Pinoy Fest: North
(Sorry, it’s another whopper. It just happens. Get a brew and an iced bun on the go and make yourself comfortable.)
There is no simple way out of Iran, with diplomatic relations being what they are, but there are definitely simpler ways than my epic. Flew with my familiar friends Air Arabia to Sharjah, hopped on their new bus service through to Deira (bus junkie, to the end), Dubai and jumped a cab to Dubai airport, stopping along the way for coffee and Iranian exchange with the lovely Shiva. From here I journeyed to Manila, stopping along the way for a few hours in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Singapore Airlines are still doing the old amenity kits once commonplace in the pre-recession glory days of air travel. Marvellous.
Epic journey but finally arrived in the sweaty tropics of Manila and settled into the tourist haunt of Malate. It’s a bit like I imagine Kao San Road was 10 years ago, only with more karaoke joints. In fact, the Philippines is a lot like an unspoilt Thailand – a perfect alternative for a misanthrope like me and my acquired snobbery about tosser travellers. I deliberately stop short of saying gap-year travellers because it’s not age that makes travellers wanky – I’ve met some lovely 18 year olds, even if it does make me feel proper old to hang out with people born in the 90s. No, it’s tie-dye and stories of self-discovery. Take your fisherman pants and piss off please.
Manila, to cut a long story short, is a bit of a shitpit. Thieves and muggers abound and, from the number of signs at club doors saying ‘no guns’, I imagine that a fair number of the locals are tooled up. Prostitution is commonplace and the the good-time girls are euphemistically and amusingly referred to as GROs – Guest Relations Officers. That’s one way of putting it. You’d have to pay me a fair amount to live here. Nevertheless, no place is without its charm so I’ll try and do an Alistair Campbell on it and spin it as best I can.
Once upon a time, Manila was the Jewel of the Pacific, the treasure of the Spanish crown. And the pretty walled section of intramuros was its picturesque heart. It took a bit of a hammering in the Second World War when the Japs had a go at it and never really recovered, sadly taking the lives of 150,000 Filipinos along the way. But the enduringly cheerful Filipinos have decided to resurrect their cultural heritage and have been lovingly restoring it in recent years to turn it into a tourist attraction. And a lovely attraction it is too. Spanish colonial architecture is in full evidence as you wander down the quiet cobbled streets or circle the top of the walls. The cathedral is grand, you can visit a reconstruction of a home as it would have been in the days of colony and the shady gardens at the fortress of Santiago are beautiful (if you don’t peek over the walls at the uggo container port and weed-strewn river beyond) for a horse and carriage ride or picnic. Plus I found some graffiti artwork. I love graffiti.
There are a lot of banners on churches, nunneries and monasteries around the capital and the country saying ‘no to the RH bill; yes to life’. What is the RH bill, I hear you cry? The government is currently trying to push a Reproductive Health bill through the National Assembly. There is a theory that the high rate of population is behind the country’s ongoing economic struggles, since no matter how fast it grows the economy, people are firing out babies faster. In the words of Tim Westwood, the government would like them to ‘wrap it up before they slap it up’ or get the ladies on the pill. The church strongly isn’t happy about this. I find it hard to understand why contraception is so reviled by the church (Jesus went missing for 30 years in the Bible. Don’t tell me he wasn’t out having fun-times and spreading the ‘word’) but we all know that the Pope isn’t into it. Likewise, Filipinos are still big into the legend of Jesus Christ so the church’s stance has proven divisive. We’ll see what they decide.
Come sunset, Rival Park is the place to go hang out with the locals. There are lots of barbeque stands here so I thought I’d jump in with both feet and sample some of the Philippines gruesome local cuisine. When in Rome… So I ambled around with some barbequed chicken intestines, pigs’ ears and congealed pigs’ blood. I remarked to one person that I was going to drop into South Korea next, “But Laura, the Koreans will eat anything.” Begging your pardon, but that’s fecking rich coming from the Philippines where chicken feet, dog and half formed duck embryos (balut) are on the menu. Deep fry it or barbeque it and serve it. In my experience, none of the offal on offer tastes too bad, but it doesn’t taste too special either. The country is not known for its cuisine.
