Dear Philippines: PLEASE LET ME GO!!
Day 2,129 since October 10th 2013: 186 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
It’s not the years…it’s the millage
Welcome to yet another blog written by my own hands in order to motivate, inspire, educate and entertain you. And it also serves as a future compliment to my memory as I will surely forget a lot of this. My antiquated brain is dealing with five years and ten months of backlogged memories: people, conversations, experiences, failures, successes, handshakes, smiles, names, pain, joy etc. from across 186 countries.
The many islands of the Philippines are a great many things. It is surely a paradise for those who venture here for a holiday. White sand beaches, friendly people, good food, smiles, fun, turquoise water, coconuts, colourful fish, sunshine and the beat goes on… If you live here then the Philippines could be anything for you. It could be the best country in the world or a place you desperately wish to escape. People all over the world live lives with obligations and routine – in the Philippines too. Beautiful sunsets become ordinary for many and the food is just a repetition of what was served over the past decades. If you can see the beauty in everyday life then you are all set. If not then just find solace in that you are unlikely to ever have to shovel snow. I once heard someone say: “It can always get worse…spiders could have wings”. Indeed they could and I’m thankful that they do not.
A meal I would later have a singing chef cook for me.
Now: if you are trying to accomplish something on a large scale within the Philippines then I hope your secret superpower is patience!! Finding good food: easy. Leaving the country without flying: a huge headache!! While PIL (Pacific International Line) had no issues with me coming onboard their container ship, the Philippine immigration surely did. I understand that varies countries have varies laws but it is a lot easier to understand when they make sense. I have more experience with dealing with immigration than most. Certainly more variety. In my view immigration officers are in place to “guard the door” and make sure that the country is safe. So I fully understand a degree of strictness when it comes to entering a country and those of you who have tagged along for the longest time know that I have had my fair share of battles along the way. However leaving a country should be easy? If you are not “in the system” for having committed any crimes then the door should be open. All the doors? What could possibly be more blissful to an immigration officer than seeing a foreigner leave? So picture this: there’s a ship at sea. Onboard the ship the spirited crew is smiling, waiving me over. The ship is ready to leave the Philippines and head towards another country. The crew is shouting “welcome onboard!!” Meanwhile Philippines gatekeepers are saying no!! They state that a tourist should leave as a tourist and tourist have no business onboard a containership. How can this possibly have any relevance for anything when you’re leaving a country? Filipinos know this kind of situation all too well. Just don’t argue against the system. It is pointless.
Horrible faith...I know! But I swear he's giving me a thumbs-up!?
PIL has an agent in the Philippines who tried their best to reason with immigration. It even went on a higher level but the result was the same. The end result was that I entered the country on a tourist visa. Here I might add that immigration at my arrival knew exactly who I was and what I was doing so why did they issue me a tourist visa to begin with? I’m clearly not a tourist. Well the system is flawed. There is usually no box to tick when you are faced with an explorer or adventurer who is temporarily visiting a country as a part of a much larger endeavour. Easy solution: tourist. Had I known that all of this was likely to go haywire then I might not have ventured out to Marinduque. The travel time overland between Manila (where I was) and Zamboanga (where the ferry leaves to Malaysia) was a hard 67 hours when I arrived. So I would need to calculate at least that to return. However I had a backup plan and how many backup plans do you really need? The ferry which leaves Zamboanga every Monday on a weekly basis was rumoured to be leaving Wednesday this week. That happened to be perfect as the weekly ferry from Manila to Zamboanga, which takes two days, arrives Tuesdays. Perfect logistics. So all was well. I was confident that PIL would be able to take me but if not then I could rely on the ferry. The unusual Wednesday departure rumour wasn’t just whispers in the street. It came from an immigration officer in Zamboanga along with a member of the family which owns Aleson Shipping (the ferry).
