When you think of the Phillipines, what comes to mind? White sandy beaches? Green tea sea, glittered with painted boats? Yes. Yes. And Yes. But also – No.
Amongst this paradise, there is trickery underfoot. Someone is out to test you, to tease you. The Filipinos have a saying that translates to ‘It’s always more fun in the Phillipines’ and you will find this written across it’s adverts for tourism and scrawled into worn travel guides. Perfect, you might think. At first glance, this would of course relate to it’s beauty, the sincerity of it’s locals, the amount there is to see and do. Yes. Yes. And Yes. It MUST be more fun in the Phillipines. But also like for realz – no.
We have taken 2 buses and 2 tricycles which amount to about 16 hours of travel time with an overnight stay in Naga. For some reason, Duran2 and I have decided to be too tight to pay for domestic flights. This MIGHT be because after a 6 week road trip travelling the East Coast of Australia – we are poor AF. It may also be because we were too ignorant to plan anything and after discovering the Phillipines is simply a cluster of islands means we have left booking cheap flights until it’s too late. Insert awkward smiley face. Never mind we shrug, buses are probably ‘more fun’ in the Phillipines, we joke.
The Filipinos are very friendly and genuinely pleased to see you. They ask you how you are, where you are from and where exactly you are going as you change in-between buses or wait around at terminals. They cannot understand a word we say, so most of our conversations are us laughing at each other as we repeat the names of towns and cities like so:
Na-gar? hahaha Na-gar?
Na-ga? hahaha Na-ga?
Nah – gah? hahaha Nah-gah?
And so on and so forth.
One of the few times we were asked for money, we shared out oranges we had just bought from the roadside. As the small boys walked away, oranges in hand, we joked about how they were probably about to lob them at our backs until we saw them cautiously peeling them over an open bin and I think Duran 2 fainted from the emotion.
Within the first 4 hours of our bus journey, a Filipino heaves their guts up into a plastic bag. They do a speedy exit shortly after, leaving their plastic bag proudly on the seat behind them and we find this really amusing until we begin to notice that we see a Filipino vomming into various contraptions on every. journey. we take. One time, we are standing on the side of the road eating snacks and a small filipino child on a bus opposite us, opens the window and decorates the side of the bus with it’s lunch right infront of us. This IS more fun in the Phillipines.
There are pros and cons to travelling by bus. Serial vomming (con) which can lead to vomming dominos (serious con). They have minimal legroom (con) and buses accept excess baggage for all (pro and con). This is actually extremely handy if you are in the business of trading chickens/roosters or if you just really enjoy the company of poultry. They stop every 3 hours for snacks (double pro) and a place for you to pee into a rusty hole for a small cost (pro). They are also SUPER cheap. Like crazy cheap (pro pro pro). You can get Jeepney’s which are brightly coloured extended jeeps but they take 3x as long and only go a certain distance and people and luggage are strapped to the roof. You can also fly. But srsly who has the time to plan such things.
Arriving in Caramoan, the cheapest accommodation we can find is situated directly on the beach. This IS more fun we nod. We explore for 2 days, kayaking around the cliffs and walking around it’s secluded beaches. Our dinner is made by a lady in a straw hut – fish caught and prepared that very day. Yes. More fun in the Phillipines Duran 2 and I grin at each other. We are being safe. We are avoiding the red lion beer that is renowned for giving foreigners the shits and only taking out as much cash as we need. We, of course know, that nowhere will accept our Mastercards. Our room has asked us to pay at the end of our stay and knowing there is an ATM in the adjacent village, we blow our cash on fish until we are down to 800 pesos.
Haggling with a tricycle, we ride to the next village and as I approach the ATM, I realise I have of course, forgotten my purse with my cash cards. Nay bother we think – Duran2 is not as stupid as me. We try his card. Declined. That’s odd we shrug as we are directed to the only other ATM in the village. Declined it repeats. We haggle with our second tricycle to take us to our room and back again and our 800 pesos becomes 650. Purse in hand, I attempt the first ATM again. Declined. A second card. Declined. A third. Declined. Fuck. Nay bother, the second ATM will probably work. First Card – Declined. Second Card – Declined. Third Card? Don’t even bother it says. We are stood on the side of the main road in and out of Caramoan, as our westernised brains are trying to catch up with the situation we have found ourselves in. An ATM that doesn’t accept any of our cards. Not. Even. One? An ATM. That doesn’t. Give. Cash. We don’t quite understand. Not. Even. ONE?
