Day 1: Cebu Bohol and the Camotes

I was sitting in the reasonably roomy embrace of a very cheap Cathay Pacific flight to Cebu in the Philippines. Happy to be escaping the grey winter skies of the UK, my thoughts kept returning to the Teddy Bear in my luggage and wondering if it contained anything it shouldn’t. I was due to change planes in Hong Kong and it was difficult to concentrate on the excellent in-flight entertainment.

Whilst watching the antics of Rango on the small screen in front of me, I pondered how long it would take the authorities to verify the story of my mission of mercy. I tried to console myself that I am long past my sell by date and would be of no interest if I dropped the soap while incarcerated in one of Hong Kong’s finest.

It all started with a photograph of a four year old girl called J and an appeal for help. J suffers from the most extreme form of cleft palate, a cleft face. The cleft palate extending up into the eye socket.

Living in Rural

Traveling to Cebu Bohol and Camotes
J before any operations. Photo taken by P

J lives in a rural backwater on the Island of Bohol in the Philippines. The Philippines have (according to World Health Organisation data) one of the highest incidences of cleft lip and palate in the world. The condition is inherited. Four or five western backed charities either run surgical missions to the Philippines to correct this condition or commission local hospitals to carry out the operations.

Suffice to say I found myself bringing gifts from the UK for J. These gifts had been purchased with some of the funds raised by generous individuals who were completely unknown to me. Most of the gifts were clothes, but there was the Teddy Bear which hopefully only contained it’s original stuffing.

In the event the flight was long, tiring and uneventful. The economy section from Heathrow to Hong Kong was only two thirds full, which may explain the cheapness of my ticket. Just as well it was not full as one of the toilets was out of action resulting in a run on the remaining facilities.

Arriving at Mactan Cebu International Airport

At Cebu Mactan disembarkation went smoothly and as always I was relieved when my luggage arrived on the conveyor. Then I joined the stream of people making for Domestic Departures to pick up a White Cab, thereby avoiding the expensive Yellow Airport Cabs. Hold on – ‘stream of people’ – this is different thinks I. Things have changed since my last visit. Previously you would smile at the security guard and hope he would be happy letting you through into the backdoor of Arrivals, maybe only one other person attempting the same trick. I was swept along in the tide of humanity and found myself at the end of a long official queue for the White Cabs. I guess that is progress!

Cebu City – you love it or hate it

The dirt and squalor, the traffic chaos, the pedestrians disregard for the traffic, the heat and the noise. As a temporary visitor I love it.

Traffic Cebu Bohol
Cebu Traffic

Once again I had booked into the Alpa City Suites Hotel. It is modern, convenient and a nice place to recover from the rigors of the flight. The chef in the restaurant produces excellent meals if you cannot be bothered to go out to eat. The buffet breakfast is good with eggs cooked to order. My one complaint is that they do not serve bacon every day.

At the Alpa City Suites Hotel

At the hotel I was given an upgraded room. Actually the same size as the one I booked, only with a bathtub instead of a shower. The room smelled of cigarette smoke, but after they sprayed the room with air freshener and the air conditioning had been running the smell was no longer noticeable.

A previous occupant had placed a shower cap over the smoke alarm sensor in the ceiling! So not only were they smoking, but if they accidentally set fire to the room they ensured the room would be well alight before the alarm operated. Sometimes you have to accept you can never fix stupid.

Ayala Mall in Cebu City Philippines
Ayala Mall

I needed bottled water and to change money so took a taxi to the Ayala Mall. I had a Chinese meal, bought a local SIM card for my phone and made contact with P who would accompany me to visit J. We arranged to meet for lunch the next day.

Day 2: Meeting P

It was interesting meeting P over some very tasty pork ribs in Golden Cowrie in SM Mall. P was a civil engineer whose work has taken him round the world including the Philippines. Whilst there he saw a neighbours son had a cleft lip and decided to see what he could do to help.

For those of you who do not know the Philippines, access to medical care is almost entirely contingent on the ability to pay. Disabilities that would be quickly fixed in the West are accepted as a fact of life by the poor.

