Hey all! As you might be aware, China has just celebrated its Spring Festival, better known as Chinese New Year. Since Shenzhen is such a young city, most of its residents clear out in mid February as they travel back to their hometowns to celebrate with family. Another large group — the foreign teachers — also tend to migrate during this time of year, as several weeks of holiday mean plenty of travel opportunity. Plus, nobody really wants to hang around a largely deserted city where most of the local businesses and services are closed for the holiday and there’s just nothing much to do. Sure, the metro might be pleasantly empty, but after a few days, peaceful solitude turns into boredom, and living in a ghost town starts to feel a bit eerie.
That being said, my boyfriend Tim and I were among the many who decided to jet off to South East Asia for our holiday time. Our plan was basically to do as little planning as possible. We decided to spend two and a half weeks in the Philippines exploring and soaking up the sun on some of its famously beautiful beaches. After the general craziness of adapting to life in China, we felt that we could use a more relaxed trip.
I’d like to say that everything went according to plan, but I’m learning that life likes to throw the odd curveball — especially when you’re travelling. If I were more mature, I would probably call these ‘learning opportunities’, but at the time, they usually just feel like a big old middle finger in the face for no good reason. This trip was a pretty big reminder that no matter how well you’ve planned things out, so much about travel is totally out of your control — and it’s not always as perfect and glamorous as it often appears on those beautiful travel Instagram accounts.
I will write a proper post about some of the amazing places we got to see later. But first, to show the realistic side of travel, I will tell you about all of the ‘learning experiences’ that we encountered on our trip to The Philippines. However, to avoid being a negative Nancy, I will list each metaphorical middle finger to the face followed by something positive. Let’s start at the beginning!
“Learning Experience” #1: How to Kill Nine Hours at Hong Kong International
First off, we had booked a DiDi (Chinese Uber) the night before to ensure that we would be on our way to Hong Kong International Airport at the painful hour of 5 AM. However, we woke up to a text from our driver informing us that he had been in an accident that night, and had to cancel. After spending some time with their in-app customer service to cancel the trip from our end, we stood shivering outside while the next driver struggled to find our location. After cancelling that trip and luckily getting matched with a driver that could actually find us, we were finally on our way. After getting through border control almost suspiciously quickly, we found ourselves lined up for our 10:40 AM flight from Hong Kong to Manila, where we would spend one night and then catch an early flight to El Nido on the island of Palawan. However, it quickly became apparent that the check in line wasn’t moving anywhere — and we soon discovered that due to some technical issues (maybe??), our flight had been cancelled. The airline moved as many people as possible onto a flight to a nearby destination, where they would then take a two hour shuttle bus to Manila. But since we weren’t in a hurry, we just got moved to the later flight to Manila… almost NINE HOURS later.
The Positive Side:
If you’re going to be stuck in an airport for nine hours, there are much worse airports than Hong Kong International. There are plenty of restaurants, loads of cool shops, tons of space to wander around and even an Imax movie theatre (Unfortunately, the movie playing was Maze Runner 3, so we gave that a pass). Plus we had our books, and I bought my usual airport luxury: a trashy magazine. Was it still pretty darn boring to sit around an airport for 9 hours? Yup. But once again, it could have been worse.
“Learning Experience” #2: Sleeping at Manila Airport
Once we arrived in Manila (much later than planned), we figured that we’d made it through the most difficult bit and could finally relax for a bit. That turned out to be completely wrong. We took a 30 minute taxi through Manila traffic (it’s bad) with no seatbelts and a driver that had no idea how to get to our hostel, or how to use Google Maps. So we ended up having to pull the navigation up on our phone and direct him through every twist and turn. Miraculously, we made it, but our hosts greeted us with hesitant expressions. “Do you have a booking here?” “Yes, we booked with Booking.Com a few weeks ago… we’re staying in the private double room?” The two ladies greeted us with blank expressions. “I’m sorry, but all the rooms are full at the moment”. Now, I guess it was fair enough for them to assume that since we were so late, that we just weren’t coming at all. But we still should have had a room reserved and now here we were, at a hostel on a random back alley in the middle of Manila at 11 PM, exhausted and without a place to sleep. We waited out front with our bags as they tried frantically to figure out what to do with us, until we finally lost our patience and asked them to please just call us an Uber back to the airport. We would just find somewhere at the airport to sleep, or at least rest, since we had an early flight anyway — we didn’t know what else to do.