Oh well…the best laid plans of mice and men…you know what comes next. I nonetheless felt confident that it was all going to work out. Two plans which both looked promising. All of this planning and coordinating ran across several days while I was being hostel by Z Hostel in the cool part of Makati, Manila. Martin is working there and is involved with the user experience of the hostel. Anyone with enough money and drive would be able to make a hostel: rooms, beds, toilets etc. However how does one successfully ensure that the user experience is pleasant and different from any other? How does one make Z Hostel the place to be and the preferred place to stay when one visits Manila? Enter Martin! He tweaks the concept and makes it unique. And Z Hostel is unique. Rooftop views, live bands, in-house café, comfy beds and a very attentive staff which makes all the difference. It’s the little differences that make a big difference. Take for example the lockers in the dorm rooms. There is a built in light along with a power outlet inside the locker. How perfect is that? So if you need to access your locker in the night you can manage without disturbing everyone else with light and you can safely leave your electronic devices to be charged while you are out. Yeah – it is the small things. The mint on the pillow and the smile when you arrive so to speak. Now there is no mint on the pillow at Z Hostel (yet). It is still a hostel and not a hotel. However it feels like more than a hostel. Thank you to everyone who made a difference during my stay.
The route to Marinduque: bus, minibus, ferry...bingo!
Last week I mentioned that one of the Philippines 7,641 islands was on the scope of DBK (the Danish Travellers Club). The name of the island is Marinduque and it is easy accessible. However one of the founders of DBK had taken interest in Marinduque and back in 2018 he promised some prize money to the first member of DBK who would spend more than 24 hours on the island and make a travel report about it. I had been tipped off about this by fellow DBK member Henrik Schumacher whom I first met on the Central African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe back in 2015. Shortly after that meeting I became a member of the club and have been member number 762 ever since. The members of DBK travel extensively and I have been fortunate to meet a great number of them during the Saga. All very different types which different ways of traveling. Different passions and different views. It is a rich club in that sense with room for everyone. I really hope that more Danes will join as it is a brilliant community for anyone who has the travel bug. I belong to the extreme travellers (obviously) and so does Jakob Oester whom I met in Brazzaville, Congo, also back in 2015. Jakob has just completed his goal of reaching every country in the world by setting foot in Eritrea. His number for every country was 196 and he managed to reach them all in the years between 1994-2019. While keeping his job and family that is! In fact his family would more than often venture out into the world together with him. Congratulations Jakob! You did it!!! It was hard earned but you now belong to a very exclusive club and the very few Danes (four) that have achieved exactly that. I still remember when I thought it to be impossible. Back in 2012 it was in the news when Denmark’s most travelled man, Bjarne Lund-Jensen, quietly passed away in his sleep. Bjarne had reached 190 countries at that point. Without doing any research I simply assumed that it wasn’t possible to visit every country within a lifetime as Bjarne had tried and passed away unsuccessful. He was still missing six countries on his list. The truth is that around 220 people have now found a way to every country and these days you see people competing to be the youngest which is a strange concept. But I guess it does serve to tell others that it can be achieved if that is what you dream to do. Most people however do not dare to dream that big at all. I have met many Filipinos which have not even ventured outside of their own country. And I can speak for a long time about exactly that and the difference between cultures.
It's not hard to find fish on the menu in the Philippines.
Let’s get back on track though. Martin from Z Hostel decided to join me on the Marinduque adventure and last Friday we left Manila. The bus from Manila to Lucena on the coast took three hours and cost $4,50 USD. Street vendors would jump on and off selling all sorts of snacks to the passengers. Martin and I bought a bag of cracklings (flaeskesvaer) which I used to think was a Danish thing but I’ve come across it several times notably in various Asian countries. From Lucena to the small port at Calicihan a minibus took us the short ten minute ride for $1.30 USD. Ferries leave all the time and we caught one to Balanacan on Marinduque for $8.20 USD. As the ferry left it hit the neighbouring ferry and scrapped a fair bit of paint off it. Nobody seemed to care and we simply continued. It took three hours to get across. Done! I had reached Marinduque and so had Martin. Martin is a really great guy and a formidable travel companion. I rarely get to travel together with someone and it is always nice when I do. We walked across the tiny port area and beyond the gates where we were met by an ensemble of arranged statues. Five roman soldiers along with a civilian dressed man and woman standing in the back. One of the soldiers had his head on a block and another was holding a raised sword. Was this a warning to those who visit Marinduque? I remember talking to a taxi driver a few days earlier who told me that Marinduque was creepy. However the taxi driver had never been there.
