“The Philippines.” Unless you’re living under a rock, you have heard these two words more times than you can count throughout the past month. I started this blog post just before The Philippines were hit by one one of the most catastrophic typhoons in history — Typhoon Haiyan. It was the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall, taking an unfathomable 5,000+ lives with it. It is estimated that 11 million people have been affected by Haiyan, many of whom are now homeless. In Tacloban City, where the storm is said to have hit the hardest, people are left with absolutely nothing — not even family. The devastation is unimaginable and unforgettable. The Philippines are composed of more than 7,000 islands, making initial relief efforts painfully slow and complexed. It took days, and in some cases even weeks, before clean water and food arrived. Looters were abundant and it wasn’t long before guns and violence reared their ugly heads into an already horrific situation. The outlook was grim at first, no matter where your viewpoint.
Since that dark day in early November, hope arrived. There’s something you should know about The Filipino people. They are some of the most resilient and determined I’ve ever come across. They are kind, strong and positive, so I never doubted their ability to get through this seemingly impossible time. They still have a long & hard road ahead — we know that. The bright side, however, is the continued support from around the world. This blog post is in no way meant to downplay the recent events, but rather highlight the country’s sensational people and dazzling landscape. I fell in love with this country and her people, and I hope you do too. It goes without saying that I highly encourage you to donate. You can see a list of organizations accepting donations here, or you can go straight to the Direct Relief site here, where 99% of donations go directly the affected victims. You can also put The Philippines on your “places to go” list. One of the best things we can do, as international supporters, is visit. Tourism is a win-win for everyone here. Go see a few of the 7,000 islands of pure beauty. Swim in virtually untouched waters. Take it all in. Exchange those dollars and euros for some Philippine Pesos. Talk to the people. Hear their stories. Tourism is imperative to The Philippines, in my opinion. I’ll even let you in on a little secret — it’s still so untouched, making it any travelers dream. It’s stunning, cheap and not bombarded with tourists and SLRs everywhere you turn. It’s perfect. And hey, if you’re feeling really inspired, go volunteer with the amazing team at All Hands. Maybe I’ll even join you. For now though, enjoy this special post from a special place in my heart.
Those of you who have been following me since the beginning may remember a special little island I
visited lived for a while called Utila. The utter mention of the word makes me want to hop on the next flight back to Honduras. It’s where I started my travels, where I fell in love with the Caribbean and where I became a Dive Master. More importantly though, it’s where I met some of my most favorite people in the world. The summer of 2012 in Utila was special and unique. Ask anyone who attended. I was lucky enough to have been a part of it, which leads me to this post. At the end of the summer, everyone went their separate ways. Most continued south on the Gringo Trail, while others headed home to return to jobs, family and money.
The months of August and September were full of teary goodbyes and hopeful promises to see each other in another part of the world soon. It was the one time I knew people would actually follow through on such promises. A few of us vowed to meet in The Philippines the following September for a “Utila Reunion.” The group Facebook chats started a few months later, accompanied by dreamy beach photos and inside jokes to serve as a reminder of what was to come. Although a number of our dearest friends couldn’t make it, we kept on booking and planning. Five of us were committed and ready. Twelve months, thousands of messages and copious amounts of emoticons later, September arrived. Flights were booked, a plan was drawn and necks were ready to be hugged. The reunion was on. This is the story of what happens when you put 5 girls back together on an island after a year of separation — rum included. Three Aussies, one Dutch and one American. What could go wrong?
