It was dark and late when I finally arrived to Panglao Island, south of Bohol. I’d started my travel day early in the morning, from Moalboal on the west coast of Cebu, the neighbouring island. I set off by local bus; cramped, hot and humid. Every seat was taken, so amongst some others locals, I stood in the isles for the first few hours, listening to music and people-watching. Children sat on mother’s laps and slept, elderly ladies waved papers like fans across clammy faces. Some spoke loudly to each-other, debating in their native tongue. Every so often, the bus would stop and men and women would come on briefly to sell home-made food, fruit and water, shouting like they do at the market stalls back home. The younger locals all meet my eyes at one point or another, always laughing nervously as I smile back at them. Eventually, I trade bus for tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk for boat, and then finally one more auto to my hostel. Overall, the day’s travelling takes around nine hours, which is pretty typical in the Philippines if you’re not flying. I’m spent. I arrive at the hostel with two friendly Spanish girls I met on the boat and sleepily trade my plans for an early night for a quick drink, which turns into two, which turns into a live acoustic session where we all play music and sing together (I was nominated as official table drummer). I laugh to myself, because this isn’t the first time I’ve swapped an early bedtime for a drink and have ended up leading a rendition of High School Musical’s Breaking Free to an equally enthusiastic audience.
Anyway, I overhear the table beside us talking about their island hopping trip the next day, and the dreaded 5am start. During our growing sing-a-long, this group have been laughing and drinking and joking and seem like a really fun group, so I eagerly approach them and introduce myself, and after some time, ask them if they’d mind if I joined. They happily agree and so, I head to my creaky bed, situated in a little wooden hut, for some much needed rest, put my Go Pro to charge and set my alarm - 4:30am. Before I know it, I fall into a deep slee-
The alarm rings, muffled under my pillow. My eyelids feel unbelievably heavy as I lie awake for five minutes, contemplating whether I have the energy for the day or if I should sleep and regain my strength. Philippines, as wonderful as it is, comes with tremendously long travel days that can completely zap you. Eventually, I end up at the same conclusion I always do. “Say yes.” A mantra that developed early on in my travels. I leap out of bed and head out into the darkness of the early morning. One by one, the others arrive in the breakfast area of the hostel and we head down to the beach, some of us sleepy, some of us surprisingly full of beans. Their energy is contagious and as we meet our boatman, we are all singing and joking, appreciating the view from the shore - a bright pink sun just beginning its ascent, sending a shimmering stream of strawberry coloured light across the ocean waters.
It’s 5am now and we are the only boat on the water, beating against the current, with reggae music blaring from one of the girls speakers. What a way to wake up. Somewhere in the middle of the sea, with only the faintest view of land at either side of us, our captain slows us to a stop and tells us to lower the music. Within mere moments, a family of wild dolphins breach the still water beside us, playing and dancing in the water. We were all given an immense buzz in this magical moment, through the combination of the late sunrise across the water and this amazing meeting with these majestic creatures. From the back of the boat, to the front, they swim around us, occasionally disappearing and then reappearing. Eventually, when they do leave, we talk in disbelief at our luck as we set off again to our first stop. The tone for the day had been set; we were all awake now, eager, thirsty for more.
We get to our first spot fifteen minutes after our encounter; gorgeous crystal blue water, so clear that you can see all the way down to the sea-bed, covered in coral. We jump straight in for a snorkel and are surrounded by fish, all different breeds and colours. The snorkel spot is called the drop-off, like in Finding Nemo - a big cliff edge under the water, its walls covered in coral and sea-life. Eventually, I see my first turtle of the day and follow it desperately under the water until I need air. I’m already on such a natural high by the glorious nature and marine-life in the Philippines.
On our way to our lunch spot, we stop at two more different reefs surrounding some other little islands. All of them coming with a fresh eco-system to discover and explore under the water, different fish and different coral. I’m in my element. Eventually though, we arrive on land again and start drinking, singing and dancing, before having an incredible feast; fresh white snapper, grilled chicken and loads of fruit and veg, including marinated diced onion and bell peppers inside an eggplant skin, a delicious Filipino delicacy. Besides a small village that resides here, we are the only tourists on this gorgeous island. We speak to the locals and swim in the clear waters before we go out for a few more snorkel trips before heading home at sunset. On the ride back, half the group fall asleep. The other half fall into conversations that move from culture, to relationships, to travelling, to music. To the meaning of ‘freedom’, something we all have our own definition of. One of the girls heads rests on my shoulders as she sleeps, two girls across from me are lying in each-others arms talking and laughing. Everyone is enjoying the quiet ride back, affectionately sprawled across the boat, entangled amongst each-other. There is no-one here who isn’t somehow physically in contact with someone else from the group. It makes me happy, the way that strangers out here, backpackers, have no walls and no fears. Disconnected from the digital world, we find comfort in our human senses and connections, our conversations and affections, without judgement and stress. Once again, I look out to the ocean passing us by, radiating in the sunset, glad that I said ‘yes.’