Singapore: flash but not brash

Over time, Helena and I are realising that we’re not really city people – which I suppose is ironic as we live in one in the UK. At the moment though, we tend to find we’re happiest either somewhere near to the ocean, lost in the jungle or climbing a mountain. Superb Singapore, however, stands in exception to this rule.

We flew in from Boracay, having indulged ourselves in beachy sunsets and cheap San Miguel, and landed in pristine Singapore with a little trepidation. ‘Yeah, Singapore’s nice but it’s sooooooo expensive,’ was the general warning we had been receiving pre-visit, so we were happy to have bagged some accommodation in Little India for a reasonable price for four nights. It was in a large dorm in the upstairs of a pub but we’re not averse to the occasional dorm when needs must.

First impressions of the city then … clean, orderly, calm, quiet even. Everything in Singapore just seems to be well settled, well set up so that there is minimal rush. You don’t get the sense of chaotic hustle that other cities exude from their traffic and mass transport systems. There actually doesn’t even seem to be that much traffic, which adds to the other adjective and indeed point of pride for the city: it’s safe. Not once in our substantial wanderings did Helena and I feel that mild nervousness you occasionally get when you think you may be out a little too late, or have wandered a little too far in the wrong direction.

A short stroll through Little India.
A short stroll through Little India.
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Things can get quite colourful!

And Singapore is a real joy to wander around; we covered some significant mileage entirely on foot. Little India is a kind of sterilised, tidied up version of real India with nothing like the amount of strange and bizarre sights you encounter on a walk through Delhi or Mumbai, and a distinct lack of cows and dogs of course! East Coast Park (a vast stretch of open park land running along the cost line for miles) and the more central Canning Fort Park were both lovely to explore. We meandered aimlessly down towards the coastal barrage and the enclosed reservoir which was surrounded by manicured gardens and wide paths buzzing with joggers and cyclists. The successful economic status of the tiny country was evident simply in the number of high end carbon bikes on show on the cycle paths. I had a few pangs of desire to be Lycra clad amongst them, enjoying cruising around in the sunshine.

This is the lovely thing about Singapore really, that the combination of parks and architecture makes for a hassle free and wallet-friendly experience. Wandering around also allows you to come across the excellent hawker food centres with tasty seafood, noodles and fresh smoothies; no crazy prices here either. We would have had a super successful budget stay if it hadn’t been for the small matter of a GoPro purchase on our penultimate day!

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The sense of space you get in Singapore is second to none as far as cities are concerned.

So, from the east side of the central reservoir, you get an amazing view of the city and it’s spectacular skyline. The architecture in Singapore ranges from historic to contemporary to down-right mind-blowing, epitomised by the hugely famous Marina Bay Sands hotel complex. Its three, huge, towers would have been an impressive sight on their own, but it is the Sky-Park which really makes you look twice. On first glimpse you’re really not sure what you’re looking at – a mistake? An optical illusion? A cruise liner parked on top of a hotel? Well, that’s what it looks like to me! And although at first your thoughts juggle around between amusement, disbelief, ridicule, confusion, awe, disgust and admiration, in the end you simply kind of get used to it. Like the architecture is exactly what you expected, as if anything else simply wouldn’t do.

The staggering Marina Bay Sands dominates the skyline from almost every perspective!
The staggering Marina Bay Sands dominates the skyline from almost every perspective!
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Old meets new at St Andrew’s cathedral in central Singapore.

A walk inside the hotel atrium is also another experience in sublime style. I thought I may be put off, (envious perhaps?) by the extravagance that even here could be deemed to be unnecessary and yet there was a sense that although the place is designed to impress, it stops clearly short of vulgarity. I did happen to notice there was a casino there though…

The other famous hotel in Singapore is, of course, Raffles; birthplace of the Singapore Sling. It’s pretty much a Singapore rite of passage, or so we heard, to get all dressed up and go and drink the famous cocktail in the famous hotel. This presented Helena and I with a very legitimate problem, however … we have next to nothing in our backpacks in the way of ‘smart’ clothes. We couldn’t possibly go to Raffles in shorts, could we? We’d get thrown out for sure!

Another night time wander - do you think they'll let me in in shorts and t-shirt?
Another night time wander – do you think they’ll let me in in shorts and t-shirt?

As it happened though, we wandered past early one evening and spoke to a very helpful doorman who said we’d be more than welcome to have a drink in the Long Bar, which after as much sprucing up as we could manage, is exactly what we did. Helena looked delightful in a long blue dress (where on earth had she been hiding that?!) and I dug out a shirt (although I didn’t have an iron) and we caught a taxi – luxury! – to Raffles. Whereupon we found a bar full of very casually dressed people happily sipping on cocktails and eating a prolific amount of peanuts – all of the shells of which were subsequently tossed onto the floor. We felt positively over-dressed! But we had a lovely time indulging in a little bit of luxury, to the extent that we thought it may be a good idea to go from the historic iconic Singapore hotel to the modern icon, the Marina Bay Sands. Specifically, to the casino!