Before Maartje and I could reunite with our three Australian loves, we first had to figure out what to do with 17 hours in Singapore. As it turns out, that isn’t hard at all. Maartje had a friend living in Singapore who she’d met traveling a few years back. We could sleep in the airport, or we could sleep at his place in the middle of the city. Despite the fact that Changi Airport is one of the best in the world, the decision was quite easy. I have always wanted to go to Singapore, so I was more than ready to explore all that I could on an overnight layover. We headed straight for duty free to grab a bottle of actual rum, then to immigration to get our visitor stamps. I withdrew $50 SGD from the ATM, as that was our hopeful prediction for one night in the big city. It is by no means a cheap place, but we were determined to stay on budget. With accommodation already sorted and a bottle of rum in tow, we knew we could swing it. We arrived to Maartje’s friend’s place fairly late, put our bags down and enjoyed our duty free bottle of Bacardi and exorbitantly priced bottle of Coca Cola. Our buddy Miles just so happened to also be in Singapore for a few days, so we quickly got in contact with him once we were settled. He met us at our host’s place and we took off in a cab to explore the immaculately clean streets of Singapore. It’s amazing what you can see after half a bottle of rum on an empty stomach, a taxi and a little cash. We took a walk through the world’s most expensive stand alone casino (Marina Bay Sands– holy wowie), drove through Chinatown and ate the most fantastic meal in Little India. Well, it was 3AM, so I suppose anything would have tasted like a 5-star meal by then. We decided to call it night shortly after, as we had to head back to the airport at a bright and early 8AM. We said goodbye to Miles from the cab and put our tipsy and tired selves to bed with the quickness. Despite the inevitable hangover the following morning, we made our flight with time to spare. We may or may not have had a little help from a McDonald’s hashbrown that morning. Hey, it was early and a bit hazy. Stop judging.
A hangover and 2 hours of sleep? McDonald’s can fix anything.
I’m not sure what I pictured when I thought of Singapore, but it wasn’t this. It’s quite a western looking city, but somehow maintains that eastern flare. I will be going back for seconds. There’s jut too much to see.
See, y’all. Jesus loves you in Singapore too.
Most amazing airport in the world. This is only a snapshot of the front, but Changi Airport is ranked among the best — just read any travel publication. It has a rooftop butterfly garden (which I somehow missed on 3 different visits), a movie theatre, spas and just about anything else you can dream up.
We arrived to Kalibo late in the afternoon, high on anticipation and excitement. The moment we deplaned onto the rickety tarmac, something special was in the air. I’m not sure if it was the abundance of greenery, the perfect temperature or the fact that I was about to be reunited with 3 more amazing souls, but I was buzzing. We slowly went through immigration, proving that we were back on island time. We still had to endure a 2 hour bus ride, followed by a 10 minute boat ride before our final destination, Boracay. Without wasting any time, we snagged the next bus out and we were on our way. In true Maartje and Emily fashion, a monsoon came through the docking area right as we were about to board the boat. As we rolled our eyes at the mean joke Mother Nature was playing on us, we laughed and quickly got over it. We were just a 10 minute boat away from our girls and we weren’t about to delay our transit at this point. Once the rain (kind of) calmed down, we made our way down a nearly flooded bamboo dock, soaked bags and all. We didn’t care — we just wanted to be done with it. We watched as almost everyone onboard donned a bright orange life vest, wondering if it really was necessary. For photographic reasons, we decided it was, of course.
First trike ride in Boracay. On the way to meet our girls.
Within minutes we were on the island of Boracay and in a “trike” headed to meet the girls at Frendz Resort, where we had all booked a room together months prior. It was late and dark, making the resort a bit hard to find from the main road. It was nothing my headlamp and our sweet navigational skills couldn’t handle. We were greeted by the kindest staff who offered to show us to our room to put our stuff down. We didn’t have time for that though. We heard noise coming from what had to be the bar and knew that our girls would be there waiting. Backpacks still heavy on our backs, we ran that way and saw our two Aussies. We spotted them before they saw us, and within seconds, there were four girls jumping and screaming about in a small little hostel bar. It was the moment I had been thinking about for months and it was perfect. There were tears, laughs and smiles bigger than our faces. Tash and Elissa had been waiting there for hours, hoping Maartje and I hadn’t missed a flight leg. In true reunion fashion, they were wearing their Underwater Vision t-shirts and had already started on the vodka piñas. Maartje and I set our bags down and joined the trend at a record speed. People were still trying to figure out what the hell had just happened in this little bar that had previously been quite tame. They stared and asked questions, while the bravest even joined in. We were the happiest girls in the world and the whole island knew it. As predicted, the night quickly spiraled out of control and we were the life of the party. It’s as if no time had passed — the way a reunion should feel.
