I have been in Cebu for a day already and I’m not impressed. It’s so uneasy on the eye, unwelcoming, unalluring, unattractive, unappealing and plenty of other ‘uns’. It’s just gritty. Now before coming to Cebu, I’d seen out of this world photos and advertisements about island hopping, diving and other sea activities in the area. So I have logically created an assumption – you can’t blame me – that an island hopping tour (Mactan Island Tour) will fix my damaged impressions of the city. I am literally dying to dip into crystal clear waters after falling hard for this Cebu complot. That assumption though is incredibly wrong and short-lived, that is until I see for myself that any sight or feel of magically blue ocean whatsoever is simply not on the menu for the day and nor are other fun activities. Not only is sea fun not on the menu but I am just about to experience literally the worst tour of my life.
I am impatiently waiting at the lobby of my hotel to be picked up but there seems to be a delay. I know massive delays are often part of packages in Asia so I am waiting. After 10 minutes I ask the guys at the front desk to call the numbers I have got. None of them seems to be responding, so I am starting to feel slightly impatient. The driver arrives some 20 minutes later but that’s fine. Holy mishmash! At least he is here, I tell myself. The drive is not bad, that is until we reach the final point where the driver has absolutely no idea whatsoever where the actual start point of the tour is. He has us waiting in the car in the middle of nowhere so I at least push him to make a couple phone calls to find out. After some telephone conversations he manages to drive me to the right spot and tells me he would come later after the tour. Knowing how confused he is, I try to reconfirm everything with him multiple times, as the last thing I’d want is to be stranded in this weird place. However, when I see other tourists waiting, I calm down and go grab a seat.
The wait is long. 50 minutes or something, but then again, this might be just a normal warm up as per Asian standards. To diminish the awkward feeling from all the waiting they are at least polite enough to offer a refreshing drink. When the boat finally arrives and the mess of who boards which one is somehow dealt with, as by now there are around 25 people waiting for 3 different tours, we are supposed to set off. We are warned that we need to walk to the boat and be mindful of urchins. Thank you very much but when I look at the muddy waters on the shore I am not quite sure how that’s supposed to be done. Luckily I’ve got my sea shoes so I’m covered. At this point though, my suspicion of the whole scenario here being a blatant scam rising, I feel that a bottle of strong liquor would be really nice.
When we finally manage to board and set off I feel weird but I am still not prepared for what is coming. Our first stop is presented to us as the top spot for snorkelling and a unique fish reserve you can’t find anywhere in Cebu. When I look around though, all I see is a load of boats parked one next to another, fuming and smelling, and herds of Chinese tourists jumping to the not so clear waters to see the miracles. No offence to anyone, but yes, these boats are full of Chinese. Well, and we all know that the regular folk are terrible swimmers, who are however always game and keen on snorkelling or even diving regardless. And since tour providers across the whole Asia don’t want to disappoint them by telling them that such activities are not safe for non-swimmers and by doing so losing money obviously, the general practice has then been that each Chinese non-swimmer is assigned a local swimmer who then basically drags, grabbing the life vest, a Chinese helpless body behind them underwater. As you can imagine, this significantly increases the number of snorkellers and adds to the complete irony of this so called magic fish reserve.
Since I am already here and since I still feel some Cebu coma bitterness in my mouth, I decide to grab the gear and dive in. ‘If I swim further away, I will be fine,’ I try to convince myself. Well, I am wrong. When I manage to get past all the boats, fumes and the Chinese snorkeling frenzy, my snorkel breaks down and I am forced to go back for a new one. One of the crew smiles at me when I return the gear and gives me a surprise look as if saying ‘How come it’s not working?’ He passes me another one, I try it first to make sure it works and naively repeat the same pattern. I do a couple strokes when the snorkel breaks again. I swim back eagerly, already fuming a bit inside but come back. Seeing the very same guy looking exactly the same way, I yell at him from the water “This time give me a bloody functional one, bro!” When after a couple strokes this one breaks down too I say “Fuck it!” and return to boat to wait for this ridiculous performance to finish and for them to take us to some pristine spots, finally. Right! In the meantime a coconut seller has sailed towards us so at least I will sip a fresh drink.
“One coconut, please,” I say and force a kind smile. The toothless, somewhat scruffy bloke returns the smile, grabs the smallest coconut there is on his tiny catamaran and shouts “250 pesos, madam!” While math has never been my forte I know that this is about 10 US dollars so I stare at him with mouth open thinking ‘Sorry what? Do I look stupid or something to you?’ I shout at him back angrily “You are a thug!” and sit back in my spot, at this point already utterly pissed off, wondering what this ludicrous trip is all about.
When all the Chinese tourists return back to their boats with huge smiles on their faces combined with a visible sense of great achievement, things start moving again. I only hope that our boat won’t go to the same spots as them. It shouldn’t because our group are mainly Koreans and they seemed to be able to swim independently. Luckily we separate ourselves pretty quickly and continue to the next spot – Pandanon island. I see the lovely photos from the ads in my head and can’t wait.
