Archive for May, 2010

Sugar Beach

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

11 – 14 April 2010, The Philippines

Some countries have a natural tourist circuit. In New Zealand we traveled from the North to the South, stopping at most of the popular sites along the way. We even saw some of the same people at various points on the route. With 7107 islands, the Philippines has no natural circuit, at least that we could discern. The Philippines is organized into three primary geographical areas: Luzon in the North, Mindanao in the South, and the Visayas in between. Our only plan on arrival was to travel north to the mountains of Luzon for the 2000-year old rice terraces at Banaue and to travel south for beaches and diving. While in Manila, after several hours of relatively uninformed discussion and debate we decided to head towards the Visayas, and first to Sugar Beach near Sipalay on Negros island. We chose Sipalay after reading that it was relatively untouristed, despite its beautiful palm lined beaches. It was also a natural starting point for a tour around the Visayas.

After flying from Manila to Bacolod, on Negros, we traveled four hours south by bus to Sipalay. We’d arranged accommodation from Manila, and on arrival our resort sent a boat for us. Sugar Beach is accessible by land, but a rough road and river crossing make the boat a faster and far easier option. We waded to shore and walked across the beach to the Sulu Sunset Beach Resort.

Once we’d settled into our cottage we quickly fell into what would become our routine for the next three days. The daytime hours were hot but not unpleasant, benefiting from a consistent cooling breeze, and we spent our time reading and occasionally swimming. In late afternoon, with the sun lower in the sky, we would emerge from the shade of the resort to walk along the beach. At sunset we’d watch the local fisherman set out in their small outrigger canoes.

The resort’s few other inhabitants included Jogi, the German owner who rarely strayed from his stool at the end of the bar. He initially appeared a little rough around the edges, but chewing the fat with Jogi quickly became one of our favorite activities. He’d lived in the Philippines for over twenty years and owned the resort for about ten. Starting with only a few tents he soon added a restaurant and bar, and then a collection of small cottages. Jogi had little enthusiasm for an improved road, which would have made construction much easier but would undoubtedly bring more tourists and bigger resorts. During the slow season, which was rapidly approaching, he returned to Germany to work in construction for several months. The most difficult part of his annual transition to the western world was having to wear shoes.

We appreciated Jogi’s German attention to detail, particular with respect to the room lighting. The cottages had halogen overhead lights and bedside reading lamps instead of the woefully inadequate single fluorescent typical of budget accommodation in the Philippines.¹

Time passed generally unnoticed at Sugar Beach. Most of the four or five other guests at Sulu Sunset seemed to lack any definite plans to leave, or had at least stayed longer than originally intended. Without the regular weekly trip to Sipalay for the Friday market it’s likely that the day of the week would be forgotten entirely. Although tempted to prolong our stay, we had only a 21-day visa and high hopes for other destinations in the Philippines, so we reluctantly packed our bags, paid our bill, and headed for the boat.

¹ Incidentally, the award for worst lighting ever goes to Hostel Limon Cocha, where we stayed during a 2007 trip to Ecuador. Our room’s lone bulb was actually mounted above the ceiling fan, creating a strobe effect that was somehow even more nauseating that a flickering fluorescent light.

A Three-Day Slog Through Manila

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

8 – 11 April 2010, The Philippines

We started planning our round the world trip over a year before leaving, and quickly formulated a basic itinerary. We planned to start in New Zealand and then visit Thailand and Vietnam before moving onto other parts of Asia, followed by Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and finally South America. Looking at the map we realized that a flight from New Zealand to Thailand would take us over many new and interesting places, and that a stop along the way might be warranted. We considered several counties in the South Pacific, including Fiji and Palau, but decided against them mostly due to cost. Both flying to and traveling within those countries is relatively expensive. We also considered Bali but Allison had already been there and I thought it might be overly touristed.  We delayed the decision until less than a week prior to leaving when we finally purchased tickets to the Philippines.

From Auckland, New Zealand we flew to Brisbane, Australia for a brief layover before continuing onto Manila. Leaving the airport we emerged into the typical chaos of an Asian metropolis: the heat and humidity were oppressive, all types of vehicles clogged the streets, and we were an easy target for anyone selling anything with our light skin and bulging backpacks. Having read that taxis from the airport charge a fixed and inflated price, we walked to the departure area to find a driver willing to use his meter.  We quickly found one and loaded our bags into the car. After a few short kilometers it became clear that although he was willing to use the meter, he wanted an additional 100 pesos. The extra two dollars were relatively trivial, but more out of principle we asked to get out of the car. There were plenty of taxis at the gas station where he dropped us, but none of them would use their meters, gesturing to the rush hour traffic to justify their 300 to 500 peso rates. After about five minutes of fruitless negotiations two police officers happened to pull into the gas station. I asked them what we should expect to pay; 150 pesos would be about right, and we should talk to them if anyone tried to charge us more. Having numerous such examples the officers had a brief discussion with one of the drivers, who then agreed to take us for 200 pesos.

