After a breakfast of spicy sardines and browsing the net for information, alongside 40 or so truants playing World of Warcraft, I plumped for Camaguin as the next port of call. It lies between Bohol and the will-they-won’t-they-kidnap-you land of Mindanao. I was desperate to go to Mindy as it looks uncrowded and like it’s got some beautiful spots for the intrepid. I met a few super-friendly people from Davao and Zamboanga who insisted that it was safe and fun. However just last year a few crazies blew up a karaoke bar in Tacurong. The FCO has it highlighted as a major danger zone but they have alarmist prognoses for pretty much everywhere except Hyde Park. I could get no consensus from travellers and locals on safety and the likelihood of the Islamic separatists playing silly buggers with bombs again.
According to the locals, there are two groups of bombers and kidnappers at work – the mafia and the separatists. The separatists want mostly-Muslim Mindanao to become an independent Islamic state. However, this being the hub of organised crime also means that there is a concentration of wealth here. So the government doesn’t want to let it – and the revenues – go. This is second-hand information, by the way: Don’t quote me on it.
Camiguin lies between the two, is alleged to be like Siquijor (my favourite island yet) with fewer tourists and seemed to be a pretty happy halfway house. So off I trotted on the jeepney to Jagna, a different jumping-off port to deliver you via the waves to the next island. The bus hugs the coast on the way around, passing through some beautiful towns and fishing villages. The Spanish influence is still very much visible in the form of old churches and convents that seem to have reached an equilibrium of tropical decay. Often they’re streaked with black mould and would look a bit creepy were it not for the many pious locals who fill them to bursting on Sundays and during festivals. Often they pop by during the week to say hello to their favourite saint too.
That’s not the only remnant of the Spanish colonisation. Tagalog itself is scattered with directly-lifted Spanish words and there are two dialects – one in deepest Mindanao and one right up in North Luzon – where approximately 50% of the lingo is still Spanish. Except that they don’t use tenses, only infinitives. Would like to hear that in motion.
You’ll also notice see some of the American legacy in play. The Philippines had a major role in the Americans Second World War, Korea and Vietnam campaigns and for a long time was viewed as the 51st state. From this period of influence, you’ll find that everyone speaks English to greater or lesser degree. The yanks decreed that English be the medium of tuition in schools and so everyone has a very good grasp on it. Basketball is also the sport of choice. People play it at every opportunity on any scrap of village land. You’ll also see a fair number of American servicemen who’ve set up home with their beaus from their time over here and notice a number of Caucasian-filipino mix children. Many families, granted not the foreign-mix ones, often have 12 or more children.
Remember how I told you last year that the church here was strongly opposed to the Reproductive Health Bill? Every sperm is sacred, and whatnot? Check out Time magazine’s appraisal of the policy.
Duly, I settled down with my book (read the Dragon Tattoo series in a week: Riddle me why Trouser Snake winds up with Figuerola, of all people?) for the two-hour lumber up the coast. Arriving, I discovered that the ferry only goes every other day, and not today. What’s more, the onwards ferry back to Dumaguete seemed barely to have a schedule at all. I settled back down on the bag for some cookies and another think, chatting at the same time to the tourist police and a toothless old man of excellent conversation. Unsure whether I would be able to get to Camiguin and then on to Duma in a reasonable timeframe and without retracing any steps, I pronounced this a scenic wild goose chase and scurried back to the ferry at Tagbilaran. Filipinos cut their nails in the strangest places. An activity that I like to confine to a bathroom, a mother sat behind me on the boat clipping her daughter’s toenails and a waitress, bored on shift in a café, decided to cut her fingernails at the serving counter.
Later that day, I arrived back in Dumaguete. As I walked from the port to my lodgings, I noticed an obese man sitting outside. I recoiled in disgust as I watched him prop himself on a wall, his gut hanging down to his knees, legs spread, and light a cigarette. Telling myself off for being a fattist, judgemental bitch, I then rallied to smile and bid him a good evening.
A short time later, he appeared in the café with young, not unattractive Filipina girl, loudly offering her a drink to ‘calm her nerves’ before disappearing. I say ‘disappear’; a 30-stone man doesn’t just disappear. He waddled off to his room with the poor, trembling girl trailing him. A short time after that, a ruckus broke out and the staff were summoned to deal with the weeping hooker who had called the police. Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines so the filth didn’t do much about it, except for give Heinous Fat Man a rap on the knuckles and send the girl on her way. Luckily for her, I don’t think enough time had elapsed to ‘do the deed’.
It turned out that he had bought her services from a tricycle driver (yes, you do have to question how he ever got into a trike) who had taken the cash. She claimed that she had never seen any money and asked him to pay again. He refused. I’m reading between the lines here, but I would guess that she took one look and thought ‘he has to at least double the money’. My God I know I would have. I’m not on the game but I would say a ballpark £500,000 would be required before I’d even let him take his clothes off.
Anyway, this incident got me thinking. I have seen many more of the old, gross Westerner: pretty, young filly combination on this trip, a spectacle that I thought was confined to Thailand. I know that I find it distasteful, nay repellent, when I see these couples but hadn’t given much thought to why. My own narrow-minded prejudice? Are they happy? What difference does a few years make? What business is it of mine?
