By Marcello Montebon
After nearly a week in Manila, Philippines I was ready for an escape from the swarms of people, choking pollution, and constant noise. Boracay Island was our choice of destination since it is hyped as one of the nicest beaches in Asia. Charlotte and I were looking forward to seeing the real Philippines. The flight was about an hour, and then a 1.5 hour bus ride from Kalibo to Caticlan through the beautiful countryside of Panay Island.
The bus ride probably could have been shorter but the driver had to stop for gas on the way, then to pick up some fish for delivery to the island. A bit strange I thought, but that’s how things are done here. The locals say they are on Filipino time. On the way back we took a private van with a psychotic driver. He drove like a maniac running over a couple roosters in the road without blinking an eye, and darn near picked off a couple kids too. I guess he wasn’t on Filipino time.
There is an option to fly straight to Caticlan, but I’ve heard the runway is very short which has caused a few accidents. We were satisfied with our decision to ride the bus. Once in Caticlan it’s about a 10 minute ride via an outrigger boat to Boracay Island. No need to worry about getting lost, because just like everywhere else in the Philippines there are always 10 people waiting to assist you. When it comes to carrying my bags I prefer to do it myself, but the porters can be very persistent. Once they help, then you feel obligated to tip them, although sometimes they seemed surprised when you do.
|Where is Nemo?|
The white sands of Boracay welcomed us as we walked off the boat. We followed the porters down the sandy main strip past all the vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, massages, and so on. Then we turned down a seedy looking alley for about a block before arriving at our hotel the Lorenzo Main. We were greeted with a delicious frozen iced tea drink, and a beaded necklace. The hotel was quite nice and peaceful except for the occasion rooster crowing. All the rooms were separate huts suitable to stay in for a long period of time. For the price of about 30 U.S. per night I thought it would be a nice place to spend a few weeks.
The main touristy beach area on the west side of Boracay is divided into 3 stations. Station 3 where we stayed starts on the south end of the island. There are several local vendors here and some cheaper hotels. It wasn’t that nice, but nice enough for us. Station 2 is a little nicer and more like you would expect for hotels, restaurants, and shopping. Station 1 on the north end was upscale with a Caribbean feel. The whole stretch of all three stations is a few miles long and connected by a walking path along the beach. You can also cut over to the main road and take a tricycle to save walking time. A tricycle is a motorcycle with a sidecar attached for people to sit in. If you ever ride in one of these you’ll find this can be an adventure all on it’s own.
Once we got settled in we ventured out for some eats. Charlotte’s brother Eric, her mom, and two of her mom’s friends (the ladies) were all with us the first two days. Filipinos love buffets so it’s no surprise we somehow ended up at a Korean buffet, not my first choice. Buffets are the easiest place to get sick, especially in third world countries. The amount of stray dogs running around didn’t make me feel any better about eating the mystery meat in some of those dishes. But all was well, I survived, this time.
Tuesday morning I started my day out early with some righteous scuba diving. The dives were cheap, about 25 dollars each including a private guide. On the first dive we went to the Camina shipwreck. The first thing I noticed was the thousands of tiny jellyfish in the water. I figured it must be normal for this area so I jumped in. Since I only wore a shortie wet suit on the first dive I did get one sting on the elbow, but some vinegar stopped the pain. The next thing I noticed was that all my gauges were in metric. How many feet are in a meter again? I figured I’d just follow the guide and hope he isn’t too careless. About one third of the way down the jellyfish disappeared. We descended to the bottom at 30 meters, (about 100 feet) to see the wreck before moving on to the reef. On the reef I saw a huge stingray, and then out of the corner of my eye something else moving fast. Upon closer inspection I saw it was a poisonous sea snake! Wow, I was so excited to see one, especially on my first dive. I swam closer to get a better picture while it kept swimming towards me. The snake seemed to move through the water surprisingly fast, just like one would on land. As it got closer I heard a banging sound from the divemaster’s tankbanger. I looked over to see an alarmed look on his face while he motioned for me to move away from the snake. The snakes aren’t normally aggressive and have small teeth so I wasn’t too worried, but as the crocodile hunter would say, they are one the most poisonous snakes in the world! After the dive the guide said I was braver than him for getting that close to the snake. Foolish is probably more like it, and maybe feeling a little narced at that depth on my first dive.
For the second dive we went to Friday’s rock and reef. We saw some big sea bass, emperor fish, clown fish (like Nemo), rock fish, scorpion fish, garden eels, and so on. After lunch I went on a third dive near Crocodile Island with a bunch of guys from Czech Republic. The Czech guys were big and klutzy, continually bumping into me on the dive. Fortunately it was the only dive in the Philippines that I had to dive with a group. Overall it was a nice drift dive along a wall with lots of interesting fish and other critters. The dive guide made things more interesting by blowing air rings underwater.
