Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

Closing Thoughts to an Asian Adventure

28 Mar

I landed in JFK, in the darkness, watching the end of La La Land and crying, with exaggerated tears that the movie, I was convinced, pilfered from me. Of course I don’t cry during movies like this, I cry when the plane that carried me from worlds away touches down and abandons me on New York concrete, before embarking on its next adventure to somewhere amazing.

I sauntered in a daze through immigration and waited for ages to get my bag, which, after 45 minutes, I was convinced had gotten lost in transit. I waited for customs, walked outside the airport, and stood at the arrivals pick-up in my sweatshirt and flip flops, in the freezing cold, staring down at my bare, pedicure hungry toes. The silver Tahoe pulled up (a car that I forgot we owned), I threw my bag and myself into the back seat and, before the door could even close, the car was driving away from the madness of the airport. Angela asked how the flight was and Mom said she would have gotten out to hug me if JFK wasn’t such a madhouse. No sentimental hellos here. And just like that, weather talk commenced and the eerie feeling that no time had passed since I was last here consumed me.

But time had passed, a substantial amount of time. Half a year, six months and a week, 190 days spent in Southeast Asia, the faraway Eastern world so completely different from ours. Half a year mostly spent embarking on adventures you couldn’t have predicted the day before, eating cheap and questionable street food, sleeping in beds that you pray aren’t infested with bed bugs surrounded by people you hope won’t snore or steal your things, deciding if you should splurge the extra dollar for air-conditioned dorms, hunting down the cheapest beer options, having diarrhea at the most inconvenient hours. Six months spent chasing sunsets and sleeping through sunrises, trying new things, learning and discovering new ways of life, meeting people who you’ll never forget, not giving a damn about what clothes you wear, leaving your makeup bag stuffed in the bottom of your backpack, trudging through the tough times and laughing at them a few hours later.

I had so many ideas for my last blog while traveling, notes scrawled into my phone on long bus rides, all the prolific thoughts and earned wisdom I would share from my well-traveled head onto published paper. Yet, for the two weeks that I’ve been back, I’ve avoided sitting down to do this, completely unable to draw any conclusions I feel worthy of writing, everything I once thought I would write feeling trite or insubstantial. I can’t summarize my time away, a time filled with so many emotions and experiences, in a strong, concise manner. I can’t express how it’s changed me, simply because I don’t yet know how it has truly changed me. Sure, it’s made me more open, more understanding, more “worldly”, whatever the hell that means, more rugged, easier going. I like to think it’s made me less fearful, yet the one feeling that overwhelms me now that I’m home is fear. Fear that the things that changed me, that chipped away at me, that filled in the holes, that became part of me, won’t last. That I’ll somehow go through retrograde and come back as the exact person I was before getting on that first flight—a fine person, but not necessarily the person that I wish to be. I don’t think that anyone that uplifts their life to travel simply wants the romantic notion of seeing the whole world. If we were fully content with our lives, we wouldn’t throw a stone and shatter its perfect equilibrium, toss the pieces into the air, catch a few good ones in a backpack and carry it across the world. We are all running away from something. For some, that something is obvious, for others, like myself, we may have an idea, but we spend our time figuring it out, through others, through places, through conversation, through silence.

Already I slowly feel myself falling into the all too familiar patterns, the all-consuming, unnecessary worries. Worries about my future, my income, what kind of life I will have, where I should live, a respectable career path – things that will take time, things that won’t come easy, and things that someone who just got back from Asia certainly does not need to worry about just yet. Worst of all, I worry what others will think of me now that I’m back, unemployed, and living at home with a handful of days until I turn 25, an age that for some reason feels old to me. While I was gone, my age didn’t matter, my background didn’t matter, my education didn’t matter, my previous job didn’t matter and the amount of money I had certainly didn’t matter. My personality mattered, my sense of adventure, my ability to hold a fascinating conversation, to listen to people, to talk candidly about myself and my experiences. While I’ll never be like some of the more radical backpackers I met, those living out of a backpack until they spend their very last penny, I have to be able to find a happy balance, a job and a lifestyle that suits me, whatever that may be. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that happiness, and conscious appreciation for the moments that make us feel like were truly living, count for a whole fucking lot. And while I used to think swimming pools of money and a perfect NYC life could breed happiness, I’m no longer sure that’s what would do it for me. If it turns out that does make me happy, that’s great, but if it’s a secluded home on a farm in Ireland, that’s great too. While you’ll probably find me somewhere in between, the point remains, if I’m doing something that I myself respect and have enough money to live the way that I wish to live, then I’m doing alright.

I’m sure this all reads like a mess of unsettled thoughts, which is fine because that’s what I have. Simply stated, I went to Asia and it changed my life and my outlook on living. I’m so incredibly grateful for my experience and for doing something that not many around me are willing to do. I’ll leave this with a list of lessons learned, observations made, and quotes read while making my way across eight countries. It doesn’t cover everything, but that would be impossible anyway.

  • Time grows short, take advantage of it.
  • On another note, don’t fear downtime. That shits important too.
  • You’ll have the opportunity to get your abs back, but may not have the opportunity to eat that deep-fried, authentic and soul-warming street food again.
  • Most people are good people.
  • Discomfort should be welcomed from time to time.
  • Gut feelings should not be ignored—if you have a bad feeling about something, you’re probably right.
  • Practice riding a semi-automatic motorbike for more than one minute before going on a 40 kilometer ride. Practice may not make perfect, but it’s pretty fucking important.
  • Deep thoughts, mundane details, it doesn’t matter. Just write. You’ll thank yourself later.
  • The world doesn’t stop while you’re gone and carefree. Read the news.
  • However, sometimes a little bit of separation from the happenings of the world is a good thing.
  • While some stories may be more interesting or more enlightening than others, everyone has one to tell.
  • You can learn something from everyone, regardless of language. Learn from their actions and expressions.
  • There’s no correct way to live your life. Some people want to settle down and have five kids. Some want to travel until the day they die. Some want a lot, some want very little. There’s no right answer.
  • Worry about yourself and let others make their own decisions and mistakes.
  • “If I’ve learned anything in my travels it’s that a person can get used to anything.” Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
  • “Fear is the mind killer.” Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
  • Whether you think you believe in God or not, you’ll find yourself praying to Him before every bus, train, motorbike or taxi ride.
  • “The book is blank.” Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • Enjoy your destiny as it comes.
  • You will meet people you don’t like. Give them a chance and if that feeling remains simply dismiss yourself from their presence. There are too many amazing people you can be sharing your experiences with.
  • Once one person opens up about their bowel movements, everyone will and great friendships will come from it.
  • “I am a slow walker but I never walk backwards.” Abe Lincoln
  • Good Wi-Fi is a gift that should never be taken for granted.
  • The ability to seize the day while battling diarrhea is perhaps the most sincere form of resiliency.
  • Full days in bed with Netflix are therapeutic, especially snuggled up with a great crew.
  • Sometimes you have to eat fast food and shamelessly surrender to your western spirit.
  • “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road
  • Fall in love with someone; fall in love with some place.
  • Don’t take your life for granted.
  • “Sometimes it feels as if there is no motion at all.” Colum McCann, Transatlantic
  • “She could see an orchestra in him, a whole range of instruments and sound.” Colum McCann, Transatlantic
  • Jellyfish stings hurt, but they don’t hurt as much as missing out on what lies under the surface.
  • Instagram likes feel good no matter what the haters say. Celebrate your likes, because why not.
  • American rest stop bathrooms are beautifully clean sanctuaries once you’ve squatted over a hole in a dark, moist, “water closet”.
  • Patience is the most important of virtues and can best be worked on while trying to take Southeast Asian transportation.
  • The smile you receive after greeting and thanking someone in their own language will always make you feel good.
  • Smiles are a language of their own. Smile at everyone. I’ve seen some smiles in the most unsuspecting of places that have nearly brought me to tears.
  • There is so much beauty in tradition and ceremony, focus on the small things people do.
  • Watch people cook.
  • “Life is what happens. Just fly.” – Kumar
  • When something big or exciting is happening, make yourself small. Step back, look around, and study others. Realize how truly special these moments are.
  • Sometimes no Wi-Fi is a good thing. Read a book. Write a list. Listen to music and focus on what you’re listening to. Look out the window and observe. Talk to the person next to you.
  • Say yes to experiences.
  • Travel the local way. Buses can be chaotic and jam-packed, but you’ll find yourself squished next to an old smiling lady or a small child who wraps her hand around your finger and stares into your eyes. Its human connection at its purest.
  • Discuss how you feel about social guilt, the fact that you have the ability to leave somewhere so rich with opportunity and enter these communities where opportunity is an imaginary construct. Allow yourself these guilt-stricken and heart heavy moments. Greatly respect the people whose home you’re entering and never forget how very lucky you are.
  • Life will not and should not be easy or adventurous at every moment, but we owe it to ourselves to sprinkle it with moments of spontaneity and truly exciting experience.
  • “If it helps, consider how people used to think the world was flat. Two-dimensional. They only believed in the part they could see, until somebody invented the ships and brave sailed off to find the rest of the earth.” Chuck Palahniuk, Rant

