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Reisverslag God, texting, fastfood
9 juni 2011
God, texting, fastfood
The Philippines have always been standing a bit apart from the rest of Asia. It was the only Asian country having been colonized by Spain (hence the name, Philips II), and then the USA. Some anthropologists even argue that the history of the Philippines should be studied alongside Latin American history. Three centuries of Spanish colonization left Catholicism deeply entrenched and instilled a fear of God in the otherwise very cheerful population that is still very much visible: churches are busy, men enter public buses reciting from the Bible and passing donation forms, women in minibuses murmur prayers during the entire trip and make signs of the cross when passing 'Iglesia ni Christo' churches that abound in both cities and countryside, and you can't miss the big posters at churches telling you that abortion is evil and the 21st of May will be Judgment Day.
The Spanish legacy further includes old churches and cathedrals, some fortresses, San Miguel beer, and the strange phenomenon that everybody has Spanish surnames. When you meet Asian-looking people and they introduce themselves as Castillo or Pelaez (before asking for your phone number, because then they can text you), that's unexpected somehow. For the rest, the Spanish were not concerned with the population at all. Its sole mission was to spread Christianity, after all. It was the Americans who actually did something useful for the Philippines by reforming the entire education system. As a result, the Philippines again stands apart from the rest of Asia, as everybody in the street who has attended high school can actually speak English, highly unusual in other Asian countries (except perhaps in parts of India). The very American education system can also be seen when stumbling upon a high school graduation ceremony, which was American in every sense as well, from the traditional blue college dress with funny hat and the speeches given to singing the national hymn hand held on heart. I guess one can see some US influence in daily life as well, with lots of 'warnings' about things ('wet floor' signs, you know what I mean), and of course the ubiquity of old US army jeeps beefed up and colourfully decorated now providing local public transport about everywhere.
Then something about texting. I'm not exaggerating. In Europe we tend to text (sms) a lot, but the Filipinos are the heaviest sms users in the world. Sending an sms costs only 1 peso (and is free if on the same network) and the Filipinos apparently exchange an average of 27 texts per subscriber per day! Everyone really just seems to be texting all the time, at least when idle: on public transport, when waiting, in a bar, etc. As said, when you meet people and talk to them for a while, they'll ask for your number and then you can happily text for a few days or as long as it's interesting. Hostel reservations can be done by texting; it really feels like the entire country depends on the sms infrastructure!
And the last of the triad, the food, was disappointing indeed. One could argue the Philippines stands out from Asia in this way too. While one can eat some excellent fish and seafood at the coast (it's hard to ruin grilled fish), it's often difficult to find some tasty food if you don't want to eat in the ubiquitous fastfood chains all the time. And even then: you can only find some average rice with meat, nothing like the extensive and very flavourful cuisines many other Asian countries have.
I arrived in the Philippines after my jungle trip in Borneo, having rested in Miri for a few days, then taking a flight to Kota Kinabalu on to Clark. I had heard from my Dutch friends Harriet and Mike that they would arrive in the Philippines on the 9th of April, so I first went up into northern Luzon by myself for some 10 days. I started in Vigan, the best-preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture in the Philippines, where in the cobble-stoned streets with leafy squares and old Spanish-influenced mestizo houses one really imagines oneself in a Spanish village, vino and tapas round the corner so to say.
From there I went into the Cordillera, the mountain range covering much of northern Luzon and home to several tribes that have long resisted central government (which, with the 7107 islands comprising the Philippines, has been hard anyway). Still in northern Luzon there are places such as Kalinga province that are described as 'wild west'. The main attraction in north Luzon, however, are the Ifaguao rice terraces, arguably the most beautiful and impressive rice terraces in the world. I had heard of them, of course, and having seen lots of rice terraces already, I was looking forward to finally see 'the real thing'. I did a loop through the Cordillera, via Baguio, then Sagada, a very peaceful mountain town which is popular with travellers just to relax and enjoy the cooler climate. Taking local jeepney's (sitting on the roof when full) over some paved, other muddy pot-holed roads I reached Banaue, home of the famed rice terraces, 2000 years old and impressive indeed. Yet the most spectacular rice terraces were in the small village of Batad, which is a very small village at the foot of a majestic amphitheatric view of terraces. Batad can be reached from Banaue by jeepney and then hiking about an hour up then down into a valley. Most people arrange private jeepney's with a group and do a day tour to Batad, but because the schedule of public jeepney's was such to accomodate people travelling from Batad to the city of Banaue during the day, I actually ended up staying in Batad for 2 nights. With day hikers gone, it was very peaceful and impressive to wake up in a guesthouse looking out over the village and the terraces, the morning mist slowly giving way to the all-green view of rice.