Our sight at arrival to Marinduque. Nothing says welcome like a beheading!
In reality the arrangement of coloured statues commemorate the beheading of Longinus. My research on this is inconclusive at best but the version I found which fits the scenario is that a few thousand years ago, when Jesus Christ was being crucified, a blind soldier punctured the side of Jesus with his spear. Apparently the name of the soldier is unknown but sometime throughout history they began calling him Longinus. Once the spear punctured Jesus, blood droplets feel down and hit the eyes of Longinus, and his sight was restored. Longinus then converted to Christianity and was later on beheaded for that crime. Marinduque seems to have history which goes back further than the 16th century but nobody seems to pay any attention to that. The population would in any case have been small compared to the roughly 250,000 people who live there today. Martin and I continued inland beyond the statue and quickly met some men at a roadside shed. They invited us to share a drink with them so Martin and I each had a shot of Ginebra (gin) before bargaining a price with a tricycle driver. A tricycle is a motorcycle with a sidecar and they are very common throughout the Philippines. It was dark and I sat on the back of the motorcycle next to the drivers wife while Martin got into the sidecar. The wife said her name was Bilet or something which sounded like “filet”. And we talked and talked. Apparently it has become hard to find work on Marinduque so many venture to Manila. 20 minutes later we reached the islands capital Boac. That ride costs us $4.50 USD.
The singing chef! Karaoke is as common as Jeepney's in the Philippines.
The guesthouse the driver brought us to had Longinus full size head on the counter. The staff was kind but we found that we could getter a better deal on accommodation somewhere and went for a walk in the darkish streets. We found our home for the night at the Lucky 7 Pension House. A twin bed room (with TV and Wi-Fi) went for $6.75 USD / night (per person). Afterwards we went on a hunt for some dinner which wasn’t easy as everything closed quite early. Boac looked adorable with lots of old colonial buildings and it was as peaceful as villages come. Marinduque is ranked as the island in the Philippines with the lowest crime rate (apart from the occasional beheading). To my surprise we found a really nice bar/café which was quite lively. It was decorated in wood and a man was performing at the mandatory karaoke installation. He turned out to be the chef. We had a delicious meal and washed it down with a Red Horse. That was our first day.
See! They are friendly! It says right there on the wall :)
The next morning we got to see Boac in daylight. A fairly small place and a lot more busy than what it had been the night before. I had some “Ube bread” for breakfast and a coffee. Juice too. Martin and I sat on a concrete step and made a plan for the day. We wanted to make it to the exact centre of the Philippines which (by one calculation) is located on Marinduque. The location is known as Luzon Datum and the islands governor has pointed out that the claim is supported by the National Mapping and Resource information Authority (NAMRIA). The claim goes back to 1911 so why not. I have as far as I know only stood in the geographical centre of two other nations: Nigeria and South Korea (Korea). So why not add the Philippines to the list? Our plan was to rent to motorbikes and make our way around on our own. However the practice of renting out motorbikes is not common on Marinduque. It however didn’t take long before we found someone who was willing to rent us a bike at a reasonable price. Just one though and no helmets. We decided to see if we could get a tricycle driver to take us around for a whole day. We just needed to fix a price. That was ridiculously difficult. How hard is it to calculate a rate for six hours? Very hard it turned out and we had to leave several drivers behind as their friendly brains melted down during calculations. We eventually met Julius and agreed on $29 USD for the day including gas. And away we went.
My favorite photo with Martin. The one just after the the one with sunglasses and before the one without ;)
I was in the sidecar this time as we blasted off though the super tropical landscape towards the geodetic center of the Philippines. As we were approaching midday the rain began to fall as it had done every day since I reached Manila. The centre was located on a hill top and Martin and I had to jump out in order for Julius to make it up to where the stairs began. Apparently Julius had been complaining to Martin the entire way that the bike couldn’t make it up (although the price we agreed on was based on our destination). The rain got heavy but now that we were there Julius seemed very happy. On top of the hill at the marked centre a tall dark skinned Virgin Mary was holding an equally dark skinned baby Jesus. How woke. Julius did not take the stairs with us to the top. A few minutes after Martin and I had reached the top Julius appeared on his tricycle coming up a narrow paved road which also lead to the top. He was very happy! Then he positioned his tricycle and began a thorough photo shoot. After a lot of photos on everyone’s part and plenty of 2019 selfies we were ready to make our way back down.
