Yup, this is a long one!
We’ve just arrived back in Dumaguete after 14 glorious days on Siquijor island. Leaving behind new friends was harder than we’d expected.
On a bright Monday morning, after successfully withdrawing 20,000 pesos (about $450 CAD) from the island’s only foreign card-accepting ATM, we headed to the tiny village of San Juan. But the withdrawal didn’t come without some kind of drama, since nothing around here ever goes quite as expected.
When we arrived at the ATM, we discovered that over the weekend, many people had been denied cash, and even though there are a number of ATMs that accept Filipino cards, there was a disorderly lineup down the street in front of this one. Our first attempt to gauge the line’s end was incorrect, since we misunderstood a group of people standing around, but we soon found the back and waited our turn. It’s easy to forget that in a place where many people are computer illiterate, using a bank machine is a huge task for them. It took us a long time, but we eventually made our withdrawal, and went on our way.
We hopped into a pedi-cab and asked to be taken to a hotel our Lonely Planet guide recommended as being a good backpacker’s destination. The guy informed us that he’d just driven some other tourists there, and it was full.
Instead he took us to Czar’s Place, which is where we ended up staying the entire time. You have to watch out because the pedi-cab drivers make a small commission for delivering tourists to certain establishments. This was likely no different, and we knew that. But the guy was very helpful, and not at all pushy, so we didn’t mind. After doing our own investigating in the following days, we realized that Czar’s Place was the best value for us anyway.
Our driver had said it was the cheapest around, and at 400 pesos a night, with it’s own private bath, it seemed to be the best price we could find, as well. The other thing we found attractive about the place is that it’s Filipino-owned, which means we put money back into the sustenance of the island instead into some wealthy ex-pat’s pockets. We highly recommend Czar’s Place to anyone wanting to spend time on Siquijor island, although they won’t change your bedding unless you ask.
The following day was my birthday, and we rented a motorbike (really, a beefed-up scooter) and toured the southern part of the island together. We visited a century-old balete tree, which was impressive, even though we have trees much older in BC. The thing was massive and very different from any other tree I’ve seen.
We visited a set of waterfalls that, again, are dwarfed by many we have on Vancouver Island. But the draw here is that they’re perfect for swimming, a luxury we don’t have at home. We didn’t end up going in the water but we watched a few others, and got some good photos. It seems to be an attraction for both locals and foreigners.
Then we visited a butterfly sanctuary that really impressed both of us. Not knowing what to expect, we reluctantly handed over the 200 peso fee, but when we entered the small enclosure, its abundance of butterflies amazed us and kept our cameras trigger-happy for almost an hour. Dante, the guy who owns the place, is a very intelligent man who is dedicating himself to keeping Siquijor’s exotic butterfly species alive. He informed us that because of pesticides and chemicals, many of the delicate insects are disappearing from the island. He showed us the different stages of the butterfly, and explained how he releases them back into the wild. Currently he raises six species, with hopes for expansion and even employees, one day. We promised to email him our photos, so he can use them to promote his business.
On our way home, we stopped for BBQ’d bananas, and let me tell you, after eating the bananas in this part of the world, I’ll never again enjoy what’s shipped to stores in Victoria. At three pesos a piece, the BBQ’d banana has to be the best bargain in the Philippines, and the most delicious afternoon snack. Dotted alongside the road, in no particular place or without a schedule, local people start up small fire pits each day, and most of their customers are other locals. The bananas are grilled to perfection, brushed with butter and rolled in a bit of sugar. Yum!
That night we had a memorable dinner together at a little restaurant in San Juan, called Castaways. Our meals were yummy, and we treated ourselves to Calamari.
We spent the following days enjoying the freedom of having a motorbike, though any attempt to find helmets was futile. People here do not obey the laws of the road because they aren’t enforced, whatsoever. However, everyone respects one another, and the system seems to work. Besides, there is very little traffic on Siquijor, and the bikes don’t even go that fast. So, with caution, we felt safe enough.
At Czar’s Place we met a guy named Gaucho, from Israel, and Darryl, an American Englishman. We had a lot of fun hanging out with them during their respective stays. Gaucho loved to talk, and was a wealth of information on a part of the world I find intriguing, though know little about. He was funny, and very friendly. Tyson and I are really enjoying getting to meet people from all over the globe. It has really given us some new perspective, not to mention new friends.
