Relaxing, caving, biking and learning to spell in the Philippines – July, 2012

Relaxing, caving, biking and learning to spell in the Philippines – July, 2012

All pictures are here.

Monday, the 1st of July. This date means a lot to Hong Kong. It’s the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. It is aptly celebrated by literally blowing up HKD 5M (yes, five million dollars) in the form of fireworks. It’s also a day when a large number of people dissatisfied with the government of Hong Kong take to the streets to protest. Some protest over serious matters like democracy in Hong Kong aka “Universal Suffrage” (I still don’t know what that means) while others protest over supposedly serious matters, i.e. things like too many mosquitoes on The Peak or the weather being too cold during winter, etc, etc. And, to me, that can only mean one thing – hiking, biking and relaxing in some remote destination!

And so came the desire to jet set to the Philippines for the weekend plus a day to do some hiking, biking, swimming and caving. Strangely, the first thought that always comes to mind when the Philippines is mentioned to me is not the white sand beaches or that hugely popular witty response by that famous Filipino beauty pageant. Know what I am talking about? During a Miss World or Miss Universe contest, a panel of judges asked this Filipino beauty pageant how many islands there were in the Philippines. Her response was, “during the tide or after?”

What instead comes to my mind when “The Philippines” is mentioned to me is … spelling! Tell me truthfully, how many of you can even spell the name “Philippines” correctly? And, once you scratch the “spelling” surface, there’s more super hard spelling!

My getaway plan called for taking a budget airline to Cebu on Friday night, and a ferry to Dumaguete on Saturday morning to meet my partner-in-crime Liza Avelino. Wait.. Duma.. what? (There you go.. hard spelling again). And, it doesn’t end there. From Dumaguete, the plan called for taking yet another ferry to the island of Siquijor. (No, I do not know how to properly spell that, much less pronounce that!) But, what I do know is that it’s supposed to be an island offering sparkling white sand beaches, pristine hiking trails, mysterious caves, a thrilling motorbike ride and much, much more! And, of course, thanks to all the inevitable lessons in spelling that one will invariably have the benefit of learning, it also offers the chance to win the next Spelling Bee competition.

Friday, 2012-06-29
I took a budget airline, Air Phil Express, from Hong Kong to Cebu. It wasn’t hard to say that it was a budget airline. The boarding gate was at the remotest possible corner of the Hong Kong airport (I almost needed another flight to get to the boarding gate) and the flight attendants were wearing quite ordinary looking budget tee shirts and shorts. (They surely need a lesson or two from Eva Air).

I stayed at a backpackers place Cebu Guesthouse. I arrived there at close to 11pm and spent the night in a dorm room at a nominal cost of 350 pesos (HKD 50) a night! The online reviews of this guesthouse were terrible. I thought it was going to be one of those keep-wallet-hidden-in-underwear kind of experiences but it wasn’t all that bad! Decent enough bed and friendly fellow backpackers.

The dorm in Cebu Guesthouse (about 15 mins from the pier)

Saturday, 2012-06-30
I woke up nice and early at 4.45am and checked out by 5.10am. As I was leaving, I was getting directions to the pier from a sleepy-looking guy at the reception and told him that I eventually wanted to get to Siquijor. His reaction was “Ah? Ah? Ah?” and he squinted his eyes as though as I had insulted his mother. I had to spell the name for him (I tried) and he immediately corrected me in the same manner an irate teacher would correct an incompetent student. “Not Seek-a-gor”, he exclaimed, “it’s Si-ki-or!” I nodded my head in acceptance of this new found enlightenment and proceeded to learn that Dumaguette is correctly pronounced “Doom-a-get-te” (i.e. a slight Italiano twist to the name, rhyming with “latte”) and not “Doom-a-get” as in rhyming with “baguette”. Seriously, the French language is in for some serious competition! Speaking of which, I remember calling up a French guy called Benoit and I thought his name rhymed with Deloitte. How “Benoit” becomes “Ben-wah” when pronounced is beyond me. Had Deloitte been owned by some French dude, would it be called “Del-wah”? And the same with “Francois”. How it becomes “Fun-swah” and not “Frank-o-ise” when pronounced will forever remain a mystery. Agent Fox Mulder and Dana Scully from the X-Files should be working on this case.