Balut was a bridge too far for me. As a general rule of thumb, I will eat most anything except for brains (in my world it doesn’t do to eat another creature’s thoughts) and this extends to balut. Disgustingly, the way to eat it is to crack the top, suck out the ‘soup’ (watery byproducts – bleurgh), add liberal amounts of vinegar and chow down on the foetus itself. Absolutely no way.
Wandered through the park to Rixos Boulevard, a popular spot for evening promenades. They say it’s pretty for sunset, which it is if you can look past the large volume of sewage floating in the water by the seafront. The water itself is brown/green in colour and smells sulphuric. I’m sure it could feasibly melt human flesh but people seem to love coming to watch the waves crash up against and over the walls. Perhaps a rudimentary form of Russian Roulette? I was sitting here musing on its popularity when a couple of cousins with aunties and babies in tow came along to join me for a chat.
“You have a lovely nose”, is the oddest compliment I’ve received to date but they were lovely so I joined them for more barbequed limbs, my first San Miguel and a go on the omnipresent karaoke. After a while we adjourned to their tiny house, in a neighbourhood I couldn’t tell you to this day, for more beers and more karaoke. Kipped in with them for the night and was packed off the next morning with two mangoes to ease the hangover. Super friendly, super fun, great start to the island tour.
Already over Manila, I decided to head North to see the famous rice terraces and dust off the hiking boots. Booked onto a night bus to Banaue and called in on the Hobbit House on the way to keep the midget odyssey alive. Brilliant little people and not so bad at playing blues. Though they have to get a big person to tinkle the ivories cos their little hands can’t reach the keys.
Night buses are already losing their charm. You straight don’t sleep well on them; few are comfortable and most are Baltic cold. This one was no exception so I did what all self-respecting Brits do and got pissed before embarking to dull the pain/memory of it. In Banaue the next morning I picked up a couple of pals over breakfast. Kris is a local from Manila and was up in the North celebrating the memory of his girlfriend who recently died of leukaemia; Long is fresh out of high school on his first overseas trip from Melbourne. I particularly enjoyed hearing about his last day of school where a number of boys drank a litre of different coloured milk and ran around the running track until they puked. Apparently if running in the heat with a belly full of milk doesn’t make you hurl, the smell of milk-vom on hot tarmac will. I believe him.
Jumped a jeepney, the main mode of transport in the Philippines, further North to Sagada, enjoying stunning views over the ripe rice paddies from the roof along the way.
That afternoon Kris, with aspirations of becoming a tour guide, took us to see the hanging coffins suspended on a cliff face (to make it easier for the spirits to reach heaven) and to a nearby waterfall, taking us an unorthodox route back to our digs by wading through the stream between the paddies. The following day, we embarked on the cave connection, a scramble-climb-swim through subterranean passages and caverns where you slither in one side and pop out the other. I don’t recommend that you wear white (school girl error for a muddy bum-shuffle), but I do heartily recommend doing it. Guided by a local fella with a single kerosene lamp – you’re screwed if he drops it – you scramble over slippery rocks past awesome rock formations and can swim in bitterly cold, refreshing pools, some ball-witheringly cold (so I’m told).
The cool of the mountains was a welcome relief after the sweat of the Iranian desert, but I wanted some beach time. Time to head South.
Pinoy Fest: South
Nothing happens particularly fast in the Philippines, especially not transport. Flights are fairly cheap though (particularly if you pre-book. Which I didn’t.) and buses are regular, even if they stop every 50m (no exaggeration) to pick somebody up. On one leg of the journey, I estimated that a 127km journey would take around 2 hours. How wrong I was; we rolled in to 4 hours later. Took another night bus (shudder) back to Manila and swiftly back out again on flight down to Iloilo. Why? Because it was cheap, has good beaches within easy reach and has a cool name. Toyed with going to El Nido and the idyllic-looking Palawan archipelago, but forecast said rain was going to set in and there is nothing more miserable than a beach destination in the rain.
