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Falling in Love with the Philippines

The Philippines government has a tourism campaign called, “It’s more fun in the Philippines” and until we had a few days of Filipino sand under our feet, I thought it was just another silly marketing ploy.  But dude!, it’s true: everything really is more fun in the Philippines.

We started our journey on the island of Bohol, west of Leyte and east of Cebu in the central part of the Philippines – the Visayas.  First, let me explain how difficult it is choose a destination in the Philippines.  The country is made up of 7,107 islands.  That’s over 7,000 islands to narrow down to just two or three.  My main requisites were good beaches and calm waters.  All I could envision was the two older littles scavenging the beach for hermit crabs and galavanting through clear waters while I nursed the baby on shore – everyone content and happy.  Now, to be sure, this didn’t exactly create a short list of islands, but it did give me a place to start: a CNN travel article titled, The Philippines best beaches and islands.  The Philippines most famous beaches are found on Boracay, but that means that they are packed to the gills with tourists and that wasn’t going to make anyone content, so I quickly crossed it off the list (though plenty of folks do give Boracay glowing reviews).  Half of the top ten beaches were very difficult to get to and that didn’t satisfy my second and last requisite – our destination needed to be relatively accessible – which meant no 8 hour bus rides or long ferries.  We’re generally game for whatever it takes to get to where we want to be but the newest addition to our tribe has temporarily modified our travel style a wee bit.

Panglao, an island connected by bridge to Bohol, was a clear winner.  Our hotel was less than 10 kilometers from Tagbilaran Airport and the beaches were supposed to be great.  The main tourist area on the island is Alona Beach, which we avoided for the same reasons we scratched Boracay off the list (though it is a great place to grab dinner and drinks, even with three kids).  We decided to stay at the northern end of the island in a fairly undeveloped area called Dauis.   Lucky for us, it just so happens that there is an awesome little guesthouse just next door to a beautiful big resort there – get a more intimate, provincial experience for a fraction of the cost by night but still take advantage of the luxuries of the big resort by day.  Sign me up.

Natura Vista Resort (hardly a resort, more of a guesthouse), is as cute as they come.  The rooms are set around a central courtyard teeming with beautiful foliage… and a slightly strange little pond/plunge pool/fountain-with-no-fountain thing.  We arrived on Valentines Day and they had the place decked out, including gratis chocolates for dessert and a heart pillow on our bed.  We stayed in a family room with a queen sized bed and a bunkbed – complete with a private deck with hammock chairs that the biggest little affirmed was “as fun as all the rides at Disneyland”.  It doesn’t take much, folks.

We basically had two full days on Panglao, the first of which we spent at the fancy resort mentioned above, Panglao Island Nature Resort.  Beautiful grounds meet lovely beach meet gorgeously calm and clear water.  For 500 pesos per adult (about $10), we could enjoy the resort until 10pm and apply 350 ($7) of those pesos toward food/drinks.  Yes, please.

We got there early on a Sunday and the place was virtually empty until the new influx of guests came around 4.  Though we all managed to come home sunburned, it was a miraculous start to our journey.

By day two, I began to wonder if the resort staff we had come into contact with were  just super professional, or if it was a theme we’d find throughout our journey – that the people of the Philippines are incredibly friendly, warm, open, and generous… and effing fun too.  I’d have to experience more to find out.

After the relaxing start, we opted to take on an adventure for our last full day on Panglao – we tend to have a hard time sitting still on vacation – new places always feel too exciting.  And so we took a pom boat out to an island about an hour from Panglao, Balicasag.  Balicasag is a prime diving destination in the area, with great snorkeling as well.  Going out there, I’m not sure how we envisioned the snorkeling to go down.  Maybe we thought we’d just snorkle off the boat we took there (which was plenty big for the littles to stretch out and for the baby to chill in his travel bed), or perhaps just off the shore.  As it turned out, we got dropped off on the island and then had to take another – very small – pom boat out to the shelf where the fishies were.  Which meant, to be clear, all five of us on this very small boat that had no sun shade.