An altruistic Dutchman, P, discovered J whilst searching for cleft lip cases who, for whatever reason, missed the adverts for the surgical missions. Realising this case was extreme and outside the scope of the surgical missions P appealed for help on a Forum dedicated to the Philippines.

J was going to require a number of operations and I like many others contributed funds. At the same time P had another case of a baby with a double cleft that was underweight and required special milk to build up his weight for the operation. This milk was beyond the means of the family and with my agreement P used the funds I donated to help this baby called Shadow.

Baby called Shadow
Shadow

P gave an example of a typical problem. He had identified 80 children to attend an Operation Rainbow clinic to have their cleft lips/palates fixed. Only 40 showed up as the others were attending a local fiesta. I guess the parents felt the fiesta was more important than getting their children fixed. The local culture and priorities can be very different.

We agreed to travel to Bohol the next day.

Day 3: Travel to Bohol

Up early, checkout and a taxi to the port. P had texted to meet at the Clemer Office just near the Marine Court building. Sounds simple, but I was looking for something a bit more imposing than actually existed.

The office was about the size of a single garage. One side was used for storing goods with a few stools for passengers to sit on. On the other side was a desk and ancient photocopier. Two ladies and a one armed man sat round the desk.

I was early and bought the tickets for the crossing to Getafe, Bohol. I then produced my icebreaker – a box of Roses Chocolates and offered them around. Filipinos love chocolate and especially western chocolate. The man started chatting. He was a member of a junior business organisation. He gave me his card and thought they may be able to help with logistics with the cleft lip children.

Crossing to Getafe, Bohol

The man, Eric, imported wheelchairs and walking aids that were life expired in the West, but still had significant life in them. He arranged for them to be distributed free to the people who needed them. He avoided the official organisations as too many either sold the goods donated from the West and the goods rarely got to the poor disabled for whom they were originally intended. Eric actually went out himself and searched for the disabled. It was revealing that it was a Filipino explaining this.

P arrived, I introduced him to Eric and left them chatting. Afterwards P explained to me that too often he gets offers of help that are just empty promises and the assistance never arrives. Hopefully in this case there may actually be something gained.

We ambled over to the pier and the waiting room where a bus would take us to the boat. Filipinos do not like walking even a few yards if it can be avoided. The bus picks up for two boats. The boats are next to each other. Ours is the second. P knows to get out for the first boat and walk a few yards to be first on and have the choice of the best seats. After dropping us off the bus drives less than 10 yards and the remaining passengers for our boat rush off to get the best seats. Have none of them worked out that if they got out at the first stop they could be first on the boat!!!

Travelling on the Banca

The boat held a maximum of 20 passengers and the Clemer line bancas (also called pump boats) are apparently more reliable than the ‘fastcraft’ operated by the opposition. South East Asia is a popular dumping ground for ferries that no longer meet western safety standards. On the banca the ‘thunderbox’ is built out on the supports to the outriggers.

Thunderbox on the ferry Cebu Bohol
The Thunderbox on the ferry

The banca headed out and we passed a number of Korean run holiday resorts on their own islands. I had previously read that there were plans for a bridge between Cebu and Bohol. I had read about this and looking at the map it seemed too big a gap to bridge. Travelling on the Banca it was obvious that the sea was very shallow with one deep channel for shipping. The bridge will never get built as I cannot see the Philippine Government ever getting the funding for the project.

An upmarket version of our ferry

Arriving at Getafe Pier

The sun shone from a cloudless blue sky as we ambled up Getafe pier. It was a glorious day as we squeezed into a motor trike for the journey to Buenavista. The passenger sidecar on the trike was built for Filipinos. P and I would have been married by the end of the journey if we had both got in, so P went behind the driver.

Estuary at Buenavista

The roads in Bohol are smoother and quieter than Cebu. Too early or late for the Bouganvilla, Hibiscus was an acceptable substitute and made for a colourful drive. The road to J steadily deteriorated until we could progress no further along the muddy track and had to walk.

path to the house
The path to J’s house

Stay with the Family

J is a wonderful little girl. Happy despite everything. She was shy as I was along, but is used to P. She was quite happy to let him examine her eyesocket and take close up pictures that P would later show the Doctors in Cebu. J loved the bear and clothes which fitted perfectly.

house in bohol
J’s house
J still recovering from first operation

The family were very kind and gave us coconut water (buko juice), the coconut fresh from a tree. It is delicious and refreshing.

