A Bangka to Bohol: Adventures in Philippine Travel
The small wooden boat sat virtually motionless on the glassy sea, the sun beating down insistently amidst the sudden silence that was almost overwhelming after long hours of the roar of the boat engine. The other passengers and I sat waiting patiently while the boatman refueled the engine. He leaned over the engine pouring fuel out of a jerry can, his lit cigarette hanging precariously above the fumes wafting from the gas tank. After making it this far, I sat there waiting for the end to come in a fiery blast of engine parts, strangers’ dirty clothes, and random fishing gear. Not to mention my fellow travelers.
We had arrived at the ferry terminal earlier that day after spending several days on the small Philippine island of Camiguin, just off the north coast of Mindanao. The morning was sunny with bright blue skies and calm winds, always a pleasant bonus when undertaking a hour ferry trip over open seas. My travel partner Andre and I were headed north to the island of Bohol where we were to catch a plane back to Manila the next day. We had loaded up on munchies and snacks, bought our tickets, and boarded the vessel. The vessel looked reasonable seaworthy, although one can never tell for sure until catastrophe strikes. We’d found seats on the covered but open air deck and sat down to munch on tropical fruits while we waited to depart. And waited, and waited.
Things sometimes move at a slower pace in parts of the Philippines. Sometimes they don’t move at all. This was one of those times. We sat there for a good hour after the scheduled departure – probably not all that bad in terms of wait times – before they finally let everyone know that we weren’t going anywhere that day. I think the old standby excuse of “engine trouble” was given. Of course, always better safe than sorry, but you’re kind of left wondering if really it’s just that the guys down in the engine room preferred to play cards that day.
As we filed off the boat with the rest of the passengers, Andre and I discussed what we were going to do. There were not a lot of other options for getting to Bohol from Camiguin. None, actually. None at least that didn’t involve going back to the city of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao, the opposite direction. But it seemed as if that might be our best option, and hoping that once we got there we could get our flight changed. Of course, that was if the ferry from Camiguin to Mindanao decided to run that day. One never knows.
Getting around the Philippines can often be a challenging prospect, even for Filipinos. The country consists of 7,107 islands, and infrastructure often leaves much to be desired. From Manila, cheap, dependable flights are readily available to many domestic destinations, fanning out to the outlying parts of the country like spokes on a wheel. However, if you’re off one of the ‘spokes’, or trying to get from one ‘spoke’ to another, your options are often limited. Cebu is fast becoming a regional center, and there are some flights to various cities available from there, including a few international destinations. Cross-island travel is usually by bus, and from one island to another, your only option if you can’t fly is by boat. If your destination is several islands away, you may find yourself hopscotching from one island to the next. In this case, it may be worth considering flying back through Manila, particularly if you are short of time.
This can all be rather challenging. But if you’re patient and have a sense of humor, it can also be one of the charms of traveling in the Philippines. And if you are open to possibilities, you never know what interesting adventure may come your way.
As I waited outside the ferry terminal keeping an eye on our luggage, Andre went back in to get our refund. When he came back out, he asked me, “Do you want to take a bangka to Bohol?” While he was inside waiting for the refund he had overheard some of the other stranded passengers discussing an alternative for getting to Bohol, which would essentially entail chartering several small boats to make the crossing.
“How much would it be?” I asked, always the fiscally mindful one.
“Five hundred pesos each.” Around twelve dollars. Quite a bit more expensive than the ferry, but then the ferry wasn’t going anywhere and the bangka might be.
“You think it would be safe? It’s a long way across.”
He chewed on the back of his fingers for a moment and then replied, “Should be.”
That sounded convincing. I looked out on the water, judging the conditions and doing my own safety evaluation of the proposition. The water was as smooth as silk, quite a bit different than the previous week during which the otherwise sunny weather was marred only by unusually strong winds that roiled the sea for days. But now the winds were gone and the waves with it, as well as much of the perceived risk.
I shrugged and said “What the heck. Let’s give it a shot.”
With a number of other adventurous souls we crowded into the back of a jeepney – the ubiquitous Filipino mini bus – and were off to meet the new boats. I found it amazing how quickly this all seemed to come together. It was probably less than an hour since being evicted from the ferry that we arrived at our new transport. Social connections in the Philippines are fast, even if the transportation systems might not be. The boats were already waiting for us when we arrived, about ten kilometers away from the ferry, tied up along a rocky section of shoreline next to a dilapidated concrete structure. As we began dragging our luggage down the rocks to the water’s edge, soft waves lapped the shore while a number of people milled about, ostensibly in preparation for the trip, but it was hard to tell for sure.
Things seemed to slow down again at this point. It didn’t actually appear that much of anything was happening, but as far as we could tell, they were trying to determine how best to distribute everyone between the two bangkas that would be making the trip to Bohol. Bangka is the Filipino, or Tagalog, word for boat, but it generally refers to a specific style of boat common to the Philippine archipelago. Generally shaped like a canoe with outriggers on both sides, they can vary in size from a one-person paddle boat up to a fifty passenger vessel or larger. The bangka is the workhorse of the Philippines’ sea. Although primarily used for fishing, they can be called into service as school buses to carry children to classes, transporting tourists on diving or snorkeling adventures, ferries for passengers and freight, or any number of other chores. Almost all are open-air, but where typically used for carrying passengers they will often be covered to provide some protection from the sun and rain. Our chartered boats did not have this luxury.
After climbing carefully aboard along narrow planks placed between the rocking boat and the shore, we found seats among the piles of luggage and were soon underway. As we left the shores of Camiguin, our distant destination couldn’t be seen on the horizon. I have no idea how Filipino boatmen are able to navigate with no apparent navigational tools but they seemed to know where they were going. The trip was long but largely uneventful. We even somehow avoided disaster and being blown to bits during our mid-trip refueling. The sea remained calm but the tropical sun was relentless, and the noise from the un-muffled engine rattled our brains. Several times we were visited by school of dolphins which kept us company for a time, swimming playfully alongside as our boats glided through the water.
After several hours cramped in the boat with our backpacks and the mounds of luggage from a half dozen other passengers, we finally arrived at what seemed to be a random location on the southern coast of Bohol. The boat was not able to pull up to the beach because of the shallow water, so we were left to wade ashore with our packs on our heads. Trudging up the beach, our journey for the day wasn’t over yet. We still had to get to Tagbilaran City so we could catch our flight the next day. We flagged down a local bus and bounced along on wooden plank seats for another hour or two, stopping frequently to pick up or let off passengers. We arrived in Tagbilaran City tired and hungry just as it was getting dark.
In terms of “real adventure,” our journey from Camiguin to Bohol probably doesn’t count for a lot. But, it certainly added a bit of unexpected variety to our holiday and illustrates the serendipitous moments that can occur if you remain flexible and open to the possibilities of travel.
Darin Rogers is a freelance photographer, writer, and part-time engineer. Originally from the US, he is currently based in Darwin, Australia. You can see more of his work at www.darinrogers.net.