The bigger littles plastered in sunscreen and the baby covered by the shade of an umbrella, we paddled out.  The Mister was first to jump in and while we waited, I held the umbrella with one hand and a nursing baby with the other, all the while praying that neither of the other two lost their shit.  Which they didn’t, partially due to our accommodating “boat man” (a term we came to learn referred to any man whom manned a boat) who kindly fed the fish biscuits so the kids could air snorkel.  I loathe wild creatures being fed with human food, but for the sake of mental sanity, it’s funny/disturbing how quickly these sorts of ideals are compromised.  It’s called survival, people.  And the relaxing of ideals.  And the disappointing result of parenthood.  And realism.

At long last, it was my turn, yippee!  We were just next to a shelf that dropped down into the great abyss of the sea, a first for me snorkeling, and I could have stayed there all day.  “Boat man” free dove into the depths while I floated, completely mesmorized by it all.  We have yet to sacrifice the time of a tropical vacay to get scuba certified – but it can wait no longer – I must soon experience the great abyss.  Though Balicasag reef is well known for its turtle population, we sadly saw none the day we were there.  My cake tasted plenty sweet without green sea turtles sprinkling on their magic though.

We rounded out our journey at Virgin Island, a small island with a long sandbar and while the mister and the “kids”, which for all purposes stated herein shall refer to the older two littles, adventured about the isand, baby and I chatted with our “boat man”.  Also known as Rafael, he was from the teeny tiny  island of Balicasag and had recently finished high school on Panglao (where he would live in dorms during the week and go home on weekends – something that seems to be quite common in Asia).  He and his assistant wore American t-shirts, most likely picked up at a second-hand clothing stall.  Something like the stuff that doesn’t sell at thrift stores in the US, gets sold to developing countries.  Something like that, I’ve read about it – can’t recall exact details.  But the point is that the stuff we don’t want and that it turns out no one wants, actually gets sold, for money, to other places.  People have to pay money (and more importantly, people make money) for one man’s trash, twice over.  Free trade agreements at their finest.  The result of this is that local industries don’t have a chance and money gets funneled to places it shouldn’t be going.  The rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

Anyway, more about our first world problems (that somehow feel extremely trivial now).

Hungry upon our return, we grabbed dinner from the “Great Australian BBQ” that was run by an American man from Oregon.  It was here that I became witness to a trend we would see throughout the country: young Filipina women and older western men.  A scenario I’m not altogether unfamiliar with having traveled quite a bit throughout Asia, but found in far greater frequency in the Philippines.  While I’m sure that the vast majority of these unions are by choice and are mutually beneficial, it almost never ceases to send a quiver down my spine; it’s the same feeling I get when I see American immigrants barely scraping by and sending every extra penny back home or read stories about Nepali domestic helpers in the Middle East working as modern day slaves (though a far more extreme form of inequality, I realize).  It’s just not fair.  The world isn’t equitable.  The disparity of wealth is staggering.  It’s like being born in a geographic prison.  To get out, you have a sell part (or all) of yourself.

And then we ate delicious organic ice cream made by Bohol Bee Farm.  How incredibly fortunate we are.

When we woke up the following morning, my girl let out a cough and another quiver was sent down my spine (suffering is relative, right?).  She had had viral pneumonia not 6 weeks prior (that found her on the couch with a fever for 14 days) and I knew that her little lungs were ever more vulnerable to any measly cold virus that entered her body.  Sure enough, she was already hot.  And lethargic.  We had three pretty big travel days ahead and I began to scour the internet for the best hospitals in Manila, should the need arise.  Fortunately, we were just transferring an hour to a resort on Bohol that day, Luboc River Resort, which turned out to be the loveliest of places to be sick in bed.

