Between Rice and Death. a.k.a. Partying in the Philippines!

Having heard so much about the Philippines from various Free and Easy leaders and former group members, Justin and I decide to make good of our time off and spend a few weeks in the over 7,000 islands that comprise this country.Not only is it supposed to be paradise, but it seems to be the hot spot of choice right now, with Bertus and Aaron Gage-Cole leading a trip, Swatman acting as cameradude, Elissa on the trip with a friend of hers and a friend of mine from home (Dennis), Ben planning on taking a trip there at the same time, Jemma and her boyfriend Jeff traveling through at the moment, and Madison and Chris Sherry hanging around for a while…who could turn down that line up of Free & Easy heroes?!

Unfortunately it was unlikely we would meet all of those people at the same place and same time, but Justin and I were lucky enough to run into Jemma and Jeff with some of their former group members on our first night in Manila.Too bad we just missed Madison and Chris Sherry, who were on their way back to Bangkok as we were just getting into Manila.We discussed travel plans over a few beers, bid farewell to our friends and hopped on a night bus up north to see the world famous rice terraces!

Banaue Rice Terraces

Wow.I am not sure I have ever taken a bus ride like this before.We are cruising along a winding road, overlooking ramshackle farmers dwellings clinging to the side of the road, just barely resisting the overtaking lure of the jungle.The rice terraces spread below like a giant stairway to heaven, beneath the morning clouds lying nestled between the peaks of the craggy, jungle covered mountains.The sun rises over the crests of the most distant mountains, lighting the whole countryside on fire with a warm, rosy light.A wide river cuts across a swath of land far below, and as the sun rises ever higher, burning the morning mist into mere wisps, I divide my time between this breathtaking view and Meagan Fox, playing in Transformers on the bus.(I think it’s a fair divide, considering my 5 word review of the movie was “Meagan Fox is really REALLY hot.” Yes, I know that’s 6 words but I felt it needed the emphasis.)

As we exit the bus in Banaue, we are still unsure how long we will stay in Batad.“Do we have to book the bus back to Manila right now?”we ask the lady.“It is no problem same day, but you come early because if it rains, we leave…landslide here.”‘No joke,’ I think, as I look around at everything covered in an inch of old mud.Gas pumps, corner stores, even the school gymnasium is covered in it.

We hopped in the back of an overpriced jeepney (we made the mistake of letting someone else barter for us), which looked like a cross between a stretch jeep and a schoolbus, but very often rainbow coloured, just to complete the ensemble.As we start driving down the windy mountain road, overlooking some awe-inspiring rice terraces, the paved road ends and we begin to drive on rocks.No, not gravel.Rocks.In some countries this road wouldn’t suffice for mountain goats, but our jeepney powered on through.We began to see signs of more recent mudslides, rockslides and landslides – villagers with shovels on the side of the road, mudtracks from cars passing through what used to be several feet of mud.We can see on the adjacent cliffs where the mass of earth fell, blocking the path some days ago.Then we come around a corner and see several huge rocks standing just off the center of the road.Good thing we weren’t around when those fell!I was surprised the jeepney could even squeeze around them.I still had no idea what was in store for us.A while later we come across a fresh mudslide, with a backup of jeepneys and tricycles trying to get across, and a small contingent of locals trying to dig a tire trenches to get the trucks through.After a few unsuccessful attempts, one jeepney paves the way for the rest of us.Phew!But it wasn’t over yet!A few minutes after, I look out the window and see the biggest landslide yet, easily the size of a one story house, with boulders as big as dishwashers sticking out from all angles.“Look at THAT landslide!” I exclaim, not realizing yet that it was the ROAD!Everybody looks at each other in giddy excitement (and some in fear to be sure!)as the driver revs the engine to prepare to climb this monstrous hill that in no way resembles a road (or anything drivable, for that matter.)Sounds impossible?Well I thought so too until I saw it done.Needless to say we are still in one piece, and I stoutly believe that a jeepney can climb pretty much anything after seeing that.

That was our road. We drove up that in a vehicle the size of a school bus. The picture does not do it justice.

We hop out at the end of the road, and are told that the village is a 45 minute trek through the jungle.Why oh why did we bring our big bags…good thing we’re strong (and handsome) young men!5 minutes in, I slip and end up half over the edge of a cliff, feet hanging down into the jungle.Maybe next time I should put my contacts in before jungle hiking!The hike ends at the village viewpoint, which overlooks the amphitheatre rice terraces rising hundreds of feet above the village below.

World famous rice terraces.

We heard of a scenic waterfall hidden somewhere over the crest of the mountain in the picture above, and decide to trek it without a guide and see what the fuss is all about! We hike down the paddies to the village and off into the distance, down some 100’s of steps to this:

Ooooooh, aaaaaaah.