At some point a weird scenery starts popping up on the horizon. We are approaching a place that from afar looks like a shanty town to say the least. When I look at the houses and beach attached to it I can’t help but ask myself ‘Is this a different tour? Have we suddenly started steering a wrong course? Why are they taking us to something that clearly reminds of a slum?’ I am expecting the crew to announce something unusual, for example that there has been a change of plans, but no. One of them shouts: “Pandanon island ladies and gentlemen, enjoy! You can use the gazebos on the beach and have lunch and … blah blah blah blah.” I stop listening already as I stare at the ugliness unfolding before my eyes. I am pretty sure my jaw drops down gazing at this unappealing scene. I get off the boat reluctantly, making my way to the gazebos. It’s all used by locals who are heavily picnicking here. I am approached by another thug though who offers a gazebo for 250 pesos per hour. I mutter something to myself inaudibly and disappear as quickly as possible back to the boat. By now you already know how much money that is. Holy mishmash!
Well, it’s a disaster. Complete disaster! Now I know for sure that I, along with the group, have been scammed. Two Danish tourists return to the boat pretty quickly too and as they approach and see my face, they both go: “This must be a joke, right?” Hallelujah! I am completely relieved as I am not the only one who feels the same about this whole mess. If nothing else, we have a good chat, I complain heavily, they complain too and the crew end up serving a pretty decent lunch, so it’s a bit better.
With tummies full, we are waiting for the last stop, but I myself have zero hopes left anyway and would rather go back to the hotel. When the wait seems to be surprisingly long, we start looking at each other quizzically. We left the ugly beach, but for some reason keep staying on the same spot. When other tourists start fiddling nervously too, the crew tell us that the engine has broken down and we are not going anywhere! Ha! Holy mishmash!
Not so surprised by this sudden development I only shake my head, scoff loudly and give an ironic, eye rolling look to the newly made Danish friends. Quite frankly at this point I have reached a stage where I couldn’t care less, wondering what else these guys have up their sleeves for us unsuspecting tourists. Now I really wish I had brought some alcohol but well….who could have suspected this would be such a fiasco.
I will skip the whole part of us waiting on the sea for an hour, then being towed back and having to walk through that muddy waters to the shore again. Maybe except for the fact that in an attempt to make the most of the waiting in the middle of the ocean, I jump for the last swim to wash away the bad memories which turns out to be a bad idea as I get badly stung by a jelly fish. My whole legs go literally red in seconds and burn like mama’s chili con carne but luckily these guys on the boat react super quickly and offer a vinegar relief. Thumbs up. I take the painful sting as a punishment from karma for the loud complaints and say nothing for the rest of the trip. Of course I am still somewhat fuming inside, on the one hand devising plans on how to give a roasting to the company and get reimbursement and on the other trying to take my mind off the pain.
To my surprise the driver is waiting for me upon reaching the pickup point, so at least I will get back to the city. But I am telling myself that any reasonable person would try to get the crooks reimburse you for the mess and so will I. Recalling everything that happened including the fact that I was already ripped off due to my being a solo traveller, I prepare sentences in my head. Quite frankly when the Danish fellow travellers told me how much they paid, I figured booking solo in Cebu is indeed the worst scam of all. When I realise I forked out 3,700 pesos (roughly 151 US dollars) for this show of ugliness, I am becoming even angrier and I want to get as much as I can back.
The minute I sit in the back of the car, I have the driver call somebody from the agency. He does that but plays the dumb. When I ask what he has found out, he says: “All good, madam!” We continue with this charade for a few minutes but when I have enough of this game I have him call somebody again and snatch his phone out of his hand and start negotiating myself. I am as tough as I can be, raising my voice but not shouting and I manage to speak to a couple people. But it’s pointless. All these folks are just extremely unprofessional to say the least. I shouldn’t be surprised though given everything that has happened so far. I known that arguing the point of ugliness might be impossible, but skipping a stop, however hideous this one would be too for sure, could work. Yet, I am probably the only one who sees the logic behind this and play short-handed. At the end of the tough talk I manage to agree on a ridiculous 500 pesos worth reimbursement which really is the price of the salt water I unintentionally drank while testing their lousy snorkelling gear, but okay, I could say it’s at least a small victory! I definitely need a drink and very quickly.
I am incredibly relieved to be back at the hotel, as if this is indeed the only place I can find peace in this crazy city. When back in the room, pondering, I laugh at the irony of it all. Not only was this the worst tour of my life, but the idea of fixing the Cebu coma by booking this shitty trip couldn’t be further from the reality as well as all the advertisements and photos you may see about this dodgy place.
Anyway. I just tell myself that if I had a chance to do this trip again I would never make the Cebu city my last stop, especially not after visiting places such as Boracay or Palawan. It hurts way more that way. If I really had to I would start with Cebu and then go to the rest of the Philippines, letting the potential disappointment dilute once reach the above places.
Every lesson in life is a good lesson though and that’s why we are here. Travel isn’t always pleasant. And that’s the right way for it to be. After some pondering over this unsuccessful tour half naked in my bed, I suddenly spring up, dress nicely and head towards the other part of the city to find the brighter side of things.