In my last blog post on my Philippines travel adventures, I left off by saying that I had achieved my dream of visiting Kalanggaman Island, which has a beautiful sandbar. Afterwards, I was invited in the moment to travel with a local family to their festivities and adventures for the next few days.
Now, this was a impromptu request that required me to think about it and re-adjust my plans, and looking back, I probably wouldn’t do it again if I was asked in another country or situation because of safety. But in this case, after deliberation, they checked out to seem like an honest, happy family who were vacationing. Most of them were local to the area but two lived and worked in Oregon, USA for many years and were coming back to visit family.
In this particular situation, they ended up being safe and generously included me in their paid-for food and lodging. I had a couple more days left in the area anyways, which I wouldn’t do much with. I had overestimated the amount of activities in the area and couldn’t even stay near Kalanggaman since it was a 4+ hour drive away from my hotel.
I would’ve just checked out the mall near my hotel.
After the half hour it took to get from the island to the dock, I decided to go with them. I got off the ferry and followed the family to their van. They were very upbeat and informative. They had many holidays and festivities planned. They stopped at a coffee shop to go to the bathroom and then paid for iced coffee for all of us. They were also debating buying mango ice cream from a local stall (Filipinos love mangoes here), but decided against it and advised me that the local food isn’t always clean, which is a good tip that I didn’t know about.
Along the way to their home, we drove through a major city. It was astounding to watch because all I saw were thousands of Filipinos and not a single foreigner. There wasn’t a single tourist in the city. It’s probably one of those cities that just get missed by foreign tourist because no one considers traveling there. I loved it because I was immersed in this culture and may have been the only foreign tourist in the entire city. We stopped at a local outdoor market were bunch of Filipino farmers and business people were selling local vegetables, fruit, and knickknacks. It was cluttered, crowded, large, and wasn’t that clean, yet I partially felt at home. There is something relatable and relaxing to see all those people just trying to make it by selling produce in a simple, matter-of-fact way. I think part of me was that we looking for some level of relatability being on the other side of the world and I found it. You are people still just trying to make their way. Now keep in mind, this was a city, so not everything was moral. I passed schoolchildren walking back home from school influx in their school uniforms. I saw signs of politicians who were running for office or who got elected on buildings. Members of the family in the van I was traveling in mentioned that in the Philippines, those who get elected aren’t always the ones with the best skills or credentials, but the ones who are the most popular, which are so often movie stars.
After about an hour or so of driving, we parked in the house I would be staying in for the night. Part of the family got out of the van and said goodbye to return to their own homes for the night. Honestly, the house was big. I learned that the cost of living is much more advantageous in the Philippines, which allow you to buy a house or mention for a fraction of the price you have to pay in the United States. The house had plenty of living space, a large walking path, a giant lake behind it, big bedrooms, and tons of sculptures.
The family kept apologizing that they didn’t have much good food since they weren’t expecting me to be there. But frankly, the food that they offered was pretty awesome. I got to experience a real, authentic Filipino dinner. They have can’t sit noodles, which is kinda like chicken lo mein noodles but a more fresh, healthy version with crunchy green peppers. I got to me another one of the inhabitants of the house, which was a young man who had studied and lived in the US to become a nurse for many years, but decided to come back and work near his family afterwards.
I was given the guest room, which would be comparable to a decent guestroom in the US. I was satisfied, the guest room had its own bathroom and shower with soap, shampoo, towel, and so forth. The bathroom had a detachable showerhead and was more of a floor and showerhead than a bathtub and tiled shower, but I really didn’t mind.
Given that I wasn’t expecting this detour with this family, I didn’t bring my phone charger for much of a change of clothes. I did make do with the change of clothes I had. I was a bit worried about charging my phone since they didn’t initially have a extra charger, but I ultimately found one.
The next morning, I woke up early since we had to depart bright and early. Apparently, the next part of their trip was to go to an island that had less than 6000 inhabitants. This island was the first island that Magellan landed in the Philippines and where he planted his first cross to spread Christianity.
The trip in the van was quiet and slow for the most part. The sky was gray and it was early so we were all a little groggy. It was about a one hour from the house to the ferry dock. Then, I sat in silence as I watched our boat sail diligently towards the island, which was another hour. I remarked on how the water slowly turned more dark green and swampy. As we finally got close to the island (it took about a half hour), the water became more of a turquoise blue green that I had never seen before.