 

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El Nido

10 Mar

Back in Port Barton, Sophia had recommended to us a place to stay in El Nido, a cheap sort of hidden guesthouse called Mikee Pension. A lot of guesthouses in the Philippines are called pensions, which is just as confusing to us as it is to you. The place, while reeking of dog on the first floor, was a good place to stay, and one of the few places in the town, it seemed, with somewhat functioning wifi. We were put in a private room with three beds, because it was the last they had available, for just seven dollars a night each. We set off walking to explore the town, which was such a lively place, with little cafes, restaurants and shops lining the small dirt roads. We wandered past the bakeries, deciding what treats we would be eating over the next few days, stared at expensive menus and weaved our way through the line of liquor shops to decide what we would buy for that evening. After grabbing ourselves bottles of rum we decided we would shower, have a drink in the room, and then head to dinner.

Our plans were derailed when, while we were buying mixers, we were found by Peter, Matt and Sean, the three guys we met in Siquijor, who had been in El Nido for a few days already. They had just finished the island hopping tour and were about to rent bikes to drive to a sunset bar. They asked if we wished to join them so we happily threw our dinner plans to the wind and got on the back of their scooters to go chase the sunset. We were cutting it close, but arrived at a bar with the perfect stretch of sunset beach, just in time. We got ourselves a few beers and sat watching the massive fiery globe sink into the ocean. What started as an average blindingly orange sunset quickly turned into a whirlwind of pink and purple colors cutting across the navy, mountainous skyline. It was the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed. With everyone hungry as hell, we drove back into town to go to a pizza place that they guys had eaten at before, where Christine and I split a half white and half pepperoni pizza, both sides equally exceptional. After a quick breakup to shower and get ready, Matt and Sean (Peter was being lame, I hope you’re reading this Peter) came back to our guesthouse where we drank some rum and played cards before going out to Pukka bar, where we had a few more beers and watched the thirsty men on the male dominant dance floor vying for the attention of the few girls there.

The next day, the boys boys had planned to drive to Nacpan beach, which Christian LeBlanc, a travel vlogger, called the most beautiful beach in the world, and generously offered to take us along. Hungover and sleep-deprived, we hopped onto the scooters and set off to the beach, which took us about 45 minutes to get to since we couldn’t find the entrance. While most of the road was paved, the final bit was a minefield of rocks and loose dirt. I’m not sure my ass will ever be the same after going over the endless bumps. The ride certainly didn’t help the hangover, so I immediately threw my body into the ocean when we arrived. While most swimming beaches in Southeast Asia have super calm water this beach was a different story. The waves and currents were extremely strong, which gave us great waves. However, they were so strong that it was hard to get out of the water and I was rocked by a massive wave, emerging with a sand-filled bathing suit and sand-coated hair that took days to rinse to some degree of clean. Christine and I spent the afternoon sleeping on the beach and I ended the day with my first coconut ever, hoping that it would cure my hangover. While I hate coconut water at home, which prevented me from ever getting one during my whole time in Asia, a fresh coconut is truly a different story. I slugged down the water and had the man machete it open so I could scrape out the insides, which I can best describe as the consistency of jello.

A day or two before, the boys had gone to a basketball court in a village about a five to ten minute walk outside of the center of El Nido town, where they played basketball with a few little kids. I’m not sure I have said this yet, but basketball is a huge sport in the Philippines. You can’t drive for ten minutes without seeing a court occupied by kids playing ball. After school every day, these kids head home to the court and end their days playing or watching a few games. Matt, impressed by the kids’ growing passion for a sport he loves so much, and influenced by beer, decided to buy a few basketballs to replace the over-used one that the children were playing with. We left the beach just in time for the after school rush to the court, where it was guaranteed the kids would be. While driving to the court, we passed by John-John and Jose, the two children that they had told us about, who were so excited to see the guys coming back and hopped on the back of Sean’s scooter en route to the court. We pulled up to the already bustling court, where some teenagers and people probably around our age (it’s incredibly hard to tell the ages of Filipino people; they all look young) were in the middle of a game. Right away, they came over and asked the boys to get in on a game with them, and placed some bets. The game started up and Christine and I sat off to the side, with some small children running around us. Slowly, as the game progressed, more and more people turned up from the village until the court was surrounded by old and young alike, all watching the afternoon’s game unfold. There was a lot of laughing and a lot of excitement. I goofed around with the children, watched the game and observed all the different characters hanging around the court. These guys, who probably have never had any coaching, were so skilled at street basketball. Their ball handling skills were almost humorously good, filled with fake outs and even dribbling the ball between defenders’ legs.

When I took a moment to look at this game from an outside perspective, I was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. In this moment, who we are, our skin color, where we come from, our beliefs, our purposes, our money, does not matter. We were welcomed into this small community over common ground: the simple desire to play and watch a sport that we all enjoy, from the U.S.A to the Philippines. This basketball court is the core of their village community, their social space that they gather at daily. No matter the day, they will be here playing, we just happened to be lucky enough to be an equal part of it on this day. After two games, the exhausted and glistening guys shook hands and dispersed. The three basketballs we brought over were handed out, two to two of the guys who they had been playing with and one to John-John, who had been watching on eagerly. He took the ball from Matt with an unparalleled smile, and quickly accepted his responsibility as ball-keeper, running off towards home with his arms wrapped tightly around it. I’m not sure who was more appreciative in the moment.

It’s safe to say that we couldn’t top that experience for our final two days in El Nido. The following day we were rained out of doing any activities and simply walked about, ate and rested. On our last full day we woke up to sunshine and decided to do the island hopping tour. The tour was double the price of the tour in Port Barton and half the fun. We made five stops, three of which were lagoons. On the first stop they attempt to get you to rent a canoe, telling you that there are sea urchins, plankton and territorial fish. We took our chances and swam over to the lagoon, encountering none of these things. We experienced spurts of rain throughout the day and there was no snorkeling to be done. However, it was my last day of true adventure in Southeast Asia, as we’d be heading to Puerto Princesa the next day and then Taiwan the day after that, and I certainly don’t regret doing the tour. Overall, I would recommend the Port Barton tour over the El Nido tour any day.

