It’s More Fun In The Philippines

It’s More Fun In The Philippines

"It's More Fun In The Philippines" is the country's marketing campaign. I can't disagree.

“It’s More Fun In The Philippines” is the country’s marketing campaign. I can’t disagree.

In planning our trip, we had decided to include three weeks of volunteering in the Philippines and include an extra week to travel in the country. The main reason we decided to go was to volunteer with the Typhoon Yolanda disaster relief. Other than that, I didn’t really know what to expect. Over the course of the last 30 days, the Philippines has made my jaw drop in amazement from the beauty, it’s made me cry after hearing stories about the typhoon, and it has shown me the true power of the human spirit in what I saw in the Filipinos. I was incredibly sore after sledgehammering for several hours a few days in a row. I had five different blisters on my hands from the manual labor. I lived with 50 people in the same four-story volunteer house. I even snorkeled with 30 foot long whale sharks and scuba dived 30 meters (100 feet) to see five thresher sharks swim around a shoal. In those 30 days, I’ve experienced a whole range of emotions. But I’ve grown to love the country, especially the people and the scenery. Unexpectedly, I would call this month my favorite of the entire trip.

Because I didn’t have much time to blog during my time there, I’ve waited until now to write. This post will be my only one about the Philippines, so it’ll be a long and detailed write-up of my experience. Bear with me.

Cebu City, Cebu

Cebu's Cathedral sits in the center of the city.

Cebu’s Cathedral sits in the center of the city.

Our entire trip was spent on just two islands in the Visaya region, the islands of Cebu and Leyte. This is obviously a small part of the over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. Cebu has the Philippines second biggest city, Cebu City, and Leyte was the hardest hit island by Typhoon Yolanda.

We first flew into Cebu City after three days in Singapore. Arriving there was quite a shock after spending time in Singapore where things are clean, efficient, and orderly. Because we were taking a ferry the next day to Leyte, we stayed down by Pier 4, which turns out to be a rougher industrial area. It was fortunately right by a large shopping mall, where we bought a lot of supplies for volunteering like gloves, protective eyewear, spare clothes, sleeping mat, and a sleeping bag. Needless to stay, we made sure we weren’t out at night. We took advantage of the fast food in the mall by having Pizza Hut and also Mexican food.

We weren’t too impressed in the center of Cebu City, either. The town was effected by Typhoon Yolanda with some damage, but it is nothing near that of Leyte. The Cathedral is nice to see, and Magellan’s Cross is a wooden cross that is still in the exact place that Ferdinand Magellan first placed a cross when he landed in Cebu from Spain in 1521.

Magellan's Cross sits where Magellan first planted his cross in the 1500s.

Magellan’s Cross sits where Magellan first planted his cross in the 1500s.

The Spanish influence still shows today in various ways. Because the Spanish controlled for the Philippines for about 330 years, the mix of Indigenous population with the Spanish means that Filipinos looks more Latino than Asian. One of the official languages of the Philippines, Tagalog, has hundreds if not thousands of loanwords from Spanish. Words like basura (garbage), mesa (table), vaso (glass), and amigo (friend) are the words used in the Tagalog language. Even the tone of Tagalog sounds like they’re speaking Spanish. Interestingly, there are also many English words in Tagalog. Even many foods, like lechon (suckling pig), are still very popular in the Philippines.

From Cebu City, we took a 2.5 hour ferry to Ormoc City, a major city on Leyte, and then found our way to Kananga, the site of the All-Hands Volunteer base.

Kananga, Leyte

Just outside of Kananga, a small town on the island of Leyte, where we stayed for one of the three weeks of volunteering.

Just outside of Kananga, a small town on the island of Leyte, where we stayed for one of the three weeks of volunteering.

We arrived in Kananga on a Saturday afternoon, very excited to be starting our volunteering and to be settled somewhere for a bit longer (3 weeks is an eternity when backpacking). Unfortunately, our experience in Kananga did not start well and generally did not as well as we had hoped.

Chika had learned about All-Hands a few years ago and had been wanting to volunteer with them. It’s an American organization dedicated to bringing volunteers to places that have recently been hit by natural disasters. They always have at least one US based project and one international project. They’ve been to Haiti, Japan, Oklahoma City, and Long Island, among others. They’ve been in the Philippines since later last year, first because of the earthquake in Bohol, and later because of the typhoon in Leyte. We had heard great things about the organization and had high hopes.

