Istanbul introduction

Constantinople. Ottoman Empire. Byzantine. Ancient Roman Empire. This all has intrigued me for years and Turkey has always been high on my wish list.

Finally…

I’ve booked a tour from Istanbul that will show me 10 days of highlights from the western side of the country and I am so keen to get started! Right now I’m at the first hotel now after a 2-hour drive from the airport (who knew it was such a huge busy city?! 13 – 16 million citizens) and unfortunately I arrived just too late to meet the group for the initial welcome/introduction. But as it turns out, the 38 people on this tour are mostly Australians living in London. There are a few from New Zealand, and a few more Aussies that still live in Australia. One couple from Paraguay, one from Poland, and me as the sole North American rep. Should be a good time!

My first dinner in the country was a perfect start to set the tone of my travels. I nibbled on a piping hot lamb kebab grilled in a crispy pita wrap and sipped Turkish tea from a delicate fluted glass at an outdoor cafe. Fruit-scented sheesha and melodies from local musicians wafted around me, and I basked in the atmosphere.

I have a bit more time in Istanbul on my own after the tour ends, so I’ll circle back and write about the city then. For this post I’ll just leave off with some visuals for anyone armchair travelling with me.

Beaming in Port Barton

Note: I’m behind on my blogging – again.  I wrote drafts of several posts while I was travelling, but wasn’t able to post them all during the trip (limited wifi!!).  These next few posts are arriving online late, but were mostly written on the road.

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Getting to Port Barton was fun, (well, until it wasn’t… you can read about that in my previous Post) but being in Port Barton – that’s the real story.  I found this area accidentally; I’d never heard of it until the day before setting off to get here, and it has me wondering.  I wonder to myself  “In this modern age of travelling with Google Maps & Instagram Influencers & Bloggers galore who have been everywhere & the Hostelworld app at my fingertips, could I REGULARLY find myself arriving in towns I’ve never heard of until I was almost there?!”   Who knows, maybe!  After all it’s still a huge beautiful world out there.  And I guess I’ll enjoy ‘sometimes’ even if ‘regularly’ doesn’t happen.

I had been sitting around the bar at my hostel in Puerto Princesa looking for a place to stay in El Nido, and not having much luck at all.  I was surprised to find that almost everywhere was already fully booked up, and I was beginning to wonder why I was spending all my time on my phone scrolling through places to stay instead of being out doing something more fun.  I made a comment to that effect to a traveller next to me, and he said “Oh! You should go to Port Barton before El Nido! I just arrived from there, you’ll love it.”   As it turns out, Port Barton is a tiny little town on the cusp of adventure.  (In my opinion, both literally and figuratively.)  The stunning beachfront with soft deep sand is so inviting, sparkling with the promise of a great day regardless of if you choose to be busy; boating or snorkelling or paddleboarding; or lazy lying on the sand or in a hammock and soaking up the sunshine.   And there definitely are signs of tourism catching on.  While it still can’t be found on the hostelworld app(*), there are several great options for backpackers to stay.  And more being added all the time to keep up with the demand!  We stayed in a couple new hostels and were really impressed with the rustic comfort and unique vibe of each place.  So lets backtrack again a little so I can relive all the best times.

* At least, not found on the app as of this post.  I suspect that changes before long!

 

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The town’s main port

Take a walk along the beachfront and you’ll see fishing boats gently jockeying for space, their anchor ropes cast out to the beach as they hope to reel in tourists now more often than fish I think.  Strolling across sand and drinking in the atmosphere is up there among my favourite simple pleasures, and this place doesn’t disappoint!  All along are friendly people suggesting options or activities; and yes, I know they’re hawking their businesses but it never felt pressuring or irritating (like I’ve found in some other countries).  This felt more like they were suggesting an option to a friend, something I might enjoy if I felt like going, but only if I wanted.  I’ve commented on this before in the Philippines and it’s true in this town as well – I got the impression that the locals were just genuinely excited to show the world how great their home is, and as a whole are not trying to just squeeze a buck out of the tourists.  I recommend taking up one of those suggestions and booking an island hopping tour, as there are some incredible reefs for snorkelling here.  Bright coloured fish darting around the coral, schools of silver fish like a mist passing through, giant sea turtles paddling lazily past, fat starfish settled in near sandbars, and so much more!!

