Saturday, March 20, 2010

Heading North

We just quickly write a few words as we don't think we will have Internet access again before arriving back to Hong Kong. We visited the rainy Pacific coast where the sea currents were so strong that we could not swim at all. We got smaller and bigger rainshowers several times a day, but why it was really worth coming here is that we might have caught sight of a pair of the huge Philippine eagle (aka monkey-eating eagle) which is on the brink of extinction.

We booked a flight to the north, where we plan to make a few days' trekking in the mountains of Luzon, where there are thousands-year old rice terraces (this is a world heritage site, too).

We'll fly back to Hong Kong on the 25th, where we'll have two days for a little chill-out.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Filipino Time

Why is 4 weeks so little time?

At first it seemed a lot, all our friends were amazed. Now it seems little. But why? Time here passes in an other way than back at home. Locals call it Filipino Time. There are no timetables, for example. If there is, there are many different opinions about it.

It did not seem a big deal getting from El Nido to the Subterranean River, the first is in the northern end of Palawan, the other somewhere in the middle of it. These two places are the two biggest sights in Palawan: El Nido is known for its amazing limestone cones emerging from the sea and its lagoons, while the Subterranean River is a spectacular karst formation, and it is the longest in the World of its kind. You can go up on it through its estuary right from the sea with a boat.

In El Nido we could find out that the only direct way to Sabang, the estuary of the river, is by hiring a whole banca, as there is no regular service there. There is another way, however: by a van you can get to a settlement called Roxas, from there there is an ongoing jeepney to Port Barton, from where it is just a little distance to Sabang by a banca. We attempted this latter way of getting there.

The info was also confirmed at the van station, and Port Barton was a promising little port village anyway. So we bought the tickets to Roxas in the first place. Back at home we usually count 1.5 hours for a 130km drive, here it was said to be 4 hours, and we soon found out why. The road network of Palawan is still quite sparse. We cover most of the trip on a dirt road, and for some reason dust was pouring into the van through the aircon. On arriving in Roxas, our bags were taken from the roof but we still had to take a 10-minute tricycle ride to the local transport hub.

We got the first shock here when we were told there was only one service to Port Barton a day, and the one that day had already left without waiting for the El Nido van, even if we arrived half an hour ahead of schedule. When I tried to explain them the timetable, they looked at me confused: that the jeepney departs at 11? They turned around, then turned back to me with open arms and said 'it's not here, though'.

When I tried to explain them the timetable, they looked at me confused: that the jeepney departs at 11? They turned around, then turned back to me with open arms and said 'it's not here, though'.



We were already thinking about a new alternative when the Port Barton jeepney arrived despite all. We quickly got onto it when it it prooved true that there was nothing like an exact timetable here: the driver offered us in an easy mood that we could take our time and have luch if we had not done it. He would only start after we finished it all. We didn't need more invitation.

The jeepney, by the way, has several other functions, like it is a market shuttle, a private business vehicle for the driver, and a cargo and livestock vehicle. We hardly covered a few metres when we stopped and picked up a few sandbags, then an old man did his shopping, and later a bucket of baby pigs landed on the rooftop. And palm roof elements and a leaking fish bag. People do not get on in stops, but basically everyone in front of his own house, or wherever he wants. We literally stopped at every 20 metres on a few occasions.

We got the second shock in Port Barton when we were told there was no regular service to Sabang, as opposed to the gossips. 'Sometimes a banca arrives, which goes on to Sabang' that was all that was sure. When exactly? 'Sometimes it comes in the morning, but when it comes, you can see it here in the bay, anyway...'

We needed something more exact as there is no more than a peninsula dividing Port Barton and Sabang, which is easy to go round in a banca, but takes at least half a day by jeepney, because the roads go in such a manner that we have to go back to the other side of the island first. Alternative B would have been the usual: hiring a whole banca, but the waves of the sea were so strong that day that it was impossible getting a small banca.

So we got to Sabang by two more jeepneys again, this time travelling on coconut bags and smelling fish boxes.

In Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, we were forced to stay one day longer because there was no flight for that day.

