After nearly two weeks on beautiful Boracay, my next destination was going to be the large island of Mindoro to the north. A large ferry brought me to the small town of Roxas, on Mindoro’s south coast, where I took a tricycle to have some lunch in the tiny town center. After some dreadful Filipino-style spaghetti, I walked out onto the street again, where I was surprised to find many people yelling at me as they came running out of their shops and houses to speak to me. Apprehensive at first, I quickly relaxed as it turned out they only wanted to know where I was from, how long I had been in the Philippines, where I was going, followed by repeated, excited instructions on how I could get to the busstation, and even though it was only 100 meters away, I was offered a lift on a motorcycle. At the busstation, basically a parking lot next to a house with a sign attached to it, people quickly gathered, smiled at me and asked me questions in their basic English. I guess they don’t get to see tourists that much in this sleepy town, and it’s quite refreshing that they are just curious and for once have no interest in getting your money, as they do in the more touristy places elsewhere.
After waiting for about a quarter of an hour, four people pointed the minivan out to me, that would take me to Calapan City, the capital of Mindoro on its northern coast. As we departed on our four hour journey, I immediately noticed how all the big leaves of the palmtrees were bent in one direction, almost as if they had been combed that way. Then, on the outskirts of the town, collapsed nipa huts, houses with their roofs torn off, and a Filipino man explained to me that this was part of the damage done by the typhoons, that raged over this area in November of 2004.
The journey led us through small villages, past military checkpoints (this province used to have rebellious activity), and we arrived in Calapan City around sunset. There, I was told that the last jeepney to the village of Sabang, my intended destination, or to Puerto Galera, the nearby town, had already left an hour ago. And as a jeepney really is the only way to travel there, I was effectively stranded in Calapan City. It’s the first time this has happened during my travels, but I’m sure it won’t be the last time. I managed to find a cheap hotel near the city center (accommodation can be quite expensive in the Philippines), and after spending the night in Calapan City, I departed on a packed jeepney, heading for the village of Sabang.
Along the way, I was once again reminded of how beautiful this country is, a landscape of hills covered with coconut trees, alongside green ricefields, thick forests with small nipa huts in the clearings. After a while, the asphalt road ended and a dirt track with potholes started, as we went over the mountains, with more gorgeous views of green valleys with the sea in the background. When we arrived in Sabang, I walked the small distance to Small La Laguna beach, a lovely stretch of sand with a handful of hotels, cottages and restaurants, and found a nice room there, where I would spend most of my last week in the Philippines.
A couple of small boats, including one yacht, had been deliberately sunk a mere 100 meters from the beach, and were now stunning diving sites. As we swam closer to the wrecks, shoals of large batfish accompanied our group of divers, swimming very close to us. The wrecks were teeming with life, home to so many different kinds of fish, including snappers, stonefish, butterfly fish, and the impressive lionfish again, looking fierce, holding still in the water. Inside the yacht, a large number of sleeping catfish, slowly crawling over eachother. In between the various wrecks, I saw some clownfish (Nemo!) in their anemones. And then there are some animals that really look like plants, or seaweed, but suddenly you see them crawling over the bottom of the sea, using their “leaves” as tentacles to move forward. A lot of nudibranches again in stunning colour, and a lone striped seasnake moving elegantly through the water. After Australia, the Philippines is really the number two country for diving in the world, but unlike the Great Barrier Reef, the dive sites here are very close to land, accessible by just wading through the surf, or taking a 10 minute boatride.
During my stay in Sabang, I met a Filipina-Australian, who was on holidays to her homeland with her son. We talked a lot about the Filipino food, about cultural differences, and also about the extreme poverty in the Philippines. She explained that most of the establishments in and around Sabang were owned by foreign investors, or foreign pensioners who had moved to this area and opened their pubs or restaurants, as it was now near to impossible for common Filipinos to start their own businesses, the costs are just too great. And I noticed again here what I had noticed in Moalboal on the island of Cebu: many older western men, with a Filipina 30 or 40 years younger by their side. A so-called Puti at Pinay ("white and Filipina") marriage therefor isn’t frowned upon, it is accepted as merely a way out of poverty for these young women. Some are quite worse off as “working girls” at one of the many bars, euphemistically called “discotheques” or “music lounges". And then there are the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Filipina women who work as nurses or maids in many countries around the world, sending back money to help their parents or other members in their family. My Filipina-Australian friend explained that this is unlikely to change, due to the high rate of unemployment in the Philippines, and the corruption and mismanagement at the higher levels of government. It is quite sad to realise this, and the seedy areas in the touristy parts of popular towns or villages do take away a lot of the charm of the Philippines.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderful country to visit, its friendly people proud of being Pinay (Filipina) or Pinoy (Filipino). The natural beauty of the country, with its paradise-like scenery, is just breathtaking. The enormous Catholic cathedrals found everywhere are such an unusual sight in an Asian county, as it is to find that the shopping just stops in the supermarkets at 6 pm, when everyone stands still to listen to the prayers, read out through the loudspeakers by the resident supermarket priest.
After a short visit to the town of Tagaytay, where I admired the beautiful view of Lake Taal, with the small dome of the volcano with the same name in the middle of the lake, I went on to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International airport. There, a Thai Airways flight would take me to Thailand, the first country during my current travels that would be a little familiar to me.