Cycling Down the Coast from Cebu
I finally found the energy to pack up my pannier bags and do a bit of cycling. As soon as I started riding, I realized why I had gotten stuck in Cebu for so long. This cycling business is damn hard. Damn hard. I suppose, if I can be a cliché for a minute, it could be because I’m older. I like to think that getting older doesn’t make any difference. But evidence suggests that it does. I was a total wreck at the end of my first day and I’m a total wreck here on the morning of the third.
A list of my various injuries and ailments would start with just a general fatigue everywhere – particularly my legs. My eyes now go without question. I can barely see first thing in the morning out of my left eye. It’s exhausting. The list would then go to what is very sore. That would be my butt, the palms of my hands (which are terribly bruised and swollen), the muscles of my upper thigh, and my neck. The worst injury is the funniest one. That would be two deep red circular burns on my back in exactly those new areas of skin exposed by my new tank top. I’ve only worn regular button-down shirts so far, and this is the first time I’ve tried a tank top. I applied sunscreen, but apparently I didn’t apply enough or I missed that area of my back. In either case, when I got to my first destination and I took off my shirt and caught sight of my back in a mirror, I nearly had a heart attack. I was BURNED. Burned deep. I didn’t feel it at all when it was happening. I’m hoping it won’t be too much of a mess as it develops and eventually heals. I’m sure I’ll lose all the skin as it peels off, but I’m hoping there won’t be any bubbling and oozing and that sort of thing. Last night, I found that I was stuck to the sheets as I moved around. The flesh at my shoulders was getting moist and sticking to the bedding.
Packing up and getting out of Cebu was not as traumatic as I expected. I was already pretty much packed anyway. I went out for breakfast, and noted that the sky looked promising. There were dark rain clouds, but there was also a bit of sun peeking through. I went back to my room for a few minutes and rested. Then I went out again and upon a second viewing, the sky looked much clearer. If I was ever going to go, this was the day to do it.
I knew my way out of Cebu, of course. I had become pretty familiar with the city. And heavy as the bike was, it felt familiar and I just dealt with it. A great thing about island countries is that they generally have a major road going along the coast all the way around. This is their main highway, and you just have to find it and then stay on it. I found it easily as it was the second street up from my hotel. And staying on it was easy. The interior of Cebu consists of all mountains, and if I suddenly found myself going straight up steep roads into the mountains, then I knew I was going wrong. If the ocean stayed on my left and the road did not suddenly become insanely steep, then I was still on the main highway and heading south.
The weather did not quite live up to expectations and stay picture perfect. Clouds moved in, a strong wind picked up, and rains came and went. The rain and clouds didn’t bother me though. I am only too familiar with the alternative – blazing sun. You might wish for the sun to come out, but when it does, you quickly regret getting your wish. As long as the rain does not turn into an all-day downpour, then I’m fine with it. The rain was strong enough to soak and chill me, but it was never strong enough to call for the raincovers. The two times the rain did get strong, I found a convenient overhanging roof to shelter under. These spaces would be occupied by guys who rode bicycle taxis or other people sheltering from the rain. They generally ignored me. It’s probably not an accurate picture of the island, but I find that people on Cebu speak much less English than those on Luzon, Samar, and Leyte. In any event, very few people here ever strike up a conversation. And when I approach people, I often find it difficult to communicate with them. It’s probably just a series of coincidences, but it seems like people here speak less English.
There was one point at which I could have turned right and gone over the mountains to the other side of Cebu. There, I could catch a boat to Negros, which is the island I was most interested in. However, by the time I got to that turn-off, I realized that it was going to be hard enough just cycling up the hills along the coast. I wasn’t ready to face climbing up the mountainous spine of Cebu.