It was simply impossiple to gather any information on the Bohol-Leyte ferry. On Alona Beach, in the famed Bohol Island Dive Resort, where we were accomodated at the time, the receptionist did not have the slightest idea if ferries departing from just the other side of the island. The kind waiter called Michael Jordan has heard somewhere that in Ubay 'they put a whole bus on the ferry!' At the tourist office they asked each other with no results, then finally one of them sat in front of the Internet, and after some busy typing he came forward with a sheet of paper which contained a ferry between Ubay and Maasin at 10 am.

Well how can we reach Ubay on the opposite side of the island by 10? Ideas varied greatly on this, but the most credible was a van leaving the Dao Terminal in the nearby city of Tagbilaran in the morning (and morning was the most precise hint we could get). Well done, knowing all this we could relax on the beach and have dinner and a beer.

At 6 am the next day we caught a tricycle to Dao terminal, where we found out from the locals that we had rushed in vain, the first van departs no sooner than exactly at 8.05 hrs. And that's how it really was. But how would we get there by 10 if the road is 2.5 hours??

Nohow, but there'll always be somehow. And there was indeed. As opposed to all ideas, there were several ferries for the other island, at least 3 in the next hour only. I immediately bought the tickets for the first one. But when I saw the creatures they call 'ferries' here, my legs shaked for an instant...

Why we had to skip one of my biggest plans?

Well what actually was my secret plan? To visit hidden villages in the forest, this is an experience very few people ever meet during their lives. But it seems we'll have to skip on it.

Jungle trekking is not like a weekend trip on the hills of my country, Hungary. Hiring a guide is essential, but this is not the main problem. There is a mountain trail here on Leyte Island not far from where we are at the moment. It is a 45 km long jungle trek, but while a tour like this fits well into 10 hours at home, here it is estimated at 8 days!! Somewhat different trail and weather conditions. Carrying all your food and water...

If we were aimed at the yet untouched rainforests of North Luzon, we could count with similar timelines. And if we add to this that just reaching the last village before the forest could take many days itself, then it makes one think whether it is worth spending 2 weeks out of 4 on this...

Time, time, time...

a sailor boy: no rush here

main street Palawan village


Food

Who said that Filipino food is bad? Here are some nice examples. (Well I cannot post such nice images of Adri's vegetarian meals.)

seafood mix on sizzling plate

fish n' cocos


Accomodation

Somehow we could always get something acceptable, and it always happened to be on white sand beaches or among lush tropical plants. Excellend value for the money!

inner yard in Puerto Princesa

our hut in Sabang

on the veranda in Port Barton




About ourselves

Despite all our efforts (or for this very reason?) we feel excellent. Here are a few images as proof:

Adri's favourite: fresh mango juice

San Miguel, our faithful companion

a hammock always came handy




People - Part 2

In India I did not believe the complete lack of human hygiene. I kept telling Adri that poverty is just one thing. The lack of self respect is yet another: garbage handling is surely not a priority in developing countries. But what I cannot get an acceptable answer for is why the streets of Delhi and Bombay have to smell like shit? I don't believe this can be explained with poverty only.

And now the Philippines have proved me. There's huge poverty here, too, there are millions living in shacks here without running water and electricity, too. But here a 3 year old boy already holds a sweeper, the 7 year old carries huge sacks, and everyone is always doing some cleaning around their own home. The people smell good every day, girls have beautiful well groomed hair, all go out in the morning with still wet, just washed hair.

Not to mention cars. Despite all the dust around all cars and bikes are shining every day.

What a big contrast is this compared to India.

Redeployment Palawan - Project Pacific

From Palawan we have recently flied back to civilization, to the second largest city of the country, Cebu. I really liked those less-visited beautiful islands: Busuanga, Coron and Palawan, and the more than 1000 smaller ones scattered around them.

About Bohol Adri will write a bit more details, this is quite a touristy place: Alona Beach is busy with diving schools, for the other visitors dolphin watching, coral and noisy beach life with cheap beer is on offer. At nights you cannot move a step because of the many tables restaurants put out on the beach sand. Bohol's secrets are some of the biggests attractions of the Philippines: the unique Chocolate Hills and the cute and small Tarsiers. Despite their night activity the crowds don't only want to see them but also to careress them during the day of course. There are also a folk museum village and an artificial mangrove with a suspension bridge: all a tourist can wish.

