August 12, 2007

The Alona Beach Debacle
Tagbilaran (Bohol), Philippines

Sometimes you pull the trigger and get the loaded chamber.

Onward Tickets, Airline Annoyances, and Exit Strategies

I'd cautioned Tatiana several times via e-mail that Filipino immigration (and/or the airline carrying her into the country) will ask to see her proof of onward travel out of the Philippines (typically in the form of an airline ticket) before being allowed into the country.

With maximum travel flexibility in mind, I'd told her how to create a fake onward ticket (recently updated with an tutorial), and advised her not to leave Jordan without printing one out (or sweet talking a travel agent into creating one for her)—and if she couldn't do that, then to get a flight leaving from the southern island of Cebu (as we'd be surely be traveling from north to south through the island group).

…With no onward ticket in hand, Tatiana got lucky when Qatar Airlines didn't bother to verify the immigration requirement at check-in (something she was later told the airline will be fined for), but didn't have such good fortune with the Filipino immigration officer. She was escorted to a counter in the departures concourse where she purchased a ticket from Manila to Jakarta (Indonesia) before being returned to immigration for her entry stamp.

Since a tired Tatiana bought a ticket from Manila instead of Cebu, and for a date well over a week before we'd be leaving the Philippines, it was going to be necessary to not only pay the fee to have the date changed, but also purchase a connecting flight from Cebu City to Manila. And seeing how I want to continue traveling with her, and Indonesia is someplace I'd very much like to see, that pretty much meant that I had to buy a Cebu–Manila–Jakarta flight as well.

I get the impression that Tatiana really doesn't care where we go, as long as we're together. She's more than happy to offer up her input when I present her with path/transport options, but as for the destinations, she's sitting back and trusting that I'll pick the best spots for our time here in the Philippines.

This attitude gives me freedom to decide both where we go and when we leave—something I'm accustomed to from so much solo travel—but also brings with it the burden of responsibility. I'm trying hard to put us in locations that are rewarding and relaxing, while at the same time trying to keep our spending on rooms and transport in check.

Path to Bohol

Airline tickets purchased (and keeping our Philippines departure date in mind), the game plan I proposed was fairly straightforward: Get us situated on a nice beach to the south near Cebu (sheltered from the nasty western winds that were fouling our Boracay experience), finally get some sun, do a little scuba diving (me) or snorkeling (us), day-trip to some of the popular animal and geological curiosities on Bohol, and then hop over to Cebu City to get Tatiana in to see a doctor to make sure everything was sound with both mother and child before jumping on our flight.

Casually recommended to me by traveler who'd been in the Philippines (outside of the typhoon season that we were caught up in), the small island of Panglao sounded like an ideal destination. My guidebook added the cherry on top with the following blurb:

When you've had enough of Tagbilaran's trillion tricycles, head for the open spaces and lovely beaches of Panglao Island, connected to the city by bridge. Alona Beach, on the southwest coast, is a fine sliver of white sand intermittently speckled with bronze bodies. It's also a major diving destination, with several dive shops offering trips to the black coral forest of Balicasag Island and Cabilao Island, 30km northwest, which often see hammerhead sharks and dolphins.

Cebu Pacific (the low cost airline that's so cheap they denied me a cup of water on my flight from Bangkok to Manila) offered a flight from an airstrip two hours south of Boracay to Cebu City for about the same price as a full day and night of overland/sea travel would cost, but their Web site has been blocking credit card transactions from most American banks for as long as I've known the company to exist—crippling my ability to purchase tickets without travel agent fees or a phone call to their offices at US$0.22/minute. And since Tatiana's credit card didn't process either, I threw up my hands in disgust at the company (and all those other airlines that don't have Web-enabled purchasing) and decided we'd be taking the slow, scenic route south.

The Long Path to Disappointment

Cutting straight down the center of Panay, occasionally swearing in Spanish at the Swiss-cheesed cardboard boxes of roosters keeping us company by screaming in unison in the back of our minibus, we nearly forgot we were on an island. For hours on end we watched as the landscape stretched to the horizon—a diverse topographical mixture of mountains and rice paddies, sprinkled with forgetful towns and villages that looked more like filthy automotive repair garages than anything else.

Delivered directly to the Iloilo City pier in the late afternoon, we each handed over about P$1,200 for a 14-hour, overnight ferry ride to Cebu City. I was again pleasantly surprised with the accommodations on board, and Tatiana and I found ourselves on padded bunks in a nearly empty air conditioned compartment, while a television playing pirated DVDs of excellent quality displayed movies that were still in the theatres.

Before closing my eyes for a few hours of sleep, I used my age-five fort building skills and bunk bedding to engineer an enclosed lower bunk for Tatiana to sleep in warmly, without disturbance from the A/C or glare from the ever-present overhead illumination of the tamper-proof florescent lights.

Witnessed some hours later, I hope the memory of the wailing wall of taxi drivers seen at each of the gates of the Cebu City docks never fades. I strained to hear the security guard's reply in broken English over the harrowing cries of the scum of Cebu's taxi fleet, opposite the large barred gate.

