Overland Adventures: the stinky Filipino fish bus

Naked children leapt from the ramshackle pier in the tropical downpour, laughing and screaming as lightning flickered across the edges of a sky as threatening as any I’ve yet seen.

“That boat?” I asked hopefully, indicating the larger and (slightly) more seaworthy-looking of the two pieces of junk lashed to the pier.

“No, the other one,” he replied, pointing at the crappy little outrigger.

“Seriously? Five hours in that? Going across that?!” I said, pointing out over the ominous waters. This did not look like a good idea…

Snorkelling with whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines

Snorkelling with whale sharks in Donsol

A couple of days earlier I’d been snorkelling with whale sharks in Donsol (an amazing experience) and was now trying to get to Boracay; the most direct route was a short ferry from Pilar (near Donsol) over to Masbate City on Masbate Island (one of the more nondescript towns I’ve ever been stuck in overnight), then a 5-hour ferry crossing from Balud on the far side of Masbate over to Panay Island, and finally a bus to Boracay. Not exactly direct, but such is the nature of overland travel in the sprawling archipelago that is the Philippines.

But when I’d heard there was a ferry from Masbate over to Panay, I’d imagined something more like, well, an actual ferry. While this little thing looked fine for a calm crossing in clear weather, I definitely wouldn’t want to be caught two hours out in open water in a tropical squall in a boat like that. Looked like a recipe for disaster to me, and sadly the Philippines is anything but a stranger to boat disasters.

He assured me it was fine, but it was rainy season and the majority of my days in the Philippines up to that point had seen biblical rainfall and dramatic lightning displays flashing across roiling purple skies.

“How’s the weather looking tomorrow mate?” I asked, the answer coming in the form of a shrug.

By now a curious crowd had gathered around where we were standing in the shelter of a kind of bandstand at the start of the pier, the rain forming walls of water where it sluiced off the edges of the roof.

“Ok,” I continued, “so where’s your friend’s hotel again?”

A row of jeepneys at the bus station in Legazpi

A row of jeepneys, one of the main transport options in the Philippines

I always prefer to travel overland (or sea) when feasible, but when doing so you sometimes have to have a rethink. If there are 80 people cramming into a 30-seat bus, or your bus driver looks drunk, don’t get on the bus; if the ferry seems dangerously overcrowded and doesn’t have any lifeboats, or the boat doesn’t look seaworthy and it’s sailing out into storms, don’t get on the boat. I figured this might be time for such a judgement call, but also that I might as well stay the night and make the call in the morning after seeing the sea and the sky. And anyway I didn’t really want to have done the 2-hour van ride over from Masbate City only to go straight back (pretty though the scenery had been), so I figured I’d check into this guy’s friend’s hotel and sleep on it.

He pointed out one of the concrete blocks lined up along the road. It would be grim, for sure, but it’d suffice for the night before catching the boat first thing the next day or heading back to Masbate.

No way I was walking out through that waterfall though, so I figured I’d stay dry and wait it out here with my new friend and our audience. It’s always fun interacting with the locals in seldom-visited little corners of a country like this.

Except it isn’t. Not always. Sometimes instead of friendliness there’s a dodgy feeling, something vaguely threatening, or even in-your-face hostility, and it doesn’t help when it’s happening in a language you don’t understand.

One of the crowd of onlookers had pushed his way through to the front, and now appeared to be berating me in Tagalog (at least I guess it was Tagalog, though it could’ve been one of the other myriad languages spoken around the Philippines).

He appeared to be either the village drunk or the village idiot, perhaps both (he certainly smelled of something potent), and he appeared to be very angry about something. I had no idea what he was yelling at me, but the guy I’d been speaking to then engaged him in a bout of verbal jousting.

They took turns to make digs at each other, half addressing one another and half addressing me, and definitely playing it up for the crowd who sporadically burst into raucous laughter and occasional jeers.

I had no idea if I was the butt of the joke, or if the one guy was standing up for me and taking the piss out of the other guy, or if they were publicly discussing the best way to spend my money and dispose of my body, or if they were arguing about nothing whatsoever to do with me. No idea. But I did know that the situation felt dodgy, and the drunk guy was definitely taking an aggressive posture toward me. Even if they were just goading and baiting that guy for fun and nothing to do with me, that still constituted a shitty situation in my book – sheltering from the rain with an agitated crowd, waiting to head to a shithole hotel in order to catch a piece of sea junk in the morning for 5 hours through potential thunderstorms.

“Ok fuck this, I’m bailing,” I thought to myself, and shouldering my pack I interjected into the argument to thank the guy for his help and walked off through the thumb-sized raindrops towards the bus stop.

I was drenched to the bone in an instant, but I ignored the calls from behind and hurried through the rain to hopefully catch a same-day bus back where I’d come from.

Of course, as soon as I reached the bus stop 5 minutes later the rain stopped and the fierce tropical sun re-emerged to begin the process of baking everything dry (everything except my stuff, anyway). But whatever, I was at least glad to find a minivan waiting to fill up for the trip back across the island. He already had a couple of passengers, so with me joining them we’d just need to wait for a few more.

I knew it might take a while so grabbed some coffee and lunch from the little store there, however before I’d even finished my coffee the van filled up – but not with people. No, we were sharing the space with several boxes of fresh fish, which were stacked on top of each other in the back with my bag on top of them. I tried to get both bags on my lap but only had room for the small one, and my fellow passengers had their own shit on their own laps. And there was no roof rack to tie it up top, and no floor space available. So up it went on top of all the cold dead fishes with all their empty staring eyes, and so it was that I ended up right back where I’d started, damp and sweaty and stinking of raw fish, checking back in to the same hotel I’d checked out of some seven hours earlier. I was not a happy camper, and I smelled like a rotten fishmonger for days.

The following night I sailed out of Masbate City on the overnight ferry down to Cebu, where I did some (outstanding) diving before finally making it back up to Boracay the long way around. That then gave me a big old backtrack to Cebu City again, but I never regretted not getting on that flimsy boat – it just didn’t feel right, and I had plenty of time to find another route. Things don’t always go according to plan when you insist on going overland, and changing things up on the fly is part & parcel of the game. This is especially true in places with challenging geography and poor infrastructure like the Philippines – but although it wasn’t all fun at the time, it is all part of the fun.

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