Flying on to Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines at about 3:30am local time I was excited at the prospect of a new tropical destination. If you are a follower of this Inquisitive Scorpion you know this is the climate we prefer. Arriving late night we were blast with the humidity and standing water of a recent downpour. Hailing a yellow taxi outside the terminal was easy, the comfort however was lacking as I rearranged the seat back into it’s proper position and felt every broken spring as we sat. Later we found that white taxis or vans provide higher levels of comfort with barely any increase in fare. As we crossed the bridge into the city my brain passed across the justification for the slum like conditions we passed on the streets our driver chose. I justified it by a back roads path with less traffic that the driver was “in the know” about. As the days of this week long stay passed I learned these “third world” conditions were the common denominator of all neighborhoods of the city and Visayas Region 7 we traveled. A side of me wanted to label this blog post Filipino Fiasco but I resisted as there were some saving graces but they pale in comparison to the squalor we witnessed that the majority of these citizens consider normal. One week in one city and its surrounding region is not enough information for a final verdict but unless someone tells us the way to take in the beauty of these islands and not encounter any of its impoverishment I doubt this country will see us again. We are grateful for the gift of the life we lead without a doubt. We are also thankful to have made a small difference for the few we encountered in this country. We had not researched extensively as this was a last minute off shoot of our ultimate and familiar destination of Thailand. In the recounting of the highlights of our travel to this country I will offer some of my observations as well as hope that I might receive some comments to fill us in on just how to make the most of these island’s beauty because we left with mostly disdain. I do not have pictures to post to represent this poverty. Pictures from inside the taxi did not turn out well and we simply did barely any walking so opportunities were not great to capture the images of what my mind’s eye holds. Also, it felt invasive of the little privacy these natives probably have to capture the images of how they live.
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We were greeted at Quest in English by very friendly staff and check in was a breeze and we were settling into our 14th floor room overlooking the pool and a small slice of the sea in no time. The room was clean and spacious. We found the shower to be satisfyingly hot with lots of pressure. The bed was firm and comfortable and all linens were of good quality. We slept quickly this first night so we wouldn’t be too out of sync from the red eye flight. Upon rising we were starving and took advantage of the room service menu to order breakfast and lattes. The food quality was good and service friendly and efficient. These countrymen definitely have a grasp of the English language more often than not making for ease in all communications we had. The hotel was all decked out for Christmas as was the mall, a joyous season that our driver explained they started celebrating early and extended through January as it was the happiest time of year that gives them cause to enjoy life. We spent a leisurely afternoon poolside soaking up the sun and enjoying the refreshing water. Sunset came quickly at five o’clock and we showered and dressed in anticipation of our first walk about town.
Walking a new city is one of our fondest parts of these adventures. Immersing ourselves in the culture and getting a feel for the lives of the people entertains us. We headed out the hotel door and as the doorman inquired about our destination we felt some of his hesitation which at this point we were unsure as to its source, he was quite taken aback that we were walking. My honey had already mapped directions to our first destination, Mango Square (about 35 minute walking distance) where we had read there was some nightlife and we expected restaurants, bars, shops, the usual tourist trap type area you find in beach cities elsewhere. (Mexico and Thailand for example) As we made our way we sensed the congestion of traffic and were surprised by the condition of the neighborhood of the hotel but continued on the path laid out for us on our Maps app. I could feel a sense of urgency from my husband, an unusual discomfort of sorts. Finally we thought we had hit the edge of the tourist corridor when we came upon a Jollibee (a favorite fast food chain of the locals), a Mc Donald’s and an Irish Pub. We stopped at the pub for a beer and to cool off. We chatted about our surprise at the slum level conditions we had encountered so far. Our Maps showed that Mango Square was just a bit further so we struck out again in hopes of landing a good spot to try out the local fare. Astonishingly we saw armed guards at 7-11 and at Burger King. Nightlife was no where to be seen nor signs of the typical hawkers of hats, t-shirts, sunglasses and the like. There were no street food vendors. We momentarily considered the casino we saw but noted it was machines only which are really not our thing. I continued to sense my husbands discomfort as we ducked into what we though was a shopping center but it had little activity and no air conditioning. We exited the other side and were approached by children begging for food. We decided to loop around in the direction to hit our hotel from the opposite side we had left. We momentarily considered hopping on a jeepney which we had read was the local popular mode of transportation but thought better of that idea as they were all seriously over crowded with locals only and as in all tourist areas the threat of pick pocketing looked easy on this transport. We never met a person of Anglo persuasion during our walk of about six miles. Although we did pass a few first rate looking hotels similar to ours we never found restaurants other than bakeries and fast food. Purchasing only a small amount of Pesos (Filipino currency) at the airport we had also hoped for a money exchange. We found none. I felt the relief wash over me as my honey announced we were nearly back to our hotel. We were befuddled. We asked the doorman for his suggestion for a place to eat and a money exchange and he pointed us to the Ayala Mall directly across the street. Not exactly our idea of the best meal for the first dinner in a new country we opted to go to the ATM and the Metro market in the mall for basic supplies of water, coffee and snacks and then back to our hotel for room service where we knew the quality was good, although it was a western menu so we did not try out local fare on this evening. We had passed a few spas and located a laundry all near the hotel so our venture out was not a total loss as these would be spots we’d take advantage of during our stay.
