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The Mystical Adventures of Tess and Jack

Welcome to the Philippines: surfing and spelunking (respectively) in San Juan and Sagada

PHILIPPINES | Tuesday, 24 January 2012 | Views [1894] | Comments [1]

After saying goodbye to the beautiful, crazy mess that was India, we found ourselves back in the delightful low cost terminal in KL and then up in the air again en route to the second half of our mystical adventure: the Philippines! The flight over was relatively turbulence-and-incident-free. The only things worthy of note were the several overweight, middle aged Australian men travelling solo (really hard not to be judgmental about that over here…), the relative lack of passengers (goodbye India, welcome back personal space bubble!) and the Philippines basketball team who was sharing our flight (my assumption that all Filipinos were tiny was totally dispelled…these boys were about three times my height, and needless to say not entirely impressed by Air Asia’s seating space allocation).

We disembarked at Clark airport (a former US military airbase) which handily is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – actually I lie, it’s conveniently proximate to Angeles, the sex tourism capital of the Philippines – thanks Air Asia! Needless to say we bypassed this little gem and headed straight for our first destination: the village of San Juan on the west coast of Luzon. This leg involved our first jeepney ride (jeepneys are ubiquitous in the Phils – somewhere between a taxi and bus service, they look like stretch hummers, minus any hint of luxury, with two long bench seats in the backfitting about 12-15 people. With true Filipino zest they are invariably decorated in neon colours, cheesy cartoons and chrome ornaments – and each has a unique name, which we will try to come up with an entertaining list of). Next it was time for an easy bus trip north – our Lonely Planet assured us it would be a quick four hour jaunt, so we weren’t too intimidated. Eight hours later (with no obvious reason for the delay) we rolled in to the darkened village. The bus trip was made slightly more bearable by the fact that Jack got to sit next to a woman with THE chubbiest, cutest, most delightful baby on earth. Admittedly it was screaming for half the trip but it made up for it by being ridiculously smiley and adorable the other half. Interestingly, the mother asked Jack to spit on his hand and rub it on the back of the baby’s back and stomach, which is some kind of traditional blessing. Sure…I’ll spit on your baby, no probs.

San Juan is a well-known surfing destination with generally consistent breaks, however during our stay they were quite tame which was disappointing for the locals but perfect for us novices. The first thing I learnt about surfing is that it is not NEARLY as easy nor as sexy as it looks. After a few balancing issues it was relatively easy to stand up. The real problem was the paddling – my weak little chicken arms just could not move the board in the water. My success with standing also came at the cost of multiple wipeouts (think involuntary somersaults in the water, being dragged face down by my ankle strap) and some very tender hips and ribs. My self esteem was boosted heaps by my instructor, a buff, 5 foot, 22 y.o. Filipino named Fernando, who suggested my paddling might be improved by doing push ups or just ‘playing more sports.’ To his credit, he did an awesome job towing me around (yep, he could pull himself and his board and me and my massive foam board just like that – yes, I did feel a lot like Migaloo the albino whale) and was very encouraging. Jack’s instructor, Norman (lol) left a little more to be desired. His English was minimal and he ascribed to the ‘throw in head first’ strategy of teaching. For example, after a few successes with pushing Jack onto the waves he announced “I will teach you how to paddle onto wave now.” Jack was in position, the wave approached, and he looked to Norman for instruction. “Paddle! Paddle!” he screamed – thanks for the tips!

Other than surfing there was not a great deal to do in San Juan so we spent our time relaxing, acclimatising (to a starkly different national culture), hanging out in our very atmospheric accommodation (a traditional thatch nipa hut with a mattress on the floor), stuffing our faces with mangoes and introducing ourselves to Filipino cuisine. The breakfast is especially goodand consists of garlic rice, 2 fried eggs and your choice of honey cured pork, salty beef strips, milk fish or some quite pungent sausages.

We departed San Juan slightly less deathly white and slightly more bruised and forged further northwards to the gorgeous mountain getaway of Sagada. The view from the bus ride (one hour ahead of schedule this time!) was absolutely breathtaking – we climbed quite far into the mountains and were surrounded by thick, lush forest. The view was only slightly detracted from by the multitude of landslides and looming rocky slopes surrounding the road…

Sagada was an exceedingly outdoorsy destination (as are many places here) with lots of good trekking, caving, etc on offer. Two days were spent hiking into Echo Valley to see the hanging coffins (sacrifices of pigs and chickens are made to the gods for the privilege of hanging here…the newest coffin was only strung up last year – see pics – and I’m not sure what the chairs are for either) and through numerous rice paddies and cabbage patches (which are everywhere up north) to a freezing cold waterfall where we swam (no worms that swim up your urethra here, in case you’re wondering) and ate some more mangoes. Our biggest Sagada adventure however was spelunking the ‘Cave Connection’ – an underground passage linking the region’s two largest caves. Our Lonely Planet warned that this was suitable for the ‘reasonably fit and courageous’ and ‘definitely not for the claustrophobic.’ Obviously these scary warnings drew Jack to the idea like a bee to honey. Although worming through a tiny dark tunnel is not exactly my idea of fun I agreed to go along, and as it turned out the passage was hardly squeezy at all and I didn’t suffer from claustrophobia whatsoever. What I should have been more concerned about was the ‘relatively fit’ part, which didn’t really mean relatively fit at all, but rather ‘really awesome arm muscles and the ability to rappel down, and climb up, up slippery vertical limestone surfaces without breaking a limb.’ Luckily our guide was used to my type (another buff five foot Filipino…please keep sending them my way, they make me feel so capable) and allowed me to step all over him during the three hour scramble. He and Jack also did lots of pushing and pulling so that I made it – only a little scraped and quite wet (the water was waist-deep in the bottom of the passage) – back into the glorious sunshine.

With one month in this amazing country still to go, we are continuing our sojourn north and will trek tomorrow to the tiny village of Batad where we’ll see the famous ‘eighth wonder of the world’ that is the Ifaguo rice terraces! I will leave you with lots of love, and a few of our observations about the Philippines so far….

·         The food, especially in contrast to very-vegetably South India, is incredibly heavy on the meat, especially pork (Jack is in heaven). On a down note, the food is significantly more expensive than in India (think $3-$4 per meal).

·         Beer flows freely everywhere in the country. The national beer is San Miguel (commonly known as ‘San Mig’) which is advertised everywhere as well; our favourite was a ‘drive safely’ sign with a glistening bottle of cool San Mig in the background.

·         Our noses are slowly recovering from the Indian onslaught: the Philippines doesn’t smell!

·         The people speak great English (American influence) with an almost Latin American twang.

·         Our fingernails (and Jack’s beard) are growing at a normal pace again. I don’t think I mentioned it but they were going crazy in India – a diet-related mystery?

     Filipino tourists have a better idea of fun than Indian ones (we were in Sagada during Chinese New Year so it was very busy, and everyone was getting their hands dirty doing exactly the same things we were). 

 Filipino babies are undoubtedly the cutest babies in the whole entire world. Full stop.

T & J xoxox




Loving your descriptions and glad you got there safely!! Tell Jack he doesn't need to eat as much...will save you some $$!! xxoo

  Ma Jan 31, 2012 11:12 AM

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