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January 13th 2014

What a difference a few metres of beach makes. We slept with the window open to the gentle sound of cicadas and the occasional “uh oh” frog. Over a good “American” breakfast we decide to spend another night here before moving on up the island. Quite what makes crispy bacon, fried egg, toast and marmalade a stateside breakfast is beyond me. In my limited experience an average American goes to work on milk and something from a box with a snappy name. 

According to our guides we could have stayed at two beaches near the scruffy little town of Sipalay. We chose Punta Ballo as the snorkelling is described as good from the beach.

The other option was Langub or “sugar” beach a little north of the main town. We discounted this in favour of the snorkelling which as advertised is very good. I tried it yesterday in the belting rain when I could not get any wetter.

Sugar beach is by all accounts beautiful but isolated and we are going to head up there for the day. The guide describes the journey as consisting of a section by bus, part tricycle, part paddle boat and finally by shank’s pony. Another reason why we ruled the beach out.

The owners of our accommodation put us right as to the journey, they can arrange for a trike to take us to what they call the “bridge” from there we don’t know as we smack right into the  language barrier.

The “bridge” is just that a metal and wood bridge over a small tidal river. The trike driver stops and says “bridge”. We reply “yes it’s a bridge”. As we are not making any moves to get out of the three wheel tin can the driver continues over the “bridge”. We work out later that there are 2 ways to sugar beach an one of them involves employing a banca boat to sail down the river and then up the coast a little.

A few bumpy dirt road kilometres later we arrive at the head of a scruffy little Barangay at the sea’s edge. Now this makes more sense as in front of us is a stretch of sand then a small tidal inlet where a tiny paddle boat with even tinier child crew wait patiently to paddle us over.

This inlet then is the head of the same river we crossed the bridge to reach. The paddle kids are pretty savvy and much fun is had negotiating the fare down to their original asking price of 50 Pesos each which seems a lot for a paddle of a few metres.

Once over the child gang boss of the crew stuffs our 100 bill into his shorts and goes off to greet a bunch of tourists coming the other way. There is no other method of getting to the beach so they have quite a business.

A short stretch of sand leads up to a fair chunk of rock jutting into the sea with a railed walkway around it. Once beyond that the beauty of sugar beach is revealed. Well at least it would have been if it had not been raining for the best part of a week. What greets us is not quite white sugary sand but more like dirty Demerara. Boracay it is definitely not.

Along a disappointingly short section of beach are a number of resorts and we head to the wacky almost Disneyesque TakaTuka resort for a coffee. TakaTuka is in common with most resorts run by Swiss Germans but this Teuton must have had a fair relationship with narcotics as the whole establishment is painted in psychedelic colours and the rooms are themed in a similar way to those of Propeller Island another weird German hotel I stayed in in Berlin.

TakaTuka is a dive resort but interestingly the majority of the dives are just off where we are staying which may explain why our beach is so busy. There is accommodation available at TakaTuka but methinks all that bright colour might send me quietly insane.

Wet markets have been noticeably absent from my diary so far but as we have back tracked to Sipalay it gives me the opportunity to nose around the fruit, vegetables, fish and roadkill prominently displayed on various tables slabs and hooks.

I have a fascination with asian markets. The strangeness of some of the produce on offer, the vivid colours, exotic aromas and above all the haphazard and often unsavoury way it is presented never ceases to interest me.

The fruit and vegetables piled high on rickety stall tables are remarkable in that with all the choice how come you never see fresh vegetables on a restaurant menu. Other stalls have small plastic sachets containing oil, soy sauce and vinegar. Glass bottles are too precious, they are used to store petrol at roadside fuel stops for the endless numbers of Honda and Yamaha 150cc bikes found all over the Philippines.

Filipinos adore loud noise and the stall selling DVD’s has a pile of speakers with the amplifier cranked up so far that too much exposure might make your ears bleed. The stall holder has a towel wrapped around his head not so much to deter the sound but to keep his bonce warm in the cool season chill.

Within the sprawl that is an asian market there is order and products are grouped so that you have distinct areas where all of the stalls ara selling the same things. I gravitate to the pungent aroma that comes from the dried fish section. I convinced myself long ago that my fascination with dried fish was born at the time when for a starter in an Indian restaurant you ate Bombay Duck, a salty dried fish from Mumbai that tastted delicious but smelled of year old unwashed socks.

On the wet market many of the sights are going to conspire to force a second viewing of your lunch. What we might be familiar with as meat is, just as at home, on a slab waiting to be sliced, diced and dispensed. Other bits of animal which you won’t see at Sainsbury are gruesomely displayed hanging on hooks.

The shrill noise of a complaining pig attracts our attention. It’s coming from a semi grown piglet that has simply been tied in a sack to keep it from running away. The struggles from the pig shaped sack and it’s loud protests are difficult to watch and hear. The Philippines is not a good place to reborn as a pig and don’t come here if commn sights like this will upset you.

A stall holder crouches on a stool by the eviscerated carcass of a whole pig carefully shaving off the bristles in preparation to be spit roasted whole then served as Lechon the utterly delicious fatty pork with the beautifully crispy and slightly sweet skin I had in Siquijor the other day.

I will spare the most gruesome photographs but the pig can be seen in the photo below and my wife’s face says it all.

Another really odd thing about travelling in the Philippines is that unless you are in a city or at a heavily touristed area it is really hard to find fresh fish in resort restaurants despite being smack bang on the shoreline. Most restaurants sell fish from the freezer.

The wet fish section has a fabulous display of small tuna, red snapper and other species you would have never seen. The stallholders find it highly amusing to hear westerners struggling to repeat back the name of a fish in Tagalog. Once you have mastered the pronunciation you instantly forget it the moment you walk away from the stall.

One fish stall has a number of small, ultra fresh skipjack tuna that would be ideal for two. Christine’s objections about catching and eating baby fish melt away when we discover that the 1 kilo fish on the scales will cost us 140 Pesos. That’s about ¬£2. A similar weight of fish from the same Sainsbury’s would be over ten times that. We say yes and the man busies himself with hacking our dinner for tonight into bloody slices. There is enough fish in the bag for both of us and to share with the staff back at Punta Ballo. In case you are wondering the yellow plastic bag is the stallholder’s till.

We have a decent fried rice for lunch at Kate’s followed by far too much cake at the bakeshop next door before wandering down to the beachfront and debating just how long it will take for this impressive beach to be developed.

Sipalay gets a bad press from both of the guides we have brought along with us. There may not be the  infrastructure that a traveller would consider necessary for a resort but the relatively clean streets, friendly locals and great cake make it a good break from the beach.

I said in a previous post that if you want grilled fish in the Philippines that is this side of mummification you have to clearly specify “lightly grilled”. Despite clear instructions to grill 2 minutes on each side they still overcooked it and thinking that no one in their right mind would eat plain fish covered it with a sticky soy and sesame marinade. It was however delicious and worth seeing the surprise on faces when we offered to share the rest.

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