On our last day, I had some business to take care of, which would require wifi, so after grabbing some baked goods we walked over to the bus station for an earlier bus back to Puerto Princesa, where we knew the hostel we had stayed in when we first got there had reliable wifi. The six hour bus got us into Puerto Princesa just before dark. With only a day left in the Philippines, we had no desire to take out any more cash. We had just enough to pay for the terminal fees and buy about one more meal. We got ourselves a cheap dinner at Chow King and then headed to the pharmacy to see if they would take cards, which they luckily did, so we could buy some soaps and hopefully an ice cream cone. The next morning started our terrible 48 hours. We did laundry at the laundromat, and went to McDonalds hoping to be able to use our cards to buy breakfast. McDonald’s did not take card, nor did any other place we tried. So, we decided we would refrain from eating until we got to Puerto Princesa airport, where we hoped they would have a place that took card. We got to Puerto Princesa and quickly realized how small the airport was, which we hadn’t took note of when we arrived. There was nowhere to take card and we had about two hours until our flight. We went to check in and they told me I would have to pay 780 pesos to check my bag, which I hadn’t been expecting. I was officially down to no money after this purchase, as the money I had was supposed to be for my terminal fees, and asked the guards where the nearest ATM was. I was allowed to leave the airport and, when I asked the guard outside where the ATM was, he told me it was broken and I’d have to go back into town, which I was not going to do, of course. I then had to wait on a massive line of people to get back into the airport. Christine had a cinnamon bun waiting for me when I got back in, which she was able to buy with the little bit of leftover money she had. We eventually got on our flight and made it to Manila, where we had a six hour layover. We were desperate for some food, so we went to McDonald’s, where they told us that they don’t take card. How a chain in an airport does not take credit card blows my mind. However, since I had taken a bit of money out here in the airport, I had just enough to binge on a McDonald’s meal. Christine, on the other hand, went to a nice restaurant which took card. When we went to check in, I kept my bag on my back, hoping I could take it as a carry-on and avoid paying the fees, and not a single person asked me about it, even though it was much bigger than the allowance. The bag made it past everyone and onto the plane with no trouble, which had me cursing myself for ever paying for baggage on the trip. Even my massive soap, lotion and sunscreen bottles made it through security, which astounded me.

Once we got to the gate, we realized that we never paid the terminal fee. We asked a couple of people sitting at the gate and they hadn’t either. Turns out the fee is now included in the ticket, which the Puerto Princesa guard who we asked about Manila terminal fees failed to tell us about. With so much money leftover, we decided to spend it all on beers and snacks and sat down to play cards and get drunk before our flight to Taipei. We put on power hour music in the corner of the seating area and had at it. By the time we were getting on board we were slugging the last of our fourth beer and feeling very tipsy. Our flight, which was after 10:00 PM , arrived in Taipei at about 1:00 AM. All of the hostels in Taipei that we read about would not let you check in after 12:00 AM, so we had decided we would have to sleep in the airport for that first night. We got off the plane and found a seating area where people seemed to be laying and curled up on the uncomfortable seats in an attempt to sleep. I fell in and out of terrible, curled up sleep a few times and woke up at 9:00 AM to a very awake, coffee-sipping Christine, who it turns out did not sleep at all. We sat around for another hour, since the hostel reception doesn’t open until noon (I know, ridiculous), and at about 10:30 decided to head out on the bus to get to our hostel.

While the end of my Philippines experience was certainly trying and left me cursing the country, I didn’t truly mean it. The Philippines is a beautiful country and has so much to offer. The only glaring issue is the travel within the country, which is made difficult by the lack of direct flights between the islands, the high expense of the flights (the flight from Palawan to Manila was $100 dollars while a flight from Manila to Taipei was $40), and the terrible ferry ticketing system. The intra-island land travel, however, was some of the easiest and cheapest I have encountered. We also shot for too much for three and a half weeks and the backpacker mindset of simply deciding the next day what you want to do doesn’t work as well in a place with so many islands and very few budget hostels. Yet, I’m not sure I would change my experience. It was beautiful, exhausting, frustrating and gave me a lot of stories. Going to the Philippines had not even been a thought at the start of my trip, but I’m so, so happy that it made its way into my plans.

Siquijor

5 Mar

Since we got to Siquijor a day later than we thought we were going to, we had less time to spend on this island, which was a shame because we really loved it. I had booked into a place called Tori’s Paradise, which was a bit away from the main hub of the island, San Juan, where most budget accommodations are. Everything else we found was all booked up, so we settled on this place which had cheap dorms, a pool, and beach front location. However, we had booked in advance for the night that we had to stay in the hotel after we couldn’t get the ferry in Bohol, so we were concerned that they would give our beds away since we didn’t check in the day we were supposed to. The boat got in around 1:00 PM and we decided that it would be a good idea to walk the distance to the hostel, which I was under the impression was closer than it actually was. The sun was the strongest we had seen in a while and we set off on our way, avoiding the hoard of tricycle drivers at the pier, with our bags on our backs. About half a mile in and dripping sweat we realized we had made a big mistake. I was lathering my arms with sunscreen as best I could with my bags on, missing spots that ended up burning in patches after the 30 minute walk. Eventually, we arrived at the hostel, exhausted and in clothes that were a new color from all the sweat. Luckily, our beds were still there for us so we threw our bags down in our sweaty fan room. It was already late in the afternoon so we decided we wouldn’t get up to much that day and instead, put on our bathing suits and sat outside on the beach reading and drinking beers, playing pool and eating a delicious meal. It was exactly the type of down time we needed after our hectic travel problems.

The hostel had a breakfast buffet, that, as is the case with a lot of food here, was simply cooked food sitting out getting cold. We weren’t too keen on the idea of eating cold eggs and sausages but when the guy told us that it was only 150 pesos (around three USD) we were happy enough to eat it and get on with our day. It was only when we went to pay that she told us it was 250 pesos each, which was far too much for the cold mediocre food we had consumed. Five dollars may not be a lot of money, but when you’re balling on a budget in Southeast Asia, where a meal should always be less than that, these things can make you angry. After our unsatisfying breakfast, we had one of the woman working at the hostel call for someone from town to bring a scooter for us to rent so that we could spend our only full day here exploring as much of this little island as possible. The guy showed up with a scooter, which I had to learn to kick start like a bad ass, and we were ready to go. Three guys from Los Angeles, Matt, Peter and Sean, were also renting scooters that day and we decided that we would head out together, although I warned them I would definitely be slower than they would. Since they were taking a bit longer to get ready we decided to head out first and meet them somewhere along the way since we all wanted to hit the same spots.

We got some gas and set out on our journey. The island is truly beautiful, with easy to drive and navigate roads that had very few other people on them. Our first stop was Cantabon Cave. Although I’ve seen a lot of caves in Asia, I was really interested in doing this one, which definitely had less people coming through it than others I have been to. We paid and got our guides in a tiny little office and were taken down to the entrance of the cave along with a lovely Finnish couple that we just happened to arrive at the same time as. The entrance to the cave was already much crazier than any I had been to previously, we had to crouch down and basically crab walk through tiny spaces to get to a point where we could stand up somewhat straight. The portion of cave that we could walk through was 800 meters, far more than I had expected. Pretty much right away we entered shallow water that had these tiny catfish swimming through it. We made our way through multiple climbs and dips and eventually got to see small waterfalls within the cave, pools big enough to swim in and gorgeous white terrace formations that looked so incredibly perfect with crystal clear water in them. I actually couldn’t believe how amazing the pattern of the terraces and desperately wished I could take a picture that would do it justice. But even photos with the go pro that the Finnish couple had weren’t coming out perfectly because the cave was incredibly dark and we only had the lights from our head torches. We made it all the way to the end and back, which was actually a great workout and one that we weren’t prepared for. I have to say that this was the most fun and tough cave that I got to walk through in all of Asia and I was so glad that we did it.

When we emerged back into the light of day we realized that it had started raining, which was of course less than ideal. When we were getting onto our bike and getting ready to head out to the next spot we realized there was a paper in it, which at first I nervously thought was some sort of ticket. It was a note left by the California boys letting us know that they had skipped the cave and were going to Cambugahay Falls. So, through the rain, we set off to meet them there. We had a minor setback as Christine realized she forgot her helmet halfway through the drive and we had to turn around, but by the time we got to the falls, they were still there. The falls were super blue and beautiful and even though it was drizzling we knew we had to go in. We jumped in off the top of one of the falls and swam around for a while, watching people swing off the rope swing, including a local kid doing crazy flips off of it.