On the way back, we are a little lost as to where we can make our way back to the hostel. We end up climbing about 3/4 of the way to the top of the terraces, and hike along them all the way to where the amphitheatre picture was taken. This may look kosher from the picture, but the truth was we were walking along a wall which was one rock thick (one foot at the max, in good areas), with a muddy swamp of rice to our right, and a 6 to 10 foot drop into another muddy swamp of rice to our left. Thus the title of this post (I know, clever, wasn’t it?). Not only that, but these terraces were hundreds if not thousands of years old, and consistent maintenance was obviously not on the agenda of the villagers’ great great ancestors. There were missing and loose rocks aplenty, not to mention out-of-control jungle and uncooperative rice stalks which conspired to push you off of your precarious perch into a muddy quagmire. Justin and I had a few differences of opinion on which level of terrace to take across to the hostel, and poor Justin ended up at a dead end on his level more than once. One time he began to climb down to my level, but as he climbed down to about 6 feet above my level, the rock he was holding broke off in his hand, plummeting him into the middle of a big muddy pile of rice and nastiness. I won’t say I didn’t laugh, because I did, but you can’t blame me because you would have too. He was fine, worried more about angry Filipino farmers than about being a bit muddy.

Panglao

We depart the spectacular views of Banaue’s rice terraces, and catch yet another night bus back down to Manila, the start of our long travel day down to Panglao to meet up with the F&E group travelling there.We had at this point been 4 days in the Philippines, and so far have only spent one night in an actual bed.Back in Manila we are lucky enough to meet up with Ben, one of the Philippines leaders, who will be joining us for the rest of the adventure!Right on!A short flight later, we arrive in Panglao and settle in for a night of mischief, one that is inevitable when you throw together 7 F&E leaders (4 of which were on vacation!), a rowdy party group, a pool, and a crapload of booze.That’s my kind of recipe!

The next morning, Ben, Justin and I decide to tour the island on some rented bikes.While the freedom and the scenery were exhilarating, the highlight of the day were the chocolate hills, a strange geological site in the middle of the island where thousands of hills that look like giant, misplaced Hershey’s kisses dot the landscape for kilometers.The hills themselves were alright, but the fun part was posing for pictures.Oh yeah, we did it.And we got the t-shirts to prove it.

The proof is in the T-shirt.

Really really, chocolate hills!

Well, with that done, nothing else could hold our interest for long in Panglao, so we hit the road once more!As we start our long day’s journey from Panglao to Siargao, I am a bit daunted by the length of time we will spend on ferries.It is for just this occasion that I have been carrying Settlers of Catan around all week!Ben, Justin and I hit up the mini-mart and bought out their beer supply, fire up a game, and once we get into it, we can’t stop!Seven hours later, at almost three in the morning, we decide that it would probably be a good idea for us to catch some shut eye before our ferry docks in Surigao at 6 a.m.It was shortly after we made this rather prudent decision that we found out the contents of all those boxes the locals brought on board and placed no more than 10 feet from our beds. Thus began the most irritating night of my life.

Mysterious boxes beside the beds. What could be in them?

Chickens.Dozens and dozens of chickens.As in, chickens that think the morning starts at 4 a.m, and decide for some unfathomable reason to tell the world about it.NON-STOP.At first, I thought it was some kind of joke, some kind of alarm clock to wake people up to get them off the ferry.But then the realization sets in to my sleep clouded mind:There will be no sleep tonight!Cock-a-doodle doo,cock-a-doodle-doo, one at a time and in chorus.As I dream irritably of punching each chicken in the face, I wonder how these chickens could possibly have so much to say to each other.What could they be talking about?

“Hey Frank, how’s your box-a-doodle-doo?”

“Not bad-a-doodle-doo Jim, except I seem to have this piece of corn-a-doodle-doo stuck in my throat, and all the crowing in the world-a-doodle-doo won’t seem to dislodge it.Maybe I’ll just cock-a-doodle-doo a hundred thousand more times to get it out.”

How could that take FOUR HOURS?!I tell you what, when we hit land I am going to eat 20 chickens and not feel the slightest bit of remorse.

As I wandered around the ship, trying to clear my head from all the noise and …well that’s all I’m trying to clear my head from, I come across boxes and boxes of chicks for transport to Surigao.Finally it dawns on me:it isn’t the chickens on MY ferry, it is ME on the CHICKEN ferry!Somehow there must have been a grave mistake, and they accidentally booked 300 people on a ferry meant for CHICKENS!Pardon me, precious chickens, don’t allow me to interrupt your raucous crowing with my quiet slumber.How dare I.

Whole families of chickens. I wonder if they got a family pass for the boat, or if they all had to pay individually?