The next day was my birthday and of course my to do list was about being poolside and sunshine. I was content to stay safely at the hotel blogging about Seoul and researching more about this Filipino region. Neither of us turned anything terribly negative up so we knew we would set out again to absorb the city. My partner found a wonderful spot, highly rated for my birthday dinner in his research. We took a taxi and hit it off with the driver whose English was a bit more broken than most but still communication was pretty easy. He agreed to return to get us at the end of our evening and talked us into a “city tour” with him the following day. Carlo made us feel like we were going to finally get into the tourist areas and see a different side of Cebu. Anzani Restaurant sat on the edge of one of the hills in town and was well appointed and full of ambiance. We felt relieved and comfortable all at once. (Although on our drive to get there and just outside the door in every direction were only signs of the poverty that surrounded us, we were yet to capture any consistent beauty.) The staff was friendly and welcoming and we settled in with cocktails and appetizers of Salmon Three Ways and a Meat and Cheese Board. Our entrees of Osso Bucco and Filet were nice, not USA delectable but good and paired well with the fairly reasonably priced Australian Cabernet we found on the menu. After, we sat on a cozy couch on the back porch overlooking the city lights with cordials and Cappuccino and the staff surprised me with a hearty rendition of Happy Birthday and a dessert with a candle to blow out. It was a pretty magical celebration of my 58th year. (58!!??!! Feeling my age may be the subject of a philosophical blog soon)
Sirao Gardens high above the city was our first destination on the tour. A botanical lovers dream with a hippie vibe, it delighted me. The grounds of the gardens were immaculate and there were areas of new construction and planting so the feel of the cultivation had a strong presence. The vistas of the far off mountains and jungle were breathtaking. This place had lots of fun spots for photo ops and Carlo was only too happy to indulge me by playing photographer. Outside these gardens were a few street side vendors selling grilled and carmelized fresh mini bananas, boku (coconut juice) and grilled corn on the cob. We took this as our opportunity for snacks. There were a couple street hawkers as well selling coral and pearl jewelry. My honey treated me to a necklace and a couple bracelets which I will cherish as my momento of this land.
Taoist Temple sat perched among the hills of the city, it’s sign read Beverly Hills, Cebu and honestly it was the nicest neighborhood we saw yet less than a block away was the signs of the metal shanty’s which were the most common dwellings we saw.
While we saw this temple and a Mormon temple on another drive the bulk of this population is Catholic. Our next stop happened in the midst of a late afternoon downpour. It took us to the first house of worship and the most heavily visited tourist site, the Church and Convent of Santo Nino originally built in 1565. On the grounds the Cross of Magellan is also housed originally placed at the site by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 when he and his crew colonized the island on behalf of Spain. The City Hall sits directly across the street as well. While there were sidewalk carts selling souvenirs there were also children and mother’s begging. Every direction we went led us to the under developed signs that turned my stomach and left me with great sadness about this country and it’s people. Beauty was hard to see.
The last spot on the tour was a short distance away at Fort San Pedro. Originally built by Spaniards to defend the city. It was rebuilt in 1738 with stone to defend the city from Muslim raiders. It is triangular in shape with two walls facing the sea and one facing the ocean. Bastions are placed strategically for defense. The rain had nearly subsided as we wandered these historic grounds. It was sedate and beautiful but just beyond the walls the poverty of the city laid at every turn. It tugged at my heart to a point that made it difficult to enjoy the origins of this land.