While the first island I had been to in this country had been one that had more of a light blue water, this water was more exotic and dark in its own way. It gave more ‘swampy’ vibes than island vibes. It seemed like we were out in a giant lake with many islands around us. It felt serene.
The family introduced me to a man on the ferry. He was friendly and inquisitive that I had come traveling from the US. It turns out he was the pastor on the island and a friend of the family. He had left the city life to help out this local community.
When we got off the island, I saw a giant rock slab with the name of the island carved in. I saw a white building near the dock. And I saw rural villages in the distance and simple boats docked nearby. The energy in the air was mystical. There was missed, the water looked so real. I was interested and excited to see what would happen next.
It turns out our next stop was the white building right next door. That turned out to be the hotel we were staying at. This hotel, as I later found out, is the only one with a running electricity that will lighted up completely indoors during the night. Most of the village doesn’t have much electricity at night.
A table of food awaited us for breakfast. It consisted of fried eggs, some type of spam, and some type of deep-fried squid or fish of some sort. The rest of the family and family friends that were there talked rapidly in their language themselves. I was content just silently enjoying the experience. It was a good, simple breakfast. We unloaded our possessions in the hotel rooms, and then we were off.
Two men were waiting us outside the hotel on the side facing the water. They started to guide us into the water barefoot towards the boats. The water was filled with pebbles and rocks of different sizes, so it was a little difficult to keep a balance, especially since I had electronics to capture the photos and videos in my backpack.
We successfully got onto the boat, and we were off. It turns out the first part of today’s trip was a boat tour around the entire island. If you’ve never seen boats in the Philippines, they have a unique outer skeleton of plastic that I assume prevent the boats from tipping over.
The family was remarking how we had a private boat to ourselves, and I couldn’t help but to appreciate the experience. I may have been the only American citizen in a 100 or 200 mile radius. I may have been the only foreigner in the area who got to experience this since it was off the beaten path.
For the next hour, our motorboat spread around the circumference of the island. There wasn’t much to see, but what there was was beautiful. The island was filled with the same dense brush of foliage, rock, and trees. Some parts got dense enough to be almost a jungle. The water stated that dark greenish blue color, but as we got around the island, the color changed on occasion to a more turquoise blue with flecks of dark green back to the standard dark greenish blue. Personally, I preferred the aqua blue of a sandbar or island like my first voyage, but I realize that this mix of colors had its own special place for me. The light blue reminds me of sand and calm islands and beaches which is probably why like it so much. But this greenish blue reminds me of new adventures and a swampy, missed the environment. On occasion, I saw some fish and we saw a goat of some sort on the rocks.
Halfway through our tour, we stopped at the other end of the island, which housed several small colorful wooden huts with beds inside that you could rent. The colors outside were beautiful and it was deserted. No one was renting these at this time of year, and the whole place we had to ourselves. We walked around for a bit, and I walked in the water, which was actually a little difficult without shoes since they were pebbles and rocks of all shapes on the floor. It was a interesting site. I’m sure if any tourists came here, they would be one of the first foreigners to experience a place like this.
After exploring the path and area behind the huts for a bit, we got back onto our boat and set sail again. This time, after some sailing, we docked on may be my favorite part of this island, a tiny pathway that was bordered by steep rock cliffs on either side. Water was sloshing up and down to her knees and the two men had to do the standard for look penal wooden plank bridge thing that you see often times on YouTube videos from travel bloggers who visit the Philippines. They put a plank of wood on their shoulders and sometimes they give you a PVC pipe for extra handling power, and use that to walk across without falling over from the boats to the land.
We walked up some stone steps and found ourselves in this beautiful, large natural made alcove. In one area, there were rocks creating strange formations of arches and shapes on the ground. We took some pictures here. On the other end, the rock stretched out into the distance with Morse strange shapes and arches, with a somewhat man-made path along the edges that you could walk through. I ventured the farthest but didn’t get too far before coming back just to be safe and stay near the rest of the people. There were even a few man-made wooden huts and hammocks there if you rented the place. An old lady that looked at least 65 came out who turned out to be the owner of this tourist spot. But once again, there was not a soul in sight except for us.
If I would recommend one place to visit on the island, it would either be this spot or Magellan’s cross (which we’ll get to later).