Classic cocktails!
Classic cocktails!

Leaving Raffles at about half past eleven, we wandered down to the casino. It was about a mile or so but, as I said before, we had no qualms about walking through the city at night-time. Unfortunately for us, you need to have your passports as ID to get into the casino, so my plans of a big money, big stakes, high rolling, jackpot winning betting streak was over before it had even begun. Probably for the best really!

There is so much amazing architecture in Singapore that I could go on for ages but the top award has to go to Gardens by the Bay; the park created on reclaimed land in front of Marina Bay Sands, the centrepiece of which is the mesmerising Supertree Grove. You are free to wander in and around, gazing up at these vast structures towering above you, their irregular patterned branches reaching out to form spectacular circular tree tops. They have plants growing up their trunks which I suppose are gradually going to spread over the entire structures encompassing them in leaves and flowers which I imagine will be a fabulous sight. We may have to return to check out their progress in due course… (Just one of a myriad of ‘excuses to come back to (inset place name here!) that we are developing as our trip continues). And before you ask, no, the irony was not lost on me – in a world in which so many trees are being cut down, we are now building trees in their place to serve as an architectural attraction in an urban landscape. You would have thought Mother Nature had the patent on that one…

Nevertheless, what we loved the most about the Supertrees was the sound and light show that they run every night. Amongst the interlocking maze-like structures are woven thousands of lights which combine with a musical programme twice every evening. Some say it’s a bit cheesy … but hey, you can’t go wrong when the music starts with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, segues through Holst and Stravinsky to end up with ‘The Circle of Life’!

The magical 'Supertree Grove' at Marina Bay Sands.
The magical ‘Supertree Grove’ at Marina Bay Sands.

Cheesy or not, we loved it, and we had a really special moment actually because we came across it sort of by accident the first time, and, significantly, we didn’t have any cameras with us. So we were forced, in a way, to just lie back, gaze skywards, listen, immerse, dissolve and enjoy as the lights on the trees danced their way into our memories. Liberated by our lack of technology, it was a really happy and moving moment for us, especially when these lyrics came around… You know the ones I mean already, I know you do! They just seemed to speak to us on every level.

‘There’s more to see, than can ever be seen, more to do, than can ever be done. There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found…’

We both found ourselves with a little tear in the eye at that moment, and I’m not ashamed to say it! Not one little bit!

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Just one more of the skyline…
Enjoying our Raffles experience :-)
Enjoying our Raffles experience 🙂
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Freediving – an adventure into the deep

I felt a gentle squeeze on my arm and flicked my finger in reply to signal that I was ok. ‘That’s 2:40.’ It was Helena’s voice – distant but near, muffled but clear, muted somewhat by my being face down in the water. Two minutes forty… taking a glance at the bottom of the pool, I took a check of how I was doing. Calm, focused, in control, not struggling, not yet. ‘Make it to three minutes.’ This was a voice in my head urging me on, gently but with determination. So I stayed put, face down, floating, holding my breath, knowing I’d already passed the two minute requirement for this course, realising that I’d far surpassed what I thought possible a few hours earlier, and keen to find out where the limit actually lay.

‘Three minutes.’ Another squeeze of the arm, another signal in reply – but by now, my diaphragm was twitching, sending the signals to my brain that I needed to breath. Wolfgang had explained these ‘contractions’ to us, taught us that it is increased carbon dioxide levels that trigger them, not a lack of oxygen – well, not yet. So I tried to ignore them – clear mind, calm, still, quiet, letting the seconds tick on.

‘Three fifteen,’ and I was having to work hard now, my stomach crunching in its desire to make me want to breathe. Can I make it to 3:30, I wondered, and held on. Another squeeze, ‘3:30’, and I came up. Looking around I saw Helena, stopwatch in hand, looking excited and Wolfgang, who had been observing, looking calm but pleased. ‘How was it?’ he asked, softly. ‘It was, it was … good,’ I replied, trying to grasp the moment and hold on to whatever feeling it was that was flooding my senses. He simply smiled.

Wolfgang and Helena keep an eye on me as I attempt a static breath hold.
Wolfgang and Helena keep an eye on me as I attempt a static breath hold.

Freediving – the sport (or art?) of diving underwater while holding your breath. Unlike scuba diving, there is no heavy breathing apparatus involved, so the free diver relies solely on their ability to move under the surface as efficiently as possible to conserve oxygen while staving off the urge to breath through a combination of training and mental preparation. After being told I couldn’t scuba due to my asthma, Freediving seemed like not only the best way to be able to enjoy the ocean, but also a good chance to get back to thinking ‘I can’ after being told so categorically, ‘You can’t’.

