Finding Nemo

We experienced many times during our trip that bad luck at first place turned out to be for the better. The most memorable of those experiences was the way we got to Siquijor – one of the most beautiful places we’ve been to so far.

Leaving Loboc, our original plan was heading towards Camiguin, a small volcanic island in the South of Bohol and part of neighbouring Minandao archipelago. But after packing our bags and arriving to Jagna port after two hours of rattling buses in the tropical heat, we found out that no more ferry tickets were left. Ferry tickets can’t be purchased in advanced – god knows why – so we were told we would have to return the following morning at 7am (counter opening time), but without being certain that we would obtain one.

Jagna is not a particularly appealing place to spend time in and as we had only two weeks to spend on the Visayas, we didn’t want to take the risk of being left without a ticket again and so loosing two days in a row. Spontaneously, we decided to head back to Tagbilaran and try to catch a ferry to Siquijor, were we would rejoin two French fellow travellers we’d met in India some months before.

Long travels are generally speaking a good opportunity for meeting all kinds of different and mostly interesting people – but the story of our friendship with Laetita and Alex is nevertheless a quite peculiar one. We first met in the ticket office at Margao train station in Goa (India), where we were all waiting during more than two our for our turn, as a group of soldiers from the Indian army was purchasing tickets for the whole regiment. They were in their seventh month of a one-year around-the-world trip, had just arrived to India from Sri Lanka and so in their initial cultural clash phase, while we – already in our in-love-with-India phase – had just cancelled our flights to Sri Lanka to spend more time in the Southern part of the country.

We said goodbye, heading towards different destinations, without exchanging contacts or anything. Some days later, we ran into each other again in Hampi, when walking through the ruins in the afternoon. Pure coincidence. We spent two ours talking without noticing the sun nor the heat, had dinner together and were to meet again the following days. Unfortunately, they were having a lot of trouble with arranging for the train tickets, as the high season for Indian family holidays was about to start in the North, so that their stay in Hampi was somehow overshadowed by worries about how to manage the onward journey.

When we said goodbye again, we knew they were having the vague plan of also going to the Philippines in May, but neither of us was certain about it. We headed towards Malaysia and China, they were leaving India for Thailand and Myanmar, but we kept in touch and updated each other about our plans from time to time. And then, when we were about to leave Kashgar, we found out that, independent from each other, we had planed nearly the same route around the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo in nearly the same time slot.

Our spontenous change of plans was under a lucky star. Arriving to Tagbilaran port, we found that Lite shipping was operating a slow ferry to Larena port on Siquijor at 5pm on Sunday afternoons and there was still space available. Plenty of space, as we would find out later, as we purchased a seating ticket – the cheapest option – but were then allowed to chose a soft berth, as the ship was not even 20% full. In case anyone is up for the same trip in the future: fast crafts operated by Ocean Jet take nearly the same amount of time for the trip, as they always pass by Dumaguete port on neighboring Negros island, but charge you five times the price of a Lite shipping ticket. And the main advantage of the big (slow) ferry: you are allowed to walk around and can have the most beautiful panoramic views of the neighboring islands of Cebu and Negros.

We left Bohol in an atmospheric sunset and floated through calm waters during four hours under a clear, stellar sky until reaching Larena on Siquijor at 9pm – very late for Filipino standards. We had to spend the night in an iterim resthouse near the port, a small resort of beach huts with the only other foreign guest being a crazy Irish American expat who woudn’t stop talking for a single second, even though no one wanted to hear the rubbish he was uttering about himself in the Philippines and the Filipino people and the Filipino women… it was just miserable!

But unfortunately, this particular kind of egocentric, neurotic Western expat, spending their retirement pension on having a relaxed evening of life in a sunny and relatively cheap country, accompanied by one of the many young, gorgeous Filipino women is a phenomenon one comes across rather frequently in the Philippines, similar to Thailand, Cambodia or Cuba. The case where those expats commit themselves to one single woman is even the most optimistic/desirable one, as prostitution – particularly child prostitution – out of poverty and lack of professional prospects, is a serious issue. After having traveled to serveral places dealing with the same problem we are even less able to understand how a country, especially one with a nearly bilingual population as the Philippines, may allow to sacrifice their biggest asset – their children and young people – to the perverse sex drives of some foreigners. And for us, as representatives of the Western societies, it is almost impossible seeing it and not feeling ashamed and, in some way, guilty.

We left as early as possible the following morning to rejoin our French friends in their beach cottage resort in San Juan, on the Southern coast of the island. The place is called The Bruce, named after its Scottish owner, and is – simply and without any exaggeration – a paradise. The resort comprises about eight stand-alone bamboo cottages for 2-4 people, each equipped with bathroom, kitchen and a balcony facing the ocean. They are incredibly neat and tidy – except for the permanent ant invasion – but this is nothing one can blame the staff for-, equipped with just everything one might need in his independent day-to-day business and the best part for long-term travelers like us: a bargain (20 Euros per night and for stays longer than 3 nights discounts of up to 15% can be negotiated)!. The resort is run by the owner’s daughter and her Filipino partner, together with incredibly friendly and always smiling local staff. To make it short: we came for three days and ended up staying more than a week.

