The last good-bye to Manila
After coming back from Palawan we spent two final days in Manila the ugly, we happily said good-bye to it for the last time from the deck of the ferry that would take us to Cebu. Despite having spent our time in the city in extremely comfortable conditions, Manila rapidly climbed up to the top of my ranking of “The Ugliest cities in the world”. Manila, we are definitely not going to miss you, you are the ugliest thing in this stunning country.
It took the ferry 24hs of navigating calm waters to reach Cebu, where we hastily moved from one pier to another to connect with a speedboat that took us to the fishing village of Tubigon in the small island of Bohol. Unfortunately, after all this time of traveling in the country, I dropped my guard due to the wonderful affection of the Filipinos, and at a time of carelessness in the speedboat, somebody dug into my handlebar pannier and took the equivalent to 300 usd that I had stored there for an important expense we had to cover to leave the country. A bad experience that showed me that no matter how wonderful people are, there are always some who are there to ruin the party and we always have to keep and eye on our belongings
We went to Bohol to see a tiny wonderful creature that I had long been yearning to see since I had watched it on TV for the first time more than a decade ago. The tarsier.
The tarsiers are tiny little primates that live in the south of the Philippines and the north of Indonesia, but it is in the woods of Bohol where there is the highest remaining concentration of them.
A tarsier fits the palm of one hand and can rotate its head almost 360 degrees. Its eyes are bigger than its stomach and have a field of view of almost 180 degrees. It can also jump 5 to 10 meters with just one leap.
They are mostly nocturnal animals, they sleep pretty much all day and they are incredibly hard to find in the wild, thus we went to see them at the tarsier sanctuary where an organization works to protect them from pouching and eventually extinction. Needless to say that they are unique, impressive little animals. They are extremely cute and they make you feel like wrapping them around your hands, however it is said that even the slightlest human caress can break its bones, which means almost immediate death for them.
Cycling in Bohol after the long climbs of the Cordillera and the Caramoan peninsula proved to be excessively easy and after slightly more than a full day we pretty much went around the whole island. It is a very green and quiet island and traffic isn't annoying. When we were already heading south on the way to the port we chose to cut through the heart of the island to stop at the funny “Chocolate hills” which nothing have to do with the sweet but with the toasted brown color they have during the dry season and the exotic shape that make them look like bomboms in a chocolate box. Although here, allow me to present a more obscene appreciation and let me tell you that rather than chocolates, they look like an erotic landscapes of boobs everywhere.
Due to how easy it was to stay at the barangay halls in the country, we rarely had to camp in the Philippines, but the landscape of boobs here was so attractive and quiet that we chose to take a detour inland for a few kilometers, passing by some rural villages, far away from the tourist spot where tourists go to take the same photo of the place already shot ad-nausea, and found a beautiful spot in a “cleavage” in between two boobs where we camped. In the tropics, the heat and the humidity make it almost impossible to sleep in the tent, therefore we simply use to hang our mosquito net from some trees or even from the bicycles and happily lie down under billions of stars while we fall asleep with the sweet symphony of the sounds of millions of tropical bugs that buzz all night long.
Time to run
The two months in the country flew by and now it was time to run to reach the departure point before our visas expired. For that, we had to cut across Mindanao, a reviled island, of which one can hear an impressive amount of bullshit, invented by the media. So much bullshit, that when we told people that we were on our way there, they would go “Oh my God, DON'T!, Mindanao is full of terrorists!” It is partly true, the Islamic fundamentalist group Abu Sayef is based there, and the same usual bunch of assholes in the US, even went as far as saying things as absurd as Abu Sayef being cells of Al Qaeda, but hey, US American stupidity and aberrations aren't anything really surprising anymore (but I'm always relieved to know that the US is also full of wonderful people). The thing is that Abu Sayef is there but their presence is limited to just a few spots and their impact is nothing but of little concern and they are far from being the dangerous threat that they paint on TV.
Most of Mindanao is not only very safe but extremely beautiful and filled with stunning places to explore, and paradoxically, it is thanks to the stupidity that it is said on TV about it that the place remains as a true gem preserved from the destructive hands of mass tourism. But our visa days were running out and we had to pass through it very quickly, so from the port of Plaridel we swift to the south of the island to visit someone very special.
During all of our journey in the Philippines, we had someone who served as an oracle to us. He pointed us to the right places, gave us the right directions and provided us with the best of insider recommendations available. It is my friend Paco Santamaría. Paco, whose origins go back to Cantabria, in northern Spain, is almost a legend, a sort of precursor to all of us. He cycled the world for 12 years (not consecutive) in the 80's and 90's, when panniers weren't waterproof, clothes weren't light and technologies like Gore-Tex didn't exist, and most of the roads that we cycle today weren't paved. He has mind-blowing traveling stories up his sleeve and one could listen to them for hours. One day, some 15 years ago, he reached the once very remote Mindanao and met his love, Made, with whom he had Chini. There, in the middle of the jungle, without electricity and running water, they set up their little house. To reach Paco's house today, one has to get to the tiny barangay of Quiniput, some 40 km before Zamboanga, from there, you have to take a detour following a rural road towards the bush for about 5km and find an almost invisible and very steep muddy trail almost swallowed by the jungle and push uphill for about 600 mts where you will hopefully find a shapeless arrangement of loose sharp stones where you have to unload your bike and lift it on your shoulder for the last 30 meters until you will find Paco and Made's little isolated piece of heaven. A wonderful garden designed by Made precedes the house, which is only about 20m2 and only has one enclosed little storage room on one side. This is pretty much the most remote place that we have been so far in the Philippines, a true garden of Eden of peace and tranquility.