This blog then, is the bit that was missing from the last Philippines blog – the bit from Cebu, or Moalboal to be more precise. Having decided on Freediving as an option, Helena was looking through the Philippines guide book and came across a section about Wolfgang Dafert, free diver extraordinaire who runs courses from his Moalboal base. We got in touch, and booked two slots.

On day one, we got a trike to the beautiful Serena Bay Resort where we were to begin our training. We met Wolfgang and were immediately struck by his calm demeanour and his down to earth, absorbingly welcoming manner. As we were a course of seven people, we were also introduced to two more instructors, Gadie and Rinate. In addition to myself and Helena there was: Matias, a Norwegian, Sarah from Switzerland, the American Peter and two Aussies, Brendan and Robert. Wolfgang asked why each of us had come to the course, and we all had our various reasons, (mine to prove something to myself and the scuba instructors on Ko Tao I guess) but I remember Brendan and Robert’s replies most clearly. Brendan was into spear fishing in Australia, and so was keen to learn a bit of technique to allow him to stay down longer (and spear larger fish perhaps). ‘And you?’ asked Wolfgang of Robert, ‘I’m just here with him,’ he replied casually, indicating Brendan. This response became more significant as the days went on as Robert proved to be a particularly capable free diver, having no issues swimming at depth and performing a static breath hold of four and a half minutes on the first morning.

Freediving Philippines course participants -with Wolfgang in the background!
Freediving Philippines course participants -with Wolfgang in the background!

You know, if you’re reading this, just have a little go now. Take a couple of deep breaths, relax, and then hold your breath. Look at the clock, see how far you get. Then, when you feel the need to breath, do two things: 1 – breath!! But 2 – see how much longer away four and a half minutes is. Staggering, isn’t it!

Wolfgang began by explaining a lot of the theory and safety to do with Freediving, particularly focusing on the physiological effects of the activity on the body. I won’t go into detail here but safe to say the body is incredible in its ability to adapt under pressure – literally. We learned about oxygen consumption, Boyle’s law of pressure and the consequent need to ‘equalise’ – I’ll explain a little more of this later. He also told us about the requirements to pass the course: we had to do a two minute static breath hold in the pool, swim 40m horizontally under the surface of the pool with fins, and complete a dive to 16m depth.

The two minute breath hold seemed crazy at first. It’s safe to say that we were all more than a little nervous (and pretty doubtful) that we could manage it – perhaps with the exception of Robert who happened to mention he had done three and a half minutes before ‘just for fun’ as part of his competitive swim training.

Soon, we were in the pool – a beautiful, warm little outdoor pool, just up from the beach and the clear waters beyond. Wolfgang uses Serena Bay for its quiet location, absolutely key to getting a good start, making it easier to relax and focus. Kitted out with wetsuits, masks and snorkels, he talked us through some breathing and relaxation techniques. With our heads rested on the side of the pool, he explained ‘belly breathing’ to us – utilising the diaphragm rather than the intercostals to fill the lungs from the bottom which also has the effect of slowing the heart rate. We closed our eyes, closed our minds, and focused.

Before long, after a demonstration from Gadie, it was time to have a go. ‘Are we going to have to do the two minutes today do you think?’ I asked Hels quietly. ‘Looks that way,’ she replied. I had thought all of the testing/assessing would be done on the final day – seems not! ‘Do you want to go first?’ she asked. So after preparing, I took a deep breath, here goes…

And there I was, face down in the pool, holding my breath. Not really knowing what to expect, all sorts of things happened. Firstly, I started drifting around in the water. What if I bump into someone else? Then I felt like I was spinning, but a look at the bottom of the pool confirmed I definitely wasn’t. That’s weird, I thought. Then Hels squeezed my arm to signal a minute had passed. Wow, a minute! Damn, I need to breath… No you don’t, relax. For a few seconds then, I began to feel the incomparable peace and stillness of breath holding – when there isn’t even the the sound of air passing in and out of your lungs to disturb the tranquility. It was only momentary that first time though as I could sense that the others were still under the water too so then a bit of (utterly pointless) competitiveness crept in – just stay down until you notice someone else come up, don’t be the first, just … hold … on … a … little … longer… And then the urge to breath was too much, so I came up. As the air flooded back into my lungs, Helena said, ‘1:53’. ‘Wow, really?’ was my initial reply, and then immediately – ‘Seven more seconds, damn!’ Looking over, I saw that Sarah had come up but Matias was still face down, being watched over by Peter. (He stayed down for over three minutes on his first attempt!).

