Early one morning, after a stay in the hills of the island of Negros in The Philippines, Anya and I took an auto rickshaw down to a city on the coast called Dumaguete.
From there we wanted to take a ferry to the small island of Siquijor.
It was two days before Christmas in 2017 and we were planning to spend the ‘festive season’ in what we thought was an out of the way place.
It was raining when we got in the rickshaw and the driver had trouble manoeuvring his vehicle over the muddy track to and from our small hotel. Once on the main road however, matters didn’t improve as the rain got heavier and we had to ford areas of the road which were flooded.
When we finally got out of the auto-rickshaw after navigating the sprawling Dumaguete and arriving near the ferry terminal, we were completely drenched.
This however proved to be the least of our problems in what was going to be a long day……….
When we reached the ferry terminal we were greeted by the sight of a big crowd of Filipinos standing around under umbrellas. One of them told us the bad news: all ferry services to Siquijor had been suspended for at least 2 days. A tropical storm named ‘Tembin’ was approaching the Philippines in the north and the heavy rain we were getting in Negros was the fall out of a far more intense system (when Tembin arrived on the following day it was with devastating results).
The local coastguard, understandably, was not taking any chances.
But we had a problem: we had booked a week in an apartment in Siquijor. This was the busiest time of the year in The Philippines. Besides the normal influx of foreign tourists, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos working overseas returned to their homeland to be with their families; Filipinos were family orientated and devout Catholics and for them Christmas was special.
With the cancellation of the ferry service to Siquijor, what were we going to do?
Find alternative accommodation somewhere on Negros?
Good luck with that one.
Our problem of course was nothing in comparison with the Filipinos standing around disconsolately under their umbrellas; they who had flown from every corner of the world to be with their loved ones at this special time of the year and were now stranded (many of them decided to wait around for the entire day in the unlikely hope that the coastguard might change its mind and allow the ferry service to be resumed).
Whilst our problem was miniscule in comparison with the Filipinos, we nevertheless had to come up with a ‘plan B’.
We waited for a break in the rain and ran towards one of the café/bars we had seen during our ride in the rickshaw along the esplanade to the ferry terminal. Diving into the first one we came to we asked if they served breakfast, which they did; we ordered omelettes and coffee and sat down at one of the tables and pondered our alternatives. Early that morning, when we had got up at first light, it was with an expectation of how the day would unfold. Now everything was up in the air.
Whilst waiting for our breakfast, I looked around me. The place was deserted now but it was obviously very different in the evenings. The bar was one of many on the esplanade which was frequented at nights by elderly Caucasian men – mostly Americans with a smattering of Australians and British, many of them ex-Vietnam vets – who lived in or near Dumaguete and spent their days in the company of Filipino women and, drinking.
On the wall behind the bar was a long list of the drinks available and their prices. Running my eye down the list, it was easy to see why, if you liked a drink, this was a good place to be. Sitting in that sleazy bar/cafe and looking out at the drab, low hanging grey sky, I could feel an emptiness of the soul hanging in the air, a kind of existential desolation, which almost tempted me to buy a shot (a double Glenfiddich cost the equivalent of 2 Euros).
I resisted the temptation.
After breakfast and coffee, Anya and I got to work.
We cancelled our booking at the lodge on Siquijor – there was no problem about that – and then started looking around for somewhere else to stay. A place somewhere on the coast of Negros seemed like the best option, but it proved to be a forlorn quest. Most of the places we found were either full or exorbitantly expensive.
The glass of whisky entered my thoughts again.
Eventually Anya, who thankfully is a good deal more persistent than me, found a place which was on a beach and had a vacancy for five nights and which was within our budget – but it was 50 kilometres away.
How were we going to get there?
After phoning around, we realised there were no taxis or motor rickshaws available. They were busy.
There was only one option left.
We got directions from the woman behind the counter how to get to the bus station. It was complicated. Dumaguete, hardly an alluring place at the best of times, was a rabbit warren of narrow streets and busy roads, of little shops and stalls and market places. And the traffic, always the traffic!
When there was a break in the rain we ventured out and began the odyssey to the bus station, inevitably losing our way and having to ask directions. Finally we got there. It was like a huge barn with a high roof reverberating with the echoes of thronging masses of yelling people and buses arriving and departing and blowing their horns. The intensity and the chaos of the place was intimidating. But thanks to the innate friendliness of Filipinos, we were able to find which cue to join to buy a ticket and where our bus departed from. It took us an hour to buy a ticket and another hour before our bus appeared.
The trip along the coast took around 4 hours due to the traffic, the rain, and frequent stops to pick up and let off passengers. When we alighted from the bus, we felt completely disorientated.
Where were we?
Had the bus driver let us out at the wrong place?
The road was busy and it was lined with drab shops and stalls.
After asking around, we got directions how to find our accommodation.
We walked down the main road for a few hundred metres and then turned left onto an unsealed track, deeply muddy in the wake of passing vehicles. But the scenery was extraordinary: on both side of the track were tall trees and an understory of ferns and creepers; we found ourselves in a rich green world.
Finally we came to a small guest house with heavy rainforest on one side and a view of a palm fringed bay on the other. With the sound of water dripping from a canopy of trees we approached an open dining area with heavy wooden tables and chairs. The place was owned and run by an American diving instructor who had taken a group of people out to an island far offshore and who was due back late that afternoon.
A Filipino woman showed us to our hut. We walked passed a long line of them, each of them constructed from wood and bamboo with sloping thatch rooves. They were well constructed and spaced well apart.
Our hut the last one and it had a fine view of the bay.
In the afternoon, after a meal and unpacking our rucksacks, we went for a walk along the beach. In places, the palms came right up the water. Behind them was a rich green undergrowth. At the end of the bay, set back in the jungle and only partly visible, were the small thatch roofed houses of fishermen and their boats, small, simple wooden outriggers, painted in bright colours and bearing inscriptions from the bible, were drawn up under the palms.
In the afternoon we fell asleep and awoke near sunset; we went out and sat at our veranda feeling distinctly groggy. The rain had stopped and the cloud cover was penetrated by the setting sun. The afternoon breeze had dropped and the ocean was a glowing red-orange.
Then we noticed them: the fishermen out on their boats.
The sea was as a calm as a millpond. Schools of fish intermittently broke the surface of the water; an area of the otherwise placid ocean suddenly became turbulent and looked as if the water was boiling, some of the fish springing into the air. The fishermen, with small outboard motors fitted on to their outriggers and small nets attached to the back of their boats, puttered around, keening their eyes to see where the next school of fish might surface – and then head over there as fast as their little craft would allow them.
It was like a game of chasey.
None of the fishermen knew where the schools would surface.
As soon as the water somewhere began to become ruffled, off they’d go, racing each other to get there. Sometimes several areas began to swarm with fish at the same time and they’d head off in different directions.
I thought of the times Anya and I had gone on bike trips during the European summers which had taken us along the coastal areas of The Netherlands and Denmark and we had seen fishing trawlers; huge, high tech machines worth millions of Euros bristling with radar dishes, aerials, winches and cranes; above deck an observation tower, below deck, huge refrigerated holds. The men operating these machines were skilled in the use of the latest electronic gadgetry. They were technicians.
Two very different notions of fishing.
This was our world, a world of strange extremes.
That night, sitting on a balcony, with the sound of frogs in the rainforest, I went through the day’s events.
What a chaos of scenes!
I was not sorry about the ferry service having been suspended.
Plan B had worked out.
To live the unexpected – to be forced at the last minute to turn to a Plan B or a Plan C – isn’t that what it meant, truly meant, to travel?
To be alive?