I imagine the fee to rent out the empty hammocks or wooden huts would probably be fairly affordable for a foreign traveler. Plus, you’ll be doing the local community good. As we sat there, we saw two young men sailed a boat filled with bags of concrete onto the rocky formation. One other time, they moved the concrete onto land. It turns out that these two men were the old lady’s sons. And after an entire day of manual labor, they only made around $10.
The mother of the family that I came with told me this, and just like my real mother would, told me how lucky I was to be born in the US and given the opportunities I was. I felt humbled and appreciative in that moment and sorry for these men. Based on something I couldn’t control, which was where I was born, my life circumstances and career opportunities were wildly different. I really wish I could’ve done something for this family. If I could go back, I would’ve got some extra money for them.
What I find admirable was, at least from my perspective and in that moment, no one was upset or bitter. The old lady was telling me how it is in a matter-of-fact way. That was their life and this she seemed content. It makes me think about how you can achieve happiness and satisfaction even with the simple life and budget.
The spot is probably tough to get to, but it’s doable if you have a will to get here. I think the main challenge would just be having a translator to speak to the people who don’t understand English. Luckily, the family I went with help with that. But fear not. While many people don’t speak English, some do. The pastor, for example, does speak English.
It really is your own private, affordable large, cavernous rock getaway. I think it’s good to stay here for maybe a couple afternoons before it gets boring.
The rock platform peered over a tiny lagoon of dark greenish blue water that led out to the body of water surrounding the entire island. It seemed like a nice place to swim. You could jump into it or you could follow another pair of the sending rock stairs into the water. In the distance on the left, they had strapped a long rope of connected tires from the top of a cliff for people to climb up and play with.
None of us had brought our swimming suits. I wasn’t planning on swimming and neither was anyone else. But they kept egging me on to swim in the water and the beautiful water was calling out to me. So I decided to take a dip. I was already on this adventure, why not live a little?
I swam around the water in my shorts. I swam into a little hole in the wall to see if there is anything there but it was just a dark hole. Then I swam out to the bottom of the ring of tires and tried to climb up. At the time, I had some decent upper body strength and could do a few pull-ups. But for some reason, the the slippery ropes were very difficult to climb. I thought I could climb up at least three or four but I could barely get to the second one. I probably could’ve gotten further if I try harder, but I didn’t want to risk anything there.
If you ever go to here or somewhere similar, keep in mind that there’s no lifeguards or real safety precautions. I climbed up as much as I was comfortable, waived, and asked them to take a photo with my camera, which they did. Then, we took a few more photos of the rock formations and departed once again on our boat.
We finished the tour to arrive back at our hotel from the other direction. I got some great footage and pictures, but I almost slipped on the water and drenched my camera! Luckily, I pointed the arm holding the camera to the sky and stretched out my other arm so that my hand would hit the ground and stop the fall. Luckily, that worked and one of the men driving the boat help me get back up.
That was great, but did we end there? No way. The next stop was a tour of the major attractions on the island with the pastor. He would be our personal tour guide. First, we all paid for transportation on motorbikes. The motorbike drivers drove us for about 20 minutes into the middle of the island. For some reason, all the trees and foliage I passed while driving through the roads reminded me of Vietnam.
As we got deeper into the middle of the island, I passed many locals and even small groups of schoolchildren. You could tell they lived a simpler life with less electronics, and they could tell that I wasn’t from this area.
Along the way, I passed some colorful huts, houses, and decorations. It seemed to be the local school. I wish I could’ve stopped and looked around a bit more because the decorations were very festive in rainbow colored, almost similar to Latin American decorations. There is a holy day coming soon, which is a very religious, big holiday in this country.
When the motorbike stopped, we followed a trail with tourist signs and descriptions that led up a pathway to where Magellan planted his first cross and brought Christianity to the country. We had to climb a steep set of stairs for about 15 minutes to reach the top. The sign said it would take 450 steps, which seems intimidating. But once you get going, the steps aren’t as steep as you think. I didn’t have much trouble.
At the top, there was a giant cross that must’ve been at least 20 feet tall made of wood. I asked if this was the authentic cross he planted or a replica. The pastor said that it was a representation. We took some pictures, and it was pretty cool.
Walking down was more difficult because it had recently rained so it was slippery. We had to slowly walk down and find drier areas to step on. Since it was pretty steep, some of them had to hold hands to get down slowly.
