Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Cebu, Philippines: Swimming with WHALE SHARKS


We are moving onto the last stop of my world adventure.  Who knew that we'd ever reach this point??  I'm not even sure that I did...

My last country ended up being the Philippines, and not for any kind of deep, insightful reason.  Searching for one-way flights home in the middle of summer does not bring up many affordable options, and it turns out that Manila -> Denver is one of the most affordable legs you'll find.  Never mind the fact that I had previously chosen the Philippines as my future honeymoon spot (why pay $3000/night for a private cabana on the beach in Tahiti when you could get one for $100/night in the Philippines, which is equally stunning?!) - I'll just have to change up those plans, because duhhhh, the flights home are the most affordable from there right now!  I'll worry about the needing-someone-to-marry part later too.

Joining me on the last leg of my trip was my friend Janie - she's one of my bffs from when I lived in Austin, and had reached out to me to see where'd I be since she recently left her job as well. And before I knew it, we had plans to meet up in the Philippines!

What It's All About:
The Philippines! I have no idea why these islands are so often overlooked as a paradise-y spot, because this country is made up of over 7,000 islands! And it is stunning. STUNNING.  I would say the only downfall is that the bigger cities (at least the ones we saw) are pretty ugly and sprawl-y and have terrible traffic and congestion. But seriously, step outside of the city, and it's like pure jungle tropical beauty. There are so, so many incredible islands and places to visit in the Philippines, and because there are so many islands, it is super easy to go off-the-beaten-path and find your own personal paradise.  There are no shortage of private beaches, or crystal-clear turquoise waters.

Stunning sunrise from Boljoon in Cebu

And Jurassic Park-like jungles!

Also, it doesn't hurt that it is dirt cheap here.  Most nights, we paid about $20 for a private room for two.  And the local airline, Cebu Pacific, has incredibly cheap flights in between most of the major islands - so you can on-the-fly decide to go somewhere and fly there for ~$30.  It's amazing.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Arrived into Manila from Sydney and stayed there overnight to meet up with Janie, who got in about 5 hours later than I did.  All I have to say is that Manila has the most atrocious traffic of all time - seriously, it will take you like, an hour to go 5 miles.  
  • Reunited with Janie, then we flew out together the next morning to the island of Cebu!  I had chosen Cebu (which is not as tourist-y as the more well-known islands of Palawan or Boracay) because Jesse had been there, and you can swim with whale sharks here!  WHALE SHARKS.

We flew into Cebu City, then had to take a 3.5 hour bus south to the tiny village of Boljoon

We had a full day of travel, but at least an epic sunset to look at out the bus window

  • We arrived at our hostel in Boljoon, Noordzee Hostel, in the evening. We spent the next day exploring some of the nearby waterfalls and sights of Bojoon (spoiler alert: there aren't a lot - the village is seriously SO TINY - yet so charming and picturesque!).

One of our fave parts?? Riding a moto taxi to a nearby set of waterfalls, called Dayhag Falls. We may have selfie'd the entire way.

Some of the tiny village roads we passed through

And then we arrived at Dayhag Falls! Which consists of 5 sets of waterfalls you can visit

As Janie and I were descending to some of the falls, there was a group of local guys hanging out together at the falls - these two guys from the group immediately saw us, came over to meet us and introduce themselves, and then asked if they could hang out with us and show us around. 

They also took it upon themselves to leave us a selfie on our camera. This is Vincent and Thirdy, they are 20 years old, and they tried real hard to spit some game later (even after finding out how old we were.  Bless their 20-year old hearts. They were actually incredibly nice)

One of the waterfalls had a rope that you could scale up or down, which the boys led us to

Thirdy is scaling down the waterfall on a rope, and I am dubious

But I finally scaled both down and up (note to self: time to work out the arms)

As did Janie! And the guys stationed themselves to make sure we were safe the whole time #hesgotgame

I'm gonna go ahead and say that I have zero idea how many photos of us the guys have on their phone #mustbeamillion

Another one of the five waterfalls and its tiny adorable pool

Post-waterfalls, we moto'd back to Boljoon and took a walk through the village.  Lunch options found: none. Chickens found: a billion.

We did find a cafe that only had dessert, however, so I ordered the traditional Filipino dessert called halo-halo!  Halo-halo can be made tons of ways, but usually consists of shaved ice (nom - approve), condensed milk (approve), fruit, jellies, tubers (what is a tuber), sago, nuts, etc. It usually comes in an array of shockingly vibrant colors.  Mine, of course, had ice cream. Diabetes, y'all.

  • As the food options in Boljoon were, let's say, limited, we headed back to our hostel for lunch and to hang out - since our hostel was awesome and right on the beach (funnily enough, it was another Jesse recommendation to stay there!). 

Overlooking our hostel's outdoor space - perfect

View from the hostel's 3rd floor open-air café

Best part of the hostel was arguably the stray dogs - as one of them had three baby puppies that were always hanging around. AND THEY WERE THE CUTEST. AND COVERED IN FLEAS. BUT STILL THE CUTEST.