Instead, I found myself in Iloilo City pestering the unfailingly helpful staff at the tourist office for information about the region. The city itself isn’t that remarkable; it has some pleasing art deco and colonial architecture, making for a nice stroll. One of the colonial houses has a ‘for sale’ sign on it, inviting passers by to enquire within. Because I am nosy, I enquired and spent a couple of hours having coke (of the cola variety) with 6-year old Lance (“Would you like to see my baby cheeeeckens?” (not a euphemism). “I am fat, but I can run fast”) and his grandmother. I realised after she told me her age (86) for the 5th time that she had onset alzheimers. Also thought her name was Lola but it turns out that that is tagalog for grandmother. Nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyed a tour of the house and learning a little about Filipino families.
Near their house is Iloilo cathedral. Pope John Paul II visited before he kicked the bucket and blessed a fugly statue of Mary and baby J. The locals love it and come just to sit and pray next to it. Fugly statues are not uncommon in the country. For some reason, they like to create badly-executed concrete casts of famous figures and paint them in ludicrously stark colours. Like a plaster-of-Paris project at school.
On the way back to the hotel, I sampled the fast-food delights of Jollibee and Chow King, two of the country’s biggest fast food joints. People of Dubai – do you know what you’re missing? Get thee to Satwa and get a Jollibee down you. I feel cheated to have only just discovered them.
There are some more beautiful churches on the island (Panay, in case you’re wondering) but I’m already getting church-weary so I binned them off and hopped instead on a 40 minute free ride to the island of Guimaras, famous for its sweet mangoes. On the tourist office’s advice, I dropped into the Trappist Monastery on the way from the port to Alubijod Bay – don’t bother. When will I learn about monasteries?
Arriving at the white-sand beach I plumped for the only one of 3 beach-front resorts to have a proper floor, strongly suspecting the presence of masses of mosquitoes. For whatever reason, they love my blood; you can be assured that if mosquitoes are around, I will be bitten first. I read one article that said it was something to do with your skin smelling of urea but that can’t be right, can it? Do I smell of piss? Don’t answer that.
Island hopping is one of the main reasons to come here so I rented a boat together with two temporary friends from Iloilo and cruised the nearby islands for some snorkelling, caves and scenery. The thousands of tiny stinging jellyfish in the sea quickly put a stop to my snorkelling ambitions. Not that it mattered too much – you can see fish but the formerly impressive corals were wrecked by an oil spill a few years back. Far better to stay on the surface and enjoy the bounty-ad beaches, dips in the deeper water and turtles. Dropped at the ‘sanctuary’ (concrete trough with 5 turtles in it), we were handed a turtle with viciously wheeling flippers for a kodak moment. You haven’t lived until you’ve been bitch-slapped by a turtle. Tried to release one of them but he’d got complacent and couldn’t be arsed to drag himself across the sand when I put him down for an escape bid. Perhaps he’s been hauled back from the tantalising open sea one too many times. My visions of an ET-inspired escape scene were crushed.
So were my beach aspirations as the following morning I found that le temps a laisse son manteau du gris… I hung out with the boat boys at the beach cafe watching basketball while it pissed it down. It soon became clear that the rain in rainy season doesn’t necessary limit itself to short tropical bursts so I went inland for some jungle time, less dependent on sunshine to be enjoyable. Plus being on higher ground makes it a badass location for watching any thunderstorms that roll in.
