Traveling by public transport in the Philippines is an exercise in uncertainty. Bus and boat schedules are notoriously loose. Delays are predictably common. If a bus isn’t delayed, it’s just as likely to leave early. And finding somebody who actually knows the schedule as opposed to somebody who ‘maybe’ knows the schedule is a guessing game. Whom do you trust? Experience gives you scant advantage. The only truly effective antidote is patience.
Patience is great if you’re backpacking around the world for several months growing dreadlocks. It can be enjoyable, or at least memorable, to be stuck in some backwater for a night or more because the scheduled last bus of the day didn’t have enough passengers to depart (meaning the driver would lose money). But if you’re updating a guidebook and need to hit 50 destinations in 7 weeks, patience just isn’t going to be part of your repertoire. With the rock of patience up against the hard place of Filipino haphazardness, something’s gotta give. You’re going to miss a lot of connections, and you’re going to be pissed off. Sure, you can always bust out the green and spread some legal tender love on private transport. But when you’re updating the Shoestring book, using private transport is cheating. It also cuts into your profits.
In past trips I’ve been quite lucky with public transport, a few accidents notwithstanding. I usually have a knack for showing up at transfer points just in time to make the next connection. And I only occasionally arrive after the ‘last trip’ departs (which, frustratingly, is usually before the bulb plummets). This trip has been different. I’ve been misinformed, tripped up and generally screwed over on an almost daily basis. Routine 4-hour trips have been turned into 8-hour hauls. Eight-hour hauls have turned into 16-hour nightmares.
With that I launch a new series, ‘Travel in the Philippines’. These yarns highlight the uncertain nature of travel here, but more than that they illustrate the dizzying array of transport options I utilize on a daily basis whilst cascading around these 7000-plus islands on the tightest budget possible.
Travel in the Philippines Part 1 – Puerto Galera to Boracay
On the surface it looks pretty easy: From Puerto Galera it should be 5 or 6 hours (200km) overland south to Roxas, a 5-hour car ferry ride from Roxas to Caticlan, and a 15-minute bangka (a Filipino outrigger boat) ride to Boracay. Let the games commence. I call the ferry office in Roxas in advance. They tell me there is a noon ferry to Caticlan. Great. I set out at 4.40am from Sabang (the main beach in Puerto Galera) on a motorcycle taxi ($2), and get the first jeepney out of Puerto Galera town at 5am. By 7am we are in Calapan, where I pick up a van going to Roxas. The van departs at 7.45. So far, so good. Van arrives near the Roxas ferry terminal around 1045am. This is where my fatal mistake happens. I elect to take the van into Roxas center, 6km from the terminal, to check out a hotel to put in the book. That takes a half-hour round-trip. I’m back at 11.15 and am immediately worried. It’s eerily quiet. Somebody tells me next trip is at 4pm. I say b.s., they told me 11 (knowing full well that what they told me means nothing, but still convincing myself that it means something). I go toward the dock and see the ass of a big car ferry about 500 meters offshore. Shit. I’m done convincing myself. I go to the Montenegro ferry office and they confirm that their boat had left early and that the next trip is 4pm. That would get me into Boracay after 9pm – too late, I as I understood it, to catch the last bangka to Boracay, which means that instead of spending happy hour drinking 2-for-1 long island iced teas on Boracay I’ll be spending the night in the ferry terminal in Caticlan. I release a torrent of expletives aimed at no one in particular, then settle into resigning myself to my fate. On the bright side, there’s a pleasant café next to the Montenegro office. I order a square meal and get 3 hours of work done. The ferry leaves as advertised at 4pm. I make a few calls from the boat. Consensus is that the last bangka to Boracay is at 10 or 11pm, so there is hope. When I get there at 845pm or so, there’s a horde of people waiting for the few remaining bangkas at this late hour. Somebody’s going to be disappointed (it’s illegal to pay to take a private bangka over after-hours).
Then the travel gods finally smile on me (rewarding me for my patience?). I run into Donald, F, Hershey and a few other people from the Frisbee tournament I’m supposed to be playing in the next day. Think I had it bad? They also set out many hours before, but their Seair plane had some problems and they had to wait in Manila domestic airport for 4 or 5 hours. By the time they departed, it was already dark, so their plane was diverted to Kalibo, a 1-hour van ride south of Caticlan (the Caticlan airport lacks lights so planes can’t land there at night). After 9 or 10 hours of hell, they had finally arrived in Caticlan at the same time as yours truly. As luck would have it, Seair passengers had priority on the next bangka. So I hung out with Donald and Co, acted like a Seair passenger (making lots of loud wheezing sounds and pulling funny faces) and managed to sneak on the Seair bangka (which, as an added bonus, was free-of-charge). I get to Boracay at 10pm.
Total travel time for the day: 17 hours. Just another day on the road in the Philippines.