SCUBA Tash. Or rum Tash. Whatever.
I suppose it goes without saying, but the next morning was slightly rough. We figured some breakfast would help us feel better and allow us to piece together the previous night’s events. The snorkels and masks strewn across our bedroom confused us, as we hadn’t been in the ocean yet. Yeah, it was that kind of night. As we sat down to eat, one of the staff members asked Tash, “Are you Natasha?” She hesitantly replied with, “um, yes.” He glanced at all of us before looking back at her and saying, “Oooooooh,” in an almost frightened voice. We simultaneously burst into laughter and joked about what our tab (or, “Natasha’s tab” ) must have looked like by the end of the night. We didn’t care though. It was our first night together and the fact that we all survived it was enough for me. We all started feeling better once the food set in, allowing us to prepare for the big day. Choppy, our 5th member, was in route from Australia and we were ecstatic and full of energy once again. We did what any group of girls would do who were awaiting the final member — we opened the rum and threw a day party on our porch. We had just moved rooms after breakfast and were now in the “family room” for the week. Perfect timing for Choppy. We had a porch, speakers and rum — three of Choppy’s favorite things. We put on our Utila playlist, mostly composed of our old boat captain’s music. (By the way, thanks for that, Hoover!). Just as she had promised, Choppy came walking up to our bungalow around 2:00 — right on time. We stampeded her before she even had a chance to register where she was. She was in shock. The good kind. We quickly poured her a rum & piña and started playing catch up. After an hour or so we threw our suits on and hit the highly anticipated white sand beach that Boracay is so well known for. It was paradise. To top it all off, Choppy had brought the well-traveled bottle of Flor de Caña rum with her. This rum comes from Nicaragua where it costs about $6 a bottle. Buy it almost anywhere else in the world and it’ll put you back at least $30. She had purchased it in Colombia six months prior, and it had survived 10 flights and 7 countries. That’s how much we value sweet, sweet Flor de Caña in this family. We christened it and finished it within an hour or 2, I think. What?! There were 5 of us drinking it! We enjoyed the entire day at the beach and perhaps had too much fun. By 8:00 or so we were all beat. We had plans to go out, given it was Choppy’s first night on the island, but we all agreed that we’d celebrate the next night. I was thrilled with this decision, seeing as I was still recovering from the previous night’s debauchery. We all went to bed fairly early and slept like babies. Little did we know what the next day would have in store for us.
First day on the beach as five. The happiest girls you had ever seen. I guess I should label the characters now. From left to right: Choppy, Elissa, Maartje, myself and Tash. Also known as the SCUBA Sistas.
Our most cherished possession. Isn’t she a beauty?
