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