Valle Verde is a bucolic little spot on a high point of the island with views over the bays and islands beyond. Accommodation comes in the form of small huts or treehouses. Obviously I went for the treehouse to live out my Swiss Family Robinson dream for a night. Joy!… until I discovered the mosquito plague. Woke up with, I shit you not, 100 bites. Much as I know that they love to bite me, I think there is a critical mass that my body can tolerate, beyond which they swell up like small pox, wreak havoc with my glands and give me a fever. Which is what happened after Valle Verde. I triple medicated with anti-histamines, ‘brufen and tiger balm and smelt like a walking rugby changing room. Half expected people to ask me where my Make a Wish minder was, but they settled instead for looks of ill-concealed horror. Inshallah that I have some immunity in the aftermath.
Took myself from Guimaras to the neighbouring island of Negros on the less travelled ferry route from a beach on the East coast to Pulapandan. Arriving at the port (shack at the side of the water), I realised that I was both overdue a hit of vitamins and hadn’t sampled the sweet mangoes that the island is famous for. Naturally adopted by the only English speaker on the beach, I bought a kilo for 50p. “I’m going to eat them all”, I told her and her chums. They hooted with laughter. But I did. ‘Well done!’ she said. “But you eat like a toddler.” Can’t win them all.
We loaded the tub with all the standard cargo – a couple of scooters, bucket of stinking crabs, sacks of rice, 150 people – and set sail across the waters for the hour’s journey. The blokes entertained themselves with pretending to throw my camera overboard while my friend sat and listened to original Whitney on the iPod. Excellent choice.
Safely landed on the other side I caught one of the Ceres buses that criss-cross the island. You have never seen so many seats on a bus; they’re 6 abreast. No such thing as personal space in the Philippines. Did get a bonus sermon from a preacher who jumped on board for 20 minutes though. I was heading for Sipalay and the mystical Sugar Beach, accessible only by boat and apparently a beautiful stretch of white sands and sunsets. But no matter how beautiful the beach, they ain’t much fun if it’s lamping it down so, with clouds looming ominously at the start of rainy season, I opted instead for the buzzy, university-dominated town of Dumaguete, whose lakes, waterfalls, jungle and nightlife attractions make it slightly less weather-dependent.
I recommend it. As usual, I’d got all excited by the guide book and set myself a hopelessly optimistic travel schedule around the country, cramming in as much as possible. Often, I keep these schedules up cos busy is good but sometimes you get to a place where inertia sets in. I remember in Goa (8 years ago now – crikey) it was called the Palolem Paralysis: get to Palolem with the intention of staying for a couple of days; find yourself in the exact same spot, next to a loin-clothed man and bendy bearded hippie a week later. In the Philippines Dumaguete seems to have the same effect.
I’m not sure if it’s because for many travellers it’s the furthest point South that they’re going to go (Mindano, the Southernmost island is almost out of bounds on account of being taken over by some of the Islamic crazies intent on ‘liberating’ it) or because the hostel is silly cheap (don’t stay in room 308; don’t ask me why), beer flows freely, the company is good and there are lots of day trips within striking distance, but I was not the only one to fall into the Dumaguete rut.
Day-tripped up to the beautiful jungle-bound Casororo waterfall and to the Twin Lakes, a couple of volcanic craters that are far more impressive in photos than they are in real life. Still, the drive up here is very pretty. It’s accessible only on the back of a hubble-hubble (motorbike taxi) winding through Jurassic Park scenery and you can hire a kayak by the hour and paddle around the lake. Learnt how the locals keep their kids under control too.
Waiting for a jeepney back at the bottom of the hill, one the hubble-hubble drivers broke from his game of chess to tell us that the lakes were 1800m deep. Fucking liar. Called him on it but he was insistent; google says they’re 150-200m. Much more believable. I wonder if he makes a sport of telling tourists inflated statistics, steadily increasing them until someone declares bullshit? If so, I applaud him.
