Tracking Thieves (Philippines)
A sinking feeling washed over me as I felt around under the back wall of the little bamboo hut where I had stashed the GoPro camera. It was the immediate despair you feel when you check your pockets for your phone and realize you don’t know where it is. I dug around in the sand despite knowing in the back of my mind that it was gone. Stolen. Why hadn’t I put it back with our things under the watchful eye of the Germans that had come out to Mantigue Island with me? Why did I enjoy stashing things in recklessly convenient places?
I.G. photo credit: Ben.away
My love of hiding things could likely be traced back to my grandfather, who had hidden dimes for an antique slot machine on the ledges above doorways. My cousins and I would take turns pulling down the metal arm, initiating a rattling, mechanical hum, occasionally followed by the satisfying ring of dimes raining down after three like images appeared. Our parents would ask us if we would do a chore for a dollar. No deal. But for 10 dimes we were all over it. I hope to one day get my children, nieces, and nephews hooked on the same slot machine, which lives in my study today, so that we may also benefit from the diligent child labor that gambling addiction can provide.
But I hadn’t hidden a few dimes. A $400 camera, borrowed from my brother, was gone. My mind raced. No one could have seen me hide it but I had walked past a fisherman sitting in his boat a hundred yards away. He saw me walking by with the GoPro and then hop in the water without it. As I swam out to the reef I had seen him paddling from the tiny little island the two kilometers towards Camiguin watching me intently. It all made sense. He had probably snatched the camera and was looking to see if I had noticed, which I hadn’t. Squinting at the shimmering water, his boat was nowhere to be found.
A few hundred extra pesos was enough to get a propeller boat to take me up and down the Camiguin coast across from Mantigue Island to search for my primary suspect. With only a paddle, the guy couldn’t have gone too far, even with a headstart. His boat was yellow, he had a distinctive, homemade speargun, and when I greeted him I noticed a missing incisor tooth. That should be enough of a profile to track him down on a sparsely populated coastline in paddling distance of Mantigue Island.
After about 20 minutes cruising along the coast we found his boat, moored, and waded up to the little village. My boatman explained the situation and the villagers brought me to the yellow boat owner’s home. Sure enough, there was his speargun drying outside. I learned his name was Chary Gunzaga and he had just left, probably to offload the “hot” GoPro.
Several hours later, just before sunset, I came back and found Chary whittling with a machete outside of his house. Alone and unarmed, I wondered if perhaps I should have gone to the police first. In a fair fight I was confident I could have taken the small but muscular 20 something. The machete changed my risk calculus. My eyes darted to a shovel leaning against a house a few feet away. Not ideal, but if things broke bad it would do.
Opening a coconut with the typical Visayan machete like the one Chary had.
I.G. Photo Credit: zven_sp
“Hello Chary. Did you find a GoPro camera on the beach in Mantigue?” There were several curious neighbors who had joined me as I walked to his house and the whole thing evolved into more of a spectacle than I had intended. “No, I go home after you in water.” His cool reply was in broken English but seemed rehersed. He continued whittling, defiantly unruffled. By now he had time to mentally prepare for my arrival and the GoPro was probably already on its way to a mainland Mindanao pawnshop. “If you found it and give it back, no problem. But if I can’t find it I’ll have to go to the police. I don’t want to but I’ll have to.” The mention of the police was enough to evoke a reaction from the young woman seated next to him. She said something in hushed but urgent Visayan, the local Filippino dialect. He tisked dismisively at her and continued whittling. This guy’s guilty as sin but I can’t pin it to him and he knows it. As promised, I submitted a police report with all the information I had and chalked it up as a lost cause.
My faith in the integrity of the Filippino people was restored when I went to return my moped. After paying for the past week, I told the owner that I’d be catching the 3:30am ferry. He gave me back my ID which he’d held for collateral and said to just park it in his lot on my way out and hide the keys in the cupholder. This guy not only trusts me, he also likes to play it fast and loose with hiding things. I decided to keep my recent misadventure with stashing stuff to myself and shook his hand. Then I stole his moped, sold it, and got the hell out of there. Just kidding.
