In March 2010 I went to Cebu Island of the Philippines with a group of Russian freedivers. This is my diary of what happened there. It is a long story; so, sit back, relax, and enjoy the reading.
Looking at the map, I find it hard to believe that the Philippines are so far from Australia. Indeed, if there were direct flights from Australia, it would not be so far away. But, unfortunately, none of the airlines have direct flights from Melbourne to Cebu Island of the Philippines where I was going. Therefore I had to fly to Singapore first (seven hours) and from Singapore to the Philippines (four more hours). That was certainly closer than from Moscow, but still a long way. However, I should not complain. By Australian standards it is practically around the corner. I bought the tickets so that I would meet the team of Russian freedivers midway – at the Singapore airport – and then we would fly to the Philippines on the same plane. The seven-hour flight from Melbourne to Singapore was quite easy, except for the flight being delayed for an hour, and I managed to sleep almost through. Interestingly, despite the night flight (the departure from Melbourne was at 1 a.m.), the Singaporeans offered a supper immediately after take-off and climb – at 3 o'clock in the morning. I wisely declined the "supper".
Singapore was a double shock: the size of the airport and the climate. The Singapore International Airport consists of three terminals and the adjacent multi-storey shopping mall, with trains running between the terminals. If one were planning to explore each terminal in detail, he would probably need a few hours. All the terminals are air-conditioned, the trains too. But during a short period of time when the train's doors are closing as it is leaving the station, the "outboard" air leaks through the gaps. At this point, one has an opportunity to fully evaluate Singapore's climate. I knew that the air temperature at Singapore was about 30 degrees C all year round with nearly 100 percent humidity, but I didn't really understand what it meant until I felt it.
In Singapore, I met Julia Petrik and the rest of the Russian freediving crowd, and together we boarded the plane to Cebu. However, the trip wasn't without incident. The plane made a stop en route to another island of the Philippines to disembark some passengers. The transit passengers, including us, were asked to temporarily leave the plane. Not all of our Russian folks were able to understand from the captain's announcement that we hadn't arrived at Cebu yet, and they vigorously tried to break out into the city. As a result, the whole crowd was divided into two parts: those who could understand the captain's statement (including me), and those who could not. The former were calmly relaxing in the airport lounge, while the administration of the airport was trying to catch the latter. Finally, all were recaptured, seated in the plane, and sent on the route. After another three-quarters of an hour we arrived in Cebu.
Customs and passport control at Cebu are mere formalities, and in no time we emerged from the airport's gates where our next transport was already waiting for us. We had our hotels booked at the White Beach resort, which is on Moalboal peninsula, three hours away from the airport by car. The hotel, which the rest of the guys stayed in, provided the transfer, but it turned out they didn't account for me. Everyone except me was going to "Club Serena", while I – to "Blue Orchid". These hotels are just 200 meters away from each other, but the minivan's driver flatly refused to take me, explaining that it was the particular hotel's transport and they didn't take "strangers", and besides there was no space left anyway. I didn't argue. Instead, I caught a taxi, waved my hand to the other guys, and was off.
Just as Singapore before, the Philippines shocked me. I knew that it was neither Australia nor Europe. In fact, I didn't know what I expected to see. But it shocked me anyway. According to the research I did before going there, Cebu was a large city. What can I say now? Large – yes, city – no. The landscape outside the taxi did not resemble a city at all. The best word to describe what I saw is "slums", slums three times and in the third degree. I was so stunned, I did not even try to get out the camera and shoot. The only place I saw something like that before was in "This could happen only in China" photos. Here are some of the pictures imprinted in my memory:
- Children on a bike, five on one. The driver is about ten years old.
- Motor rickshas, everywhere and in enormous quantities. These are motorcycles with a passenger cabin hooked to one side. Motorcycles and the cabins are covered with headlights like Christmas trees.
- Children, running down to the car and peering through the windows.
- Everyone drives as if road markings are tentative, including driving on opposite direction lanes. Perhaps this is why everyone honks often – to avoid accidents.
If you think about it, as a matter of fact, there is nothing too shocking about it. However, after Melbourne and Singapore the contrast was simply overwhelming. It should be noted, however, that the majority of Filipinos are hospitable and sympathetic people and always willing to help. However, I still didn't have any desire to get out to the "city" and get acquainted with the local attractions. It just wasn't what I came here for.