We frogmarch ourselves to the only bank and are met by a very friendly young man. Hi, how are you? where are you from? How long you stay in Caramoan? Our answers are met with a catching giggle each time as we try to cut to the chase. It’s difficult to remain serious when you are faced with a giggling Filipino despite the fear that is lingering in our minds. We explain that the ATM outside his establishment is not accepting any of our Cards. ‘Not. Even. One?’ He asks. Not even one we repeat. ‘Ah’. He smiles. ‘You need to go to next town with ATM. Try there’ he says. ‘You can get a bus’. Fucking buses. Okayyy we say tentatively. How far away is the next town with an ATM we ask. ’40 kilometers. Maybeee 4 hour trip.’ Our mouths drop. You mean to tell me, that the next ATM that MIGHT give us cash is a 4 hour bus journey away? ‘hahaha’ he nods. ha ha ha we repeat. Panic shoots across both our faces as we try to calculate our options. If we go back to our room and try and explain it’ll cost us 150 round trip with a tricycle before we are able to start our 4 hour ATM quest. If we jump on a bus now, there is a possibility the next town’s ATM will be as much of a bastard as this one’s. If we stay on the bus, then it will take us all the way back to Naga where we will definitely be able to withdraw cash but we will arrive in the dead of night and either have to stay there (again!) or try and catch a night bus back to pay the room and collect our things. It’s already 2pm. Fuck. All we have, are the clothes on our backs and our good for nothing cash cards.
We power walk to the bus stop and approach 3 Filipinos sat under a confectionary vendor in the shade. ‘Hiiiii’ – I say – ‘I have a problem’. ‘What is your problem ma’am’ they chime collectively before bursting into hysterical laughter which in turn, makes me and Duran2 also begin to wet ourselves. We need to pull it together me and Duran 2 remind ourselves – this is serious. I explain that the ATM isn’t giving us cash. ‘No Cash?’ They ask. No Cash we repeat. ‘No Cash’ Long pause. ‘Ah you have BIG problem’ they all cackle at us. WE KNOW we laugh and then we all stand there stupidly giggling at each other before they point us in the direction of the next bus out of here which leaves in 1 hour. This is cutting into our daylight hours. Duran2 and I nervously stand on the side of the road going over and over our only options and count and recount our 650 pesos. The bus is costing 280 for the two us. We are soiling our pants. Do we have enough for snacks? We haven’t had any lunch. I bully Duran2 to go and get an assortment of weird sweet bread things which cost 5 pesos each before we get on the bus and repeat the bus journey that carried us to Caramoan in the first place.
As we drive out through rice fields and hills, I start to feel pretty stupid that we even thought there would be a working ATM. There are a small clatter of desolate homes every 30 minutes which have young children collecting water from a communal pump. I guess there’s no WIFI here either you dumb hoe I say to myself. I begin to wonder if the next town we have been directed to, will give us the cash we need. I can tell that Duran2 is thinking the same thing and after 4 hours, we try and decide whether to get off at the next town as instructed or carry on an additional 4 hours to Naga. Decision making between the two of us is – in one word – painful. It’s dark. We are – for lack of a better phrase – freaking the fuck out. If we get out at this town and the ATM does not work, then we will find ourselves without the means to pay for a room for the night. Somewhere might accept card, I interject so let’s stick to the original plan I decide as Duran2 shoots me a look I have come to recognise means – ‘you a dumb bitch’.