In the afternoon Charlotte and Eric reserved a couple Jet Skis, and set me up for parasailing. I really wanted to parasail, but decided to postpone it so I could Jet Ski with them. We all had a blast! I had the throttle fully open and the Jet Ski airborne a few times. Another couple riding with us got too excited and flipped theirs over; they had to be rescued. After the jet skiing we took the boat back to station 1 so we could explore that side of the beach. It was definitely more happening on that end. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset then looked for some dinner. Much to my chagrin we ended up at another Korean BBQ buffet. The ladies saw the lechon (whole roasted pig) and we were stuck, despite our protests. I went to the bathroom; they simply call it the toilet, probably because that’s usually all it is. Hanging over the toilet there was a sign saying- please aim properly before urinating in the toilet, and do not spit on floor. I thought how nice, they are concerned about the cleanliness of the toilet, but like most restaurants here they don’t even have a sink to wash your hands in before you eat and if you want toilet paper, forgedaboudit!
That night I had several bad dreams; one was about parasailing. I tend to be a little superstitious so I decided I would not parasail on this trip. When I woke up I felt sick as if someone had kicked me in the stomach. It was the Korean BBQ no doubt. I knew the mystery meat would catch up to me sooner or later. My stomach was burning making me want to throw up, but fortunately didn’t. I canceled my dives for the day and stayed in the room while Charlotte went to hang out with her friends that arrived at station 1 that day. I watched TV, wrote in my journal, and made multiple trips to the bathroom. Eventually I found the cure was to take an Imodium AD (extra strength), wait a couple hours then take another one. If you aren’t too bad off then one might work. If you are really jacked up, like I was, then two are necessary. Some people say this will dehydrate you and even cause you to get constipated, but I certainly didn’t have that problem. Finally I was well enough to go out later that night. We found a nice romantic Italian restaurant. Cheese sticks and a Hawaiian pizza did my stomach good. The cheese sticks were actually an egg roll wrapping with melted cheese inside, most excellent tasting. The pizza was pretty darn good too.
After being out of commission for a day I was ready to get back in the action. Being sick I had missed the deep dive at Yapak where they saw a school of tuna, a shark, and a big ray. I still got two more dives in, however they weren’t as good as the first day. After the dives I wanted to make up for lost time by doing something really cool that afternoon. We decided to venture over to the other side of the island to see the bat cave.
We walked a few blocks through the local neighborhood to the main street where we could catch a tricycle. The round trip tourist price was 200 pesos (about 4 dollars) to the bat cave, and he agreed to wait for us while we took the tour. We passed through town and then started uphill on this dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly the tricycle stopped to let us out. Before we were even out of the tricycle a young guy pulled up on a motorcycle and said “get on for the tour”. The tricycle guy nodded that it was ok. Somehow we all three fit on that motorcycle.
He drove us up a few dirt trails, making one stop along the way to pick up a flashlight from an older man in a hut. We walked for about 10 minutes to the mouth of the cave. Charlotte decided to stay there while I climbed down. It was only a couple hundred feet down, but it was dark, hot, steep, and slippery. Not to mention I was wearing sandals instead of boots. I slipped and nearly fell a few times. The guide had a flashlight to show me where to put my feet, but that was inconsistent. Fortunately I had my own headlamp, which we brought for power outage situations that are frequent here.
We finally made it to the bottom where we saw where the salt-water entrance that divers sometimes use to enter the cave from the ocean. You could hear the bats squeaking at the top of the cave. The guide shined his light up so we could see them. This just made them get rowdy and fly around. I thinking I hope these bloodsuckers don’t bite my ass and give me rabies. Then I felt some wet drops of what was probably Guano hitting my shirt. I was ready to leave. By the time we climbed out of the Bat Cave I was drenched in sweat and who knows what else.
The guide didn’t say much and seemed to have a condescending attitude like we were typical tourists. I figured we were done with the tour but he led us down another trail that went to the crystal cavern. This cave was not as interesting, or a difficult climb. But at the end of the cave there was a small tunnel that we crawled through. At the end of the tunnel you can exit the cave to see a commanding view of the ocean from the edge of a cliff over the water. There was a thick tree branch sticking out horizontally about 50 feet, the guide walked out on it and signaled for me to follow. The drop down the face of the cliff was several hundred feet, likely deadly. I didn’t completely trust this guide as he seemed very careless, but I didn’t think he had bad intentions either. I worked my way out to a meeting of several branches where I could sit comfortably. The view was outstanding! I snapped several pictures of the ocean and nearby islands. I even got one of the guide; although I don’t think he realized it.
Just like in mountaineering, down climbing can be more difficult. I scooted across the branch for ten feet or so until the branch was large enough to walk along and grab onto other large branches. The guide laughed but I wasn’t about to play macho and walk along this shaky branch with nothing to grab on to while he was behind me. We went back through the cave, then down to the beach to take a few more pictures.
