That Time I Almost Died in Cagayan De Oro

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.

"Lunch" is served
“Lunch” is served.

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 bus ride was, but 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!

Pancakes! Honestly, this and a cup of Sprite (sweet, sweet medicine) were the only things on the menu we thought we wouldn't have to poke down our throats with a stick.
Pancakes! Honestly, this and a cup of Sprite (sweet, sweet medicine) were the only things on the menu we thought we wouldn’t have to poke down our throats with a stick.

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 bus ride 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!

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18 comments Leave a comment

  1. Ooh, the same thing happened to my husband and I in China, somewhere around Wuhan. We still have NO idea what caused it. We’ve heard food poisoning can take up to 3 days to set in, and sometimes you can actually just get it from touching a surface rather than eating something. But our symptoms were identical. It knocked me out about 1 day, hubby about 3. It got to the point that I found an English speaker to write a note in Chinese for us describing his symptoms and when they started in case I had to get him to a Chinese hospital. I can just feel your misery. So glad it passed relatively quickly and your travel plans allowed you to hunker down.

    Apr. 22 2013 @ 7:39 am
    1. Carina

      Dear God, I meant to my husband and ME. Grammar brain block…

      Apr. 22 2013 @ 10:50 am
      1. Carina author

        We did not have great stomach luck in China either, though it was certainly never anything as bad as this. Even when I am pretty sure I had swing flu a few years ago, it was not as bad as this!

        Thank goodness you were able to find someone to write everything for you in Chinese, just in case. I guess the one good thing about the Philippines is that everyone speaks English, so if things had really gotten dire and I had needed medical attention, that would have been one fewer thing to worry about.

        Apr. 23 2013 @ 7:15 pm
  2. Horrible. I’ve had food poisoning before, and it was absolutely terrible. I cannot imagine being in such distress in a foreign country. So sorry.

    Apr. 22 2013 @ 10:20 am
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      If there was one silver lining to this terrible thundercloud, I’m sure it must have been that—as I said in the above comment—if things had really gotten dire and I had needed medical attention, English is so widespread in the Philippines that at least communicating wouldn’t have been anything to worry about. That said, I’m immensely glad that just self-medicating and lying comatose for a day managed to do the trick!

      Apr. 23 2013 @ 7:23 pm
  3. I can empathize, but there’s no need to go into the details. (giving you a break) When you’re sick, the first thing you want to do is look for blame. Most of the time it’s very difficult because of the multitude of variables.

    One time, after spending a healthy long term trip in Mexico, the first thing we did when we crossed the boarder into the US, was to go straight to a nice restaurant and get an American Hamburger. Who-da-thought! Boy was I sick for the next couple days! Even on other trips to Mexico, I’ve been sick after eating at upscale restaurants and been perfectly fine eating street food. Ya just never know.

    One tip we learned is if you’re traveling with another person, order different things on the menu. That way, if one gets sick there’s a better chance that the other won’t. It prevents both of you dieing together in your room with nobody knowing until after it’s too late! (Boy was that a sick thing to say)

    Another thing, and this may sound like your mother; we became overly adamant in remembering to wash our hands before eating anything. I sounds simple and everyone knows to do this, but you’d be surprised at how many people forget. Next time you’re in a restaurant, check out how many people come in, sit down and start eating without making a trip to the restroom to wash their hands. It’s one simple thing that travelers should absolutely be diligent about.

    At any rate, you told the story very well. Now stay well so we can read more of your stories.

    Apr. 22 2013 @ 1:06 pm
    1. Steve C author

      Those are all excellent tips, Steve! Normally Tony & I naturally order different things off the menu as we often see two different things we both want to eat, and diversity in ordering means we get to try more things! I guess that doesn’t really help us with staving off food poisoning though if we both eat each others’ meals…

      And your tip about handwashing is simple, but one I have honestly been really lax about. I almost never wash my hands before a meal, but given how grotty some of the places we end up dining are, I really should. We even carry a bottle of hand sanitizer with us, and I am resolved to be more diligent about using it. Thank you for the reminder!

      Apr. 23 2013 @ 7:26 pm
  4. Oh man, that sounds scary and terrible 🙁 It’s been a long time since I’ve had food poisoning, but when it happens, you do feel like you are going to die. I think it might have been the second meal you ate..just pondering it out. I hope that this doesn’t happen again, and that you live on to tell the tales of places that I might never see 😉 Take care out there, and NO MORE LUKEWARM CHICKEN!!