This session went on to last about 90 minutes, and by the end of it, not only had every single one of us held out breath for over two minutes, we were all also stunned by the intoxication of the experience. ‘It’s so…. I don’t know!’ was about the best I could come up with at the time to describe it – and I’m clearly doing no better now! All we did know, however, was that we all wanted more.

The afternoon session was more theory, ‘How to avoid a blackout while free diving’ – pretty critical stuff really, before going back to the pool for dynamic training. This time, we had to swim 40m underwater with fins. Having done the static in the morning, I was super confident, thinking ’40m really isn’t that far now I know I can hold my breath for over three minutes.’ Unfortunately, there is a vast difference between holding your breath while staying still, and holding your breath while swimming – the latter being vastly more demanding on the body’s oxygen supply. So although we all passed, each one of us getting to 48m (three lengths of the 16m pool) it was nowhere near as simple as I had momentarily thought.

Helena turns at the end of the pool during the dynamic session.
Helena turns at the end of the pool during the dynamic session.

At the end of day one, we all had two out of three requirements passed, with only one to go – the deep dive. The next morning – after having met up for a meal and drinks with a few of the guys the night before – we all regrouped and climbed aboard the St. Vincent – I had to take a picture for my Dad! It was only a short boat ride out to the dive site which Wolfgang explained was to be a dive into ‘the blue’, meaning simply that the water would be deep. Very deep.

We checked our equipment: wetsuit, mask, snorkel, long fins, weight belt. The last piece of kit (the weight belt) is the thing that can be a little unnerving – diving down into the ocean with two kilos strapped around your waist could be perceived as foolhardy, I suppose. It is very necessary however as, with lungs full of air, the body is a very buoyant object. It’s just best to make sure the lungs stay full and you don’t inadvertently breath out 20m below the surface!

The St. Vincent and the crystal waters of Moalboal.
The St. Vincent and the crystal waters of Moalboal.

So, a little bit about ‘equalising’ – the head has air spaces inside of it, namely the inner ear and the sinuses. As the pressure of the water increased with depth (Boyle’s Law), it pushes your ear drums in so that they look like these parentheses: ) ( Without equalising, the eardrums would eventually burst – not nice! Also, as the air squeezes in the sinuses, it can cause pain across the front of your face – very unpleasant. To counteract this then, divers learn to ‘equalise’ by closing their mouth, holding their nose and ‘blowing’ air into the inner ear and sinuses – it’s the same as what you have to do on an aeroplane sometimes.

Equalising causes the most problems to divers, especially when trying to descend head first. At the beginning of our deep dive day then, Wolfgang started us off by descending feet first to get used to equalising under the surface. He and Rinate set up three training lines for us – ropes with weights at the bottom, lowered into the water off the outriggers of the St Vincent. We each took it in turns to descend the ropes, equalising as we go.

‘The lines are set to ten metres,’ he said, and looking down into the blue below me, I could see the concrete weight dangling in the distance. ‘There is a black tape every five metres,’ he continued, ‘so take it easy, don’t push it, just go a little bit and come back up.’ After another demonstration from Gadie, I wrapped my feet around the rope, took my last preparatory breath, and started to descend. Immediately, I could feel the pressure on my ears, but equalising regularly, I descended pretty comfortably down to the five metre mark and stopped.

I stayed for a few seconds holding the rope and pretty much fell in love with Freediving right there, under the water. A huge sense of calm rushed over me, as I slowly took in the scene, the big blue, the stillness, the quiet, the strange security of the sea, the permanence and power of it, the vastness of it, the subtle simplicity of not breathing.

Helena was the same although she remembers looking around and noticing the sunlight, streaking into the water around her. There is a point down below you at which all of the light converges, and it was – and continues to be – this that intoxicated her the most. She describes it as the epicentre of calm, the representation of all of the euphoric feelings you get under the water.

After reaching ten metres feet-down, we then tried to go head first instead – this was an entirely different ball game. The equalising becomes much more difficult as the air is now trying to stay in your lungs rather than being forced into your head (as you are now upside down, the air is ‘floating’ towards your diaphragm. The first time I tried, I got sudden, sharp pains right across my forehead, like someone was hammering nails into the bridge of my nose. Even at five metres, it was too much, I had to come up.

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First attempt at going head down …

So, these were my sinuses, giving me grief. I was worried that I may not be able to dive after all. I mentioned it to Wolfgang and he told me to, ‘Stay on top of the equalising,’ basically, to stay in front of the pain. Luckily, after a few more attempts taking it slowly, I learned how to keep putting pressure into my ears and sinuses which allowed me to dive to ten metres without a problem. But that was ten metres, only ten metres, nowhere near sixteen!