My transportation everywhere in Southeast Asia
My travel day began with a 1:30am oatmeal breakfast before a peaceful 45 minute moped ride under the starry sky to the port where I dropped off the bike and caught the first ferry to northern Mindanao. Second breakfast was at a bus station where I woofed down a few hard boiled eggs and drank a mug of instant coffee that boldly, albeit incorrectly, advertised the popular Starbucks beverage "Fnappucuno."
Cursive foils the forgery factories.
My attempts to recoup some lost sleep were ironically foiled by a reminant of U.S. colonialism, American country music. The busdriver on the way to Surigao didn’t seem to think that 5am was too early to blast a full-length Kenny Rogers concert over the audio system complimented by no less than five tv screens strategically placed for optimized viewing. Even with earplugs in I started to sing along in my head. “Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to disable the bus’s audio system. Know when to run.”
Kenny Rogers concert blaring on the bus
The 3:30pm ferry from Surigao to the surfer island of Siargao arrived just as the sun was listing down towards the horizon. Feeling groggy but glad to have the journey almost behind me, I rented a scooter and made tracks for the backpacker haven of General Luna. Villa Solaria, a hostel with a distinctly surfer vibe and AC cooled dorm rooms was home for the following week. Days were spent with new friends checking out the various surf breaks, swimming holes, and little islands nearby. Tiny portugese manofwar, known by the inoquous moniquer of “blue bottles” gave my forearm a nasty rash but didn’t keep me from hopping back in the water when a good swell came through.
Eager to do some spearfishing and take on a little project, I picked up supplies from the hardware store and stopped by a street mechanic shop to borrow the tools to fashion a pole spear. The good natured mechanics let me use an angle grinder, hammer, and drill press to put it together. When I asked what I owed the shop owner flashed me an amused smile and told me to bring him my first fish. We had a good laugh and I agreed to do my best to “find nemo.” Don’t worry. I didn’t shoot a clown fish. I’m not a monster.
Evenings were either spent going to bed delightfully early or grabbing drinks with friends at one of the many watering holes. Having returned to a western backpacker hub that offered ample activities and social interaction I decided to cool my heels for a while longer. The 30-day tourist visa just wasn’t going to cut it. There was still so much of the Philippines to see and I had no interest in moving for the time being. So I plopped down the $60 to extend my visa another 30 days and meandered up the coast to the sleepy, one-horse surf town of Pacifico. Along the way I hucked a backflip off a ropeswing, explored some water-filled caves, and visited some turcoise tidal pools.
In contrast to the bustle of General Luna, Pacifico was a few hostels and local restaurants near some surf breaks. There wasn’t even a bar to speak of. I quickly fell into a group comprised of French, German, Swedish and Filippino surfers. The Filippinos were happy to show us the secret surf spots, cook meals with us, and host us at their shady river front home looking out over the mangroves. It was the perfect mix of social and cultural interaction. I’m still going to do some more of the Philippines as soon as I get restless. But for now, life is too good to change a thing.
Sugba Lagoon, Siargao Island
When the time comes to depart the Philippines, I’ll continue a little tradition I’ve started to give myself some good karma before arriving at my next destination. Once I’ve booked my flights I go to www.kiva.org and provide an interest-free, micro-loan to an entrepreneuer in the country I’m visiting. The website allows users to load up money to an account which can then be lent to someone which users can find by searching country and project category. It’s satisfying to see pictures of the recipients, read about their projects, and then contribute in increments of as little as $25. The loans are paid back over a time period that the recipients can manage. If they default, it was a donation. If not, the money will slowly trickle back into the kiva account which users can loan again to someone else.
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Singapore and the Philippines
Fight or flight sent an involuntary jolt through my body and my heart thumped audibly as I saw something large moving off to my left at the edge of my peripheral vision. Without my speargun I always felt exposed in the open ocean and I knew that the unexpected shot of adrenaline was going to burn through my oxygen. Freediving 40 feet down along Apo island’s coral shelf that dropped off into the abyss, I spun to face the potential threat. I was staring directly at a very large and curious, even dopey looking, green turtle, perhaps the least threatening creature in the sea. Smiling with relief I cruised to the surface for air before spending a few minutes gently drifting along with my new friend. The slow, zen-like movement of the turtle was calming just to observe. “Finding Nemo” hit their personality on the head by depicting them as chilled out, go-with-the-flow, surfer bros.
