I was as twitchy as a basket of frisky kittens.

At just after 7am we were on our way with 2 Filipino brothers from Manila and an English dude and his Indonesian wife who hail from Essex. We had a great boat as the crew and passengers were all lovely. A Butanding Inspection Officer (BIO), who is qualified and responsible for upholding the rules of the whaleshark interaction, captains the boat. According to the briefing DVD, the local authorities respect the Butanding (local world for whaleshark) and are committed to ensuring human presence is respectful and does them no harm and causes them no stress. The key rule is that there may be no more than 6 people following any whaleshark at one time, with a maximum interaction time of 10mins per shark. In theory it is simple and easy to administer. In reality, people are idiots and have no ability to be controlled and respectful to nature. Especially Americans and Russians.

We sailed around for over an hour. The weather conditions made it hard for the crew to spot the Butanding. It was overcast and the water choppy, so visibility was low. However, these guys are highly experienced and have eyes like hawks. As my enthusiasm dimmed and I started to think we might not spot one of the sharks, an excited shout came from one of the other boats. The whalesharks were in town.

We were given the sign by the BIO to get in the water. Alas, I was too busy chatting so my mask and snorkel were nowhere near. By the time I got in the water, the whaleshark had disappeared. Muneeza was better prepared and had a good sighting as it was close to the surface. She had a big smile on her face and part of me was rather jealous. Still, plenty of time and my enthusiasm returned.

About 15mins later, we were given the signal again. This time I was ready and in there with swimwear. I looked down and initially saw nothing. However, we were in the shallows and the ocean bed was no more than 10m below me. Out of the darkness emerged a shadow and then the silhouette of a huge whaleshark came into view. As the clouds parted, the whaleshark was illuminated. I was no more than 3m above a 12m adult (our BIO estimated the length when we were back on the boat). It was a beautiful moment. The Butanding are the largest of the sharks and have an incredible pattern of bright white spots on their dark grey skin. They almost look phosphorescent in the sunlight. It’s quite surreal to be swimming alongside something this huge without fear. Luckily these animals are human-friendly and feed on plankton and fish.

Butanding in Donsol

However, the issue that would blight our morning soon became abundantly clear. I dived down to take a closer picture with my new underwater camera. I was just steadying myself to snap when another person swam in front of me, oblivious of my presence. Then another person, and another. They blocked my shot. I then tried to surface for air to discover lots of snorkelers above me, their legs thrashing wildly as they tried to follow the Butanding. They had no awareness of anyone else around or below them. One arsehole kicked me in the head with his flippers, yet he carried on regardless. I counted nearly 30 people following the same whaleshark, yet the briefing told us no more than 6 people were allowed to do this at any one time.

This pattern continued. All the boats circled like vultures and anytime our BIO, also irritated by this human commotion, found a quiet spot and prepared us for the next interaction, the other boats would swoop upon us. We would get perhaps 20-30 seconds of calm before the idiots from the other boats disturbed the water, killed the visibility and drove the whalesharks into the murky depths. I really wanted to hit them. One time I shouted at them, “Only 6 people at a time you lemmings” (bad words edited to save my parents’ blushes). It may have achieved nothing, but it made me feel better and got a laugh from the people on our boat.

Some people are so ignorant. All they care about is getting what they want and who cares if it inconveniences other people. It’s a soulless pursuit of tourist attractions with no care for the environment they are so lucky to have access to. After a while we told our BIO we didn’t want to go back in the water whilst the other boats were near us. It just wasn’t enjoyable, neither was it good for the Butanding who deserve greater respect. This is their home, not ours.

Our BIO understood, he had even pushed some of the other idiots away when we were in the water but to no avail. Thick people just come back for more. We headed away from the frenzy to find a quiet spot but then the storm clouds set-in and visibility was too low for any further spotting. We headed back to shore.

Whilst the ignorant fools who flouted the rules annoyed me immensely, we had a fantastic experience. The rare moments of tranquility swimming alone with the Butanding will be forever etched in our memory. They are beautiful creatures and swimming alongside something that is 12m long is not something you forget in a hurry. If we ever come back to the Philippines, I will come and try this again but make sure I hit the quiet season.

Butanding Donsol

Fireflies at night

This wasn’t on our itinerary but the brothers on the boat told us they were going to see the fireflies down by the river and Muneeza decided we should go too. And what a fine decision it turned out to be.

We met up with our fellow whalesharkers just before 6pm at the bridge where the river meets the ocean. There we paid our 250Php each and met our guide, Josh, a young local chap who spoke incredibly good English and was up for a laugh.