It was a long day back to Manila, hiking an hour up the valley and spending the rest of the day changing jeepney's and buses. In Manila I arranged a flight to Puerto Princesa in Palawan, where Harriet and Mike had just arrived (Manila itself is not that interesting, and I would come back here at the end of my Philippines trip anyway). This was the start of the 'vacation period' that I referred to in my last post :), just spending some time relaxing on beaches with good friends. We traveled together for 2 weeks, which was really enjoyable. First in Palawan, going from Puerto Princesa and the pretty hyped Underground River, which was surely nice but did not get my vote as 8th Wonder of the World, to gorgeous El Nido and the surrounding Bacuit archipelago, a Halong Bay-like area of limestone rocks and many islands just minutes from El Nido's coast.
We spent two days on a small bangka boat where the crew would steer us to the many well-known lagoons and hidden coves in the area, where, as we generally started a bit late (it was vacation, after all), we always arrived after most or all of the other boats had already left, thus having the place to ourselves most of the time. In particular the Small Lagoon I thought was taken straight from paradise: through a small entry between the rocks we canoed into turqoise-blue still water with rocky cliffs on all sides and vegetation housing various birds. The lagoon would stretch out some 100 meters and continue in a leftward direction, leading onto a smaller cove. There was total silence except for some birds' chirping and it was just magical. We spent the night in tents on a deserted white-sand beach of one of the islands where the crew prepared some freshly caught fish and made a fire in the night, which was a good accompaniment to the rum and coke we brought :)
Then we flew to Boracay and stayed on the beach for a week. Boracay is _the_ tourist destination of the Philippines and unlike any other destination on my trip so far, it was high season in the Philippines as well! I had very much enjoyed the fact that high season generally means good weather and that I was out of the monsoons for a while, especially considering the fact that the Philippines is prone to severe typhoons, but I had not considered the fact that it was also Easter now and being such a Catholic country, that Easter would actually be super-high season! Fortunately we had realized this in Palawan and we booked some rooms (which I normally never do) in advance. Boracay was indeed really busy, but interestingly enough mostly with Filipino tourists, since the main tourist season for European/American tourists seems to be a couple months earlier. In particular after Good Friday, which was respected in silence, the Easter parties started and we did some good partying in the various beach bar and clubs. For the rest, we relaxed on the beach and we dived! We had been diving on El Nido and Mike, never having dived before, was so enthusiastic that he wanted to do his PADI Open Water in Boracay. Harriet and me definitely wanted to do some dives as well and after talking to the dive school we actually decided to go and do our Advanced, which basically means doing 5 so-called Adventure Dives. Next to the required Navigation and Deep dives we did a very nice Wreck Dive, an initially awkward but stunning Night Dive after sunset where we saw the underwater world in a totally different light (literally and figuratively), and a spectacular Drift Dive through the Channel between Boracay and the mainland, where because it was just after full moon the strong tidal drift sped us along the bottom at about 8 knots. It was impossible to stop, really cool.
When Harriet and Mike left for Malaysia, I immersed myself in the 'real' Philippines again. And the real Philippines means poverty. While the Philippines was once leading in Asia economically, it has fallen far behind since. The real Philippines also means extremely friendly people, always interested to strike up conversation, very cheerful, humorous, flirtatious even, and it's really nice to travel around the countryside. And I would see the real countryside. A girl I met in Baguio had told me that she, like many others, would go back to her province for Easter and this was on Negros. When I asked where, she said Bacolod, one of the main cities. I said I might actually pass there and if so I would let her know. I thought it might be nice to see some local life. So, when I left Boracay, went to Iloilo for a day and then continued onto the island of Negros, I texted her that I was in the neighbourhood.
She turned out to not live in Bacolod exactly. She directed me to the town of Sagay and then to a very small village nearby, where she and her family lived in a small bamboo house like everyone else. I was welcome to stay there for the night, although she apologized many times for the fact that they lived so simple and that they were so poor and if I was ok and not bored. I bought some beers for the men and they gave me rice and barbecued fish, which was really nice. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. There was nothing much to do there, of course; one could walk 100m passing the small market to the waterfront and that was it, the waterfront being the center of life in the village where some of the village youngsters would congregate. Everyone kept asking questions about why I was there and whether I was or would become the girl's boyfriend. When I explained we were just friends and we met up north, a disappointment glanced over her face which she quickly hid but I realized that I had underestimated the impact of my coming. It became uncomfortable when she continually had to repeat us being friends to everyone we passed. When I ended up lying awake for most of the night on the hard bamboo bench in the 'living room' of the bamboo hut they lived in, her drunk brother stumbling in during the night, despite some preliminary plans to go to an island off the coast next day with some of her friends and brothers, I thought it was best to thank the family for their heartwarming hospitality but leave the next morning after going into town to print some photos for the family that they took with my camera. This was poor life in the provinces, and now I knew.
