After a complicated series of flights, taxis, tricycles, buses, ferries and bangkas, I arrived in Mindoro, from El Nido. Puerto Galera, and nearby Sabang, were a hive of activity with travellers all seeking safe haven from the weather, and keen to get underwater. I spent a happy few days swimming and diving by day, and dodging the girlie bars with their bright lights, bad karaoke and cheap 80 proof rum, by night. My homestay had a kitchen attached and I was able to refresh my skills in boiling water and burning toast. After three months of being dependent on my wallet for every meal, waking up to a kettle and frying pan and the opportunity to eat an irregularly sized serving of eggs on toast, fresh mango, avocado and bananas, was a reminder of the simple pleasure of cooking.
Given the numbers of American, South Korean, French, German and Dutch that were in Sabang, Olympics fever was running hot. At every opportunity; waiting for a sticky bun at the bakery, having the ears lowered in a lean-to barber shop, haggling on the price of four tomatoes at a fruit stall, there was banter between the Western visitors about who’s country had ascendancy on the medal tally. During one particular dive after which I completed my first wreck swim-through, an American from a different dive team approached me without warning. Suspended in 25m of water and with his camera-man in tow, he presented me with a gold medal. After a firm handshake and smiles for the camera, I hummed an anthem that no one could hear, saluted a flag that wasn’t there, and wiped a tear from my cheek that no one could see. It was a proud moment for Australia.
After several days of varied and interesting diving I needed to give my vestibular system a rest. I hired the most road-worthy trail bike I could find from a shady looking character named Emilio, and spent a day dodging the intermittent downpours from the tail end of the typhoons, exploring the island. Despite Emilio’s claims of a near perfect service record, the bike was a rolling death-trap, and riding it I felt like a temporary Australian. The all-or-nothing throttle made it hard to keep the front wheel on the ground, and both sets of brakes gave plenty of high-pitched acoustics but very little stoppage. Coupled with only one indicator (front left), no mirrors, a leaking exhaust and a seat designed by the marketing team of haemorrhoid ointment, it was worth every centavo of the few pesos I paid for it. For a full day the bike and I did battle with the steep, hair-pinned, pock-marked roads, seeking out beaches hidden away from the tourist beat. Each time I stopped would give way to a frustrating five minutes trying to start again. Success was rewarded with a full-flavour bath in acrid, blue exhaust fumes, and at a touch of the throttle I would be rocketing away with neck-snapping acceleration, occasionally remembering that they drive on the right-hand side in the Philippines. Despite the threat to life and limb, and the voidance of my no-claims bonus, the freedom and independence of being self propelled was great. Aside from walking, pushbike, horseback and carabao cart, it really is the best way of exploring an island.
A couple of confusing and forgettable taxi and ferry trips brought me to a six hour layover in the nasty little port town of Calapan, on route to Boracay. With time to kill before I could board my last boat, I grew tired of being cooped up in the airless terminal, crowded by people eating two-minute pot noodles that smelt like blue cheese rubbed on a dirty sock. Wanting to stretch my legs, I left the terminal, then the mustering area, then the pier itself, at each step needing to explain my way past an immaculately dressed and overly curious security guard, each shouldering a pump-action shotgun and a bandolier of shells. With no particular destination in mind I walked along the port road, ogling the immense cargo ships getting loaded or relieved of their containers. It was hot and dirty, and the road wasn’t made for pedestrians. Each passing truck peppered me with curious stares and a cloud of dust that stuck to my sweat. After twenty minutes of sweating and grime I took the first opportunity to get off the highway, turning into a narrow road crossing over a rancid smelling storm-water thick with turbid, chunky water and plastic bags. After a sharp corner, the little road narrowed further to become a broken track an arm-span wide that led me straight into the heart of a desperately poor dock-side village. As I moved along, my step slowed as I became aware of the lull in the ever-present background burble of conversation. I looked up from my feet to see the eyes on me.
The streets were clogged with people. Men drinking Tanduay rhum, smoking cigarettes or grooming their fighting roosters. Women balancing buckets of washing water on their hips, squatting on the steps chopping vegetables mid-gossip with their neighbour. Children wearing oversized t-shirts with no trousers playing soccer with a ball fashioned from a knotted plastic bag. For a few beats that felt like an hour, the slum life freeze-framed, all eyes staring suspiciously, obviously as startled by me as I was by them. Wearing a backpack full of cameras, laptop, wallet, passport and mobile phone, and any other valuables I didn’t want to leave unattended at the pier terminal, I was obviously a stranger in a strange land. A valuable, vulnerable stranger. Remembering it is best not to run from a bear, I tried on my most engaging smile, and with a confidence I didn’t feel, stepped off the cliff.
As has been true everywhere in the Philippines, a smile was all it took. After those first moments of surprise, suspicion melted and was replaced by warmth and polite curiosity. Ducking under rusting, patchwork iron eaves and eye level power lines, I picked my way between pot-holes, foetid drains, chickens on the loose and loving it, and the general detritus that comes with dense population. Fascinated by this world so opposite to my own, I moved deeper and deeper into the slum. I was wearing a baseball cap, and every few steps a voice would enquire, ‘Americano?’. I would reply ‘Australiano’, to the hoots of laughter from the adults and delighted squeals from the children, probably more amused that the giant had a voice than the meaning of the word. Moving through the grid of alleys, children began to follow. Just a few brave ones at first, but as they called out excited encouragement to their friends, more and more joined in until I was being trailed by a cloud of little bodies maybe twenty or thirty thick. Their banter echoed down the tin walls, announcing our approach, and bringing even more faces to the windows and doorways. An occasionally concerned adult would call a pair of kids back home, but their place in the procession would be immediately taken up by a tiny, new thrill-seeker.
After a confused half-hour lost in the slum’s labyrinth I found my way back to where I had started. I paused at the settlement’s proudest building, a catholic church, for a photo with my club, the most loyal of which had followed me for the full circuit. The screen of my phone was smeared to obscurity by several dozen grimy fingers as I showed them their pictures, little voices chattering happily in Tagalog and accented English as they recognised themselves and their friends. The gathered adults giggled behind hands as though this simple display was comedy at its finest. On entry I had been worried about my safety for daring to wander into this place, such an obvious stranger, uninvited. On exit I was worried about my safety for stealing all of the children. But after a few minutes of salamat po’s, goodbyes, thankyous, handshakes and not-so-high-fives, I managed to disentangle myself from the group of disciples at the access road and started the long walk back along the dock-side highway. I made it back to the terminal feeling exhilarated, having smiling broadly at any number of startled locals and passing trucks, each adding its fresh veneer of dust. No amount of gag-inducing pot noodles or blaring Filipino television dramas could dampen my mood.
The overnight ferry landed me in Cataclan at 7am, from which a short connecting boat ride took me to the miles-long white sand beach of Boracay. Not much needs to be said about this place. One side of this tiny dot of an island is home to the country’s most famous sunset, while the opposite side is a hotspot for great diving. Over a three day stretch I indulged heartily in both and seriously considered never leaving.