We climbed across a dilapidated old boat into our vessel, a slightly rickety wooden canoe with catamaran-esque wooden supports on either side. We sailed up the river as Josh gave us a brief history of the indigenous Filipino firefly. He really knew his stuff and I was pleasantly surprised at how interested I had suddenly become.

To cut a long 2hr story short, we ended up drifting with the ebb and flow of the soft current beneath a large tree in which the fireflies had gathered to perform their nightly dance. The sight was mesmeric. Initially each fly emits its own light sporadically, the females every 5 seconds and the males every 2 seconds. Give or take. Then, after a while something magical happens. The fireflies start to synchronise their flashing. The tree transforms into a living organism, a symphonic pulsing of light, rhythmic and enchanting. Waves of soft white light pulse along the boughs of the tree, above which the night sky is backlit with an array of stars. You can’t help but be enthralled by the spectacle. I never realised fireflies could be so mesmeric. They light show is repeated at intervals along both banks of the river, like a natural homing beacon inviting the boat crews home.

An unexpected diversion

Over dinner our Filipino friends, Jose and Michael, informed us that they were staying an extra night and would be able to drive us back to Legaspi in the morning, if we so desired. The added bonus was them throwing in a visit to the Mount Mayon viewing platform. An active volcano, Mt Mayon is one of the big draws in the Bicol region so we thought, mange tout.

The downside was another early alarm call, again at 6am. Wearily we climbed on board and set-off for Legaspi shortly after 7am. The journey was fun and we enjoyed our conversation with our friends who are well travelled and interesting.

Once in Legaspi they tracked down the viewing platform using the locals for directions. The viewing area is atop a small hill that is no more than 2km from the mountain itself. The top affords wonderful views, not only of the volcanic cone but of the surrounding countryside and the coastline. Muneeza spotted a zipline so I indulged. I splashed out on the ‘superman’ rig, with a triple harness that ensures you zip along headfirst and horizontal. For 20-30secs of fun it was a touch expensive but a lot of fun. To my left was the imposing shadow of the volcano, to my right lush gardens and Muni’s camera.

We then headed to the ruins of a church that was initially gutted by the Dutch in the 16th century, and then razed by a volcanic eruption after it was rebuilt. Nowadays all that remains is the bell tower, standing proud though ravaged by time. It makes for a stunning photo shoot – in the background you can see the slopes of Mt Mayon.

Our friends dropped us off at a restaurant to kill the few hours before the flight and I sit here on the airport floor, killing yet more time thanks to another delay.

Our detour to Donsol was most enjoyable. It was a long way to come and sucked up the cashola but it gave us one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. Perhaps we will make it ‘twice in a lifetime’ but there’s no guarantee. It was money and effort well spent. If you come to the Philippines, make the effort to go to Donsol.

Love jamer & muneeza x

We had a thoroughly enjoyable jeepney ride from Banaue to Sagada though it took some organising. We had arranged to travel with the Matej, Maya and Lucas, our Slovenian friends. We stood at the departure point for buses and jeepneys but it was a national holiday and in the midst of the local festival. Conflicting stories emerged, from there being no transport out of Banaue, to there only being the Baguio bound van for which we’d have to pay for an extra 4 seats to cater for our big bags.

Given my legendary morning patience, I marched back to the guesthouse to speak to the affable guide leader with whom I’d struck up the semblance of a friendship. I explained our dilemma and he then ushered over somebody whose boss runs jeepneys to Sagada. Moments later this chap whizzed me up the hill in his tricycle to an empty jeepney. The driver, a lovely chap called Michael, was awaiting 11 other passengers and agreed to take the 5 of us as well. He proceeded to drive me, now in my own personal jeepney, down to where the others were waiting, unsure of their ability to get out of town. I rolled down the window and shouted to Muneeza, “How about our own private jeepney then?” She shot me a look of amazement and they all piled in the back. We returned to the top of the hill and picked up the other passengers and set off around 9am, slightly later than planned but relieved to have found transport. Muneeza said it was typical of me to just turn up out of nowhere with a solution. I don’t like to take no for an answer.

Our fellow passengers were a motley and fun crew. There was a lone Israeli, Noam, who was fascinating to talk to because he was widely travelled and had a balanced view on the politics and cultural challenges in the Middle East. He was patriotic but also sympathetic to the Palestine cause and critical of his country’s political leadership. We engaged in deep debate for nearly 2 hrs. The other passengers were Filipino, a family from Cavite (just south of Manila) on their holiday, visiting The Cordillera for the first time as well. As with most people here, they spoke very good English so conversation was easy.

