I am hesitant to paint with too broad a brush, but even based on our encounters with internationally-curious individuals, it seems like most people know very little about the Philippines. Instead, we scrounge the dusty corners of our brains, trying to find any morsel of information we may have once heard about the country as proof that we are not wholly ignorant. Of course, most of this information will come from major news sources that are in the business of selling headlines, and so they tend to focus on gloomy, scary bits of news. And yet, the stuff of headlines is generally as far from our daily experiences in the Philippines as you can get; the fact that there is a wide preponderance of shotguns and assault rifles out and about (even the security guards at bakeries have them… and yes, bakeries in the Philippines have security guards) took some getting used to, but honestly, we rarely if ever felt uneasy in the Philippines, never mind like our life was at risk.
That said, there is an instance that stands out in my mind as the one time I was fairly certain I was going to die in the Philippines. It all happened when we decided to visit the island of Camiguin…
We didn’t have much of an itinerary flying into the Philippines, but what little itinerary we did have, certainly didn’t include Camiguin. You see, Camiguin is a small island found in the Mindanao region of the country. Now, just as I would think twice about walking around Chicago’s South Side late at night, Tony & I had no plans of visiting the Mindanao portion of the Philippines—this is the most Muslim part of a predominantly Catholic country and is where most of the scary stuff that makes the headlines tends to go down. So adamant were we that we’d never set a toe here that we didn’t even bother to skim the Mindanao chapter in our Lonely Planet guide.
Of course, once we landed in the Philippines, we started fielding destination suggestions from all the locals we met and the one that kept sounding better and better to us was Camiguin. Given that we hadn’t felt unsafe or threatened during our time in the country, we decided to actually look into the Mindanao situation and discovered that writing off the entire section of the Philippines might be a bit drastic. Generally the exterior portions of northern Mindanao are quite safe for visitors as all the dicey action happens in the interior or parts further south, and Camiguin has never once been targeted. Our fears assuaged, we headed to a travel agent (seriously, sometimes you have to do this in the Philippines… it’s quaint and weird, I know) and bought fateful plane tickets from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro, which was the most convenient place from which to reach Camiguin.
What followed is a series of events that only the worst possible luck could trigger… or maybe the Philippines really are just insanely dangerous. You be the judge!
Traveling to Cebu from our secret paradise island to catch our flight was a real test of endurance: we wound up taking 5 different modes of transportation just to make it to a bus terminal that was still 3 hours south of the city. The bus that was set to depart was already filled to capacity and only had standing room which didn’t sound desirable for such a long trip on such questionable roads, so we chose to delay our journey for an hour and grab lunch while waiting for the next bus.
Unfortunately, we were in the middle of nowhere (as ferry terminal and bus stations normally are), so we were limited to the hot bar at the terminal. Normally we are all about street food and the like, but local places like this in the Philippines scare even us, as the food is cooked early in the morning (hopefully!) and then just left out rather than being refrigerated or kept warm. And there are always so many flies! Not appetizing under regular circumstances, but we were starving and the locals seemed happy enough to dig in, so we ordered ourselves up two plates. This was possibly my first mistake.
I don’t know exactly how long the busride was, it was long enough for the film 127 Hours to be shown 2.5 times. Seriously, 127 Hours has to be just about the worst movie you could possibly show to a busload of people (especially one with children on it!), as it manages to be both boring and gross. Still, we have to ask ourselves whether this was better than the alternative, which surely would have been deafening karaoke…
Reaching our hotel in Cebu, we had time for a dinner of lukewarm grilled chicken (what else?!?), which was possibly my second mistake, and then went straight to bed because our flight was at 5:30 am the next morning meaning we had to be up at 3 am…My third mistake! The only silver lining here was that we were flying Air Phil Express, the Philippines’ most awesome budget carrier—they not only allow you up to 10kg of free checked luggage, but you also get a snack on board AND they almost always arrive early. In this case, we managed to arrive 33 minutes early in Cagayan de Oro, meaning we arrived before it was even 6 am! Alas, we could not take advantage of this monumental headstart to the day and head to the ferry terminal to get the direct boat to Camiguin as we needed to wait for a bank to open so we could transfer funds to Mario for the dive course we had completed (that’s right—Mario is such a cool guy that when we didn’t have enough cash to pay for our course, he told us not to worry and just gave us his bank info so we could transfer it to him when we got to the mainland!). So, to kill the 3 hours we needed to wait, we headed to the nearest Jollibee.
This was my fourth—and possibly fatal—final mistake.
For those not in the know, Jollibee is the most popular fastfood restaurant in the Philippines. Even though the food generally looks disgusting, its popularity far outstrips even McDonald’s or KFC, and when Burger King was going under in the Philippines, all the stores were bought up and converted into Jollibee. I guess you could say that Jollibee is THE taste of the Philippines, but I admit that until now, neither Tony nor I had really been all that inclined to try it. As it was the only thing open at the time, it seemed we had no choice but to finally see what all the fuss was about!
Now, I don’t want to cast unfair aspersions on Jollibee, but all I can say is we spent the next 2.5 hours eating pancakes (an unusual choice, it would seem, as most of the Filipinos in the restaurant were glutting themselves on spaghetti and fried chicken… for breakfast!) while I felt progressively sicker and sicker. It could have been the ridiculously early wake-up we had or the suspicious food at the bus terminal or the hotel from the day previous that were coming back to haunt me, so I don’t want to point the finger too decisively at Jollibee. All I do know for sure is that although the pancakes tasted fine, I got greener and queasier until finally I could take it no longer and dashed off to the toilets and violently threw up.
I hoped that voiding my stomach of all its contents would be the end of it, but by the time we reached the bank, I was in a bad way. At the worst, I looked like a meth addict going through serious withdrawal; at best, I possibly resembled an extra from the movie Outbreak (Tony says he is being charitable to me when he says I looked like Marcel, the monkey). By the time we had managed to transfer the funds to Mario, my face was dewy with a persistent sheen of sweat and we decided that there was no way I could survive a two hour busride followed by a ferry ride that was then followed by a trike ride around Camiguin while we looked for lodging. Instead we turned to our Lonely Planet guide, found the nearest hotel listing, to which we power walked, booked the cheapest room in which I proceeded to throw up again before collapsing into bed.
I have no idea what the catalyst for all of this was, but I did spend our one day in Cagayan de Oro, horrifyingly sick and certain I was probably going to die. My nausea progressed to other intestinal distress, and when I had nothing left to purge, I developed an intense fever but was simultaneously so chilled that Tony had to cradle my sweaty body so that I could absorb the heat from his body. For the first time on our trip, we broke the seal on our bottle of Cypro and dosed me up good, and I then spent the rest of the day fretfully sleeping while Tony watched bad movies on cable (I believe Jonah Hex was playing at one point… as if the day could not get any worse! At least it wasn’t 127 Hours, though, right?).
I woke the next day feeling like I had been to hell and back, but ultimately in fighting form. I felt terrible for having caused us to miss a day on Camiguin, but in the end, I knew that we had made the only choice we could have. Even in a room with a bed, A/C and easy access to a toilet I had been miserable, so I really don’t think I could have made it out in the world.
So maybe the rumors are true, maybe a trip to Mindanao, and indeed the Philippines, is rife with untold dangers lurking around every corner. Just look at me: I almost died! In all seriousness though, while there are certainly plenty of scary things that we travelers face, I hope the next time you’re told that the Philippines are not safe that you remember that the most dangerous thing I had to face while there was the food!