However due to the heavy rain, the weight of the three of us and the steep road Julius lost control and the sidecar with me in it went off the road!! Everything was going a bit too fast now while Julius was fighting to gain control over the situation!! There was no control! Gravity was in control and I got ready to brace for impact!! Fortunately the tricycle came to a complete halt without tipping on its side and the three of us all got off and took a few deep breaths. Then we got the slightly damaged tricycle back on the narrow road and let Julius drive it down to the beginning of the staircase while Martin and I walked behind him. Whenever these things go well they simply become yet another story to laugh about. Haha…I didn’t tumble off the edge of a hill stuck inside a sidecar. Haha.
Next stop was lunch at the port where Martin and I had arrived the night before. The rain continued. We then headed back through Boac and continued towards Buenavista which on my map had some interesting features. I could see that several waterfalls and some hot springs were in the area along with several rice fields – so it sounded like it was worth checking out. Julius was game as long as we helped refuelling the tricycle which we did for less than $10 USD. And away we went. Traveling by tricycle is a rather noisy experience in the long run. And this stretch would take us more than 90 minutes. But we soldiered on. After about an hour Martin and I spotted a cockfight arena and asked Julius to stop. I’ve always wanted to see one. I want to experience bullfighting too someday. Yes – it may be cruel but it is also culturally significant and highly historical. And how can one truly know which feelings it may provoke until it has been experienced? By reading Ernest Hemmingway I have learned to see a different side of bullfighting and perhaps a cockfight would present something similar? The arena was covered and looked like something out of a movie. Outside the area a great deal of vendors had set up shop in which looked like something from a mediaeval festival. It was muddy and smoke rose up from various pots and fires. There was a smell of food in the air and we caught everybody’s attention as we walked through the area. Friendly faces left and right were bidding us welcome.
Behind the foodstalls at the cockfighting arena.
We paid $2 USD to enter and a woman asked me if we knew anyone inside or if we were just there to watch? “Just here to watch madam”. Inside it looked like a concrete boxing arena. On all four sides primarily men were seated on concrete steps facing the arena. Picture a boxing arena with the elevated floor and the ropes surrounding it. Now cover the floor in fine sand and replace the ropes with glass walls. That is what it looked like to me. I desperately wanted to take some photos as it looked incredibly authentic. However to my surprise I did not see a single one of the perhaps one hundred spectators taking any photos. IN 2019!!! Unheard of!! As a matter of fact I did not see any phones at all. I took that as a sign that photography was forbidden although a Filipina has later told me that I was welcome to take photos if I wanted too. Too late now. Two men in the arena were holding up a rooster each. Bids were being taken throughout the audience and soon the roosters were released. The battle to the death or until one of the roosters run away. Feathers were flying left and right. The roosters took turns on biting down on each other’s necks. Then after a few minutes the big rooster ran away towards the glass wall in defeat. The judge who was also in the arena called what everyone already knew: the little rooster had won. Martin and I sat around for another five minutes and then decided we had seen what we came for and left. We got back on the road.
Thirty minutes later we reached Buenavista and Martin and I decided to get of the tricycle and do a little improvised hiking. Julius did not seem to understand the concept but drove off ahead of us. Martin and I spent a little while walking about on narrow paths in a tiny village like environment before making it back out on the narrow paved road where we had last seen Julius. We were looking for a path to reach a nearby hilltop to get a view. Soon Julius showed up with a boy who pointed straight into the bushes. Apparently Julius had gone for help and the beginning of the path began in the bush. And so we headed up towards a truly magnificent sight of a green landscape which surrounded us. Fields, forest, the ocean, the sky, tranquillity and a slight bit of rain. The Philippines is truly a remarkably beautiful country by any standards! Minutes later Julius’ head popped up over the horizon. He had parked the tricycle and made his way up on the hill to where we were. He was one big smile and quickly began snapping some photos with his smartphone. Because this is after all 2019.