Stopped in at the fiesta in Sibuan on the way back home, just to check out the market. It was basically a jumble sale that would have been right up Grandma Collacott’s street. But then Grandad Collacott says that she would look at ‘a turd on a string’ if it was in a shop window. He has such a way with words. The family’s preeminent bargain hunter, she will be proud to learn that I picked up four T-shirts for 50p. My packing rationale continues to baffle me. Why did I pack so much white? Why just one vest?
The day trip to Apo Island is a popular diversion, for good reason. About 800 people live the quintessential island lifestyle here, fishing in the morning and snoozing by their drying nets in the afternoon. A colony of more than 50 turtles lives at the end of one beach and are perfectly content to let the dumb tourists splash about with them. When they get pissed off, they just swim off to deeper waters. On the far side of the island lies a marine sanctuary of the most beautiful corals I’ve seen since Sipadan. People come here to snorkel or dive the day away. I ummed and ahhed about donning the BCD and tank once more but, though I like scuba diving, I’m not wild keen on it so I stuck with the surface, taking beach breaks to chat to the guards, meet the local puppies and chase the inquisitive kids. I’ll save SCUBA for when Sar and Dave pull their fingers out with the dive shop.
Back on the mainland at the end of the day, the boat trip gang rejoined another party from the hostel who had been completing their open water training on Dauin Beach and were celebrating with lashings of Red Horse, the 7% tramp beerthat I got big into, to my frequent demise.
I’m a big fan of this beach and its dark sand. I don’t know why everyone raves about white sand so much – the dark sand from volcanic basalt rocks, plus it enhances the colours of the coral reef Dauin boasts just 5m out from the shore. It was listed as one of the top 10 macro diving sites a few years back cos it’s bad ass.
Post-Apo, I diverted to the mystical island of Siquijor for a couple of days. It too is a sleepy island of white-sand beaches, butterflies, waterfalls and witchcraft. They do a ritual here, I forget the name, where a dark arts practitioner (not sure of the correct designation. Could I have paid more attention?) draws out toxins with a few spells that turn a cup of water black. Sounds like a pretty simple magic trick to me, but whatever you’re into.
Stayed at the gorgeously rustic, super-relaxed JJ’s resort, designed in traditional style but with the polish of Western finishing thanks to John, the Australian half of the owner-manager couple.
A couple of years back the Navy patrolled the stretch of water between Siquijor and Mindanao cos they got wind that the crazies were up to something. Sure enough, a Jordanian Islamic fundamentalist had been shipped in by the Mindanao separatists and sent in a speed boat to pick up a tourist kidnappee. He didn’t manage it before they picked him up. What is it with the beardy weirdies? Why can’t they just be beardy and weirdy back at home? Turn off the telly, unplug the internet and just hang out with Allah without being upset by Western inclinations, yeah?
Took up residence with Floor and Tommi, my newfound pals, and spent a couple of days cruising around on hired scooters to see the sights. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m afraid of motorbikes. When zipping along, all I can think when I look at the road surface is how it would rip the skin off your ill-dressed body if you were to fall off. Cheery, I know. Got used to it though, braving a top speed of 70kph and having only one brush with a crash.
The first evening nipped up to Kagusua Beach, a beautiful spot with abandoned, run-down picnic huts that make it look like the set of Lost. Cruising along at school kick-out time, as two whiteys on a bike, feels amusingly like being royalty. I’m not sure why – they get enough tourists – but every kid bellowed hello as we passed. One plucky teen even flashed his man-piece at us, much to my amusement.
Next day we went on up to Cantabon Cave. What’s appropriate attire for clambering over mud and sharp rocks in the semi-darkness? That’s right. Flipflops and a bikini. This cave was much narrower than its cavernous cousin in Sagada but every bit as impressive, especially when illuminated by the dim light of five torches. It’s 800m long and you climb, wade and shuffle through the gloom past more impressive rock formations, guided by local villagers who take it in turns to make modest amounts from the passing tourist trade. We were led by the able Ida and Nita.