A long and bum numbing journey to Talibon

There we left the trike in the town centre. My luggage went to the Bayside Pension House and P and I caught a very crowded local bus to Shadow’s house. The bus had no glass except for the windscreen. The side openings had solid wooden shutters for when it rains. When raining it must get like the ‘black hole of Calcutta’ with the shutters closed.

inside the bus Cebu Bohol
Inside the bus

Shadow lives a short walk from the main road. The mother seemed very young, but had three children. Cooking is carried out over a wood fire. The chickens wander around and some larger chicks were very adventurous getting everywhere. True rural living and if the west ever collapses in financial chaos, life for Shadow and his family will continue largely unchanged. Shadow is cute and was fast asleep.

The kitchen at Shadow’s house

We did not stay long as it was getting late and we did not want to miss the last bus back to Talibon. Inside the bus had a sign above the driver saying ‘Pray For Us’. It flashed on at irregular moments and it was a little while before I realised it was connected into the brake light circuit. I prayed for working brakes!!!!

As you travel around North Bohol you see curfew signs outside the main towns as the NPA is still active. Though I am told they have not kidnapped anybody for about 10 years.

The exhausting day finished with a meal in a local restaurant, Chel Anne’s. I had beef with pineapple and rice and two well earned beers. P headed off for the night ferry back to Cebu and I went to bed. The room was 700 Pesos, no window, but very clean with a hot shower and air conditioning.

Day 4

The bright sun would have liked to have streamed in through the bedroom window, but failed dismally to get through the walls to the black hole I was inhabiting. Too be honest it was not too bad and a bargain at the price (700 pesos is just over £10).

Talibon pension house
Bayside Pension House, Talibon

Breakfast was taken in Chel Anne’s. It is a bakery as well as a restaurant and the smell of baking was wonderful. In daylight I realised that the restaurant juts out over the sea. It is a wonderful spot with nice food. All they need to complete their little piece of heaven is a decent coffee machine. Real coffee is a rare luxury outside the cities.

chel anne's
Chel Anne’s

Suitably refreshed I found a Vhire (minibus that goes when it is full and picks up and drops off anywhere along its route) to Tagbiliran, the capital of Bohol and where the hospital is situated that will operate on Shadow.

At Tagbiliran Bohol

I was hoping to stay at the Dao Diamond hotel. Unfortunately I had been unable to get through on the phone and just took a chance they would have room. Chatting to the driver, he said the route took him past the Dao Diamond and he would drop me off. This saved a motor trike from the centre of Tagbiliran.

The Vhire driver was very careful and sensible driver. I am not sure if he is always like this or was just feeling self concious as I was most probably the first person to use the seat belt in the minibus. He did run his rosary through his fingers before we set off and kissed the cross on it.

The Dao Diamond is an intriguing hotel. It is an adjunct of the deaf and dumb school in Tagbiliran and the staff are graduates of the school. The only staff who are not deaf and/or dumb run the front desk. It is very clever in the restaurant as you get the menu and a pad of paper and pen to write down your order.

I have now heard from P, Shadows operation is booked for Monday (Day 6) as long as he passes a medical at the local medical centre today.

It is cool enough to turn off the air conditioning and I had a wonderful sleep. I had not realised how tired I had become.

Day 5

I caught a trike to Island City Mall and asked the trike driver to take me via a laundry shop. It is far cheaper to use a local laundry instead of the hotel. The laundry shops price per kilo, the hotel per item. At the Mall I stocked up on cash and snacks and bought some drinks and snacks for Shadow’s Mum to take back to her kids. I was not sure if she would be pleased or not impressed at the extra to carry. (I need not have worried, I should have realised her journey to the hospital would be a family outing so plenty of hands to carry the goodies)

The hotel has one of those foot spas where the fish nibble the dead skin. 80 pence for 30 minutes. Yep – you just have to do it, one of those opportunities you cannot pass up. With my big feet the fish must have thought it was Christmas. It tickled, they went in all the nooks and crannies between the toes. Thankfully none floated to the surface upside down after dining on my feet. I am not sure it made any difference to my feet, but an interesting experience.

piscine pedicure
Piscine pedicure

P phoned, Shadow passed the medical so it should be all systems go tomorrow. We meet at the hospital at 11am. I have extended my stay at the hotel until Day 8. I will book to go snorkelling at Balicasag on Day 7. I am not sure what to do for my remaining time. If P does not need any help I might go and explore the Camotes.