We rocked up at Sagada around 13.00 – the last leg of the journey an arduous climb into the mountains along a battered mud road that took nearly 1hr to achieve the princely distance of 18km. The road sign announcing a warm welcome to Sagada was misleading. The actual village was 20mins further up the road.

We checked in with the Tourist Information Centre (visitors must register and pay a compulsory 20Php fee, for your own protection apparently!) and then got Michael to drop us off at Sagada Homestay where we had made a reservation. We lucked in – the only private room with ensuite (as per our booking) was in The Cottage, a separate building with 2 bedrooms, large lounge/dining area and bathroom. As there was nobody else taking the second room, we had the place to ourselves for 2 nights. Sheer bliss. Add to that the location; the homestay is at the top of town, overlooking rolling hills and as peaceful as you can get backpacking. We sat down outside our cottage and sighed a sigh of immense satisfaction. Our Slovenian friends decided to stay in the same place and came to find us so we could organise an afternoon trek; trekking is the primary attraction in Sagada and the options, both physical and cultural, are bountiful.

Mountains of Sagada, The Cordillera

The Hanging Coffins

Muneeza had told me she wanted to see the Hanging Coffins long before we arrived here but I knew nothing about them, so was naturally intrigued. We found a local guide, Egbert, and set off on a 3hr round hike.

After passing through the town cemetery, containing a few poignant WWII memorials, we arrived in a small canyon with steep rock walls and hidden by trees. Egbert told us this was the place of the coffins but I was nonplussed. He then pointed out what my eye had so blindly missed; columns of wooden coffins supported by metal rods drilled into the rock faces, climbing up the cliffs. It was a surreal moment. For some reason I had expected mummified bodies hanging from trees; I hadn’t anticipated actual coffins hanging from the cliff face.

Hanging Coffins of Sagada

I asked Egbert to explain the reason for this type of burial. Many of the local tribes have practiced animistic beliefs for centuries. Whilst the modern day Philippines reflects most of the major world religions, animist traditions persist in most of the rural areas. Luckily, the country is quite tolerant, so organised religion coexists peacefully with animist and pagan tradition. The ancestral village elders believed that by hanging the coffin of the deceased, the body would be in commune with nature and the spirit would pass more easily to the afterlife. The family of the deceased will try to find a place near other dead relatives and first bring the coffin, then the body. The logistics of some of the burial sites are incredible – some coffins are wedged in cracks hundreds of feet from the cliff top or bottom. It would have taken time, patience and great concentration to bring the coffins and bodies to these resting places. Not to mention a touch of personal danger to those still alive.

The hike wound its way through the canyon and along the riverbed. We had an amusing confrontation with a protective female water buffalo that resented our intrusion on her patch. We walked through parts of the village towards the small waterfall. The waterfall is surrounded by farmers’ fields and enclosed by mountains. As it was late afternoon, the local kids had amassed to play in the fresh water pool and make increasingly daring leaps from the rock ledges. I jumped in to test the depth and, reassured, proceeded to the rock ledges for some jumping and diving action. I made it up to about 20ft but was outclassed by a few of the more cavalier kids who leapt from a ledge a further 6ft above me. As my jump had made me hit the rocky bottom of the pool with ease, I opted out of increasing the height. Yes, I am gay.

Small Waterfall, Sagada

We headed back to town via the backyards of the local farmers and rewarded our energetic afternoon with a slap up meal at Francis Café, a cheap as chips local shack that served fantastic Filipino food. It was then back to Sagada Homestay to get drunk with the Slovenians. We bought what we could get our hands on; cheap flavoured vodka, rice wine and stomach stripping rum. It was all going well until I discovered that the rice wine that Lucas assured me was kosher, was actually rice wine vinegar. He still assured me it was wine, so I hit another mouthful and nearly gagged, much to the amusement of the others. On that note we decided it was time to sleep before we started drinking something worse.

To the mountains

On Friday 29th, after a leisurely morning enjoying a late brunch, I headed to town to organise a guide to hike in the mountains. Muni had decided it was time to be lazy and had no interest in putting herself through more physical exertion, so I ventured out alone.

I picked up a friendly guide called Acalay who spoke good English and we set off to claim the mountains. Having had a cold for the past few days, the climb was more demanding than I had anticipated and I was soon out of breath and sweating like a corrupt politician.