Volunteers just outside of Ormoc City.

Volunteers just outside of Ormoc City.

When we arrived in Kananga, we immediately felt unwelcome. One girl who was working there had us do some of her personal stuff like fold up a tent. Being brand new to the base, we’re not in a position to say no, but obviously she was taking advantage of that. A good amount of the 25 volunteers and staff did not make us feel welcome. It seemed there were cliques and that they weren’t too interested in meeting anyone new. Luckily the other volunteers who had just arrived were in the same position, so we were able to bond with them. The staff proved time and time again to be unprofessional, unfriendly, uncommunicative, and really encouraged a party environment.

Some examples. When leading the daily meeting, many times the leaders would be holding a liter bottle of beer while speaking. One girl staff, from England, would sometimes welcome new volunteers with just a bra on and no shirt. The male staff member, from Connecticut, was one of the rudest people I have ever met. He rarely smiled, and trying to talk to him seemed like it was just an annoyance to him, as he wouldn’t even look at you as he talked. There was no electricity at the base, so a gas generator was the only source of power between the hours of 6pm and 10pm. However, many times it would simply not be started because he “didn’t feel like it.” We were rarely told any information about the organization and its short-term future, just hearing rumors about everything.. We had heard from others that the site was moving up to northern Leyte to the city of Tacloban, but leadership was never clear about it.

Another example of the lack of communication greatly affected several volunteers who just came for one week because of their Easter break. People came from Kenya, New York, Australia, and Manila just for the week. However, they learned just before coming that the organization would not be working on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that week because of the Holy Week celebrations. This along with a day off on Monday because of intense rain meant that some these volunteers only worked two days when they expected six of seven days. Rightly, they were very upset by the lack of communication.

Obviously, the entire time in Kananga was very frustrating. Luckily for us, we were selected to be part of the first group to move up to Tacloban, where we would merge with another All-Hands site. If we hadn’t moved there, we were considering leaving the project early. As you’ll read a little bit later, the leadership team was completely opposite at the Tacloban site. It was refreshing and exactly what we wanted. But first, we took advantage of the days off for Holy Week.

Doing the Unity Dance at a celebration in Ormoc.

Doing the Unity Dance at a celebration in Ormoc.

Kananga Waterfall

Our "guides" watch Chika as she crossed a deep spot on the way to the waterfall.

Our “guides” watch Chika as she crossed a deep spot on the way to the waterfall.

Just outside of the small town of Kananga is a waterfall that many volunteers were raving about. On one of our days off, Chika and I decided to try to find it along with Deb and Carla, two other volunteers. After finding out that it was quite a distance, we decided to find a taxi to take us. Because of the lack of quality of the road, the only taxis that would take us were motorcycle taxis. It was pretty common in Kananga to see 5 or 6 people on one motorcycle taxi, so we decided to give it a shot. There were only 4 of us plus the driver, but we made it work. One person sits in front of the driver, seated sideways pretty much on the driver’s lap, and the other three sit behind the driver. It was an uncomfortable 40 minutes but we made it.

We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere. All we saw was a small river, large palm trees and bushes, and a few small shacks here and there. As we struggled to find a path, four local boys came walking down the road. We had seen them just a short time earlier as we drove by on the taxi. They had seen us going that way and decided to follow us. They started walking along the river and yelled to us, “Follow us!”

We followed these four boys, all of them 10 years old along a small path which eventually crossed the river back and forth several times and continued upstream. Along the way, we passed a family who were walking downstream, back to their house I assume. We had passed them and continued walking when we noticed that we had 10 more people following us; the family had decided to join us, as well. Now we had a group of almost 20 people heading for the waterfall.

We added more people as we got closer to the waterfall.

We added more people as we got closer to the waterfall.