Green Turtle cruising around Apo Island
A few days earlier I had made the journey from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Cebu, Philippines with a 12 hour layover in Singapore. My friend Emily generously offered to put me up for the night and show me around her ritzy city-state. I gratefully accepted, despite knowing that cabs and food for 12 hours in Singapore would run me what my entire previous week in northern Thailand had cost. Afterall, this visit would cross off my 68th country and I’m trying to catch 'em all.
Singapore has the feel of a place built by someone who keeps their action figures in the original packaging. Everything is remarkably clean and new to the point of being suspicious. The massive highrise housing is reminiscent of the scene from “The Matrix” that shows pods containing countless human bodies whose energy is harvested by sentient machines in control of the post-apocalyptic world. The unconscious human “batteries” remain oblivious to this grim reality as they are engrossed in an artificial existence manufactured by their robotic overlords. After speaking with my cab driver, this seemed to be an apt comparison since the high taxes, spiderweb of government bureaucracy, and prevailing work culture create a widespread workaholic zombie epidemic. Sprinkle some in-your-face consumerism on top and you have the perfect hamster wheel cocktail. Hyperbole? Ok, maybe a bit. Nonetheless, I was quite content to be a funemployed visiting observer.
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
We grabbed some obscenely priced dinner and drinks with a few of Emily’s friends and walked to some of the iconic, must-see buildings along the canal. It may not be my cup of tea but the architecture, green space, and urban planning is objectively stunning. At 1am on a school night we had the place to ourselves. After taking it all in, we headed back to Emily’s spacious and modernly decorated apartment to get some sleep.
Gardens by the Bay with my gracious host, Emily
At 5am I tried to slink out of the guestroom under the cover of darkness, careful not to rouse my host’s hairless nugget of a dog, Obi, but as I was slipping on my flip-flops a bleary eyed Emily shuffled out of her room to give me a goodbye hug. By late morning I had arrived in the port city of Cebu and decided to head south to Dumaguete before beginning a counterclockwise loop of the archipelago. I hefted my backpack onto my shoulders and caught a series of public buses to the ferry terminal. When I have the time, I take great pleasure in avoiding the scams of airport taxi drivers. They love to mob the white guy, dollar signs in their eyes, as he walks out of the arrivals terminal. “Taxi, sir?” Translation: “Want to pay 500% of what your fare should be you dumb tourist?” Me: “No thank you. I’m taking the bus.” Translation: “Haha, nice try shitbag! Better luck next time!”
Thanks to the 7000 some islands that make up the Philippines, ferry travel is cheap and easy to navigate but it sometimes takes multiple days to reach a destination. En route to Dumaguete, I had to overnight in the unremarkable transport hub of Talabagin. Fortunately, I’m not in a rush. The next morning I caught the ferry to the provincial capital of Dumaguete, on the island of Negros. I quickly realized that I was no longer in western backpacker land. This wasn’t Thailand. There were other travelers at my hostel but most of them were Filipinos or Chinese. Between the language barrier and cultural differences regarding interaction with strangers, they showed little interest in communal area socialization.
Ferry view from my open air bunk bed
Time to shift gears to solo travel mode. Managing my expectations and approaching this new reality with the right mindset made all the difference in the world. I had just enjoyed several weeks in the western backpacker Mecca of Pai followed by a quiet week with a travel companion in the Northern Thailand hinterlands. There was nothing wrong with spending some time alone exploring the mountains and reefs surrounding Dumaguete.
Casaroro Falls Hike, Dumaguete, Negros Island
Zipping south of the city limits along the tropical coastline on my rental scooter, I felt the rewarding rush of adventure as I embarked on a day trip to Apo Island. Freediving in the crystal clear waters above the refreshingly healthy coral reminded me how much fun I can have alone. On the walk back around the island, still grinning from my amazing freediving session, I picked up an empty rice sack and filled it with garbage which had washed up on shore. The place was an absolute island paradise and the sight of washed up garbage moved me to action. Still dripping wet, I dropped off the sack while returning my rental fins to approving nods from the snorkel guides.