Despite the physical pain, the hike was wonderful. We passed through an alpine-meadow like landscape, past a half-full lake, and into the dense forest that clung to the side of the mountains. The colours of the flora were vivid and above us birds of prey circled. Hopefully not expecting my sudden demise. In places, as we emerged from the trees, I had a 360° panorama of the mountains that engulf the tiny village of Sagada. It was so peaceful that we sat down to enjoy the silence.

Sagada Mountains

We climbed and descended 3 peaks before beating a path back to Sagada village. Acalay imparted a great deal of local knowledge to me, gained from a life spent in these hills. As a child he spent a lot of time wandering the mountains to harvest crops such as tea and bring water from wells. The town now has a reliable fresh water source via miles and miles of piping but Acalay still harvests mountain tea every time he guides. Old habits die hard.

Perhaps the nicest part of the hike was the walk back through the lower part of town that I hadn’t seen before. We snaked across the small patches of farmland tended by the villagers and through the narrow alleys that intersect the houses. We stopped at a hut where local rituals are performed and animals sacrificed for a higher purpose. It was at this point that Acalay explained his love for dog meat. He offered to get me some but I explained that, because we love dogs as pets in England, the thought of eating them as meat isn’t our cup of mountain tea. He laughed and walked on.

I said goodbye to Acalay content that I’d had a wonderful afternoon and learned a lot about the local culture and customs. Muneeza was out when I got back to the room and when she returned she recounted her afternoon’s adventures. In the space of 2 hours, she had been harassed by a man wanting to get her into his house for some adult antics, scared by a dog that kept trying to bite her and befriended by an old female teacher who recited Shakespeare verses to her over a hot chocolate and croissant. My adventure may have afforded me the chance to absorb the finer gifts of nature but hers had definitely been more random and entertaining, for me at least.

The evening after my hike, I sat outside our bungalow, absorbing the spectacular view of rolling mountains in the early evening penombre. Muni joined me and pointed out the loud sound of screaming in the background. Jolted from my slumber, I realised that we could hear the high pitched and desperate squeals of pigs being slaughtered. It was a blood-curdling screech that made us feel a little uneasy. Yes we both eat meat, yes we’ve both eaten halal food but when you hear that noise and stop to consider the plight of the animal, it does make you feel a touch guilty. I still tucked into a tasty pork dish for dinner.

The perfect pace of life

Sagada is a mountain paradise. It’s a place where you can easily lose yourself for days, weeks, even months if you have no set agenda and no need to move on. The people are so chilled, no doubt thanks to the serenity of their surroundings. The air is clean and the town quiet thanks to a lack of vehicles and only a handful of passing tourists. Why this place is void of visitors amazes me – it has so much to offer. However, given the remote access and need for patience with transport connections, it’s nicely protected from the rabble. I’d love to come back here next time I find myself in the Philippines, it’s an adventure scarcely begun.

Love jamer & muneeza x

With a rare twist of cultural luck, the Banaue district festival (called “Imbayah” in Filipino) started on Tuesday 26th April. And we were in town. The festival, patronised by all the local villages, takes place once every 4 years. We had definitely lucked it.

We awoke early, much to my jani’s consternation and protestation, at 7am to get up to catch the start of the procession. Alas it was late in reliable Asian style, so we sat around chatting to the staff until it kicked off at 8.20. The procession consists of a delegation from each of the 18 local villages in Banaue. Each village prepares at least 1 year in advance and it is a real source of pride for the people, a chance to demonstrate the unique culture and customs of their village. The procession starts at the bottom of town and winds its way through the streets, easy viewing from our guesthouse balcony.

In each delegation there are 2 sections: the first section comprises the chiefs (people dressed up as tribal chiefs and warriors) and the ‘security guards’ – carved wooden figures that protect the villagers; behind them is a trail of men and women dressed in traditional robes, singing and dancing and wearing the clothes of the land. Some are dressed as traditional peasant farmers and rice terrace workers, robed in simple sackcloth; others boast colourful outfits reflecting the heritage of their village and ancestry.

Village procession at Banaue Imbayah

Most of the second section for each village is full of children, both boys and girls. The girls march on one side of the road, the boys on the other – very much like a school disco. Except school discos don’t take place on roads, that would be dangerous. It was fascinating to look closely at the faces of the people as they passed; the face is supposedly the window to the soul and we also think it’s the window to the culture. The Filipino people are incredibly photogenic; the older men and women have warm, inviting faces and the children are beautiful. Most people wear eternal smiles that light up the day, so the occasional sour face really stands out. It was fun watching the parade to spot those poor souls who weren’t really feeling the love.

