The crowds may flock to Cebu, but amid this tropical yet contradictory Asian paradise that comprises over 7,000 islands, much more is to be had off the Philippines’ beaten paths. For The Nanjinger, the more ramshackle the shanty town, the better.
And to call a stick a stick, it just takes too long to get to Cebu. So when a Nanjing friend mentioned they had invested in a Chinese dive lodge, just an hour’s boat ride from Manila, we more than sat up and took notice.
Except that was a lie. So it came to be that, after the aforementioned boat ride, from Batangas City, which was, in turn, after a 2 hour bus ride (quick by Philippine standards) from Manila, we found ourselves in the backwater of Puerto Galera, the village/town of Sabang to be exact.
Many go to the Philippines to avail themselves of diver certification, and Puerto Galera is no exception, where PADI regulations are also happily and strictly adhered to. Local guides feature over 50 recommended dive sites; from caves and wrecks to exotic marine life, the vicinity certainly has what it takes to keep a finned human happy for days on end. The fact that its beach-front strip of dive lodges is interlaced with western bars and restaurants, some of which open 24 hours, is testament to the plentitude of potential hedonism. In Puerto Galera, this starts at 5pm, the second the dive lodges close.
Yet, this would be to belie some of the other surprises that await in this dichotomy of an island world. For it was amid the mud, sand, chaos and general disregard for road safety that we sampled western cuisine far superior to that on the whole available in all of Nanjing; outstanding pizza by the Italians themselves in Bella Napoli (no relative to its Nanjing namesake), washed down with a glass of homemade, and complimentary, house wine. Then there was Hemingway’s Bistrot, an odd name for an Austrian diner, but who cares when tucking into schnitzel, beachside?
Then, as the skies darkened on 24 December, local children marauded the village in gangs, belting out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for all their lungs could manage, ever hopeful that we would emerge to press some Pesos into their hands.
At this point we should have perhaps been forewarned, for we were to return the following day to Manila. We mistakenly watched the skies for the storms that come and go at this time of year that may have also prevented our sea-born departure, when we should have been checking the local holiday schedule. Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines; whereas our boatmen were ready to sail, not a bus was to be had on the other side.
With a flight from Manila back to Nanjing set to soar into the skies with us on board before 8am the following day, there was but one choice; Air Juan.
With their somewhat obvious, but well-earned strap line, “Travel in Style”, Air Juan serves the Philippine islands with scheduled and charter services designed to take you from the nation’s capital direct to your beach resort.
As a big aviation buff, I’ve frankly never had a better Christmas present than sitting directly behind the pilot of a Cessna Grand Caravan Seaplane as we took off from the waters off our beach; next stop downtown Manila.
But we would first have to get to the airport, one where check in is a shady spot under a random palm, and the departure lounge a beach saloon through which goats randomly meander.
On one final death-defying, knuckle-raising ride in a shiny Philippine Tuk Tuk (no, they are not blinged beyond all belief; they’re merely made of stainless steel, on account it rains most days), our first glimpse of a dotted white line in a week had us questioning the very definition of the word “civilisation”. For international headlines aside, those in this run-down corner of the world appear far more alive and happy than many in the rat race of eastern China’s 21st century.