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My first night spent in a foreign country did not go according to plan. But in fact, you would need a plan to begin with, wouldn’t you? But what did I know – it was my first trip overseas and I was trusting in a ‘so-called expert’ opinion? Big mistake. Cebu is known as the “Queen City of the South” in the Philippines, which is not something you can understand until you see it, preferably in the evening hustle and bustle, around midnight, during Holy Week. Did I mention that you should be on an intensive search for accommodation? Because then you would have an inkling of the evening that I had in Cebu, my first ever night on foreign soil, and a night from Hell at that.

In my defense, as I mentioned before, this was my first overseas trip. Not the first time I’ve travelled because I believe the love of travel starts right at home – exploring your own country before venturing on to others. But either way, I was very new to it and grateful that I had my close friend with me to experience it all with.

My Nightmare First Night On Foreign Soil in Cebu City The Philippines

Cebu City at night

So, my first night in Cebu, I will never forget stepping out of the orderly, air-conditioned airport around 9pm, and stepping into the humid chaos that was the street life of Cebu city. Coming from a third world country like South Africa, I am no stranger to chaos. However, in my experience, whenever there is chaos present there is usually danger on the horizon. So, naturally I hold on to my two bags a little tighter and start looking around a little too often to not look suspicious. The streets were filled with people, many of whom would not stop staring as though we were acts in a circus. After trying to communicate with a Cebuano guard and coming to the conclusion that it was hopeless, I realized that we were in for a long night…

My Nightmare First Night On Foreign Soil in Cebu City The Philippines

Standing in the never-ending taxi queue.

This first night on foreign soil in Cebu Philippines was an experience I will never forget, and it taught me a few valuable travel lessons.

Lesson number one: Always book your first night’s accommodation in advance. Now many frequent travelers might heavily disagree with me here, and I can also see their side of the spontaneity aspect that makes traveling so special. However, this night from hell was assurance that you can avoid a lot of drama if you book your first night in a city (then again, you may lose out on a great story to tell). The search began at about 9:30pm when we were informed that all the hotels nearby were fully booked, so we joined the other 100 odd people in line for a taxi. With the heat and the stress sending sweat pouring off our foreheads and onto our baggage, we learnt…

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Lesson number two: Always buy a local sim card as soon as possible. We had the opportunity to buy one as we left the airport but we thought we were smarter than the very friendly street salesman, how stupid could we be! Wi-Fi in Cebu was not exactly reliable, and neither was the communication with Cebuano speaking Filipinos. We couldn’t google where to go or how to say anything in the local language.  So, when we eventually shuffled our way all the way to the front of the line and into a taxi, we tried our best to communicate with the driver – laughing hysterically now and then at how hopeless we were. Our taxi driver, Kuya (which is just a respectful title used to address all older men here), was beyond amazing and made us feel so reassured and safe. I’ve never wanted to kiss a grown man thank you so much in my life!

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It was around 11pm already and the streets were buzzing – there was traffic as though it was peak hour. Kuya took us to every hotel within a 10km radius and soon, my friend and I had figured out a good system – she would stay and hold the taxi with all our baggage and I would sprint to the accommodation and see if they had any space. After running into one hotel, the lady at the front desk repeated what I had heard at all the previous places: “Dili room. Sorry Ate”. I soon realized that “dili” means “no” in Cebuano. Time was ticking away and it was going into the early hours of the morning. I had run into the fanciest of hotels; run out of the scariest looking rooms (one definitely could have come from a murder scene in CSI.); and almost followed a man into what seemed to be a very raucous gay nightclub.

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I was beginning to crack – how could every room in a massive city like Cebu be fully booked? Finally, we managed to use Skype to make a call. Through booking online we got into a fancy hotel only a few extra kilometers away from the airport. Kuya was sad to say goodbye to us, and we didn’t want our patient guide to leave, but he pulled up to the entrance of the Maayo Hotel and we hopped out, in awe of the size of the building before us. A doorman escorted us into an elevator and to the reception desk. After a little persuading, the staff managed to get us our room that apparently was not booked online enough in advance. Alas, we made it into a room.

My friend and I looked at each other – her eyes were red, her hair was a mess, and her clothes were drenched. I can’t imagine her horrific view of me that night, it must be ingrained in her head. We were exhausted but ecstatic. Laughing and singing, we jumped on our beds as though we were little kids again. We survived the night. Now we needed to get some sleep to face Cebu City again the next day.

Cebu city, the city that doesn’t know what sleep is. A city filled with unexpectedly helpful people. A city that is unforgiving in many ways, but unforgettable in every way. A city and a night that I will never forget.

6 Tips and Tricks for Travelers going to Cebu:

  1. Purchase a sim card in the airport or as soon as possible.
  2. Exchange money before venturing anywhere.
  3. Book your first night’s accommodation. (Unless you want to have the same experience as I had!)
  4. Learn a few vital phrases in the local language, Cebuano.
  5. Do some research on local holidays, like Holy Week, so you can prepare for the city chaos during those times.
  6. Be prepared for the heat as soon as you touch ground in Philippines – pack an extra pair of cool clothing in your hand luggage and change in the airport.

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