10 September 2013

CYCLING THE PHILIPPINES - MINDANAO



3 September - Sandakn, Sabah, Malaysia - Zamboanga City, Mindanao, Philippines - By ferry

At last the 3rd arrived, and although the ticket stated the departure time at 16h00, I was told to be at the port at 18h00. I packed up and left Sandakan Backpackers, which felt like home by that time. Just before leaving it started bucketing down, and the last thing in the world I felt like doing was cycling the short eight kilometres to the ferry in the rain. Fortunately, as rain goes in the tropics, the rain came down hard and quick, and by the time I was ready to leave, it was all over.

Once at the port it was a madhouse of people, trucks, busses and minivans, picking passengers up or dropping them off for the next trip. Once my bike and I was on the ferry I had time to explore, and found double bunk beds on the deck (better than sleeping on the floor). I found my spot, being no. 317, and that was only on Deck 1!!  People kept pouring onto the ferry and it was no wonder that two or more people had the same number for one bunk!! 

It was after 22h00 when we finally departed. The tiny canteen was jam-packed, trying to serve all the passengers; it was hardly worth the wait to buy something. The bunks were rather close to one another and it was a noisy night under blazing, florescent lights. I eventually fell asleep to the snoring, phlegm-coughing, burping and farting of the other passengers.

4 September
I woke rather early to more chattering, coughing, farting, burping and radio’s playing - each to their own tune. Our vessel was moving at a snail’s pace, and I understood from the other passengers that there was some or other problem with the engine. As I was the only foreigner aboard, I had my fair share of attention!!  They had no shame in coming to have a look and some gathered at my bunk, staring openly (no picking your nose discretely!!). At the same time it made it rather social, and the ladies on both sides of me took it upon themselves to take care of me and tell the onlookers when it was time to go… ha-ha. This was a really good thing, as there was always someone to watch your stuff while you were not there.

The hours came and went, and in the end the sun started sinking below the horizon, and still there was no land in sight. I sat on the deck, watching the Moslems perform their evening prayers to the soothing sounds of the (impromptu?) mullah. It was calming and peaceful against the rich colours of the setting sun.




We reached the port of Zamboanga City at around 9.00 p.m. but it was 11.00 p.m. by the time I got off the ferry. The going was particularly slow, as not only did everyone want to get off first, but one had to take a bus to the immigration office. While waiting to get off, one had to be particularly alert as small kids hopped on-board, scavenging for whatever was going - might it be unattended luggage or some leftover food. They were like monkeys, climbing up and down the side of the ferry; it was quite amazing to watch them operate - they were as quick as lightning, and even the on-board security had no chance of catching them!!!  They were under and over the sleeping bunks without the guards even seeing them.

Eventually, I was off the boat and at the immigration building. The queue was snaking from the one end of the building to the other. People were pushing and chafing (not sure where they wanted to go, as no pushing or chafing was going to get them to the front any sooner!). It was stuffy and hot inside the building, and the perspiration was running down our faces; people were fanning themselves vigorously with their passports (not that it helped, at all).

By the time I got out of there it was fairly late to go in search of a hotel. There was nothing I could do about
it and, in the dark, I cycled off. In the light of my headlamp I followed the deserted streets, with just a few homeless people for company. The first two hotels were full, and the third too expensive. The fourth was more my style, and so it was 1.30 a.m. by the time I was in the room….what a day!!

5 September - Zamboanga City, Mindanao, Philippines

First thing in the morning I took to the streets, looking for a bank. On the boat I changed my Malaysian Ringgit for Philippine Pesos, but I still had to get some more local currency. I also desperately needed a roadmap. The Philippines is the world´s second largest archipelago (after Indonesia) with 7107 islands, and although most are uninhabited, I planned to visit a good few.

This is a small country with a fascinating history!  In 1521 the islands were claimed by Spain, the British occupied it for a while, but soon gave it back to Spain. Then the U.S. came. The U.S. war officially lasted for three years but skirmishes still went on for another seven, killing 600 000 Philippines in the process. After the U.S. eventually left, the Japanese troops came and only in 1946 were the Philippines granted full independence!!  Sjoe, and then they still have to deal with volcanos and typhoons!  Today, political violence is still widespread, and I’m constantly being told to be careful along the road, and NOT to camp along the way.

While walking about the heavens opened up, and everyone ran for cover. The temperatures hover around the mid 30° C, and I understand that I am now in the wet season (May to October). Fortunately, the rain comes quick and hard and does not last very long.  I hailed a tricycle (more a bike with a sidecar) and found the going not much faster than walking. I found the bank but no roadmap.