What should have been a simple, common transfer from pier to pier, turned Tatiana and I into a pair of pinballs, bouncing from security guard to security guard for information (the only people available to speak to, without the leaving the safety of gated docks). Finally, at pier two, a ferry was discovered that could take us to the island of Bohol (although not the town that I was hoping for). Tubigon, an hour or so north of the large (and equally polluted) port city of Tagbilaran, was the first of two hops that would be needed to reach Aldona Beach.

Sweaty and hungry, the sight of a massive first-world mall near the jeepney gathering point outside Tagbilaran's bus terminal looked wildly out of place, but glowed with aura of temporary salvation—salvation from the heat, salvation from Filipino men yelling at us in abrasive tones reminiscent of English, salvation from the backpack glued to my back, and salvation from the recent piss-poor foodstuffs I'd barely had the desire to place in my mouth for lack of enthusiasm.

The food court outfit serving up sizzling, white-hot cast iron skillets with rice and your choice of meaty topping for less than a U.S. dollar was an instant hit (and probably the best food I've had in this country to date). A creative, and impressively affordable dish to find inside the mall of any country.

Sweat dripped as time passed, and it was again late afternoon on another day of travel. The sunset wasn't far off as our dilapidated transport full of men, women, babies, and chickens belched us out onto the side of the road in the town of Alona, on the island of Panglao.

I placed Tatiana in a chair outside of a convenience store with our gear and started running around the area looking for a room. The main road was just under a hundred meters from the water, and I quickly made my way down to the shoreline to see what the beach looked like (and how bad of a tourist trap the place was going to be).

Recoiling mid-stride as I rounded a corner on the dirt road I was quick-stepping along, my heart sank as I gazed upon the ugly ribbon of dull, brown sand, covered in rotting seaweed, pushing up against a shallow, murky, waveless ocean. My vision swept up and down the 300 meters of shore revealing a bloated cluster of small resorts, bars, and dive shops (with nearly as much German print displayed on their storefronts as English).

After running around for almost an hour, I was completely revolted with the scene. Not only was the beach 1/100 the (average) quality we left on a stormy Boracay, but the room prices were so high I about laughed at the reception desk of the first place I visited—it must take a lot of practice to tell someone the price of no-frills room is US$75/night with a straight face.

I say good luck to those looking to find a room for less than P$800/night anywhere in this town. I managed to dig up options at two different spots for P$600, but I just couldn't believe to contrast between what that same amount bought us in Boracay (A/C, cable TV, two queen beds, private bathroom) versus the inflated price of anything and everything in this lackluster location.

The first P$600 room had two single beds crammed into a hot little space so small the mattresses were practically touching. A desk fan was provided to cool the abhorrent sweatbox, not far from the rusting outhouses that constituted the bathrooms.

The next P$600 winner was discovered by rounding up a local bar owner who had a room in a single-story building off the road I'd approached the beach from. I was instantly turned off by the pair of dogs that I had to navigated past when we pushed through the gate, and then revolted by the sight of the concrete slab patio, covered in what appeared to half-dried blood (that looked like it had been sponged/smeared on the dirty gray surface with a mop).

Putting the foulness out of my mind for a moment, I took a look at the room which contained a sagging, spring-less mattress and bathroom with cold-water shower, complimented with a partially ripped open wall from where the water pipe was either installed or repaired (lord knows how long ago).

Exiting the room quickly, I noted the hindquarters of one of the dogs, which was bleeding profusely. The shredded anus of the mutt looked like it had a unpleasant run-in with a donkey. Disgusting.

I retreated to Tatiana, sweaty, defeated, and ready to give her my uncensored thoughts about the town. Worst case, I told her, we would have stay here for even a single night.

I told her I'd keep an eye on the bags while she went down to the shore to see with her own eyes the scene I was describing. After she returned a short time later, there was no doubt that we'd be leaving.

"That's the kind of water that gives you diseases," she remarked.

We were ready to go, but there was a problem: The bus we took into town was apparently the last of the evening. The only transport back to Tagbilaran would be an expensive tricycle/taxi ride.

I was on the bubble about what to do. We could either get one of the P$800–1000 rooms that I uncovered during my search, or taxi back into town and pay the same amount (for a less expensive room plus the ride there). Tatiana was exhausted, and so was I, but the thought of staying in Alona for just a night and then relocating again the next day was enough to push us back into town

I was filthy, and all I wanted was a hot shower. That's it. I didn't care what the room looked like, as long as the water coming out of the tap was gas- or electric-fueled heat.

This was apparently a tall order for Tagbilaran, and took several stops for us to locate what I thought would be a simple request for a sizable city of well over 100,000 inhabitants. Ultimately, the winner was Taver's Pension House for P$750/night.

Our trip through the Philippines has not been cheap. I'm not sure if it's the locations I'm selecting, or my desire to keep Tatiana (and myself) in safe, comfortable rooms, or what—but I do know that we have yet to stay in a room without a television and A/C. These kinds of amenities are rather abnormal for me, but I've been hard pressed to find anything I'd put us in for cheaper.

With Alona Beach turning into a total flop (and feeling rather bad about dragging us all the way there from Boracay), I have the feeling we'll just hang out here in Tagbilaran for a few nights, day-trip on Bohol, and then head back to Cebu City in time to jump on our flight.

So much for the white sand and blue waters of the Philippines.

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