The waterfall was something I was not prepared for. As always, I kept my expectations low, but I was shocked by the beauty of it. We arrived just in front of the waterfall but had to leave all of our stuff and swim up one part of the river. After this, we were there. Water was falling over a rock above (maybe 8 feet high) and down into a pool. As the kids jumped in from the surrounding rocks, several others used this makeshift wooden pole to climb up over the rock into another place. The wooden pole looked a bit sketchy to climb up, but the entire family (including the father) encouraged us to follow them up. We thought, “Why not?” and gave it a try. It was difficult but not impossible, as we found ourselves at the top and at the bottom of the actual waterfall. This was a site to see. The water was falling about 100 feet into a perfectly circular pool with the diameter of about 60 feet. It was just us four and all the locals who had decided to show us the way. It felt like we had stumbled upon something that hardly anyone knew about; I guess in reality, not that many foreigners come here. On both sides of the pool were steep rocks, which were used by the kids to jump off of and into the water. One child even went up about 50 feet and jumped, a pretty dangerous activity since the rocks were sloping down towards the water (meaning he had to jump out far to not hit the rocks at the bottom). He must’ve done it many times before, jumping fearlessly and without thinking.

The waterfall was an awesome day-trip from Kananga. Between meeting the locals and finding a gem of a waterfall that not many people know about, it was a great place to go.

Moalboal, Cebu

The sunsets in Moalboal, like many places in the Philippines, had incredible sunsets.

The sunsets in Moalboal, like many places in the Philippines, had incredible sunsets.

One volunteer, Angela (who happens to be from Cedar Rapids, Iowa), was going to Moalboal for Holy Week, and we decided to go along with her. Located in southwestern Cebu, we had to take a ferry from Ormoc to Cebu City, and then we took a 3.5 hour taxi to Moalboal. We were planning on taking a bus, but everyone was traveling for the holidays and the line to get INTO the bus terminal was about a half mile long. Between the three of us, we paid about $33 and saved at least 10 hours.

Snorkeling just off the rocky beach in Moalboal.

Snorkeling just off the rocky beach in Moalboal.

Moalboal is a small coastal town known for its scuba diving and snorkeling. Unfortunately, there are no nice beaches in the town, but there are small spots of sand to relax on. We did a dive with Angela (who used to be a scuba instructor in Hawaii) just off the coast at Pescador Island. The current was extremely strong which made the dive a bit stressful. But we did see a lot of cool looking fish and swam into a small cave. Later in the day, we snorkeled just off the coast in Moalboal. About 100 feet out, there is a coral reef that extends horizontally along the coast. Just past it is a huge drop where the wall ends. Everything from there towards the town has great snorkeling. We saw a few sea turtles which were about 5 feet in diameter, some sea snakes, and a lot of other fish. The sunsets in Moalboal were always incredible. Almost every evening, there would be clouds over Leyte (across the water to the east of Moalboal), and this caused the reflecting light to constantly change colors. After all the sunsets we saw in the Philippines, I am convinced that they have some of the best in the world.

Chika going in to snorkel as the sun sets behind the clouds.

Chika going in to snorkel as the sun sets behind the clouds.

Oslob, Cebu

Oslob is known for the possibility to snorkel with whale sharks. Seen here, they're absolutely massive!

Oslob is known for the possibility to snorkel with whale sharks. Seen here, they’re absolutely massive!

Just east of Moalboal is a small coastal town call Oslob, also located on Cebu island. Oslop is known for the massive whale sharks that are fed by local fishermen every day between 7am and noon. It seemed too nice to pass up. One can get there by bus or also by moped. We decided to rent a moped ($6 for the day) and make the two hour drive by ourselves. We started the beautiful drive at 4:45am, making our way on the windy roads through small villages and along the coastline. Oftentimes, we had incredible views as the road wrapped around and gave us glimpses of the water.

We arrived in Oslop around 7:30am (delayed because of a stop for food in a small town). Because it was the Saturday of Easter weekend, it happened to be the busiest day of the year for the resorts that set up the excursions to see the whales. The way it works is that we pay a resort (we chose BCD Resort), who then pay the fishermen to take you out about 300 feet to snorkel with the whale sharks who are being fed large amounts of krill. We paid our 1,050 pesos ($22) each and the 500 pesos ($11) for the camera and waited in line to be put on a small canoe boat.

Snorkeling with the whale sharks.

Snorkeling with the whale sharks.

