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We Survived Apo Island: A Travel Diary Update

After our adventures on Cebu island, we jumped on a small ferry to make the quick and easy 20-minute crossing to Dumaguete on Negros island. We were headed to Dauin – a stretch of coast famous for its beautifully protected wildlife and its proximity to Apo island. We found a teeny tiny cottage on the beach at a dive resort with two or three kittens and the teeniest tiniest puppy you could possibly imagine. Not a bad start.

Apo island is a volcanic island off the coast, about an hour’s boat from Dauin beach. There are a total of two dive resorts on the island, over 60 recorded sea turtles that hang around, and bunch of sea snakes. The visibility is great, the reefs are healthy, the water is the colour of paradise.

It’s diver’s heaven.

The clearest water at Apo Island

Only we didn’t dive.

The owner of Cebu Dive Centre in Moalboal (where we did the sardine storm dive) summed it up nicely. Comparing snorkelling to diving is like comparing a chicken sandwich to a roast chicken dinner. Both are good, but one is better.

But sometimes you just feel like a simple sandwich, you know? Though mostly you just can’t afford a roast chicken dinner each day. And sometimes you’re still so full from all the roast chicken you had the previous two days. You get it.

So we went as snorkelers on a diving trip.

We started strong when we moored by the village and jumped in the clearest water we’ve seen in the Philippines so far. Beautiful and bright corals span the seabed 5 to 10 meters below, inhabited by equally bright and beautiful tropical fish. And it wasn’t long before we spotted our first turtle. A magnificent giant thing, with its shiny tiled shell and honeycombed skin scratching its back against the reefs. We hovered and stared; it would go back up for some air, and then dip back down, cruising elsewhere. And then we saw another, and another.

Our second site was a bit deeper, but Joel spotted two black and white sea snakes, and we followed them as closely as we dared. An exciting first-time sighting for us.

Snorkelling at Apo Island

After lunch the boat was taken around to another point and things went south very quickly. The little boat, basically at capacity with 4 divers and 4 snorkelers, was rocking back and forth aggressively. There was a quick briefing for the divers; they jumped in and disappeared. Nothing mentioned to us poor snorkelers. It looked rough, but not as rough as our manta ray snorkelling expedition in Nusa Penida, and we were 100% not going to wait for divers for an hour on a sea-sickness-inducing boat with another snorkeler that already threw up on the way over. So we jumped in.

But it was deep; there was nothing to see; Joel’s rented mask kept fogging and flooding; my snorkel was mostly just filled with sea water; the corals were far to close to the cliff against which the waves threateningly broke.

We tried to see stuff, would give up, and start back towards the boat, only to see it sloshing back and forth, and stayed out. We made this decision multiple times over the next hour as the divers calmly floated below. Man, what we would have given to slip on a tank and escape the crashing waves and bumpy boat. So we just made it our mission to survive.

We managed to make light of it in between our frustration in the water. The situation was actually ridiculous. It’s one of those situations that are funnier in the moment than in hindsight. In hindsight it’s really freaking frustrating. We paid a lot to do this snorkelling trip, but we received no guidance, no briefing, and that last site was really not a snorkelling site. It was not fun, and it was not safe. But being out there in the water seemed better than having the contents of our lunch swooshed around in our stomachs on that little boat. I get that divers should be privileged, but if the snorkelers are just tagging along it should be at least 40% cheaper.

So this is a story of how we should have had that roast chicken dinner.

Even though we mostly make smart choices when we travel, we don’t always get it right. Hindsight is always 20/20, I guess. If we could do it all over again, we would 100% go back out to Apo island. It’s spectacular. But we would also 100% strap on our tanks and pop in our regulators. Lesson learnt. 