After the waterfall we all took off together into the town of Lazi, where we took a quick pit stop into San Isidro Church, a beautiful church dating back to 1857, before heading to Salagdoong beach for its infamous 30 foot cliff jump into the ocean. By the time we arrived the water was looking pretty rough, with waves crashing hard into the rocks where the ladder to get back up onto the cliff was. The smaller of the jumps was closed because of the strength of the waves near the landing so it was the big jump or nothing. Sean took one for the team and was the first to jump, but was so silent after landing in the water that we all thought he was hurt or that something went wrong. After the other two boys jumped I got up there and did it myself. The jump was so long that I thought I should have hit the water much earlier than I actually did. Overall, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, with only some slight bruising from the landing. On the swim back to the shore, which we thought looked easier than trying to climb up the death ladder, the ocean made a visible change and the currents got much stronger. We stumbled out onto shore breathless, getting crashed on by waves. Right after we all finished our jumps they closed the jump because of the tides, which was a little concerning, but we were glad that we got to experience it.


Christine and I decided to continue around the island simply burning gas and taking in the scenery. We needed to get a ferry out the following day, so, once we got back to Siquijor town we rode down to the pier to ask about the ferries, but no stand was open. A sign on one of the ferries said that the 6:30 AM trip to Dumaguete was canceled for the following day already due to the weather, which had us feeling nervous. A man saw us looking around and asked us where we were trying to go. I told him that we needed to get back to Cebu city, but that it seemed like most boats just go to Dumaguete first, then you have to take another ferry to Liloan on the south of Cebu island. He told us that a ferry goes at night directly to Cebu from the pier at Lorena at 6:30 AM, which we had passed on the way back to Siquijor. So we hopped back on the bike and rode back to Lorena. At this point it was getting dark, we were freezing cold and we realized we were missing an incredible sunset, but we had to do what we had to do. We got to Lorena and when we asked the woman about the ferry she told us that there was none. So, we had to get back on the bike in the dark and cold and head back to Siquijor to take pictures of the ferry companies and time boards. The earliest trip would be 10:00 AM, so we knew we’d have to wake up early the following morning and head down around 8:00 AM, for when the ticket booths open, to buy our ticket.

When we got back to the hostel we sat for dinner and beers with the guys, which turned into cards and beers, which made its way to shots of Jager and deep conversation as the group dwindled down and then suddenly the sun was rising. The three of us that remained, Matt, Peter and myself, decided we would go for a sunrise swim, but the sand in the water was completely impossible to walk on and we ended up getting tiny shards of coral and shells stuck in our feet. Instead, we went to the pool, making one of the workers turn the water slide on for us. When it was nearing 8:00 AM, I went to collect Christine and, delusional on no sleep, I biked the both of us down to the pier and Christine went to the window to get our tickets. We had an hour to go back and pack our things and then bike back into town with all our luggage to return the bike just next to the pier, just in time to get on the ferry. The ferry took us to Dumaguete, where we had to take a tricycle to a separate port at Sibulan where we had to catch another ferry to Liloan on Cebu. From there, we got on the four hour bus ride back to Cebu city. It was a terribly long day of travel and we had to be up at 3:00 AM for our flight to Palawan. After a nap and food I went straight to bed and had a whopping four hours of sleep before having to get up, throw our bags back on and head out to the airport.

Bohol

3 Mar

The day we arrived in Bohol was pretty dreary. It wasn’t exactly raining, but the clouds looked as if they were going to start bawling at any moment. For that reason, we were in no rush to make it to the beach and decided we would try to take the cheapest possible transportation to Alona, a beach on Panglao, which is a smaller island connected to the west of Bohol. When you get off the ferry in Bohol, numerous van companies are trying to lure you into their grasp. We headed over to tourist information booth, where she tried telling us we should take a van. We assured her we wanted the cheapest option and asked about the bus terminal, where we read that you can take a bus to Alona Beach from. She warily told us we could take a tricycle to the bus terminal and get the bus from there. We hopped into a tricycle and it took us about five minutes to explain to the guy that we wanted to go to the bus terminal, which cost us 100 pesos, not straight to Alona, which would have cost 300. The whole ride he kept cracking jokes, bringing his offer down to 250 pesos, saying “AND NOW 250 TO ALONA!” We got a kick out of the guy and enjoyed the fact that he was able to laugh at himself as well. He even played Anne Murray, singing along to every word and telling us how she is his idol. We arrived at the bus terminal, which was really just an empty lot, and were told to wait for our jeepney, which is not exactly the bus we were expecting. We sat around with the locals and watched the unmarked vehicles pull in and people pile in or out. Luckily, an exceptionally nice woman asked us where we were going and told us she was getting on the same one. When the right one pulled in we piled ourselves in. Jeepneys are like covered pick up trucks with benches in them. People are shoved in from the side and the back and there is no such thing as a full jeepney. However many people are there will fit in. We felt like idiots with our big bags, and they definitely forced us to sit in uncomfortable positions, but we were happy to be doing the local thing in these parts. After about 20 minutes on the jeepney, the woman who had helped us get on yelled to the driver that we needed to get off. We hopped off and paid the 25 pesos each for the ride, feeling satisfied that we were able to get ourselves to Alona Beach without having to use the tourist vans.

Accommodation in Bohol is quite a bit more expensive than that of beach towns in Cebu. It’s more of a resort spot and caters to Koreans more than anyone else (there are Korean minimarts everywhere). We booked the cheapest possible hostel we could find, Alona Hammocks. We had no idea what we were in for, and there was definitely a possibility we were paying 300 pesos to sleep in a hammock. We approached the hostel to find everyone sitting around a table about to eat lunch, in a bit of a cultish manner. The place was fully open to the elements, with the shower smack dab in the middle of the place, toilets that didn’t have flushers, and tents or mattress pads on the floor for beds. Christine and I were given a tent since we were two people, which was far more privacy than any of the solo travelers were getting. Aside from the grunginess of it all and the fact that it seemed like the people staying here had all lived here for too long, it actually wasn’t a terrible place to stay. The people turned out to be very nice and welcoming, there was a new puppy, Jeffrey, there for entertainment, and a TV that was constantly playing movies. On our first night there, we all ordered food in and watched Bad Moms before going out to a Western bar that was serving up 25 peso cocktails for the night. Additionally, free shots of sambuca and tequila made their way around, as one of the girls who works at the hostel used to work at the bar so free shots were a regular thing here. After spending barely any money, we headed back to our tent to get some sleep before our Chocolate Hills tour the next morning.

The Chocolate Hills were the main reason that we came to Bohol, along with tarsiers (the small monkeys with massive eyes), and we would get to see both these things and more on this tour. We had initially thought about renting a scooter to go out and do all these things on our own, but we were so tired from all the travel throughout the Philippines that we figured we deserved a nice air-conditioned bus and a thoughtless day with a tour group. There were a few activities that we decided to skip on, simply because they weren’t worth paying for, like the butterfly sanctuary and a small zoo-like place where they had large snakes and lizards. The first thing we participated in was the zip line, the longest in Bohol that takes you over the Loboc River. They lay you horizontally in what feels like a straight jacket hooked up to the rope above you and it feels like you’re going to fall out of the mechanism. I was definitely scared at the start, but once I was off soaring over this river in what feels like slow motion, all fear was gone. Except for at the end of course, when you think you can’t possibly slow down before hitting the wall and yet somehow, by some contraption, you do. Afterwards, we headed to a dock at the Loboc River and did the Loboc River cruise. You’re on a boat that serves you lunch, and while the boat route was pretty short, the food was good, the musician was surprisingly enjoyable and the river was a beautiful emerald green.