As you might imagine, there is some controversy surrounding this operation. When wild animals are fed every day by people, they become accustomed to it and may possible lose their normal skill of finding their own food. Also, their normal emigration patterns may be mixed up (this is still being researched and is not known for sure). A positive side of the operations is that many local fishermen used to kill the whales to sell for income. Now, they are able to earn much more money by simply boating tourists out to see the whales. The process obviously has its positives and negatives.

When we got out to the area where they were feeding the whale sharks, there were probably about 40 or so canoes out there, a very busy day. One can pay to snorkel or to simply see the whales from a canoe. Luckily for us, most people picked to just see them from the boat and others chose to snorkel but were too afraid to get far away from the canoe. This meant that the snorkeling area around the whale wasn’t crowded at all for most of the time we were in the water.

Whale shark

The whale sharks themselves were incredibly large. The four or five that we saw were about 25-30 feet long and the body about 6 feet diameter. They would follow the boat around who was feeding them the krill, so we were able to just follow along with them. Getting in front of them was kind of creepy, as their large mouths were open, taking in as much krill as possible, and coming slowly towards us. It was all pretty surreal, swimming with something so big. We swam around admiring the creature and taking pictures for about 30 minutes before we had to head back to shore. Although touristy and incredibly busy on this day, it was a fantastic experience to see these enormous whale sharks.

Kawasan Falls was a great stop on the way back to Moalboal.

Kawasan Falls was a great stop on the way back to Moalboal.

On the way back, we stopped at a popular waterfall spot called the Kawasan Falls. On Saturday of Holy Week, the places was packed, but it was a great place to swim and relax for a bit.

Kawasan Falls

Just across the road from the entrance of the falls was the coastline with some bars and restaurants. We stopped over there for a drink before heading back towards Moalboal for the night.

Nice place to have a drink and swim for a bit.

Nice place to have a drink and swim for a bit.

Tacloban, Leyte Island

Through the hard times that Super Typhoon Yolanda has caused, the people have kept their optimism and pride of their city.

Through the hard times that Super Typhoon Yolanda has caused, the people have kept their optimism and pride of their city.

“We were extremely lucky. We were on the second floor of our house with water up to our knees. Many things could’ve gone wrong, but our house held through the storm.” These were the words of Eduardo Singzon, a college student who lives with his family in Tacloban, the hardest hit area of Typhoon Yolanda. Fortunately, they live in a solid concrete house with two stories which helped them survive the tsunami and typhoon. His story is very similar to other survivors of the storm who are still coping with their losses.

On November 8th, 2013, Typhoon Yolanda reached Tacloban City, located on the north side of Leyte. It was recorded as one of the most powerful tropical storms to date with winds up to 200 miles per hour. However, the most damaged parts of Tacloban were not from the wind but from the storm surge’s rise in water. From what I learned, one wave came in, then went back out washing away many homes, and finally another wave hit. The people near the coast expected the wind but not the storm surge. The small wooden houses along the shore, mostly owned by fishermen, had no chance against the storm.
Eduardo, the college student, lives in the house in which we were helping clear rubble. During one of our breaks, he told us his story. “We were in our house and heard people shouting from outside. We helped five people out of the water through our second floor window. One person was even from San Jose (a suburb about 1 mile cross the bay). We saved a mother, but sadly we were not able to save her child.” Eduardo’s parents sat behind him, backing him up and adding more details to the story. Hearing this was heartbreaking. This all seems unimaginable, especially happening only six months ago. Some families, like the Singzons, were able to leave Tacloban a few days later to Manila, where they were able to stay with family. But many others did not have this option, as they did not have the funds to be able to afford this. With no more work, no house, and nowhere to go, many people had no options. So, many quickly rebuilt small wooden homes in the same location and are still living there. And many homes are still standing but are unstable and/or have so much concrete rubble that it is almost unlivable. This is the work that All-Hands sends their volunteers to work on.

All-Hands sends volunteers abroad to work on disaster relief projects.

All-Hands sends volunteers abroad to work on disaster relief projects.