Overall, the cycling was more pleasant than I expected. If this was my first experience of the Philippines, I’d probably have found it fascinating. As it was, everything was quite familiar and the sights of daily life were no surprise. Yet, the road was in much better shape than I expected, the climbs not quite as demanding, the scenery quite pleasant with fields of ripening rice against a backdrop of mountains, and the sights interesting. I hadn’t heard anything about the towns along the southeastern coast, and I was pleasantly surprised at what I encountered. For one thing, the towns were smaller than I expected. Cebu is highly developed by Philippine standards and I thought it might consist of endless urban sprawl. Yet, once I got out of Cebu, I found myself back in familiar rural territory with smallish towns with the main street doubling as the national highway. To one side would be farms and rice fields and villages climbing up the sides of the mountains. To the other side would be a cluster of pleasant little houses and empty streets until you reach the fishing boats on the coast and the wharf stretching out into the ocean. In almost every town, I would ride to the coast and go out to the end of the wharf to take in the sights and admire the scenery stretching out to both north and south. Storm clouds were always on the horizon across the ocean and it was interesting to watch the rain come down in dark bands. I’m sure rain clouds look exactly the same on land, but we don’t usually have the perspective to see them. On the flat ocean, you can see much farther and take it all in. Most interesting of the sights were the Spanish cathedrals. There were a surprising number of them. Almost every town of any size boasted a centuries-old stone structure dating back to colonial times. I was not in a photographic mood, so I let most of them go by without taking out the camera. Beautiful and scenic as they were, they were quite common. By this point, I could have a collection of hundreds of such photographs if I wished. An amusing aspect of these cathedrals is how many times they’ve been burned to the ground and rebuilt and destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt. Every church had a historical plaque out front and I stopped to read them. In Samar and Leyte these plaques were generally in English or in two languages. On Cebu, they are all in Cebuano or Tagalog, so I can’t read them. However, the story is quite familiar to me, and I only have to scan the two or three paragraphs to get the gist. There is always an original number stretching far back into the past like 1711 or 1690. That would be the day the church was first built. It was probably a much smaller affair at that time. Then would come a series of years – all separated by a couple of decades. Based on what I read in Samar and Leyte, each date represented a time when the church was destroyed and then rebuilt. That last date was usually quite recent – post World War II – and that date would represent when the building I was looking at was actually built. This added an interesting side to taking in the sights. The buildings looked very old and I would imagine I was looking at something dating back centuries. But, inevitably, the building itself would only be forty or fifty years old at most, which begs the question of why it looks so old. My guess is that they would usually reuse the original stones, so even though the construction was new, the construction material was much older. Plus, the construction method was not exactly high-tech, so the buildings looked somewhat ramshackle and crumbling. It was like faux history.
I spent my first night in a small town called Argao. Argao was a very pleasant surprise, boasting a number of colonial buildings, wide streets, an attractive waterfront with beaches and beach resorts, plus a wide flat plain filled with rice fields stretching out to the base of the mountains. The town made a good impression, and it was a natural as a place to stay. My legs had given out long before, and I had considered staying in Sibonga, 16 kilometers earlier, but I continued on and I was glad I did. Argao was a much nicer place. It was so nice that I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. In a way, Argao is a perfect example of why cycling is a good way to travel. It falls into that category of a beautiful and interesting place to visit, yet you wouldn’t tell someone to make a special trip to go there. If someone heard me praising the place and then deliberately flew into Cebu and took a bus to Argao to see the place, they’d be disappointed. There is no “wow” factor there, no huge tourist attraction. One would never go there on purpose, unless you went there from Cebu City on a weekend trip to hang out at one of the beach resorts. But it is a real gem, and a delight to discover on your own while cycling past.
That isn’t to say that Argao was all peaches and cream. The problem was the normal one in the Philippines – the lack of backpacker style accommodation. Backpackers don’t visit places like Argao, so typical backpacker hotels don’t develop. Argao caters to people on pleasure holidays – mainly rich Filipinos – and the hotels (called pension houses) and the resorts cater to them. The first place I spotted was a pension house right on the highway. I stopped to ask about their rates, and I was disappointed to learn that they were somewhat high at 700 pesos. That is normal for the Philippines and actually not expensive at all. But I keep hoping to find places for half that much or even less. The problem is that the bulk of the 700 pesos is going towards things that I don’t need or want: hot water, air conditioning, TV with cable, and a nice bed and soft sheets and pillows. From that point of view, this pension house was an incredible bargain. Seven hundred pesos is about $17. For the average holiday-maker, that is a bargain. If you came to the Philippines on a regular vacation, it would be wonderful to get all that for $17. But my brain is programmed for the $5/night room which comes with just a mattress and a shared bathroom. As long as the door locks and there is water in the bathroom, I’m fine. I don’t want the air conditioning or the TV, but in the Philippines, it’s hard to avoid it.