Every Friday night, Czar’s Place holds a disco, which attracts quite a crowd of local nightlife-starved teens, twenty-somethings and adults. Really, the event more resembles a rave, with a DJ, and a local band doing their best to recreate Top 40 hits. Last weekend, they started the sound check early, so the four of us decided to escape the pounding music for a couple of hours and head into San Juan for a bite to eat. Because we’d had a few drinks, we were on foot. It was about 8pm, which is well after dark here. Tyson and I are still learning how to eat dinner earlier than we’re used to because as soon as the sun sets (around 6pm) all of the little local restaurants and eateries close up shop for the night, leaving the hungry tourist out of luck.
As we’d anticipated, the village was boarded up like it was midnight, but our stomachs were growling. Then, like a mirage, we spotted a small restaurant in a nearby park. Hark! We headed in that direction, and to our delight, it was open. The owner, a Filipino we’d soon learn was named Russell, welcomed us into his establishment with a huge smile, and took our orders. He customized a dish for us that, on my request included veggies. He even gave us a discount, thanks to Gaucho. As the stereotypical polite Canadian, I’m still getting used to haggling for a better price.
Russell’s wife Helen asked us if we’d had the chance to try Buko juice (the juice of a young coconut). We hadn’t. She told us that if we came back the following day, she’d bring a couple of coconuts for us to try. Not wanting to commit to anything before knowing the price, we asked how much it would cost. To our surprise, she shook her head and said she’d have them picked from the trees on their property, and it wouldn’t cost us anything.
We bid Helen and Russell farewell at about 10:30, and headed back to Czar’s. By this time there was a large crowd, and the night was in full swing. We grabbed a few drinks from the bar, and headed up to our little balcony to observe the party. The live band was just finishing it’s second set. After about half an hour, Cheri, the girl who works at Czar’s making food, changing towels, etc. came up and grabbed me, insisting I dance with her. I did, and we had a blast.
Soon after, Tyson and Gaucho joined us, and we danced the night away. A couple of local girls dragged me up on stage to sing and dance along to a Katy Perry song that I quite despise. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had to that song!
The next day we went back to Russell’s restaurant, and they had two coconuts waiting for us. The taste was interesting, like a watered-down coconut, and slightly tangy. I enjoyed it, though one coconut holds more liquid than I can comfortably drink!
That evening, the four of us decided to eat at Castaways. I ordered the grilled fish, and it was very tasty.
But the next morning I woke up with terrible stomach cramps. Yup, I had food poisoning, and that fish didn’t taste so good coming up. I spent the day in bed, but it wasn’t as bad as I imagine food poisoning here can be. I recovered in 24 hours, and we vowed to avoid Castaways for the rest of our visit.
On Monday we visited Helen and Russell again, and ordered sumptuous burgers, worthy of a food photographer. Russell told us all about his business, and how difficult it is for a Filipino to scrape together the capitol to even start a business. He’d been trained as a chef of sorts, at a local resort, and had the motivation and dream to open up his own restaurant. In a place where most of the people lay around all day doing nothing, we were very impressed with his drive to succeed.
We spent the evening sharing stories and drinks, and the following day Russell and his friend (and employee) Marlito took us on a tour of their respective properties, and showed us a little house they thought we should rent so that, to their pleasure, we could spend the rest of our lives on Siquijor island with them. Tucked away in the mountains, the place was small, and by Canadian standards, run down. But that’s the way the locals here live, and we thought it was cute. We got to see Marlito’s house, decorated in Bob Marley paraphernalia, and Russell’s house as well. Tyson had a blast befriending Russell’s giant pig.
We learned about coconut wine, and how it’s made. A man climbs up the coconut tree carrying old plastic pop bottles. Positioning himself carefully in the palms of the tree, he inserts the mouth of the bottle over the part of the tree that flowers, and leaves the bottles there for a few days. The liquid is later fermented and turned into alcohol. It’s a dangerous job, and Helen lost her brother to it, eight years ago.
On Tuesday, Tyson and I decided we needed to find access to the internet, since we’d been out of touch with the world for nearly a week. One of the nearby resorts offered a very slow connection with an elevated price tag, but at least we didn’t have to go all the way into town. I was able to check a few emails, but updating the blog was out of the question.