There are a few other tourist sites when we got to the bottom of the stairs nearby. One was a giant hut with some artifacts and tourists signs inside that explained how the indigenous people lived before they were colonized. Apparently, the chief of the island had many wives. I liked the pastor because he had a good sense of humor and wasn’t too serious all the time. He was lighthearted and made a joke about how that would be nice to have a wife for every day of the week.
Also, I found out that the indigenous people like to eat this dark paste that they made from local resources that made their teeth pitch black. The blacker, the more attractive you were. It’s fascinating how different things mean different things in different cultures. I learned that the indigenous people surrendered peacefully and quickly when the colonizers try to spread Christianity. I was partially thankful that no big confrontations emerged that led to deaths or war.
Next, we toured a nearby small building that acted as a small tourist center by appearing like a church and having a few sculptures inside to represent when Magellan first introduced Christianity to the natives. There was a local tour guide who saw us coming and delivered a short speech explaining the history. I believe only parts of it were in English, so I couldn’t pick out what he was saying, but I got the gist because you could read the tour signs. Once again, we were the only people in 100 foot radius, so we got the place to ourselves.
After that, we got on the motorbikes and the motorbike riders drove us to the church on the island. The church was well decorated and clean. They had wooden seats and enough to sit about 40 to 50 people. The lights and decorations inside were pretty good, and reminded me of churches back home in the US in spirit. We spent a while here just looking around and talking. The family spending good deal time talking in Filipino to the pastor. I got to see the backend of the church, which consisted of a kitchen and tables and chairs. Somehow, I felt right at home. Despite being on the other side of the world, the whole situation felt familiar. Growing up, I was part of a Chinese church in the US that had to bootstrap its way with collapsible tables and chairs, cook lunch together, and rent out a space until we could afford something larger.
After a long discussion, they started to slowly walk around the village. The sun had set, which meant that a lot of the houses and small storefronts were pitch black. On occasion, a house would have a lamp or some light inside. As we walked around, you could tell that for a lot of them, when the sun set, it got really dark and it was close to bedtime. They were use to the darkness. You can also tell which buildings or stores were may be more successful than others by their lighting. There was one store we walked by that had a bunch of lights inside, which was starkly different from many other stores or houses that were pitch black.
As we eventually walked away back to the hotel we were staying at, I felt another sense of gratitude for the simple things, specifically artificial light at night. It’s things that you don’t even realize you’re taking for granted that sometimes matter.
I accompanied the family to the lobby which had that one big table that we ate at before. We had a quick dinner, which was prepared for us, and then the family chatted amongst themselves for the next hour or so. I couldn’t understand the language, so I just stayed polite and remained there. There is a TV running, and I was intrigued about the TV shows. One of them was a typical dramatic action, reality TV show. I believe one of the stars was a Filipino model I’ve seen on Instagram before. Another show seem to be some type of talent show. I thought it was pretty well done, especially because of the hosts. The host seem to have some type of social media presence and the main one was flamboyantly gay in style and behavior. He seemed to own who he was and I could tell it was resonating with the audience and he was probably succeeding with his career. I respect that.
As I looked out of the balcony in the lobby, it became obvious that this hotel we were staying at, although maybe plain if you compared it to even a typical hotel in a city in the Philippines (this hotel only had several rooms), was the most ritzy on this island. Just based off the light that omitted from the hotel compared to the rest of the island, you could tell.
We retired to our hotel rooms for the night. When I told one of the male family members that I didn’t bring a change of clothes because this trip was impromptu, he was kind enough to let me borrow some of his. I really appreciated that.
We woke up bright and early the next morning to leave the island. We all got onto the ferry and got ready to depart. This time, I noticed more intently how many people were bundled up and ready to set sail, fit snugly together in the seats. I started to wonder if this one hour ferry from this island to the mainland signified a big step for some of these people. It was their connection point from a very rural life to an urban life and more opportunities.
After the one hour ferry ride, we got back into the van and headed towards another city. After a long drive, we had a quick pit stop in a small café for a light snack. It was such a simple entree, but it was amazing. Everyone got one small cup of what seemed like hot cocoa and then we got a couple of these white baked balls that we could dip or rub into the cocoa. The taste was simple and subtle. It was simple, chocolatey, and clearly affordable.