The only bad thing about the Dao Diamond is that the internet service is rubbish. The connection frequently gets dropped and it proved impossible to upload photos. Apart from that it is a great hotel and I will use it again.

Day 6

Waiting for Shadow – a play in five parts demonstrating the patience of man with little action and finishing in disappointment.

  • Act 1 – Waiting for Shadow to arrive at the hospital.
  • Act 2 – As well we have to wait for the Doctor to examine Shadow.
  • Act 3 – Waiting for Shadow’s blood tests to be taken.

Intermission – lunch at the Garden Cafe, though in central Tagbiliran it is linked to Dao Diamond and also with deaf and dumb staff.

  • Act 4 – Waiting for Shadow’s blood test results.
  • Act 5 – Finally waiting to see the Doctor. Eventually all for naught as the doctor on the final examination decided that Shadow had a cough and asked his Mum to bring him back in April.

Shadow is a bonnie baby and with the special milk is now a healthy weight. He has a strong kick.

We said goodbye to Shadow and his Mum, Carmela, and P gave them the money for the Vhire back to their village.

P explained he now had two choices. To bring Shadow back in April to the hospital in Tagbiliran or wait until the next Operation Restore Hope clinic in Cebu in May.

So I said goodbye to P and we will get together when I am back in Cebu. P will send me photos of Shadow after the operation.

Day 7

A day I had been looking forward to, snorkelling at Balicasag. A much later start than on my previous trip as I was not going Dolphin watching first. The Dolphins are early risers and only perform at dawn. The trip started with a long trike ride to Panglao to board the banca to Balicasag.

leaving panglao
Leaving Panglao for the voyage to Balicasag

At Balicasag you transfer to a small outrigger canoe and get taken to the snorkelling area. My first swim was at the ‘wall’ that plunges into the depths and the coral came within a few inches of the surface. Disappointing as few fish and not too interesting. Apologies for the photos taken with a disposable waterproof camera.

The Wall
The Wall

The best area is about 2 or 3 metres deep above the coral and absolutely stunning. The fish are no longer afraid of humans and associate us with food so swarm around. You take a packet of biscuits, cut off the corner to let in the water then squeeze out the resulting paste. The fish love it. The multicoloured fish put on a never ending show. They swim in formation then suddenly break apart at speed only to reform. The bright colours are beautiful.

Grill the freshly caught Fish

Finally I stopped and headed to shore for lunch. Grilled fish and rice. The fish freshly caught. The selection of fish and shellfish were laid out before me to choose. No idea what species. My choice was cooked to perfection and very tasty.

The local canine population gathered round, ever hopeful for some scraps. One dog had striking tiger like markings. The dogs were not a nuisance. They just watched longingly as every mouthful was eaten.

The banca ride back was eventful as we came across a pair of Bryde’s Whales. Identified by the three ridges on the head.

brydes whales
Bryde’s Whales
Bryde’s Whales

A fantastic day and at the end I was exhausted and sunburnt. My bald head a bright red. I had bright sunshine at Balicasag, yet only a few miles away it had been raining on Bohol.

Day 8

The intention was to reach the Camotes in one day. P had told me about a new ferry service to the Camotes from Cebu. If my experience is typical it will not be a success as they make it very difficult to get in touch with them. Unable to book a ticket in advance I had not booked accommodation. Visions of spending the night in Cebu or on the beach in Poro on the Camotes!

oceanjet
The Oceanjet opposition overtaking our ferry

The Weesam Ferry arrived at Cebu Pier 4. Then I had a game of hunt the Golden Star ticket office. Eventually a young lad put on a Golden Star T shirt over his existing T shirt and announced he would get my ticket! What a way to run a business. He took my money, cycled off and came back with the ticket.