We also discovered that our plans were about to change completely. One of the emails was a job offer from a company, The Pari Project, in Cambodia looking for a graphic designer. I had applied for this job months ago, and had finally gotten a Skype interview the previous week. My fingers were crossed that I’d get it, because it allows us to spend some time in a place where I can work above-board, for a company whose mandate it is help local charities and NGOs. I start in January!
We spent the following days roaming around the island on our motorbike, getting to know the staff at Czar’s better, and spending time with Russell and Helen. Our original plans to leave on Thursday, turned into Friday, which turned into Monday. Every time we made plans to head back to Dumaguete, something came up that we just didn’t want to miss.
Russell invited Tyson to play tennis and basketball with him and some friends. I came along to watch, but here, sports seem to be mostly for men, so I didn’t play. I brought a book, and had fun taking pictures. I wasn’t that disappointed that I didn’t get to run around in 80% humidity.
Meanwhile, Tyson and I were noticing that the music people listen to seriously lacks variety and consists mainly of Top 40 and cheesy love ballads. To our amusement and slight irritation, folks will happily play the same songs over and over again. We have over 3000 songs on our computer, and we asked a couple of our friends if they were interested in hearing some new tunes. The next thing we knew, Tyson was burning CDs left and right for eager listeners, some of who were thrilled to realize that Reggae consists of more than just Bob Marley.
A couple of days later we met two French couples. They had just checked in at Czar’s. While their English was quite good, I took the opportunity to practice my nearly lost French lessons from high school. If there’s ever a chance for me to learn a second language, it will be French, and I’m surprised at how much I remember. While individual words often fail me, I understand and remember how the language works thanks to school, and the back of the cereal box.
The six of us had great fun spending time with Helen and Russell, and on Thursday evening, after a few bottles of rum, we all headed to Russell’s restaurant where he cooked dinner for us at midnight.
Before we knew it, it was Friday night again, which meant another raucous Disco at Czar’s. Word had spread that Tyson and I had music. Lloyd, the man behind the headphones, invited Tyson to DJ during the band’s half-time, and Tyson played a number of dance tunes that people had never heard before. It was a great success.
And this time Russell, Helen and Marlito came along, and the group of us shared a table near the dance floor. The French couples were there, as well as a quirky guy visiting from Germany, and we shared bottles of Tanduay Rum (the local drink, 67 pesos for 1L) Gin, and beer. We danced the night away under a sea of stars, lightening flickering in the distance.
We went to bed a little bit drunk, and very happy.
Helen and Russell invited us and the French couples to experience a traditional Filipino cook-out on the beach, the following Saturday morning. We agreed, enthusiastically. They may have been up until nearly 4 am the night before, but they got up early to prepare a feast for us. It was one of the highlights of our trip so far. We all headed down to the beach, and met Marlito there. He had with him three small tuna, which he gutted, with the help of Tyson.
Then he built a small bonfire out of charcoals and coconut shells and he fried the fish to perfection. Helen and Russell arrived with corn, cooked the traditional way, cassava, a root vegetable that used to be a staple in the Filipino diet before rice, bananas, mangoes, drinks and Pancit, a more modern Filipino dish in case we didn’t like the traditional one.
The feast was served. After we finished eating, Marlito dawned a snorkel and mask and headed down the beach. “What’s he doing?” I asked. Russell just smiled. After a few minutes Marlito came back holding a jellyfish, about the size of his hand. Russell cut it into pieces, dipped it in vinegar and we each got to try a bit. It was rubbery, slippery, and surprisingly tasty. We were also given the opportunity to try sea urchin and sea lettuce. What an experience to remember!
That night we had dinner with Helen and Russell at their restaurant, and to our pleasure, their two kids (Kurt, 16 and Kate, 12) were able to join us. Russell makes the best fish and chips, and after hearing about my food poisoning experience, jokingly asked me if I wanted him to call an ambulance, while serving me dinner.
On Sunday, after some careful consideration, I decided that I wanted to witness one of the Philippines’ favourite pastimes. Cockfighting. First, everyone goes to church, then, they go to the cockpits. Ironic. This sport is illegal in many parts of the world, including Canada. But in the Philippines, trying to find a good morning’s sleep anywhere, is nearly impossible because so many of the men raise roosters in their front yards, and they do this for one purpose.
Russell and Marlito agreed to take us, and the French couples came as well. We witnessed four fights, and it wasn’t at all what I had expected. The ring was small and intimate, unlike some of the derbies that happen in the cities. The men get emotional, yell, jump from their seats, as they win and lose hundreds of pesos. The whole experience was quite strange.