So, here’s where the story gets interesting. Well, perhaps you’re already finding things to be a bit interesting, but it takes quite the turn here. The next morning, despite the overcast and gloomy weather, we demanded beach time. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow we all got split up. I was solo back at Frendz, Tash and Elissa had gone to grab a bite to eat, and Maartje and Choppy had gone to play with the enormous watermelon float at the beach. Yes, Choppy bought a giant watermelon float just for this trip. If you know the five of us right now, you’re probably rolling you’re eyes thinking, “Who left Choppy and Maartje alone with a watermelon float?” I know, I know. Poor judgement call, us. Shortly after getting split up, the rain started coming down. I’m not just talking about some afternoon beach style rain either. I’m talking hail. Yes, hail. I was back at our bungalow trying to think of where everyone could possibly be in this weather, when Maartje comes running up to the porch out of nowhere. I could tell by her urgency that something wasn’t right. I asked her what was going on and she slowly fumbled over the words, “We have to go to the hospital….Choppy broke her leg.” As horrible as I immediately felt for her, I was also not surprised. It’s not that I thought Choppy would be the first to get hurt (I actually had my money on Maartje or Tash), but the worrier in me was already feeling slightly apprehensive about 5 girls (like us) partying in the islands for 2 weeks. The worst part? We were all as sober as they come. We hadn’t even mentioned the word rum yet. Perhaps that’s where we went wrong. Maartje and I rushed upstairs to find Choppy’s travel insurance documents. We quickly found them, grabbed some of her warmer clothes and ran to the clinic where she was being examined. As all of this was happening, I was drilling Maartje for the “How did this happen?” story. It came as no surprise that the watermelon was involved. They had been playing with the float in the ocean, like two twenty-somethings naturally do, when the rain and hail came down suddenly. They ran out of the water for cover, but the watermelon started to blow away. Choppy couldn’t bare such a tragedy, so she chased it. Thanks to her quickness, she caught up with the watermelon, but not before tripping over it. She said she heard the snap right then and there. Maartje was behind her laughing and running when she saw Choppy go down. When Maartje finally caught up to her, Choppy waved her in with an odd smirk on her face. “Umm, Maartje, I think something’s wrong. I think my leg is not okay.” At this point, the precious watermelon started to blow away again. When Maartje asked Choppy what she should do and said she was going to get help, Choppy replied with “Get the watermelon!” And this, my friends, is Choppy in a nutshell. She was sitting on the beach, unknowingly with a broken leg, but it was all about the watermelon. You just don’t meet gems like Choppy every day. This is precisely why I wish all of you could meet these girls. Special, we are.
Maartje had gotten Choppy to the clinic with the help of some kind locals, but had to leave her to come find one of us and her insurance papers. I arrived to find Choppy in her bikini, lying in a hospital gurney with her poor, swollen foot propped up on a pillow. Typical Choppy, she looked as though nothing had happened. She was laughing, talking shit and looked unaffected. None of this surprised me. I made sure she was okay, then quickly left to go find the other girls. That was my mission. Maartje gave me some hints as to where they could be, so I followed them. After walking up and down the shops that line the beach (in the never-ending rain) for a few minutes, I heard their voices. They had spotted me first, luckily. I told them what had happened and they closed their lunch tab and ran with me back to the clinic as fast as they could. Once we were all back together again at the clinic, we got the news that Choppy needed to go to a real hospital, back in Kalibo — one boat ride and a two hour car ride away. The staff were amazing and had arranged an ambulance to the boat dock, a private boat to the mainland and another ambulance to get us to the hospital in Kalibo. The ambulance drivers were staring at us in disbelief. We were laughing, taking photos, making jokes and stocking up on snacks for the long ride — all while we were soaking wet and half dressed. It was a scene, to say the least. The driver looked at us and asked which one would be accompanying her to the hospital. We looked at each other, completely baffled, and said “Um, we’re all going.” One of us said something along the lines of, “No, we are five and we are not splitting up. Do you see what happens when we split up? We’re all going. ” We must have been intimidating, because they stopped asking questions right then and there. We loaded up the ambulance and we were quickly en route to Kalibo.
Tash, the chef. She and I had the brilliant idea of buying bread and peanut butter, as we had no idea how long we’d be without food. It was one of our better judgement calls that week.
We arrived to the “private hospital” with the quickness. The driver must have been going 70 MPH down wet and questionable roads. He hardly slowed down for the turns. For that, we were thankful. I can’t say the same for Choppy’s leg though. The ride was bumpy and the shock was wearing off. She was in a lot of pain and it hurt to watch. I think we yelled at the driver to calm it down at least 10 times. At the end of the day, we arrived safe and sound. Choppy was quickly admitted and hooked up to a drip. The pain meds set in quickly enough and it wasn’t long before we were causing a scene in the hospital. Oh, and this hospital. It was the private one, which Choppy had requested. Once again, it really made me appreciate the most basic of necessities back home. Not much was sterile and almost nothing private. It was small, crowded and dirty. To boot, we had come all this way for an orthopedic surgeon to tell Choppy her leg was fractured in two places and needed a splint and an ace bandage. The people were so friendly and accommodating, but by the end of a few hour stint there, we were ready to get back to our little bungalow. Choppy was beat and ready to stop moving, but she never stopped joking. Ellisa, Tash and I organized a taxi van to take us all back to the the dock for a reasonable price and we were out of there. We still had to get Choppy back onto the boat, but this time at dark. What a day. Once again and without question, more locals helped us by carrying her all the way down a wet and slippery bamboo dock to the boat. They were even smiling the entire time. I’m telling you, these people are just one of a kind. We arrived back at our bungalow late that evening, grabbed some food and had another quiet one. Everyone was tired, but Choppy must have been in full on twilight mode. She had been in The Philippines for less than 24 hours when she tripped over a watermelon float and broke her leg. Thanks to the overwhelming amount of positivity our group possesses, we were able to make the best of this day and the situation.