The family and relatives were conversing rapidly in their local language, while I enjoyed myself, just taking in the surroundings. Then, I saw a sign attached to the top hanging from the shop which mentioned in English that a kidnapping had happened in a nearby area. With some concern, I asked if we should be careful about that. One of them said, “Maybe. Should we?” She wasn’t sure herself and then started conversing in Filipino with the others in concern. It turns out that they aren’t familiar with the city either. I suppose kidnappings happen in every city, so I wasn’t too stressed, but it was a little concerning, and you need to stay on guard.
The family wanted me to stay for more days since they had more festivities planned for the Holy Day and even a birthday party with an entire feast and pig roast (leche). Unfortunately, I told them that I was very appreciative, but I had a pre-booked airplane flight to leave that night so I didn’t have much time.
They told me in the future that I probably could save money and get here in a similar amount of time by taking the ferry straight from Cebu instead of flying in the future. That’s what most of the locals do. I didn’t realize that was an option, so that’s something I would add to my arsenal in the future.
We got back in the van and made one pit stop for one family member to run an errand. Then, they dropped me off at a bus station, which was really more of a “van” station since all the buses looked like small vans. They took me to a bus and told me it would take me back to the city that I had to fly out of.
They told me that wants the van ended that I would have to pay the van driver a certain amount. I followed their instructions, and it worked out. The ride was fairly long (~40 minutes), but I got to see the roads and country side of the Philippines. It was fairly standard stuff, dirt and paved roads, lots of trees and occasional construction. In some ways, it was akin to the country side or suburbs of parts of the U.S..
I found my way back to my hotel and checked out to catch my flight to Cebu. I was thankful for this spontaneous adventure with this family, happy that they were safe people, and bummed that I couldn’t stay longer to celebrate their other activities (birthday party? Holy festival? Heck yeah!). It wasn’t the first time that I wish I had much more time in the Philippines so I didn’t feel rushed, and it wouldn’t be the last. Two and a half weeks is not enough!
Going this far north up in the Philippines was mainly just for Kalanggaman island, which is the main attraction that we hear about on the internet in this region. I didn’t feel I would ever come to this region again, which made me said. But if I did, it would be nice to visit this family again.
It’s also crazy to see tens of thousands of people operating autonomously in the cities I experienced here who could care less and continue to go about their day if something happened great or bad to me or someone else in USA and vice versa. The experience was a reminder of how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things.
There was a general, unique feel of friendliness and kindness that I experienced from local people in this area that I would take home with me and pay homage to. (And I say “general” because most, not everyone was friendly. Remember that taxi driver who tried to overcharge me like crazy to get to Kalanggaman?). It’s an amazing friendliness that you won’t always get around the world. I hope this article is yet another small way I can pay forward my gratitude for the kindness I saw.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that Filipinos love to try and fix you up with their cousins, nephews, or daughters? The first quarter of the trip, they were trying to get me to meet one of their daughters. She ended up not being able to come with, so I got to spend the rest of the trip in peace! It was amusing to watch how unashamedly they try and match me up. They were upfront about it and joked around about how that’s what Filipino families do.
As an anxious person, there were varying levels of manageable anxiety throughout the trip. Was this family safe to travel with? Would I get lost and be unable to find my way back to the airport? Would I lose my cash and ATM card? Would I get attacked or robbed? But after seeing signs that things would be alright, such as the start of one of our tours with the family, meeting friendly people, or realizing I could use my phone if I did get lost and seeing the airport like they promised, my anxieties disappeared for a while. Plus, I was riddled with adrenaline and exhilaration, so that helped.
Like I said in the previous article, I don’t know if, in the future, I would take the same offer to travel with a family I had just met and curtail my existing travel plans. Be careful and smart! Not everyone is safe. Think it through
While part of me wanted to stay and enjoy the festivities, I was on a tight timeline. I had a flight I paid for that I would rather not miss. I had more things I needed to do and limited time. My next adventure was visiting Bohol, an iconic tourist spot, which is a whirlwind story of its own for another article.
I would recommend traveling to this Magellan island if you can find it because it’s untainted by tourists. No foreigners seem to know about it. And the village could probably use the income from the tourists and has some infrastructure set up for tourism (though, not a lot. The villas and hotel could probably fit about 50 people). I will say that when I went in March, there were basically no other guests but ourselves.