Here comes the mama dog, whom we always saved our leftovers for. 

We spent the afternoon wading in the ocean waters, then moving to the pool, then THREE BABY PUPPIES.

Moon view <3 (I want to live on the beach now)

  • Next morning, Janie and I (and a German guy from our hostel, Jerome) got up super early (at the crack of dawn, really) to GO SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS.  The whale sharks are in a town called Oslob, Cebu - which was about 30-min by bus from our hostel.  You can really go anytime before noon, but (spoiler alert) the whale sharks are fed, which is why they all gather in this one spot - so it's better to go earlier when the sharks are hungrier. This does not sound like a smart idea as I'm typing it out. But trust me, it is a good idea.  The craziest thing is that there's no real bus timetable - you just go outside to the road and wait until you see a bus and flag it down. And hope it goes where you're headed.

Sunrises are so rare for me to see - like white elephants

Jerome, Janie and I arrived in Oslob and got put onto tiny boats to paddle out to the whale sharks.

And then you're instructed to dive on in for 30-min with the whale sharks


IT WAS ONE OF THE COOLEST THINGS EVER. Photos don't do them justice, but the whale sharks are GIGANTOR (um, hence the name "whale sharks" maybe...)  

And it seems scary but it wasn't AT ALL because the sharks are so concerned with following the boats that are feeding them that they totally ignore you. 

Plus they have TOTALLY ADORABLE round-shaped mouths, which somehow just makes them seem totally harmless. Unclear if this is justified or not. This is Janie.

There are so many of them everywhere (free food is apparently a draw for all species) - seriously, SO CUTE

My favorite photo - look how huge (AND ADORBS) this whale shark is!

  • It was seriously one of the coolest things in the world - the size and scale of the sharks are completely unbelievable.  Even getting to swim next to them, you're just completely and totally in awe. And seriously, I have no idea why, they really seem more like whales than sharks, so it's totally not a thing to have them so close to you.  I'm not sure the mass feeding of them is so ethical, but hey, when in the Philippines..  

Moment of the Day:
Literally the second I touched down in the Philippines, I felt it: that feeling that every single person there is trying to rip you off.  I get it: the country is incredibly poor (seriously, everything is so cheap you wouldn't even believe. I think that hostel we stayed at on the beach was $5/night), and it's another one of those places that people have to hustle to get by in life.

Leaving the airport, there were several different lines for taxis - there are "regular taxis," "official taxis," and a bunch of other ones I've now forgotten. The "official taxis" are apparently government-approved and monitored - while they always use the meter and the cabbies won't try to rob you blind, they are usually 3-4x the cost of a "regular taxi."  I had done my research, and I opted to take a "regular taxi" - yes, the cabbies will try to rip you off, but it's not like they try to kill you or anything.  And the regular cabs are so much cheaper!  And ok fine, I have a weird passion for grittier/more local experiences. And saving money. And arguing.

Getting into the cab, I was prepared.  I told the cabbie my destination, and he goes "Ok, 300 pesos."  I replied with, "No, I want to use the meter."  "Ok," he goes, "but if you use the meter, you have to add 50 pesos onto the final price for gas."  "No," I said, "I want to pay exactly what's on the meter and that's it."  "Ok," he goes.

AND THAT WAS IT. No arguing, no fighting back, no disagreeing, no nothing - it was THAT easy.  I was shocked.  It was like we were having a totally normal conversation.  Well that was simple. I loved the Philippines instantly.

(On a side note, I found out later that Janie had a much harder time negotiating her price - so I probably just got lucky. But still. Amazing.)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sydney, Australia: 10 Different Angles of the Opera House

So I realize the blog has been M.I.A. for about two weeks - which I apologize for.  Some not-so-great issues threw a wrench in my blogging abilities, which I will explain further in the next couple posts.  But I am committed to finishing it.  So for now - the end of Australia.

After saying good-bye to Jess and his fam, I took a flight to Sydney for a couple days of exploring by my lonesome. Is it sad that the first thing that came to mind when people asked me what I wanted to see in Sydney was, "P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way!" Apparently my entire knowledge of the world has been shaped by Disney movies.

What It's All About:
Sydney - that big famous Australian city.  It's obviously one of the largest cities, it's the capital of New South Wales, and has the well-known sights of the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach, and the Sydney Harbour.

The Opera House!

And just to clear any confusion up, it is not eternal summer here. Sydney at night was the coldest I've ever been ever - which makes sense, given that it's way South of Brisbane.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Arrived in Sydney, checked into my hostel - and met up with a travel friend of mine, Sarah!  Sarah is from NYC originally, also left her job to travel, and we had met in Colombia a couple times - in Salento, Medellin, and Cartagena.  And after a couple months, she had ended up in Sydney doing the working-vacation thing - and ended up at the hostel down the street from me!
  • Sarah, her hostel friend Matt, and I headed down to the famous Bondi Beach the next day.  Yes, it is the middle of winter in Sydney, but I wanted to see it! There is also a really picturesque walk you can do from Bondi to Coogee Beach, which I also wanted to do.