I braced myself for something gruesome, a brutal attack, a flurry of feathers, instant and dramatic death, an obvious victory. But instead, I found the whole thing rather un-stimulating, and a bit sad. I did get to see feathers fly, but the cocks often don’t have enough energy to actually kill each other, and keel over in exhaustion. In most cases, I’m still unclear how a winner is chosen.
My intention was to better understand why cockfighting is so popular here, but after seeing it, I still don’t, and maybe I’m not meant to. I’m not sure how people stay so entertained by watching two oversized birds hack each other to near-death. Witnessing one animal kill another is not something I need to do again.
As a foreigner, its not my place to judge, and trying to convince the people here that cockfighting is unethical or inhumane is pointless. We went so that we could observe it for what it is, and that is all.
On the morning of our departure, Tyson and I walked the half km into San Juan, to say one last farewell to our new friends, before hailing down a pedi-cab to take us into town so we could catch the ferry. When we got there, the family was eating lunch, and offered for us to join them. We were full from breakfast, but accepted cups of hot, clear soup, made from pork. It was a chance to try another traditional Filipino dish, and it was delicious. We gave our friends big hugs, and Helen and I shed a few farewell tears.
Russell and Helen turned a great trip, into an amazing one. Their generosity, warmth, and friendship alone, was worth the visit to Siquijor. It is what kept us there so long. After spending a couple of weeks getting to know such a friendly and kind couple, sharing laughter and tears, we had a hard time saying goodbye. We hope to visit them again in the future.
Generously, Marlito took us to the pier on his motorbike, and we said goodbye. As we were waiting for the boat, I took a stroll down to the beach, and noticed the water was quite rough. Boarding the small, sea-weary vessel, and we got jammed in the back with our luggage on our laps. The engines sputtered into life, and off we went.
Holy shit. I have never in my life experienced such panic. The ride was so rough, that I kept thinking we were going to tip over. With all of his fishing experience, Tyson remained calm, reassuring me that he had been in smaller boats on bigger seas, but I was as frightened as a cornered rabbit, and the intense rocking made my heart race with fear. I stood up in the aisle, cried and looked for a way to get outside. We were surrounded by locals, and with the exception of one, everyone was calm. How could this be? I was about to lose my life to the swells that pounded against our craft, and no one else cared!
I caught the eye of a gentleman sitting a few rows back from us. He smiled warmly. “It’s ok,” he said. But I was wide-eyed and frightened. “I’ve experienced much worse on this boat. We’re going to be fine. This is normal.” The only way I could cope was to squeeze Tyson’s hand, and talk to the locals about anything, to keep my mind off the swaying. I had located the nearest exit, and knew that’s where I was headed if we tipped over. One of the French girls got very seasick. Slowly I calmed down, but weary from adrenalin, I was very glad to reach shore, 45 minutes later.
Tyson knows much more about boats than I do, and it turns out that while he knew we wouldn’t tip over, he quietly spent the trip concerned about the outcome of our engine failing, which would have left us teetering uncontrollably in the waves. We both agreed that’s the last time we board a boat without assessing the weather conditions.
When Tyson and I got off the boat, we headed back to Harold’s Mansion, where we stayed for one night. Our plan was to be there for two. We’d had such a great experience there last time that we were expecting the same the second time around.
The front desk informed us they didn’t have any fan rooms with private bath left, and since we didn’t want to pay extra for air conditioning, we went with the fan room with shared bath option. Turns out we got stuck in a make-shift building on the roof, with an insufficient fan, cold shared shower and squatting toilet, and we were too far away from the wifi router to get a connection. If the price was much lower we’d have been ok with this, but we were paying practically the same, which was a bit of a bummer.
Today we walked down the street and found a room at a much nicer place, which is still reasonably priced. We have decided to spend the next two nights here. The wifi only works at night (so they can force us to use their internet café during the day) but that’s ok.
We went out for dinner with one of the French couples, Michael and Mathilda, and had a delicious meal, sharing laughed and translation barriers. Like charades, it was fun acting out an un-translatable scene, because we all just ended up laughing anyway. They’re heading north tomorrow, so after dessert, we bid them farewell.
We’re both missing Siquijor quite a bit, but it’s time to move on!