6 September - Zamboanga City – Vitali - 72km

I joined the other tricycles, bicycles, Jeepneys, busses and trucks and cycled out of town. As I was now cycling on the right-hand side of the road, I first stopped at a bike shop to change my mirror back to the left-hand side. (Once again, the owner warned me not to camp next to the road and advised me to rather to go to the small village of Vitali and check with the Police for a room in the village.)

With the morning pollution hanging thick and yellow in the air, I followed the road north, out of the large and busy Zamboanga City. It was a stunning ride, past numerous small villages flanking both sides of the highway; every now and again the villages made way for emerald-green rice paddies. Water buffalo waddled in the muddy puddles and tricycles carted small kids to and from school. Amazingly, even the smallest village had a large school.


As is always the case on my first day in a new country, I stopped countless times to take photos. This is an especially photogenic country and I could easily fill a 36GB card in no time at all. Nothing much came of the mountains they warned me about, and although hilly, it was not too steep.

At around 15h00 dark clouds gathered and I was sure I was going to be caught in a thunderstorm. I made it to Vitali without being rained upon, and found a fair-sized village with plenty of roadside stalls. I stopped at the Police Station to ask about a room in the village, and was directed to a Karaoke Bar with rooms above. As was to be expected of a room above a Karaoke Bar, it was noisy, dark and dingy, with three-quarter cardboard walls. The owners were, however, super-friendly. It had a bathroom at the end of the hallway with a large drum filled with water, which one could scoop out and pour over oneself. It was very refreshing!!! 

That evening I got myself a takeaway rice-meal. At first I sat on the balcony overlooking the road, but soon three others joined me and watched every morsel I consumed, so I removed myself to my half-private room, ate my meal, and sat under the fan, writing my diary and editing photos.


7 September - Vitali – Ipil - 65km

There was no need to hang around, and I soon left my humble abode. Before I left I had a quick bite to eat down the road. No sooner had I finished my meal when I was lead off by the restaurant owner to view the corpse of her sister!!  I was informed that she died of a heart attack (fortunately not from food poisoning) and I was encouraged to take pictures!!  I politely declined, and before they could escort me to the funeral, I swiftly made my way out of there.

It was another stunning day. Although this was the coastal road, the road did not run flush next to the coast. But, every time I reached the top of a hill, I could see the bright blue ocean below, sprinkled with tiny islands.

It felt that I was cycling through a long, drawn-out village. There was hardly a time that I was out of the public eye. It was a short ride, and I soon reached the larger town of Ipil, where I found a nice hotel at a very reasonable price. It also had a great restaurant and even a swimming pool. Not bad for 600 Pesos.

8 September - Ipil – Buug - 75km

It rained for most of the day, and once or twice I had to pull over and wait for the worst to pass. Once again it was slightly hilly, but not as bad as expected. I passed plenty of tiny villages where their main occupation appeared to be doing the laundry. Palm-woven huts and Sari-Sari stores, selling everything from crackers to shampoo sachets, lined the road.

Once I reached Buug, it was easy to spot a hotel, as it was not a very large town. It, however, had a very large and interesting fish market, selling all kinds of fish - fresh and dried, as well as big and small.
The fact that I’m frequently asked if I´m an American journalist or a missionary, most likely indicates that only foreigners ever visit Mindanao. Seeing that my answer to both is negative leaves most people puzzled, and it is normally followed by a polite: “What is your purpose in the Philippines?”  “Just travelling,” I answer, by which they appear a bit disappointed and normally repeat:  “Oh, just travelling,” rubbing their chins, as if such a thing is not possible.

I am not taking as many pictures as usual, for as soon as I take the camera out I can hear them whisper: “journalist, journalist”. This is one part of the world where I do not want to be mistaken for a journalist. The reason being that through the years, the island Muslims (Moros) have launched repeated attempts to establish autonomy on the island. Since the Maguindinao massacre in 2009, when fifty seven civilians were killed, amongst them four journalists, Mindanao ranks only second to Iraq for being the most deadly country for journalists. I now keep my camera well hidden!!

9/10 September - Buug – Pagadian - 63km


It was a rainy day as I headed for the mountains. It was another scenic day, past more rice paddies and farmers ploughing their land with Water buffalo. I cycled across rivers and past waterfalls, while small kids along the way run away as fast as their little legs could carry them. People in palm-woven huts looked at me in utter amazement. In fact, I had a little giggle all by myself today as I saw a man fall right out of his hammock!!  He was relaxing under a tree while guarding his stall, selling petrol in Coca-Cola bottles, until he spotted me - he spun around at such speed that he fell right out!! Ha-ha-ha!!