    And here is Bondi Beach!  Which is apparently famous because of a TV show I've never seen. Also, it was SUPER packed the day we went because it happened to be the day of a famous race called City2Surf - and Bondi Beach was the finishing point. The beach is not usually this packed in the winter.

    I love the ocean

    Sarah and I!  We sat on the sand and sunbathed (in winter jackets) and chatted for a couple hours

    Then we started the walk from Bondi to Coogee Beach

    There's a fancy swimming club/restaurant on the way out. How pretty is this pool?

    Part of the oceanside walk - the walk itself is supposed to be around 7km, but I'm going to say that's a lie - it felt more like 20km. But it was beautiful (and exercise!), so no complaints here

    The walkway extends alongside the ocean the whole way!  Though apparently a big storm this past summer destroyed parts of the walk, so there were a lot of detours for repairs and such.

    Sarah, me and Matt

    Also, the walk passes by several other beaches - which is A TEASE when all you want to do is reach Coogee Beach and you come upon a beach and think "omg maybe that's it!" and THEN YOU FIND OUT IT'S NOT.

    This beach had a lot of surfers. Australia has a lot of surfers.

    We walked by a fancy cemetery. Some of these tombs were super, super, super old

    Here is another fake beach that is not Coogee Beach

    Then the sun started to set so we stopped and watched for a bit (I am now starting to realize why this walk may have taken us so long.....)

    That cloud looks like a big box!

    This man was very dedicated to taking a cool photo - he hauled himself over the safety fence, then lowered himself onto the cliff's edge for a photo.

    It's sunset! And we still have not made it to our destination.

    AND HERE IT IS. COOGEE BEACH, EVERYONE. It was a miracle we made it before it got completely dark. We hung around the area for dinner, then headed back home afterwards (which is apparently located in the red-light district of Sydney. Congrats, us)

    • The next day, Sarah was kind enough to accompany me while I continued playing tourist, even though she's already been in Sydney for several months already.  Of course, all I wanted to do was walk around downtown and see the Opera House. 

    Ta-daaaaaa! There it is!  We walked through the Botanical Gardens to get this view, and it was so so so pretty. There were people running throughout the park, and tons of families, and the sun was shining and it was amazing. Though I do have to ask myself, as always, WHY DON'T THESE PEOPLE WORK.  I don't know why everyone else seems to have figured out life's secret.

    Downtown Sydney next to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge

    Best (transplanted) city host ever!

    Then we walked along the harbor to the Opera House. There's adorbs little cafes (all with insane prices, of course) all long the waterfront.

    And here we are! It looks super weird and 70's up close.

    Mainly because of this super retro tile the entire building is covered with.

    The cafes along the water had tons of SUPER aggressive seagulls just waiting to steal food. These things were seriously out of control. They hopped onto plates while people were still eating and such. (IT REALLY IS JUST LIKE FINDING NEMO)

    Pretty cafes. Would come here every lunchtime if I worked downtown

    Then we hit up the Modern Art Museum, where they had this weird outdoor installation that looked like an igloo. And inside was this lady with a head thing on making shapes in the sand. Modern art is so weird. But I love it.

    I seriously, seriously love modern art museums. Especially when they're free

    I loved this painting. The Korean artist fused a bunch of old-school Korean paintings with modern day insignias and brands - like, all the people dancing have Barbie heads or Lady Gaga heads and such.

    This was some kind of bubble with the artist's fat and cells inside it, and it would grind it all together like a blender every so often. Ew. Ew. Art is weird.

    Neon books! The titles would change every couple minutes

    View of the other side of the Opera House from the rooftop cafe in the Modern Art Museum.

    We then headed to a historic neighborhood called The Rocks, which is one of the oldest parts of the city (from the late 1700's) and has a bunch of cute boutiques and cafes and such

    It's called The Rocks because there are still lots of rocks/ruins of the former neighborhood here (it was a pretty poor/rough working class neighborhood), which were demolished over time.

    The Opera House at night! Really I'm just trying to see how many photos of the Opera House I can cram into this blog post.

    Sarah and I ended the night with dinner near our hostels, and then we went to karaoke night with a bunch of her hostel friends. This is a terrible photo of nothing, but we closed my last night in Sydney belting out a Taylor Swift song on stage. Obviously. Appropriate.

    • Bye, Sydney! Bye, Australia!  I'm really glad I got a chance to visit, especially because I kind of never expected to. It really reminded me of being at home, what with the Western conveniences and way of life and feel and culture and how things operated.  It really is just like the USA, except they throw some weird made-up words into their lingo.  I am officially dubbing Australia "the poor man's America."  Just kidding. This is why they love us.

    Fun Facts of the Day:
    • Sydney's metro system has double-decker trains! Like the Long Island Railroad!  My fave activity is to make that decision whether to go up or down upon entering the train.

    • Australians love these kinds of cars. They're everywhere. They're apparently called Utes. They're hideous. I don't know why these exist: