Upon arrival at the Cebu airport, amid warnings of this-vs.-that taxi service being the legitimate one, we secured a ride to the hotel we had reserved before we arrived, a place called Elegant Circle Inn. The Elegant Circle, not too surprisingly, turned out to be quite inelegant, but was indeed stationed on a circular roundabout of a street, in between a bootleg DVD store and a McDonald’s.
We walked around that first night, looking for something to eat, and maybe a place to drink a little bit. The places that we found weren’t the types of places we wanted to hang out at. Maybe we were in a bad part of town, but we found mostly invitations to shady strip clubs or offers to purchase streetside Viagra substitutes. We did, however, find some good eats at a place called Chowabungga (that’s a real establishment – and I think it’s a chain). The area buzzed with neon; it felt like there was more supply of shady, ex-pat gratifying goods & services than there was demand for it (although maybe I just wasn’t the target market). When we didn’t find much, we resigned to a six-pack of San Miguel in the hotel room.
The next day we set out to see a bit of the city. I’d done a little bit of wiki-travel reading and decided I knew which direction we ought to head, but that was about it. We set out in the general direction that I knew the ocean was.
I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.
I don’t even remember what exactly I had read about on wiki-travel, but we didn’t find it. It didn’t matter though. We hiked, and kept going, through dirty streets, crisscrossed with canopies of wires, like vines connecting decades-old dirt on the sides of buildings. The streets were clouded with the stench of gasoline and packed with vendors of shitty electronics and clothes that didn’t make sense. When fake Ray-Bans that are $3 in Thailand are $0.50 in Cebu, you know you’ve found the real manufacturing margin on cheap Chinese plastic goods.
We continued on and emerged onto a wider boulevard teeming with vendors of all types of foodstuffs. A foot taller than anyone around, and markedly less Filipino, Franklin and I didn’t exactly fit in. The sun was starting to set, and the place was an absolute zoo: exposed light bulbs were strung above stalls displaying piles of freshly-caught fish, dudes trudged through the crowd with big-ass wooden carts carrying who-knows-what, naked children darted between smoking piles of garbage… It was the strangest place I’ve ever been. As out of place as we were, the momentum of the commotion was so great that we could have been giraffes and not attracted too much attention. It was like a giant, post-apocalyptic farmer’s market.
We reached the outskirts of this insane bazaar, only to move further into unfamiliarity. Continuing straight, towards where we believed to be the ocean, we happened into some sort of slum community. The first area we encountered was a somewhat open courtyard with much ruckus; a piazza of squalor. There were (again) naked children darting about. Lots and lots of children. Two men played chess, women milled about, kids kicked balls around. As two tall white dudes, we were definitely a spectacle; this is not a place tourists frequent. But again, we weren’t weird enough to disrupt centrifugal life. We were noticed, and welcomed, but somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t feel like we altered the pulse of things. Further on, our path narrowed considerably, funneling into an alleyway whose damp floor probably never dried under the canopy of plywood, tarps, and makeshift structures above it. Halved over, we ducked further down this alley with no idea where we would end up. A few video games and computers lit up one side of the alley. Mothers welcomed us, leaning out of windows that might have been shops. There was a shambled sense of self-sustainability here. It seemed like there was probably everything that a city would have, but nothing “to code.”
It wasn’t until we reached the end that we figured out where we were. We did reach the ocean. We hit the water under a freeway overpass, at the mouth of this slum that ended in a dock and platform of concrete that jutted out over the water. It was gorgeous and calm. A mob of kids and a few young mothers welcomed us, in surprisingly good English. They led us through a stilted living room of plywood, where a few older men watched an old CRT television glowing in the corner. The backdoor of that living room opened onto a horizontal ladder that bridged a gap (with a dozen foot fall to the ocean) to a concrete platform that was the base of a pillar for the freeway above. Maybe the acoustics were right, or there wasn’t any traffic, but out on the platform overlooking the still water I don’t recall hearing a sound.
Franklin and I oohed and ahhed while our motherly chaperon insistently downplayed its beauty. I had a genuine, albeit conflicting, sense of envy for this place they had. I have much more than them, but what’s that worth? Here I am – The American Minimalist – with a blog about trying to reduce my worldly possessions (wealth), how perverse is this? My lifestyle is fucking royal in comparison to theirs. How does that make sense? Can I help them? Do they need help? Who am I to be helping anyone? Do I need help? (probably, but that’s a different blog post…) Should I not be here? I don’t know the best answers to the socioeconomic quandaries of the world, nor is this the platform, but a thinking person can’t help but think a little.
These thoughts all came about after. At the time I was just moved by their unabashed hospitality and friendliness. The kids loved taking pictures with us, they asked our names, they excitedly showed us across the dock; the adults just laughed and watched. The way they reacted to our visit was so warm, so very basically human, that in the moment I wasn’t considering our wealth disparity or assessing the economic repercussions of colonization and industrialization. These are things to think about, and let’s have those discussions, but I think it’s okay to have fun too.
I love this post with your wonderful pictures and observations. Keep writing!
Thanks Sharon! Glad you liked it. More to come soon.
Wonderfully descriptive! I had to pinch myself after reading this post halfway through to make sure I wasn’t actually in Cebu, rather than just reading about it! Great post… your photography and writing transported me to a part of the world I never thought I would want to be…
Thank you Anthony, I’m very happy to hear you enjoyed reading my words.
I found this blog from following a link on someone else’s blog. I am very glad I did. This is a wonderful blog. I really enjoy it even though this is my first visit. I will be returning often. Your photos are fantastic. Your travels very interesting.
Your methodology of mimimalist travel brings back memories of when I was younger and could travel on a whim with only a mid-sized backpack. I gradually moved up to a military pack and did 90% of my travels with it or a smaller pack. So much more fun without encomberances of luggage and too much stuff.
Thanks for reading and the nice words. I’m honored to have jogged your fond memories of past travels! We will humbly carry on the tradition of minimal travel in your honor. Take care!
I am fascinated by this blog that I wanted to follow new posts.
Thanks Cathy, hope you like our future posts as well.
Also found my way to your blog via another minimalist blog. Loved reading this article on Cebu as had the good fortune of living there for a year while attending film school.
Loved your observations and photos. Will definitely be back for more.
Hi Sher. Glad that the post lives up to the opinion of someone who spent a significant amount of time in Cebu. I captured my impression as best I can. Thanks for reading!
Your photos are amazing! One really gets the feel of where you are. Thank you!
Beautiful pictures, thanks for sharing them and your story!
I saw pictures of Cebu yesterday in the news. It’s terrible to see the destructions the typhoon has left there. And after reading your stories and enjoying your pictures I feel even more pain for the people over there, and I wonder if the people on the pictures (your friends!) are OK…
I am currently reading blogs about minimalism and I happen to chance upon your blog. It is a good read. Thank you for sharing your experiences and pictures. I am a Filipino. I grew up in the Philippines. I have been to Cebu many times. What I can tell you is you have been on the wrong side of Cebu. There are far prettier and upscale area in Cebu that you should have visited. But I am not judging or anything, I mean what I have learned from you post is that part of a minimalist lifestyle is to engage oneself with the local people, eat the local food, and experience something uniquely Cebu. And looking at your pictures, you did. I find that picture where you are to about to go Lebron on that basketball ring kinda amusing. I hope you enjoyed Cebu and the people. I’m a follower now. So looking forward to reading more of your posts. Keep it up.
We have seen a lot of these photos & stories, i want to see also the nice & beautiful side of Cebu… Thanks, keep posting.