Friday, August 18, 2017

August 16 – Cebu City, Philippines

Our day began at 1 am as we boarded the flight destined to Cebu City in the Philippines. When we were mapping out our final weeks it looked like we’d have about a week left over after we’d seen everything we wanted to in Vietnam, so we had a decision to make. We considered visiting Luang Prabang in Laos, we thought about going to Ko Kut in Thailand, and we also considered just going to Bangkok and spending some time there, as this is where we were catching our flight back to Canada. But we decided instead to go to the Philippines and spent our final week there. When we were originally planning this trip we wanted to spend half the time in the Philippines and the other half in Vietnam. But with all the political changes and violence in Philippines we decided to pass it up, but our return ticket did stop in Manila for a night and half a day, so we’d at least see a small bit of that city. Well, we decided that since we were in the region, and may not be back here for a long time, this was the right time to at least have a short look around this country of islands, and get a taste for what it has to offer.

We took a very early flight to Manila and cleared customs and immigration and then transferred to a domestic flight to Cebu City. We arrived around 9:30 am, tired, but ready to take on a new country and to see if we could avoid getting completely screwed on that first taxi ride. We got into the white, metered taxi, gave the driver our hotel name, and he took off. He almost immediately turned off the meter and said it would be 300 pesos to the hotel, but we told him to forget it and turn the meter back on, which be begrudgingly did, but not before offering a fixed price of 250, which we politely declined.

What was our first impression of the Philippines? Well, it looked and felt as if we had been dropped into the dirtiest part of Latin America. It was completely different than all the countries we have travelled to in this region. First, the traffic was punishing. In place of nimble scooters, bicycles, and small cars, there were huge transport trucks belching diesel fumes everywhere, SUVs, flatbed trucks, and passenger jeepneys, all locked into an impossible, motionless jam on every street. There were few people walking around and hardly any street-side shops or food vendors. There were shanty towns on the roadsides, with their rusty aluminum sheeting roofs, held up by crumbling walls and poles, and their occupants, barely clothed, walking around barefoot, flanked by feral dogs. There were traffic lights at most intersections instead of roundabouts or uncontrolled intersections, creating massive jams and long waits. As we got into Cebu City we started seeing more shops, and noticed that nearly all the signs were in English. After nearly an hour in the taxi, he pulled into a grubby secondary road with dirty stone and brick walls on both sides, no houses, no restaurants, and no vendors. He drove up a few blocks until he reached the Cebu R Hotel – our home for the night. The metered fare was 90 pesos, which the driver begrudgingly accepted, but looked very disappointed that he had not been able to swindle three times that from us. What I say next is going to make you think I am a monster – 90 pesos converts to just over 2 dollars Canadian. Yes, you read that correctly. 2 dollars for a nearly hour taxi ride. So yes, 300 pesos would have still been very cheap, but that all-important first taxi ride is psychological warfare and I felt no mercy.

The staff at reception told us a room would not be ready until 2 pm so we asked them if there was somewhere we could walk to nearby for breakfast. They said there wasn’t much around here and it would be better to go to their restaurant, which we did, as we could feel the h’anger starting to come on and we need some time to sit down, regroup, and figure out our plan.

Throughout the last week we had been doing research on the Philippines, trying to figure out what to do with the time we had. We used the Lonely Planet guidebook, websites and travel forums and were really having a hard time sorting through all the conflicting information, hundreds of island options, incomplete bus and ferry information, and were honestly getting overwhelmed by information. Also, when Ana started looking for accommodation in the places of interest we found, she was either getting no availability, or else crappy, budget guesthouses that looked way overpriced. So I will admit that our mood had already begun to sour, as it was looking more and more like this was not the type of place where you could just show up and jump on the backpacker path.

We spent two hours in the restaurant trying to figure out where to do and where to stay. We finally found a decent looking place in the Panglao area of Bohol Island – a two hour ferry ride south east of Cebu City. We asked the receptionist how to book ferry tickets, and what options were available, but she said to just go to Pier 2 tomorrow and buy a ticket in the morning. I also asked her for a map of the local area, but she didn’t have one, but she did offer to book a taxi that could drive us around to a few sites.

They had a room ready for us shortly after 1 pm so we got unpacked, cleaned up, and then headed down to reception. The girl that was looking into taxis for us was gone and hadn’t left any information for the others, so we asked one of the boys there if he could get a taxi for us. I think he must have called a buddy, because ten minutes later a private car shows up and offers to take us to two spots we wanted to visit in the city for 2500 pesos. I politely told him to piss off and we flagged a metered taxi, jumped in and asked him to take us to Magellan’s Cross. It took us 20 minutes to move two blocks in the thick, disgusting traffic, and then another 20 minutes to go the remaining mile or two. We could have easily walked it faster, except that hardly any of the streets had sidewalks and there was literally no place to walk. Grrrrrr…

Once we arrived at the Magellan’s Cross monument, we asked the driver (who was a very lovely chap) to wait a few minutes while we had a look, which he happily did. The monument was a small, covered, round building that held a large wooden cross which encased the actual cross that Ferdinand Magellan planted on this very spot in 1521 when he claimed Philippines for Spain and the Catholic Church. I have read several books on Magellan and his incredible voyages, so I was very happy to see this monument. The place were Magellan was killed by one of the local chieftains, Lapu Lapu, during an ill-advised show of Spanish military superiority, was just across the bay on Mactan Island, where the airport is, but I had no desire to fight traffic all the way back there to see the bronze statue of Lapu Lapu.

Our next stop was a place that Magnus had found online where they sell Magic cards. Yes, he has been searching all over Asia to find somewhere that sells these damn cards, and was sure that this time he had found a place. And he was right! We were dropped off at a small mall and sure enough the store was there, so he went in and spent a good while browsing through cards while the rest of us browsed through the stores in the rest of the mall. I found one interesting place that had a series of private rooms with comfy chairs, couches, a large video projection screen, and an extensive collection of DVDs. You basically rented the room with a bunch of friends to watch a movie. We were considering doing it, but then found out there was a three hour wait to get a room. I guess I’d have to watch Wonder Woman some other time.

We discovered that this mall offered a free shuttle that carried customers to a larger, newer mall called Robinson Galleria so we got in line and waited, watching the frenzy of traffic before us , wondering how long we’d be stuck in that jam. The shuttle soon arrived, and we were indeed stuck in that jam for quite some time, but I think all of us dozed off on the bus, feeling the effects of the 1 am start this morning. But by the time we arrived, we had all bounced back to life and started walking the mall. I found a place that was selling these ultra-modern massage chairs and the girl there offered us a chance to try them out so the kids and I buckled ourselves in and got a very long treatment. These chairs were amazing – in addition to the standard back massagers it also had devices that kneaded your arms, legs, head, feet and once in a while it even gave your butt a good squeeze.

Food courts are the worst evil in the world, but I will admit that we ate at the one here – mainly because we didn’t see any restaurants anywhere near the hotel, and had no idea where to find one. It was surprisingly good, and so cheap we had to recheck the bill twice to make sure it was right. So far, the Philippines looked to offer great value for money.

We flagged a taxi (who played Tom Jones greatest hits throughout the whole ride) and returned to the hotel, watched tv for a bit, and crashed hard, after an exceedingly long day.

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