 

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5 Highlights in 5 Days on Cebu Island, Philippines

I had spent so many hours going through blog posts about Bali – what to do, where to stay, what to expect – checking and rechecking booking sites for the accommodations, and had not worried at all about our time in Kuala Lumpur (as we would be hosted by family), that finally standing in line to board our Air Asia flight to Cebu City in the Philippines actually caught me off guard. To be honest I found it even a bit hard getting sincerely excited, because I had no idea what to be excited about. I had no idea what to expect.

And then after a surprisingly smooth 3 hours and 40 minutes we landed on Filipino soil and the adventure that was Cebu Island washed over us like a tidal wave. The joys of being there hit us quick without time to adjust to it and we (Joel more particularly) fell in love almost instantaneously. It’s a bit futile to emphasise 5 highlights of our brief time on Cebu Island because it was really all good. But I had to organise a million highlights somehow:

5 DAYS, 5 HIGHLIGHTS ON CEBU ISLAND

5. A DAY IN THE LAP OF LUXURY

When I say lap of luxury I mean a large air-conditioned room with a door in between the toilet and the shower head in a 3-star hotel opposite a huge air-conditioned mall. This might be silly, but it was a real treat to check in to this large room with the prospects of taking a nap and not waking up super early and going to see a movie and maybe buying a new fresh and clean shirt at H&M. I am sure you can stay like this – or some version of this – everywhere we’ve been, but the Philippines we’ve seen makes Bali look like a built up resort. It’s rough around the edges. The tourist infrastructure is there, but not nearly as plugged in or consistent as in Bali.

It’s only been a bit more than a week since we spent a lot of our time in malls in Kuala Lumpur, but our time on the Filipino islands was so opposite of this that going into this mall almost felt like a new exciting experience.

We had big giant burritos, stocked up with a box of popcorn, and got in line to see a movie (Venom, it was bad but we didn’t care) in an air-conditioned theatre.

That is luxury.

 

4. AIRBNB KARAOKE(ish)

The Airbnb review read: “She invited us to sing karaoke with her friends…we had so much fun”

Uhm yes. Done. Booked.

Joel messaged her and said: “we want to go karaoke with you and your friends!” Whereupon she almost immediately replied: “I won’t be there, but my staff will take you.”

No sooner did we get our key to our room than one of the staff members excitedly stated that ‘a driver will take us to dinner and then come back and pick her up and then we go to karaoke and band.’

Lol okay.

So after dinner she took us to a local hangout called Zola Lola’s Restobar, where a band was just starting to warm up under a mix of glowing purple lights and flashing dance strobes. About twenty other locals sat around in plastic lawn chairs working on their first or second beers. There was a semi-open area for the band and a closed room for the karaoke. There was one guy in the karaoke room apart from the sound guy who was singing a Filipino song. So our Airbnb host decided we should skip Karaoke and support the band instead – she seemed super excited about requesting songs. Ten minutes later another staff member from the Airbnb brought a Japanese guy who was also staying there that night and they joined our table. So there we were, with another tourist and our tricycle driver and our Airbnb hosts, drinking beers, and requesting ‘Losing My Religion’ and singing along as one of the singer’s belted out ‘I will Survive’ with some notable skill.

It was fun.

We forced ourselves to leave around 10.30pm (sadly before I could see if they were going to try our requested ‘Kiss from a Rose’), because we had to get up super early for what would be one of the most incredible moment of our lives (read on).

Requesting songs with our airbnb host

“That’s me in the corner; that’s me in the spot.light; losing my religion!”

3. AGUINID FALLS

We allowed our driver to talk us into going to one of the waterfalls. It was just sort of an in-between thing to do. We’ve already been to some amazing waterfalls in Bali, but mostly we were feeling full and satisfied, having just dived with whale sharks for an hour, and had some time to kill before our ferry to Dumaguete on Negros island – so we weren’t expecting that much.

We traded in our sandals for rented water shoes, paid the entrance fee (about a dollar, give or take), and followed our two mandatory, though voluntary, ‘technical’ guides in to the forest (guide #2 basically just doubled as personal paparazzi – we’ve never had so many photos taken of us since our wedding day).