We devoted one day for the evening photography of the Chocolate Hills and a Tarsier Reserve.

Then we felt eager to get off the maps again: this time the Pacific Coast of the archipelago is our destination. Already in Ubay our white skin was a curiosity, and people greeted us loudly. But considering Filipino Time, we are still far from out new destination. What are we again looking for at a place where only a few go? One of the least visited national parks of the country, where we still expect some of the remaining primary forests, where we can get only by boat through waterways, where there are caves and rock bridges; ocean islands where only a few determined surfers go for the waves - during the thyphoon months of course.

At the ocean it can rain any time - that's why the lush forest and the few visitors. Today we got a taste of it in the form of an afternoon downpour, which we were luckily watching from the balcony this time. The rain was also warm and after it the air was as humid as a green house. In 15 minutes, however, most of the water dried up on the streets and the sun shone again.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lifestyle in the Philippines

rice paddy on the island of Busuanga

The other day I told Adri that after a week we start to put off our European instincts and take on some local style. 'When in Rome do as the Romans do.'

This came into my mind when we rented a motorbike and ventured ont the eath road leading into the forest. The owner was not at all embarassed by the fact that I had not used a half automatic gear change before - nor was I. 'After two curves you'll be fine.' And so I was. In my flip flops on a road of red dust. At the end our legs were just as dusty as those of locals.

I'm eating up dirt cheap seafood. Fish, squid, prawn is the light meal for a fracture of home prices. Meanwhile Adri is experimenting with vegetables of hopeless names. Beer is even better. They have an excellent local beer for a few pesos worth half a euro. As a devout christian country, this national drink got its name after St. Michael.

the banca and its driver, Coron Island

We have been accomodated in palm huts on poles above the sea, as the locals, but we have also had a nice cool backyard with jackfruit trees gave the shadow. Its huge green crop is one of the biggest fruits in the world. Then our current accomodation is right on the seaside, far from all noise. Its roof is also made of palm leaves, it's got a small terrace and a few palm trees between which you can stretch a hamock. The backdraw? Well, there's no running water. Washing? There's a well nearby, the landlady gave us some dishes, and Adri was washing together with the local girls.

Tourism

I wrote previously that the airpor was built up on Busuanga. Well, this happened one and a half year ago as Patrik told us. He's a swede who has a pension there. Along with the new airport beach resorts and fancy tourists appeared. Luckily these were stuffed into an air conditionned minibus right at the exit of the airport so that they don't see anything from the world.
coastal mangrove, Coron

fishing boy, Coron

The capital of the island is Coron Town, where they have launched a big seaside project in front of the houses: they are filling up the coastal strip so as to build new hotels. I also wrote there were only two cargo boats between Busuanga and Palawan. Well, this info is also obsolete, tourist boats have appeared, because the daily 10-15 tourists are enough to launch a small banca (local type of boat) daily. Well its price? It's the double of course. We saw banners saying 'Buy a parcel in the new holiday resort area.' The prcels of a seaside resort somewhere on the island are being sold. And all this is the development of the last 2 years. Luckily Busuanga and Palawan and by far not Thailand, but who knows for how long? Not to mention that when the great Hungarian backpacker, Denes Balazs was here in the 70's, the lack of brave enough guides inhibited him from reaching the lake inside Coron Island in the wet season. Today there's a flight of steps leading to the lake, and in the hidden lagoon from where you reach the stairs, tourist bancas are bustling (that said there were at least six of them when we were there).

The Busuanga - Palawan ferry

I must write about this. The time of departure was announced as 8 am. Contrary to our usual behaviour, we arrived at the pier (which is a restaurant in itself) a little earlier. The lady greeted us: 'Sir, the ferry will depart at 8. Or at 8.30. Or maybe at 9. You can easily have breakfast until then.' And that's what we did.

There was no sign of the ferry at 9.

'Sir, the ferry will depart at 8. Or at 8.30. Or maybe at 9. You can easily have breakfast until then.' And that's what we did.



A little later Ricardo appeared, who is a local guy - I'll write a few words about him later. He recognized us and came to us to have a little chat, and it turned out that among many other things he was responsible for the passengers leaving for El Nido - where we were bound. He showed us our ferry, which was actually a small banca, but it was big enough not to be able to come inshore to the end of the pier. Then he disappeared and time slowly passed by.