We had a lunch break, and a chance to practise our skills snorkelling and diving over the coral near the shore and amongst the huge shoals of sardines for which Moalboal is famous. We also said farewell to Brendan and Robert who were doing a shorter introductory course.

Diving with the shoal of sardines.
Diving with the shoal of sardines.

In the afternoon, we went back into open water, but this time the lines went deeper…

One of the lines went to 18 metres, to give us the opportunity to make the required depth for the course. Matias was doing well, swimming seemingly comfortably off into the deep and coming back safely. I began to push the depth a bit, 12 metres, 13, gradually feeling more confident but I’d be lying if I said the nerves weren’t creeping in steadily too. Wolfgang was encouraging me to dive deeper so I resolved to give it my best shot to make the 16 metres. On my first concerted attempt, I forgot to equalise properly and my sinuses were giving off the drilling pain by about 8 metres, so I turned and came back.

On my second attempt, I was about 12 metres down and then I spotted a turtle swimming in the distance. I was so excited that I grabbed the line and stopped to watch it. I didn’t feel so bad about aborting the dive, but I knew I’d have to go again.

The final attempt. I prepared on the surface, cool, calm belly breathing, staying relaxed. Then I came to the line and looked down, breathing through the snorkel with my face in the water. The weight was at 18 metres, and just beginning to dissolve into the blue. I took my final breath, and dived down.

I swam in front of the rope, using it to guide me straight down. The five metre mark went past my eyes – keep kicking. Equalising constantly, my ears and sinuses were keeping up, and I was going deeper still. Ten metres – keep going. Fifteen metres – just a little more… I looked up and could see the weight a little way in front of me. I was feeling a mix of excitement, panic and fear – what am I doing? I’m almost 18 metres under the surface and I already feel like I need to breath. Just a little more…

And then the urge to breath overcame me, I turned on the rope just short of the weight and started to ascend. The markers came back past – 15 metres, 10 metres. Wolfgang had come down to meet me as a safety diver and was ascending with me, making eye contact to check I was ok. 5 metres … You’re going to make it. And then my head broke the surface. Taking in big gulps of air, I looked at Wolfgang, ‘Did I make it?’ ‘Yep,’ he replied, ‘17.5’.

I was over the moon.

Descending, following the rope...
Descending, following the rope…
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…turning…
...and going back to the surface.
…and going back to the surface.

On the final day, we went to Wolfgang’s apartment on the coast – there was the small matter of the final exam to take. We worked our way through it. It was a bit odd actually. Although I’ve prepared students for all sorts of exams for the last 8 years, I haven’t sat one myself for ages! Matias and myself were bottom of the class on the exam front, while Helena aced it! And then we walked into the sea off the beach, gazing at the coral and sea life before the sea bed dropped off sharply allowing a good depth for diving.

This was the final day – Matias and I had made the 16 metres the day before, so spent our time practising and developing our skills. Peter and Helena were struggling to equalise head down so worked on getting more comfortable with that, and Sarah made her deep dive to pass the course.

Happy divers in Moalboal - Sarah, Matias, Helena and myself.
Happy divers in Moalboal – Sarah, Matias, Helena and myself.

So it was an incredible few days. The static breath hold and the deep dives in particular were fantastic experiences. Having been doing sports for the last fifteen years where you basically have to push harder, go faster and further than you thought possible, the mindful, calm, focused approach that Freediving requires was a refreshing change.

So what next?

Well, we went to Boracay and immediately found Freedive Boracay – a great group of divers coached by Cat. We went out with them for a fun diving session where I worked on getting more comfortable at depth, and Cat gave Helena some more tips for equalising to work on. He also introduced me to the concept of ‘bottom time’. We were diving on a line that was 18 metres deep, and rather than it be a struggle, the aim now was to dive calmly down, hang there on the bottom for a short while, before coming back up. Which I did!

Helena getting ready to dive in Boracay.
Helena getting ready to dive in Boracay.

Following on, keen to keep practising, we found another school on Gili Trawangan where we could ‘fun dive’ for a whole week. ‘Have we got enough time to stay a week, do you think?’ I asked Helena. ‘I don’t see why not…’ And so, for a week on Gili T, we went out diving each day in the morning with a large group of divers: students, fun divers and instructors. It was so good to be able to chat to all the guys and girls there and glean tips and advice as we went along.

The other thing to mention about Freedive Gili is that a lot of these guys are currently competing. Outside the shop, they have a ‘Hall of Fame’ board where some of the numbers are truly staggering. Some of these guys are diving well in excess of 70, 80, 90 metres. An incredible set of athletes.

During this week, Hels and I both made great progress. Helena’s equalising is getting much better, and she made a dive to ten metres head down on the final day. Still a little way to get the 16m for the certificate but it’s within reach. She also improved her static time to 3:15. As for me, I dived to 24 metres on the first day (wow!) and then gradually added depth each day until the final day where, with good conditions, I reached 30 metres.