    Apr. 22 2013 @ 1:36 pm
    1. zibilee author

      I think your advice, “NO MORE LUKEWARM CHICKEN!!!”, can really be adopted as a life philosophy, no? 😉

      I don’t know for sure if it was the chicken, only because both Tony & I ate it and only I got so sick. Of course, it could have just been my piece, or even that my stomach just couldn’t handle it… but it definitely put me off chicken, lukewarm & otherwise, for quite some time!

      Apr. 23 2013 @ 7:28 pm
  5. Laura

    Oh God, Steph. There’s nothing like getting sick on the road. The worst for me was in the Salt Flats in Bolivia. I had a combination of food poisoning and altitude sickness and spent 24 hours on the overland truck before arriving at the hostel. I actually thought my appendix had burst and in my feverish daze told my med student roommate that she had my permission to remove my appendix in the hostel room. I remember lying with my face on the salt flats and using all of my energy not to throw up.

    Thank goodness for Cypro, right? Glad to hear you survived. Smart move, stopping and not trying to push on.

    Apr. 22 2013 @ 3:53 pm
    1. Laura author

      I am pretty sure your story tops mine by a landslide! I was never hallucinating, and I felt very lucky the whole time that Tony was there to make executive decisions if anything really crazy started happening. I can’t imagine having to deal with altitude sickness and constant travel on top of all of this; I was so grateful when we found that hotel and I could just collapse!

      But yes: yay for Cypro! We’ve both had to take a dose since arriving in Vietnam, but thankfully, never for symptoms anywhere near as severe as this day!

      Apr. 23 2013 @ 7:46 pm
  6. CGY CDO


    I was born and raised in CDO but now living in Sydney, Australia. I visit CDO every year or two since 2009.

    Jollibee is my last option. If you were in DVsoria, there are plenty of fresh cook restaurants in the area, e.g. Mang Inasal, Barkadahan, etc. Most of these are grill fast food. Jollibee is at the bottom of my list.

    How did you find Camiguin? Have you tried any outdoor activities in CDO and Bukidnon?

    Apr. 28 2013 @ 8:15 am
    1. CGY CDO author

      We were only in CDO for 1 day as we were just using it as a base to fly into from Cebu and then catch the ferry to Camiguin. So, we definitely didn’t get to see most of what the city or the area had to offer; in truth, we only would have been there for a few hours if I hadn’t gotten so sick! I didn’t eat anything after our Jollibee meal, but Tony went out that evening and got something resembling Mexican food (tacos) that he said was quite good… not sure if any of the places you mentioned would have been open at 5:45 am when we were walking around CDO looking for a place to wait until the banks opened, but if so, they definitely would have been a better choice I’m sure!

      As for Camiguin, we loved it! You can check out our most recent post in which we share some of our favorite photos and the highlights from our week there. Unfortunately, Camiguin was where we spent 95% of our time while in Mindanao, so we’ll definitely have to go back to see more of what the area has to offer; we’ve heard really good things about the outdoor/adventure activities in the area.

      Apr. 30 2013 @ 5:31 am
  7. Oh, lordy. I don’t have the strongest of stomachs, so food poisoning is definitely up there on my list of worst fears! I plan to fully partake of street food through SE Asia, but I’ll just have to err on the side of caution.

    Apr. 28 2013 @ 10:41 pm
    1. eemusings author

      To be honest, there wasn’t tons of street food in the Philippines, and the issue was with the local eateries more than anything else. By and large we have found actual street food in Asia to be completely fine, and while I can’t say we haven’t had occasional bouts of “grumblitis” (as we call it), this is one of the rare instances where either of us got seriously sick in a food-related capacity.

      Apr. 30 2013 @ 5:33 am
  8. What a story Steph, that sounds like a seriously shitty experience! No pun intended.

    Too bad you didn’t like 127 Hours, that movie made a huge impression on me when I saw it. But then again, I was in my own bed, with the lights out and the sound really hard, so I was really sucked into the movie. I’ve never been so shaken after a movie before, or after.

    May. 1 2013 @ 6:26 am
    1. Nick Rutten author

      To be honest, the whole premise around 127 Hours never appealed to me, so I don’t know if it ever would have worked for me, but seeing it 2.5 times on a moving bus while my body was preparing to rebel against me within the next 24 hours certainly did not help! 😉

      May. 2 2013 @ 1:46 am
  9. I felt sorry for what you have experienced in the place. Food poisoning is dangerous and a life threatening, I hope that this doesn’t happen again.

    Apr. 25 2016 @ 6:16 pm

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