After coming back from Holy Week, we were moved up to Tacloban where the Kananga group was joining the group that was already in Tacloban. Over the course of about a week, the Kananga group moved in phases, growing the number of volunteers in Tacloban from about 20 to 55. The type of work in Tacloban consists of two separate activities, deconstruction and construction. Both are equally important. The deconstruction work involves going to private homes and doing what is needed and what the homeowner wants. This usually includes taking down walls, sledgehammering walls and concrete blocks, and hauling rubble and garbage out of the site. Sometimes the concrete rubble is kept to be used for the reconstruction of the house. All-Hands is usually working on four or five at a time with the number of volunteers ranging from two to eight at each site. The project can take as little as a half a day and as long as a few weeks. The deconstruction is the get-your-hands-dirty, difficult, manual work. As you may expect, you’ll see many creepy crawlers when moving rubble that has been there for six months. Anything from cockroaches and worms to mice and rats. It’s dirty work but is important to get done. Most locals do not have the tools nor the manpower to clean up these areas, so they are forced to wait until someone else comes to help. The deconstruction work is what gives us a lot of interaction with locals. The homeowners often tell us their stories, and the kids love to hang out and sometimes even give us a hand.

Many days while volunteering involved sledging rubble and walls to carry out of the area.

Many days while volunteering involved sledging rubble and walls to carry out of the area.

The construction part of the All-Hands project involves the building of temporary wooden homes in a community about 45 minutes outside of Tacloban called Santo Nino. This project is in collaboration with Operation Blessing, a Filipino organization. All-Hands staff member, Lawrence (a Scottish carpenter by trade), leads the construction of the houses. His experience and knowledge has really helped out the construction of the houses. They may be temporary houses, but they are built to last through the next typhoon and for many years afterwards. The work at Santo Nino for volunteers is the assembly of the wooden floors and the placement of the walls. The work is less physical than the deconstruction work, and it involves using a hammer, nails, a square, and a chop saw. Being in a small community away from most of the damage, this work has an entirely different feel than the deconstruction work. Usually about 10-15 volunteers are sent up to Santo Nino each day. In my two weeks in Tacloban, I spent about a week in Santo Nino with construction and a week in Tacloban doing deconstruction.

Construction at Santo Nino was an important part of the project to get locals living in temporary homes.

Construction at Santo Nino was an important part of the project to get locals living in temporary homes.

As I stated before, the experience we had in Tacloban was almost the complete opposite to what we had in Kananga. Throughout our two weeks in Tacloban, the All-Hands leadership team was organized, professional, and communicated very well with the volunteers. The entire two weeks seemed to go without a hitch. The staff was also respectful, clear, and responsible. Even though we were living in a four-story house with over 50 people, it was all well-coordinated and efficient. I was extremely impressed with the staff in Tacloban.

Carrying equipment to the work site for another day.

Carrying equipment to the work site for another day.

Another thing I was very impressed by were the quality of the volunteers. Since All-Hands provides food and housing for volunteers, I thought it would be full of backpackers wanting to just relax without having to pay for a place to stay. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The work ethic and dedication of pretty much every volunteer was uplifting. The age ranged from 19 years old to 65 years old, and the type of trip ranged from stopping off of a one-year backpacking trip to making the trip to the Philippines just to volunteer. Countries represented when I was there were USA, Canada, Argentina, UK, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Brazil, Ireland, Philippines, Malaysia, Slovenia, Jamaica, Australia, and Kenya. The cool thing is the desire and dedication to volunteering while with All-Hands. The work is not easy. You start sweating at 8am, and it only gets worse. The trash and bugs that you find can be absolutely disgusting. But everyone works their butts off from Monday through Saturday. The amount that is accomplished every day by hard working volunteers really is amazing.

Alex, a volunteer from France, sledges a fallen wall.

Alex, a volunteer from France, sledges a fallen wall.

I know it’s cliché to say it, but it’s something that has to be said about Filipinos. Many Filipinos that we met were so nice, kind, and welcoming. They are very excited to talk with foreigners. They’re the type of people that, when seeing a foreigner, almost half will say “Hello”. And you can count on 90% of the kids to say “Hello” and wave when you go by. They’re the type of people that you feel you can join a group and not be intruding, but the exact opposite and feel welcome. One example was when Chika and I were walking around Tacloban, and we walked by a small restaurant where three young people were having a beer. They saw us and told us to come over and join then, so we did. After this, we became friends with this group and ended up seeing them three more times within the next week and a half. And in comparison to a lot of other countries, they did not want our money or for us to pay for anything. Later that evening, we tried to pay for the French fries that we had ordered but they wouldn’t even let us do that. It’s refreshing to be treated so kindly whereas a lot of people in other countries might think of us as a dollar bill.