Next up were the tarsiers, at a sanctuary where they are housed. We walked around in search of them and when one group seemed to be looking at one and taking pictures, Christine and I were completely confused. We idiots had come into this knowing nothing about tarsiers, and thought that they were normal sized monkeys. However, they are TINY, like fit in the palm of your hand tiny, and oh so adorable. We had to follow the groups of people that were finding them because we were completely unable to do so ourselves. The mini monkeys would hold onto the tree, hiding under a leaf, with their sleepy eyes slowly opening, if we were lucky, as we stared at them. They were virtually impossible to take a good picture of, even when I blockaded Christine from the guards and had her lean over the barrier. Yes, we were yelled at and no, the picture was not good enough to be worth it. After a nice van nap, we made it to the Chocolate Hills in a bit of gloomy weather. We ascended the steps to the viewpoint and were greeted by multiple grassy mounds in the distance, there are apparently at least 1,260 of these formations, that seemed too perfect to be a natural occurrence. The reason they’re called the chocolate hills, we learned, is that during the dry season when the plant life withers, the hills turn brown. Yup, as simple and kind of stupid an explanation as that. After multiple selfie stick opportunities and laughs, even bringing Ollie the Octopus out for some pictures, we made our way to the last stop, the hanging bridge. In its past, the bridge was composed solely of bamboo and built out of necessity by the locals to get things across to the village. These days, a suspension holds the bridge up, but it still maintains its bamboo slats which definitely don’t feel very safe as you walk across. It was kind of a gimmicky tourist stop, but we enjoyed wobbling across it.




We had such an exhausting day that by the time we made it back to the hostel, we were ill-equipped to make any movement. We showered, watched whatever movies were on the TV and then headed out to a restaurant to get wifi so that we could book our flight to Palawan because, as is often the case in the Philippines, our hostel had wifi that was not strong enough to do anything if more than a few individuals were on it at a time. Relieved that we finally booked our flight we treated ourselves to big pasta dishes and of course, Cornettos. We got into our tent and had a terrible sleep. People are coming and going at all hours and we were astonished that people were always up and functioning when, when we would get up, we were depressed and sleep deprived from all the noise of the previous night. Our plan for the final day was to go hang out on Alona Beach, before heading out to the ferry to Siquijor, an island Southwest of Bohol. Given our ferry luck, we were nervous about catching this night ferry, which leaves at 8:00 PM. However, the people at the hostel assured us that it is massive and rarely fills up. But, we didn’t really want to mess it up, so we went at 6:00 PM, the time that the ticket booth was supposed to open.

We arrived to a closed ticket window and a few people standing around it. We figured they were just delayed in opening and waited a few more minutes before I asked the guard at the terminal entrance where we should be buying tickets for Lorena (the port we would be entering in Siquijor). He directed us back to where we were previously standing. Another half hour passed so we asked a different guard wandering by the booth, who told us that it should open soon where we were standing. At around 7:45 we were starting to lose hope and at 8:00 PM we heard an announcement for final boarding call for the ferry to Lorena. Shocked and confused, we ran to the guard who I had originally questioned about tickets. He told us nonchalantly that the ferry was sold out, as if he had know it all along. Of course we were furiously asking him how could that be if they never even opened the ticketing window. He informed us that basketball teams were on the ferry, so it was sold out before we had arrived. I asked him why he hadn’t just told us this originally and he just stared at me. I was so furious and fed up with the ferry system here that I would have had a breakdown if it weren’t for Christine remaining calm. So, we would have to take a ferry the following morning instead, one that cost 950 pesos compared to the 250 pesos we were supposed to be paying on the night ferry. The guard told us where we could stay up the road and when we arrived, we were poorly greeted by a woman who tossed a key at us so we could look at the room. While it was fine, we were so tired and defeated that we wanted to look at something a little better. We ventured to a hotel across the street that was definitely beyond our price point and asked the woman there about a room. We weighed the pros and cons and, eventually, Christine convinced me that we should stay in the hotel. After putting our bags down I declared that we should search for wine and we both bought ourselves a bottle of red that we enjoyed after our first (and probably last) hot showers in the Philippines, while watching terrible reality TV shows on big comfy beds. It was luxury at its finest and pulled me out of my terrible mood.

The next morning, we had to wake up at 5:00 AM and make our way to the ticket booth to ensure that we would get a ticket for the 10:00 AM ferry since they wouldn’t let us book it the night before. We strolled sleepily and in pajamas down to the pier, bought the tickets, and were back in bed thirty minutes later. We said an emotional goodbye to our hotel room, went down to the free breakfast of omelets, fried potatoes, sausages, coffee, juice and fruit, and made our way over to the ferry, ready to get to our next destination.

Cebu

23 Feb

Our flight from Bali to Cebu, our first Philippine island destination, landed at about 5:30 am and we shuffled our tired selves to baggage claim and then outside to the taxi area. While we usually get assaulted by cab drivers, the atmosphere outside of Cebu’s airport was much more calm and the guards in the area were surprisingly helpful in telling us about our options to get where we needed to go and which way was the cheapest. One of the first things we learned is that taxis in the Philippines are fairly scam free. From our first to our last in Cebu, all had reliable meters and I never had to keep my eye on the numbers waiting for the them to suddenly soar to ungodly sums like they did in many Vietnam cabs. We arrived to where the hostel was on maps.me and spent a while walking around trying to find it and failing to do so. We thought that one place may have been it, but a barking dog woke the owner of what turned out to be a house and she directed us to the hostel. Since it was 6:00 AM at this time, they couldn’t check us in and we sat around for a while deliberating what we should do. While we were tired, the hostel had no common places for a good nap so we decided we would just have to carpe the diem.

We went to a cafe we had walked by earlier to have breakfast. We decided to treat ourselves to lattes alongside a plate of rice, eggs and bacon. While bacon is always a risky endeavor in Asia, we were given actual American bacon, which seems to be consistent across the Philippines. While the food hit the spot, the lattes were a different story. A quarter of the way through I saw a tiny moving worm on the edge of my cup. With basically no concern for sanitary issues anymore, I picked it off and kept drinking. Halfway through I realized there were at least ten of those little bastards in there. I had definitely drank maggots. It was certainly disgusting and we didn’t pay for the drinks, but at least now I can say the grossest thing I’ve consumed in Asia is a maggot latte.

We walked the few miles towards the historical Plaza Independencia, which has many of the city’s important monuments. During the course of the long walk I quickly realized there weren’t many foreigners in Cebu city. Some people were very happy to see and greet us while others were simply unable to hide their perplexed stares. I think this was the first time I was slightly uncomfortable as an outsider. In most other places there’s always at least a few other tourists around or people are used to seeing foreigners but here it clearly wasn’t the case. We went the whole day without seeing another Westerner, which I’m not sure has happened to me before. There was a lot of pointing, a lot of talking amongst people, plenty of smiles but also some frowns. While it wasn’t the first time, it was definitely my most glaring experience as a minority in Southeast Asia and it was completely humbling and eye-opening.

Christine and I arrived at the Plaza Independencia and, although tired, actually stopped to read and learn about the interesting history, keeping ourselves awake by reading out loud, alternating paragraph by paragraph on any information we saw. A few of the people and places we learned about are discussed below (I can only hope most of this is right).

-Ferdinand Magellan: brought an influence of Christianity to the Philippines on his global expedition in 1521, gifting the famous Señor Santo Niño de Cebu relic to Rajah Humabon, the the Rajah of Cebu at the time of Magellan’s arrival.

-Miguel López de Legazpi: established the first Spanish settlement in the East Indies, including the Philippines, after arriving to Cebu in 1565.

-Andres Bonifacio: a Filipino revolutionary leader who wanted independence from Spain. He started the Philippine Revolution in 1896 and is considered a national hero.

-Fort San Pedro: built originally as a wooden fort under the instruction of de Legazpi and later was remodeled as a stone fort. During the Philippine revolution the Spanish surrendered the fort after America’s win in the Battle of Manila Bay, marking the end of Spanish control.

