Wednesday

They say to schedule at least half a day for any domestic traveling within the Philippines, if not a full day. They are not kidding. Definitely er on the side of a full day. We arranged to travel to Bohol from Malapascua with our Dutch friends, Ian and Suzanne. Suzanne was awesome and planned out the entire trip, from our transfer from the dive shop, to the ferry from Cebu to Bohol, to rooming arrangements. Some mention was made of staying at the Bee Farm, which I liked the idea of very much, having heard a lot about it, but for some reason it didn’t work out.

We left Evolution early in the morning, having arranged a private transfer as far as Cebu City through the dive shop. That cost around $100 as opposed to the handful of pesos we had paid taking the local route there, but it was good to have both experiences. As you might imagine, the local route was cheaper. The private route was more convenient and comfortable. A small boat took us and our luggages out to the big, water strider boat, which we had all to ourselves for the short ride over to Maya. Even though it was still overcast, the water was flat, and so the ride was quick. The walk along the rocks at the Maya pier wasn’t quite has harrowing since it was low tide, and there was a very small flat rocky area around the mountain of stones over which we could carefully step. I carried my own bag, instead of paying a guy a couple of pesos like we had done the first trek, and a couple of Filipino guys had to pull me up some steps more than once. Never travel with more than you can carry. I was dangerously close to crossing that line, probably because my dive gear was still wet when I packed it up that morning, making my pack closer to 60 lbs instead of the 50 it had been at the airport.

A private minivan drove the four of us to Cebu City from Maya. The journey was much quicker since we weren’t on a bus stopping every kilometer, and the minivan was smaller than the bus and easier to maneuver around traffic. We didn’t even have to drive as crazily to make good time.

By the time we pulled into a small rest stop it was pouring rain. We stopped for breakfast in the grimy sort of place that makes you question how hungry you really are. A small buffet was sitting out behind a dirty, plastic display case. I don’t know what it is, I love street food but the rest stops always seem questionable, even though they are practically the same thing. One just is out in the fresh air and one is in a stale, grimy hole-in-the-wall. I guess I was pretty hungry because I ordered everything they had that was pescetarian, which included rice, green beans, fish soup, and a banana. The green beans were overcooked but had descent flavor. I was just happy for a whole plate of something green. The fish soup turned out to be a chunk of fish floating in a clear broth. Combined with the rice it was a very tasteless meal.

Next door to the buffet there was a bakery that sold an assortment of baked goods. Each looked slightly different but when asked what they were, the ladies working the counter replied “sweet bread” every time. None were filled, none were coated, none were stuffed, they were all just sweet breads. I chose one that ended up tasting like a Hawaiian sweet roll. "Sweet bread," as they had promised.

We arrived at the ferry station and Suzanne went to buy us tickets while the rest of us unloaded all of the luggage. Dive gear is a lot to travel with. I’m learning this trip that it’s really a pain to move from place to place like a backpacker, but while hauling around all the dive gear as well. Deciding to rent BCDs was a good idea. Next time we’re moving around a lot I may just rent everything. Traveling with your own set of gear is for when you are going to one place and staying there. But then again I really love my own gear. Conundrums.

Suzanne returned with the tickets. We had missed the 11AM, and the 12 and 1 were both canceled due to the weather, so we ended up with tickets at 2PM. That’s why you need to count on a full day for traveling domestically in the Philippines. Flights and ferries are constantly getting delayed and canceled.

We passed the time in a little food court area and ordered coffees out of a vending machine. Those ended up being coffee flavored sugar water. It was a good thing the cups were only shot-sized, because anything bigger would have probably given us all diabetes.

We lazily made our way through security, and found that in the waiting area there was some sort of agency of masseuses walking around giving out massages. The masseuses were all blind. Fletch and Ian both sat down for one. What a strange place. 

The blind masseuses.
There was a rooster cock-a-doodle-doing in the background but I didn’t think anything of it because you always hear roosters in this part of the world. And then a guy walked by with a wicker handbag that had tail feathers sticking out. Curiouser and curiouser.

At 2:00 we boarded the ferry and walked up to the first class cabin where the air conditioner was turned up to the temperature of an arctic chill. I came prepared with my warmest jacket and shark socks, but the two and half hour ride still wasn’t over nearly soon enough. I couldn’t feel my bare legs by the time we finally walked off the boat, back into the tropics.

Tagbilaran is the only major city on Bohol, and as our shuttle drove us through to Alona Beach, it already appeared at first glance to be much more modernized and metropolitan than Cebu City, even though it was much smaller. Downtown was busy and filled with shopping malls and tricycles. The tricycles puttered around the streets, adding a rainbow of color to the city landscape. Tagbilaren seemed like a really cute city. 

The main mode of transportation on Bohol is the tricycle, which is basically a cab welded onto a motorbike.