I left that pension house and spent an hour just riding around the town checking it out and looking for other places to stay. I’m fairly certain there are other options. There must be. Homestays, perhaps. Few Filipinos can fork over 700 pesos per night. And some poorer Filipinos must have to travel. Where do they stay at night? I’ve never managed to figure that out, and the only other places I found in Argao were more expensive. There was another pension house at 900 pesos and a beach resort at 1,400 pesos. The beach resorts are the worst when it comes to pricing, and, unfortunately, they are the most common type of accommodation in the Philippines. This one came with swimming pools on top of everything else. Again, a major bargain for the average person at 1,400 pesos, but too much for a backpacker type. I ended up going back to the original pension house and taking a room there. They only had rooms on the second floor, and it was a tiny place, so I had some trouble carrying up my bags and then my bicycle. Luckily, they didn’t mind my keeping my bicycle in my room.
I said that I didn’t need or want any of the luxuries of this room, but now that I’d paid for them, I certainly enjoyed them. It was wonderful to take my first hot shower since I left Taiwan. I’d forgotten how good that felt. I blasted the air conditioner and got out my sleeping bag to nestle under it while keeping the air super cool. The bed was wide and extremely comfortable and the pillows and sheets like a dream. I turned on the TV and flipped through about a hundred channels including HBO and other premium stations. I was suddenly in the world of “The Walking Dead” and “Erin Brockovich” and “The Matrix.” I actually watched the final thirty or forty minutes of The Matrix. I didn’t even bother with dinner. I’d had breakfast in Cebu City and a big lunch on the road somewhere. Now that I was comfortably settled in that room of luxury, I didn’t want to go back outside. I didn’t feel hungry in any event, and I just stayed inside. I instantly began thinking that I should stay a second night so that I could spend the next day exploring Argao with my camera. This appears to be my big problem as a “traveler”. It’s always been my problem, but it has gotten more extreme with age – I see so much of interest in my immediate surroundings, I don’t see the point of going somewhere new. It’s like you can choose between skimming the surface of fifty towns or staying in and really getting to know just one. Lately, I keep picking the “one town” approach. I would have stayed in Argao if I hadn’t just spent months and months in Cebu and if the pension house was cheaper. As it was, I decided to pack up and move on the next morning.
“What about camping?” I can hear you ask. Yes, what ABOUT camping? Well, it seemed impossible. It really did. If I could have stumbled across ideal circumstances – a secluded beach, perhaps – I’d consider camping. Then I could set up my tent right there near the water and I could dive into the ocean and cool down and clean up and attend to the calls of nature without a problem and without a concern for theft. But despite looking around all day long, I never saw a single place where camping was even remotely an option. In extreme circumstances, I could perhaps approach local people and just ask if I could set up my tent on their land. But that is problematic, as I’ve learned. People here are surprisingly addicted to rules and procedures, and they don’t like anything unusual. A local person is reluctant to do anything without the permission of the barangay captain and getting that permission leads to all kinds of complications. I did that on Catanduanes because I had no choice. It led to interesting experiences, but it was never what you would call comfortable. Putting aside those issues, I was physically 100% incapable of camping. There was no way. I stayed the night in the lap of luxury with access to a full modern bathroom, and even then I barely kept it together enough to get back on the road the next morning. At the end of the day, I was so dirty that I was not fit for human company. My clothing was soaking wet with sweat. Soaking wet. I was a disgusting heap, and I couldn’t imagine setting up the tent and crawling inside to lie there just sweating and stewing in my disgusting state for the next ten hours till the sun came up. Then, still disgusting, put that wet clothing back on and continue cycling. How do other cyclists do it? I have no idea. I think in a different country with a cooler climate, it would be different. I had no such problems cycling across Canada or down the coast of the US. I slept out for night after night after night, and it was fine. The difference was that I wasn’t dealing with the overwhelming heat and humidity. I can imagine cycling through Turkey or southern Europe and not having this problem. But in the tropics, the heat is a beast. Even in this pension house, I had to spend time dealing with my clothes. If I left them just to dry, they would quickly become rancid and disgusting. I didn’t have the energy to wash them, but I did take the time to soak them many times with fresh water and try to get the sweat out. That is more difficult now that I have a cotton tank top. Cotton takes far longer to dry than my usual high tech clothing. Anyway, I had to rinse out and hang up all my clothing and get it to dry during the night. Then I had to attend to the mud and grease all over my bike and all over my gear. I dealt with the food issue by just not eating at all. How could I have done any of this while sitting inside my tent beside some farmer’s bamboo hut and with thirty people standing in a circle asking me why I wasn’t married to a Filipina? I simply couldn’t. You could survive doing that, but it would be pure misery.