Soon we were met by the first tier of this 5-tier waterfall and we were so taken aback. Milky blue white waters gently flowed through multiple pools caked with mud and a sort of chalky sediment, making the falls look like something from a Dr Seuss story. It is a mini canyoneering adventure where you walk and climb through the falls to get to the top, 5th tier. Stopping for a dip at the pools along the way. We started with trepidation at first, walking slowly over what seems like super silky slippery boulders, before we realised it’s actually not slippery at all. Apparently there’s some acidity in the water that prevents algae growth. Each new tier revealed a stunning surreal setting, with milky cool waters, rushing streams and trickling falls, stalagmites and stalactites forming in sidelong caves. And each new tier brought with it multiple photo ops, as we were directed by our ‘technical guides.’

A waterfall for the books.

Aguinid Falls, Cebu

2. IN THE EYE OF THE SARDINE STORM

There are some spots along the reefs surrounding the Filipino islands where the sardines gather in shoals so enormous they are like underwater storm clouds, whipping this and that way, the silver skin flashing almost like thunder as they suddenly flip direction in unison. The shores of Moalboal, Cebu, is one such place where the sardines run daily, so we decided to do our first dive in almost two years into the eye of the storm.

It is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. At one moment it is just reef wall and sea, the next you fly into a shoal so thick it blocks the light from the sun above you. I thought at one point we were swimming under the shadow of a big boat, or maybe going into a sort of half-cave, only to look up and see thousands of sardines darkening the surface of the water above us. And then our dive master would shine his red light into the shoal and they would change shape and direction, forming a new cloud elsewhere. Straight underwater magic.

 

1. WHALE SHARKS

I remember the first time I saw a whale shark in the water. We went snorkelling with them in Mozambique. I jumped out of the dinghy turned around and audibly gasped through my snorkel as it headed straight in my direction. Powering past me at a surprising speed. It was incredible.

But seeing 15 to 20 of them, together, in a shallow 12 meters of water was just something else. We walked in to the water with our tanks, descended in only about 5 meters of water and followed our master as the shore sloped downwards. And then all of a sudden we were under them. All of them. So so many. And they would stop and feed at the top, lifting near-vertical, their tails almost scraping at the bottom. And you’d be looking up at this giant creature, and its practically five times your length. and then you’d turn around and see another cruising in from the bottom and you’d have to move quickly to let it pass.

Honestly, it was more like dodging whales. They were everywhere.

Our dive lasted for what seemed like forever. We used almost no air as we just sort of floated in this shallow blue universe with whale sharks gilding all around us. We were able to really take in every moment of it. We stayed out for about an hour and still came up with 70 bar. And then it suddenly seemed like it was a moment that could never last long enough.

Best dive ever? Yes.

Best moment of this journey so far. Certainly.

Craziest most surreal moment in our lives? It’s up there.

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In the middle of our South East Asia trip we found a sort of sanctuary in Kuala Lumpur. We arrived in KL at a high-rise apartment with views on views on views (see above) – except, of course, when the torrential monsoon season storms sweep in and obliterate it all in a white cloudy mist – with no plans, no expectations and just a lot of dirty laundry. It was bizarre being hosted by my family who used to run a small diary farm outside of a small town in South Africa  in this apartment in this monster-city that is 40% highways and mostly skyscrapers and giant malls. Even more bizarre that my cousin, this totally Afrikaans boy who grew up on this farm, is now speaking Mandarin and even reading some Chinese characters and totally adapting to life in KL with his awesome Chinese girlfriend. By ‘bizarre’ I obviously mean crazy impressive. But what a privilege to be able to reconnect and take a week under your family’s wing in a foreign place.

(And to do a load or two of washing for free.)

