A Month In Paradise Part Four
We left Manila after an exhausting, expensive and rather tedious three days. We were there as treat for Sally’s sister and her husband Corizon as a thank you for taking such good care of Sally’s house in her absence. At the end of the three days, I’m not entirely sure whether they viewed it as a treat or as a slow and increasingly painful torture.
They hadn’t been off the island before, hadn’t flown in a plane, hadn’t experienced the dubious pleasure of being waited upon in a hotel, hadn’t ridden in a lift, been to a cinema, shopped in a large department store for clothes or eaten out in a decent restaurant.
They’ve done all that now. I don’t think they’ll want to do it again.
They live on the lower slopes of a beautiful volcano close to an abundant supply of crystal clear mountain water, in a comfortable home surrounded by trees bowed under the weight of delicious fruit, surrounded by a dazzling display of flowers and surrounded by a network of supportive friends and family.
We “treated” them by removing them from all of this and subjecting them to seventy two hours of traffic noise and chaos, dirty, crowded streets populated by insistent street vendors, beggars with intrusive outstretched hands and the knowing and suggestive looks from the ladies and gentlemen of the night.
Instead of enjoying an evening enjoying a simple meal on a shaded terrace, they endured mediocre food in crowded restaurants at prices which left them speechless.
They were far too polite and appreciative to complain or to comment, but I know that one of the experiences they enjoyed the most was an evening spent in their room with Sally and I and their son, Paul, who travelled six hours by bus to spend the evening in Manila with us.
While we were waiting for him to arrive we had a meal of takeaway barbecued chicken and rice bought from a fast food outlet eaten in their room sans cutlery and washed down with cans of tepid Coke.
Our flight from Manila to the island of Boracay was uneventful. Our taxi ride to the airport was not.
We left the hotel with plenty of time to reach the airport. Plenty of time that is if the airport had been anywhere other than Manila in the rush hour and our taxi driver had been focussed on the people who were paying for his services.
I understand that the early morning city traffic is bad at the best of times but with the main road around the bay partially closed for resurfacing, our progress was reduced to an unsteady crawl.
To make matters worse, the taxi driver decided to stop en route to do his weekly shop, have a chat with his mates and I think, all though I may be wrong, to have his hair done.
He left us parked at the side of the road with the engine running, parked directly in front of three other taxis, two of them occupied, blocking them in completely.
Almost immediately, the driver of one of the blocked vehicles wanted to move his car. Seeing that there was no one in our taxi’s driving seat he climbed in himself and moved our taxi further up the road, without a word to us and without a glance in our direction.
Our taxi driver returned after an eternity, looked slightly puzzled when he couldn’t immediately find his vehicle, then smiled in relief as he spotted it before loading a week’s worth of groceries on top of our luggage.
Sally isn’t the most tolerant of people and poor customer service is one of her pet hates so I wasn’t surprised when she quite reasonably pointed out that we were feeling a little anxious about the delay as Gill and Corizon’s flight back to Negros was due to leave in an hour and a half.
The taxi driver was either having a particularly bad day, or he was particularly unstable and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I don’t know what he said as his monologue was in Tagalog. I do know that, to put it very mildly, he wasn’t happy.
He spent the rest of the journey gesticulating wildly, often with both hands removed from the steering wheel while he complained passionately about the treatment of taxi drivers in general and him in particular.
At one stage he actually climbed out of the taxi so that he could stand in front of the vehicle facing us as we cowered in the back seat, reinforcing many of his points by slapping the palms of his hand on the bonnet.
At one stage he burst into tears as he complained bitterly about his treatment then swerved from lane to lane as he bent down to look under the dashboard looking for something to dry his face.
When we thankfully arrived at the airport he refused to either speak to us to tell us how much we owed him or open the taxi boot for us so that we could remove our luggage. He just sat sulking pointing at the taxi’s meter with his head turned away from us.
We didn’t leave him a tip.
The journey’s stress wasn’t quite over. The terminal where Sally and I needed to catch the hour long flight to Cataclan airport was another twenty minute taxi ride away from the terminal where the taxi deposited us and where Gill and Corizon would catch their flight back to the island. The original plan had been to drop Gill and Corizon off, say a quick goodbye and then use the same taxi to take us to the new terminal. As the sulky ten year old wasn’t speaking to us we had to change our plans.