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When I’m not busy being deliciously un-busy at the water, I meander around to eat.  Everywhere I turn I seem to find another new place serving tantalizing options, from traditional to traveller-trendy.  For such a small town the options are vast.   One of my favourites in Port Barton is Mojitos Restobar.  It’s not on the main street, not on the beach, (though both are full of great places!) instead it’s a gentle hike up through the village and into the jungle.  Less than 15 minutes of walking at a leisurely pace, following the signs they have up along the way, is rewarded with Mojitos Restaurant and Bar.  I call it a “Tropical-Zen-Party Zone” which sounds like such an oxymoron but somehow still really works.

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Mike and I spent a whole afternoon here, chatting with the owner and snacking on incredible fresh pub food.  Sounds like another oxymoron but somehow it’s true!  And of course, sampling our way through the menu of specialty mojitos.  I’m partial to the passion fruit calamansi mojito…. and I’m salivating again just remembering that drink!

Back in town again, the streets transform to a night market, and it’s clearly the place to be to mix with the locals.   We watched a high school basketball tournament, shopped for trinkets, and were delightfully bemused with the popup gaming stalls.  Like an arcade for kids at a summer fair, but instead of tossing rings to win a plush toy these children were gambling centavos like pros!   Reading this, it could sound negative and like the kids are being taken advantage of, but I never got that sense.  It seemed like a safe and fun way for the kids to play with their candy allowance.

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The next morning Mike and I decided a slow start with breakfast on the beach was just what was needed, and yep, we were right.  I think I might have gotten a little sneak-peak of heaven with my mouthful of mango topped pancakes.

All this to say:  Don’t be surprised if before long your Instagram feed is FULL of #PortBarton from the travel bloggers and Influencers.  This is one spot that will be having a major moment on the tourist trail before long.  It’s incredible as is, seems to have room to develop and sustain tourism, and has such a special charm that my days here will forever make me smile.   You should definitely plan to be here if you’re anywhere near the Island of Palawan!

 

Grouchy in Paradise

Note: I’m behind on my blogging – again.  I wrote drafts of several posts while I was travelling, but wasn’t able to post them all during the trip (limited wifi!!).  These next few posts are arriving online late, but were mostly written on the road.

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People talk about getting away from everything, leaving the city and all the noise. I’ve had people ask or tease me about wanting to live in the downtown core of my city at home, saying, “how do you sleep with all that noise?”  In our minds, busyness and bustle equals noise.  So a retreat in some cozy eco-lodge in the absolute middle of nowhere, with limited electricity even, might seem like a silent paradise.

Well that might be half true.

I’m in a paradise, no doubt about that, but it has been so stinkin’ noisy All. Night. Long. that in my insomniac state has me almost missing my city hum and sirens.  Almost…. but as soon as I roll out of bed to engage my other senses – seeing the island’s beauty, tasting fresh fruit and smelling the fragrant flowers growing here, feeling the sand under my toes – I’ll remember how amazing this is to be here.  And have a coffee!

I’ve experienced jungle noise before, but I always forget at first how loud the nights are. It’s a whirling swirl of cacophony from the animals all around.  Where I am now we have insects buzzing and lizards chirping, birds squeaking and singing and crowing and cawing, dogs barking, monkeys calling, and even the occasional water buffalo lowing.  And my own grouchy grumbling.  Honestly I’m a little embarrassed at how irritable I’m being.  Good thing Mike is sound asleep still and therefore not noticing this scowl I’m wearing, because I don’t have the energy to fashion my face into a smile quite yet.

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Might as well get up to catch the sunrise

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Mike’s photo of me taking photos.  He came to join me for the sunrise

 

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Some members of the noisy orchestra

It’s a couple hours later now, and I feel like a new person; or rather, the old me again that’s easily happy about everything.  I saw the sunrise over the other islands across the water, went for a walk to explore this enchanting edge of the earth, and am now sitting sipping my first coffee.  And I realized again why I always forget the irritation of the noisy nights when I travel to locations like this – because the daylight’s joys overwrite the night’s negatives.  Always and every time.