At one point, the taxi came to a halt in a dense traffic jam. And after about twenty minutes of barely moving, we finally saw what was causing the problem. On the last day of winter the Philippines was celebrating the Mardi Gras. It was a great celebration. The grand fiesta stretched for several blocks. On both sides of the road were stalls with various kinds of food. "Everyone is invited to this celebration," explained my driver, "regardless of who they are."
By the way, I chatted to the driver. His name was Joey and he spoke English possibly better that I do. He told me that he was driving a taxi to feed his family. He had a wife and four children. His wife recently finished studying and worked as a chemical engineer for the government. (The Philippine's government subsidises the training of young professionals.)
The radio was on in the car and, to my amusement, the broadcast was in English, even advertising. Moreover, almost all the signs I saw during the trip were in English. I asked Joey and he explained that all Filipinos learn English at school, therefore almost all of them speak it, although not all fluently.
Eventually we reached the hotel. We drove for three and a half hours, but covered the distance of just over a hundred kilometres. That was due to the fairly dense traffic.
At the hotel I was greeted by a European-looking man, who introduced himself as Mark, the hotel's manager. He showed me to my room, wished me a good stay, and asked me if I wanted to order dinner. But dinner at the hotel wasn’t in my plans for that evening – I was going to visit the rest of the guys at "Club Serena" and have dinner there with them. I asked Mark how to get there, and he said that I just had to follow the path along the beach. I unpacked my stuff, took a shower, and set off.
At half past six in the evening the sun was switched off in the Philippines. It was getting dark so fast that I did not have time to get around. I tried to find a path Mark told me about, but realised that under the moonlight the chance of success was slim. I returned to the hotel and complained to Mark. With a smile, he fetched a small flashlight and handed it over to me. Armed with it, I made a second attempt. It turned out that I just had to go down to the beach and walk along the water's edge. After 10 minutes of stomping on the sand I arrived at "Club Serena", where I immediately headed to the restaurant, not doubting that everyone was already sitting having their dinner. However, the restaurant was empty. Surprised, I ordered a dinner and went to try to figure out where everyone was. Approaching the hotel's gate, I spotted a minivan from which our crowd was emerging. They were in a bad mood. It turned out that they had not travelled without incident either. Someone miscalculated, and they didn't fit into the minivan that was sent after them to the airport. As a result, they had to wait for another one, and therefore arrived two hours later than I did. The act of arrival was followed by the mess of accommodating. All rooms in "Club Serena" are different and are located in houses of various configurations. And our freedivers simply could not decide who stayed where. At the same time the hotel's staff tried to find when we were going to have dinner and collect orders. However, everybody was too busy to study the menu. I had to take the initiative myself. I chose a couple of dishes from the menu, which I reckoned would suit everyone, called the girl from the staff, and pointed at the lines I chose and said: "Eight of this and eight of that." And the issue was resolved.
The dinner was served an hour and a half later in a gazebo on the beach. It was our first night there, and it started traditionally with the introduction of everyone to each other, and ended the same traditional way – drinking whiskey and rum. At around midnight I said goodbye to everyone and went back to my hotel.
More precisely, I tried to go. I walked a little bit down the beach and realised that the rising tide made my return impossible: the beach was completely flooded and I could get back only by swimming. I had to go back to Club Serena to ask what I could do. When I explained my problem to a bartender, a woman sitting next to me turned towards me. She introduced herself, and it turned out she was the owner of the hotel. Laughing, she announced that I was certainly in trouble. The hotels really are very close – just 10 minutes walk along the beach. And there is a road that links them. However, it is not straight, and walking along it from one hotel to another is not possible. However, she said she would help me and give me a lift. She called her driver, and while we waited, we chatted. I explained who I was and what I was doing there and asked her if she knew Michael, the owner of "Blue Orchid". She replied that she knew Michael well. He was the godfather of her daughter, or maybe niece, or something like that, and she was godmother to one of his relatives. It proved too complex for poor me to grasp the difficult relationship of the owners of the Philippine hotels. Finally the driver arrived and we set off.
I find it difficult to understand how it was possible to pave the way between two points located 10 minutes walk from each other so that it takes 15 minutes to drive between them, but it is a fact. And I realised that the owner was right – I couldn't walk there. Finally I returned to my hotel, collapsed on the bed, and immediately fell asleep.
The end of the first day.
© 2010 Sergey Stadnik
The photos © 2010 Sergey Stadnik, Vasily Avseenko