I discussed it with a few people. Of course, there are a few couples who appear well-matched and happy (more often of similar age) but different nationalities. Hats off to them. These are genuine partnerships may they flourish. For the most part, the Western-Filipina couples are pretty younger things paired off with ugly, old men – with money. A lady who I spoke to said that of her friends who had married foreigners, most ended up unhappy and regretting it. Cultural differences are, from those I’ve spoken to, the biggest problem to overcome as many foreigners simply don’t bother to assimilate.
Many of the men are looking for a Filipina wife to secure a property purchase with benefits (foreigners are not allowed to buy property without a Filipino proxy or a registered company). Others are looking for hotter totty than they could otherwise dream of, a home in the sun and some companionship. I see it as a long-term hooker lease.
But, by the same token, the men must be desperately lonely. Perhaps they can’t find anyone back at home and have sought relief and some sort of happiness in a tropical ladyfriend. How is it different from the (almost) accepted young playboy bunny-octogenarian billionaire combos back at home. I just wonder how much contentment can come from an almost entirely economic transaction. The blokes have got fat Western bank accounts to match their beer guts and the wives are often supporting families and relishing the prospect of a lovely new house. Frequently they look miserable in the company of their husbands at the bar or strapped to the back of a bike. I’m told that many continue affairs with their Filipino lovers and wait for the old dude to croak it.
You can’t really blame the women either. Nice house, economic security for them and their families etc.
I can’t decide what I think but my instinct remains with ‘gross’ regarding long-term sex tourism. Then again, perhaps in 30 years time I’ll be in Madonna’s shoes so I’ll stop short of issuing a damning conclusion.
Where was I? Oh yes, back in Dumaguete I had time to explore further. Santa Catalina Street is a funky hangout with a great collection of cafés and restaurants geared to younger, hipper students. I loved Café Nortier and Jutsz restaurant, plus Mamia down on the boardwalk for cakes. Hayahay is still one of the premier nightime destinations but it has been supplemented by the new Tiki Bar, also on the seafront but with slightly better live music. I tried lechon, roasted piglet, and grilled yellow-fin tuna jaw in a pleasant break from grim national culinary specialities. Then I tried blood soup and all was restored.
The Filipinos love a good jumble sale so I honed my shopper’s elbow in amongst the giggling ladies at one down on the square and then again later at a giant haberdashery emporium. This is probably in large part because wages here average between 100 and 200 pesos a day. That’s about £150 a month. To put that in context, a cheap private room will cost a minimum of 500 pesos, although you can get a bowl of noodles at Chow King for 50. Took my chances with a 50peso (about 70p) haircut staffed by outrageously camp students and, despite erring on the side of caution, was pleasantly surprised with my biannual haircut. Little sister’s wedding approaches so I had better, I suppose, begin the great scrub-up.
One day I took peddle bikes with my new friend Helen to Dauin, 16km down the coast. Just as well it was flat cos the fold-up hunks of metal were one-speed wonders. I looked like a monkey on a stick but it did get us lots of cheers from the locals. This is how I imagine celebrity must feel. The route we took snaked down the waterfront and past a wonderful-looking art workshop. Once on the highway, we took our chances with the Ceres buses and lorries that zip past at fairly regular intervals at high speed, beeping their horns in lieu of, say, giving the cyclists some spaces. I shrieked on more than one occasion as they missed me by inches, and yet we still decided that it was safer to cycle here than in Bristol. Going at a slower speed allows you to see all the fine furniture workshops along the way, boutique dive resorts and a coconut processing plant. Oh, to be allowed in to see what they do with them all.
Another day, we went on a whale shark quest to Oslob on the neighbouring land-mass of Cebu. They run many organised trips from Duma but it’s more fun and often cheaper to go under your own steam. We nipped up the coast to the port of Sibulan and jumped a boat to take us the half-hour journey to Liloan. On arrival, a bus was waiting to take us straight up the coast to Oslob. It’s a bit of a circus at the whale shark site and not remotely environmentally friendly. The local fishermen and barangay officials have established a slick operation that relieves you of your money, plops you in a bangka (little boat) and shoves you in the water with the whalesharks while they feed them shrimp and guide them along the shore. 60% of the cash goes to the fishermen, 30% to the local government and 10% to the barangay.
Now, it is on their natural migration route but there are a few problems with this practice. The first is that they overfeed the poor buggers all the wrong food. Whalesharks – the ocean’s biggest fish – are filtration feeders that eat plankton. I liken lobbing shrimp down their gullet to a fast-food habit in humans, not unlike many Filipinos. It may not disturb their route, but it does upset their migration schedule. Then, despite rules to say that you mustn’t get closer than 5m or touch the fish, there is human stupidity combined with poor visibility. I nearly kicked one in the face as it was lured past my spot in the water.
All that said, they are majestic, marvellous creatures. We saw three fast-food junkies who were about 4m long and looked like car ferries as they scooped past with their mouths open. They have dull and light grey patterns of spots and stripes and are incredibly graceful given their size. Scuba divers make a mockery of the elegant underwater seascape.