Fortunately there is no shortage of taxis at the airport so within half an hour and five hours before our own scheduled afternoon flight we arrived at the correct terminal.
I wasn’t looking forward to the five hour wait so we were both delighted when we were offered the next flight to leave which was four hours earlier than our scheduled flight.
Cataclan airport only has one short runway so can only accommodate small turboprop aircraft. Ours was a dainty little fifty seater with just two cabin crew and no in flight services apart from an old plastic crate lugged up and down the isle by the two cabin crew offering extortionately priced family sized bags of crisps.
After passing through Heathrow, Hong Kong and Manila airports, landing at Cataclan airport is like coming down on a driveway next to someone’s garden shed. The plane landed, applied the brakes rather harder than I’m used to, reached the end of the short runway, turned a hundred and eighty degrees then taxied slowly back to the small single storey airport building.
The single building held a solitary baggage carousel, a toilet, an enquiries desk , a couple of dozen seats, our flight’s fifty passengers and another fifty Chinese tourists from a plane which landed as soon as ours had cleared the runway.
The Chinese are to Filipinos what American tourists are to the English; they’re very loud. The one big difference is that the Chinese men like to spit, and they’re very good at it. It’s quite surreal to watch an expensively dressed man startle the birds out of the trees as he hawks as much phlegm from the back of his throat as possible before launching it from a great distance into the nearest receptacle, and then watch is equally expensively dressed wife wander over to the bin to admire his handiwork.
There was a mini bus waiting outside the terminal to take us to the ferry port where we needed to catch a boat to take us to the smaller island of Boracay. The mini bus took longer to load than it did to transport us the 400m to the ferry port entrance.
It was here that I fell foul of one of the many baggage boys who frequent the airports in many areas of the Philippines hoping to earn some easy money from tired and confused travellers.
Our baggage boy looked like a very stocky and not very well dressed Ronald McDonald. Before we could say a word, he had opened the back of the mini bus, picked up three of the sports holdalls we use as suitcases and disappeared through the gates towards the ferry.
By the time I caught up with him, he had carried the bags onto the boat and put them down, gently and very neatly, on the boats’s covered front deck. Then he turned towards me and waited for his tip.
I was tired and not really in the mood for an argument so, even though he had carried the bags without us asking him to do so, just to get rid of him I fished a 20 peso note (27p) from my pocket. This might not sound very much but on the island we had just spent three weeks an agricultural worker would have to endure two hours of hard physical labour in energy sapping heat to earn this amount. Mr. McDonald had spent just two or three minutes carrying our bags before demanding his fee.
He would accept the tip. He pointed out, with a very effective and, I suspect, often used mime that as he had carried three bags he expected twenty pesos for each of them. He now wanted six hours pay at agricultural rates for a couple of minutes work.
I refused. He became quite vocal. So did I. He tried to take our bags back off the boat. I shouted for the police. He disappeared instantly and without a word, and without even the twenty peso note I had initially offered him. I think that these guys are tolerated by the authorities but not given very much latitude.
We saw the same guy on the return trip trying the same scam on a Korean father holding a very unhappy screaming toddler. The father also reluctantly offered him a twenty peso note before being told that he “owed” sixty pesos. He didn’t have the energy to argue as the child was trying to throw itself out of his arms over the side of the boat into the sea. He handed over a 100 peso note to be told, of course, that Ronald didn’t have any change. With a shake of his head the frustrated father indicated that he could keep his ill gotten gains.
The scenery as we chugged through choppy water for ten minutes from the ferry port to the island was breathtaking. Boracay was voted as the Asia’s best island in their World’s Best Awards 2012 and Pukka (shell) beach to the north of the island is listed in CNN’s top 100 beaches in the world.
There was another mini bus waiting for us when we climbed off the boat. The island is shaped like an upright dog’s bone and is just six miles long and no more than a mile wide. The best beaches are on a three mile strip along the west coast with the livelier bars and restaurants at the north end. The southern section of the beach is for those who don’t think that a good night out involves diving open mouthed into a bath of local rum. Our accommodation was as far away from the noise as possible.
Because of the size of the island and the very narrow streets, the cars and trucks are pocket sized Suzuki and Isuzu. We crawled along the full length of the main street down the centre of the island and then turned off down an impossibly narrow side street choked with tourists.