Later I saw him trying to get a small boat from the local fishermen to get the few passengers and their luggage to the ferry. This procedure took a while, then he waved that we should go with our bags. The boat he found almost sank as everybody got into it (ca. 15 people plus bags). It approached slowly the ferry and a little water was continuously coming in at the front. There was an English guy sitting right there with a calm face as his bottom got wet.

It was already almost 10 am when some guys in uniforms with 'coast guard' labels appeared on the ferry. Suddenly all the crew got busy and they gave out life jackets to everyone aboard. These grumpy guys took two members of the crew with them and we waited for some more time. Meanwhile Ricardo was laughing with a few local passengers, one of whom did not have a ticket I assume. Then the two sailors came back and life started up. Someone disappeared at the bottom, where our bags were thrown, too, and the engine started growling. The driver, who wore sunglasses with one glass missing, started knocking the indicators but all three kept standing vertically. This might be the 'OK' sign, I guess. Another one wearing a muscle T-shirt was running up and down with one screwdriver, sometimes two, and from time to time disappeared in the engine room.

There was a third sailor, he was the most interesting one. With his head scarf, tanned skin and mustache he looked exactly as newspapers depict the pirates of the Malacca Strait. Well this gentleman was sucking gasoline through a rubber tube from a large barrel into smaller ones, then from the smaller ones somewhere into the bottom of the boat. When he had a break to breathe, he lit a cigarette.

Gyuszi, the skipper of our sailing team back home, would have never allowed the captain of this banca drive his sailboat, he was pulling the steering wheel from side to side. If it had been a sailboat, I could have thought he was tacking against the wind, but actually the wing was coming from the side.

And by the way the whole banca was leaning to the left.

The good point? The ticket included lunch which was rice and chicken.

People

One of the best experiences of the Philippines (beside the amazing nature) are the people themselves. When we rented a bike, we passed a few local villages in the forest. Everyone was waving and saying hello as we passed by them.
Adri witha nice Busuanga girl

The children run towards us smiling even in the smaller towns. Once a man invited us to his house. He showed us the house, which he built with his own hands from bamboo and palm, and he said they eat rice every day, which is produced on his grandfather's land (his house, a much bigger one was across the street). They sometimes eat coconut also. He had four little children, who went to a school in the nearby village.

house in a village in the interior of Busuanga

There are other kinds of people, fortunately only a few of them, but if they want to build up Busuanga, these will appear, too, uninvited. They follow money. We were walking on the pier collecting info about ferries towards Palawan when a man came up to us and told us he can help. He took us to Ricardo, who had everything on offer at once: ferry, island hopping on the nearby islets, even accommodation. As we were talking in a small buffet in the hot afternoon, Patrik also appeared, and got in such an intensive quarreling with Ricardo I thought they would hit each other. Finally we got rid of him, but the man of 'Mr Commission' found us on the street even days later and shyly asked for his commission for taking us to the 'right' man.

On this island, there's only one man of this kind, but the more touristy India and Egypt are full of them, making life of travellers more difficult

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Our first days

Zen you cannot fly!

I think the words of the hostess of the Vienna Airport in German accent will recur in my ears for long. You sometimes have the feeling that something very wrong is happening to you, and while your legs freeze, you cannot do anything against it. We left the credit card that we used for buying the plane tickets at home in budapest, and yes it was mentioned several times that showing it upon check-in is a condition of the travel.

My travel instincts told me the next moment however that there must be a solution to any problem,

My travel instincts told me the next moment however that there must be a solution to any problem

and that we cannot stay stranded at the airport on our honeymoon trip. Eventually, after quickly taking into consideration several possible solutions, I could convince the Vienna hostess lady that the card would arrive within half an hour - via fax. Then we refined it to an email, but the mms was too much for her.

Then finally at the last moment, with hard background work back at home and with some luck the card arrived!

Beside the nice hostesses of the Vienna Airport we also got a taste of exclusive luggage handling: as there was no time left to check in our luggage pieces, we carried them in our hands as far as the door of the plane, and there we gave them over to the luggage handlers, who put them straight into the luggage room of the plane.