What followed was a week of being shown around the sprawling city of Kuala Lumpur by the best tour guides ever. We were shown around all the corners of the city – from the old city, to the food markets, to skyscraper central, to the Chinese temples and the deep dark caves (you haven’t experienced darkness like this), to a bar on top of a repurposed helipad (with no railings!), to cool coffee shops hosted in ex-brothels, to the escape room in the mall (where we wholly failed).

Escape Room KL edition. We look pretty happy here but we failed so hard.

Also, by ‘shown around’ I mean ‘taken out to eat’.

Kuala Lumpur is a cosmopolitan Asian hub, where tons of Asian expats from all over the continent make it work together. It’s an affordable Singapore, just without all those fines and rules and taxed alcohol. So it’s basically any Asian food lover’s dream – the street and restaurant food is next level, in terms of tastiness and diversity. And my cousin Hendrik has unbeatable taste in food locations. From the famous incomparable Nasi Lemak at Village Park, to Chinese hawker stalls, to the best Korean shaved ice Bingsu deserts, to Jalan Alor street food and moshi, to Indian breakfasts and a mooncake festival Tan family dinner (thanks for having us Ameline and sorry Joel embarrassed himself in front of your family with his terrible chopsticks etiquette!). KL is a whirlwind of food memories that will unlikely be topped in such concentration ever again.

I even lost my heart at that unassuming smoothie stand when they whipped up the best drink I’ve ever had – 30% watermelon, 30% lychee, 40% soursop.

I mean can you even handle that?

 

So this is just a photo post of my impressions of the city as we were led around it by Hendrik and Ameline – a sort of familial city scape of a foreign place.

Kuala Lumpur to us is food, family, friends and clean clothes. And reading a lot of very silly TripAdvisor reviews.

Mid-Autumn Festival with the Tan clan

Celebrating mid-Autumn festival with our mandarin-speaking cousin, Hendrik, and his gf Ameline’s family. AKA that time a Chinese matriarch insisted Joel use cutlery instead of chopsticks (LOL).

The Hindu temple in Batu Caves

Sharing street food at Jalan Alor

City view of Kuala Lumpur from the Helipad Bar

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Why We Hated Canggu, Bali

After almost four weeks in Bali, we were just starting to worry that we’ll be too sad to leave. And then we went and stayed our last three nights in Canggu. Sometimes we get annoyed by certain destinations; sometimes we are underwhelmed; sometimes we are disappointed; sometimes it’s a socio-political situation that makes us feel frustrated or uneasy; sometimes we are bored; sometimes a place can feel like food without salt. But I don’t think we’ve ever hated anywhere we’ve traveled. We hated Canggu.

On thinking about our feelings about Canggu, wondering if we were crazy, we googled things like ‘Canggu sucks,’ ‘Canggu is the worst,’ ‘I hate Canggu’ – just to see who else is out there and what people think. Turns out there are many people who hate Bali for that western stretch of beaches – Kuta, Seminyak, Legian. The reasons cited are all the same: the traffic is terrible (sure), the piles of trash on the beach (an occurrence around December that we did not witness), the drunken folly with the Australian accent (avoidable), pushy and/or scheming locals (this is the opposite of what we experienced), poor beaches (Bali is more of a surf than swim beach destination). The scapegoats seem to be Kuta and Seminyak. Canggu is rarely mentioned, and sometimes even offered as an area to escape from the above-motioned plagues.

I can’t cite ‘5 reasons I hated Canggu’ (maybe I could), because it’s just an overall atmosphere that has washed over this neighbourhood, gentrifying in its wake. It revealed itself slowly whilst driving through it for the first time on our way to our accommodation. Local family-run restaurants by and for locals and tourists alike, quintessential signposts throughout Bali – Warung Wayan, Warung Made, Warung Ketut – slowly gave way to one-syllable, styled-for-instagram, vegan restaurants – Quince, Nüde (don’t forget that superfluous Umlaut), The Slow, and, the unfortunate pinnacle and epitome of our Canggu-focused hatred, Crate. Crate was conveniently located right around the corner from where we stayed our first night, so we sauntered over first thing in the morning and what a rude awakening we had. Maybe if I can describe what it was like, I can capture some sort of essence of our general dislike.

