October 2016 Recap: Philippines + Australia

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Do you ever have a month that could so easily be summed up by one recurring theme? For me, October 2016 was all about good people. I don’t often look at my life or travels through a people-centric lens (because, well, that’s just not how we introverts roll), but if anything this month was a heathy reminder that good things can come from venturing beyond my introvert bubble.

kangaroo island
Hanging at the Remarkable Rocks on KI.

I split October between the Philippines and Australia:

At the start of the month I achieved some serious bucket list glory by finally making it to El Nido. I’m not sure if it was the constant monsoonal rains, or the uber-touristy feel to it, or that I’d built this place up in my mind to the point where it felt like I had already seen it, but finally getting to explore the islands here was a bit anticlimactic. Don’t get me wrong: El Nido is absolutely beautiful and well worth a visit and I am SO glad I went. But when I look back on my month in the Philippines, it’s the places that surprisingly delighted me that I look most fondly upon (i.e. Malapascua, Siargao).

From Palawan, I begrudgingly flew back to spend the last 5 days of my trip in Manila for TBEX. In the moment, I was *this close* to saying f*** it and heading up to Sagada and the rice terraces instead, but with a typhoon predicted to hit that area I thought better of it and stuck to my sensible plan. I’m shockingly late to the travel blogging conference game – how was this my first-ever TBEX in nearly 4 years of blogging?! I’m not sure if I’ll write about my TBEX experience – for now, I will say that I was thoroughly overwhelmed and impressed by the conference. With 2-3 days of hardcore networking and learning followed by lavish parties, I’d say a ticket to TBEX holds incredible value for money. I’d definitely be keen to attend another one in the future, though I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.

coconut philippines
Filed under: Things That Make Me Happy.

Upon returning to Aussie, I retreated to my old stomping grounds at Bondi and rented a room in the best Airbnb ever just a 5 minute walk from the beach. It was just what the doctor ordered – and let me tell you, I had NO interest in leaving Bondi or Sydney after having just returned, but you know… adventure awaits!

So at the end of the month, I flew to Adelaide to meet my friend Teresa for our Kangaroo Island roadtrip. We rented a campervan and drove through the Fleurieu Peninsula and around KI for 5 days and I was totally in my element. Pretty sure I was made for #vanlife! I’m also pretty sure I’ve never consumed so much wine in such a short span of time: we went to at least 6 wineries for tastings and split a bottle at our campsite most nights. Such is the irresistibility of South Australian wine!

el nido sunset
Sunset in El Nido.

October 2016 Numbers

17 days in the Philippines:
– 3 days in Siargao
– 9 days in El Nido, Palawan
– 5 days in Manila

14 days in Australia:
– 8 days in Sydney
– 2 days in Adelaide
– 4 days on Kangaroo Island

Total Spent: US$2692
    + $740 for student loans
    + $112 for business expenses

Average Spent: US$87/day

kangaroo island wine
Wine time on Kangaroo Island.

Overall 2016 Numbers

Days: 305

Total Spent: US$15,139
    + $7400 for student loans

    + $865 for business expenses

    + $792 for tech/camera gear

    + $335 for travel insurance

Average Spent: US$50/day

el nido kayaking
Kayaking in El Nido on Tour A.

October 2016 Highlights

Diving With Sea Turtles

I went diving in El Nido when the weather was too crap to take an island hopping tour and really enjoyed it. The best part came at the end of our third and final dive of the day when I got to swim alongside a green sea turtle! How cool is this guy?

philippines travel blog

Hostel Drinking Games

The trio of friends I dived with invited me to join them for drinks at their hostel after we all cleaned ourselves up from a day in the sea. There are two main hostels in El Nido: Spin Designer Hostel (the much nicer hostel where I was staying) and Our Melting Pot (the cheap, crowded hostel where they were staying). After seeing the inside of OMP, I have to say I was super glad not to be staying there (3 tier bunkbeds? BYEEEEEEE). But!: it was a perfectly fine place to sit around a table playing drinking games with 14 new backpacker friends. Which by the way I’ve never done before because I’m not much of a drinker and I’m definitely not a partier. I surprised myself by actually having a lot of fun with it. Hooray to saying yes!

kangaroo island sunset
Sunset on Kangaroo Island.