Apo Island Reef
The next few days were spent hiking to a waterfall, losing my sideburns to a $0.60 haircut miscommunication, and soaking up the Filipino culture. Spanish colonial rule from 1561-1898 has made the Philippines markedly different from its southeast asian neighbors. Catholicism, superstitious customs, and elements of spanish language are a few of the more visible holdovers. American colonialism from 1898-1946 left a few quirky marks of its own such as incorporation of American style junk food into the national cuisine, a deep and abiding love of basketball, and “Filipinized” English words in Tagalog. But my favorite U.S. colonial legacy is embodied in the “Jeepney”, a modified Jeep Wrangler, which constitutes an ostentatious staple of public transportation.
Jeepney, Casaroro Falls, $0.60 haircut fail
In an effort to experience the local culture I ate a fertilized, hard boiled duck egg but only after I saw a local eat one and live. The inside had a visible duck fetus and looked like exactly what it was, a duck abortion carried out by a quack. (Ugh, sorry. Couldn’t help myself.) Feeling a bit queasy, I decided to sanitize my tummy with the local beer, San Miguel Pilsner. The nearest watering hole was a karaoke bar that, from its appearance, could have easily seconded as a meth lab. That seemed unlikely, however, considering that almost every drug dealer in the country had already been extrajudicially executed in the past few years at the request of the infamously unconventional and uncouth president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Typical Filipino Fare: Hardboiled Duck Egg complete with fetus
Trying my best to forget the baby duck dish, I walked past the armed doorman and into a bar that was completely dark except for the glow of the tv screen with text lighting up to prompt singers to stay on tempo. Perhaps this had been a mistake. But before I could get cold feet a waitress that looked like she got shot in the face with a makeup gun was seated next to me with a karaoke book so fat that it would make an encyclopedia blush. My attempts to order a beer without singing were met with borderline hostility. “Pick three songs,” she demanded again with the authority of a high ranking military officer. “Can I just sing one?” Not an option. She wasn’t going to budge. So I picked out three songs, preemptively put the money on the table for my beer, and then chugged it with a sense of purpose. Unlike karaoke back in the states there was no wait and I barely finished pounding my beer before the microphone was thrust into my chest. Still burping, I belted out “Summer of 69” to the delight of some hammered patrons who clapped with alcohol-fueled enthusiasm. Now’s my chance. I button hooked around the couch and dashed out the door to freedom. I made a mental note that they take their karaoke very seriously here.
Very Serious Karaoke Bar
The next morning I caught an early morning ferry from Dumaguete down to Mindanao and headed east along the coast with my crosshairs on Camiguin island. Long a source of regional instability, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao still struggles with elements of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a terrorist outfit that has aligned itself with the likes of the Islamic State. Even transiting along the northern coast, we passed through military checkpoints which required passengers to get off the bus and walk through a screening process.
Terrorist Placard at a Military Checkpoint in Mindanao
Several buses, another ferry, and a harrowing moped taxi ride later I arrived at Balingoan port, which is no more than a crossroads and the launching point for Camiguin Island. Alas, at quarter past midnight the last ferry had already departed so I headed to a little working man’s harborside hotel. The gate was open and the lights were on but despite my best efforts I couldn’t find anyone to check me in. So I did what I do at airports and found my "hole-up spot." Behind a long sofa in a dark sitting room I stretched out on my sleeping pad and was out like a light. At 5:30am I caught the ferry to Camiguin without ever seeing a hotel staff member, rented a scooter, found the cheapest hostel, and took a much needed nap.
Unattended Harbor Hotel and Hole-Up Spot
Camiguin is a small, lush tropical island whose natural beauty has somehow managed to fly under the radar of large scale tourism. My days have been filled chasing waterfalls, working out at the local gym ($0.40 for a day pass), and freediving to the many reefs. There are also hot springs that could be more accurately described as lukewarm springs. (Fun fact: When I was a kid my parents would draw my younger brother Luke a bath and declare it “lukewarm.” For an embarrassingly long time I was under the impression that lukewarm was the temperature my baby brother required for his evening soaks. Imagine my surprise when I heard strangers use the term. How did they know the temperature Luke liked his baths? Was his bathing temperature preference a standard of measurement?) Having thoroughly explored this delightful little garden island, I am now setting my sights upon Siargao Island where I hope to get back onto a surfboard.
Old Camiguin Volcano
Tuasan Falls, Camiguin
Ben quit his job to travel the world. He intends to keep winging it as long as he can.