I traveled further along Negros' coast to Dumaguete, which is sugarcane country, I believe Negros is one of the world's largest exporters of sugarcane, so trucks with the stuff were continually driving by and fields after fields of sugarcane dominated the coastal strip surrounding the mountainous interior. Dumaguete was nice. A small university city, it's quiet yet dynamic and I stayed in a very nice guesthouse where they organized things like a free oyster's night, barbecues, etc. I dived again, at Apo island, then took the ferry to the island of Cebu where I spent a few days just lingering in Cebu City. There is very little to see in Cebu City, but the weather had turned bad: it was drizzling continuously for a few days, so I just read up on news and decided not to do much more other than go to Legazpi, or actually to Donsol: to see the whale sharks.
Whale sharks, the largest species of fish in the ocean, regularly visit the nutritious waters in the area where the Donsol rivers flows into the sea. Since whale sharks are normally a very rare sight underwater, the town has truly become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Philippines as everyone wants to get a glimpse of these huge, almost 20m long, friendly giants (they're sharks for sure, but they only eat plankton). You can snorkel, not dive, to get a better sight and boats go out in droves mainly in the morning with 'spotters' trying to detect large shadows underwater, passengers ready to jump in. March and April are peak season; it was now the beginning of May, so I was actually a bit late, but the weather turned out to be more of a problem. The drizzle in Cebu City had been the result of the first typhoon of the year already and the second leg of my flight Cebu-Manila-Legazpi got canceled, because the typhoon was currently over Legazpi. Later I heard that people got stuck in Legazpi in their guesthouse without power for 2 days, so I guess I was lucky to at least be in Manila being able to go somewhere, although the typhoon moved towards Manila next and rains and heavy storms ravaged the city for 2 days. When I could fly to Legazpi and got to Donsol, I went on a boat that same afternoon. Unfortunately, while the weather had turned sunny now, the typhoon had caused the normally already mediocre visibility to go down to only about 2 meters. When I went into the water, I could just see my own flippers. The idea of seeing an actual beast of 20m in front of you when there's barely 2m visibility was actually pretty scary. Still I went out again the next morning to try my luck. But no, not one whale shark was spotted, not by any other boats either. I guess I'd have to come back for the whale sharks some time.
I took a flight back to Manila where I would have one more day of sightseeing before, after 6 weeks in the Philippines altogether, I would fly to Hong Kong, where I finally met Sue, Mandy and Terence again after 6 years! We had met each other in Tibet in 2005 sharing transport up to and then a hut at Everest Base Camp and we had always maintained contact. It was very very good to see them again! I spent 5 days in Hong Kong altogether, just walking around, getting to know the city a bit, then also 2 days in Macau, before I left for South Korea, which would be the last stop on my trip. I had planned to go to Japan originally, but I had decided to skip that because of the unresolved nuclear situation.
Now, as I've been traveling through South Korea for almost 3 weeks, I'm at the end of my trip. And it's been good, it's time to go. It was a very enriching experience again and I saw and did so many interesting things and met many interesting people, but after 8 months I feel I don't have the energy anymore to go and do much more and then you know it's time to go home. Tomorrow I'm flying back to Holland. It'll be strange, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing all of you again.
All the best and see you soon!
9 juni 2011 11:24 | Door: Amanda
Jaaah!! En wij staan op Schiphol te wachten hoor, want we willen je ook wel weer eens zien! Tijd voor hollandse avonturen weer, lekker barbequen op je dakterras enzo, kost helemaal niet zoveel energie om ons daarvoor uit te nodigen :-)
9 juni 2011 12:48 | Door: erna zwemmer
Heerlijk om je weer te zien! Tot morgen. Liefs, Mama
9 juni 2011 15:30 | Door: Johan
Jammer dat je weer terugkeert Arnoud:) Ik heb je verslagen met plezier gelezen. Groet,
9 juni 2011 16:53 | Door: Karen
Goede reis en voor straks welkom terug!!!
13 juni 2011 11:36 | Door: Harrie
Leuk je vanavond weer te zien!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Kunnen we een cocktail drinken in de kroeg ipv op een tropisch strand ;-)
13 juni 2011 22:11 | Door: Wim
Ik heb genoten van al je mooie verhalen.
Rust lekker uit en tot gauw.
14 juni 2011 07:49 | Door: Arnold & Lida
Welkom thuis! Wat een prachtige belevenissen heb je weten te verzamelen! Het was spannende leesstof en we vonden het haast jammer dat jouw verhalen stopten. We hebben heel veel bewondering gekregen voor jouw bijna onuitputtelijke energie en je geweldige kennis van zaken. Sterkte met de aanpassing aan het gewone leven!!