We are hussled off the bus by the conductor and we find ourselves standing alone in a deserted bus terminal. I can feel the wrath of Duran2 beginning to rise which is overridden by neither of us knowing what the eff we should do. We find a tricycle and try and get him to understand ATM. Bank? Cash? C.A.S.H? You know? Casshhhhh??? CASH! Oh geez I think I’m losing my mind. He asks for 50 pesos and drives us less than 100m down the road before pointing us at a lit but closed bank. The ATM is glowing at us like a celestial creature and we throw ourselves at it.
First card. Declined. You son of a bitch. Second Card. Declined. MOTHERFUDGER. I go to put in my credit card but stop myself as it’s a Mastercard – just like the other cash card I originally tried. It’s also a CREDiT CARD and the sound of my mother telling me never to withdraw cash on a credit card is ringing in my ears. There are other ATM’s here right? My actual travel cards will work in those RIGHT? We ask around for other ATMs and are pointed in the direction of 4 others. 1st Card. Declined. 2nd card. Declined. Fine back to the 3rd card – THE credit card. DECLINED. Repeat x 4. You arse hole good for nothing ATM. YOU ONLY HAVE ONE JOB. Duran2 is so far beyond freaking out that he cannot even muster the smug look of knowing we should have stayed on that frigging bus. We stand outside a Filipino version of a 711 in silence. We are down to 305 pesos. It will get us to Naga by the skin of our teeth.
We walk back down the road and past the original bank glowing at us in the moonlight. Fuck it – I’m going to try my credit card. 3rd card. Give me all your cash. Eject it all over my face you useless piece of shit. 10,000 of your finest pesos…long pause. Come on you tit wank. Weird whirring noise. ACCEPTED. Duran2 and I throw our arms around each other and dance in the middle of the street as 2 tricycle drivers look at us like we’ve just discovered the meaning of life. ‘Yay cash’ they finger dance at us in high pitched voices. I fight every urge in me to not ‘make it rain’ at 8pm in the middle of a Filipino town I don’t even know the name of.
Okayyyy we sigh as we stuff burgers down our glum throats. Now how the eff do we get back? We walk back to the quiet bus stop. There are 4 tricycle drivers and 2 motorbike drivers who at once, ask us where we want to go. Caramoan we say. ‘I drive you for 3,000. 2 people on motorbike’ one driver offers before taking one look at me and immediately retracting his offer. ‘6,000. You need 2 bike for her’. There is a moment of silence before Duran2 and I absolutely lose it. Duran2, in particular, is beside himself. The entire events of the day are coming to a head as the stress is dissipating into howling laughter in the middle of nowhere and Duran 2 and I can contain it no longer. No No No – he finally says – we’ll take the bus. I am still trying to decide whether to be totally amused or offended but I am distracted by one of the Tricycle drivers telling us that the next bus back to Caramoan is at 1am. Fucking buses. Sidenote: in the distance there is a group of 8 boys aged between 16-24 practising a heavily choreographed dance in the bus terminal car park. Duran2 and I sit down amongst the tricycle drivers and everything feels so amusing, especially with 80s synthesised music blaring in the background and a gaggle of boys throwing themselves around in synchronized boy band motion. The drivers ask us the only questions they know and we spend the next 6 hours wandering around the terminal in a pack of 8, with Duran2 and I reading out Filipino phrases from our Travel Guide and the drivers teaching us swear words and buying us coffee from a tin machine in the wall. As the hours go by, I cannot help but compare my one evening here to the six weeks of being constantly told to fuck off in Australia. Here we were with drivers who, on most nights, can’t make more than 80 pesos, buying us coffee for 5 pesos a pop and refusing our offers of payment. For 6 hours they asked us questions, laughed at our poor language skills and chased after buses they thought might take us in the right direction before we hugged them goodbye and knew we would never see them again.
1 week later as we recounted the story to another Filipino in a city another 10 hours away from Caramoan, he looked at us confused. Why no cash from the ATM he asked? Genuinely perplexed. WE DON’T KNOW we exclaimed. It makes no sense, we had to take an 8 hour round trip BUT, we paused, we genuinely had the best night of our travels so far. Aaaaaah he laughed. THAT’S why we say it’s always more fun in the Phillipines.