El Nido Island Hopping

This right here is THE thing I’d been dying to do in the Philippines for years and years and it was absolutely magical. I went kayaking around some lagoons on Tour A and beach hopping on Tour C and oh my lord the Bacuit Archipelago is completely stunning. The crystal-clear blue water, white sand beaches, and limestone cliffs make it look unreal in the best possible way. Look for a blog post on these island hopping adventures soon!

el nido island hopping

Meeting So Many Awesome People

Like I said, this month was all about good people. I hung out with fellow travel bloggers Amy and Mike in El Nido and then at TBEX, met my Canadian soul sister Stephanie at my hostel in El Nido who later came to stay with me at my Airbnb in Manila, connected with so many other travel bloggers at TBEX, and had a belated Tinder date with a super-inspiring guy in Adelaide who’s got an impressive coaching business and also happens to be a piano prodigy. I also got to reconnect with a former Tinder date-turned-friend in Adelaide over dinner, and of course my Aussie friend Teresa on our annual reunion trip (which this year was a Kangaroo Island road trip). No wonder this introvert is so exhausted!

tbex manila travel bloggers
Image credit: Melissa of Run Towards Travel

Seeing Taal Volcano

I got lucky and signed up for the ONLY truly outdoorsy Pre-BEX tour as soon as registration opened. With that, I set off with a small group of other travel bloggers and rode a horse up to see Taal Volcano, aka the world’s smallest active volcano. It was hot as &#%$ up there, but really freakin’ gorgeous. I’m glad I got to see something other than beaches during my month in the Philippines (but equally glad at how much beach and island time I crammed into my trip).

taal volcano
Taal Volcano.

The Closing Night TBEX Party

If there’s anything you should know about TBEX, it’s that you can expect to sleep little and party lots. Every night of the conference there was some sort of sponsored party on, all of which I begrudgingly attended even when I was ready to faceplant in bed.

I was feeling pretty ambivalent about all these social gatherings until the closing night party: an Oktoberfest-themed soiree at Chaos, a club in Manila’s City of Dreams. Enjoying sausages, soft pretzels, and live music from our booth next to the stage was THE BEST. And I loved that I got to hang with my newfound blogger friends in our booth on our last night rather than be expected to mingle with other people throughout the venue. I will never be the kind of person who derives joy from being a social butterfly or expert networker – quality over quantity ALWAYS, yo. Give me a few good friends over a bunch of acquaintances any day.

bondi sunset
Bondi Beach sunset.

Living in Bondi Again

8 days in Bondi was just what I needed to recover from the Philippines and gorge myself on vegetables again (I suspect filipinos have completely stripped their diet of veggies and replaced them with sugar – needless to say it was not a great month for eating for me). I caught up on work, did the coastal walk a couple times, and went to check out Sculpture by the Sea before I had to leave town again. Mostly I was endlessly content just to be in Bondi. This is my PLACE.

sculpture by the sea
Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi.

Cycling in Adelaide

Ever since I visited Adelaide earlier this year, I vowed that someday I’d return and take advantage of the city’s ample bike trails. That I did with a glorious afternoon ride from West Beach up the coast, then along the River Torens and into the city. With more time, I could have continued on to Adelaide Hills – but I’ll have to save that for the next Adelaide trip.

adelaide cycling
Cycling along the River Torens in Adelaide.

Exploring McLaren Vale and the Fleurieu Peninsula

I’d been aching to explore this part of South Australia ever since I got a too-brief taste of it on one of my wine tours earlier this year. Lucky for me it’s very much on the way to the ferry to Kangaroo Island, so we had no choice but to drive through the region and stop off periodically for wine tastings and beach photos. The Fleurieu Peninsula is absolutely gorgeous and I’m so happy we had the most perfect weather for enjoying it. Cannot WAIT to return again for more peninsula frolics!

south australia beach
Sellicks Beach in South Australia.

Beaches and Wine on Kangaroo Island

You may have noticed that I tend to plan many of my road trips around beaches and wineries, aka two of my favorite things in life. My road trip buddies are usually pretty ok with it, thankfully. My Kangaroo Island road trip with Teresa was no different. We went wine tasting at some seriously picturesque vineyards (I mean, who knew KI made such good wine?) and stopped off at so many beautiful beaches. My favorite stop was Seal Bay, which turned out to be completely gorgeous – a lovely surprise since I was really just counting on spotting some sea lions and not much else of note.

kangaroo island beach
Seal Bay.

Camping and #VanLife on Kangaroo Island

I feel like this merits a separate bullet point on the highlights list because of how much joy it gave me. The 5 days we spent on Kangaroo Island were an excellent taste of #vanlife: we cozied up in our Jucy campervan every night, cooked meals and made coffee on our gas stove, and camped in some seriously scenic spots that we probably couldn’t have gotten away with had we been in a tent. The whole experience really cemented the goal I’ve had of someday doing a long-term road trip and living out of a (converted) campervan.

kangaroo island camping
Camping at KI’s Pennington Bay.