Occasionally your travels find you in places that just resonate and leave you wishing you had more time to soak it up.  Luboc River Resort was one of those, maybe all of Bohol for that matter.  Nestled in the forest on the banks of the Luboc River, the stilted rooms meander over lush foliage and look out onto emerald green waters.  The Luboc River majorly flooded after an intense rainstorm and delinquent release of a damn upstream not two months prior, flooding all of the rooms at the resort almost to their ceilings.  The resort owner said that within 10 days time, they had restored the resort and if she hadn’t brought us down the road to the grounds keepers house, we would have never seen any sign of the destruction.

The little kitty cat (she really is very cat-like) was able to squeeze in some school work after a dose of Panadol (another of the acetaminophen varietals, Tylenol as we know it in the states), reluctantly given to ease our journey from hotel to hotel.  She was also somehow able to muster the energy to ride a water buffalo.  Yes, a water buffalo.  A first for her and an experience she won’t soon forget.  After the daily “monkey feeding”, the owner of the resort insisted that we walk with her to see the resort pig.  They are trying to create an eco-tourism theme, in a man-made/manipulated sort of way.  As in, they have created a pump system that diverts river water through a waterway on their property, making an island home/cage for the monkeys that by the sounds of it, were rescued as pet monkeys.  They also had a rescued eagle for a while but it’s not quite as easy to keep an eagle confined on an island; it apparently found a gf and flew the coop.

It wasn’t quite clear what the water buffalo was for, tourism or work, but the ground keepers six year old son had become the resident buffalo rider.  When the owner asked if the kids wanted to ride, we initially blew her off, citing the kitty-girls lethargy.  Albeit also a tad bit concerned about the safety of riding a water buffalo of unknown origin.  But cats are to buffalo like glue is to paper and before long, our girl was holding onto her new friend as they waddled down the road.

The restaurant at the resort is beautifully designed, open and airy, and were the food to have matched its thoughtful creation, Luboc River Resort would have been perfect.  But the food basically sucked.  We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner there and all three were equally lacking – though the included free breakfast was the clear loser.  Luboc town is just far enough away that going out is slightly inconvenient but probably what would need to happen if you stayed for more than one night.  Even still, hanging out and relaxing at the restaurant was lovely, bla food and all.

Sure enough, our girl went to bed with a 103 and woke up the next morning nearly as hot.  We had exactly 8 hours left on Bohol and still hadn’t seen the Chocolate Hills or any Tarsiers (the world’s smallest primate) though, so we hired a driver/van, set her up a bed in the back seat, and went to complete our adventure anyway.  What upstanding parents we are, huh?  In our defense, she was able to sleep in the van and we were already debating cutting our trip short to get back home and nurse her back to health in the comfort of her own confines, not knowing if this bout was going to last three days or three weeks.  She was. so. sick.  She couldn’t take but two steps without having to be picked up and her fever wasn’t showing any signs of breaking.

At the very least, our animal loving sick girl would get to see her very first tarsier.  And a sea of brown hills (you can imagine how excited she was about that part).  Generally speaking, there is only so much appreciation you can expect young kids to have of landscape scenery.  The most majestic views are often lost on them.  It’s not reaching the top of the hill that’ll stay with them, it’s the snake shaped stick they found and the ice cream they had on the way that will leave them declaring what a great day it was.

The drive to the Chocolate Hills and the hills themselves were a totally worthwhile journey, even given our circumstances.  Lush rice paddies, limestone mountains, and a driver sweeter than candy passed the time quickly.  Carlos, our driver, was native to Bohol, a father of three who had just rebuilt his house after the flood (his kitchen had completely washed away).  He was in a cooperative that managed a small fleet of tourist vans and had taken it upon himself to thoroughly learn the history of his island and the Philippines (both political and natural) after getting questioned enough by his van hires.  He was awash in facts and kept my husband busy chatting nearly the entire time.  He told us that he only kept 20% of the fare and the rest went to managing the cooperative (a fact that found us generously tipping him) and that as long as he could make 4000 pesos per week (less than $100), he and his family could get by happily.  And he was happy.  The one thing he wished for was to see snow once in his life.  He said that he taught his children to never want more than they needed but that if they did well in school and were able to go to college, they’d be able to achieve more than he had.  I’ve never wanted to give my airline miles away so badly.  Or start a GoFundMe campaign for him.  I REALLY hope that Carlos sees snow someday.