Our next stop was only ten minutes away. It was at Marinduque Hot Spring Resort. Entrance $1.40 USD. With the Philippines being home to 53 active volcanos it should be no surprise that they also have hot springs. We changed and got into the lukewarm water. Everyone there (about twenty people) was local as far as I could tell. And as with everywhere we had gone before there was great curiosity about us. Or perhaps they had simply never seen a grown man as white skinned as I :) After a short while in the water three men waved us over and showed us the source of the water spilling out of a cliff into the pool. That water was too hot to touch. We got talking and it turned out that one of the men was a seaman. An AB (able bodied seaman) to be exact. To his surprise I knew about life onboard. He belongs to “the other category” of Filipinos. The majority of Filipinos will likely never leave the country. However others seek work abroad to sustain their family and the seven seas are full of brave Filipino seaman. I have had the great pleasure of meeting quite a few. A lot of Filipinos also find their way to service jobs in the Middle East. As such I remember that construction jobs often go to those from India and Bangladesh while service jobs in stores, shops and restaurants are often manned by Filipinos. These countries include Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Before the sun set we said farewell, got out of the pool and headed back to Boac where we parted with Julius.
That night we returned to the Karaoke chef and had a ridiculous amount of food. Between the two of us we had two servings of spareribs, extra french-fries, an ice-cream, a hamburger, a cup of coffee and four beers. That ran us $25 USD. The next morning we woke up before the sun touched the ground, boarded a Jeepney to the port and departed Marinduque onboard the 07:30am ferry. We waved farewell to Longinus and his soon to be detached head. Marinduque is actually famous for a religious festival which is held one a year. The locals dress up and re-enact the beheading of Longinus as the climax. That sounds like a reason to return some day. What a curious festival that would be to witness. The ferry back was slightly larger than the one we arrived on and only took about 2.5 hours. We played cards while heading across the sea in my triumph as the first DBK member to spend more than 24 hours on Marinduque. On our way back to Manila the bus stopped to allow the passengers a meal and I had a hotdog with a red sausage! I truly thought that was a Danish trademark but what do you know. Perhaps my little kingdom in the high north of Europe has more in common with these basketball happy, Jeepney driving, Jolibee eating islanders, than what I ever could have imagined.
Back at Z Hostel I had to make a tough decision. I had now been informed that immigration had denied by embarkation onboard PIL’s good ship “Kota Jati”. And it was now Sunday so it would be really hard to work something out until the following day. However the ferry to Zamboanga would leave Sunday evening. So what was it going to be? Trust that we would work out something with immigration the following day or head towards the ferry from Zamboanga back to Malaysia where I came from? I pretty much had faith in that we would be able to solve matters with immigration in Manila. But it was an uncertainty. Unfortunately I now also received notice that the ferry from Zamboanga was back on its schedule leaving Monday and not Wednesday. The ferry from Manila would reach Zamboanga Tuesday. Now what?!? I would be very upset if I stayed behind in Manila, didn’t get onboard the containership and found out that the ferry left Zamboanga Wednesday anyway. And in my experience delays occur much more frequent that early departures. I figured the ferry would probably still leave Zamboanga Wednesday. However the PIL solution would be far faster and a lot more comfortable. And there was a chance that we would be able to get me onboard. What to do? I chose the ferry from Manila to Zamboanga. Amidst all of this a cyclone warning was thrown into the mix. Hmmm…was this the time to board a vessel at all?