Paco and Made took care of us as their own brother and sister and they fed us until we weren't able to breath. I think for the first time in the trip I was able to put on some weight. Made is a magnificent cook and we were able to eat truly delicious Filipino food for the first time. The food of the country so far hadn't really been something to write home about, not only because it is usually low quality (especially within our budget range) but because the portions had always been excessively tiny and would never ever get even close to stop our voracious appetite. Let alone the fact that Filipinos are maniac meat eaters and rarely ever bother to cook some vegetables. But the delicious dishes that Made skillfully prepared for us in her 1m2 little “kitchen” made up for the two months of eating mostly unsavory food. Our palates revived and were happier than ever since we had left China.
And now, how the hell do we leave the Philippines?
When everything had been perfectly articulated to leave the country 4 days before our visas expired , the negligence of the thrid world twisted our destiny and turned it into a huge problem. Allow me to explain because this is a good one:
Little before our scheduled departure from the Philippines, the Sultan of Sulu came up with an absurd separatist claim, saying that the Sabbah region of Malaysian Borneo belongs not only to his Sultanate but also to the Philippines. The Filipino government on the other hand, came out and officially said that they didn't support anything of what the Sultan was claiming and that it was all ridiculous. So, the Sultan and some silly rebels with little cause, "invaded" Sabbah, a little tip at least. Malaysia who doesn't fuck around, immediately sent the army to the region. So far so good.
Our boat sailed to Sandakan, in Sabbah twice a week, Monday and Thursday. We bought the tickets for Thursday, since our visa would have already expired by Monday at 12am. Each ticket cost us 80 usd, a ripoff considering the shit conditions in which we had to travel for 24hs in a ship that is mainly meant for cargo. The problem came on Thursday, when we got to the port of Zamboanga and we were told that the trip had been canceled due to the armed conflict in Sabbah and the next trip might be on Monday. At that very same moment that we were being told “there's no ship today”I thought to myself “SHIT, WE ARE FUCKED!”
We tried to get any official statement from the company as for why the trip had been canceled but none of the ineffectual clerks at the office were able to elaborate a minimally coherent answer. We asked about how feasible it was that there would actually be a boat on Monday and they said there might be one but they weren't sure. We asked for the full refund and we went straight to immigration to explain our situation. There, we clashed with the awfully corrupt system of the third world. I grew up in the third world in a very corrupt country, so there are really very few things that make me feel surprised when it comes to corruption, but here, they were able to get my attention.
At the immigration office, after having been able to bypass a few redundant officials, we finally were able to tell our full account to the chief of immigration of Zamboanga. We slowly described everything from beginning to end and how we ended up there thanks to the company's irresponsibility. She compassionately listened to us, even smiling gently, but after we were over, she concluded that the only solution for us was to extend our visas there to legally leave the country. She appreciated that nothing had been our fault and that it hadn't been our mistake but it hadn't been theirs either, that is immigration.
Now, thinking of extending our visas was not only and absurd idea, we just needed 12 extra hours for crying out loud, but it was also a catastrophy for our budget. It would have cost us 200 usd each to extend them for 2 more months, there were no alternatives in the middle.