So now properly caffeinated and ready to gush about this location I can’t contain my enthusiasm for Tribal Xperience.  Take a look, and I dare you to disagree with me on the perfection of this place.  (At least during daylight hours!)

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Simple huts as Home Sweet Home

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Miss Monkey in a rare capture of calm. I think she likes Mike

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Paradise has won me over again, and I’m already feeling a bit sad to leave tomorrow, which is quite the departure from my feelings while I was lying awake in my bed earlier.  If I ever get so lucky as to return, I’ll re-read this post first so I remember to pack quality ear plugs!!

Port Barton or Bust

Question: How many people can fit in a jeepney?

Answer: One more. Always one more.

This is another thing I love about travelling – noticing the similarities found amidst all the differences. Taking local transportation today has me thinking of this, and how that same wry joke is used around the globe, the only difference might be to swap out “jeepney” for “tuktuk” / “dalla-dalla” / “micros”.  We’re on our way now from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton, and technically in a van rather than a jeepney (though that wouldn’t have had the same ring to start out my post with) but the concept remains the same. After taking a tricycle from the hostel to the station on the outskirts of the city we bought our tickets to Port Barton for only 300 Pesos each and settled into wait for our ride to arrive. When the van did show up, it was already full. We hung back a moment to let the people out, but were instead ushered in. Everyone squashed over another inch and little homemade seats were placed in the aisle between rows. About five minutes of human Tetris ensue inside while luggage is stacked and tied to the top outside the van, but in the end another six adults and a child found a way in and off we go. It’s incredible, and that’s what I’ll keep my focus on rather than the discomfort and potential safety hazards of the upcoming 3 hour journey.

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Our Chariot “Recaro”
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I had a better seat than some – at least mine was cushioned!

The drive is beautiful and I am blissfully alternating between marvelling at the scenery and jotting down thoughts. I have headphones in and am so content I almost forget about the four other strangers sharing my personal space, except when one of us makes the odd comment to another. Between all the lush greenery I watch glimpses of day to day life; farmers working by hand in rice fields, children playing in yards. Or the hues of the blue sky, green palm fronds, bright pastel homes and more blue sea.IMG_0958IMG_7299IMG_7181

Nearly two hours into our journey we turn off the main highway and at the intersection is another backpacker trying to flag down our van. I chuckle to myself as the driver pulls over, expecting him to open the door and show the guy that we’re full. But I forgot that there’s always room for one more. One guy hopped out of his little half-seat and ran around to open the driver’s door, where he wedged himself in between the driver and door! So to keep track, that’s now 19 people in a van designed for 10.

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Playing sardines with strangers

Twenty minutes later and the humour I felt has ratcheted up to tension. The road we turned onto goes inland across to the other side of the island and isn’t paved the whole way, which means a rough bumpy ride across a small mountain range. And since it’s mid-afternoon, the rain has started. Sheets of rain torrent down on us and the road became a slick muddy river. So picture this with me: an overloaded vehicle navigating the rain on a nearly washed out single lane, two way road clinging around a mountain side. I’m almost happy I can’t see out the window anymore, as I’m sure the vision of the looming landslide above and below our little trail would really scare me.IMG_7146

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The road to Port Barton

I’ll distract myself now with thoughts of some other transport stories…. while in Puerto Princesa the best way to get around is on a tricycle, as I’d mentioned earlier. A metal frame just large enough for two people is welded to a motorcycle, often a small Honda trail bike about 150cc. (-ish…. I don’t know much about bikes so I’m guessing off what I might’ve heard Mike say earlier). Every time we’d step outside the hostel several of these tricycles would be waiting to whisk us off to wherever we needed to go for 40-60 Pesos per person. I asked once if I could snap a quick photo before we set off, and the driver nodded his consent, then kinda edged a bit closer in. I picked up on the hint and asked if I could take another with him in it as well and he flashed a huge smile as he posed, grabbed his friend for another photo, and by then the third guy ran up to be included as well. Young men mugging for my camera – I couldn’t help but give a delighted giggle before we set off on our way!!

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Tricycles in Puerto Princesa

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Sharing a moment with the drivers

Back to the present now, and we’re pulling up to a stop at our destination. I’m so relieved we made it on one piece, I don’t even mind that we now need to walk in the rain, with our backpacks, to the other side of the town searching for our next hostel.