Pier 4 departure lounge was a surprise

Modern and pleasant with a café, it was not too painful to wait the two and a half hours for the ferry. While waiting I phoned and booked into the Santiago Bay Garden Resort.

The ferry was delayed arriving in Poro. The crossing was rough and the captain reduced speed. They played ancient Hong Kong comedy Kung Fu short movies. Quaint as they were made when Hong Kong was still a British colony.

Alighting at Poro pier in darkness and I had no idea how far it was to the hotel. Being used to the trike drivers on Bantayan Island initially quoting 4 times the correct fare I started haggling.

Unaware they had actually quoted the correct minimum fare I haggled hard, at one stage walking away. As I walked away I was thinking what on earth do I do now. Thankfully they came after me and one agreed to take me at a lower fare as I was on his route home. To put the stupidity of my actions in context we were haggling over about 80 UK pence, 33% of the fare!!

The luggage went on the back and I squeezed into the sidecar. And we drove……and drove…..and drove. As we sped through the night I began to realise I had driven the price down too low because of the distance we travelled. At the hotel I gave the driver the full amount and said I had not realised it was so far. As I checked in I asked the receptionist and she confirmed the official minimum fare was what they had asked me to pay in the first place. oops.

Day 9 and 10

As I type this the cloudless blue sky changes into the blue grey of the distant sea which in turn changes to a brilliant turquoise as it gets near the shore. It is a beautiful location to sit and relax and sip a cold Coke. Nena’s Cafe, a shack on the beach, has rescued me from the hotel.

The view from Nena’s Grill

The hotel charges four times what I paid on Bantayan for a similar room. The hotel is in good condition externally, but my de-luxe room is a dump. Ancient badly constructed furniture with a cold shower in the bathroom. Two wires emerge from the wall in the bathroom where an electric water heater was once fitted.

Santiago Bay Garden Resort – my hotel
The view from the hotel

Staying at Santiago Bay Garden Resort

The hotel staff are fine, but the company ethos is to charge for everything possible and incur the minimum expenditure. At the price I paid I would expect at least a complimentary small bottle of mineral water in the room as you cannot drink the tap water. At the end of the second full day the room had not been cleaned once, nor the sheets changed.

My towel had become damp and unpleasant. I took it and asked for a replacement. “Certainly sir, that will be 50 Pesos”, I burst out laughing as by now nothing was a surprise. The lady went to get the clean towel, though when she came back she had an argument with another member of staff who said I did not need to pay.

In the end I did not have to pay, but it is typical of the scrooge like mentality of the management. I understand the hotel is owned by one of the richest men in the country – I know why he is the richest.

Discover Nena’s Grill

I ate one meal in the hotel and it was ok, but not that well cooked. Then I went exploring and discovered Nena’s. Wow – I had sweet and sour fish and it melted in the mouth. She is a genius in the kitchen. From then on I only ate at Nena’s Grill.

Nena’s Grill, Santiago Bay, Camotes

I had grilled chicken that was so tasty and perfectly cooked. I ordered a Buko Juice, about 20 pence, fresh from the coconut with a straw poked in a hole in the top. When the juice was finished, Nena’s daughter split the coconut so I could eat the flesh. The practised way she used the knife should frighten any husband and prevent him straying.

On the second day at the hotel I went for a swim in the sea and then took a Habal Habal into Consuelo Town to get the return ferry ticket. I will return tomorrow from Consuelo to Danao on Cebu to avoid the long drive to Poro. I took my life in my hands as I balanced on the back of the motorcycle taxi, most probably invalidating any travel insurance by not wearing a helmet. Not that anybody seems to own a helmet.

Arriving at Consuelo port I was informed at the ferry office that they do not sell tickets in advance. Not a completely wasted journey as they did at least take a reservation. There is cellphone coverage at the port so I texted ‘Boy’, the trike driver who delivered me to the hotel, requesting he pick me up at 8 am tomorrow for the journey to the port.

Day 11

The Camotes is an idyllic destination, but I was glad to be leaving. Not because of the hotel, but just because I was bored. I would like to explore the island, but habal habal is the only local transport option. If you had your own motorcycle, the roads are very quiet, it would be fun to explore. Or if you just wanted to relax on a beach in a beautiful location and catch up on your reading it would be ideal. There are other accommodation options.