I hit the road the next morning and continued down the coast road. According to my maps, there was the possibility of getting a boat from the next big town up the road to the island of Siquijor – another place I want to visit. Unfortunately, when I got to Dalaguete, I found that the boat had long ago stopped running. I can still go to Siquijor, of course, but I will have to ride to the southern tip of Cebu and then take a boat to Negros and then another boat to Siquijor from the city of Dumaguete. That was my original plan anyway.
The towns I passed through continued to be interesting and pleasant and I passed the time taking in the cathedrals, cycling out onto the wharves, and that sort of thing. Life in general was certainly a big improvement over life in downtown Cebu. Whereas every human interaction in Cebu made me angry, the human interactions I now had were largely pleasant. There weren’t many of them, to be sure. A wonderful thing about the Philippines is the abundance of filtered water stations. I drink like I should have a garden hose permanently attached to my stomach. I drink and drink and drink and drink. It’s crazy. And it all pours out of my pores in sweat. So it’s wonderful to be able to fill up all my bottles almost any time I want. The first time I did this, the man at the water station waved off my attempt to pay. My three and a half liters of water amounts to nothing compared to the hundreds of gallons they produce every day. In Oslob, where I am currently, they charged me fifteen pesos to fill up my water bag. It’s a ten-liter bag, but the way they fill it up, it generally holds around eight liters. Fifteen pesos for eight liters of purified water is a bargain. These water stations are very professional and keep everything clean. Even when I assure them that there is no need, they give my water bottles a good scrubbing with soap and water before they fill them. I must be an amusing sight to them. When I pull up, I often have a full water bottle or two left. I want to ride away with as much water as possible, so I stand there and drink like a camel to empty all of my bottles first. I treat my stomach like an extra water bottle that can hold two liters of water. I don’t think the water stays in my stomach for more than a minute. It just gets sucked into my body like a sponge mopping up a spill on a table. Sluuuuuurrp, and it’s gone instantly.
Oslob is an interesting town. It is famous for whale sharks. The local people got the idea to start feeding the whale sharks to attract them. In other places, they simply go out looking for them. I intended to swim with whale sharks near Legazpi when I arrived, but there were no whale sharks that year. None at all. Oslob had tons of them because of this feeding process. The whale sharks got so accustomed to being fed that it disrupted their usual migrations. Instead of migrating, they just stayed put. Of course, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding this in a addition to criticism of how people interact with the sharks. Westerners, of course, are hyper-concerned with treating the sharks with dignity and not affecting their natural behavior. Filipinos, and Taiwanese, and Chinese, and Japanese are less concerned. I’ve read multiple articles online that are critical of the whale shark industry in Oslob. I read so much that I’m now reluctant to do it myself. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. My guess is that the experience would be largely negative anyway. I’ve not had any good experiences with local tourism. I’ll probably ride my bike over to the area where they offer the whale shark tours just to check it out, but I doubt I’ll do it myself.
But back to Oslob. I arrived here relatively early yesterday afternoon. I rode over eighty kilometers on my first day out of Cebu. The second day was much tougher – tired body and lots of steep hills and lots of rain – and I only covered about sixty-five kilometers. At first Oslob didn’t seem like anything special. Not nearly as attractive as Argao. However, after riding around the town, I found that they had a very nice waterfront. The cathedral was down there along with some other old stone structures. They had built a very nice grassy park between the cathedral and the shore. It was unusual to see. On Letye and Samar, the waterfront areas were generally hidden behind high walls or behind buildings. What waterfront was visible consisted largely of slum dwellings built on stilts above the water. In effect, there was no waterfront. Cebu seems to be much more prosperous, and I don’t see the same level of slum dwelling. On my ride so far, I’ve hardly seen any at all.
While I was down at the park, I chatted with an older man. He used to work at sea but was now retired. He knew a lot about the area and we chatted about Siquijor and an island called Sumilon and the whale shark tours. I asked him if he knew of any cheap pension houses. It turned out that his brother rented out rooms and he offered to take me there. That didn’t work because the rooms, though nice enough, were very simple and he charged 800 pesos a night. That was for a small room with simply a bed and a fan. There wasn’t even a bathroom. The bathroom was shared and down the hall. I had just paid 700 pesos for a room of utter luxury, so 800 pesos for a monk’s chambers didn’t seem reasonable, and I said that I would keep looking. The old man asked me what the problem was, and I said the rooms were overpriced. He laughed and said that I was supposed to tell them that and bargain over the price. I told the old man that I didn’t like bargaining, that it wasn’t a Canadian custom. We ask for the price, and if we don’t like it, we walk away and go somewhere else. Bargaining is so tiring and such a waste of time. In any event, even if I had bargained, I might have gotten the price down to 700 or 600 pesos. That would still be too much. At best, I would be willing to pay 400 pesos and that would only because I knew it was a tourist town with tourist prices.