Tash staying hydrated, me, staying photogenic.
The next morning we all awoke with curiosity. We wanted to see how Choppy was feeling and what she was up for — if anything at all. Naturally, she was ready to have some fun. It was another gloomy day during rainy season in The Philippines, so our options were limited. What do you do on holiday when it rains, we thought. It wasn’t long before we found the answer. Day drinking at a beach bar, it was! We ended up spending almost an entire day at this one bar, where the staff quickly fell in love with us and our disabled friend. By the end of it, they were pouring us shots and asking us if we would come back for their party later in the evening. Success, indeed. The day was a hot mess. The good kind though, with photos to prove it.
To say we made the best of the next week in Boracay would be an understatement. We partied like rockstars and with the help of so many other travelers, had Frendz Resort rockin’. If we weren’t blaring raggaeton and obnoxious pop songs from our patio, then we could be found on the beach catching the small amount of sun that came our way. We even found our way into leading roles of a blog post, and it wasn’t mine. Yep. Our biggest night was by far the one that included a wheelchair, a game of limbo with Choppy’s crutches and me in the ocean in a dress at 3 in the morning. Unfortunately, this night also left us wit another injury. You cannot make this stuff up. After our display of insanity at the Frendz bar, Tash and I headed out to continue the party elsewhere. Tash didn’t even make it off the property before she went tumbling down, injuring her knee. What was she doing, you ask? Oh, giving a 6’2″ Scottish man a piggy back ride. That’s right. She was the giver here. In true Tash fashion, she refused to call it a night, despite the swelling and inability to walk on her own. But hey, this is what friends are for, right? With the help of some new friends, we went out and made the best of it, yet again. Tash’s determination was a force not to be reckoned with. I knew that. Party on, we did. Naturally, this entire night was followed by the obligatory hunt for a McDonald’s the next morning — Choppy, the wheelchair and the newly injured Tash in tow. Somewhere, there’s video footage. The locals and tourists must have wondered how we made it this far in life. We certainly left our mark on Boracay and you can read all about what local musician and blogger, Armand, thought about it, here. He even referred to all of us as Aussies! (Looks like all the accent practice Maartje and I have put in is paying off!) After the typhoon hit the nation he calls home, Armand also created a video to raise money for the victims. With 186,000 hits so far, I’d say he’s done something big. Check it out here and don’t forget the tissues. You can also buy it on iTunes, where all proceeds go to — you guessed it. It’s all of $.99 and a couple hundred of you purchasing this would provide several families with enough supplies for the coming weeks. A little bit goes a long way right now, guys!
I’m stabbing Choppy in the head with a fork, as if she’s not already gone through enough. Friendship. Even I’m confused about what is actually going on around me.A lot of cheek kissing was involved — this went for the entire reunion.
The next morning. This is the trek to McDonald’s, which ended up taking much longer than it should. Thanks for the wrong directions, dude! I mean, how seriously could anyone be taking us at this point? I guess I don’t blame him.Still looking for those sweet golden arches…Post McD’s. I love this shot. I am trying to make Choppy eat the rest of my Oreo ice cream thingy (why would I do that?) and she’s not having it. Meanwhile, Tash is struggling with the hangover of a lifetime. Ha! I laugh every time I look at this.