The Positive Side:
Did you know that some airports have special lounges where you can pay a (fairly small) price and sleep there overnight, and even take a shower in the morning? Well, Manila’s airport has one, and I am sure that many other airports do too. While we couldn’t get a capsule bed and had to sleep in reclining lounge chairs in a room with strangers, it was actually pretty comfy. After such a long day of travel, a dark, quiet room with a comfy lounger was more than enough. I mean, we only got like 4 hours of sleep — by the time we got there and checked in and got settled, it was late and we had to be up really early for our flight. But the shower in the morning helped us to feel a bit more like humans again.
“Learning Experience” #3: The Lagoon Tour that Never Was
Sometimes, the weather sucks and there is nothing you can do about it. We started our trip on the island of Palawan. After staying several peaceful and internet-free days at a secluded beach ‘resort’ near Sibaltan village, we made our way back to El Nido. In comparison, El Nido was much bigger and definitely felt a bit touristy — though not in an obnoxious way. El Nido is famous for it’s island hopping tours, and every tour operator on the island offers the same few packages, known as ‘Tour A’, ‘Tour B’, ‘Tour C’ and so on. We decided to spend a relaxing day exploring the cute beachside town, and then we would do Tour A — where we would explore the breathtaking Big and Small Lagoons. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas, and our tour was cancelled due to strong winds. We only had three nights there, and neither of our remaining two days had good enough weather for the tour to go on. So, for me, the lagoons are sadly still just a beautiful image that I’ve gawked at on my laptop screen.
The Positive Side:
One thing that I swore I wouldn’t do on our trip was renting a motorbike. But when you’re staying in a small beach town and all marine-based activities are cancelled, one starts to get a bit desperate for a bit of adventure. So, out of sheer will to actually do something with our day, we somehow found ourselves at one of the many motorbike rental stalls around El Nido.
“Have you got a drivers licence?” the middle-aged Filipino lady asked me. I confirmed that yes, I did. I started to dig for my wallet to show her my Canadian driver’s licence, but she was already grabbing our helmets and handing me a waiver to sign. I guess it wasn’t really that surprising, as we’d already seen kids who couldn’t be much older than 12 zipping around the town on scooters of their own.
When I first hopped on and tried giving it some gas, the scooter seemed to jerk forward with a mind of its’ own, and I was certain it would topple over sideways at any moment, throwing Tim and I face-first into the gravel road. About 10 meters away from the bemused scooter lady, (who still somehow didn’t seem to regret giving me the keys), I decided that scooter adventures would not be happening that day. And then somehow, about 10 minutes later, we were off on the open road — driving like a couple of grannies, but still, we were on our way to Nacpan Beach!
I’m still not really sure how I plucked up the courage to get us there. The ride was not an easy one — the smooth pavement eventually gave way to winding, uneven gravel paths and narrow bridges. But in the end, it was amazing to be driving past the impossibly green fields and tiny villages of rural Palawan, with complete freedom over where and when we stopped. We may not have had exactly the adventure that we’d planned for, but it was hard to be too disappointed after such an exciting (and only kind of terrifying) day.
“Learning Experience” #4: Food Poisoning — a Necessary Evil?
Ah, good old food poisoning. The right of passage for any traveler to Southeast Asia, or so we’ve been told. That’s really all that needs to be explained here.
The Positive Side:
There is none, sorry. Puking all night sucks. I guess the one good side was that we both got it at different times so we could take turns being the one doing the puking and the one doing the comforting…? I mean, that’s not even that great of a consolation but I said I was going to be positive, damn it!
