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Published: July 27th 2014
We came to the island of Cebu in the Philippines in pursuit of perfect freediving . Panagsama Beach, just outside of Moalboal, is definitely a tourist town that caters to divers. There seem to be as many scuba shops as there are restaurants, and a few freediving shops as well. We had a very specific wish list: depth close to shore so we wouldn't have to rely on a boat, good visibility, warm water, and calm seas to enhance comfort while breathing up on the surface. And we did get it, well most
of the time.
It was raining when we arrived in Manila and I tried not to take it as a portent of what was to come - we'd had our fill of monsoons in Bali. A short flight to the island of Cebu and then a three hour drive and we arrived in Moalboal/Panagsama Beach. Cebu City has a population of around 4 million people and used to be the capital of the Philippines before the shipping trade moved to Manila. It is still a very large port. We didn't get to enjoy much scenery on the drive as the sun had already set but as soon as
we were out of Cebu City Matt and I both noted the similarities to other former Spanish Colonies we've spent time in like Puerto Rico and Mexico. The buildings and houses are similar in their cinder block construction and the fields look like they are tilled and maintained in the same way. Although there are Muslims in the southern islands, some of which are agitating for their own state, the Philippine Islands are primarily Catholic and the practice seems to be both religious and cultural, with no separation of church and state. We noticed a lot of religious slogans and psalms painted on schools and municipal building walls and many Catholic churches and shrines in every town we passed.
Filipinos speak many different languages and both Matt and I recognize various Spanish and English words when we listen. Each island has its own sub-culture and language but school is taught in English and almost everyone we've met is bi (or tri) lingual to some degree. The official national languages are Tagalog and English but on Cebu people speak Cebuano, also called Bisaya, a rapid-fire language sprinkled with foreign words and sounds that makes for a lyrical and joyful sound,
especially because it is often accompanied by laughter. Unlike the tuk tuks in Sri Lanka, or the scooters or cyclos in Vietnam, here people get around in small buses called jeeps or just tricycles - odd little contraptions based on either a scooter or a bicycle with a carriage attached to the side for passengers.
Our first impressions of Moalboal were good. After the blazing heat and humidity of Vietnam we revelled in the warm temperatures and soft sea breezes, azure water, and friendly people. The next morning after breakfast we went out on the hunt. By afternoon we had rented a cottage right on the beach and a scooter. I guess we're finally getting better at this! Our place is in the Panagsama Beach area and has windows that overlook the water, a huge deck for morning yoga, and steps that take us right to the sea. There's a well equipped kitchen, a huge bathroom and plenty of closet space. The cottages on either side of ours are empty and the reef is only about a 20m swim over white sand and soft coral, where it drops down to 40m and then gradually slopes to deeper depth. Perfect
for freediving! Outside our front gate, a 50m walk takes us to a resort with a restaurant with wi-fi and mostly deserted pool.
The most pleasant surprise about the Philippines is that pretty much everything has a pre-set price. This was a relief for us after months of trying to figure out foreigner vs. local prices and having to negotiate for everything from fruit to bicycle repairs. We understood that business is just done that way in some countries and we tried to adapt but it was always so hard to figure out what is actually a fair price. In Vietnam people tried every day to take advantage of our ignorance. More than once we would ask the price for, say, a kilo of mangos, think it was too high and go to the next stall over, where the proprietor would begin negotiations at 1/4 the asking amount. Of course, we wanted the farmer to earn a fair price, but we also did not want to be taken advantage of. And with every visit to the market, as sellers began to recognize us, the prices got lower and lower. It was all so subjective and difficult to navigate. The
Sea turtles everywhere
This one is a hawksbill
idea of 'foreigner prices' is institutionalized there: buses, trains, museums - everything has one price for Vietnamese, and an inflated price for foreigners. Even restaurants print two menus with the foreigner menu listing the exact same food but in English and at a much higher price. For us, it was very frustrating so we were both relieved to find that tourists in the Philippines pay the same price as locals for food, ferry tickets, tricycle rides - everything. One price, no haggling!
Panagsama Beach originated as a fishing village and today doesn't offer much more than hotels and restaurants. Luckily Moalboal is only a 5 minute scooter ride away and has a market with fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, though the quality and diversity of the fruits and vegetables are far inferior to that we found everywhere in Vietnam. For everything else, like dry staples, it is a 20 minute drive on the scooter two towns over. The drive is well worth it because every day at the grocery store (Gaisano) is a dance party. Another similarity Filipinos share with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans is they love to laugh and dance and party. The store's speakers blare
music so loudly you need to yell to be heard. Usually it's hip hop - Eminem or Black Eyed Peas - mixed with pop music. Entire families sing along while shopping and wait patiently when every once in a while a cashier breaks in to ask for a price check. You can't help but shake your booty while you cruise the cereal aisle. Unfortunately, the shelves are stocked with a lot of processed food full of sugar or salt and MSG or other additives. So in spite of having way more options here, we go home with very little.