After a fairly agonizing journey back to Manila that afternoon, we were welcomed to the Hyatt City of Dreams with a red carpet.  Talk about spoiled.  Within 20 minutes of arriving, we were in our room eating a free plate of sushi while a doctor listened to our girl’s lungs, waiting for fresh chicken noodle soup for the sicky.  Lungs sounded clear, no surprise (it took three doctors and eventually a chest x-ray to diagnose the pneumonia the first time), so we gave her another dose of Panadol, some kids melatonin, and tried to get some shut-eye.  Not an hour after she went to sleep, she sat up in bed incoherent and crying.  I brought her to the bathroom so she wouldn’t wake the other two and she continued with her helpless hysteria, sort of thrashing her head and crying.  As I pleaded with her to talk to me with no success (she’s naturally a sensitive, introverted processor, so I’m no stranger to sorrowful obstinance when it comes to using words to explain what’s wrong), I began to panic.  This was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  It went on for a few more minutes until I forcefully held her close to me and she eventually spoke the word “mama”.  With my heart racing, we snuggled back in bed while I googled her symptoms.  My diagnosis was a night-terror brought on by her fever.  Strangely enough though, she would have another one when we stayed at the same hotel four days later after her fever had for the most part gone away.  Coincidence?  I can only assume so.

Though she was still hot the next morning, we continued on our journey, knowing our next destination was within a few hours drive of Manila and plenty of competent hospitals.  We were headed to an American/Philippino(a) wedding, so like the screen print on our wedding welcome bags decreed, we decided to “keep calm and party on”.

Though she was still hot the next morning, we continued on our journey, knowing our next destination was within a few hours drive of Manila and plenty of competent hospitals.  We were headed to an American/Philippino(a) wedding, so like the screen print on our wedding welcome bags decreed, we decided to “keep calm and party on”.

As it turned out, one of the wedding guests was an ER doc and was able to listen to our gal’s lungs on demand – which like I said, always sound clear, even when she had viral pneumonia – so this was only so much of a comfort for me.  But nonetheless, a comfort.   Our room was situated on the first floor, pretty much right outside the courtyard where the wedding festivities ensued, which was one part NUTS and one part a blessing.  The NUTS part was the fact that one of the major traditions of a Filipino wedding is music, lots and lots of music.  Not to mention that a couple dozen, perhaps more, of the attendees had been in bands with one of the brides.  Don’t get me wrong, listening to person after person with enough talent to be on stage opening for Sam Smith was awesome, but by 3 in the morning, the bumping bass overwhelmed my sensitive little ears.  Let’s be honest, they were overwhelmed by 11.  All I’m saying is that I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep over those four days.  The blessing, however, was the fact that we were so close to the celebration that we could leave the sicky girl to rest in bed watching movies while we joined the festivities just outside our door.  In the end, it isn’t the missed sleep I will remember.  It is the extreme fun, generosity, and love that was present there.  A spectacular wedding indeed.

In other news, Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, parked his mega-yacht next door to the resort while his team searched and found a long-lost World World II Japanese battle ship, Musashi.  FYI.

By the time we left the wedding and headed back to the Hyatt City of Dreams (which I must say we were pretty excited about based on our first experience) and then onward to Cebu, we were basically smitten with the Philippines.  Its people, its land, and its warm, welcoming ways.

With baby girl on the mend, we kept par for the course and headed to a teeny island (far from any hospitals I’d feel confident about) off the northern coast of Cebu, Bantayan.