China's National Holiday is a 7-day public holiday in the first week of October. 7 days off for the whole country. 7 days.
We were discussing what to do with this gift of time and I was asking the advice of my Chinese friend on how to avoid the crowds. She, quite rightly, stated: "When China's on holiday, the whole world is crowded."
Some friends had booked to go to the Philippines and they were raging about how cheap flights were, being only 2 hours away from Xiamen, and how it is off-peak season over there, so cheap living costs too. So we followed suit, and it worked out that our housemate was moving back to the Philippines, having lived there for a year before China, and wanted to show us the best places.
We set off for the airport, a merry group of 4 of us (meeting our 5th housemate there): Ben, Elle, Serena and Me, and our different nationalities.
First place on our list was Tagbilaran, on the island of Bohol. It was a long journey, but I think I needed the time to acclimatise to my new environment. As the van whipped past banana leaves and palm trees in the nearest thing to a rainforest that I have seen, I was incredulous as to how rustic the Philippines actually is. How wonderfully real the countryside is. How simple life can be. Beautifully simple.
We got there just in time for a dip in the ocean before the sun set. Then it was drinks and dinner behind the bar with sandy feet and wet shorts. Fantastic place to stay (Birdwatchers)- right on the beach, with jacuzzi and swimming pool, and great food, all for the equivalent of 20 pounds a night.
Next morning after breakfast we met up with friends who are living in the Philippines now, teaching diving and sailing. They took us to a smaller island called Pamilacan Island. A boat ride away from all the tourists and bright lights... a privileged insight into rural island life itself.
When we arrived, we were given a charming little hut on the beach with just a basic toilet and a bucket of water- actually its surprising how little it takes to have all ones needs met. We loved everything about that island.
Firstly the beach is pristine, and the water completely translucent. The kind that makes it irresistible to jump in immediately and surrender to a thorough immersion in the waves. Which we did. I don't think anything else in life matches the refreshment of that experience (especially after a long journey), not for all the Coca-Cola adverts in the world.
The island has as much to see as the ocean it rests in. It has one little store for such things as coke, beer and peanut butter crackers (wildly popular in the Philippines).
A graveyard and the remains of a fort of some kind, now stylishly overgrown with trees.
The 300+ Islanders are very friendly, easy going and communal (they know everyone who lives on the island, most of them are related to each other in some way). They keep chickens, goats and cows, as well as, of course, go fishing. Many women are trained as a masseuse which we booked ourselves in for. We were amazed at the perfect English spoken by all the kids on the island. They send their children to Bohol for school, although many cannot afford University.
The men are expert sailers and fishermen, and they make boats right there on the beach. They came back with an octopus one day that inspired a great commotion!
The guy who took us on the boat was called Junior (as was his father), and never failed to impress us with how friendly and smiley he was, as they all were: happy!
They say they see dolphins on the horizon at sunrise, and whale sharks are also frequently spotted around the island. The whole island is in full swing at sunrise and, with no electricity, they go to bed soon after sunset. This was very good for us, as we spent our evenings surrounded by the brilliance of the stars above, the bioluminescent sea below and firefly-adorned trees all around.
We spent the majority of our short time there in the ocean snorkelling. Our friends were experienced free-divers and told us a lot about what we were looking at. I was mesmerised by the whole world I saw below the surface, just a few meters from shore. The astonishing array of different life forms, the bursts of colour, the synchroneity of the fish, all held me captured for hours.
Hannah and Roger had a sailing boat that they went on an 11-day trip around the Philippines with, so I learnt a bit of sailing from them and also how to tie some useful knots.
We would splash out the water for lunch and dinner, which usually consisted of freshly-caught fish and home-grown veggies. Perfect for the stomach and the soul.
The relaxation was levels deep, in fact it was impossible not to relax, as we reclined in hammocks (handmade by our friend- see MARGOA on facebook), played guitar, engaged in great conversation as one only finds with such a diverse mix of people, played with the dogs, and just took in the scenery.
On the last day we were all snorkelling together when we looked up to see a large dark cloud coming towards us whipping up the waves with furious winds. We raced it back to shore and grabbed all the stuff outside as it pelted us with rain before we all piled into our little hut. It was thrilling to watch the elements rage outside from our sturdy grass shelter. We played games and had a delicious, albeit cramped lunch before it was time to leave.
On the long journey back to the airport we used almost every type of transport available in the Philippines it seemed. But we stocked up on all the things we missed in China... the main one being Doritos- don't ask.