Everywhere you looked: young and good-looking white people, all resembling one another. (Do white people all look the same?). Dressed, styled, made up and blown out for the perfect candid smoothie bowl shot. Scrolling through albums of selfies. No not selfies (who takes selfies anymore?), drone-followed footage and giant tripod setup shots of self. Against the wall are printed polaroids of the regulars – all these same people. Hundreds of contoured faces and tastefully tattooed pecs peeking from obnoxiously low cut tank tops lined the wall. Where are we?

And just to completely drive us over the edge: Offensive abbreviations and Zs added to every item on the ‘Brekkie’ menu. Expect your ‘Chia Boi’ smoothie to come with coconutz and strawbs. Cute, right?

Let me just interject here and say the breakfast was really good.

 

Anyway, our immediate point of comparison to this was Cape Town, my home town. I love Cape Town – it’s cool, it’s trendy, it’s gorgeous, it’s great, but it is still deeply segregated, having been severely targeted by the apartheid government in terms of city spatial planning. And Canggu felt separated. It felt like a weird hip upper-class instagrammable neo-colonial white enclave. And Canggu is not all white, it is local too. But because there seems to be such a high concentrate of expats here it is startlingly obvious when all the white/expat kids can be seen playing after-school football on huge cut grass fields behind tall security gates, behind security booms, behind security guards. It was startling and confusing, because Bali seemed like one of the safest places we’ve traveled to (at least during the day). So yes, in this way, Canggu was like what we hate most about Cape Town. Except if all the white people in Cape Town were Western foreign expats who don’t have to 100% commit to either their own country’s or their host country’s issues. It’s nice to stay in a developing country when you can have one foot out the door and leave when the shit really hits the fan.

But that’s a whole other thing.

 

People warned us about Seminyak: ‘young, drunk and Australian’. But we stayed one night anyways to see it for ourselves. And it was young and drunk and mostly Australian. But it was unashamedly and unpretentiously so. People were having a lot of fun, that’s for sure.

But I did not expect to hate Canggu in this way. I was completely ready to like it.

 

I think a better way to concisely describe why we hated Canggu is this: think of all the things that you hate about Instagram. Canggu is the embodiment of these things.

 

Of course we are making snap judgements. We were only there for three days, and disclaimer, I was super sick for most of it. I was mostly sleeping off a fever in my room, eating flavourless sweet potato and dry bread. Disclaimer number two: the food in Canggu is good, I’ll admit. I remember having some really good meals before my fever shot through the roof. Disclaimer number three: we  were warmly welcomed by an old school friend of Joel’s – a super sweet expat family from California living and working in Bali. We had a great time connecting and reconnecting, and we got to hang out with our regular Bali buds who we went exploring Nusa Penida with and who subsequently moved over to the Canngu area. So we did enjoy some fun and special moments. And I got my antibiotics from a kind doctor at a Canggu clinic, so that’s a good memory right there too.

Getting our picture taken with some aspiring pharmacist Indonesians

 

I mustered the strength to get out of bed for our last blood orange sunset in Bali. Only to be met by hoards of people doing their best coyly-looking-down-or-out-of-frame insta poses and multiple drones following girls erratically jump skipping and twist-turning in and out of the waves. Coming to a YouTube screen near you.

 

Canggu is not for us. 

And then we were definitively ready to leave Bali.

Bye bye Bali! (I am not sure how Joel managed to not get any drones in this sunset photo. Very impressive.)