We pleaded, begged, tried to soften her heart using all possible persuasion methods but she said that even though she was the boss and should be able to authorize our departure, she chose not to intervene with the authority of the chief of the port, who was in charge there and was the one who stamped the passports. In addition to all of this, she told us that now, the system was fully electronic and it was impossible for them to cheat. We insisted then to talk directly with the chief of the port. Paco had warned us that he was a corrupt man of no scruples. We waited for him and retold the whole story while he listened to us sitting expressionless, almost indifferently. He listened and we even stole a couple of smiles out of his ass face but he concluded: -Look, if you have no money to extend your visas, come to the port on Monday and we'll see what we can do there to let you go. He presented several potential hindrances that wouldn't allow that to happen in a simple way, but my third-world experience told me immediately that the only way to “solve” this was going to be paying for a bribe. What really pissed us off badly was how much would these sharks want to take from us and why would we have to actually incur into this when we had done nothing wrong and we were being honest. After having sweated the whole day, we went back to Paco's to think thoroughly about our next move. We thought of all possible ways but even planing to fly out with a low cost airline would represent a 600 usd loss for us. So we decided to take the shot and the next day we went back to Zamboanga to buy the tickets for Monday. At that point, at the office, Julia decided to stir things up a little bit and quite fiercely started demanding them to provide us with an official statement from the company assuming full responsibility for the mess we had got into for having canceled that trip without any notice in advance and no definite reasons. We told them that Immigration demanded this paper from us. It was bullshit but blamed everything on them without knowing where that was leading to. So we stood up to them, stubbornly planted in our position and there, thanks to the inconsistencies and inefficiency of the personnel, it slipped out that the reasons for cancellation had had nothing to do with the armed conflict but with the lack of enough passengers and cargo. They had been doing this for 3 months already, they would start selling tickets, if they would sell well enough, the ship would sail, if not, they would cancel. We got really pissed off when learning about this and tightened our position, so they told us to go to another office to get that certificate, from that other office they sent us to the headquarters, a shit hole that looked like anything but the HQ of a shipping company. There we asked to see Elvira, someone with some hierarchy in the company. She was very kind and attentively listened to our problem. Finally concluded: “This is evidently all our fault, but to know how to proceed, I have to talk with the boss before, the owner of the company”. We waited for two hours, they served us water and snacks, and for the first time we started to feel we were getting somewhere. After the long wait, Elvira got into the big fish's office and after a few minutes came out of it smiling and said: “ok, look, we will pay for all the charges involving your problems with immigration and we will give you an stipend for every day of the five extra days you were stuck in here”. At that point, we told them that we preferred to get free tickets instead of that. She pondered for a few seconds and said “ok, you got them”. We were so happy we couldn't believe it but it didn't end there. Mrs Elvira said that the boss would talk personally with Mr. Ussman, the corrupt chief of the port, but we still had to show up at immigration on Monday before the ship's departure. Finally, she said that an employee of the company would drive us to the ticketing office to get our new tickets. What we didn't know is that he would drive us in the huge SUV of the boss himself and that it was a bulletproof vehicle, almost like a war tank. I had to use two hands to be able to shut the door closed, each must've weighted around 100kg and knocking on the windows was like hitting a concrete wall with the knuckles. At the ticket office not only they issued us the new tickets, they gave us tickets for a private cabin, each ticket worthed 120 usd. We just needed to crossfingers and wait until Monday hoping our migration problem would be solved as they said.
On Monday, we went to immigration before going to the port without knowing what to expect. It was all a circus now. Magically, the chief of Immigration told us that there probably would not be any problems and that we didn't really need a visa extension. She told us to go straight to the port and look for Mr Ussman there to get our passports stamped. Apparently, all hindrances had magically vanished now. When we finally got to the port, Ussman waited with his usual ass face, apathetic, cold. I was thinking to myself then “what happened Ussman? Did a big fat fish traveling in a bulletproof tank give you a call last Friday night?”. Few times in my life I enjoyed as much as when we got into that ship that day, with passports stamped and not having paid any single penny. Even better, since we didn't pay for the tickets in the end, I virtually recovered 160 usd out of those 300 that have been stolen from my bag a week before. Everything went perfectly in the end, we put the bicycles in the ship, locked ourselves up in our private cabin and 24 hs later we were getting off in Borneo, Malaysia.
The Philippines was an amazing country of wonderful people. We cycled for more than 2000km and a bit more on public transport including ships and jeepneys. We spent most of our time, living intimately with local people in both, cities and the smallest remote villages. It was a true immersion into a country that is unique for being the only one in the whole continent that is mainly Christian. Of all the places we've been to, the Cordillera, remained in our hearts as the most spectacular and interesting part of the country. Its people are notably more educated and gentler than in the rest of the country and its tribal culture is simply terrific. Filipinos are also hard to understand sometimes, no country goes by without its contradictions but they are mostly simple people with good intentions. Sometimes it was annoying to hear them lamenting openly about how poor they are and that they don't have all the stuff we do, and this argument is especially nerving when it comes from people who right in front of your face are spending their little daily salary buying beer and betting on cockfights. Even then, they showed us that material poverty isn't an excuse to live bitterly and stop smiling and loving the other fellow human beings. Even though they desire the same material wealth that most of the people in the world these days, they can be even happier with so little.
As Christians, they should serve as an example to many people who call themselves Christians in the west. Here, unlike the West, where many use the name of God and Jesus but they spend their lives behaving like selfish motherfuckers, you can really feel the love and care for others that the prophet of their religion spent his life preaching about.
There were things that certainly had an impact on me, the huge amount of fast food joints and shopping centers, but one above all, the addiction to Facebook. Everything seems to depend on Facebook in this country. Very few can actually buy a computer, let alone have internet connection at home, but they are all on Facebook. In any Internet Cafe, if there are 30 computers busy, 29 people out of 30 are wasting their time on Facebook. Almost all ads on the street, have the “Like me on Facebook” written on the posters and people in every village and city ask you for your Facebook before they ask about your name. They were left completely speechless when I used to tell them that I do not only don't have Facebook but I zealously despise it.
There were still dozens of places we wanted to get to and couldn't. Looking at it on a map, it looks like a small country but its diversity and thousands of islands spread across the ocean are virtually endless to see in only two months. Far from being discouraging, this is the perfect excuse to think of coming back in the future. For now, we are on our way to Malaysian Borneo where we will only pass on the way to a very long awaited country for me: Indonesia.