Stop the eye rolling. You think you’re above McDonald’s until you go to these developing nations, wake up with a massive hangover and cannot bare the thought of one more fried rice dish. I dare you to resist. I’m simply saying what every other backpacker is thinking.
The best moment all week? Choppy got her watermelon back? The restaurant that she had fallen in front of, held onto it all week for us. See. Told you these people are remarkable. Look how happy she is!
At the end of perhaps the most memorable (or not) week of our lives in Boracay, it was time to move onto more islands. Although Choppy had a blast and didn’t miss a beat, she knew she had to go back home and get her leg properly evaluated and cared for. It was a tough decision, but she knew that transiting and island hopping wasn’t going to be much fun with a broken leg. She’s also far to selfless and didn’t want to hold us back from anything. That was the least of our concerns, obviously. I had mastered the art of pushing the wheelchair, while Maartje was the strongest piggy back host I’d ever seen. Despite Tash’s busted knee, she was incredibly helpful in carrying things and getting folks to help us. My sweet Tash certianly has a way with people. Elissa acts as the group Mum (whether she likes it or not), so she was instrumental in anything that involved the word “organization.” She can’t stop being a teacher even if she is on holiday with her SCUBA Sisters. I love her for that. We used these combined strengths to sell Choppy on staying with us, but she knew best. Although the week had been ridiculously fun, she had also spent much of her time fighting with a difficult and negligent insurance company. They finally agreed to hold up their end of the bargain and sent her home on a direct flight out of Manila. Whew, it was hard work. None of us were keen on parting ways, but as usual, knew we’d meet again. The four of us were headed to the island of Palawan, with a layover in Manila scheduled. That’s where Choppy would fly out of, so it worked out nicely. We woke up at 4 that morning ready for transit. Okay, that’s a lie. We weren’t ready at all. Maartje and Choppy had just come in from a night out and the rest of us had only been to sleep a few hours before that. The transit to the nearby Caticlan airport was one for the books, guys. Choppy and I used her GoPro to capture the entire morning and I reckon it’s award worthy. Maartje almost lost her breakfast (read: drinks from a few hours prior) on the boat ride, I am wearing giant flip-flops in the shape of a penis and none of us can hold it together. I still don’t have a clue as to why anyone let us on that flight. Everyone was staring. I mean everyone. At one point, Maartje just threw her bag down in a long line and laid down to sleep. At a busy little airport at 6AM. In the middle of everything. It might have been my favorite moment of the entire trip. Somehow, all five of us successfully boarded the flight and made it to Manila. We all said goodbye from the airport and you can bet it was a teary one. Choppy, her wheelchair and a very kind airport staff member (who accompanied and helped her) were off. Since her flight didn’t depart until later in the evening, insurance had agreed to put her up for the day in a fancy Sheraton. At least we knew she was in good hands the rest of the way. I think that morning would have been ten times harder, had we not all been
slightly hungover still drunk. I suppose there was a reason we weren’t so responsible the night before, after all.
Last shot together-together, taken from the Manila Airport on a hilarious but sad day. You can also see Tash’s bandaged knee in this one. Yeah, we looked like we had just spent a week on an island together.
Choppy arrived safely back to Newcastle and saw a Doctor, who told confirmed what we mostly knew. She was put into a fancy boot and told to stay off her leg for 6-8 weeks — no surprise there. The four of us went on to El Nido, Palawan for a little adventure and island hopping. It’s up next on the blog and you won’t want to miss it. If you don’t start searching tickets to The Philippines after that post, then I will suggest you have your pulse checked. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve been yet — and that’s a big call. Stay tuned for it! I’m out for now, friends. This marks the longest blog I’ve ever written and I’m sure you’re eyes are tired. Sorry! There was just SO much happening in The Philippines. I promise to make the next one more of a blog and less of a book. I hope I didn’t scare you off with this rather debaucherous and hysterical post. We tone it down a knotch in El Nido. Well, kind of. See you then! Thanks for stopping by. x