I felt a bit sluggish and struggled up the hills - they were long and steep, (or at least that’s what it felt like). Some days my legs don’t want to cooperate. I was happy to reach the downhill into busy Pagadian. The roads were jam-packed with tricycles and Jeepneys, and I weaved through them like a pro!!  I soon found a hotel room, had a quick shower, and set off looking for a supermarket. Upon my return, I also found that I seemingly made it out of Zamboanga City by the skin of my teeth.


At least I found myself a map of Mindanao Island. Taking into account all the trouble here I will be happy to get off the island all together, but there is still a long way to go. I also understand that the North-East coast is safe, and once I get to Cagayan De Oro I should be fine.

I stayed in Pagadian the following day, did laundry and ate just about anything I saw being sold on the street.

11 September - Pagadian – Tubod - 80km


At first it was a nice, easy cycle and then the road turned inland along a rather steep road over the mountain. I must have been climbing for the first forty kilometres, as suddenly the road started winding down to the ocean, which also came with fantastic views. Once on the coastal plains, it was an easy ride into Tubod.

I was directed to a rather fancy and expensive hotel. I thought: what the heck; I will stay for the night!  As the hotel was on the outskirts of the town, I also ate at their restaurant that night which was also a bit pricy. The food was excellent; well worth the price I paid!!

12 September - Tubod – Iligan - 66km


I had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It started off with me meeting the nicest bunch of people one can imagine. They stayed at the same hotel for a three-day conference, and invited me to have breakfast with them. The Filipinos are so hospitable and friendly and always ready to share a meal!   They are also terribly polite; always greeting me with a polite “good morning, ma’am”!

It was a short and enjoyable day on the road, as the road ran close to the ocean with excellent views. Just before Iligan I turned off the road to view the Maria Cristina falls - a magnificent sight. I was rather disappointed in the outcome of my photos…. oh well, there is always another day.

13 September - Iligan – CDO - 88km


It was a particularly difficult day on the road. The traffic was hectic, the road narrow, and the drivers were on a suicide mission. I had to watch both oncoming traffic and traffic coming from behind. Vehicles overtook without regard for anyone, with the result that I had to dive off the road quite a few times to avoid being road kill. In the process I picked up a puncture from a metal pin - the pin was so tightly lodged in the tyre that I had difficulty getting it out. I don’t fix punctures with any elegance and came away with grease all over myself.
I was hot and sweaty, full of grease and in a bad mood as I cycled into the large and busy city of CDO. To make matters worse, I soon found myself amongst fume-belching tricycles and Jeepneys, so tightly gridlocked that I could not even get through on a bicycle.

At least that gave me plenty of opportunity to ask a local where to find a hotel, as no one was going anywhere. I was pointed down a hotel-kind-of-road and was lucky to find a hotel at a very cheap rate.
The air-con did not work and I had to transfer to the next room (sigh) where the air-con half worked, but the toilet kept running!!  Instead of lying in bed listening to a running toilet all night, I got up and fixed the darn thing. As I crawled into bed a final time I had to laugh at just how bizarre things can be some days.  Just before I finally fell asleep, I saw a mouse running across the floor…. I just giggled, ignored the mouse, and I slept soundly!!

The following day I did the laundry, bought two new inner tubes, and on the way back spotted a river rafting company. That was just what I needed; I decided to go rafting the following day and what a good decision that was. It was a great trip!  The river was scenic and the guides very good - it was such a good day that I changed my mind about CDO altogether. (The mouse was still running around the room, poor thing!!)

16 September - CDO – Balingoan – ferry to Benoni, Camiguin Island - 90km

It turned out quite an eventful day. Leaving CDO was quite stressful as I weaved through the Jeepneys, tricycles, busses and trucks to get out of the city. Along the way I stopped, as usual, at one of the Sari-Sari stores to fill up with water. This time, however, I decided to have one of the boiled eggs on the counter (not so usual!). To my surprise and utter horror (and to the amusement of my onlookers) it turned out to be a Balut - a half-boiled duck embryo in the shell!!  No encouragement from the locals could get me to devour that soupy fetus. I understand that a person is supposed to crack open the top and drink the “soup” (embryonic fluid) before devouring the fetus and its eggy surrounds.

Along the way I passed many places with huge piles of coconut shells, and smoke billowing from boilers or shacks. My curiosity got the better of me and I finally stopped to have a look at just what the heck they were doing. It turned out that they make charcoal from the coconut shells, which explained all the smoke coming from these sites.