October 2016 Lowlights

The Awful Rainy Weather in the Philippines

I knew I was risking sub-optimal weather by booking my Philippines trip at the tail end of monsoon season, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be THIS bad. Thankfully I was able to see and do everything that I wanted to since I spent about a week in each location, though there were plenty of days that were completely washed out by rain where I *could* have been doing other awesome outdoor things!

The biggest weather-related disappointments for me were doing the Siargao island hopping tour on an overcast day, and having several straight days of torrential rain in El Nido before I was even able to get out and see the surrounding islands. Call me a beach snob, but a tropical beach looks infinitely more picturesque on a sunny day. These beaches on a cloudy or rainy day looked NOTHING like the photos I had seen of them online before my trip which was such a bummer.

siargao island hopping
Cloudy day on Naked Island near Siargao.

My TOEFL Test Score

I can’t remember if I’ve ever explained this before, but for Australian immigration you usually need to score high enough on their Points Test in order to qualify for or get invited to apply for certain visas. One element is English language proficiency, which you demonstrate by taking an English language test even if you’re a native speaker. Having “Proficient English” earns you 10 points while ‘Superior English” earns you 20 points toward the Points Test.

There are 4 or 5 different English test options each testing your reading/writing/listening/speaking skills, and I chose the TOEFL simply because there happened to be a test being offered in Cebu just a few days after I got word that I’d passed my skills assessment (i.e. the thing that tells you if you’re even eligible for these skilled visas). I wasn’t aware that Australian immigration requires a perfect score in writing just on the TOEFL (to my knowledge, they don’t require a perfect score on any section of any of the other tests, and only require a perfect writing score on the TOEFL).

Ugh, do I even need to say what happened? I scored 118/120 overall, and 29/30 on the writing portion. That excellent score only earned me 10 out of 20 points on the Points Test for English language proficiency. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?!! I’M A NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKER! AND A WRITER! If that doesn’t give me *Superior English* status, what the f does?!

As it stands, I need to retake the test (or different one) to get the full 20 points for the Points Test in order to get invited to apply for the visa I’m going for because 10 points isn’t enough for me to meet the threshold. So, you know, I guess I’ll just continue throwing Benjamins in the air until I get a good enough score. :: cue copious eyerolls ::

sugba lagoon SUP
Stand-up paddleboarding at Sugba Lagoon on Siargao: definitely NOT a lowlight.

I Almost Got Deported

Welp, it certainly hasn’t been a good month for me in terms of visas. Upon returning to Australia from the Philippines, my biggest fear was realized as I got questioned while passing through Immigration. The e-passport kiosk wouldn’t scan my passport and instead directed me to speak to someone at the Immigration desk. My immediate thought? OH SHIT.

I got stamped into Australia just fine, but then was pulled aside by an officer who asked me to log into my bank accounts and turn in my cell phone for inspection. I was surprisingly calm through the whole ordeal (not sleeping on a redeye will do that I guess), but as I sat there awaiting my fate I kept thinking: Oh god, this is it. They’re not gonna let me back into the country. What do I do? Where do I go? What about all my stuff? Does this mean I’m banned from re-entering Australia for 3 years?

Soon another officer emerged to speak to me, this one much more jovial than the last one. He said he just had a few questions to ask me, which basically boiled down to them wanting to know if I was illegally trying to reside in Australia while on the ETA tourist visa since I’d spent so much time in the country in the past 10 months. He had printouts of this blog (!) and my old wedding photography site and asked if I was still working. I said no, and calmly explained how my expenses are so low because I’ve just been house sitting all year and am naturally very frugal (hence the blog name!). I think it also helped that he was able to see in the system that I’d started the process for a skilled work visa, which I suppose was good evidence to suggest that I wasn’t intending to keep applying for tourist visas indefinitely. But man, this was easily one of the most terrifying experiences of my life!

I am SO grateful that they let me back into the country. I realize that I was very lucky and that it very easily could have gone another way had I been questioned by a different officer (maybe one who was having a bad day). I’m also now even more paranoid, worried, and stressed about my future in Australia. Let the gray hairs keep on coming!

rainbow in australia

What’s Next in November 2016


And seeing as I’m writing this post at the end of November, here are some spoilers:

  • Living by Manly Beach during my 2.5 week Sydney house sit
  • Returning to Melbourne for 10 days before flying back to the US(!!!!!)