I said farewell to Martin, to Z Hostel and to Manila and boarded the 10pm ferry which had now been delayed to 4am. Was I still good on time? Sure…we would just reach Zamboanga late Tuesday and I would have time to catch the (probable) Wednesday morning departure. How did that all work out for you Thor? DON’T ASK!!! I boarded the 2GO ferry which is owned and operated by a Philippine company. The ferry was to be fair in really good condition and had several entertainment features onboard such as the mandatory karaoke and other places with more karaoke. But also a small kiosk and lots of places to charge your phone. And by the looks of it, it wasn’t too crowded and had plenty of modern safety equipment onboard. However the ticket I thought I had for a cabin was in reality for the top bunk on a deck with some one hundred other passengers who didn’t mind being noisy at all. In fact a talentless girl nearby bunk decided to sing her lungs out until late at night. And ever since I went to China my iPhone has been offloading all my stored songs whenever it pleases too. It is a strange thing and I’m more than sure that the Chinese have installed something unwanted on the damn thing. So my songs continue to show in the folder but the actual files are suddenly all gone and do not reappear until I connect to internet and download them again. They of course vanished just as I wanted to drown out the strangled cat – so I had to listen to her for hours. Then a foul smell of urine swept across my nostrils from the toilet. No surprise as I at one point caught a guy pissing on the floor of the shower cabin instead of waiting his turn at the toilet. And don’t get me started on all the babies crying…
The "endless" line for the meal voucher. It continues way beyond the corner!
Meals were included for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I was to be onboard for two nights. When I went to get my first meal I discovered that first I needed to stand in line for the food voucher. That line was nearly endless!! It ran the length of a hall, then turned the corner and ran the length of a football field, then ran down the stairs to the lower deck where a single voucher was handed out. Only one?!?! WHY!! Why not all the vouchers for all the meals so I didn’t need to do this again? Actually: why not just hand out all the vouchers when I boarded the ship? But no. And once I had the voucher I got the pleasure of standing in line for the food too. And the food was really not worth the hassle. This repeated for every meal. Whenever we were near an island I got some connectivity on my phone and sometimes it would be strong enough for my internet to switch on. Guess what? The ferry had left Zamboanga and the next one would be eight days later due to the upcoming Monday being a holiday. Hurrah! (rolling my eyes). Oh well – what can a man do? I had to reassess. There was no way I could spend 7-8 days in Zamboanga given the security situation (read last week’s blog for more information regarding Zamboanga). So what to do? Well I wasn’t just working with two plans. I had a handful because that is what life has taught me. Before leaving Manila I found myself on the rooftop of Z Hostel in conversation with Jedo from the tiny “mystic island” of Siquijor. That is a picture perfect and very safe island just two ferries and a bus ride from Zamboanga. And the “delightful” 2Go ferry was making a stop at Dumaguete just a short ferry ride from Siquijor on its way to Zamboanga. So I elegantly disembarked one ferry and boarded another.
Not an uncommon sight on Siquijor.
And here I am now. On a small picturesque island which would otherwise be perfect for a holiday. However I’m not on a holiday and a forced holiday does not taste sweet to a man on a schedule which is already running late. However as much as I love you I don’t think I can expect any of you to understand that. “After all, what is one more week in a nearly six year project” you might say. Well let us put this in context. It is a week more before I can go home. It is a week more without the people I love. It is a week of my life, of my time, of my youth…spent alone...serving no real purpose. And you would not believe how much internet sucks on this island! Something I might be cherishing if I did not need it and wanted to disconnect from the world. But that is not the case as I’m trying to upload power of attorneys and copies of my passport to make the Saga move forward. And perhaps least of all this blog…
But when life gives you lemons then toss them back at life and ask for an orange!! Kidding aside…since there is nothing I can do for now I might as well make the best of it. Siquijor is beautiful and interesting. Legend has it that it magically appeared from the ocean during a powerful storm. I have had a haircut, I bought a belt, I did my laundry, I rented a scooter and went exploring. In a day read the book “Den Gyldne Klokke” which the Danish Seaman’s Church in Singapore gave me. Interesting to read that even in the mid-eighties there was congestion at the border between Malaysia and Singapore. That problem only seems to have lasted 35 years now. And furthermore the Seaman’s Church was also struggling to raise funds back then…much as they are today. Ah…safety in consistency :) Kidding aside it was a great read and the Seaman’s Church has truly touched a great many hearts including mine. They do a formidable job up there ion Mount Faber. And as such I will leave you all for now…a day after I let some eager fish nibble from my feet at a pond under a centuries old Balate tree. Seventeen more countries…we will get there…we just need to keep on keeping on ;)
In deep thoughts below a Balate tree...
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - finding a way, always finding a way.
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Once Upon A Saga