Laetitia and Alex were our neighbors and as they didn’t know we were coming, we caught them completely by surprise. We didn’t plan it that way, but finally spent practically the whole week together and had a great time. It was a very refreshing change to our previous routine to be suddenly a group of four – similar to Thailand and Malaysia when we’d been together with Israel and Carola – especially as it is extremely rare to get along with people you barely know that well.

After months of permanent guest house changes and food jeopardy three time per day, the four of us were enjoying having for one OUR four walls and preparing OUR Western food. The small market in Siquijor offered nearly everything we needed to be in food haven, particularly ripe and tasty avocado! Proper (non-sweet) bread and cheese was missing, but starting the day with a nearly Chilean style breakfast containing smashed avocado with lemon, fried egg and tomato, sitting on our private veranda watching the turquoise waters of the sea was more than enough to make us fall in love with Siquijor.

The smallest province inside the Visayas, Siquijor only makes up for 72km perimeter and is therefore most easily explored by motorbike. Despite its small size, the topography and nature is extremely varied throughout the island, hosting several streches of white sand beaches and coral reefs on its shores, mountains with rainforest, caves and waterfalls in its interior, wetlands and rice fields in its plains.

Siquijodnons, as the locals call themselves, are extremely friendly, helpful and welcoming people – at least this is the impression we got. Everywhere we went we where received with a smile, anytime we stopped on the road and had the slightest asking expression on our faces, someone would come towards us and ask whether we needed any help. For Asian standards, Visayans are extremely honest when it comes to prices they charge to foreigners. Tricycle drivers sometimes try to overcharge you – it would be odd if they wouldn’t – but in public transport, eateries or on markets, as far as we could observe it, we were always charged exactly the same as Filipinos. Given our comparatively higher purchasing power, one now enter into a compex discussion if in the end it is just that we pay the same the locals. But after four months having been treated differently just because of our white faces, at least it gave us a very welcoming feeling paying like anyone else without having to fight for it.

As in Bohol, the school holidays let Siquijors streets be crowded with children and particularly the basketball playgrounds being busy day-round. Basketball in the Philippines is pretty much what soccer is in South America: a passion that most of the population share. There is some – more of less improvised – basket literally at every street corner, a playground in the most remote tiny village and local matches basically every day – always with a considerable crowd of spectators. Eateries usually have a television switched on with some NBA of local league basketball match going on and who’s not working or playing most probably hangs around having a cool San Miguel in front of one of those screens.

As in most parts of the Visayas, swimming at the beaches of Siquijor is restricted by tides and on most beaches only possible during the morning. Additionally, sea urchines – huge, black, poisonous ones with up to 50cm spines – are commonplace, so that having a bath without shoes is not recommended. There is one beach, however, with urchine-free shallow waters and sufficiently high water level for swimming day-round. Located on the Eastern coast of the island, Saladong-Ong looks like the Greek Aegean Sea plugged into a tropical island. Turquoise, transparent waters surrounded by beautiful rock formations, not too warm to be still refreshing and not cold enough to be freezing. No waves, no currents – the perfect water for swimming. Some meters outside the bay, it also offers nice snorkeling, with the sea ground getting rocky, inhabited by numerous kinds of different fishes, sea snakes, corals, anemones and …. nemos!

Saladong-Ong is considered one of the best places for snorkeling on Siquijor, besides the several marine sanctuaries spotted around the island shores, one of it in Tubod, close to San Juan. We spent one afternoon exploring the waters of the protected area – and were the only ones there! – where we could spot several colourful anemones with nemos inhabiting them. The further we got, the more we were surrounded by colourful fish and as for Javier and me it was the first snorkeling experience in the tropics ever, we were completely overwhelmed.

Taking advantage of our motorbike, we surrounded the small island several times during our week-long stay and so got to know all the six provinces and major towns (or rather villages) in it: Siquijor, Enrique Villanueva, Larena, Lazi, Maria and our home district: San Juan. The earthquake destroying most historical buildings in Bohol in October 2013 apparently didn’t affect Siquijor very much, as most of the colonial architectural heritage remains intact, particularly the famous Catholic convent and church in Lazi.

One very relaxing detail of driving around on a motorbike in Siquijor is that experiencing a fuel break-down is almost impossible, as petrol is available everywhere. It is sold in 1-Litre glass Coke bottles and comes in two different colors: red and green. To know which one is suitable for your motorbike, you just have to wipe your finger around the tank notch.

One litre of petrol is between 60 to 62 pesos (1 Euro). Once Javier paid with a bill of 1000 instead of 100 pesos (they are nearly the same color) and was already starting the bike and leaving when the guy from the service station came running after him shouting: “Sir! Your change!” Certainly a considerable amount of money for him and he could have kept it in his pocket very easily.

There are lots of lasting memories we took with us from our week on Siquijor. One of the most emblematic among them are certainly the absolutely breathtaking sunsets we could onserve right in front of our cottages. Each and every evening the sun down-going sun painted the sky in a spectacular mix of colors we’d never seen before in such an intensity. And each and every evening the colors were different.

One day the tones were more blue, another they were more violet or rose and sometimes it seemed as if the sunlight set the clouds over the mountains of Negros on fire. We spent each and every evening observing this natural masterpiece, having a glass – surprisingly delicious – Filipino rum and ask ourselves: what else one could need to be happy? The answer was very easy: for the moment, nothing!


One thought on “Siquijor

  1. Pingback: Siquijor – Finding Nemo | Babel on Fire

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