It seems necessary to devote a full blog post to my ferry from Iloilo to Cebu City and then on to Palawan, given how fundamentally different it was from the usual tricycle/bus/boat combo that has peppered my time in the Philippines thus far.
Wrapping up a luxuriously lazy week on the pristine and remote Sugar Beach in Sipalay, my next plan was to head on to the rugged and (if pictures aren’t lying) stunning island of Palawan, a long slice of land tumbling downward from Mindoro with its southernmost tip straining to touch Malaysian Borneo.
As I’ve cataloged in my prior post, Sipalay was notoriously difficult to get to (we took a tricycle, a v-hire van, 2 buses and a boat to get there from Dumaguete, on the same island!), it actually but proved even more entertaining to leave if your destination is Palawan: a 5.5 hour bus to Bacolod, ostensibly followed by a ferry to neighbouring Iloilo island and then a night boat to Palawan. Upon my arrival to Iloilo after a sweaty day of bumpy, dirty bus travel, a wrench was thrown in my plan: the night boat to Palawan sank recently, and the next ferry wasn’t for another 5 days.
There were also no reasonably priced flights to Palawan from Iloilo (7000 pesos wasn’t remotely reasonable, especially when the ferry was 1000). Iloilo City was not the kind of place I wanted to spend 5 days, and so after a marathon session at the travel agency in the Atrium Mall near my ant and roach and spider infested hostel, I booked a night ferry to Cebu and then a flight from Cebu to Puerto Princessa, capital of Palawan province.
The Long Trip and Ferry from Iloilo to Cebu
Those of you who have traveled in the Philippines will know that the ferries here are not renowned for their safety, nor are they strict about the capacity of the ship. Most of the boats that sank either did so because the waters were stormy but the company didn’t want to cancel or because they stuffed too many people on the ship prior to departure. As a result, I felt it was prudent to Google “accident Visayas Philippines ferry” in order to make an informed decision about what company I would sail with to Cebu. This internet research proved to be psychologically traumatizing, as there were far more accidents than I had anticipated, and the gruesome, detail-oriented accounting of the ferries as they sunk left a pit in my stomach. I ended up going with Cokaliong Shipping Lines, a newer company with no major accidents thus far. This either meant that I was going to drown on my way to Cebu or that they took better care of their boats and followed the rules. I was hoping for the latter.
I took a cab from my critter-filled hostel (I’m not kidding: my legs are an impressive connect-the-dots tapestry of bites) to the pier and was met by the gawking stares of 20+ porters, who roused themselves from their staring to figure out why the hell I was there. Where was my husband? Why was I strong enough to carry my bags despite being “small, so so small for a white girl” and how could I travel alone? Wasn’t it lonely traveling alone? I cracked up at how earnest these questions came at me, fast and furious and genuinely replete with confusion.
After convincing them I was just fine alone, they ignored the other arriving passengers and led me, pied-piper style, into the ratty ferry terminal and down to the loading dock itself, a massive concrete jungle of shipping containers and piles of rusted, discarded debris. Not promising. I then walked the 10 minutes to the ferry itself, picking up more and more random Filipino men on the way (with the existing men heading off the husband questions at the pass by yelling “she is alone! She is brave!”, until I finally arrived at the buttercup yellow Cokaliong boat, to the applause of all the stewards and crew, who yelled in unison “but where is your husband?!”. My new-found fan club answered for me: “she is alone! She is brave!”.
My group of random men from the Pier who led me to the boat; the Cokaliong boat in all its yellow glory:
I extricated myself from the 20 questions game by promising to take pictures of the crew (I kept my word) and found my bunk in the Lapu-Lapu tourist berth (lapu-lapu is the Pinoy word for grouper fish) – and the 35 students, three nuns and roosters I would be sharing it with. As I walked through the door, total silence descended on the previously raucous berth – white girl aboard! – and suddenly, everyone crowded toward me asking what I was doing there, where I was from, how old I was, etc. Next thing I know, my bunkmates have scampered off to get THEIR friends and then the ship’s crew stopped by to investigate the noise and in a span of 5 minutes, I had most of the boat in my bunk, a cacophony of “friend! Hello! Friend!” and, of course, “Where is your husband?!” This chaos kept up until the boat blew its horn, at which point the crowd scattered and I was able to take some pictures of the crew. Given how many people popped in my bunk thereafter to get a glimpse of the white girl, it was safe to say I was the only tourist aboard. This assumption was corroborated by the fact that any crew member who saw me enthusiastically and immediately screamed “CANADA!” and pointed. People seemed genuinely worried that I had no husband with me, partially because they wanted to make sure I would make it through their country in one piece, but also because they wanted to know what they were missing. How hard could it be to land a husband? What handicap were they overlooking that prevented me from shacking up? It was hilarious.
The economy class bunks; me and my bunkmates from the Lapu-Lapu class cabin:
The boat was 14 hours long, and divided into economy, tourist and suite classes. Economy class featured rickety iron bunk beds nailed to the deck and from one side of the ship to the other, tourist class, where I slept, had solid wooden bunks and air conditioning. And the suites were a 2-person affair, cordoned off from us plebs. There was a canteen and a dining lounge, and the ship was immaculate and – important! – there was toilet paper aplenty. The night went smoothly, other than an hour of really rocky waves and the fact that my bunkmate, a sweet 21-year old social work student from Iloilo City, decided to shower at 4am and insisted on giving me a play-by-play – despite the fact that I was clearly trying to sleep. Roosters in cardboard boxes crowed all night, but I’ve gotten used to the sound as it is omnipresent in this country. Comedy ensued when, close to arrival, one rooster escaped its box and ran around the deck, squawking in a feverish mixture of panic and (one would assume) happiness at its escape. It took 5 people and a broom to get him back in his box.
As we pulled into Cebu’s hulking port, boats of sea gypsies pulled alongside and people dropped coins down toward the sea, where they were caught by the gypsies in a big blue tarp. I got off the boat to a chorus of goodbyes from the crew and made my way to a taxi and then the airport. The taxi driver agreed to use a meter but then – once we were on our way – told me it was magically broken, so I said I would fix it for him or he could stop his car and I would fine another cab and – presto! it was working again.
I ended up at the teeny Cebu airport well before check-in for my flight, and with 5 hours to kill I took advantage of the best massages the world has to offer: a massage by a blind person. There are blind massage places all over Asia, notably in Malaysia and China, but from what I can tell, no other country has as many as the Philippines. This is because the Philippine government actually subsidizes massage school for blind people so that they can have a trade/profession within a society that doesn’t leave much room for adults who are not fully capable physically. As a result, you can find blind massage parlours set up in ferry terminals, airports, bus stations and any other major transportation hub in addition to the usual stand-alone places. My 2 hour back-and-leg massage by Rudi, a blind kid who was born with a degenerative condition (whereby he could see perfectly as a child but last year – as he puts it – “all went dark”) was the best I have ever had, and a great way to pass my time at the airport.
My flight from Cebu was mostly painless, bumpy landing notwithstanding, and Puerto Princessa is cleaner than any other city I have seen in the Philippines. Also? They have a Chow King here, and some Halo-Halo is the perfect way to cool off after eye-opening, lengthily trip to get to Palawan.
More to come from this island paradise,