Anyway, back to the original story, so I reached Dumaguette at 10.30am after what seemed like an eternal boat ride. A whole 4.5 hours is what it took to get to Dumaguette from Cebu. At first glance, I couldn’t find anything too appealing about the island. Or perhaps the Italian twist to the name raised my expectations unfairly. (They should have called it Chung King islands and I could have related to it better). Liza was waiting for me at the port and we took the 11.30am ferry to Siquijor. Then came yet another 2-hour long boat ride. Eventually, after spending close to 6.5 hours on a boat in one day, we reached the calm and peaceful island of Siquijor.

Taking the Oceanjet ferry to Port Dumaguette

The island at the distance is Dumaguette

Arriving in Dumaguette in style

On the ferry to Siquijor, we were joined by two brave backpacking girls, Jen and Mary from Quebec, Canada. Both of them were globetrotting on a budget for a duration of about 3 months. The four of us hired a tricycle to transport us from the ferry pier in Siquijor to JJ’s Guesthouse in San Juan (about 30 minutes away). Btw, in case you are wondering, the “tricycle”, is really a bastardized version of a motorbike. It is kind of like one of those insane biological hybrids you read about on the news, where, for instance, a camel and horse mate to produce a “camel-o-horse” (a horse with a camel’s nose). Similarly, this 125cc “tricycle” is essentially, a makeshift mini-carriage attached to one side of a struggling motorbike. You ask me, “tricycle” is the wrong name for this invention. If the President of Philippines Mr. Nino Aquino is reading this, I move that this contraption be called “Mopney” instead of “tricycle”. Allow me to explain. According to popular knowledge and belief, a “tricycle” is supposed to have three wheels – one at the front and two symmetrical wheels at the back, right? Well, the current Philippines version of the “tricycle” also has 3 wheels but they are unequally spaced and unsymmetrical. All it is really is a weird combination of a motorbike and a carriage, not a tricycle. A “Jeepney” is what they call a chartered jeep in the Philippines. Going by the same logic, a charted motorbike should be called “Mopney”, right? Hence my name for it. Anyway, imagine transporting 4 people on this vehicle! The “mopney” sputtered to a start and the noise it made while climbing every small bump on the road made it sound like it was going to explode.

Girl power on a “mopney” – Jen, Mary and Liza

JJ’s guesthouse was very neat and the owner, a lady married to an Australian guy, was very accommodating. Upon arriving there, we spent minimal time exchanging pleasantries and headed straight for the beach-facing restaurant where I ended up ordering the entire vegetarian menu.

JJ’s Guesthouse in Siquijor, Philippines

The restaurant at the guesthouse overlooking the beach

The dorm

The beautiful beach!

We then rented a “motorbike” and went on a ride around the island. Btw, calling that vehicle a “motorbike” would be an insult to all the motorbikes in the world! It had the power of superman on kryptonite and the pickup of a turtle. All my macho-ness was fading away when I sat on that!

From a 250cc Kawasaki Ninja motorbike in HK to this!

The 80km trip around the island was serene. Btw, did I tell you that Siquijor has yet another “attraction” other than its beaches and greenery? It’s infamous for witchcraft and sorcery! In fact, the Filipinos living in other parts of the Philippines refrain from visiting Siquijor for this reason. So, as I was riding this so-called motorbike, I saw several very weird objects dangling from certain trees.

Cruising in style wearing a bad boy helmet

A church in Siquijor

Welcome to Siquijor – the land of beaches, trails, caves and WITCHCRAFT

What are these alien objects dangling from the trees? A witch’s spell?

My first thought was that a nearby witch was trying to cast an evil spell on anyone crossing that stretch of road. However, Liza quickly put a sudden end to my farfetched thinking. She explained to me that the “weird objects” were really mangoes and that the locals wrap them up in newspaper to prevent insects from biting into them! (I didn’t have any convincing comeback for her but still liked my version better).

We spent the evening at the beach by JJ’s guesthouse with the intent of taking a dip in the water, but, this time, it really seemed like the evil witches of Siquijor had cast a spell on us and didn’t want us swimming in the beach. The beach initially looked shallow and clear but as we proceeded to take a dip in it, we discovered that it was full of sea-urchins and seaweed, thus preventing us from swimming.