We randomly met Ralphie and Melchie and became friends with them in our time in Tacloban.

We randomly met Ralphie and Melchie and became friends with them in our time in Tacloban.

I was also impressed by the people’s resilience in Tacloban. For what they have just gone through six months ago, most people sure do have high spirits today. One man we worked for, named Richard, was a 30-year-old carpenter whose incredibly sturdy concrete house was taken down not by the winds but the storm surge. “I had built this house to be completely protected against typhoon winds. I never expected there to be a storm surge like Yolanda,” he explains as we struggle to sledgehammer the concrete support beams in order to carry out the rubble. It was easy to see that this was a strong house; but running up to the water, it was in one of the worst positions. Somehow, some way, Richard was very positive, smiling and joking, as he helped us sledgehammer this incredibly solid piece of concrete. Hearing the locals make jokes about it all was a common theme. Maybe it’s just a way of coping or if it all feels different when they had actually went through the storm and made it through. One makeshift village, which now has a cargo ship onshore in its backyard (more on that later), now has a sign claiming it as “Yolanda Village.” T-shirt design shops sell shirts that claim, “I Survived Super Typhoon Yolanda.” It’s a way to make light of the situation.

One of the friends we had met, named Melchie, is a nurse at a large hospital in Tacloban. He told us his story over dinner at the popular café called Brew Tea Full. After the storm, the amount of people needing help largely outweighed the amount of patients the local hospitals can typically support. So Melchie all of the other working nurses were asked to make sacrifices. For over two straight weeks, they worked 21 hour shifts, sleeping just three hours while still in the hospital, and were rationed only one scoop of rice per day. For many days, the hospital didn’t have electricity and they were forced to use alternative ways of lighting like candle and lanterns. He spoke of the ways they had to compromise normal safety standards; they had to use needles on more than one person because their supply of needles was so low compared to the need. Melchie told us all of this, not in a way to brag, not in a way to make us feel sorry for him, but just in a humble way to tell us what happened. And now Melchie, along with others in Tacloban, have continued on with their lives, learning from what happened and rebuilding for a better future.

This cargo ship was pushed up on land and hasn't been able to be moved yet. It sits right on the edge of the road.

This cargo ship was pushed up on land and hasn’t been able to be moved yet. It sits right on the edge of the road.

As I mentioned earlier, there are seven cargo ships that were pushed onshore during the hurricane. In classic Filipino style, the road is now called “Seven Boat Road.” I believe that there are currently just five boats still remaining. If there is anything to see in Tacloban, this is it. It’s such an odd thing to see that even locals talk about it. The crazy part about the large ships stuck on land is that the communities have made these a part of their villages and a part of their lives. One ship stopped with an angle that is perfectly perpendicular to a sidewalk. Somehow, the ship was propped up on boards and new small shacks were built on both sides of the ship. We were walking on the sidewalk toward the ship, about ready to turn around, when a man motioned to us to walk under. Crouching over to get under the four foot opening, we literally walked under this ship. On the other side was the rest of the community, normal and as if there wasn’t a 300 foot boat sitting over the sidewalk. Some people have even started using the ships as shelter. On every ship, hanging laundry could be seen from outside. It’s such a crazy and fascinating site to see. One has to wonder how/if the boats will ever be removed. Partly understanding the Filipino personality, I have a feeling they’d rather keep the boats there!

This ship sits right on the sidewalk going through the community. It has become a part of the daily lives of the locals.

This ship sits right on the sidewalk going through the community. It has become a part of the daily lives of the locals.

This ended our three weeks (1 week Kananga, 2 weeks Tacloban) of volunteering with All-Hands. It was a fantastic experience, and in many ways we wished that we could’ve extended our time there, like so many people do. It’s very easy to get attached to the locals and their friendliness; that’s about all the motivation one needs to get through a long day of hauling rubble. It truly was an eye opening experience for me. I had never seen a place with so much need for urgent help. With the lack of tools and manpower, people are stuck just waiting for help to come. Cockroaches and bugs become a part of life when there are no other options. And the dangerous conditions of a falling wall may be ignored because the rest of the house is the only form of shelter one may have. Because of lack of options, many people are stuck in these kinds of situations. Disaster relief work is volunteer work that matters; each hour of volunteering is much needed help. It’s already six months after Typhoon Yolanda, but there is still so much work to be done in the Philippines.

