Travel Drama: The ATM Situation in PH
Every traveler has a few good disaster stories. It’s inevitable: Once in a while, things just will not go your way. By the time I reached the Philippines, I’d already had a few serious fights with bedbugs in Thailand and I’d gotten pinkeye and a solid cold from the sweet little babes at the Cambodian orphanage. I figured I’d made it out so far pretty clean. No robberies, I hadn’t been attacked or accosted in any way, and by and large I was having a fantastic time.
When I decided to spend my first few days in the Philippines at the rice terraces in Banaue and Batad, I knew I’d made a great decision. Excepting a pretty uncomfortable overnight bus ride north (which doesn’t even come close to travel disaster territory), I was captivated by the beautiful countryside around me.
The ATM Experience
I know what you’re probably thinking: Her card got skimmed at an ATM, right? Or someone mugged her when she was taking out cash?
Nope. Not even close.
So Here’s the Story…
After a quick nap to restore myself from a sleepless night on the bus, I set out to see the sights. I venture out to the town square, and don’t make it more than 100 feet before the trike guys start accosting me with offers to be my chauffeur. I chat with a few, get an idea of prices, and finally settle on a guy named Dan Dan who offers a fair price and seems like a nice dude (though, to be fair, most people in the Philippines are ridiculously nice).
We talk about that day’s activities, and what I wanted to do the following day before I take the back-breaking overnight bus journey back to Manila to catch my flight to Boracay. We agree on an itinerary, negotiate a price, and I pay him for that day’s activities. I tell him I need to go to an ATM to get money for the next day’s travels.
And here is where I learn my first lesson of the Philippines:
There are no ATMs in rural Philippines
Why hadn’t I just pulled out a bunch of cash in Manila? Because I don’t like traveling with over $200 USD at any given time. When in less expensive countries, I try to get by on less. No more than 2 – 3 days’ worth of budget. And this was my crucial mistake.
After a long discussion with my driver and new friend, we decide I will see the sights in Banaue that day (which I had enough money to cover, plus leftover for dinner that night), and I would go to Lagawe that afternoon to get more cash for the ride out to Batad the next morning, where I planned to trek all day.
We spend the morning exploring the Banaue terraces. My driver shows me all the major sights, introduces me to the most adorable pack of village ladies in traditional dress, and happily snapped photo after photo of me the entire morning and early afternoon. In fact, he is responsible for one my favorite photos of all my travels (below).
When the tour is over, we set off for Lagawe. It’s about an hour each way, but there is plenty of daylight left since we got an early start that morning.
Quick Sidebar: When I travel, I have a system in case of emergencies. One ATM card is in my wallet, ready to go. One credit card is hidden in my day pack, in case my slash-proof passport/wallet holder somehow is ripped off. And my backup ATM card is in my main pack, hidden deep in a crevice no one would ever find. The ATM card in my wallet is from my bank in Australia, where I had most recently been earning money and thus had the most savings. My backup ATM card is from the USA, with an account that doesn’t have a ton of cash in it, but I can easily transfer funds from one bank to the other with my phone.
So I set off with my Australian ATM card, which has plenty of cash in the account. One hour later, we arrive in Lagawe, and I go to the ATM.
My card doesn’t work.
The driver takes me the other ATM.
My card doesn’t work.
We go back to the first ATM.
It still doesn’t work. And with only two ATMs in Lagawe, we’re out of options.
I’m thinking, ‘I just took an overnight bus all the way to North Luzon only to miss out on everything.’ But then the driver says, “You can take a jeepney to Solano. They have many more banks there.”
Cool! A jeepney! I really wanted to try one out while I was here at least once, and now I can. I’ll be just like a local!
“Okay, how far to Solano?”
“An hour and a half on a jeepney. Maybe more.”
Holy. Shit. I’m looking at a three hour round trip on top of the two hours to and from Lagawe. I ask the driver if he will wait for me in Lagawe to take me back to Banaue if I go to Solano, because there is no bus and there is no jeepney between the two towns. He promises me he will wait. Telling myself that it’s no one’s fault but my own, I grit my teeth and jump on the jeepney.
It takes over two hours to get to Solano.
It’s now very late in the afternoon, and there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’ll be back in Lagawe before dark. Sending a huge prayer to the travel gods that my driver won’t abandon me, I head to the ATM.
Where my card doesn’t work.
At this point, tears of frustration are sprouting. If I was going to spend six goddamn hours trying to get money, I damn well better get some freaking money!
Google Maps tells me there’s another bank a few blocks away. I walk to this bank.
AND THE ATM GIVES ME SOME FREAKING MONEY!
I now know what it feels like to win the lottery. Because I won ATM roulette in rural Luzon that day. If I had done a little more research, I would have found that many Australian banks don’t communicate properly with Philippine banks, and I was better off using my Bank of America ATM card. So noted.
I am directed by a nice local (who is looking at me like, who the hell is this crazy white lady in this definitely non-tourist town) back to the jeepney station, where I climb on board and take the loooooong journey back to Lagawe. It’s about an hour past sunset and starting to rain when I jump off the jeepney. Nothing looks familiar.
I start wandering down the main road, hoping like hell my driver didn’t abandon me here. Here, where there are no buses back to the rice terraces.
After five minutes of walking toward the last bank I visited in Lagawe, a motorbike pulls up behind me. It’s my driver! He didn’t abandon me! My instincts were right: He was a pretty nice guy after all. That, and perhaps the lure of a well-paid day the next day was enough to keep him around.
We motored up the twisty mountain road back to Banaue, passing through light rain showers, the air growing cooler as we ascended. I felt the stress and drama of the day melt away as the mist of the mountains rose around us, our headlight casting a glow onto the vegetation that bordered the two-lane road.
Sure, I may have taken a seven-hour journey that I was not expecting to take, but for maybe the first time since I set off on my own, I felt like a traveler. Like someone who can navigate the curveballs that life on the road will throw at me and come out the other end just fine. Better than fine. I had an adventure that day, an unplanned, slightly scary, comfort-zone-expanding adventure. I figured it out, and I did it on my own.
When I finally sank into bed that night, exhausted and slightly damp, I had never felt so alive.