The clear beach. Too bad it was full of seaweed and sea urchins

A star fish

What is this? Fish poo?

Dining by the beach – Mary, Liz, me and Jen

And so, we switched to Plan B. Nightlife! But, hey, you can never underestimate the power of the witches. They’re like the FBI! Their spell also had a disastrous effect on Siquijor’s top spot for nightlife entertainment, which was -lo and behold- a rundown place seating a maximum of 4 people and featuring a state-of-the-art karaoke jukebox.

We went there in the hope of listening to a live band but the only “live band” we had the privilege of listening to was a 50+ year-old granny who was desperately trying to sing the song “Wake me up when September ends” by Greenday. Unfortunately, she was singing in a voice that wouldn’t wake anyone up. Ever. Greenday should have heard this version. They would have renamed the band to Lousyday. Liza came to the rescue though. Initially, there were some glitches. Each time she tried to sing a Carpenters tune, the microphone wouldn’t let her. But, later on, the microphone somehow suddenly started to work. (I suspect the witches couldn’t stand the granny singing either). So, after singing a few tunes, we were chatting with fellow “nightclub” goers – an impressive total of not one or two or three but FOUR dudes (three of whom had the personality of a dead fish). We concluded the day over a few beers and returned to JJ’s for a comfortable night’s sleep.

The “nightlife”. 2 bored dudes are watching while granny is trying to sing a Greenday song!

This gecko is the only member of the audience paying attention to the singing granny

Liza comes to rescue everyone with her singing

Sunday, 1st July 2012
There’s nothing like waking up to the noise of rain lashing against the roof of a wooden hut. In a calm and peaceful island like Siquijor, the rain only adds to the mystique and serenity – especially, when you are relaxing and admiring the rain from a sheltered wooden cabin facing the beach. The rain was well-behaved as well. It rained just long enough for it to have a soothing effect on the body and mind. By the time we got out of bed to have breakfast, the sun started to appear from behind the clouds.

At breakfast, we were joined by several other backpackers. JJ’s beach-facing restaurant felt like it was the official epicenter of a backpackers’ union. Our plans to go caving attracted quite a few of them. We had Juan Ping (hard spelling again -Spanish name- hope I got it right!) and his Ukrainian girlfriend Marina from the US; Philip and Silvia from Germany who had PhDs in bio-chemistry and Roni from Israel who was taking an year off after military service.

The owner of JJ’s Guesthouse. J for “Jessa” and the other J, I’m not sure!

Juan from Columbia and Marina from Ukraine

The 7 of us plus a guide rode our Harleys all the way from JJ’s to the famous caves of Siquijor. The entrance to the cave was so narrow that it involved quite a bit of crawling and squeezing to get in. It almost felt like a typical Hong Kong apartment! There was waist-deep water in several parts of the cave. We had to wade through this murky water while ducking on frequent occasions to prevent our heads from knocking against the rock-hard stalactites dangling precariously from up above. Fortunately, we were issued helmets before we descended into the caves. Initially, I thought that those helmets were for wimps and sissies but I can tell you now – it ain’t pleasant banging your head against a stalactite, so wear one!

Our Harleys parked outside the cave area

We aren’t construction workers – we’re cave explorers!

The group – Liza, Marina, Roni, Philip, Silvia, me and Juan

The stalactites in the cave

Also, I realized that caving requires quite a bit of imagination and an open mind. Speaking of which, here’s an absolutely true story. Remember the witch of Siquijor I told you about? Well, there is very strong evidence to suggest that she is actually hiding in these caves! Don’t believe me? Take a look.

This is the cave witch!

There is also ample and compelling proof that suggests that this pampered witch wallows in luxury. Luxury Gucci handbags, Christian Louboutin shoes, Hermes pants – she has to have it all! In fact, she can’t even live without her expensive, ceramic bathtub and her queen sized bed. (I suspect she’s had some sort of coaching from the mistress of a tycoon in Hong Kong). Here, take a look at her high living standards.

The witch’s expensive bathtub

Her expensive shower. (She left the water running)

Her queen size bed

She even has her very own private swimming pool and waterfalls. Can you beat that? An even more luxurious life than the Queen of England! Today, we took the liberty of taking a dip in her pool.

