In which another New Year leads to dejavu and we miss one festival but stumble upon another.
Starring Janet whose dog had issues and Chuck (from Texas).
The Philippines is famous for its colourful festivals and conveniently a number of them fall in January. I did lots of reading and researching and eventually decided that the one I most wanted to go to was the Sinulog festival in Cebu City on the third Saturday and worked my plan for the whole of the Philippines around this, booking flights and arranging to meet friends there and so forth. Imagine my disappointment then when I checked the festivities schedule online the week before and discovered that the only thing still going on when I arrived (on the 22nd) would be a chess tournament. Of course you really only need rudimentary maths to see the problem here.
On the upside we didn’t hang around in Cebu City at all but got straight on a bus out to Maya on the far northern tip of the island. From Maya you take a banka, squeezing in between the sacks of rice, huge blocks of ice and boxes of cockrels (tail feathers protroduing) to chug across to Malapascua Island where you transfer (carrying your bags) to another boat tiny rocking little boat to get to shore. This is quite an epic journey – about 7hrs in total – and so were rather exhausted and ready for a sit down and drink of some sorts. We lugged our bags the length of the gorgeous beach (there are no cars on Malapascua) to the far end where the place we were hoping to stay was located. It was full. And so, as it turned out was everywhere else. We spent over an hour walking all the way back down the beach and all the way up through the village at the back with people openly laughing in our faces. Apparently the heady combination of Chinese New Year and the fact that Malapascua were having a Sinulog of their own, meant there were no rooms to be had. It was surely ironic (though I wasn’t seeing the humour at the time) in some way that the last time we’d had such a nightmare finding somewhere to stay, it had also been New Year, on an island. Eventually we managed to convince a man called Chuck (from Texas with matching drawl and cowboy hat) that he did in fact have room (he had told us he didn’t) because another of the guesthouses had told us he did. And he did – a wooden dorm shack with four bunk beds in it, one without a mattress. Perhaps not what the others had had in mind for their relaxing week’s break from KL.
Over that drama we sat down to order some lunch and beer. We eventually got our meals over and hour later (not all of them what we had ordered) and gulped them down so that we could rush down to the sea for a glorious sunset. On the beach we bumped into Janet who we had met on the banka over and who had given us lots of useful information on the festival and also on the price of her massages and where to find her (on the beach). She was with her dog, Phoebe, and our relayed tales of accommodation woe were repeatedly interrupted by Phoebe’s enthusiastic humping of Janet’s leg and her repeatedly saying: “I’m very sorry, she likes girls” as if that explained it.
The Sinulog festival was due to take place on the Sunday so all through Saturday evening we could hear the kids practising their dancing and every now and again, someone passed by in an elaborate hat.
We spent the afternoon on a snorkelling trip around the island stopping at four places most of which were not particularly good (so bad in fact that we actually started calling out to one another when we spotted a fish) and arriving back on the beach just as the procession was passing. There were about six different groups of dancers, mostly kids, all dressed up in different brightly coloured outfits. They wound their way along the beach and through the village to a big basketball court that was lined with spectators. There was a lot of standing around and waiting as each group were called into the arena one by one to do their performance. While waiting they were “refreshing” their outfits which for one group involved dipping their hands into a can of paint. “What does it mean?” I asked one of the guys. “It means we don’t have gloves,” he said and laughed loudly. Between performances the judges were introduced in painstaking detail – from their primary school qualifications right through to their recent charitable actions. Since most were in or nearing retirement this took some time. The dances seemed to tell a similar story – starting with lots of chaos and anarchy and BAD things ending, and then ending mostly, in everyone lying dead on the floor at which point a girl bearing a small statue of the baby Jesus would walk amongst the other dancers restoring life and/or order.
On our last day there I went to see some more strange sharks. This involved getting up at 4:30 to head out on a boat at 5am. We got to the dive site just as it was getting light and dropped down onto a sunken island. The Thresher sharks here are famous because of their extremely long tails which trail behind them like ribbons. They really are quite beautiful, but also extremely shy. We had to lie as quietly and as still as possible on the crest of the island and wait for them to surface from the deep and turn loops above our heads. We saw about four sharks in total (you’re never sure whether it’s the same one coming back again or a new one) which is apparently rather lucky. The next two dives of the day were out at an island called Calangaman – an absolutely gorgeous strip of tropical beauty swaying with palms and bounded by sand bars at either end. The diving was excellent and in the surface interval I went for a stroll along the rocky northern coast and had the entire beach to myself. On the way back I met a bunch of University students who asked to have their picture taken with me and wanted to chat about England. By the time we surfaced from the last dive the wind had come up and the sea was a mass of hefty swells. It took us over three hours to get back with the waves breaking over the boat every few minutes and drenching absolutely everything. I landed up hiding in the rocking cabin at the front of the boat but even that was pretty full of water.