Afterwards, we made our way to Magellan’s Park, the Cross of Magellan and Basilica Minore de Santo Niño, where the original relic is held. Our last stop would be the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral. We showed up at around 11:30 AM, just in time for a mass apparently. The crowds were exceptionally large and we found a seat thinking we’d stay for a little to see a Filipino mass. It started with a procession for Mary, which was mostly in Filipino, with people in the crowd cheering and clapping, waving blue and white flags. We were so tired that Christine had to leave halfway through the mass, which was going on longer than expected, while I stayed until the end. People definitely noticed my presence as I was the only non-Filipino in the church, but I loved my experience. The Philippines is certainly a very Catholic country, with churches and chapels every few streets and pictures of saints and Mary in cabs and tricycles (the Filipino version of a tuk tuk). When I returned from Church just in time for us to check into the hostel, I tried to google what the celebration in mass was for, thinking that it was a feast day on the Catholic Church’s calendar, but nothing came up. Maybe that was just your average passionate Filipino mass celebration. Either way, it was beautiful.

We checked in and walked to a nearby mall to try and find a money exchange. We were surprised by the sheer amount of food stalls and restaurants. The mall definitely had more food options than stores, or at least it felt like that. We settled on Jamaican beef patties from a stall that were simply and surprisingly perfect, before heading back to the hostel for our long awaited naps. That evening we headed to 7 Eleven, too tired to do anything else, and grabbed some snacks before returning to our beds.

Our second day in Cebu started with another mall, the Ayala Center, where we gawked over all the items we wanted but have no use for, from places like H&M. We walked from the mall over to Mango Square which we were informed is a place where a lot of expats hang out. We had some actually authentic pho from another mall area that was really more of an extra large food court. Afterwards we headed to Marshall’s Pub, Cebu’s very own Irish pub opened by a man from New Jersey. There we had many beers and a Filipino man serenaded me with a few Irish songs that I got to sing along with at the request of the owner, before hopping into his usual set. While we were walking home we passed a food festival with a DJ and band, where we got some rice and beef. The DJ was running a contest for a free iPhone case for the first person to show a picture of their love for Valentine’s Day. Christine ran up and showed him our pictures together and wouldn’t let him deny us the win. I laughed my ass off from the seat while she convinced him we were worthy and as she walked off to gather her prize. Will either of us use the shoddy iPhone case? No, probably not. Was it worth it though? Absolutely.


The next afternoon we headed down south to Oslob, the coastal town known for one and one thing only, whale sharks, a filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest currently living fish species. We took the Ceres bus, the country’s local bus system, from Cebu city’s bus terminal. The local buses in the Philippines are some of the best I’ve used. For four dollars we were on a four hour bus that was comfortable, played movies, had wifi and was air conditioned. We got into Oslob after dark and made our way to Sharkey hostel, where we had booked two nights. We arrived at the hostel to find the owner sitting outside and appearing perplexed to see us. She asked us for our reservation and when we told her the name it was under she slowly walked us away from the hostel and towards a resort. Confused, we stood by while she called the name of the owner, clearly a friend of hers. He showed us a room and, wary of how much nicer it was than what we had booked, I asked if it was the same price as we paid. Of course it wasn’t, she wanted us to pay to stay here the night because she overbooked. It was about three times what we were supposed to pay so we told her no and that we needed something the same price. She then brought us up to someone’s home, where people were cutting up raw fish and preparing dinner and started a conversation with them, laughing and staring at us. They then opened one of the doors in the home which revealed an empty room, a bed frame and a grass mat over the bed frame. “You’re trying to put us in a room with no mattress?” I asked. Her response? Laughter.

Completely worked up we tried to go back to the resort and request an equal price to which we were denied. We then walked down the street to another place that was also very expensive. Apparently, beyond the one or two cheap hostels, most guesthouses will cost you 30 dollars for a double bed room which is simply unjustifiable for a crappy guesthouse in Southeast Asia. We were once again wandering down the street when we were greeted by a ten year old on a scooter, named Alfred.

Alfred: “Hey, do you need a room.”

Me: “Honestly, yes.”

Conversation ensued about what kind of room he had and the price, which was equivalent to what we were supposed to be paying. We followed him to this dungeon of rooms beneath a restaurant and, with virtually no other options, we agreed to take the room. At first glance it didn’t seem terrible, but once we got in it was impossible not to see the amount of dead and living bugs all over the floor. Clearly no one had cleaned this room in ages. I kicked the corner of the wall by the bathroom and ants started flooding out from it. We both knew we couldn’t sleep in this room and asked them if we could switch. While the room was definitely cleaner it was equally as gross and I spent the whole night in and out of bad sleep thinking I was getting bit up by bugs. I was happy when my alarm went off the following morning at 4:50 AM and more or less jumped out of bed in excitement to go see the whale sharks. After signing up, paying, getting a brief “orientation” and waiting for a short time we were put on a boat and taken a pretty short distance away from shore. We jumped in the water and instantly saw whale sharks, one at a time or two at a time swimming by. They were massive and beautiful and sleek, coming to the surface to get the plankton that the men in smaller boats feed them and then swooping back down. Their tails look and move like those of a shark and more than once I looked down to find one coming right for me. We were so amazed by these creatures and at how close we were to touching them. Yet, however much they may look like sharks, it’s pretty clear how docile they are (unless you make one angry of course). They’re certainly used to being around humans at this point. This brings up another issue. We have heard from people that it’s morally questionable to go see and swim with the whale sharks and quite honestly I can see why. They feed them to keep them around, messing with their migrant patterns and making them reliant on humans. While this type of tourism helps against whale shark hunting and the elimination of the species, there are certainly long term consequences that can come from this kind of feeding and I wish I had known more about it before I did it.

After our half hour mesmerized by whale sharks, Dave, a fellow New Yorker we met prior to getting on the boat, invited us in his taxi he had taken from Cebu to go to Tumalog Falls, just up the road. The waterfall was absolutely stunning, with slates of rock covered in green that jut out giving the impression that the water is falling over weeping trees. We even had ourselves a rainbow sighting. After a quick dip in that frigid water Christine and I walked back to our crack den guesthouse and quickly gathered or things to hit the road. With the exception of the whale sharks and the waterfall, Oslob and the surrounding area really don’t have much to offer. It’s one of those strange places that revolves around their big tourist trap only. We were glad we had done the one night only and understood why people advised against staying any longer. We hopped on the Ceres bus outside our hostel and made moves towards our next destination around the other side of the island, Moalboal.

We arrived at Moalboal, another coastal town with a small beach town next door after a few hours. We took the tricycle down to the beach and went to Chief Mau hostel, which we didn’t book in advance. They didn’t have room available that night so we booked for the following two nights and headed closer into town to Moalboal Backpacker Lodge, where we got a much cheaper and nicer room. We even ended up switching back to here for our third night because of a disaster night’s sleep with snorers and bad mattresses at Chief Mau. We spent the afternoon hanging out on the beach before going out to dinner with three people we met at the hostel, Moa, Matilda and Adrian. We decided that we would take the bus to Kawasan Falls early the next morning.

When people talk about Cebu island they always talk about Kawasan Falls so we were certainly excited. We, with the exception of Christine who was feeling sick, made our way into Moalboal town in the morning and got some baked goods before heading out on the 20 minute bus ride. The Philippines has bake shops everywhere. EVERYWHERE. It was my first time trying one and certainly not my last. I got chocolate and ube (taro) pastries. You can’t enter a bake shop here without seeing multiple different purple treats as ube is such a popular thing here. Once we arrived at the Falls, we hiked our way past the gorgeous base river and up past the massive first, smaller second and smallest third fall that compose all of Kawasan Falls. While beautiful, the first fall has far too many tourists and people trying to make you pay for a table to leave your things while you go for a swim. As you get further up the waterfalls there are less people and less distractions. While the top most fall was the smallest it was also the one with the largest pool so we swam around in the cold water for a bit before heading back down. Once we got back to Moalboal town we all got ice creams before going back to our hostels. The weather turned out kind of crummy so I wasted the afternoon reading in the hostel’s hammocks before heading to dinner with the girls. We were interrupted by a guy staying at Moalboal Backpacker’s Lodge who more or less invited himself to sit down and continued to talk about himself the whole time. We went for a beer at a nearby bar afterwards but everyone was tired from the day and from hearing this guy talk about himself so we put an early end to our night.