There are no roads on to the beach or to the hundreds of low rise hotels and apartments which sit about fifty metres back from the water. To reach the accommodation you have to carry your luggage the final two or three hundred metres through powdery white sand.
We threw our bags into our ground floor room then made ourselves comfortable on the café terrace where we sat for much of the time over the following three days. The terrace was a wonderful place for me to sit, shaded from the constant thirty degree heat, catching up on my emails courtesy of the apartment’s free WiFi or just watching the world go by. Here’s the view from my seat on the terrace.
After an hour on the terrace drinking far too much coffee we walked the length of the beach. Every few steps we were accosted by the street vendors. They’re far more polite and far less intrusive than in many third world countries I’ve visited so it was fairly easy to just ignore them and enjoy the walk. I was fascinated by the variety of products and services on offer.
We were offered straw hats, sunglasses (even though both Sally and I had a pair on at the time), designer watches, genuine pearl necklaces, authentic Filipino sculptures, excursions displayed on tiny dog eared laminated cards, diving experiences, restaurant meals, pedicures, manicures and massages with and without a “happy ending” and a variety of snack foods.
My favourite was bags of sour mango slices with sugar dips. The mango was the consistency of sliced apple and very refreshing without the sugar. I also quite enjoyed regular cups of taho. Looks like mixture of curdled milk, flat coke and frog spawn, only not quite so appealing.
Sally talked about it enthusiastically and called one of the beach taho sellers over as soon as she spotted one. They carry what look like two small milk churns connected by a wooden pole which they balance on a shoulder as they plod along the beach.
One churn contains the tofu (curdled milk) and the sago pearls (frog spawn), the other holds the amibal sweetener and flavourer (flat coke). The sweet takes a bit of getting used to but is really tasty.
The Filipino snack food which I refused to try – I feel a little queasy just thinking about it – is balut.
Balut is a hard boiled duck egg… with a little extra flavouring and texture courtesy of the developing embryo inside. Balut is eaten much as you would eat a normal hard boiled egg straight from the shell.
Balut is currently quite popular is high end restaurants in the Philippines where the unsightly mess is served cooked but without the shell floating in a pool of hot sauce and vinegar.
On our second day I made the mistake of leaving Sally alone on the beach for half an hour. When I returned she was clutching a plastic bag containing two small and weighty spheres. She had bought two balut from a passing pedlar.
She had bought two so that I could try one. Given that I nearly threw up when she told me what they were, there was no chance of me actually eating one. I’m still not entirely convinced that Sally actually wanted to eat one herself. She viewed both of the eggs with suspicion when I asked her when she intended eating them.
She doesn’t like to look at the contents but said that they are both tasty and nutritious. She managed to eat the eggs without seeing them by shutting herself in our en suite bathroom with the lights off while she peeled them then quickly swallowed the contents.
I don’t like to think about balut even now when I’m safely back on the boat. I’ll stick to the much more normal food available in the UK such as grilled heart, liver and kidneys and fried pigs’ blood mixed with oatmeal.
Boracay is a small island surrounded by crystal clear water teeming with fish and crustaceans. Many of the restaurants display the day’s catches on beds of ice.
We eat at two different seafood restaurants during our three days on the island. On our first evening we visited one which offered an all you can eat buffet with unlimited iced tea for just 500 pesos (£6.75) each.
The choice included a variety of different rices and vegetables and some wonderful seafood. There were buckets full of boiled crabs, bowls of shrimp and mussel, two whole tuna and a mountain of oysters cooked to order and served with calamansi, small local limes.
Both Sally and I love oysters just warmed through so that the flesh is still soft and slippery. We had two dozen each, washed down with about a pint of iced tea. It was a wonderful meal.
On our last day on the island we decided to treat ourselves. As the sun set at 6pm, half of the beach was transformed. The sun loungers were taken away for the day and replaced with tables and chairs for restaurant diners.
We picked the restaurant with the largest, freshest looking shrimps on display. Calling them shrimps is doing them an injustice. These were Asian tiger shrimps which can grow over thirteen inches long. We picked one for me which must have been approaching a foot long and a slightly smaller one for Sally.