It only took about twenty minutes to get to our hotel on Alona Beach, a place called Oasis. The hotel was not nearly as nice as the one we had just left, and twice the price. The service was lacking, no one went out of their way to make our stay with them anything worthy of a nice review on TripAdvisor, something crucial in the travel industry these days. The rooms we ended up with were the last available. Fletch and I ended up in a family room, with one queen bed, two sets of bunk beds, and a day bed. It was obviously old dive housing converted into a hotel room. The welcome book listed a whole set of amusing rules directed at Chinese guests. “No preparing food in the rooms.” “No washing dirty laundry in the bathroom.”

Fletch and Suzanne went to the dive shop to book a day of diving for the following day. The staff couldn’t seem to give a definite response on whether or not there was room on the boat, and told them to check back later. The staff didn't seem at all eager to get their own guests onto one of the dive boats, and continued with a series of wishy washy answers. Finally we found out that they would not be going to the main sites on nearby Panglao Island the following day, but just to a local site. We decided to hunt for a better option. 

With a few drinks in us, we made our way down the beach to check out other shops. We managed to find a nice one, able to give us good, definite answers, and willing to give us a professional discount. Once they told us they would be going to Panglao Island the next day, we were sold. After we were all signed up, we asked the guy who had been helping us where a good place to eat would be, and he pointed us a few doors down to the Buzz Cafe, one of the restaurant locations belonging to the Bee Farm where we hadn’t been able to stay.

We walked down the beach, which was crowded and overrun with tourists. At sunset, chairs and tables had been rushed out onto the sand from all the beachfront bars and restaurants, and now they were nearly all full.

We found the Buzz Cafe, and got distracted in the shop downstairs for a few moments, which sold homemade soaps and spreads and breads, then walked up a small wooden staircase hidden in the back, upstairs to the restaurant.

Everything on the menu appeared to be fresh and homegrown and organic. It was much more Western than Philippine, but after a year in Palau it was exactly the healthy food I was craving.

A tray of squash bread with two different spreads, one herb and one mango, arrived as a complimentary appetizer. It was gone within seconds it was so good. Then we ordered a round of lumpia, or fresh spring rolls, which were all sorts of fresh vegetables and a little bit of cheese, wrapped in cassava paper and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Yummy! For dinner I ordered spicy kinilaw talong, or broiled eggplant with coconut milk, ginger, and honey. I was in heaven. A few days in the Philippines and I was already feeling healthier than I had in months.

We were all tired after a full day of traveling, and it was Fletch’s work night besides, so after dinner we said our goodnights and turned in for the evening.

Thursday

Fletch and I woke up to the sound of elephants herding across the roof over our heads. Apparently the Chinese family we had been warned about had arrived overnight. How could such tiny people be so noisy?

We found the hotel’s restaurant where they were serving breakfast. It was basically continental with the addition of an omelette stand. That I was happy for. The signs on the tables surprised me though, to please not leave any leftovers or there would be a 350 peso fee. That was a new one.

We met Ian and Suzanne on the beach and stopped at the Buzz Cafe again to pick up some of their homemade muffins as a dive snack since lunch wasn’t included, then found Valm, the dive shop we had booked with the previous night. As we waited for pre-dive preparations to be made, we got to chatting with our divemaster, who just happened to be friends with the divemaster we had been diving with in Malapascua. What a small world.

Butterfly on Valm's shop sign. 

Our first dive was a site called Rico’s Wall. The highlight was the topography of the wall itself. It had lots of little fish-sized swim throughs, and the sun was shining at the perfect point in the sky to reflect through various openings, and send sun rays dancing through the water. There were lots of schools of smaller reef fish, and towards the end we saw a great barracuda lurking menacingly in the shadows, probably as big as me.

I didn’t get any pictures from our dives, because while I did remember to bring my camera, and I did remember to charge the battery, I somehow managed to leave the battery sitting on the charger.

During our surface interval we busted out the bag of muffins from Buzz Cafe. They tasted freshly baked and not too sweet, perfect for my taste buds. The vegetable cheese was amazing. The carrot was even better with a hint of cinnamon. The squash was absolutely divine, and then to finish off, the corn was dry and disappointing after all of the others.

Our second dive site was a spot called Black Forest. We dropped in and immediately saw several massive turtles. I’d get distracted by one, only to swim away in order to catch up with the rest of the group and find that they were admiring another one. And they were chill too; they didn’t swim away as fast as they could when we approached like many turtles do.

We found some cool nudibranchs, different yet from the ones we had seen in Malapascua. One was small and black with neon orange antlers. Anther one was longer, still black, with various, different neon stripes running down its body. When I signaled to Fletch, he signaled back that he’d already seen three of them.

I also found a mantis shrimp, not one of the massive peacocks but a smaller one. He hid in his hole as soon as I hovered lower to investigate and refused to come back out, no matter how still I hovered or tried to hold my breath. (Don’t ever hold your breath underwater).

Our boat brought us back to Alona beach after our two dives and Ian and Suzanne found us a table and ordered us drinks while Fletch and I ran back to the room to rinse gear and set it out to dry. Then we let them do the same. 