The noise from the street is deafening at times. The men beat primitive instruments. I don’t mean that to be patronising, it’s just that these instruments have been used for centuries in their villages, most of which are crudely hand carved from natural materials. The weapon of choice for the parade leaders is a bronze hand-held symbol that is rhythmically thrummed to create an intoxicating beat. The women clap hands, some coconut shells, to provide a complimentary percussion. The children clack small wooden shells and sway in time. It’s a hypnotic effect but after 2hours we were over it and opted for a little siesta before the afternoon’s shenanigans.

Children of the Banaue villages

Let the games begin

After the hullabaloo of the procession, the serious matter of competition begins. Each village competes in a series of events to gain prestige and also to have a lot of fun.The events are bizarre by our standards but that simply adds to the charm of the experience. Some of the games involved the ritual sacrifice of animals. First up was the wild pig, previously carted through town with its legs trussed up and its snout dangling free. The pig was slaughtered with a farmer’s blade and then it appeared that a drink was made of rice wine and blood. We’re not entirely sure but that is the verdict of our Slovenian friends who embibed the reddy mixture, those crazy Slavics. More fool them, perhaps they’ll be haunted by the ghostly spirit of the pig.

Less violent games involved the men competing in the central square with a series of sticks that they had to knock off of a playing arena. It was like lawn bowls with wooden sticks. The rice wine tasting excluded the audience much to my disappointment. I’d heard good things about the local fire water.

The most enjoyable part of the afternoon was walking amongst the throngs of excited locals, all adding to the unique atmosphere. Late afternoon we congregated by the main stage where a presentation was taking place. We didn’t understand the Filipino announcer and the English version was rather confusing. We got the parts thanking the former President for opening the festival and the Lord Major of the District for his presence. However, we were genuinely confused by the presence of a team of 6 people in blue branded polo shirts on stage. They were receiving a lot of adulation from the crowd and when they exited stage left, everyone queued to have their photos taken with them.

Unknown popular people in Banaue

I nudged Muneeza and asked her to get a photo out of curiosity. One of the team, a surprisingly tall man about my age, clocked the tourists and then headed over to speak to us. I maintain he was checking out Muneeza’s ample charms but she doth protest too much. He introduced himself as Phillip and asked us about our plans in the Philippines. He was a lovely chap and spoke fluent English, having spent quite a lot of time in London when he was younger. Stupidly I failed to ask who he was and why he was on stage, not through shyness but simply being too chilled to think. After he left, we then tried to work out who he was. We showed the photo to the staff at our guesthouse but they were nonplussed as well. So we now have a photo of someone perhaps important, perhaps not, but nonetheless popular in Banaue. I suggested to Muni that he is a celebrity, perhaps an actor or musician, hence the excitement amongst the younger spectators. Or maybe he’s the president’s son. Who knows, the mystery will endure.

A special occasion

It was an honour to be part of the festival. Many of the local Filipino people made the effort to explain to us what was happening and why. They are an incredibly friendly and hospitable people, reminding us of Indonesia. The villagers did everything with a sincere smile. Their faces are warm and kind and show a wisdom that is only gained by being at peace with yourself, your neighbours and nature. It was a wonderful day spent with wonderful people. This is our first taste of the Philippines and we love it.

Love jamer & muneeza x

So this is it, our last country on the epic adventure – well our last country together. We touched down in Manila in the early hours of April 23rd and our pick-up was waiting as planned. We were whisked to our hotel; the Lonely Planet “our pick” called Malate Pensionne. After 2 nights with little sleep in noisy Singapore, the guidebook description made us think we’d find a peaceful abode. Think again. The guesthouse is a dive and is located in the heart of the red light area in downtown Manila. As soon as we opened our room, we heard the base beat of the nearby discos and karaoke bars. Muneeza sensed my rising anger and headed to reception to find a better room. Luckily they had one more available on the other side of the hotel and this one was thankfully quiet, though dark and dingy. As we were only staying for one night the desire for sleep outweighed the need for a decent room.

We passed into deep sleep almost immediately. The next day we discovered how gypsy the place was. The shared bathrooms looked like they had never been cleaned. Each time we follow the advice of the Lonely Planet for accommodation or food, it proves a rogue guide. We have no idea how the writers can make these recommendations, they just don’t seem very in-tune with travelers, or not those we have met anyway.