Helena made great progress with equalising on Gili Trawangan.
Helena made great progress with equalising on Gili Trawangan.
Hels calmly cruising back to the surface.
Hels calmly cruising back to the surface.

So to end, we just want to say a little thank you to everyone who has helped us on our journey into Freediving so far: at Freedive Gili, Gary, Irene, Per, Viktor, Akim and Denis; Cat and all the guys at Freedive Boracay; and of course, the exceptional Wolfgang Dafert, Gadie and Rinate from Freediving Philippines. Thanks guys 🙂

Helena chilling out at the fabulous facilities at Freedive Gili.
Helena chilling out at the fabulous facilities at Freedive Gili.
Underwater photography is a lot of fun when you can free dive!
Underwater photography is a lot of fun when you can free dive!
At the end of the course - Peter, Helena, Wolfgang, Matias, Sarah and Gadie.
At the end of the course – Peter, Helena, Wolfgang, Matias, Sarah and Gadie.
Wolfgang Dafert - legend!
Wolfgang Dafert – legend!

Make mine a ‘Halo Halo’

‘You must go to the Philippines, you’ll love it! Oh, but of course, skip Manila…’ This is the standard recommendation when you mention to anybody that you’re considering spending some time in the Philippines. The capital, Manila, is so poorly regarded that people talk about it with a sense of distaste bordering on disgust. It’s a ‘fly in and fly out as soon as possible’ kind of place. It is a bit of a mystery then, why we ended up there for four nights!

Having come from Borneo, Manila was undeniably a bit of a shock; a huge sprawling metropolis of a place with seemingly no endearing features. The climate was super hot and humid, the streets were noisy and chaotic, the upmarket American-style chain restaurants and air-con malls lacked any character and there is a huge issue with poverty on the streets that is inescapable. There is no distinctive architecture, the Rizal Park – the centrepiece of the city – is little more than a square with fountains that you may find in any city or town right across the developed world. Despite our optimistic outlook towards most places and things, even we were struggling a little bit, and certainly couldn’t see from where Manila had gained the title, ‘Pearl of the Orient’. We were, ashamedly, beginning to wish we had indeed ‘skipped Manila’.

Walking around we were initially struck mainly by the Jeepneys – huge, long Jeep style trucks that crowd the streets, cramming passengers into the back and trundling off in a cloud of smoke and dust. They are everywhere in Manila and they are all decorated differently – I’m guessing the drivers/owners try to out do each other with ever more gaudy splashes of colour, decoration and attachments onto the body work. Oh, and chrome!! If you can chrome plate it, the Filipino Jeepneys will have it – we saw a couple of entirely silver

Hmm, it's good, but can't we just add a little more chrome...
Hmm, it’s good, but can’t we just add a little more chrome…

chrome models. They looked like a really beat up version of that spaceship from Flight of the Navigator.

We were desperate to get a ride in a Jeepneys – but there was one, fundamental drawback … There was absolutely no way to tell where each one was going! We literally still have no idea how the system works at all. People are forever getting in and out of these things, often while they’re still moving, favouring one over another with guidance from, one can only conclude, The Force, or maybe the ‘mystical cosmic Jeepneys destination sensor’ that all Filipinos are gifted with at birth. Yep, that must be it!

On our third day in the city, we took a tour, and this changed things for us. Carlos Celdran, a rather overly dramatic but infectiously passionate character, delivers historical tours of Intramuros – the walled city at the heart of Manila. Intramuros itself, along with its tiny Fort Santiago, is almost embarrassingly small and insignificant, but through the course of the tour, Carlos described a history that explains a lot about the city today. One major factor is geographical; with only volcanic rock to use as building material, and frequent earthquakes over centuries past, any monument of any significance is shaken back to dust, hence the lack of any ‘Angkor Wat’ style construction. The other factor, however, and probably more significant, is historical.

In brief: The Philippines was conquered by Spanish Catholics who placed the church at the centre of everything, both philosophically and physically (all the roads in the Philippines used to be measured back to the spire on the central cathedral in Manila). 300 years of Spanish rule shaped the city and the culture until 1898 when they surrendered back to the revolutionary Filipinos. The Americans took over shortly afterwards bringing with them Coca-Cola, Macdonalds, fried chicken and the NBA. Turbulent relationships with the USA settled and all was looking promising until Japan invaded during World War Two – and it was during a devastating three-year occupation that the fortunes of Manila were changed for good. In a desperate attempt to rid the city of the Japanese, the Americans resorted to a monumental bombing campaign that flattened the city and cost 100,000 Filipino civilians their lives. Manila has simply never recovered.

