On Tuesday, our last day in Taiwan, we had planned a day trip to Taroko Gorge, a national park. We underestimated the timing on public transport to get there, though, and realized looking at schedules in the morning that we’d end up spending quite a lot of money to see the gorge for an hour. Instead, we made our way across town to go to elephant mountain in Taipei. Elephant mountain is a popular tourist attraction because of the incredible views it offers of the city. We hiked up, down, and across the 1000 stairs to see the entire area. We stayed until after sunset so we could see the views in full light and all of the buildings lit up at night. It was beautiful.
The following morning we woke up early for a flight to Cebu in the Philippines. Once we arrived in Cebu we got to our hostel, which happened to be a little further from the city center than expected. The only way to get around are taxis (which are expensive, and usually try to overcharge tourists) or jeepneys. Jeepneys are… a cultural experience. They look like small buses, but the seating in the back consists only of benches that run the length of the bus on either side. No seatbelts. They are open air and only cost 7 pesos, or 14 cents each. The drivers squeeze in as many people as possible at all times, so be ready to get close to your neighbor if you ever want to ride one. As long as you know where you want to go, it’s fairly easy to flag down a jeepney from anywhere on the route. Once you’re on, you only need tap the side to get off anywhere you please. Given that traffic in Cebu is less than organized, the jeepney is certainly a bit of a harrowing experience for first timers, but we’ve grown more comfortable with time. We went into the city (in a jeepney) to get food and a SIM card that night, but only came back with full bellies and anger at the locals who had tried to trick us out of money and simply couldn’t figure out our phone.
*Pro-tip: The taxi drivers in Cebu are controlled by a union called the LTFRB. If any driver tries to pull something over on you, threaten to report them to the LTFRB! They may be mad, but they will give in.
*Pro-tip: Google Maps does jeepneys! Both Google maps and Maps.Me are essential for travel.
With renewed purpose we woke up on Thursday and went to Mactan island to return the airport. We had seen tourist SIM deals there, and idiotically thought that we’d find cheaper in the city. First we filled our bellies with Mexican food at the biggest mall in Cebu, SM City. Filipino food is vastly different from other Asian food we’ve tried. There is a blend of Mexican, Spanish, and American with, of course, some originals thrown in. The main flavor profile is sweet over spicy, still with an abundance of seafood. The airport SIM girls knew exactly what they were doing, and had our SIM set up with data for the whole month, texting, and calls within minutes. If you come to Cebu and intend to use your phone (which I recommend, it is cheap and WiFi is not readily available) then DO IT AT THE AIRPORT!
On leaving the airport we went to a “beach” recommended by the owners of our hostel. Blue Reef beach on Mactan island, like the rest of the beaches there, is actually a series of concrete decks built out over the water with various staircases to get down for swimming. Some of the resorts have added white sand, but the island doesn’t naturally have any. Most of the beaches have entry fees between $9 – $15 per person, but we found the locals beach that only cost us $1 each. The water was incredibly warm and we snorkeled the afternoon away. It made us enormously excited to dive here as just while snorkeling we saw many fish we’d never seen before and it was colorful and lively and wonderful.
On the way back from the beach we were trying to figure out how to get out of the very hidden, very backwoods, very dirt road area that we had ventured into to find the cheapest prices. We were told to take a trike, but they were quoting us unfairly high prices just to go down the road. Luckily, we spotted a jeepney in the parking lot! We walked over to jump on and they invited us in, calling us “amigo!” and saying it was fine. As we went down the road, we tried to pay them, but they wouldn’t accept the money… and that’s when we realized what we had boarded wasn’t in fact a transport jeepney, but a family vehicle taking everyone home from the beach! It was great fun; we spent the entire trip laughing. They shared some homemade Filipino purplish liquor with us, a common practice in the Philippines. Here, men sit in a circle and drink by repeatedly filling one cup and passing it around for everyone to finish off the cup in turn. It’s called tagayan, and Keenen has been invited many times since this first.
On Friday we met one our close friends from college, Justine, in Cebu! Justine is volunteering for the Peace Corps. and simultaneously earning her Master’s degree in the Camotes islands. Talk about dedication! We ate lunch together at a wonderful local café that raises bees on the island of Bohol and puts honey in all of the food. After spending a few hours catching up, we met up with some other Peace Corps. volunteers in the city for some dinner and drinks. It was a much needed night of relaxation and friendship.
Saturday we made the long journey back from Cebu to the Camotes islands, consisting of a two hour ride in a cramped van (14 passengers and a driver!), then a four hour ferry, then another 1 hour bus ride. Once we made it to Tudela we talked the night away and enjoyed a wonderful traditional meal of pork and vegetables at her host family’s home. After my traditional Filipino cold water bucket shower, I was ready to pass out. The weather here is incredibly hot compared to what we’re used to.
Sunday the three of us walked around Justine’s tiny town of Tudela, ate some local barbecue, sampled one of the many banana species available on the island (which are far tastier, and tinier, than anything available in the States), and visited Busay Falls. Busay Falls is a gorgeous blue waterfall and swimming hole not ten minutes walk from Justine’s home. We soaked the day away and enjoyed each other’s company. It’s been wonderful to see an old friend, particularly one that we can reconnect so easily with after having been separated for just over two years. We love you Justine!
Keenen spent the night joining a tagay circle with Justine’s tito (host dad) and his local friends. Traditionally women are not invited to join in the circle, although I did sit in for a few minutes. It’s hard to look your privilege in the face, but it’s hard not to when you’re surrounded by people who have never left home, and live without things we consider average comforts, like running water (especially running water that’s clean enough to drink), air conditioning, WiFi, and even toilet paper. It certainly fosters a deep appreciation for the things we take for granted in America.
Yesterday we rented a spare motorbike from Justine’s family and explored the island while she went to work. We ate more traditional barbecue in San Francisco. We visited Danao Lake and met an older North Carolina man visiting his soon to be Filipino bride for the first time. We swam at the gorgeous white sand beach in Santiago where the water felt like a hot tub and was crystal clear. Most of all, we enjoyed the scenery of the island as we drove around. Wild, palm tree jungle on one side, bright blue ocean views on the other, and a relentless and cruel sun above us have left us satisfied and glowing red.
Today we walked several miles from Tudela to Bukilat Cave with Justine who was able to take the day off work to spend time with us. Woohoo! Before setting off we had pancit for breakfast. It’s a noodle dish with pork and vegetables, mmmm. The cave is huge and beautiful with ocean water to swim and tiny little bats constantly flitting around the ceiling to take care of the bugs. After the long and punishingly sunny walk home we whiled the afternoon with snacks and tea. We tried siomao (pork dumplings), steamed ham and cheese buns, and something similar to angel food cake. Justine and her family have also made sure we tried chocolate rice, turon (fried lumpia banana snacks), cassava cookies, fried Camotes potatoes (covered in sugar of course), and many different kinds of baked breads.
Nearly all of the people we’ve encountered here have been incredibly friendly and hospitable, always offering us food, help, and friendship. This is the true spirit of the Philippines, and although it can be a harder life in some ways, it also seems to be a much simpler and happier one.