Then I fell from one surprise to another: a good old friend of mine greeted me aboard Qatar Airlines: Jano! He became a leader steward since (or something like that). We certainly received first class service on our flight with special French wine (we could even have had champagne if Adri had asked for it), Saudi dates, Belgian chocolate and a remarkable red rose for Adri! We talked a lot and we agreed on continuing it beside a San Miguel Beer (aka SMB) in Cebu, Philippines, if he happens to fly there at the time we are also there.

Hong Kong

the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island covered in fog

Hong Kong convinced me. It had the impression of an enchanting city on me, it works just fine, it has a calm eastern feeling (or just because of the weekend?), its streets are clean, it is surrounded by lush subtropical forests.

It was interesting to watch street life: a lot of people were sitting on the floor all along the streets in the evenings and they were chatting, having dinner, playing cards. The whole city was like a chicken farm as they were chit/chatting.

Hong Kong is actually not a small piece of concrete full of skyscreapers as I had imagined. Few people know it has huge natural reserves and about 200 islands belong to it, with pleasant subtropical forests and beaches. We'll have more time on our way back, we may even have a walk on he hills. It's climate is also interesting. It was so foggy in the morning that we could not see either part of the city, not a single skyscreaper from the middle of Victoria Harbour (this means a few hundred metres).

Manila

Our first planned volcanic crater tour was a failure. Our plane landed near Manila and we planned to climb the Pinatubo volcano right in the neighbourhood; it would have been an experience for life. The volcano itself is still active, its last eruption was in 1991, it's nearly 2000m high and a sulfuric turquoise lake was created in its crater. Unfortunatelly the tours were suspended a year age due to an accident, and we learnt this only on the spot.

Right after this we got a true picture of Philippine public transport. With two changes of jeepneys we got to the nearest hub (a dusty little town), where we caught a bus (or more precisely, a Manila bus caught us), and we reached the vicinity of our accomodation in Manila by LRT. Well, what exactly are jeepneys and LRT's? Adri will explain it in details later.

A flattering face of Manila

Instead of the skyscreapers of Makati City we chose the old Malate district as the site of our accomodation. Just like we chose the more original Kowloon instead of the sterile Hong Kong Island back in Hong Kong. In general older city districts offer more, although you have to take on a lot of hassle for this: in Manila karaoke was on all night under our window. Locals state karaoke is actually a Philippine invention and not Japanese as the public believes. The fan was noisy and after 10 pm the neighbouring construction works started. Here construction is going on between night and the morning, maybe because of the heat. Beside all these, sometimes an unidentifiable noise shook the whole city. That said, life is going on here all around the clock, but this is also where the sights are, and likeminded travellers.

The city of Manila grew as big as 10 million, and it is chaotic like the big cities of other developping countries. People of all kinds flocked into the city seeking better life, buildings, roads and shops are being built uncoordinated, glitzy shopping malls are built in the middle of the old city, and you can see a homeless mother breast feeding her baby at the doorsteps of highrises. Luxury cars and tricycles (a means of public transport powered by a human) go side by side. Meanwhile, the promenade on Manila Bay, which was allegedly one of the most beautiful in Asia, was perished.

To the countryside!

After all this chaos we opted for leaving for the countyside. So much countyside that according to our guidebook published in 2007 the airport was no more than a grassy strip and the terminal just a hut. Today the plane landed on concrete, but it seemed from above that apart from this small cleared patch of land the whole island is only rainforest and mountain.

Where actually is this place? The largest island is called Luzon, this is where the capital Manila can be found.

It's not known at the moment how we can go on, but allegedly there are two cargo ships going towards Palawan every week...

To the southwest of this there is another big island stretching almost as far as Borneo called Palawan, that guidebooks call the last frontier of the Philippines. Well, we are in between the two at the moment, on a small archipelago.

It was quite difficult coming here, we couldn't find a ferry, just a small propeller driven plane. It's not known at the moment how we can go on, but allegedly there are two cargo ships going towards Palawan every week...

Friday, February 26, 2010

We started out

Just for short, we are right about to start our journey. Luckily, we'll have plenty of time for sleep, as we haven't had too much today :) It'll take 2 hours to Vienna then 5 and a half hours to Doha then 8 and a half to Hong Kong. We are going to arrive on Sunday afternoon (it could be morning at home then?)