St Augustin
St Augustin church was one of the few buildings to survive the bombing onslaught.

And so we started to look a little differently at Manila, as a place that is searching for its identity amongst a myriad of influences and we were pleased that we’d inadvertently booked a longer than anticipated stay. We even found ourselves defending Manila to other travellers in the following weeks as the refrain rang out, ‘We just flew into Manila and straight out again. What a terrible place’.

Exotic and exciting as it may be, travelling around the Philippines is a logistical challenge, especially in a short time frame. You pretty much have to fly everywhere as boats between the islands are incredibly slow, unpredictable and unreliable – and that’s on a good day. So any budget you may have had is quickly gobbled up by flights as although individually they are relatively cheap, they stack up quickly. To give you an idea, to get into, around, and back out of the Philippines, we took five flights in our 18 days.

Our first post-Manila destination was the long sliver of land called Palawan. We’d heard that the underground river at Sabang was supposed to be awesome – it has also recently been named as one of the new seven wonders of the world – and so we were keen to get there as soon as possible. A short flight into Puerto Princesa landed us in the centre of Palawan, some distance from the river. We could have stayed overnight and opted for a day trip but we thought it better to try and get to Sabang straight away, so we hopped into a helpful motorcycle trike to get us to the bus station.

The bus station in Puerto was yet another chaotic ‘system’ that we had little or no chance of deciphering quickly. ‘Where do you want to go?’ asked the trike driver. ‘We were hoping for a bus to Sabang…’ we replied, optimistically. ‘Hmmm, a bus to Sabang. Bus to Sabang…’ He was sort of muttering this phrase over and over to himself as he drove us around the various stands and yards that comprised the ‘station’. I don’t remember seeing many buses actually – a few minivans, and a selection of heavily laden Jeepneys – but as we made our third circuit, and having stopped repeatedly for the driver to have hurried conversations with various people, our hopes were dwindling. Sure enough, the reply came: ‘There are no more buses to Sabang.’

We were stuck – or so we thought. Moments away from calling it quits and heading back to Puerto to find accommodation, Helena tentatively asked, ‘Is there any way to get to Sabang?’ at which the driver made a final half a lap and stopped next to a huge, green Jeepney.

Surely it's full...?
Surely it’s full…?

This thing was an antique and it was battered! Not only that, it was fully laden – the inside was jammed with people and the roof stacked with cargo. One more short conversation was had before we the driver turned to us and said, ‘You can ride on top if you like….’

We jumped at the chance! Not only were we going to get to ride a Jeepney after all, we got to go on the roof – great stuff!

We handed our bags over and they were slung on top with the rest of the cargo. A helpful guy told us that we’d have to ride inside until we got past the ‘checkpoint’. I was thinking, ‘Inside…err…where?’ But not to worry, we were offered a wooden slat that they perched across the opening at the back of the Jeep. ‘Ok?’ said the guy. ‘Yep, no worries!’

Room for a little one..?
Room for a little one..?

So we crammed in. Laughing at the turn of events I surveyed the scene before me, and began counting. I had to have a few attempts at guessing (there was no way to know for sure) how many people were in this thing, but I can say for sure that it was over 40 – and that’s without the driver or any of the guys who appeared on the roof.

Moments later we were off. We left the bay in the station, drove half a lap to get out, and immediately stopped at a petrol station. When I say immediately, it was literally next door to the bus station. We could still see where the Jeepney had been parked when we got on! One of the guys who seemed to be organising the Jeepney then looked at us and just said, ‘Ok, up.’

It was a bit of a squeeze to say the least!
It was a bit of a squeeze to say the least!

A helpful Filipino showed us the best way to navigate the bags of cement that had been strapped to the ladders each side of the rear door and moments later, we were on the roof, finding a seat on sacks of rice amongst crates of mangoes, people’s bags and belongings, parcels wrapped in cardboard, a collection of empty water butts, and a myriad of other unidentifiable luggage.

Riding free and easy on the rooftop :-)
Riding free and easy on the rooftop 🙂

We loved that journey! It was three hours spent with the wind in our hair, watching the unfolding scenery and clinging to each other for safety as we rounded ever tightening bends. One of the guys on the roof helped us to avoid the low hanging trees as we chugged our way north along the island, the road gradually becoming smaller and more hazardous as we got further away from Puerto Princesa. A fabulous experience.

Bags of cement to add much needed ballast ...
Bags of cement to add much needed ballast …

The underground river at Sabang is worth a visit, with its fabulous geography and comical guides, but due to its recent notoriety, it felt very busy and touristy with huge groups of day-trippers coming from all over Palawan. We fended off the crowds a bit by opting for an enjoyable jungle hike to get to the river and we were mildly amused when the guide (you have to have a guide for some reason) asked if we’d like to get a boat back. We said we were happy to trek back; the sense of disappointment on her face was tangible! Had we had longer to stay, I’m sure we would have got a better sense of the place, but being tight for time, we grabbed a mini-van straight to El Nido on the northern tip of Palawan.