Alona Beach, Bohol, Philippines

The afternoon passed sitting on the beach drinking rum and cokes. Locals selling various items walked up and down, showing us their wares. Tourists sunbathed on beach towels under the wonderful heat of the sun. A couple of Chinese girls tried to rent a kayak and sat in it facing each other and just sort of drifted along the shallows. They couldn’t seem to understand why paddling wasn’t moving them anywhere. 

Kayaking is so hard...

A massage parlor next to us offered massages on the beach. The ladies who weren’t currently busy sat in chairs trying to lure in tourists as they walked past. Every thirty or so minutes they would get bored and all come over to our table at once, offering everything from Swedish massages to pedicures. I kept telling them later, after another drink. We ordered a pizza to tide us over until dinner and then headed back to the room for a nap.

At 8:00, after a lulling nap to the sound of elephants above, the four of us met up again to explore the area. We walked the beach and the main road, stopping for drinks at various bars. No one was hungry for dinner yet, so we stopped at the Buzz Cafe’s ice cream stand instead, which offered a refreshing variety of flavors you don’t normally find: spicy ginger, avocado, and rum coco to name a few. I went for the avocado and received a scoop of mint green ice cream in a cassava cone. The cassava cones had the same texture as puffed rice. The avocado ice cream tasted just like the avocado shakes I used to love in Vietnam.

We found a used scuba supply store, and walked inside to browse. One of the bcds on display on the wall was an xxxs by some off-brand called Bubbles. I tried it on for a laugh and it actually fit quite comfortably.

We found a bar on the beach where we stopped for a round of beers. The beers came with no bottle cap, just a napkin, suggesting that the bottles were reused like they used to do in Roatan. There, the napkin was provided to wipe off the rim with. When we tried to walk away, the lady wanted a deposit to make sure we brought the bottles back, so we changed our minds and sat and drank them there instead.

A little farther down on the beach we discovered a Reggae Bar. Certain we might be able to find some sandwiches, we stopped for a round of drinks while Ian went over to one of the guys working there to inquire. Sure enough we found what we were looking for. From there the night went from fantastic to even better. I also discovered that banana daiquiris are really nice.

We made our way to an upstairs bar next to our hotel called Escape. For a while we just sat and chatted, happily downing caipirinhas, which is rum and sugar and calamansi juice. Everyone that is except for Ian who always defaulted back to pina coladas. A few drinks later and Fletch and Ian were heading down to the beach with a sign that read “Free Hugs” and a bet that Fletch couldn’t get 20 hugs in 10 minutes.

As they stood on the beach with the sign, people were hesitant at first, wondering if there was some catch. Then one of the bartenders from the downstairs bar found a better sign and joined in the fun, all the while Suzanne and I watched with amusement from the roof. The people walking by along the beach remained confused, but everyone upstairs at our bar gathered around the balcony looking down in amusement, and finally drifted downstairs to get a hug.

One little old lady in purple massage scrubs didn’t go for the hug, but instead held on to both of Fletch’s hands and attempted to dance with him. That was adorable. In the end Fletch was two hugs short of winning the bet, but in his defense, it was late and the crowd on the beach had thinned out to a slow trickle of people.

Some locals were playing pool next to us, rather poorly I might say, but that made us want to shoot some pool, so we left and walked towards another bar where we remembered seeing a table. Along the way we ditched the pool idea and started looking for a place to eat. Every restaurant was closed, and every bar that might have served food had already closed their kitchens, but after some searching, we found one open place, a little Dutch restaurant, much to Ian and Suzanne’s delight.

Someone came up with the brilliant idea that we should all just point and grunt to order, which had us all in hysterics. We sounded like a bunch of cave men and women, or maybe gorillas, but managed to get through all four orders without ever uttering a word. Our poor server didn’t know what to think. Most people in the Philippines speak pretty good English, but apparently not this guy. When we retired the game and switched back to speaking like normal, civilized human beings, we actually had more trouble communicating with him. Go figure.

After we’d eaten a feast of tomato mozzarella salad, potato wedges, sizzling squid in some delightful sauce, and all sorts of different Dutch delicacies, we walked back to the hotel and said goodnight at two in the morning.

Travel Tips:
  • Plan a full day for domestic travel within the Philippines. Ferries can be late or just get canceled entirely. The same goes for domestic flights. 
  • For US$100, Evolution Dive Resort can arrange a one-way transfer between the shop and Cebu City. 
  • Beware the first class cabins on the ferries. They are frigid! Normal seating was still air conditioned but not nearly as cold.
  • Oasis is a very overpriced place to stay on Alona Beach. Alona Beach in general is pretty overpriced by Philippine standards, but for the cost I would think there would be a place with better service.  
  • Buzz Cafe is the place to eat if you are craving a fresh, organic meal. It is more Western than Philippine but the food is amazing.