My husband and I were discussing our annual summer holiday destination and for almost a year, we had been considering Seychelles. We were both checking out various travel websites and our travel agent, but to our dismay Seychelles wasn’t working out. The hotels we liked were way above our budget and the ones that did fit got really bad press from the online blogs. I mean, would we really have to pay five times the price of a regular, luxury, five-star hotel rates in Seychelles, to get the comfort and quality that we take for granted in other Asian/African beach destinations?
We were scheduled to leave for our holiday in a week’s time and we were still undecided as to where we were going. Which is when my husband popped the question, ” How about Philippines?”
Now, let’s see, Philippines….Imelda Marcos and her shoes were the first things that came to my mind. Then Estrada, followed by Aquino… Abu Sayaf…All either famous or infamous in their own way. Whatever I knew of the archipelago was mostly political but as a beach destination, I had no clue. I turned to my travel agent who further confused and discouraged me with “Why do you want to go to Philippines? There is a lot of drug, child trafficking and terrorist problems out there…”
Then came the visa formalities. Besides having a Schengen visa and having always got visas on arrival without much ado for the other countries that I had visited the previous summers, here I was being asked to submit my husband’s passport copy, last 06 months’ bank statement, a covering letter stating the purpose of our travel etc. by the embassy. Thoughts churned in my mind- “Do I really need to go through all this to visit a country which is nowhere on the Indian tourists’ map…which is a drug haven…which is a political hot pot….”?
We finally got our visas and flew to Philippines via Hongkong. As our plane flew over Philippines I couldn’t but wonder how used to the vast expanse of land I was in India, while here the nation is scattered over the emerald-blue sea. Our plane landed at the international airport at the Mactan Island of Cebu, our destination. The customs official took his own sweet time scrutinizing my well-worn and well-traveled passports, my husband and son escaping the third degree by virtue of holding Schengan passports. After all the lengthy perusal he asked us to go with a lady officer to the office inside. Now what! I understand if an Indian passport is heavily scrutinized at a western airport but here in SE Asia? I mean, am I an illegal immigration threat here? Am I being suspected of child trafficking? But the lady officer with a reassuring smile informed us that she was only photocopying our visas! Whatever official reason she may have had for doing that, her pleasant countenance and manner dispelled my misgivings.
That warm smile and reassuring friendliness started at that point of time and place and never failed to greet us wherever we went and whomever we came across during our blissful stay at the beautiful island of Cebu.
Cebu is in the central part of the Philippines archipelago and is dotted with sandy beaches and lush tropical greenery all over. The weather is evenly warm with little variance between day and night temperatures. The first striking thing about Cebu is the people. The Cebuanos are open, warm, polite and friendly. They speak fluent English with an American accent. They don’t see too many Indians out there, is what I gathered from their reaction to or the lack of it, when I told them where I am from. It also explained the reluctance of the Indian travel agent to rustle up a trip to Philippines. As also the unusually strict visa requirements.
The second striking thing about Cebu is the sea. Cebu is dotted with sandy beaches with clear, calm and clean turquoise blue waters. The balcony in our suite at the Shangri La Mactan Resort opened on to the blue and cool waters of the Visaya Sea. My childhood dream of waking up and setting my first sight upon the blue waters of the sea in the first light of dawn became a reality, even if only for a week.
The grilled seafood platter at the resort’s seaside restaurant serving up crabs, lobster, crayfish, jumbo prawns, oysters, clams, fish, squids was a veritable king’s repast at not so kingly prices. The fish, the Philippino Milkfish it was, was delicious. Throughout the dinner, my son was feeding the fish that were teeming in the water below with bread that the restaurant supplied endlessly. Food was exceptionally good at the resort but I drowned myself in tender coconut water, the nut cut up and served with a straw and a spoon to scoop out the tender flesh. Delectable! So was the fresh lemonade made of the Philippino lime called Calamansi. While having the right tangy acidity, the fruit imparts a spiky freshness to the palate. Last but not the least, a bottle of ice-cold San Miguel pilsner, the famous beer that not many Indians know, is from Philippines.
What is SE Asia without spas! The Philipino Hilot coconut oil massage at Shangri La’s well appointed and famous CHI spa, a 90 minute high pressure de-stress therapy was a welcome delight to the tired and worn-out muscles after an adrenaline filled day.
The third striking thing about Cebu and the most important and crucial one in my rankings is Water sports. The resort boasted of a well-equipped water sports centre, both motorized and non-motorized. Besides the private beach, we had kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, speed boating, jet skiing, parasailing and scuba diving. While I had done all of the other sports during my earlier travels, it was scuba diving, to which I had remained elusive. I am one of those odd people who love the water but don’t know to swim! More than three decades have passed with my trying to overcome my fear of the deep and trying to learn to swim at various times and occasions, all to naught. I still practise my strokes in not more than 1.4m of water, above which I shall no longer be practising swimming but my survival! Further I was told that one could scuba-dive only if one knew swimming. So it remained another of my dreams for me until Cebu beckoned me.
The Discover Scuba Diving program is tailored to showcase and introduce this risky but amazing water sports for beginners. On day one I was taught scuba-diving basics and fundamentals at an audio-visual presentation and then I was suited up in underwater diving gear and taken to the deep end of the hotel’s swimming pool. Two metres underwater in the pool, I was taken through the entire gamut of scuba diving fundamentals and safety procedures- breathing, equalization, buoyancy, buddy breathing, mask clearance, breathing tube recovery, underwater communication through hand signals etc. Then, in the afternoon, I went for my first undersea scuba dive.
My first headlong dive into untested waters! A wave of panic swept over me upon my first look down below from the surface of the water. But the steady rush of air into my lungs and the reassuring hold of the instructor’s hand over mine gently persuaded me to sink lower and lower until my flippers touched the seabed. Then all of a sudden, nothing seem to weigh me down, literally. Not my fear of the deep, my swimming ineptitude, my 20-kilo scuba gear, the weights, the flippers, absolutely nothing but the sound of the sea. A gentle rustling that one hears when a seashell is held to one’s ear.
My very own Discovery Channel! My personal Nat Geo special!
I finally did four open water sea dives in three days. As a beginner, the dive was in waters not more than 10 metres, as at that depth a panic-stricken diver may surface at any time without fear of decompression. My son had a diving instructor all to himself and I was surprised to see that not only did he not have any fear but dispelled any of mine by following all the diving instructions to a T. The lady diving instructor informed me that when she first learnt to dive she too didn’t know to swim and she learnt it only subsequently. That was encouraging news for me.
It is with a glow on my face and a twinkle in my eyes of pride, confidence and can-do ness that I see the certificate stating that RK Geerta (sic) has successfully completed the Discover Scuba Diving Course. I have bought a PADI diving manual and I hope to master the elusive art of swimming by December when I plan to apply for a PADI diving licence. Not bad at all to have found a new passion, an adventure, in your mid-forties.
The only indication of anything to do with drugs or terrorism that I got during my entire stay at Cebu was the black Labrador that sniffed at our luggage on the first day at the entrance to the resort. And the only traffic that I encountered was on my way to the city centre, consisting of the colourful jeepneys, assorted cars and other vehicles.
It is a shame that such a beach jewel as Cebu, remains unknown and unsung in India. The Philippines tourism department should take measures to advertise Cebu and other such places as holiday destinations to the Indian travelers. I would highly recommend the Cebu resort to first-time divers, as the PADI personnel there are responsive to the dreams as much as to the fears of greenhorns like me.