Ador, a Filipino carpenter, helps lead the construction of the Santo Nino temporary homes. They continue to build home after home with hundreds more to come.

Ador, a Filipino carpenter, helps lead the construction of the Santo Nino temporary homes. They continue to build home after home with hundreds more to come.

Malapascua Island

This picture says it all. Malapascua Island is that tropical island that you dream about while in the dead of winter.

This picture says it all. Malapascua Island is that tropical island that you dream about while in the dead of winter.

After volunteering, we still had just four days to see one more place in the Philippines. After some debate, we decided to go to Malapascua Island to wind down on the beach. Malapascua Island is a 30 minute ferry ride (80 pesos, $1.80) off of Maya in northern Cebu. Although it’s just a 4 hour bus ride north of Cebu City, we took a short-cut coming from Tacloban; we took a bus from Tacloban to Palompon, a ferry from Palompon to Bogo, and a bus from Bogo to Maya. We were stuck in Palompon for a night because there is only one ferry per day, but it did save about 6 hours of travel time. A really cool part is that on the ferry ride, we saw about 15 dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water as they went right past the boat.

Seeing a group of dolphins was a nice surprise on our ferry ride.

Seeing a group of dolphins was a nice surprise on our ferry ride.

Once we arrived in Malapascua Island, we walked along the beach until we found a hostel. Desperate because of the heat and the long day and a half of travel, we went with the first one, called Cocobana Resort. We paid about 1,200 pesos ($27) for a room with a fan close to the beach. The place was nothing special and a bit pricy, so the next morning we moved to Aabana Resort, located much further down the beach in a quieter area. It was just 650 pesos ($14) per night and included breakfast. Plus, it was connected to the quiet beach. Much better.

Sunsets on Malapascua Island make you wish you were never leaving!

Sunsets on Malapascua Island make you wish you were never leaving!

Malapascua Island is one of those places where you wonder, “Is this heaven?” (Or is it Iowa?) The island is only about 3 miles (5km) long and 1 mile (1.6km) wide, and each part of the island has those clear, picturesque waters. There are a surprisingly small number of tourists on the island and many Filipinos living there. There are always local kids swimming around, playing on the boats, and enjoying the sea. Funny to think that this is their backyard, whereas many of us have swings sets and swimming pools.

Boats and crystal clear water are used as the playground for local kids. A bit different than a typical playground!

Boats and crystal clear water are used as the playground for local kids. A bit different than a typical playground!

Besides the beautiful beaches, the island is also known for the thresher sharks that can be found early in the morning at their cleaning station just off of Malapascua Island at Monad Shoal. This was one of the main reasons that we went to went to the island. We found out after arriving that because our Open Water Diving certification only allows us to go down to 18 meters (60 feet), we needed to do an Adventure Deep Dive in order to go down to the necessary 30 meters (100 feet) in order to see the thresher sharks. This simply meant that we had to do a bit of coursework and had to pay a bit more, $65 total for the one dive. We chose Explorers Dive Shop.

I didn't take this picture, but this is what we encountered on our dive to about 100 feet.

I didn’t take this picture, but this is what we encountered on our dive to about 100 feet.

Because the thresher sharks come to the shoal very early, we had to be at the dive shop at 5am to take off at 5:15am. After a 20 minute boat ride, we were at the shoal and ready to go. The dive started with going down to 13 meters to a floor, then down along a wall to 30 meters. This was 12 meters further than I had ever been, so it was a cool experience. At the bottom, as part of the test, our instructor gave us a math problem and also had us write out names backwards to test how we felt with the nitrogen narcosis, something that can make you feel drunk. This comes with the depth of the dive.

As soon as we arrived at 30 meters, we already spotted the first thresher shark. It’s an incredible site to be so close to this vicious looking shark. Being down so far in the water, the visibility wasn’t great, so we would see the sharks swim in and out of site. Overall, there were about 5 of them swimming back and forth. The closest we got to one was about 30 feet away, so not too close. It was a such a cool thing to experience while in Malapascua.