 

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Munduk Moments: A Travel Diary Update

We sort of nervously peered over the edge to our left. Joel asked, “do you think that’s where you slide off the waterfall?” We have heard from fellow travelers and tour guides about waterfall trekking and cliff jumping and waterfall sliding in the north of Bali, and now we are here feeling somewhat unprepared. “No,” I said, “I mean…that’s a proper waterfall. Surely that’s an injury if you slide down there. Then our guide, Panca, stepped over and happily pointed to our right: “Okay, we jump in here, swim across, and then slide down there.”

Us: “What, there???”

Me: “How high?”

Panca: “Let’s say 12 meters.”

We initially ruled out the waterfall to our right because surely that’s not safe for sliding down on.

We sort of shrugged our shoulders at each other, and changed our mindsets. I guess we’re sliding off that real full-size waterfall. And then we jumped and we swam and we said a little prayer and we slid down that waterfall.

We don’t normally take pleasure free falling or shooting out into pools from waterfall chutes, but we were there and we were ready to have fun and try new things and be the waterfall.

Then we safely climbed down to the other pools while we contentedly watched as other people jumped from 10 and 15 meter platforms.

I think our time in Northern Bali may be characterised by moments like that of being completely unprepared and then wholly surprised of how moments are unfolding in front of us. If it were up to Joel he would’ve spent all his time in Nusa Penida, where we just came from, but I had managed to convince him to drive all the way north where the elevation is higher and the temperature cooler and the mood mistier. We traded beaches and cliffs for mountains, coffee and marigold plantations, waterfalls and lakes. And then we arrived, and my idea of leisurely exploring the misty mountains quickly disintegrated when our accommodation, perched next to the mountain road a few kms from any town, had no scooters to rent. And to get anywhere anyways means at least 45 minutes, but mostly an hour of driving on the windiest mountain pass you can imagine behind cars and trucks and other scooters.

We felt a bit stuck as we ‘borrowed’ a staff member’s scooter to go try and get money from the nearest town, whose ATMs were all out of order.

 

Enter Ari.

Ari is one of the drivers who responded positively to Joel’s wild frenzy of whatsapping random numbers he found online once we realised what the area was like. We suggested some things we want to do for the day, he said fine – 500,000 rupiah (ca. $30) – he’s leaving right now, he’ll be there in an hour.

 

Our first stop was Munduk waterfall. We had already taken to Ari by this time. You’d have to be a monster not to. He is literally the happiest, friendliest person we have ever met. He laughs all the time, but in a way that is cozy and warm, endearing and infectious. Then we approached the waterfall and a group of young people noticed him and got really excited. People were rushing over to greet and chat and laugh with him. You know you’ve struck gold guide-wise when everyone is happy to see your guide wherever you stop.

“You know all these people?”

“Yes, yes,” he laughs.

“They are also from your home town?”

“No, no.”

“Oh, how do you know them?”

He knows them because he helps out at the orphanage sometimes on his days off. Sometimes he takes his kids along too.

Ari literally spent the day making us and everyone else around him smile (as he photobombed visitors to the famous Ulun Danu Beratan Temple with glee).

 

If you ever need a guide in Bali – Ari is an expert driver and just a phenomenal human being.

Our second day in the Bali highlands panned out much like the first. We had no ideas of feasible, practical plans of how to fill our day. So we jumped on our scooter right at sunrise and made the coldest 90-minute trip north over the hilliest, windiest mountain pass to meet Panca near his village. And then Panca took us around the rice fields and the villages, and down into the valleys to swim in blue lagoons, jump off cliffs and slide down rushing waterfalls.

We arrived back at our homestay, fatigued from long scooter rides and waterfall adventures, and were just happy to see the sun set behind the rice terraces that expanded into the distance from our balcony in Bedugul.

So even while our time in northern Bali was poorly planned on our end, it quickly morphed into two incredible days of chasing new horizons from sunrise to sunset by the grace and expertise of other amazing people who had plans for us after all. 

The holy Aling Aling Waterfall

Exploring the Temblingan forest

Pondering the meaning of life but mostly thinking about if we’ll have the courage to slide down that waterfall in a few minutes…

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