“Learning Experience #5”: When the City Just Doesn’t ‘Click’
There are some cities that just feel right, almost right away. There’s a certain intangible vibe that you pick up on and know that you’re going to love a place. However, there are always going to be places that take a bit longer to warm up to, and some that you just downright won’t like. Unfortunately for us, Cebu City was in the latter category. The downside of being super relaxed about planning too much is that sometimes, you spend too long somewhere that you might have given a miss had you done a bit more research. So really, this one is kind of our fault. I guess I expected that there would be tons of day trip opportunities and that it would be a good little hub for us to explore around Cebu island. But now I realize that a better idea would have been to figure out where we wanted to check out on Cebu and just stay in some of those areas instead. Most places seemed too far away for a day trip to be worth it, not to mention the awful traffic — and we just didn’t find much to do in the city itself. When we asked the staff at our serviced apartment if there was a cool area to grab dinner and drinks, we were sent to what turned out to be a strip mall. Not quite the cultural experience we were hoping for.
The Positive Side:
I mean, the place we stayed was really nice and had many luxuries that we hadn’t had access to in our previous (or future) accommodations — like a kitchen, a TV, hot showers and even free laundry service! So instead of seeing it as three days wasted, I like to think that we at least left Cebu City feeling somewhat refreshed and with less smelly clothes in our bags. Plus, it was a good reminder that a bit of extra research before the trip goes a long way.
“Learning Experience” #6: Why Does the Weather Hate Us?
The weather strikes again, spoiling yet another one of our plans! On the tiny island of Malapascua, the main attraction is diving — and the most sought-after diving experience is swimming with the adorably derpy thresher sharks.
But first, you need to get your diving licence. Then, you can do your ‘adventure dive’ certification, which will allow you to go as deep as 30 metres — which is around where the sharks like to hang out. Despite being up all night due to said food poisoning, we dove right into (sorry) our studies, both studying theory on land and practicing our skills in the water.
After three days, we were finally certified to dive, and ready to do our adventure dive and get up close and personal with some sharks! But apparently Mother Nature had other ideas. It absolutely poured for the next two and a half days, combined with strong winds, meaning that no boat drivers were willing to take anyone out. On the final day before our flight home, we were able to do our adventure dive at the shoal where the sharks can be spotted. However, due to the lingering bad weather, we couldn’t leave early enough to catch them — these sharks are real early risers. I mean … sure, I had a picture of one of their cute little worried faces saved on my phone for weeks before leaving, but, it’s fine, I’m totally fine. I didn’t need to see their adorable, huge eyes and silly small mouths anyway. I’m not sad, you’re sad.
The Positive Side:
Diving is really, really cool. Sure, I was a bit freaked out the first time I tried to breathe underwater with the regulator in my mouth — but I am so happy that I got over it and finished the course. Even though we didn’t see the threshers, we saw an amazing array of weird and beautiful sea creatures and gorgeous coral reefs. Now the hard part is over and we can go diving anywhere, anytime we feel like it! We could even go back to Malapascua and hope for better weather if we really wanted to. I was going to write that the world is our oyster, but even I can only tolerate so many cheesy diving jokes.
So in conclusion: Did a lot go wrong on our Philippines trip? Yeah. But I think the fact that we still came away from it feeling like we’d had an awesome time is a testament to how exciting and beautiful the Philippines are. We could have easily spent more time there as there were many places that we just couldn’t fit into our trip. That being said, we both felt oddly excited to return to China by the end of it. It made me realize that Shenzhen really has become a familiar home base for us. I mean, life here still never feels totally normal, but at least it’s weird in a familiar way. I couldn’t imagine feeling that way a few months ago! But then again, ‘few months ago’ me also wouldn’t have expected that I’d be a certified scuba diver who has successfully driven a motorbike around the Philippines and only panicked about it like, twice. Sometimes, when things don’t go according to plan, it’s just an opportunity to do something a bit unexpected.
Have you ever had a trip where you felt like nothing could go right? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Until next time,