I got on my bike and to my delight found a place with a large room with a private bath for 200 pesos a night. At last! Backpacker prices. Of course, that comes with backpacker conditions – cold water shower, tons of spiders, thin mattresses, sheets like nylon. But that’s okay with me. I got the impression that I could even have bargained this price down, but 200 pesos seemed fine to me.
Once I’d settled into my room, I went out with my bike and camera to explore the town and find water and otherwise get oriented. I ran into the old man again and we talked about the unemployment problem in the Philippines. The schools had just let out and hundreds of students were going past us down the road. That’s all I ever see in the Philippines – students. Millions and millions of them, and they are all graduating at a furious pace and looking for jobs. And there just aren’t enough jobs for them.
And that brings things up to date. I slept well underneath my wonderful mosquito net. Without it, I wouldn’t have survived. I suffered through an intensely cold shower this morning and went out to the beach to find that the tide had come way up and huge waves were crashing down. Big rainstorms were on the horizon over the island of Siquijor. In the rocks at my feet were hundreds of tiny hermit crabs scrambling around. Funny creatures. They have good vision, I have to say. If I moved my hand or arm anywhere near them, they instantly tucked their bodies into their shells and hid. They were so fast. One second, the rocks were alive with motion, then bam! No movement anywhere.
I forgot to mention perhaps the biggest feature of my cycling experience – the traffic. That was definitely NOT pleasant. I don’t know where they have to go, but the Filipinos are a mobile people, and I had to deal with hundreds of huge buses passing me all day long. And these are big, modern, powerful buses. They do not co-exist well with slower forms of transportation, such as the local farmers use, so there was a constant battle going on. One weapon in this battle is the air horns on the buses, which they blow constantly. That was a nightmare. It surprises me how many buses are on the road and how fancy they are. I was also surprised at the number of luxury cars on the road as well as the number of big, expensive houses I passed. I keep wondering who these people are that live in those houses and drive those expensive cars. Even in the places where I stopped for lunch or had breakfast in Argao, I was joined by Filipinos traveling on their brand new motorcycles. They’d be dressed in brand name clothing with fancy helmets and using all the latest electronic gadgets. They are all clearly wealthy – much wealthier than me – and I wonder what kind of jobs they have that can support all that consumerism. Who are all these rich people? I never get to meet them, so they remain a mystery. There are many layers to the Philippines. There are the extremely poor – such as the thousands of people who died during the typhoon in Tacloban. Then there are the standard working poor – the day laborers making 300 pesos a day. But there are clearly many many quite rich people. Where does their money come from? Or maybe the houses and motorcycles and cars are not that expensive here. The economic life of this country is certainly a mystery.
One final note along those lines. People constantly react to my bicycle. They go on and on about how expensive it is. And they naturally associate this with the rich life they imagine going on in Canada. So they think I’m a rich person. Yet, these people are driving around in nice cars and living in huge houses and swiping away on Galaxy Notes. I realized that when they see my bicycle, they see it as only one example of all my possessions. They assume that I also have a car and a motorcycle and a house somewhere. And if my bicycle is this fancy, then they can only imagine how fancy my car and house are. They don’t understand that I only have this bicycle. That’s it. There’s nothing else. Sure, it’s a fancier bicycle than local bikes, but that doesn’t make me rich. When I ask people about cheap pension houses, they always assure me that this or that place is very cheap. Then when I press them, they say that it costs about 1,000 pesos a night. One guy in Argao told me about a cheap place. He didn’t say a price, though. He just looked at my bike and said “You can afford it.” I got to the place he recommended and it cost 1,500 pesos a night. Not cheap in my book. I think in a weird way, it would be cheaper to visit the Philippines if you go to the big tourist places like Boracay, El Nido, Baguio, and the Chocolate Hills. Those places see a steady stream of backpackers, and accommodation suitable to them has sprung up. Hit the average road like I’m doing, and it is a different story. Kind of pricey.