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The Romblon Islands
Guintubdan (Philippines), December 30th 2008

We are sitting in a jeepney and a child facing us is staring at us with an open mouth. Her mother apologises for the staring of her child and tells us that this is the first time in her life that she sees white people live. We arrived on the Romblon Islands in the Philippines, an area that is not often visited yet by foreign travellers. On the one side this is a pity, but on the other side it isn’t. Travellers who decide not to come miss the chance to see the real Filipino rural life, while the people who decide to travel to these islands, probably have the place for themselves.

The three major islands of the Romblon group are Tablas, Romblon and Sibuyan. All the travel books about the Philippines write that it is very difficult to reach these islands, if they write about the islands at all, which scares most travellers off. However, the reality is different. The islands are served by daily ferries to the neighbouring islands and in addition, there are a reasonable number of ferries a week from Romblon town to Batangas near Manila. Parts of the charm of these islands are the journeys to, from, and between the islands. On some stretches you can choose for the comfortable huge metal ferries, but most stretches can also be done by traditional bangka. These small wooden boats, with on both sides wooden or bamboo outriggers to improve the stability of the boat, gives you the possibility to do island hopping in a way the Filipino’s do it already for ages. And that is brave if you take into consideration that the seas are often very rough and most Filipino’s are afraid of water (see also the article: “We survived it again”).

The ferry finally arrived after five and a half hours of sailing in San Fernando (Sibuyan)

We did the journey from the island of Romblon to Sibuyan on a cargo boat. The captain was so kind to give us permission to sail with them after we missed the regular boat. This ship, called by the local people “merchandise boat”, sails on a fixed schedule between the Romblon Islands and some bigger islands in the area. If the residents of the islands need goods that are not available on their own island, like bags of rice, merchandise for their shops, or even a television set or a refrigerator, they can order it at the merchandise boat. The merchandise boat will do the shopping for them on one of the other islands, and deliver the goods at the harbour that the buyer has mentioned. And the costs of this service? It is only a couple of percents of the value of the purchased goods. But you can also do the shopping yourself and use the merchandise boat to transport the purchased goods, to the island where you live. This is what Auntie Mary does, who runs a little shop in Magdiwan on Sibuyan, and who we met on the merchandise boat. But she was not lucky this time. Because of the rough sea, she had to wait for three days in Romblon before it was safe enough for the old merchandise boat to leave for Sibuyan. And all these days she stayed and slept on the deck of the merchandise boat. Also that is possible on the merchandise boat. The common sense that local people use when something like this happens to them is admirable. They still can laugh about these things and do not avoid the chance to make jokes about it, even if they lose hundreds of euros because parts of the goods are lost due to decay.

On Sibuyan, we spend a couple of days in the little town of Magdiwan, from where we undertake some day hikes in the area. There are no hotels in Magdiwan, so we had to stay in one of the few home stays (local people who have some rooms, often very nice rooms, available for travellers). We stay at Vicky’s place, and she tells us that we are her third guests in the last three months. Vicky runs some kind of a catering service from out of her house and during our stay she is busy preparing food for the church, who is celebrating the bring into use of a new altar, and for her neighbours who are celebrating the birthday of their daughter. It is pandemonium at Vicky’s place, where several women from the neighbourhood are helping Vicky to prepare the food for huge number of people. One of the women is slaughtering a pig on a wooden table, while a dog is standing under it to lick the blood from the concrete floor. When it is time to eat, one of the tables is cleaned for us, where we can have our meal. The food is simple but delicious.

A jeepney driver waits for passengers in Romblon town
Hiking on the Romblon Islands is a perfect way to enjoy the rural life on the islands. The roads between the villages are quiet and are only used by a jeepney once in a while and some tricycles (motor taxis). There are almost no private cars on the islands. When you enter a village, you will be welcomed by a bunch of yelling children who saw you already coming for hundreds of metres. “What’s your name?”, and “Where are you from?”, are the two questions they immediately shoot a you. The parents are sitting on the verandas of their houses, satisfied looking how we try to find our way through the group of children. In most villages, a game is played on the streets with pesos coins, of course only by men, but after approval of the women. It is some kind of a ‘jeu de boules’ where the players have to throw their coins as close as possible to the pre-defined coin. The person who does this best gets all the coins. Ivonne is welcomed with jubilation when she decides to play a game with them.

By far the most beautiful town on the islands is Romblon town, on the equally named island. The facilities for travellers in this town are good. You can even find a couple of good restaurants, owned and operated by old western guys with extremely young Filipino wives. The town still has a colonial atmosphere and the central plaza is a great place to hang around and to pose once in a while for a Filipino photo. There aren’t a lot of things happening in town that is built around a beautiful natural harbour. Once in a while, the town revives when one of the ferries arrives. The tricycle drivers jump on their motorcycles to zoom to the harbour in the hope to score a ride for one of the passengers. Soon afterwards, the town falls asleep again.

We found the Romblon Islands very pleasant. It is a perfect way to experience Filipino rural life and to escape the beaten tourist tracks for a while. Most travellers come to the Philippines for the beach life, and that is understandable. However, if you also want to see some parts outside the touristy areas, you should consider Romblon. And the nice thing is, it is only within a stone throw from Boracay, the most famous and most visited beach island of the Philippines.

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