All attractions had a small fee to partake in. Many bus tours run this same route but we were very pleased with our private driver who charged us 2500 Pesos (just under $50) for this six hour day. As he dropped us back to the hotel we finalized our plans for a day out of the city after a day in between spent lounging poolside. Tipping is not customary or expected in this city. Daily average wages in the service industry amount to 7 American a day. (Minimum wage is just over $5.) We made it our mission to tip above and beyond to all those who provided us service, these tour days we tipped 2-4 times daily wages and never less than equivalent to 1/2 a days wage including for daily maid service. The astonishment and gratitude expressed made the visit to this country worthwhile. Reinforcement of a job well done and some monetary relief was well received by all those who served us. #makeadifference
The second adventure day we had an early start with a 5am rendezvous at the front of the hotel with Carlo. If you are familiar with us you know that typically 5am is only for partying or working all night long. Early risers we are not but the only way we were going to spend any time beach or seaside was going to take 2-3 hours by car or boat to get to. In retrospect I do wonder about the answer to tropical enjoyment of the Philippines being an island hopping vacation which I feel past my prime for. Hotel changes and luggage and transportation juggling are not my idea of relaxation. Either that or an all inclusive seaside resort which we considered when booking may have been more pleasing but then we tend to feel trapped and unexposed to the culture. :-/ Anyway…
We headed south out of the city as darkness turned to dawn breaking. There were beautiful glimpses of the seaside and actually road conditions were surprisingly good. I had thought we might find a pleasing relief to the slum like conditions of the city but they remained the common denominator throughout Region 7. I hope these people will find a greater standard of living in their lifetime but honestly they all expressed “hard life but happy life”. Maybe it’s all just perspective. We stopped at one of the many bakeries for fresh banana bread, muffins and coffee to break up the three hour drive. Oslob is known for swimming with the whale sharks. It ranks as one of the highest rated tourist attractions and is a fairly spendy adventure at 1200 pesos (just under $25 American each) This is definitely not our type of adventure. It felt like exploitation of these magnificent creatures of the sea. It was awesome to snorkel in the water so near to them (no touching allowed, keep your distance or be fined or imprisoned) They are simply tricked into being there by the guides tempting them with constant dropping of food. There were probably 20 hand rowed boats with 4 guides and 6 passengers each going out every round from 6am-12:30 pm. Thirty minutes in the water was allotted to each group. Again, magnificent creatures without a doubt but kind of captured in their own wild habitat zoo.
Back in the car we drove on to Kawasan Falls to partake in hiking and canyoneering. For the best of this excursion, hiring a guide is worthwhile as this area consists of a great many falls with natural jumping and sliding areas which would not be as easily found on your own. It was breathtakingly beautiful in this mountainous jungle adjacent to the sea. We jumped from several 10 meter spots into the crystal clear aquamarine waters and took advantage of the nature carved slides that swept you into the deep swift waters as well. Life jackets and water shoes for the slippery rock paths were required and provided for the 1000 pesos each admittance. (about 20 bucks). If we would have braved the 15m plus jumps a helmet would have been required as well. Kevin, our guide was awesome, speaking great English, boasting a great sense of humor and carrying my bag and taking pictures all along the path. We of course tipped and knew we made his day as he expressed he was excited to leave his duties early and be able to go retrieve his children from school and spend the rest of the day with his family. Carlo proudly met us back at the base with barbecued wild chicken and rice made by his mother who lives in Bohol, the village near the falls. It was his repayment for the kindness of the tip we had easily given him on our first day together. This interaction and the pride this native projected at giving back to us was a highlight of the week. He said “You like mom’s chicken? You like mom’s barbecue?” Over and over he repeated it as we ate, a gleeful smile spreading across his face.
We contemplated a ferry trip to Moalboal which Carlo suggested when he saw our enthusiasm about snorkeling but the round trip and time in the water to swim with the sardines and sea turtles would have added four hours to our day that ended up being nine hours as we wound our way back through the mountains into the city. We were glad we had made the decision not to go even though we had great curiosity about making our way to an outlying island. Arriving back at the hotel exhausted both physically and also mentally after traveling all these miles and only seeing challenging living standards throughout the area we opted for buffet dinner at the hotel which was actually decent. My honey escaped after to a spa close to the hotel for massage for the third time in the week in the hopes of working out sciatic issues he developed in early summer. His feedback regarding these massages and the spa were favorable and the price was right at $6-$9 American depending on treatment.
Sad to say, we consciously counted down the hours until we could escape this country by spending it mostly in the hotel although at last minute, afraid of “missing out” we went by taxi to Tops restaurant for a night time view of the city lights and a Filipino culinary experience. The taxi ride wasn’t cheap. As with many aspects of tourism we could not understand in this country the taxi driver quoted a flat rate and then waits outside to take you back down. We are not fast action diners so we made sure the driver knew it would be close to two hours. He indicated he would wait because no taxis would come to pick us up otherwise. He committed two hours of his night to us. Our taxi driver chatted with us about his entire life in the city, never traveling even in his own country and about his 18-24 hour a day work schedule making sure his four children and stay at home wife did not go hungry. He also was working this hard so that his children could go to private school for their life success. He chatted about the old days of “zombies on drugs” and the new President Duarte and his zero tolerance policies. (Read here about the local mayor being gunned down just before our arrival.) Desiring to enjoy our time we ordered him a take away meal of chicken and rice along with 1/2 of our Spring Roll and clams appetizers which my honey ran out to him as soon as it arrived. This allowed us to ease our way through our dining experience guilt free. We did not get really daring with our menu choices and were glad for it as we just did not care for the flavors or consistency of the native dishes. It’s not often we are dissatisfied but this excursion reminded us that not every adventure is right for us!
Leaving the city the next morning we found relief to be traveling on to our true destination of Thailand. #cometravelwithme and see what familiar destinations bring happy times!