We later learned that the officers may have underestimated the fare, and that 200 to 300 pesos would have been reasonable. In some countries the initial offer to a foreigner for any good or service will invariably be double or triple the fair selling price. However, as we traveled the Philippines we generally found that the paranoia instilled through previous travels and our guidebooks was largely unfounded. We were typically offered fair prices up front, and the Filipinos proved exceptionally helpful as we navigated their country. On multiple occasions while walking through a city we were offered transport and, after declining, the driver would provide directions to our destination. In other countries a driver might not be so forthcoming and instead continue to offer a ride, with full knowledge that the desired destination is half a block away and perfectly walkable.

Even without our backpacks the city weighed heavily on our shoulders, and we found that one day of exploration was more than enough. We wandered Intramuros, literally “within the walls” in Latin. The walled city within modern Manila served as the center of political, military, and religious power during three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Intramuros was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II but has since been restored, and we spent a few hours walking among the historic homes and churches. We also toured Fort Santiago, part of Intramuros and the primary defense position for the Spanish government in the Philippines. Intramuros was at times interesting, but overall we weren’t particularly impressed. It’s possible that seeing the old moats filled to create a golf course may have somewhat detracted from our ability to appreciate the site’s historical significance.

Unable to book a flight for the following day, we spent our third day firmly entrenched in the Happy Coconuts Hostel, where we enjoyed the air conditioning and took advantage of the free and fast internet to plan our route through the Philippines. The highlight of our time in Manila may have been some very delicious and affordable meals at a Japanese restaurant near the hostel, as well as the staff’s amusement as I tested the limits of the business model that allowed inclusion of a “bottomless” ice tea on their menu.

On our fourth day we rose at 3:00 for a horrendously early flight and what would be the first of several long days of travel as we navigated just a sample of the 7107 islands of the Philippines.

Last Chance to Drink the Tap Water

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

6 – 7 April 2010, New Zealand

Although we typically prefer to visit rural areas rather than cities, Jason and I were both pleasantly surprised by how much we thoroughly enjoyed our short time in Dunedin.  Like many university towns, Dunedin is filled with things to do, including plenty of reasonably priced restaurants.  Thrilled that we could afford to eat out, we indulged in sushi and Turkish kebabs during our two day stay.  To top it all off, our hostel was exceptionally nice and within walking distance of everything, including the public library where we took full advantage of the free internet; a real rarity in New Zealand.

Determined to make the most of our short time in Dunedin, we basically did a whirlwind tour of some of the city’s most popular attractions.  The Otago Museum and the Otago Settlers Museum were high on our list of places to visit, and we managed to squeeze in a visit to both.  It was interesting to gain some historical perspective on the area and to learn more about New Zealand’s early immigrants.  We also couldn’t resist a stop at Cadbury World, the chocolate giant’s factory, for a tour of the production area, plenty of facts about the company’s history and a bag full of samples. People rarely visit New Zealand to admire architecture, but we were told the city’s 100 year old rail station was worth a look so we also made a point of stopping there while wandering up and down Dunedin’s ultra steep streets.

As the sun began to set, we reluctantly drove out of Dunedin for the final leg of our New Zealand road trip. We reached the outskirts of Christhchurch around midnight and promptly decided that it was pointless to find a hostel as we needed to be at the airport by 4 a.m. for our 6 a.m. departure to Manila.  Not far from the airport, we parked our car along the side of a dark road, reclined the seats and closed our eyes, hoping to catch a few hours of shut eye before our early flight.  As is usually the case when sleeping in a car, we didn’t have much success.  Between the two of us combined, we managed to get about three hours of interrupted sleep.  Finally giving up, we drove ourselves to the car rental drop-off location, emptied out the rental car and packed up our bags.  Checking the odometer, we discovered that during our short stay in New Zealand, we had covered nearly 5,000 kilometers.  No wonder we felt like we had been going non-stop for the past three weeks!  Waving good-bye to our trusty rental car, we set off on foot for the mile long walk to the airport.

Sitting in the Christchurch airport, we began to mentally prepare for the next leg of our trip.  In a way, it felt like our round the world trip was just beginning.  Our time in New Zealand was comfortable, safe and easy and probably not at all representative of how we will spend much of the next 11 months.  We felt somewhat reluctant to leave the behind this magical country filled with amazing scenery and friendly people but took comfort knowing that warm weather and some of the world’s best scuba diving was only a plane ride away.