It sounds absurd to go to the other side of the World knowing little about your itinerary but for me that really is half the fun. As I was browsing the travel section of the WHSmiths at Newcastle airport I beamed out a smile at the prospect of the unknown. I was about to embark on a 3 month trip to The Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. The places I was to call home for the next 12 weeks were sure to offer religion, food, landscape, activities and people like that I have never come across before.
Our flight to the Filipino capital took 16 hours. Unfortunately, what our guide book described as 'a mega City with opportunity round every corner' felt far more accustomed to cranes, lorries and industrial work forces than it did to a trio of wide eyed young travelers looking to be 'wowed' upon their arrival to a tropical paradise.
After a sweaty nights sleep in a very cosy hostel room we began to pick at what Manila had to offer. And, surprisingly, it conjured up one of my lasting memories of The Philippines. Our taxi had gotten lost and we found ourselves at the foot of a mountain. 'Smokey mountain' as the locals call it, is constructed entirely of rubbish. The result of years of City waste being dumped in one area is where thousands of people call home. Seeing a 'slum' brings every sense in your body alive. Your nose is doing overtime whilst your ears hear twice the amount of things your eyes see. But, the most notable thing our unplanned City tour showed us was the amount of normality that remains in this vastly different way of life. Women tended to young children and groups of men sawed at wood or worked on tatty machinery, whilst young children smiled and kicked football's in the streets. It felt strange but I was glad the experience left me with a sense of motivation and relief rather than my initial thoughts of pity and sadness.
I began taking notes on my time in The Philippines on the island of Borocay. The white sand beach hurt my eyes without the shield of sunglasses and the sound of the lapping waves proved far more appealing than any song on my ipod. Escaping the hustle and bustle of mango sellers and dive school enthusiasts I sat on the sand under the shade of some banana trees enjoying the tranquility the lack of activity offered. The previous night, Manny Pacquiao - a Filipino hero and king of World boxing - entertained a crowd of hundreds with a rendition of a 90s love song. Bottles of local 'Tanduay' rum flowed for less than a pound and it was a sobering thought realising how well the small island had the ability to play host to people looking for such contrasting surroundings.
Our journey from Borocay in the North West of the Visayas to the island of Negros took us through Iloilo City and the island of Guimaras. The latter is famed so much for its sweet mangoes that it is local law to only have juicy fruits indigenous of the island allowed through customs. I began to feel as though we were getting off the beaten track here. Becoming aware of how universal a thumbs up is no matter where in the World you are. Riding on the back of a motorbike, sun in my face, bag on my back, I returned a smile back to the tens of locals scrambling to give a wave to the ginger haired European who had come to explore their home.
Our Guimaras base was a cabin resort with stunning views of lush green forests and ocean sunsets. There was even a swimming pool tucked away at the base of a valley but for £4 a night there were draw backs, hence the bed bugs did bite!
We opted for engine power over pedal power to see more of Guimaras, the 30 degree heat proving decisive in our decision. The rugged landscape was just about doing enough to take our eyes off the unpredictable road surface long enough to enjoy the beautiful views of 17th century Spanish churches, swaying palm trees, sparkling blue waters and more smiling faces. Highlights included firing a 44 caliber police pistol and a lunch stop at a local eatery where we sampled 'batchoy' - basically spicy water with stringy noodles and chewy chicken. You could tell we were on a budget and diving into the Filipino way of dining!
Next on our travel hit-list was the University town of Dumaguete - a place where both activity and relaxation mold into one to create a very appealing atmosphere. Keeping in line with our experience's of native Filipino's, the welcome was warm and the sense of pride they hold in knowing their country is keeping you entertained and happy shined through.
Apo island, just a 30 minute boat ride from Negros mainland, was where we had my first encounter with nature. The marine reserve on the east of the island blew my mind with its rainbow coloured corals, abundance of fish life and, most impressively, the opportunity to swim side by side with 3 foot long wild sea turtles - a truly unforgettable experience.
Ｔｉｍｅ ｗａｓ ａｇａｉｎｓｔ ｕｓ ａｓ ｗｅ ｈｅａｄｅｄ ａｗａｙ ｆｒｏｍ ｔｈｅ Ｖｉｓａｙａｓ ｔｏ ｔｈｅ ｓｔａｔｅ ｏｆ Ｌｕｚｏｎ．Our 5am ａｒｒｉｖal ｉｎ ｔｈｅ ｔｏｗｎ ｏｆ Ｌｅｇａｓｂｉ left my body and head tired from the bumpy 9 hour journey from Manila. So much so that the cloudy view of the Mount Mayon was far less important than the rock hard mattress and grubby pillow that awaited in any guesthouse we could find. However, in the morning, 'Wow!'. Mayon is described as the most perfectly formed volcano on the planet and I cannot argue with that after seeing it first hand. It slopes up symmetrically on all sides, spewing natural gases from its steaming peak and showing signs of why it remains one of the most active and dangerous volcano's in the World.
All too soon we were choosing our final destination to visit within a country that had inspired, entertained, exhausted, impressed and surprised us throughout. Fittingly, I think, we chose the Caramoan Peninsula. Off the beaten track, not a package holiday in sight, it fitted the quintessential idea of what The Philippines keeps hidden so well.
Paddle in hand, grilled fish and rice in our rucksacks, we headed out to sea in search a castaway style island. I could see the ocean floor 50 meters before the point at which the sandy beach began peering over the surface of the calm waters. We heaved the kayak far enough up the beach to be sure it wouldn't be caught by the tide - we knew immediately this was important because being marooned here was a serious possibility! There was know one else on the tiny island we had landed on. Temporarily, it was all ours!
Spending the day dipping in and out of the warm waters, laying on deserted beaches and gazing at the mountains we had ventured from, our final few days in The Philippines were using up any superlatives we had left to describe our time there.
From cockfighting in Manila, gawping open mouthed at volcano's in Southeast Luzon, being caught in typhoons in the Visayas and standing on desolate beaches in the Caramoan Peninsula, the parts I saw of the 7,000 plus islands that make up The Philippines seemed authentic, real and, refreshing, not yet geared directly towards a rush of demanding Western tourists. I loved it!