On our final day in Moalboal, Valentine’s Day, the four of us girls made our way to White Beach, about 4 km north of where we were staying, with the intention of having a nice long beach day. The weather however had different plans. We found ourselves on a terribly windy beach that whipped the sand into our faces and bodies. After trying to withstand it we gave in to the weather and went up by the street for a beer instead, with skin and hair full of sand. After a beer we moved down the beach to an area that was less affected by the wind, but it started to drizzle on us. You know what that means, another beer. After another beer we made our way back to Moalboal town where we treated ourselves to ice creams and multiple different chocolates for Valentine’s Day. We bought so many treats that the children in the 7 Eleven were whispering about us. Good ol’ greedy Westerners. When we got back, it was the perfect time to swim with the sardines just near the shore. The water was a bit rough, but me and Matilda and Christine took on the water to see this amazing natural wonder. The sardines overtake the water and swim in patterns together moving around you and in perfect unison in the water. It was fascinating and shimmery and perfect. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing card games and drinking beers before going to a nicer restaurant for dinner and to a bar where we watched some interesting characters dance and some people playing pool.

The following morning we were attempting to get to Dumaguete, a city on the eastern most part of the island Negros, just south of Cebu, which is accessible by a very short ferry ride. We took the bus to the Bato stop, and took a single motorbike taxi with both of us and our bags piled on. The guy took us to the passenger ferry port where they informed us no boats were running. We then had to go back to the supply ferry, which is just before the bus station and pay the motorbike taxi driver twice the amount just to be told no supply ships were running either due to rocky seas. Stranded with no plans, we decided to get a bus back to Cebu where we would spend the night before going to Bohol, an island southeast of Cebu city accessible by a two hour ferry ride. While we were supposed to end our eastern island hop in Cebu before flying to Palawan, this unexpected turn of events caused us to start there. By the time we got to Cebu it was late and we walked into a hostel crossing our fingers that they had room. Luckily they did so we parked our bags and did the only thing we know to do with our evenings in Cebu city, eat Jamaican beef patties, walk around the malls and go to bed totally exhausted.

The Gilis 

1 Feb

On January 25th we went from Amed to Gili Trawangan on a ferry that we booked from the best value company we could find. It was an easy enough ride and after scaling the side of the boat and jumping down, we planted our feet on the island. We walked for a few minutes down a road off the main strip until we arrived at our guesthouse, Deep House, a haven of beautiful bungalows and a staff that could rival any resort. From the moment we arrived they were nothing but perfect. Once they saw our vodka bottles they offered to hold them in the fridge and later when we were pregaming, they chipped us ice and provided us cups for all our booze. Additionally our room was perfect, with super comfortable beds, towels and a modern bathroom. We asked Ken, the owner (and a former resident of NJ, hayyy) where we should go that day, since we arrived so early, and he told us that we should rent some snorkeling gear and go see the turtles when they come in at high tide to feed. We spent the afternoon on the beach, after walking past some cute eateries and boutiques, and then headed towards the turtles. On the way to the turtles, we encountered the mushrooms area, as in all the bars on the island that outwardly advertise mushrooms and mushroom shakes. While drugs are very strictly illegal in Indonesia, mushrooms are allowed on the islands due to some sketchy payoffs that occur (I believe). This was not something we were interested in, but it certainly had a presence on the island. We made it to the turtle beach, avoiding the calls of the mushroom salesmen, and instantly were able to encounter sea turtles. Right when I went under the shallow water I found two smaller ones and eventually a massive turtle that we followed around and watched eat from just a few feet away. It was the most beautiful creature that I have ever seen and I was simply mesmerized by him.


That evening we were pregaming at the bar at the hostel and didn’t end up making it out the door until after one. We spent about an hour trying to find a bar that was open and full of people but completely failed to do so. We were surprised how quiet it was given the island’s party reputation. We later learned that we had turned the wrong way on the main street and that the late night bars are to the right rather than to the left. We ended up giving up that evening and only properly made it out a few nights later, when we met up with a friend we had made in Bali at his hostel and went out with a group of people from there. The bar played excellent music and we had a fun night of it, ending it with some fried rice, of course.

We spent about 6 days on Gili T, most of which were very chill. After our first failed night out we were in bed all day with hangovers accompanied by the rainy weather that torments Indonesia during low season. After our hangover day we were anxious to get moving and decided to walk to a “peak” on the island as well as around the whole perimeter of the island which was to take about two hours. We made it up to the peak of the island, which offered a pretty good view, encountered an old Japanese bunker from World War II and descended the other end to reach the other side of the island, the sunset side. We made our way around there stopping and looking at all the restaurant menus trying to decide where we should come for our sunset beer later. The island as a whole is truly gorgeous and much cleaner than I had expected. After walking about six miles we headed to the beach before going to the bar for sunset. Naturally, the sun disappeared as the afternoon rain prepared to come in and our sunset beers turned into rainy beers under our little beach bungalow setup. We made our way back in the rain, stopping for take way nasi goreng, and had our proper night out that evening.


Now, while we were supposed to be heading to Gili Air, the smallest of the three islands known for its very chill vibe, we were convinced by hostel owner Ken to stay and go to a beach party on Gili Meno (the middle island), where a famous DJ from Ibiza was going to be playing. We dragged ourselves from sleep to have breakfast and a few beers to head over to what we expected to be a ridiculous DJ set and day party. Given that Gili Meno is known as the honeymoon island, we should have predicted that was not the way it would be. A bunch of people from our guesthouse and the adjoining one headed out for the day, taking a rough boat ride across to Karma beach resort, where the party was to be. Karma wasn’t exactly a concert venue, and simply had the DJ, Jon Sa Trinxa, set up his tables in the corner of their restaurant. Everyone was sitting down, waiting for him to start and ordering drinks, but we instead decided to venture a little down the beach and find a cheaper place we could have a beer. The three of us and two other girls, Rosa and Sophie, had a beer and good conversation at a small place, which turned out to be the highlight of the day, before heading back to Karma. When we got there, well after the DJ was supposed to have started, there was still nothing going on. We were told that something was wrong with the equipment and he wouldn’t be able to spin so they were just playing his music. We sat down for the free glass of wine we were promised with our boat ticket and talked amongst us before heading back out yet again for some cheap food. We returned, hoping that it was time for the boat to leave, but were told we would have to wait another hour. Angela complained to the owner of Karma about how the day was not what we had expected and in turn he gave us all a free glass of wine which we happily slugged down while waiting for the damn boat to be ready. Finally, during the middle of a storm, they dropped us back to the Gili T, where we booked a snorkeling trip for the following day that the girls had already booked.

Our bad luck continued the following day for our snorkeling trip. While it wasn’t raining (for the majority of it) the currents were terribly strong from the bad weather the islands had been having. The boat takes you to three different sites to snorkel and we found ourselves over it after just the first site. The current completely swept you away from the boat and, confused as to what to do, everyone was trying to swim back to the boat. Apparently the guy heading the trip had told us that the boat would pick us up where the current took us but no one understood him. I spent more time trying to get back to the boat and avoiding the coral I was being tossed into than actually enjoying the fish and creatures beneath. To top it off, on the swim back, everyone found themselves amidst a school of jellyfish. So I was stung all over my body by little (thankfully) jellyfish which was terribly uncomfortable. At the second site half the boat didn’t go in the water. I only decided to go in to say I did, and really didn’t see much. We stopped for lunch at Gili Air, but half the girls didn’t get served their lunch in time to leave for the boat again, which made me thankful I had opted for some street corn on the cob rather than a sit down meal. For our final site, we were supposed to see impressive sea turtles, but only saw a small baby one that the guide had to track down for us, which did not compare to the turtles we saw on or own the first day on the island. Other than the single turtle, you couldn’t really see anything as the visibility in the water was terrible thanks again to the weather. Another defeated day, we returned to the guest house after a big meal and prepared our things for our trip back to Bali the following day.