Satisfied I set off again, past more stores, all selling deliciously looking food as well as the famed Balut. The Filipinos do like their food and I don’t think they can go anywhere without it (albeit their portions are quite small). Roadside stores, therefore, sell all the local favourites. On the counters dishes are displayed neatly, from big to small. These normally contain fried fish, fried chicken, pork (in various forms), veggies and noodles.

I soon arrived in the small town of Balingoan, from where the ferry departs to Camiguin Island. A ferry was waiting, so I quickly bought a ticket and got on-board. It was a short ferry ride to the island, but it was already 4h30 and too late (I thought) to cycle to the main town. I found myself a palm-woven hut on stilts over the water and settled in!!  What a life!! 

First things first, and I got myself a San Miguel Beer, put my legs up, sighed, and looked out over the zip-line passing right in front of me, wondering whether I should do that in the morning. Soon I was starving and went in search of food. I had one of the local favourites - Pork adobo with garlic rice - at a roadside restaurant. As usual, the food is very tender, as in this part of the world they only eat with a fork and spoon. With the fat still on the meat I, however, found it way too fatty to my liking.


17 September - Benoni – Caves Dive Resort - 25km

I loaded the bike and continued along the coastal road. The road runs around the island, all along the coast, for about seventy kilometres. Nothing is therefore very far.
I cycled into the tiny city of Mambajao, the capital of the island. I found a bank (which was off-line), a market, various stores, bakeries, and eateries. I continued down the road and enquired at the popular Action Geckos about a room, but they were rather expensive (900 Pesos) so I tried the next-door Caves Dive resort, which was slightly cheaper at 700 Pesos. I was desperate to go for a dive and thought it a good place to stay and to organize a dive.

In order to dive, I had to retrieve my dive certificate and needed an internet connection. I soon found that although they say they have internet, the internet is often not working!!  I was pissed-off, to say the least, as I felt that I have now wasted a day and the money for the room. It really takes some getting used to the laid-back manner of the Filipinos! To me, having internet which is not connected is the same as not having internet at all!! Give me strength!!!

18 September - 20km

The next morning there was still no internet, so I packed up and went to Jasmin by the Sea, which was a much better deal at 500 Pesos for a large room with a bathroom, right on the water. They, at least, had an internet that was actually connected, albeit a bit on the slow side. At last I managed to retrieve my dive certificate with the help of my sister back home. Besides editing and uploading pictures, I did absolutely nothing for the rest of the day.

19 September

The south-western monsoon came in during the night, and I woke to a howling wind and bucketing rain. There is nothing quite like crawling back into bed in bad weather!! Eventually, it cleared and I took a walk to the dive shop and arranged a dive for the following day. Then I caught a tricycle into town to do a bit of shopping, but I found the supermarket closed, as it was lunchtime. At least the ATM woke from its slumber!! 

I thought of going to the internet café to pass the time, but they were off-line, so the only thing left to do was to have a pizza. It was not a bad pizza - I could only eat half and saved the rest for supper. With my shopping done I hopped on a tricycle back to Jasmin, which was about five kilometres out of town. Once there, I discovered that the power was out, so not much to do but sit down and have a beer. I must admit it is not a bad place to wait out the weather.

20 September
The following day the weather looked much better, so off I went for my first dive in ages!  It was a fantastic dive with an abundance of fish in all shapes, sizes and colours. The coral was plentiful and of a wider variety that I’ve ever seen before. The water temperature was at a very comfortable 29°C, and I was in my element!! 

After the dive I went off to explore the rest of the island. It is truly a remarkable island, with active volcanos, waterfalls, hot springs, a ruined church, an underwater cemetery, and even a spring that squirts soda water. I ended the day with a ride on the zip-line, which was so much fun I nearly went twice!!! 
21 September
I felt that is was time to get going again, but could not resist one more dive. So, off I went to the dive shop again. Along the way, the dive master came past and gave me a lift on the back of his motorbike, to plenty of comments from the locals. It was an interesting dive, as we went off in one of the local boats, which was a novelty in itself. It was a short ride out to White Island where, once again, there was an abundance of sea life.

After the dive I went into town. The internet was so slow and sporadic that it was better to go to the internet café, which was slightly better. Once done with the internet, I was starving. Again, I decided to have a pizza - I was sure living the high life!!  With all my money spent on diving, zip-lines and pizzas, I desperately needed a bank, but the ATM was off-line again. I could only hope that it would be back on line in the morning, as I did not want to spend another day on the island (I was spending way too much money).


I understood from the locals that is was possible to get a ferry from the island to Bohol. Instead of going back to the main land, I thought it a good idea to go to Bohol instead.  Apparently, there was a daily ferry at around 10h30 from the Port of Benoni to Jagna, Bohol. 

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