“When were you last here in the cave, Ida?” I asked. “World War Two.” Suspect a misunderstanding. But some people did hide from the Japanese (violent types) right up at the back of the cave during the Second World War. Wise move as there is a supply of fresh spring water and few would suspect that anyone would hide out in the inhospitable cavern, presuming that they found the tiny entrance in the first place.
Continued from here across Bandila-an mountain in the centre of the island with jungle roads that felt like a game of Mario Cart and panoramic views of the coast and surrounding islands. (It was here that I nearly totalled the scooter but we won’t mention that to the hire shop.) Arrived at Cambugahay waterfalls an hour later for a refreshing dip. It’s notorious for the thieves that hang out in the bushes to nick stuff from visitors so everyone advises you not to take valuables and to keep an eye on your stuff. Note to prospective thieves – don’t wear baby blue or red as you try to hide in the jungle. Amateurs.
Back at the ranch, we settled in for a feast and some beers with the neighbours; a Brit-Aussie pair who had taken up residence for a month in the villa next-door and a novelist from Trinidad and Tobago editing his new book about witchcraft. JJ’s sports the perfect hammock-bedecked hang-out on the beach that always attracts a small gang in the evening. Revisited the film of Gone in 60 Seconds one evening, just to remind myself of how kack Nicholas Cage is as an actor. I maintain that I’ve only seen him act well in one film, Leaving Las Vegas, and that’s only cos he plays a dying drug addict so only has to lie there and groan. Actually, make that two: he’s not bad in Kick Ass.
It would be all too easy to fall into a lethargic trance here and get stuck for days so I made the break back for Negros with just a few days left in the Philippines before my flight to South Korea that I had to speed-buy from Singapore airport to be let on the plane. The authorities in the Philippines allegedly require proof of an onward ticket if you are to get a visa on arrival and the jobsworths at Singapore Airlines won’t let you on until you show them proof. Unlike the immigration officials.
So back in Dumaguete I used the full moon as an excuse to get trollied with the other locals and backpackers. Hayahay is the best bar to have late beers in accompanied by good live bands. Be warned -Why Not, where you may get dragged to later, is a glorified whore bar.
Having enjoyed a stint of sunshine, I was going to chance the weather at Sugar Beach for the last couple of days. Until I learnt that it was a 6 hour bus ride away (*possibly not true). Instead, I went to Tambobo Bay, a popular permanent mooring spot for yachties (one of whom we met, wearing only baggy y-fronts as he leapt on his deck for some fist-shaking when 10 smiling Filipinos nearly crashed into his home).
Harold and his mansion are acquiring/building a brand new boat to ramp up the dive trips, island hopping and liveaboards available – Rose, as she’s called, is very spacious and will be cracking when she’s finished. A little team were cruising the half-finished boat down to Tambobo to put it in dry dock for some more work. Hauled my hungover ass out of bed at the unholy hour of 8 to join them and found myself later that afternoon amid 10 fellas, sharing barbequed pork and rice over sips of rum. Tried to put my NVQ in bodging to use the next morning by helping out with sanding the top deck down. Until it started to piss it down, when I retreated to the cabin and watched the water-soaked world through an iPod haze. Blissful.
It doesn’t do to get on an international flight without a raging hangover so marked last night in Dumaguete and the country with an evening out on the pop before stumbling to the airport to trip up to Busan, South Korea, via Manila and a plate of fried chicken. Like the Philippines, they say you can’t get a visa on arrival in Korea unless you have proof of an onwards ticket. Decided, after deliberation and an amount of pissing about on facebook with check-in looming, to chance it with a made-up booking reference and genuine flight details. Like the Philippines, Korea immigration didn’t even check.
Could happily have stayed longer in the Philippines, but a) I say that about everywhere, and b) it’s best to leave on a high. That said, even despite the food, I’m chucking it on the ‘come back here’ list.
Ubiquity stakes – Drunk drivers, offal