All in all the tour was about 45 minutes. When we were walking back to the motorcycle Charlotte was lagging behind a bit. That is when the trouble started. The guide pulled me aside and said “if you don’t mind sir, at this point if you could pay me”. I was already planning on giving him 300 pesos but I said ok, how much? He said “3500 pesos sir” (about 60 U.S. dollars). I was stunned. My dive guide told me the going rate for this tour was only 50 pesos. Charlotte had even spoken to him in the native Filipino Tagalog language to ask how much before we started. He said no obligation but we could tip if we wanted to. I thought this guy has got to be joking. He must think I’m rich, intimidated, or just plain stupid. The most expensive attraction on the island was parasailing at 50 U.S. dollars, and a private scuba dive here is only 25 dollars. He wanted 60 dollars for walking me into a stinking bat cave that I could have easily found myself!
|WANTED: Dead or Alive|
I was about to lose my cool and decided I would just let Charlotte handle the situation before things got out of hand. I explained the dilemma to her. She talked to the guide in Tagalog and said “we can only pay 500″. He just looked down at the ground like he was disappointed and unhappy. Already I could not contain myself. I said look man, you need to take us back to the tricycle, and then we will negotiate how much the cost is. I figured the tricycle guy could tell us the real going rate.
He took us back making sure to stop along the way to drop off the flashlight. I noticed that this time he handed the man some money, as if he were renting the flashlight. My feeling was that this is where the guide lived, and this man was his father, just another part of the scam. While we were driving back I was fumbling through my wallet to hide the extra cash in the secret pockets so it wouldn’t show if I opened my wallet. I saw the scam artist glaring at me in the mirror with a dirty look on his face.
When we arrived back at the road where the tricycle was waiting there were about 10 other guides hanging around too. This made us feel unsafe as we were outnumbered by about 12 to 2 and could have easily been robbed. However I felt that the much older tricycle guy was not part of the scam, and did not pose a threat. I explained the situation to him and asked what the real price was supposed to be. He seemed hesitant to get involved but did speak in Tagalog with the guide in a raised voice. While I was getting angrier by the minute Charlotte was getting more worried. We had always talked about safety first if a situation like this ever came up. Charlotte asked me “can we just give him 500 and leave”. I said I would definitely not pay more than 500, and still think that is too much, especially after this fiasco. It was like mass confusion; all the guides were chattering, the tricycle guy was still arguing with the guide, and then suddenly Charlotte handed the guide 500 pesos and said, “lets go”. I really wanted to sort out the situation, but now money had changed hands and the amount was never agreed on so we needed to get out of there before anything worse happened. As we jumped in the tricycle for a quick getaway the guide flashed me a wry smile knowing that he got away with a lot more than he should have. I just gritted my teeth remembering our safety rule.
On the ride back the tricycle driver finally told us that he doesn’t like taking tourists to the bat cave because it is usually a scam, but his job is to drive so he just tries to stay neutral. I’m figured those guides are probably like a local gang of thugs and could possibly retaliate if he interfered. In any case I finally got him to admit the going rate is 150 pesos, or 3 dollars U.S. This just made me feel more outraged about the whole situation. It’s not losing the money that made me mad, but the fact that we got ripped off.
I replayed the scenario over and over in my head, and then remembered I had taken a picture of that thug who ripped us off. We got ourselves together and went to the Police station. The cops where all sitting at a card table outside playing poker. When we told them the story of what happened the police chief started barking out orders in Tagalog. It was probably their first action all week or maybe even month. You could almost feel the adrenaline in the air as all the officers got really fired up. They said if we could get them a name they will “go pick him up”. I said we can do better than that, I have a picture.
The picture came out a little dark, but after some editing we had a decent mug shot. I burned it to CD then the policemen had a nearby store print it out for us. As soon as they saw the picture they recognized the guy. The officer said “he has done this before but last time he asked for 5000 pesos (100 dollars). Apparently he isn’t too bright, gesturing to Charlotte, since you spoke to him in Tagalog he should have known better than to try to rip you off.” We went back to the station and filled out a police report, which consisted of my age, nationality, hotel, and passport number, which I didn’t have on me, but it didn’t seem to matter. He wrote all this down on the back of a piece of scratch paper. By this time there was a flurry of activity in the station. One officer came in wearing flip-flops and shorts. It was hard to take him seriously, but he looked serious enough with a rifle slung over his shoulder while holding the mug shot in his other hand. I almost felt sorry for the bat cave criminal knowing that the condition of the jails here are likely very undesirable. At the same time I felt vindication while watching this scene at the police station. They said their investigation would be done by morning and we could check back with them for the results. Charlotte stated that she did not want to get involved. I had already agreed with her beforehand that we would just hand over the mug shot and let them handle the rest. Personally I would have liked to ride along with them and helped with the apprehension, and this is probably the kind of place you can do that sort of thing.
It took a while to finally settle down from all that excitement but we finally got cleaned up and made our way to the hip happening Cocomangas in station 1. We got a table on the beach and enjoyed the nice breeze and ocean air. The strange combination of disco and reggae music filled the night putting us in the relaxation groove we so desperately needed. I sipped on a San Miguel and wiggled my toes to get the sand out, while reflecting on the events of our trip. The whole bat cave scandal was a bust for us getting ripped off, and wasting time and energy following up on the whole situation. Additionally there was a police bust for the bat cave criminal who scammed us. But these things happen when you travel so you can’t let one event like that taint the overall vacation. Boracay is a beautiful island with friendly people and inviting white sand beaches. It’s not perfect, but sure beats sitting in a cubicle at the office.