A rare moment of peace at Sabang's Undergroud River.
A rare moment of peace at Sabang’s Undergroud River.

This van ride wasn’t half as exciting as the ride on top of the Jeepney, although things do get interesting when the road just stops and turns into rough dirt track. The van drivers never seem too phased at this development however, keeping their right foot pretty firmly planted to the floor as much as possible throughout!

El Nido is a quaint little town with a very chilled atmosphere. The main reason people come here it to see the Bacuit Archipelago and so the place is full of tour companies offering various tours, imaginatively named tour A, B, C or D. We searched around for a little bit but pretty much everywhere offers identical tours at identical prices, so we opted for a small stand that seemed decent with a friendly lady behind the counter. Tour A seemed like a good option offering us the chance to visit a big lagoon, a small lagoon, Shimizu Island, 7th Commando beach (no idea why it’s called that) and the exciting ‘secret lagoon’.

The archipelago is a wonderful spectacle, kind of reminiscent of Ha Long bay in Vietnam or the limestone karst in the south of Thailand (how strange that we can now write things like that!) but, and I’m not bemoaning the experience here at all, it was super busy out there on the water. The secret lagoon was a particular comical highlight. It is ‘secret’ in that there is only a single, person sized hole in the rock that you have to crawl your way through to get inside, but that is where the secrecy ends. Due to the number of tours that run to all of the same places, it was pretty much a queuing system that allowed people in and out of this lagoon. It was sort of reminiscent of a dodgy night club on a Saturday night that had resorted to ‘one in one out’ to manage its capacity. We even bumped into a couple of girls we had met briefly in our hostel in Manila. Not such a secret lagoon after all it seems! It was beautiful though, and the whole trip was a lot of fun – especially the lunch!

Each boat provides freshly barbecued fish and meat, along with a load of fruit and rice to eat at lunch time. To reduce the time needed however, the cooking is mostly done on board on makeshift barbecues made out of anything from an old tin can, to a generic metal box with a grill on top. Before we realised what was going on, it was mildly disconcerting to glance to the back of the boat on the way out to see smoke pouring up into the atmosphere. It was only when we saw the same scenario on the other boats that we figured out that it was thankfully the barbecue, and not the engine (again!). Although a barbecue set alight on a boat made entirely from wood and bamboo may not be everyone’s cup of tea of course…

The other thing about El Nido for us, however, was that we bumped into a few of the guys from the mountain trek – namely Eoin and Siobhan. They introduced us to John and Jen and we all went on to have a fab night out with a chap called Pierre, some Japanese guys who were staying in the room next to Pierre, and a bunch of the local Filpinos. It is strange to think that you meet people in one setting and then ‘bump in’ to them a couple of thousand miles away, but that seems to be happening more and more as we go on.

A fun night in El Nido :-)
A fun night in El Nido 🙂

Our penultimate destination in the Philippines was the island of Cebu. We had, after chatting with Andre at the Chill Out House, booked ourselves onto a three day beginner ‘freediving’ course in Moalboal. Freediving is a sport, similar to scuba diving, but without the aid of any underwater breathing apparatus. These few days were so good – and have changed the direction of our travels so much – that I’m going to write a separate blog post dedicated to it. Watch this space!

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Pristine Puka Beach crowns the northern tip of tiny Boracay.

And so, to our final destination, Boracay – the beautiful little island that is effectively one long beach. We happily checked in to a bamboo hut after a short search of accommodation options, and spent a couple of days relaxing, reading and drinking San Miguel while watching the sun set.

Our time in the Philippines raced to its conclusion and we found ourselves at a little bit of a loss. We hadn’t quite got to grips with the culture or the place, or at least we didn’t feel like it, and we wanted to explore more of the diversity of the 7107 islands of which we had only visited four! We wanted to have more Halo Halo – the Filipino dessert cited in the title of this blog that serves as a delightful metaphor for the nation, especially when given its literal translation of ‘mix mix’.

A halo halo, is essentially shaved ice and condensed milk, but that’s where the rules end. After that, you can add what you like. Much like the approach taken to decorating the Manila Jeepneys, a halo halo will often come with an assortment of boiled sweets, fruits, jelly cubes, sweet potato, sweet rice, coconut shavings, cocoa nuts, boiled kidney beans and even cheese. Shake it all up and there you have it – Halo Halo.

And as if that’s not enough, a true Filipino will always add just a little bit more sugar!

A superb Boracay sunset
A superb Boracay sunset