All in a day’s adventure.

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Pouring rain when we arrived at the village
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Mike with Jimmy, who showed us the best stalls in town to wait out the worst of the rain

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Cebu City Faux Pas

Arriving at the hotel in Cebu City completely exhausted, I feel like I couldn’t stand up another second longer when the key to the room is handed over. We finally arrived around 7am local time on Friday morning, and considering the roughly 26 hours on the go and the 15 hour time difference I was ready to collapse the second my bed was in sight. But it’s worth it!

Two and a half hours later I’m wide awake again and buzzing with excitement to get out and explore. I think that may have been the deepest sleep I’ve had in recent memory, and I wake up after that nap feeling completely rested and re-energized. Unfortunately, Mike’s still sawing logs… not that I can blame him – he’s not used to lack of sleep the way I am. Trying to keep quiet and not disturb him, I distract myself with my emails and writing for as long as I can sit still, then tiptoe to my backpack and dig out my running shoes. I am convinced that a solid workout is my best way to tackle the jet lag, so off I go.

Our hotel in Cebu has a lovely little pool, and I chose here as our starting-off point exactly for this: it’s nice to have the first day of vacation free to lay around, and preferably on pool loungers basking in the tropical sunshine!

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This isn’t my photo – I took it from the hotel’s Instagram @questhotelcebu  (Somehow I was too busy enjoying the sunshine and a novel to take any photos!)

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It’s the next day now, and I’m back at an airport waiting for a domestic flight to Palawan…. the seemingly endless delays are handy, at the very least, for me to be able to jot down the day.

Cebu is in the middle of a party as we arrived – it’s the Sinulog festival this weekend and everywhere I look there are bright flags and artwork decorating the streets; a distinctive drum-and-xylophone song being played on a seemingly endless loop with costumed dancers weaving through the crowds. Speaking of crowds, we hadn’t realized just how much that would be when we set out to explore after breakfast. I guess our first clue should have been that the roads where we were headed were being closed to vehicles… but we didn’t know what we were getting into and set off anyway to see San Pedro’s Fort and Magellan’s Cross for a bit of local history.IMG_E0946

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Trying to get back in time for our flight was a bit of a challenge as well, as of course by then the streets were entirely closed to traffic.  Mike’s Google Map said it would be about a 35 minute walk so that didn’t seem too bad, and we set off.  Somehow, and honestly I’m still not even sure how we did this, we found ourselves walking upstream against the parade the whole time, even when we tried to veer off to other streets.  Actually, parade’s not even the right word – procession.  Which makes me feel even worse… we’re very sorry for any offence we might have shown.  We at least stopped and faced with the crowds when we noticed a holy image being carried.  It was beautiful, though, and a very humbling experience witnessing the devotion of so many Catholics.IMG_E0948IMG_0950

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That 35 minute walk took us almost an hour and a half; where we uttered sorry/pardon me/excuse us please/I’m so sorry probably about a hundred gazillion times.

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Cebu seems like a really great city, full of a very friendly population and some fun historical sites, but I’m really looking forward to getting out and on to the beaches of other islands!

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AirAsia from Cebu to Puerto Princesa late at night

Via 8 hours in Shanghai

Destination: Cebu City in central Philippines, departing from Calgary, western Canada. That takes a lot of travel time between the two, especially when one is travelling on extra cheap tickets that aren’t as direct as could be otherwise. But do I mind? Nope – not a bit! In fact, I’m rather pleased with how it turned out, and that was even before I realized we totally won the Economy Flight Seat Lottery. You know how when you’re walking up to your departure gate and just hoping that the person who sits beside you holds similar beliefs in hygiene & personal boundaries as yourself… that’s hoping for a win in modern economy flying. And somehow on these flights Mike and I scored the jackpot: a free upgrade on the first flight, then an entire row of four seats to ourselves where we could stretch out and sleep on the next flight, and the only empty seat on the plane next to me on the last flight. The whole time I kept thinking how grateful I was for these little perks!!

I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if some of that luck may have been due to the agent who first checked us in. As he flipped through my passport he commented on how full it was, and we bantered briefly about my expensive addiction, then his face changed to mock shock when he saw Mike’s empty passport. The three of us shared a laugh about the drastic contrasts in our experiences before he wished us a happy journey and we rushed off to clear security.