We had a terribly rough boat ride back to Bali, with the waves fighting hungrily to get in through the window cracks in the boat (and often succeeding). We made it without any vomiting incidents and hopped onto a shuttle bus that would take us to the airport. Our flight to Labuan Bajo, a small town in Flores a few islands east of Bali, was not until the following day, but we booked a hotel (yes, I said hotel) walking distance from the airport for ease. We got a pretty good deal on the hotel and decided, fuck it, lets do it. While the crappy weather prevented us from using the pool, we had hot showers, pampered ourselves and laid in big fluffy beds watching actual American TV shows (lots of CSI). It is the first time in 5 months that I was able to flip through English channels and I can’t lie, it was glorious. After our one night of luxury, we headed out the next afternoon to the airport for our quick flight, which was of course delayed by weather, to Labuan Bajo.

Penang

14 Dec

Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. The beautiful island home to George Town, our first Malaysian stop. George Town. What can I say about this stellar town that emits pure beauty and happiness through its art-filled, European influenced streets and its culturally diverse and astonishingly friendly locals. We spent seven days exploring George Town and it wasn’t enough.

Penang is a cultural melting pot, mainly occupied by people of Malay, Indian and Chinese decent, among many other minority cultures. George Town also represented a number of religions, with the main Mosque in town a short walk from the famous Anglican Church and the Anglican Church just next to the Catholic Church, with temples scattered throughout. The city creates the perfect picture of all these cultures coming together in harmony while maintaining their identity. On our first day out in George Town, after indulging ourselves in beef briyani, we found ourselves in the center of Little India. Women and men in traditional dress wandered the streets buying aromatic foods and colorful clothing. Stores with the latest Bollywood films blasted Indian music to lure in customers and small shops sold everything from spices to statement bindis. After departing little India, we walked down by the water, where children played in the park just next to Fort Cornwalis and there was a beautiful view across the water.

After a day walking around and being blown away by the George Town atmosphere, we were ready for a beer but realized that beers were quite expensive here, or at least more than we were used to. We refrained from buying beers at the 7-Eleven and returned to the hostel to ask the man working where you can get cheap beer. He showed us a spot on the map with the utmost confidence that they sold the cheapest beers in Penang. We headed out there, sweaty and un-showered, and found ourselves in front of a convenience store lookalike with a fridge-lined wall filled with different types of beers and their prices. Just outside, in the alley corner, multiple tables of all shapes and sizes stood amidst red and blue stools, filled with locals and tourists alike. A shirtless full-bellied man runs the operation alongside his wife, who gracefully weaved through the tables clearing the endless beer bottles and cans. We found ourselves a table here and played cards the whole evening, with three local guys joining in on the fun towards the end of the night. We fell in love with the local watering hole and found ourselves here on multiple evenings. On our following visit we sat at a table with a German-born man and his Philippine girlfriend, who had been living here for a few years, along with his mother, father and uncle who were visiting from Germany. We were later joined by an old man named Mamu, who cracked inappropriate jokes in an admirable manner and told stories about how his mother worked for the Sultan. And even later, we were joined by two more of Mamu’s friends, who brought chickpeas cooked in some fantastic spices which I consumed all by myself. On another occasion, Angela and Josh spent the night playing Kings with three local guys who had just finished university. We met some great people at the watering hole, a place that clearly brings together young and old and local and foreign in unexpected accord.

For the most part, we were super active during the days, trying to get in as many activities as possible to satiate the appetite for culture and adventure that we had built up on the Thai islands. We spent a day strolling the streets hunting down the famous Penang street art that can greet you at any turn. Most of the art takes into account the buildings and existing elements, while some go a step further, incorporating a third dimension, such as a bike, a stool or a chair to the art. That evening, we went to the Red Garden, a place filled with multiple food stalls, where I first tried Assam Laksa, a tangy noodle soup with sliced cucumber, onions, chilies, pineapple and prawn paste that I fully enjoyed. The following day, we took a local bus (note: each and every bus driver was so helpful and kind) to Koke Lok Si Temple, where we climbed to the top of a Pagoda for excellent views of the city, before heading to the Pagoda Hill to take the funicular up to the top of the hill. However, we bailed on the funicular when we found out the school holiday had resulted in an hour wait to ride to the top.

Another day, we went to the upside down museum, which, while skeptical at first, left us in awe and laughing the whole time as those working at the museum helped us into posing position and snapped our photos at endless upside down setups. Afterwards, we headed to an area that allegedly had food hawkers (what they call the street food stands here) but were once again mislead by maps.me. While in the area, however, we saw a sign outside an expo center that claimed there was a mini dessert exposition the following day, which we knew we had to come back for. On the way back, since we had not eaten, we stopped at a cafe for another famous Penang dish Wan Tan Mee. Many Malaysian eateries are cafes with multiple different food stalls around them. The cafe itself acts as the central hub where you order your drinks, while you order any and all food you wish from the stalls. The Wan Tan Mee was much like a wonton soup from home but on crack, with lightly sweet barbecue pork, fresh noodles, mini soup dumplings and pickled jalapeños marrying together in a light broth – all for about one USD. Instead of drinking that evening, we decided to go to the movies, located in an extremely Westernized mall in Penang that we grew to love. Malaysia, thus far, has surprised us with its cheap prices and the movies were no exception. Movies cost a little more than three dollars and the theaters were great. That evening, in search of a bit of thrill, we watched Incarnate, a truly terrible movie that had more to laugh at than it did fear. Do not see this movie until it comes out on Netflix and you want to laugh.

On our fifth day, after visiting the history museum in town where we got to learn about the cultures that make up Penang, we decided on a completely Western day. We returned to our beloved mall to do a round of Escape the Room. We chose a mission that involved disarming a bomb and failed miserably at it. After escape the room, we made our way to the dessert expo, that turned out to be a huge let down. However, there seemed to be some sort of strange robot revealing that was about to occur. So, we stood around the people in anticipation, and watched the unveiling of the multi-million dollar Titan the Robot, who came all the way from England to dance and sing for us in Malaysia. If you asked me a year ago what I’d be doing on December 10, 2016, you can be sure that watching an English robot dance for a crowd of people in Malaysia would not be on the list. We returned to the mall afterwards to eat and watch Office Christmas Party, which was surprisingly funny, before returning to our new, rather ratchet hostel that we had booked for that evening since our previous hostel had been full.

On our last day in Penang, we took an uber to the botanical gardens, where we found ourselves amidst some “aggressive” monkeys. While I tried to avoid them, Angela attempted to get pictures up close and was eventually hissed at by a pissed off monkey. We took the local bus back and got off at the mall, here I had a deliciously spicy Szeachuan noodle soup while the other hungover heads indulged in McDonalds before we went to yet another movie, Sing, an animated musical movie with a star-studded cast. Even with an incredibly rude theater full of talking people (that we attempted to order to be quiet multiple times) we enjoyed it.

It wouldn’t be our last evening in Penang without visiting the watering hole, so we headed out for a few beers and a few rounds of cards. Right when we arrived we were greeted by a downpour and had to move into the little sheltered area among many other people, waiting for the rain to give up. We left Penang the following morning, after eating at one of our favorite Indian places for the fourth time, already missing the place and the people. We may even have to pull a Koh Phangan and return to Penang for a few days to make sure we have no regrets.