There I was standing at the ticket counter wondering what to do. I could get the ferry to Dumaguete, and then get another ferry to Oslob, one of several thousand charming islands in the Philippines. I could go back to Cebu city and get a flight to Boracay, premier honey moon destination –single people like romance too – and home to the world wide famous, white sand beach, where all those minute crushed up grains of rock and shell feel like fine silk beneath your toes. Or, I could go sightseeing in Cebu City, and see what it has to offer. Or, I could go straight from the ferry terminal to the bus terminal and head to a coastal town called Moalboal, home to Pangasama beach where the coral reef starts at the shoreline and you can snorkel right from your guest house.
Life is a series of choices. Sometimes you make the choices as if you were playing a game of chess, where you see the whole game in front of you and make each choice thinking about repercussions on your eventual fate. But if every day is that complicated you’ll break you brain… and I hate chess. Sometimes it’s best to just make the decision that’s right in front of you. It’s the real life version of a choose your own adventure book. Looking back on it, I always died in those books… that’s rather realistic for a genre aimed at children.
My choice at the seaport came down to two options: Dumaguete or Cebu City. Here’s how I made that decision.
“Excuse me, how much is a ticket to Cebu City?”
“400 pesos sir…I mean ma’am.” (That happens A LOT. I swear I don’t look like a bloke.)
“And how much is the ticket to Dumaguete?”
“I would like a ticket to Cebu City please.”
See, choices don’t have to be complicated. After World War II, my dad was a refugee, standing in line to get a one way ticket to New Zealand, but then he spotted someone he knew in the queue to the USA so he joined that line instead. That little snap decision led to a unique life.
Philosophy aside, I used my two hour ferry ride to figure out my next move. Sightseeing in Cebu City just didn’t sound appealing, the truth is what I’ve seen of the city is uninspiring and the Philippines is not a city destination, it’s where you go snorkelling, or frolicking in waterfalls. I wanted to frolic, not sightsee. There we go, one option off the table.
Now, Boracay or Moalboal. Boracay is world famous for its beauty, but everything I’d heard about it from people who’d been there was that it was a non-stop party, and great for sunbathing. Which would have been a paradise for me twenty years ago but now…meh, it doesn’t meet the standard for idyllic frolicking. So I was leaning towards Moalboal (it also sounds super exotic when you pronounce it correctly too, Mwahl-Bwahl. Try it now… doesn’t that sing palm trees and pina coladas to you?) and then I researched ticket prices to the destinations. Cebu City to Boracay – $150; Cebu City to Moalboal – $2.25.
Well hello Moalboal you seductive little stretch of coral reef, you.
The bus ride up to Moalboal passed quickly enough, I’d found a copy of Donna Tartt’s latest book, The Goldfinch, at the Alona Beach hostel, so I didn’t see any scenery. (She’s so good, I was obsessed with her first book, The Secret History, after my best mate introduced me to it. I think part of her spell binding allure is that she can write about tragedy and get you invested in characters, without making you weep for them. That’s a big plus for someone like me who, if I think the book is headed down a tragic path, will quite often skip to the last few pages to see if everyone I like survives. I know, I know, it’s utterly perverse. Look, it’s a sickness, I can’t help myself.) Instead I alternately turned pages, and heaved the sleeping giant next to me off my shoulder (seriously 6’4”, built like a rugby player and super heavy, especially going around tight corners).
From Moalboal, I got a tricycle into Panagsama, a beach village where I’d managed to book a bed in the dorm at the only hostel in town. You know you should be a little wary when the manager says to you, “Make sure you see the bunk first and think it’s okay before you take it.” The bunk in question was up in the rafters of the attic, a good 7 ft off the floor. That doesn’t sound much… but it is. It really, really is. I saw it, swallowed my fear of heights, thought of my wallet and gamely declared, “Gosh, how fun! It’ll be like sleeping in a tree house.” When I am putting on a brave face, I tend to channel Enid Blyton.
And I was fine, I was absolutely fine, right up until the moment when I climbed up there, looked over the ridiculously flimsy rail and noted that not only was I a good 7 ft above the dormitory floor, I was also right next to – OVER – the stairwell, so the drop was more like 20ft.. with hard steps…and I, a known wriggly sleeper, was attempting to be unconscious on a 2ft plank for eight hours without falling to my doom.
There was a hammock in the dorm. I slept in a V shape in that for the night instead, and moved the next day.
So what did I do in Panagsama? Well, I prefer not to dive because of all the heavy equipment and some cold, miserable diving experiences in a quarry in Bridgend. (Seriously if the water’s so cold you need to wear a dry suit… don’t dive in that water. Very simple.) but I do love snorkelling, and I will go every opportunity I get. Armed with a rather nifty new mask which I’m not a hundred percent sure fits my face correctly, I strode into sparkling clean water and swum with the fishes.
Moalboal’s coral reef next to the shore is sadly a little on the dead side, there are boats coming in and out of the area all day so the coral there for the most part is a lifeless brown (but excitingly interspersed with bursts of colour- lime green brain coral, electric blue coral I can’t remember the name of, bright purple stuff I’d never seen before), however that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an abundance of wildlife. Straight away I was following shoals of glowing blue tangs, and diving down to get a closer look at star fish, and something that I think of as a zebra fish only because I don’t know its real name. I also chased a couple of parrot fish and rainbow fish, but I don’t think they were interested in making friends. Anti-social bastards. The coolest/weirdest/eeriest thing in this neighbourhood though are the schools of sardines.
Now sardines might not conjure up magic and wonder to you, but swimming with them is always fun. The schools generally contains several thousand fish that move as one giant organism rather than individual beings. If one goes left, they all go left. When you approach a school they will automatically clear a space for you, but if you keep your movements slow and small, they will regroup around you, so that you are in the middle of the school. Usually this means you are surrounded by silver streaks in the water with light reflecting from the floor below and filtering in through the water above. Off the coast of Panagsama though the schools number hundreds, HUNDREDS, of thousands of fish. I thought at first the black cloud of nothingness below me was a combination of a deep trench and dense seaweed, but it was fish, fish so closely packed together they were blocking out the sun. I can’t hold my breath long enough to corroborate this, but a diver told me that when she sank into the school, and looked above her it was as if she was diving at night. See, magic and wonder.
There was one bum note to my snorkelling experience. My thick, factor 45 sun screen is not as waterproof as it claims to be, and I lost track of time in the water… To put it bluntly, my ass was baboon puce when I got out off the water. It hurt to stand still for two days; sitting down brought tears to my eyes; and sleeping on a soft cotton sheet was torture. I am dreading the peeling phase.