Our itinerary included a nearly eight-hour stopover in Shanghai before the last flight, and I was fairly confident that would give us enough time to escape the airport so Mike could get a little taste of China. I had been a couple years earlier, and loved Shanghai, so I was excited about showing that to someone new. Generally a tourist visa is required ahead of time to enter China, but select cities will permit travellers with confirmed onward tickets 72 hours to visit the city. Our luggage was tagged all the way through to Cebu so we didn’t need to worry about hauling that around with us, and there is a separate line in the customs hall for temporary transit visas that moved quite quickly.

The easiest way to the city’s famous sights from the airport is to take the Maglev train. The station connected to the airport has a display where I learned all about the Maglev – for instance, that’s short for Magnetic Levitation – and this train reaches speeds of 430 km/hour. I loved that we could skip an hour-long cab ride for eight minutes on the train! Mike loved the train.Maglev Mike

After the Maglev we transferred to the underground metro, and then up to East Nanjing and the hub of tourism in Shanghai. It’s a little like Times Square with the busy pedestrian streets full of towering shops and bright digital ads… but unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of this – so I’m supplementing with shots from the last time I was there to at least give some visual…

 

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(Pretend this is a night in January and not a day in June)

After some rubbernecking and shopping we continued to walk through the light drizzle to the Bund, along the river.   Such a beautiful area.  One side is lined with huge old colonial buildings, majestic and stately; the other side across the river is a dazzling contrast of playful ultra-modern skyscrapers. IMG_0938IMG_0935

Strolling several blocks along the Bund, dodging selfie sticks wielded by other tourists and stopping for our own photos (ok, and selfies) we soaked up as much of the city’s sense as we could in the short time we had.  Circling back to the metro we caught the trains and returned to the airport, just in time to buy more coffee and board our last flight to the Philippines.  Perfect.

Soaring Away (Happily)

My soul is tethered to a sail, I think. I feel a tug to follow the wind wherever it may go. There are times of course where that sail is rolled away and stowed, when I need to focus on people or life at home but that connection never severs; waiting, hibernating. And when my soul’s sail unfurls and that rush catches me I can’t help but want to seek out every edge of the earth.

Right now I’m in the Philippines on the island of Palawan, a place that easily lives up to its reputation as The Most Beautiful Island in the World. To say that I’m happy right now is such an obvious understatement it’s almost silly, but there you have it. I’m happy here.

I’ve been anticipating this trip for a long time, as months ago I’d found an incredible deal on flights and bought two tickets on the spot before my brain could tell me not to. I wasn’t sure who my travel companion would be but I was willing to bet I could talk someone into going with me; either that or I’d go alone again since the cost of two tickets was still less than I’d been expecting to spend on only one. And, again, I’m happy with how it’s worked out now that my boyfriend, Mike, decided to leap into travelling with me. He might not have been certain at first on the idea of being on the other side of the world with me but he’s been great – always up for adventure and willing to look for the positives in any situation.

It’s early morning as I write this post, and I’ve been sitting at a small table in the sunny courtyard of the hostel. A few minutes ago a little boy walked up to me to show me something. I smiled at him and was expecting to have to try to kindly tell him I wasn’t buying anything, but he just wanted to show me his toys. In a moment he was sitting down and playing beside me. Happiness personified in a sweet little face, even though he was more interested in playing with the camera than smiling for it. My new buddy, Zander

Yesterday Mike and I were able to see a little more of Palawan when we joined a day trip tour to an underground river. The scenery was spectacular, and while I sat in the canoe marvelling at the mangroves surrounding us the guide would point out something new to notice every few minutes. I loved how proud he was to show us a bit of his world. In fact, I was impressed all around with how well the community of Puerto Princesa has worked to develop sustainable tourism. I don’t know with any certainty but it feels like this area has tried to learn from its other SE Asia neighbours and avoid some of the problems that have plagued other top destinations. I think it’ll be successful, and I hope more people are able to come experience Palawan.Monitor Lizard crossing

How lucky am I that I’m able to soar away with the wind like this? To see the kinds of places filled with a kind-hearted population like this? This wind in my sails is calm and steady again as I contentedly coast along here in the Philippines.