The Philippines does not require a Visa for the first 30 days but for longer stays you need to visit Immigration and apply for an extension. To do this we made plans for an overnight visit to Cebu City as we thought it was our only option. We weren't excited about it as we'd heard the office there is very slow and it could take up to two full days to receive permission. The woman who rented us the cottage recommended we take a ferry to Negros, the next island over, and visit the immigration office there. The next morning
we left at 5:30AM to catch the 7AM ferry. Driving the Cebu highway on our little scooter is a very pleasant and beautiful experience. The ocean borders it on one side and the jungle the other. There are mostly other scooters on the road and though the drivers aren't quite as polite as in Vietnam, and drive more quickly, they don't pull out randomly in front of you without doing shoulder checks. Buses, cars and trucks seem a little more anxious to pass, and will tail you and then pass very closely, but generally everyone seems to get along. Once again, no road rage. The cost for the ferry for two people and a scooter, return, was $6 and the ferry service is very efficiently run - both trips we took left and arrived right on time and when we bought our first ticket they gave us a written schedule so we'd know our options, they offer many trips every day so it's easy to find one that will work. I guess this is to be expected in a nation made up of over 7,000 islands. After a 45 minute trip we arrived on Negros and drove for about 30
minutes to arrive in the city of Dumaguete, a much larger place than Moalboal.
Our experiences there were two-fold, though I have to say we only spent one day in the city so please read the following with that in mind. The immigration office was efficient and well organized, there was no wait and the clerks were helpful, but it was dirty and run-down. After the meticulous maintenance of every street, rice paddy and lane in Vietnam, the whole city seemed uncared for and scruffy. There are large posted notices all over that Dumaguete is a smoke-free city by law and we saw several religious statements extolling the virtues of moral living painted on white-washed walls, but we both felt an undercurrent of desperation and were on edge the whole time we were there. While we waited for our visas we tried to walk on the boardwalk but were quickly chased off by aggressive hawkers and beggars. Only then did we notice that there were no other tourists or even local Filipinos in the park or on the boardwalk. We were both overwhelmed by the amount of people asking for money, everywhere we went someone would approach us with
an outstretched hand, ask for money and try to bully us if we politely said no. Women laid their babies outside of shop entrances so people had to step over them as they went in or out.
When we first started searching ex-pat forums and researching long term rentals on-line we kept stumbling onto what we thought were dark corners of the internet, where men discussed services for finding young wives or 'girlfriends' in the Philippines. Upon arrival we noticed that the ex-pat community is made up almost entirely of men married to or living with often much younger women. In fact we have yet to meet or hear of any female ex-pat, young or old, though we have met several men that have moved here, married Filipino women and opened restaurants, adventure tour outfits, dive shops etc. Most of the hotels in Panagsama Beach seem to be run by these couples. In Dumaguete our experience at Immigration confirmed that this seems to be the main kind of long term tourist here. Besides Matt and I, every other person that entered the office and applied for a stay extension was an older white man (60s - 70s) with a
young Filipino woman. Sometimes the couple had a small child with them. This is markedly different than every other country we visited where the ex-pat community was made up of young and old, male and female, singles and couples. We saw several local/ex-pat couples in Sri Lanka and Vietnam, but the gender of the foreigner varied, and they were much more closely matched in age.
From what we have seen, this arrangement seems to be not only tolerated, but encouraged here. The few ex-pats we've talked with about this told us that the young women actively pursue older men, because they are more likely to marry them and remain loyal and they are more financially secure. We spoke a little with a couple who had left their newborn with the woman's mother while they took some time to enjoy a 2nd honeymoon. He was at least 75 and she couldn't have been older than 25, but she seemed very happy. He is retired, they live in the South of France, and can afford to come to the Philippines whenever they want for holiday. One time Matt took a wrong turn on the scooter and ended up in front of
with remoras in tow
a local's house. The man invited Matt in for a beer and told him he had a younger sister he'd introduce him to. Within minutes she was presented to him.
The internet warns that the Philippines is a country rife with child prostitution, and most often this means underaged women working in massage parlours, strip clubs etc, that can be hired out for a night or a week or longer. In this environment of acceptance the men flaunt the young women on their arms and an age difference that makes me involuntarily flinch is perfectly acceptable. The ex-pats we've met don't seem to be shy about it and often bring it up in conversation, talking about their wives or girlfriends. I've questioned my own immediate rush to judgement when I see these couples. The women seem very happy to have security for themselves and their children and the men are certainly happy. But as much as I can logically accept that it may be a fair trade-off, it still leaves me feeling uneasy that this seems to be such a prominent option for so many young women seeking security and well-being.
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