Our snorkeling tour took us to four locations, this one being our favorite.

Our snorkeling tour took us to four locations, this one being our favorite.

Later in the morning, we decided to hire a boat to do a snorkeling tour along with two other Americans we had met the night before. The entire tour for four hours cost 300 pesos ($7) per person. The captain of the boat took us around to four different spots, including a small island, a Japanese WWII shipwreck, a bay of soft corals, and a final stop off the coast with a lot of coral. In these sites, we saw plenty of fish, including Nemo, a few sea snakes, lobsters that live on the ground, and of course the shipwreck. It was great value for the money for the nice snorkeling.

Waking up at 4:45am was worth it to see this sunrise and to take a little swim.

Waking up at 4:45am was worth it to see this sunrise and to take a little swim.

The last day before leaving in the morning, we woke up very early for sunrise. We noticed the morning before that the sun’s light starts to shine at about 4:45am, so we made sure to be out on the beach at that time. As the sky turned from dark blue, to light blue, and then orange at the horizon, we took a morning swim to enjoy our last few hours on the island. There is not much better than this to start the day and to end our time in the Philippines.
After eating breakfast, we packed up and took the ferry to Maya, the bus to Cebu, taxi to the Cebu Airport, a flight to Manila (with an overnight stay), and then finally a flight to Osaka, Japan.

All around the island were beautiful beaches without the people.

All around the island were beautiful beaches without the people.

We were sad to be leaving the Philippines. The country has a bit of everything that backpackers want: picturesque beaches, snorkeling and diving, mountains for hiking, welcoming people, cheap accommodations and transportation, and pretty good food. It became one of our favorite, if not the favorite, country in our trip to Southeast Asia. I think it’s the one country that felt like we didn’t have near enough time even though we spent a full month there. It’d be at the top of the list for the next trip to Southeast Asia. But for now, it’s time to move on to Japan.

A nice place to hang out and watch the sunset in Malapascua Island.

A nice place to hang out and watch the sunset in Malapascua Island.

All around Malapascua Island had incredible beaches like this one.

All around Malapascua Island had incredible beaches like this one.

Nice place to swim in Malapascua.

Nice place to swim in Malapascua.

Swimming in Malapascua.

Swimming in Malapascua.

Another sunset in Malapascua.

Another sunset in Malapascua.

Kids playing in Malapascua

Kids playing in Malapascua

Sunrise in Malapascua

Sunrise in Malapascua

Bicycle taxi in Palompon.

Bicycle taxi in Palompon.

Going under the beached ship.

Going under the beached ship.

7 Boat Road in Tacloban

7 Boat Road in Tacloban

7 Boat Road in Tacloban

7 Boat Road in Tacloban

You can see how the ship has become a part of the community. The part closer to the water is now the community called "Yolanda Village"

You can see how the ship has become a part of the community. The part closer to the water is now the community called “Yolanda Village”

Tacloban City

Tacloban City

Another deconstruction site in Tacloban.

Another deconstruction site in Tacloban.

This homeowner helps break down the concrete slabs.

This homeowner helps break down the concrete slabs.

What the house looks like when it's about finished. People have just recently started moving into these homes.

What the house looks like when it’s about finished. People have just recently started moving into these homes.

These boys just happened to be on top of the car as we drove by in the jeepny.

These boys just happened to be on top of the car as we drove by in the jeepny.

A common site as we drove around in the jeepny to and from the job sites.

A common site as we drove around in the jeepny to and from the job sites.

How we look on the jeepny.

How we look on the jeepny.

On top of the jeepny heading to a job site.

On top of the jeepny heading to a job site.

Working at the construction site at Santo Nino.

Working at the construction site at Santo Nino.

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More whale shark photos.

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More

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More whale shark photos.

Jeepny ride just outside of Kananga.

Jeepny ride just outside of Kananga.

Kids

The Jeepny.

The Jeepny.

And one final sunset picture.

And one final sunset picture.

About Trent

I started Frugal Purpose to share my love of personal finance to assist your pursuit of a more fulfilling life. I am a financial analyst by trade, traveler at heart, and want to share with you the beauty of this world.

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