To make things even more irritating, a person two beds over is playing Apple Bottom Jeans AGAIN (sorry to all those who like the song, but spend a week in Koh Phi Phi and you will rapidly change your mind), and the person sleeping beneath me won’t turn off their damn low battery phone, which has the same warning sound as mine and so prompts me to check it every time it beeps.Ok these things wouldn’t normally bother me, but I told you I’m irritable and I want everything to die right now.Especially things that go low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low.I need sleep.

Siargao

Siargao is a hot spot in the Philippines for surfing, with Cloud 9 proclaimed as the best break in the whole country.So we dragged our butts out there for some surfing and partying with the F&E crew!Ok, there was a lot more partying than there was surfing, but we managed just fine!A few people rented bikes and went out exploring the island, spending some time at the local rock pools and finding some pretty neat restaurants outside of town.One was owned by an eccentric German man who could summon 2 foot bats out of the jungle!Kinda creepy.

On our way out of Siargao, we are looking at maps on the ferry, trying to decide where we will hit next.A friendly local on the boat chimes in, letting us know about ferries and busses and how we can get from place to place.We decide we need to check some flights online, so Roel invites us over to his place for some free internet time!We all pile into some trikes to take us there, which the man refuses to let us pay for, and we head to his house to meet his family.The father immediately busts out some cups and pours us all Tanduay on ice (the delicious and dirt cheap local rum).We spend a bit of time online, and decide we can take the bus out anytime that day.To repay Roel for his kindness, we take him out for some Filipino barbeque and a few beers.By this time he has decided that he wants to show us some more traditional cuisine, and takes us to the market to pick up some fresh marlin and herbs before whipping together some kinila, which is kind of like Filipino sushi.YUM!

The Camiguin crew with Roel, our favorite Filipino!

Then he and his friend take us to the bus station and set us up with our tickets, teach us a revolutionary new way to mix gin and lime juice, and bid us a fond farewell on the next leg of our journey.Roel was kind enough even to call us through the night to make sure we caught all of our busses in time and that we weren’t being ripped off!

Transit to the bus station, with our new friend Sponge Bob.

And Ultraman. I tell you, white people get weird looks in this country. White people carrying around balloons get REALLY weird looks.

miguin

So we finally make it to Camiguin Island, my favorite spot of the trip.We are no longer travelling with the F&E group, so we are a bit more free to explore and adventure! We take our time checking out resorts, and luckily decide against a beach resort to instead stay at Enigmata Tree House, a hostel built like a treehouse three stories into a giant acacia tree.A dream from anyone’s childhood!Rosalin and a group of artists have decorated this giant tree house in a very eclectic style, with all forms of art covering every available inch of space that isn’t taken up by musical instruments.Our bedroom was the whole top floor of the treehouse, including a small kitchen area, our own bathroom, a bedroom including three beds, 2 of which are in the loft, and an up up UPstairs ‘breathing space’ for meditating (which was pretty much the top of the tree).It was quite the acrobatic death-defying climb to get up there, but you could easily sit here for hours, looking out at the surrounding jungle and soaking up the peace of this wonderful place.Inside was a 1000% hammockable paradise, which is where we spent most of our nights enjoying some fine San Miguel beer!This is DEFINITELY a place I will come back and stay (for at least a week this time!), relax, meditate, and perhaps even get the creativity flowing and get down to some writing.

Rosalin also teaches courses to local students about eco-tourism, using her hostel guests as speakers in class to offer the children perspectives on travel from actual travelers.She offers the courses with government grants, giving less affluent children on the island the chance to learn something about the outside world and put that knowledge towards getting a good job and making a decent living.Sounds like a good idea to me!Minus all the paperwork. =\Enigmata is also a hangout for local kids, which is wholly supported by Rosalin who entertains them with stories and trampolines.

In our short time there, we rented bikes and drove around this beautiful island, visiting a supercool waterfall, some chilly cold springs, a sunken cemetery, some ruins from a former volcano, and some awesome hot springs (where we could have hung out all day!).

I would hate to stand under that waterfall.

We even drove up the side of the volcano for a spectacular view of the palm covered island and a hike to the crater, although we never did find the path to the top.Justin figured that a water ravine was the way to go, so we went exploring for a few hours off in the jungle in the middle of nowhere.A few cuts and bruises later, we decided to call it a day and head back down to the bikes.Good thing we made it back!As we get back into town, we get a call from Roel, who is at a wedding party for his cousin and is quite drunk.He’s just calling to check in on us and make sure we’re having a good time!Thanks Roel, you’re the best!

Although our Philippines adventure has come to a close, I know that someday I will be back, because for all the adventures we have had in our short time here, we haven’t even scratched the surface of all that this beautiful island country has to offer. Palawan, Catanduanes, Boracay, you can be sure that I will Camiguin! (come again, get it? hehehaha…ha. I know you appreciate my humour, or why else would you still be reading my blog! A HA! I’ve got you now!)

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