Giving up on the Philippines

The day after our somewhat frantic hunt for Donsol’s whale sharks dawned rainy and humid. Intermittent downpours drifted across the lush gardens, and dark storm clouds assembled, towering ominously on the horizon.

storm clouds loom over the beach in Donsol
Storm clouds loom over the beach in Donsol

We’d considered walking back towards the tourist centre to speak to a few dive shops, but something was holding me back. I don’t know if it was our recent experience on Boracay, but I couldn’t muster up the desire to walk down to the dive shops. Given how much I love diving, this was an odd feeling. I’d also been left somewhat unnerved by an experience out with the whale sharks the day before, which hadn’t helped my confidence in the safety of water activities in the Philippines!

Having been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of what turned out to be our final whale shark of the morning swimming beside me, I then hung back as the melee of swimmers thrashed above it. I’d seen three sharks far closer than I was expecting, and I wanted to savour that final sight rather than participate in what was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable chase.

I can only assume our interaction officer was concerned I hadn’t seen “enough” sharks, because he started yelling at me, urging me to swim in the direction of the shark. I tried to convey over the din that I was fine, really, expecting him to leave me and follow those of our group who were still trying to follow the shark.

Instead, he grabbed my arm in an iron grip and towed me along with him as he swam across to the crowd. I desperately tried to struggle free; I was actually trapped slightly under the water and couldn’t breathe at the angle he was holding me. But the more I struggled the stronger he held on, dragging me along for about 20 metres at a pretty considerable speed.

I’m incredibly thankful that I’m a strong swimmer, and I don’t think my diving training did me any harm either – I was able to hold my breath for fairly long periods and stay calm. If I’d have been a weaker swimmer, or panicked and inhaled a lungful of water, I could have been in real trouble. Eventually, I snatched a breath and did the only thing I could think of to get free – I dove down as deep as I could, relief washing over me as he let go. And no, I didn’t get to see the shark again.

My overwhelming feeling from this encounter was one of wrong-footedness and a combination of confusion and annoyance. Why would you drag someone? I felt like the officer’s failure to actually read the situation had put me close to danger.

Looming ahead was the next planned stage of the trip – heading to the mountains in the far north to see the famous rice terraces. Unusually for me, my overwhelming mood was not one of excitement but one of trepidation. Truth be told, I was struggling to gel with the Philippines although – given I’d been the one behind us coming here I was loath to admit it. I had been so excited to come, so why wasn’t I enjoying it more?

Late in the afternoon, I finally admitted how I felt to Craig. Somewhat sheepishly, I confessed that I hadn’t enjoyed Cebu, or Boracay and was struggling to muster up the motivation required to navigate the next stage of the trip, which would involve challenging treks and long walks. Relief spread across his face – he had been feeling exactly the same. Truth be told, I don’t think either of us had particularly enjoyed ourselves since we got off the plane.

A large part of me felt embarrassed (and still does, frankly). I hated the idea of giving up on a country, and there was a large voice in my mind saying “stop being so negative. You are lucky to be here, so grit your teeth and try someplace new”. As we took an evening stroll down the beach, I (somewhat insincerely) made the case for persisting. Craig – ever wise and pragmatic – gently reminded me of the fundamental basis of our trip: we were supposed to be having fun. If we weren’t having fun, didn’t it make sense to accept it, move on and make the most of the rest of our time in Asia? Relief and a feeling of peace flooded over me.

Tranquil sea Donsol Philippines
Feeling calm as the sun set prematurely on our time in the Philippines

With the last 5% of our laptop battery, we booked new flights to Singapore for the very next day.

If you want to go to the Philippines

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert, given the success of our trip! One thing I would say is plan and research. Navigating the islands that make up the Philippines isn’t particularly easy or quick, so research each destination on your itinerary and go with your gut for whether to ditch something from your itinerary. We ignored ours and headed to the busy beach resort of Boracay which totally wasn’t for us. We should have been a little braver and headed to some of the diving destinations closer to Cebu, and I take full responsibility for what was ultimately a Planning Fail. I suspect our tale would have been far more cheery had we done this!

We didn’t find the Philippines a particularly cheap destination – this is partly due to taking more internal flights than we normally would. We averaged £37.25 per day per person, which is way over what we aim to spend normally, and found accommodation and food notably expensive, again I think a lot of this stems from spending so long on a busy beach resort, albeit one well loved by backpackers.

One Comment

  1. Amy said:

    I definitely think you made the right decision with moving on; we did the same in Indonesia after struggling for weeks to gel with the country. We loved the rice terraces in the Philippines but we also found the Philippines a hard country to travel in, even though we loved it, so I get what you mean. Your experience with the whale shark guide sounds pretty scary, I’m glad you escaped unscathed.

    December 5, 2015

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