August 3, 2007

Manila to Mindoro
White Beach (Mindoro), Philippines

It only took a day or so to have my fill of a city saturated in loud karaoke bars (with many obviously doubling as brothels), expensive accommodations, disrespectful beggars, poor food choices, and pushy faux Rolex salesmen. And given my distain for large cities, and our mutual lack of enthusiasm for the insipid living environment Manila was providing, it didn't long before I suggested to Tatiana that we get out of the uninspiring town and onto a beach as soon as possible.

There was an initial choice to be made about staying on the capital island of Luzon and heading into the topographically rugged north to see the two-thousand-year-old rice terraces around the city of Banaue, or heading south in search of white sand and blue waters. My parents have been sponsoring a young Filipino boy living on Luzon for many years, and there had been talk with my dad about arranging a visit with him in their stead, but given the advance notice likely needed by the sponsorship organization, limited time in the country, and recently baby developments with Tatiana, we decided to give it a pass.

The Filipino government grants a maximum stay of up to 21 days for travelers arriving without a visa (and up to 59 days if a US$35 visa is obtained in advance). Since I arrived a day after Tatiana, that gave us a total 20 days in-country. But the reality is that the first and last days in the Philippines will be a wash because of the airline travel—that gives us 18—and then relocating an estimated four times throughout the island group will scrap at least another four or five days. So, to me, we'll really have less than 2/3 of our allotted time in the country to put our feet up and relax. The sooner we got moving out of Luzon, the better.

Tatiana voted for beach over mountains, and I'd selected the ├╝ber-popular tourist destination of Boracay as our first destination. Under different circumstances (traveling alone or without a pregnant Tatiana) I'd be more prone to experiment with paths and locations—I'm accustomed to long periods of uncomfortable overland travel and lackluster accommodations in search of a more intimate snapshot of local culture or easygoing beach life—but in this situation I'd prefer to place us in more easily predictable (and comfortable) settings.

Path to Boracay

Getting out of Manila and to relatively nearby Boracay proved more difficult than I'd imagined. There was the option of flying to Kalibo and busing for two hours before taking a ferry from Caticlan, or taking an overnight boat to Caticlan to make the same 15-minute jaunt from the island of Panay to Boracay. I dislike airports about as much as large cities, and the thought of spending 2,400 pesos to fly to Kalibo really didn't sit well with me. Discrepancies between my guidebook, lackluster Manila travel agencies, the Lonely Planet message forum, and boat transport company Web sites were an absolute mess—for such a popular tourist destination, getting there by boat seemed to be a less than popular option (despite the P$800 price tag). It took a cab ride to the shady North Harbour docks to confirm the only boat transporting people passengers overnight to the Boracay area in the off-season departed once per week on Friday evenings (from Pier 8, via MBRS Lines).

I had no intention of flying or wasting another two days in Manila waiting for the boat option, so I researched another path that would take us south to the next island, Mindoro, where after a stop near the town of Puerto Galera we'd eventually travel overland to the southern port city of Roxas (one of seven Roxas' with the same name in the Philippines—ugh), where we'd hopefully find a connecting ferry to Caticlan and then another over to Boracay.

We left town on the first of the month, and discovered that overland bus transport in the Philippines is priced quite nicely—P$128 for our comfortable ride to Batangas, where a ferry was waiting to wave-hop its way over to Puerto Galera (churning the stomachs of many passengers in unhappy ways, including my own, in the process) for about P$180. Well after sunset, and regular jeepney service had ended, we crammed into a tricycle for P$100 and settled at the White Beach Resort in White Beach for P$800/night (sporting A/C and cable TV that shows some very bizarre Korean game shows—think Lost in Translation).

Path to White Beach

I selected White Beach as our rest stop on the way to Boracay because of the western-facing shore, as I'm particular fond of watching sunsets over the ocean from a warm beach (and even more so when I'm in good company), but the location has been rather dull. At night the blond-colored beach is flooded with the horrific sounds of wildly off-key Filipinos singing karaoke (you'd think a nation that has embraced singing so fanatically would be capable of carrying a tune), while we've been jarred from slumber by the sounds of building construction in the mornings, and greeted with a ceiling of clouds that rolls in by noon.

The food struggle has continued, and I find myself ordering the only predictably eatable thing on the local menus: An egg and cheese sandwich. Anything that contains what's suppose to be a land-based animal has been a either a salty or fatty disaster. Street food is as absent as sand in the colder-than-expected water (the bottom is covered in smooth stones here), and Tatiana's dietary needs are on my mind.

This is the low season for the Philippines—typhoon season—and Tatiana and I have agreed that we aren't going to get worked up about poor weather, should it consistently present itself. She did ask exactly what a typhoon was though, and I received a slightly despondent "oh…" from her when I replied that it's what you call a hurricane/cyclone in the Western Pacific. On the plus side, the peak of the rainy season means better deals on accommodations and fewer tourist to deal with—which is always a delight when seeking privacy, or chatting the night away in the soft sand of a moonlit beach.

As for the people here at White Beach, it's a mixture of Filipinos and vacationing Koreans, with a sprinkling of Caucasians. On one of the rare occasions that Tatiana wasn't by my side, it didn't take long for a small hoard of teenaged Filipino girls on vacation to rush up to me on the beach (while I was patiently waiting for restaurant staff to cook a breakfast for Tatiana that I could bring to her in bed) and start snapping photos of/with me with their cellphone cameras. I've given up trying to understand why, and just go with it these days.

I keep thinking everyone is addressing Tatiana by "mom" when they speak to her (seeing that she's obviously pregnant), but I've recently figured out that it's the Tagalog-ladened Filipino accent that's turning an English "ma'am" into mUHam—something my baby-on-the-brain mind is hearing as "mom."

We've decided that tonight, our third night at White Beach, will be our last. This was only to be a brief rest stop on the way to much nicer places, and I'm looking forward to not being torn from sleep in the morning hours by the sounds of off-season building construction. As for Tatiana's pregnancy, we're still talking, and I'm still trying to metabolize it all.

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