The restaurants sold their fish and crustaceans by weight. Ours, including a portion of rice each, cost £27. Boracay is not a cheap place to eat compared with most of the Philippines but a similar meal in the UK would cost much, much more.
Anyway, we weren’t paying just for the food, we were paying for the experience and for the idyllic setting. Our table was on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, surrounded by coconut trees, just feet away from gentle surf caressing powdery white sand.
The location was perfect. The meal was not.
The tiger prawns sally and I buy from the Thai shop in Banbury are much, much tastier than our slightly rubbery and largely flavourless monsters and the portion of rice they served with our costly crustaceans wouldn’t have satisfied a mouse. We had to order an additional portion each. At least I was able to keep myself busy while we waited fifteen minutes for the rice. My plastic chair had such thin legs that, even with my modest weight, the back legs were forced so deep into the sand I had to move it every two or three minutes to stop myself rolling backwards off the chair.
Overall the experience was good though. Once we’d accepted that we had just paid as much to feed the two of us as we had paid for a 50kg sack of rice on Negros three weeks earlier I just ordered another San Miguel for myself and another mango shake for Sally and settled down to wait for the next cute five year old beggar to stand by my chair asking for money.
Three days on the island was wonderful, but three days was enough. Neither of us like to sunbathe. For an Asian woman, white it good, brown is bad. And for me, direct sun means more lobster red than brown.
There were plenty of excursions which could have entertained us. I would really have enjoyed going on one of the island hopping trips but Sally isn’t comfortable on or in the water and I didn’t want to leave her on her own. The cost was also prohibitively expensive.
There were also plenty of businesses offering scuba diving trips. I took a scuba diving course in the Dominican Republic thirty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness suspended fifty feet beneath the surface surrounded by brightly coloured reef fish, the occasional predatory barracuda and a worryingly large lone shark.
Thirty years ago is a long time to forget everything I learned so I would have had to take an expensive refresher course and, once again, leave Sally behind. Again, I decided not to bother.
We left the island at midday on Thursday then spent five hours en route for our last night in a hotel in Manila again via mini bus, boat, mini bus, plane and taxi.
We spent much of our remaining free time in Manila with quite a surreal visit to Ronbinsons Place.
Robinsons Place is a high quality shopping mall in the centre of Manila. There are hundreds of designer shops, including many UK brands, over three spacious floors. The contrast between the surrounding area and the mall’s interior is staggering.
We spent some time in the afternoon wandering around the shops before returning there for something to eat in the evening. The evening is when the difference is most noticeable.
The surrounded streets and are crowded with tricycles, jeepneys, taxis and cars, all moving slowly, all honking horns and weaving from lane to lane trying to move forward in the congestion. The pavements and roadsides are packed with parked tricycles and their haggard drivers.
As the evening progresses, the less savory elements become more and more noticeable. Beggars, some with limbs missing, many with small children in tow, thrust outstretched grimy hands in the faces of every passing European. Sadly, many of the passing Europeans are overweight, middle aged, unattractive men looking for some affection from Filipinas a third or a quarter their age. And then there are the ladies, and the men, of the night, all wearing their skimpy best, all with direct, come to bed eyes.
You have to force your way through these crowds to get to the mall’s entrance, but then the crowds melt away.
The mall is for people with money. The authorities have very effective measures in place to ensure that undesirables stay outside. A soldier stands thirty feet from the entrance with an assault rifle in his hands. At the entrance mall visitors have to walk through a metal detector watched by armed security guards. More security guards complete with the default baton, pepper spray and pistol patrol each floor of the shopping centre.
No undesirables can stroll along the spotlessly clean walkways between the shops or eat at any of the dozens of restaurants dotted throughout the mall, which is a shame really because they could have gladly had the glutinous, tasteless pig swill we were served in a Japanese restaurant.
The flights home the following day were monotonous and tiring but uneventful. We left the hotel at 5am on Friday, spent twenty seven hours travelling but thanks to the time difference, when we reached the boat, it was still Friday.
We’ve been back for just over a week now. I’m back into the normal routine at work and enjoying most of it immensely. I love living on the boat at all times of the year but the time I like least is towards the end of the winter when we’ve endured weeks on end with overcast skies, slippery mud and bare trees.
Much as I love the boat, the marina and the lifestyle, I’m really looking forward to escaping the English winter again next year, this time for at least six weeks.