With the ferry to Danao

The alarm went and after completing my ablutions I grabbed a quick breakfast and carried my bags to reception. Boy was waiting and we headed off to the port at Consuela. Ferry ticket purchased I settled down to wait to board the ferry.

The Consuela Danao (Cebu) Ferry

The slow vehicle ferry only took two hours to Danao. Alighting at Danao pier it was unclear where to go for the Vhires to Cebu City. The main road went past the port and I considered catching a Ceres bus, but the road was clearly signed no stopping. I haggled with a pedi-cab driver to take me to the bus station, the cost to include luggage. Needless to say, when paying him at the bus station, the pedi-cab driver announced “luggage extra sir”. I paid up and did not bother with a tip.

Too many Passengers

Too many passengers and not enough Vhires meant queues, queue jumping and a generally unpleasant experience. Eventually my luggage and I got seats, my luggage once again having it’s own ticket as the driver could not be bothered to open the rear door and load my luggage in the back. Depositing the passengers at SM City Mall in Cebu, it was but a short cab ride to the welcoming embrace of the Alpa City Suites Hotel.

Day 12

A grey cloudy day with the threat of rain. I visited the Simala shrine to the miraculous Virgin Mary. It is about two hours south of Cebu City, beyond Carcar. It is maintained by the Marian Monks. The grounds are landscaped and it is a slick operation to manage the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who visit.

Simala
Simala

The main building is a strange confection of arches spires and statues that looked to me as if it would be more at home in Disney’s Magic Kingdom at Orlando, Florida.

Devotees queue to pray and touch the glass case which contains the statue of the Virgin Mary that is alleged to have cried tears of blood. The incredible faith and devotion on show is humbling. There are glass cases displaying details of the faithful who have been cured. There is a church within which holds regular Masses throughout the day. You can light candles, with different colours having different meanings.

Display inside the shrine
Display inside the shrine

As I am not a Catholic I am not sure I would visit Simala again, but I am very glad I made the effort. It is an interesting place and obviously gives comfort to the many who attend.

A slow return to Cebu City was followed by a tasty meal in the Pier One restaurant at Parkmall.

Day 13

A slow end to my trip. Bumbling around getting everything ready for the flight home the next day. A final meal at a very quiet ‘all you can eat’ buffet in a restaurant opposite the Sarrosa International Hotel. Not a pleasant meal as the food was barely warm.

Day 14

I get up, check out and catch a taxi to the airport. As I sit waiting for my flight my thoughts go back over my trip.

Once again the Philippines has amazed and delighted me as well as infuriated and irritated me. It is an amazing place to holiday with so much to offer. The vast majority of the people I have met have been a delight, cheerful, friendly and helpful.

In conclusion I have eaten wonderful food and food that is less than perfect. As well I have seen stunning scenery and amazing sights as well as ugliness, dirt and squalor. I have seen that Filipinos treat other Filipinos with arrogance and disdain, but also laughter and joy as they enjoy each others company. Finally I have realized that in Philippines is obvious wealth and great poverty on the other side.

As I look at the Philippines through the rose tinted glasses of the occasional tourist, I can only agree with the Philippine Department of Tourism, ‘it’s more fun in the Philippines’!

Thanks to Chas who shared this great review about his trip to Cebu Bohol and the Camotes on March 2012

Travel Guides to Cebu Bohol and the Camotes

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Map of Bohol and the Camotes Islands

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  1. Biscuitz

    Chas, thanks for sharing your wonderful trip report. Its very informative and interesting to read. Been to Cebu twice not for vacation but work. I didn’t get the chance to see the “Queen City of the South” which Cebu is known for. 🙂

    Likewise, you and P are doing a great job helping out kids with cleft lip. Thank you and God bless!:)

  2. Loren

    Aloha! Stumbled on your trip to Talibon, Bohol while searching for info on Am Bayside. We are part of the Aloha Medical Mission to Talibon in March 2013. As was said–your report was very interesting and informative. Perhaps you and P would like to join us . God Bless you guys….

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