It does not take long at all to get used to the gentle pace of life at Peter's Dive Resort, and to forget the cares and woes of home. Which makes it all the more difficult to accept we have to leave. It's been a great privilege to dive Sogod Bay's stunning reefs, gliding past its precipitous walls alive with the most extraordinary biodiversity we've ever seen.
The timing of our return to Hong Kong is a little less bizarre than the outwards trip, and we leave Padre Burgos at a respectable hour of the morning. Given that Ormoc is over three hours' drive away, we opt for a slightly slower sailing from the port of Bato, which is only an hour or so up the west coast of Leyte from Padre Burgos. Before you get onto a ferry in the Philippines nowadays, you have to sign the passenger manifest - no doubt a consequence of the frequent sinkings of overloaded ships in Philippine waters. No risk of that on our boat, which sets sail from Bato to Cebu nearly empty. Just before the ferry breaks its moorings an ambulance pulls up alongside the ferry on the pier, and a
strecher - occupied by an elderly and very ill-looking man - is lifted aboard and positioned on open top deck where we are seated. The family members accompanying the man set up a drip which they hang from the ferry's awning. I don't know what to think - this is such a stark image of what it would be like to fall seriously ill in a country such as the Philippines, with few equipped hospitals, slow transport links and limited emergency services. Thus our little Kinswell ferry, chugging across the Camotes Sea to Cebu, becomes an impromptu ambulance.
We moor in Cebu's bustling docks at around lunchtime - by day the port area is rough and ready as you like: dusty and hot, it's crowded with dockers, hawkers, beggars and taxis. We make a quick escape through the bustling multitude of boarding and disembarking passengers and retreat to the haven that is an air-conditioned taxi. It is barely one o'clock and our flight to Hong Kong isn't due to depart until late in the evening - more than enough time to have a sniff around Cebu. After a quick detour to the airport to offload our 30kg of rucksack,
we catch a cab downtown. Cebu isn't the kind of town you can wander aimlessly around in - it's not unpleasant, but, on the surface, lacks the charm of other large Asian cities like Bangkok, where every turn in the road brings a new temple or street market. We have lunch - washed down with our last bottles of San Miguel - and make our way to the first of the sights on our whirlwind tour checklist.
The Casa Gorordo Museum is located in the heart of downtown Cebu. The museum consists of a large and opulent house built in the mid-nineteenth century and occupied by the wealthy Filipino family that gave it its name. A beautiful building redolent with colonial atmosphere, the house gives a fascinating insight into the life of the Filipino elite under Spanish rule. Built from exotic tropical hardwoods on a coral block foundation, Casa Gorordo is an oasis of cool and quiet amid the hustle and bustle of modern-day Cebu. A lush garden complete with frangipani trees covered in fragrant flowers completes the intoxicating picture. It is quite lovely.
We hop into another taxi - there is no easier way to get around
and we don't feel ready to experiment with Jeepneys, the Philippines' national form of transport - to the nearby Basílica del Santo Niño, an eighteenth-century church which is a focal point of Catholicism not only in Cebu but across the Visayas. The original basilica was built in the mid-sixteenth century and, despite being rebuilt several times, is still home to the carved image of Christ which gives the cathedral its name as well as its great religious significance. The basilica is positively heaving when we arrive. Hawkers of all kinds offer incense, candles, rosaries of fragrant blossoms - and bottles of cold mineral water - the hundreds upon hundreds of faithful constantly arriving. Catholicism is a serious business in the Philippines: everyone is dressed in their absolute Sunday best. The nave of the basilica itself is cavernous, but dark and stuffy in the tropical humidity. Fans hum, vainly trying to stir the air. Mass is being held, although people come and go continuously.
According to the board on display, over ten masses a day are held here, some in English but most in Cebuano, the local language spoken by over twenty million people on Cebu island and across much
of the Visayas, including Padre Burgos and western Leyte. Linguistically, the Philippines are as much of a melting-pot as neighbouring Indonesia. A huge number of languages are spoken across the Philippines - most of them Malayo-Polynesian languages related to Bahasa Indonesia, but not closely enough for me to understand a word. If you travelled from west to east across the Visayas, you would have to switch from Kinaray-a to Aklanon, to Hiligaynon, to Cebuano, to Boholano, back to Cebuano and to Waray-Waray to make yourself understood. Incredible...The role of official lingua franca
in this archipelago of Babel is jointly assumed by Tagalog, the language spoken in and around Manila - and English. Across the country as a whole, you are apparenly more likely to be understood if you speak English than Tagalog, which is why I didn't put too much effort into learning any Tagalog or Cebuano. After all, the standard of English is generally high - it is the language of business and education across the nation. Romantics might try some Spanish, although since the Spanish decamped in 1898 finding speakers may prove to be a little tricky.
We spend a while sitting by the edge of a
fountain in one the basilica complex's open courtyards, watching people come and go. I still find the juxtaposition of such fervent Catholicism and South East Asia to be unusual - yet another way in which the Philippines is so different from its neighbours.
Our final cultural port of call is Fort San Pedro, a fortress constructed on the order of the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. It sits in downtown Cebu not far from the basilica or the docks - these days, the fort is a pleasant place to have a stroll, with its lawns and gardens, and colonial-era artefacts scattered about. A canon here, a canon there...Cebuano families picnic on the grass, play badminton, take it easy. It is yet another refuge from the incessant noise and dirt of the city.
No visit to a Filipino city would be complete without a trip to a shopping mall. Cebu is home to several of them, most famous of which is SM City, a gigantic monster of a shopping centre just outside the centre of town where most of the city's population seems to congregate. Spread over several huge floors, the mall is home to hundreds upon hundreds
of shops and eateries - all are crowded with people, the population of Cebu having whole-heartedly embraced the wonders of consumerism. After nearly two weeks in rural Southern Leyte, it really is quite difficult to take in and we feel like country mice in the big smoke. We wander around in a daze for a while before finding a Thai restaurant to have dinner. A quick taxi ride to the airport and we're back on the plane to Hong Kong, where we have time but for a night's sleep at the Cosmic Guesthouse before our flight home.
Tot: 0.048s; Tpl: 0.019s; cc: 9; qc: 23; dbt: 0.008s; 1; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.2mb