We dumped our bags and, having secured tickets for the 10.45 night bus to Banaue, killed the spare time exploring the nicer parts of town. We had a lovely walk around Intramuros, the old walled city that was the centrepiece of Spanish Manila in the 16th century. Alas during WWII the Japanese and Americans leveled most of the city, killing nearly 100,000 Filipinos in the process, and what remains is an allusion to an illustrious bygone era.

Muni respecting culture at Intramuros, Manila

We were relieved to board the night bus, as Manila didn’t really excite us. On our road I was constantly hassled to buy Viagra and other drugs. Perhaps I look like I’ve got performance issues. The streets are adorned with pimps, prostitutes, strippers, drug pushers and lady-boys. It’s not even amusing, it’s just tacky and sleezy and not where we wanted to stay. The Lonely Planet failed to mention any of this in its review. Useless.

Chilling in Banaue

First stop in North Luzon was Banaue, renowned for its stunning rice terraces that are now UNESCO World Heritage listed. After a 9hr body-jerking bus trip through the mountains, we disembarked at Banaue around 8am and a jeepney (strange hybrid between a jeep and a truck) took us into town.

We checked into the People’s Lodge and were happy enough with the room. Very basic but the sheets were clean and our window looked out onto the hills. The relaxing sound of the river faded in and out of our consciousness as we drifted to sleep, exhausted from the over night journey.

We spent the 24th organizing a trek to the rice paddies for Monday 25th. We met 3 cool Slovenians on the bus and arranged to trek together to share the costs of guides and transport. Having made plans, we then took a gentle stroll through town. Banaue is really small, population only 2,600, so it doesn’t take long to see the sights. We chilled at the guesthouse and watched One day in September, a docu-film about the siege of the Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. It’s an amazing film but it left us saddened by the darker side of humanity and the destructive legacy of global politics.

Behold the wonder of the rice paddies of Batad

We left at 8am on the 25th with our guide, Winston. No, he wasn’t from Jamaica. It took a painful 1hr jeepney ride to reach the trailhead, passing along a smashed up rocky road. The trek itself was wonderful. You start on one of the mountain peaks and climb steeply down to the path that winds across peaks and valleys towards Batad.

On all sides you see glorious panoramas of rolling mountains, lush with greenery. It’s surprisingly hot and humid for a mountainous region. After 45mins walking and seemingly out of nowhere, the town of Batad emerges and the spectacular sight of the rice paddies erupts from all around.

Batad rice paddies

The Ifugao people built the rice paddies more than 2,000 years ago, hewn out of the hillsides using primitive tools and a remarkable irrigation system for the period. Not only is the structure impressive but also the builders were clearly artists because the sculpted landscape is mesmeric and beautiful to behold.

The village of Batad is tiny, with a collection of ramshackle huts and houses, mainly built of wood and corrugated iron. We placed our lunch order at a restaurant and marched on to our next destination, the waterfall. The path was steep and narrow with vertical drops of hundreds of metres in some places. It took 1hr to reach the waterfall and we were all sweat drenched by then. I eagerly stripped off and jumped in the cool water to drop my body temperature. The current from the falling water was really strong and it was hard work to swim across to the rocky ledges on the far side, from which you could dive into the pool. The water drops from about 50m, so it’s impossible to get inside the water chute because it would strip your skin.

At the water’s edge, I slipped behind a rock to change back into my trek kit away from the eye line of the other tourists. Muneeza had waited back up on the path and could see me, so I opted for the cheeky mooning. However, I forgot that there was also an old lady sat there, selling drinks. Apparently, when I bared my pearly white globes, she shrieked with delight. I’ve still got it.

We headed back for lunch and it was a hot hard climb back up the path. We were all happy to tuck into some local food, a healthy chicken agado (type of stew with vegetables). The view from the restaurant was superb – straight out across the waves of rice paddies and valleys we had just climbed.

It was a reluctant group who stood up to walk back to the jeepney at the very top of the mountain. The walk isn’t technically difficult but it’s steep and hot. We stopped enroute to buy some local woodcarvings and watch the guy work. His cute kids were the money keepers, though the daughter had to keep picking up notes his really young son kept dropping. Eventually we reached the end point and climbed back into the jeepney for the tortuous drive back along the road from hell. The Chris Rea song was in my head most of the way.

We had planned to head off on Tuesday for Bontoc but Winston told us that a festival was taking place the next day and it happens only once every 4 years, bringing together all the local villages to compete in a series of games and challenges. We decided to hang around and soak up the atmosphere.

Love jamer & Muneeza x