Philip taking a dip in the witch’s pool

Taking a group photo by the witch’s pool

Group photo #2

The witch’s crown

Navigating our way through the cave

It took a total of about two hours to explore the witches’ cave. After spending all that time in darkness, It was a quite a relief to see the sun again!

The next item on the agenda for the day was hiking. Actually, “hiking” is the wrong word for it. I’d call it “climbing-up-the-stairs-of-a-100m-steel-structure” because all we really did was to climb up the stairs of a 100m steel structure! There was a purpose though. The top of this steel structure was supposed to be the highest viewpoint in Siquijor. Taking photographs from here was mandatory.

View from the top of the 100m steel structure

It took a maximum of one minute to get back down and that concluded the “hiking”. But, you really have to expect the unexpected in Siquijor as there is always some black magic in the air! As we came back down, a park official magically appeared out of nowhere and charged us 10 pesos each for this kick ass, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb up a 100m steel structure! We had no choice but to unhesitatingly oblige and felt extremely lucky and privileged for both the chance to climb up those twenty steps AND on top of that, to pay for the experience!

Then came the waterfalls. Siquijor is supposed to feature several bluish, crystal-clear waterfalls but not today! The rain in the morning meant that the water was all murky and muddy. And, unless we wanted a mud bath, we couldn’t really take a dip in the waterfalls.

The waterfalls

But, unshaken by the muddy waters, we decided to head back to JJ’s for a party by the beach. We had the two key ingredients necessary for a party – people and beers! And before heading back, we indulged in some fresh coconut drinks. It couldn’t get any more fresh than plucking the coconut right out of the tree. And that’s exactly what our guide’s friend did for us. First, he dazzled us with his coconut tree climbing moves, and then he followed up the act with some slick moves from a machete. All it took was three swift strokes from a machete on a freshly fallen coconut and one thirsty stomach was served. (Actually, half a stomach. I had two of them).

Indulging in fresh coconuts

So, once we reached JJ’s, we loosened up to some reggae music at the beach-facing restaurant and spent the evening preparing for a barbecue. Then came a storm! Literally. Without any warning whatsoever, it came at us sending strong gusts and rain our way in full force and literally blowing away our barbecue plans. Nonetheless, it was an incredible experience just to watch nature flex her arms from the comfort of a sheltered beach-facing hut. I was discovering a sense of newfound inner-peace by just closing my eyes and listening to the sound of the rolling waves, the howl of the wind and smelling the fresh scent of rain.

The storm is approaching

Starting the evening party

Liza aptly concluded the day and the trip by having her palm read by some local Siquijor magic healer. I was too scared to have mine read. What if he digs out all the skeletons in my closet? Or worse, some lady at a shop we went to hinted that she would cast a spell on me and have me married to some local Siquijor girl! Definitely not the kind of spell I want! So, I passed on the opportunity.

Liza having her palm read

Monday, 2nd July, 2012
It was time to wake up early again and make the 5.5 hour boat journey back to Cebu.

We bid goodbye to everyone at JJ’s, swapped contact information with fellow backpackers and went our separate ways. We then took the afternoon flight back from Cebu to Hong Kong to resume the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong life.

Making journey back to Cebu via Dumaguette and Bohol

Bohol – or the port of Tagbilaran

A sinking ship lies next to an advertisement for the University of Cebu

Notice at the Cebu airport – Sssshh, no cracking bomb jokes!

Leaving Cebu

Landing in Hong Kong

The verdict
Siquijor is the sort of place where life naturally runs at a much slower, relaxed pace. It is an idyllic environment for a quick getaway to rejuvenate, relax and clear the mind. There are far less tourists than there are in Bohol and I only saw a handful of cars on the road. This is what makes it a great calming and serene escape from the mundane, fast-paced city life of Hong Kong. But, if you’ve got more days to spare, I’d recommend Palawan (next on my list) for something a little more adventurous.

And, btw, it doesn’t matter where you go in the Philippines but once you’re back, you’ll find that your ability to spell and pronounce have suddenly become a whole lot better! Speaking of which, does anyone know how to enter the next Spelling Bee competition? Benoit, Francois, Siquijor, Dumaguette, Tagbilaran.. bring it on!