The holidays have been done and over with for more than a month now, so the story of my first Southeast Asian adventure is a bit delayed in the telling. However, it was such an incredible vacation and travel experience that I simply cannot let it pass without doing it justice on this blog. This will be the first of multiple posts on the trip since there is no way to get it all into one.
I spent this past Christmas and New Year’s on Bohol Island in the Philippines. I chose Bohol because a friend mentioned that it was cheap and beautiful. Done and done. All I wanted for this holiday was to be in a warm place where I could relax and not spend every penny in my bank account. I had never heard of Bohol before, but I figured, how wrong can you really go with a tropical island? I traveled with my friends and coworkers, Kassie and Megan, who had also never been to Southeast Asia but were game to check out this mystery island we had never seen.
I should have known from the very first day of the trip that the entire experience was going to be an adventure unlike anything I had seen before. To kick things off, Kassie, Megan and I left directly from school, dragging our luggage through the crowded, frozen streets of Seoul on Christmas Eve, bound for the express subway train to the airport.
In the confusion of navigating Express Bus Terminal and figuring out where to go, we hopped on the all-stop train, rather than the express. This was a big mistake, for two reasons. First, the all-stop to Gimpo Airport is grotesquely crowded during rush hour. Second, it takes at least double the time to get to Gimpo on the all-stop as it does on the express. And we still had to transfer to the airport express from Gimpo to Incheon airport.
After realizing our mistake, we took a gamble that we’d be able to switch trains and still make it to the airport with sufficient time. We did, and had no further setbacks making our flight (unless you count the fact that we were all famished and the only food options at our gate were sandwiches from Paris Baguette or stale Dunkin’ Donuts. I personally went for a stale doughnut and a bag of honey mustard pretzels. Airport dinner of champions.).
The flight on Philippine Airlines was fine – the food was good and after a couple glasses of wine, I even got in a lovely nap before our 3 a.m. arrival in Cebu.
This is where things got a bit tricky again. We had to take a ferry from Cebu to Bohol, and had planned, along with our other coworkers who were headed to another part of the island, to get on a 7 a.m. boat. The plan was to be on Bohol two hours later and relaxing on the beach before noon.
At the airport, a seemingly helpful man advised Kassie, Megan and me to be sure to take only a white taxi to the ferry. “Yellow cabs charge you double,” he said.
“That’s weird,” I thought to myself. “Usually it’s the yellow cabs you can trust and the unmarked ones that rip you off.” I should have gone with this logic. But what did I know, maybe it was the other way around in the Philippines.
The taxi driver seemed friendly enough, although we all agreed it was a bit sketchy that there were cops monitoring the activity of the cabbies driving the white vehicles. We later learned that they are there to keep an eye on foreigners who are prone to being ripped off, badly. If only we had known that at the time.
Fifteen minutes after getting in the white taxi, we arrived at the Port of Cebu. This is when I fully realized I was in a place unlike any I had been before. I had seen pictures of places like this – grimy, dark, slightly rundown and people passed out on whatever benches and tables they could find. But I had certainly never been anywhere like it.
No matter. That was all part of the adventure. I knew that I was going to see and do things that were completely foreign to me, and as any of my friends will tell you, I am not opposed to a little shadiness and grit. In fact, I embrace it, especially when I’m traveling.
What I do not embrace, however, is getting badly ripped off, and we absolutely did when we got out of the taxi. The driver charged us the equivalent of $60 for a 15-minute ride. He had been up front about the price when we got in the car, but because none of us really knew what the exchange was at the time, we went along with it. We quickly learned that we had been had and kept a close eye on our finances the rest of the week. Vacationing in the Philippines is quite inexpensive, as long as you know how much things should actually cost.
I surveyed my surroundings. I had already spotted one enormous cockroach outside the main building at the port. The walls were covered in outdated fare schedules. A small store nearby had bread for sale but there were tiny ants crawling around the cases where the baked goods were kept (this did not stop me from buying a bag of rolls before getting on the ferry. I was hungry and unsure of when I’d be eating next and was willing to risk eating a little ant poop, or whatever was on there, for the sake of having something for breakfast. Like I said, I like an element of grit when I travel.). There was a sign reminding passengers that human trafficking is a criminal offense. That was chilling. I had been warned that I would see signs and billboards condemning sex trafficking, but it was jarring nonetheless.
We met up with our coworkers Alison, Gordon, Colleen and Toriann, who were already at the port. A local man informed us that the ferry we had planned to take at 7 a.m. wouldn’t leave until 9:30 a.m. because it was running on a holiday schedule. It seemed we had all forgotten that it was Christmas Day. All of the ticket windows were closed so we all piled our things together and formulated a game plan.
Alison, Gordon and I asked around and were told that although the boat we had planned to take was leaving later than expected, there was another one scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. We got on line at the ticket office, which was really no more than a hole in the wall. We waited about 45 minutes for the office to open, and then at least another 30 to find out if we could get tickets or not. In the midst of all this, someone kept passing around a clipboard for passengers to write down their names, although we couldn’t figure out why since everyone who signed the paper hadn’t even been guaranteed a spot on the boat yet.
Eventually, we secured our tickets and found the waiting area for the ferry. This place was about as grimy as the rest of the port. The bathrooms looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in months and there was no toilet paper, soap or running water to be found (I would later discover that this is the norm in the Philippines, at least on Bohol. Any of these sanitary items became a real luxury throughout the week.).
The white walls in the waiting area were dingy with grease and filth and iron bars covered the windows. There were no snack stands (so lifting those rolls from the ants had been a smart move on my part), cushioned seats or air conditioning. It was a big dirty room filled with tired people just wanting to get to the island.
I don’t say all of this to complain, just to observe. I probably did start to lose my patience at certain points that morning, as I think we all did. It’s not that I have a problem with roughing it a bit, but remember that we had all worked a full day that Friday, gone directly to the airport, flown to the Philippines and were approaching about 24 hours without sleep by the time we finally boarded the ferry.
The change in ferries also complicated our situation. Kassie, Megan and I were headed to the DapDap Resort in Anda, about an hour and a half from the main touristy part of the island. The original plan had been to take the ferry to Tagbiliran, the capital city of Bohol, where we would be picked up by a driver from DapDap and driven to the resort.
The new ferry was headed to Tubigon, which was even farther away from where we were staying. By the time I got a hold of the owner of the resort to tell her about our change in plans, the driver was already waiting at Tagbiliran and had to make his way to Tubigon to pick us up in time. We paid an extra thousand pesos for that situation, which I can tell you did not sit well after already having paid dearly for our transportation to the ferry terminal.
Finally, at about 8 a.m., we were allowed to board the ferry. I was impressed by how many people actually fit on the boat, since it looked fairly small on the outside. It was so packed that we all had to split up and grab seats wherever we could. I sat next to a nice Filipino couple who were headed to Bohol to spend Christmas with their families. Almost as soon as I sat down, I shut my eyes and began to drift to sleep.
I woke up once to the blaring noise of a horrible karaoke track to some of the most painful, sappy, drippy love songs I have ever heard but eventually blocked it out enough to go back to sleep. Little did I know that sappy, drippy, impossibly bad love songs would end up being the soundtrack for the entire vacation.
An hour and a half after departing from Cebu, we arrived at Tubigon and caught our first wonderful glimpse of Bohol.