January 13th, 2004
Subject: Travelheadilla in Manila
You missed me. I know it.
Well, here starts another chapter. It almost seems as though this is the second half of the trip. Its just the way it feels to me. It doesnt seem like one long trip anymore. Like the first part is done, and now the second part is starting.
Its been rather refreshing not to have written anything for over a month. It was like I took time off from from my "job" and just relaxed.
So now what am I doing in the Philippines? Well, throughout my trip I have met people travelling by sailboat, and have been fascinated by them. I'm really attracted to that mode of transport, and would love to try a long-distance sailing trip someday. So, it might be a good idea if I learned to sail first. Well, I started looking up sailing positions on the web, and came across this website. Its a couple that are sailing around the world and take on crew who wish to learn how to sail, that are willing to share in the expenses. Sounded perfect. Their original plan was to leave Manila in the Philippines mid-January, and arrive in Thailand mid-March. At that point, I would leave the boat and travel overland through South East Asia.
However, they have had some issues arrive with their current crew and we wont be leaving Manila until the end of February and then we should arrive in Thailand at the end of April. I'm not really on much of a schedule for this part of my trip, so I dont mind much. But that does leave me with some time to explore the Philippines.
The first thing that struck me as odd here, happened before the plane even landed. As we approached the runway, as the wheels were seconds from touching down, someone shouted "Yes!....", in and anticapatory tone. Then someone else chimed in with the same thing. In seconds, the entire section of the plane was shouting "Yes, Yes, Yes....", the way fans in a stadium would cheer for a player as he was nearing the endzone, getting more excited the closer he got. I wanted to shout out "No!" just to see what would happen. Figured that might be bad luck. When the wheels touched and we slowed, everyone clapped. Touchdown.
The Philippines reminds me a lot of Hawaii (where I grew up), which was very comforting in a strange way. The weather, the plant life, the people. Most of it looks and feels the same. Except the smog and congestion of Manila. Like any other capital city, its a little too crowded, and congested.
I found a nice hotel, settled in and went walking to find a bite to eat. I found a neat little shish-ka-bob stand with great food. While I was there, the lady who spoke English said her daughter (the one serving the food) wanted to know if I was married. When I said no, the mother then said she would like to know if you'd like to marry her. We both blushed a little bit, and the daughter gave the "Mom, stop it" look. Most people in the Philippines speak English, and speak it very well. The daughter may have even spoken English, but may just have been shy. I have not run in to anyone yet who couldn't speak English well. After the US helped the Philippines overcome the Japaneese attack in WW2, the US came in and set up schools and made English the primary language. After the Philippines got its independence, they went back to teaching their own dialects. However, there are over 20 dialects in the Philippines, so people still learn English as a means of communicating with people who speak other dialects.
I went back to the same shish-ka-bob place for lunch (no marraige proposal this time) then headed out to Rizal park. One thing you'll notice while walking around is that a lot of people will shout out "Hey Joe!". Joe was the nickname of the American GI's when they were here, so when some Filipinos see a white person, they shout "Hey Joe!". Would be very surprising the first time it happened if your name really was Joe.
Another thing you'll notice about the Filipinos is that they are amazingly friendly people. Many of them just want to come up and talk to you. I havent been on a bus yet where I havent had a nice conversation with a local. A guy in Rizal park even wanted me to hold his baby. That was a little weird, so I passed on that one. While I was walking through the park, I had something very strange happen to me. There were 2 guys in the park, one with a large video camera, the other with a microphone, and the guy with the camera approaches me and tells me he is from the department of tourism and wants to know if he can ask me some questions. Sure, sounds fun.
Him: Behind you is a statue of Apalapalupal(?), do you know who he is?
Given my promting, I didnt do too bad. So if you ever get a chance to see the 2004 tourism video for the Philippines, keep an eye out for me. For the record, I wanted to do some research just to see who this guy was. Well, back in the 1500s when Spain had sent Magellan on a mission to find and claim any land that wanst already in European possesion, he found the Philippines and claimed it and took it from the Filipinos. Well, Lapu Lapu found Magellan and killed him and sent a message to Spain that the Philippines was to remain independent. Theres your history lesson for today.
As if things needed to get stranger. Not more than a few moments later, a man with a horse drawn carraige came up to me and asked me if I wanted a ride. I really just wanted to walk. But he was such a nice guy and wanted to talk, I ended up talking to him for 15 minutes. He has 8 kids. His one daughter is single. He said he wanted her to marry an American. He asked if I would marry her. I was about to laugh, but I saw he was serious. What made me laugh was that he didnt say, "Would you like to marry my daughter, she's very nice/smart/pretty/etc". No photo, no qualities described. Just the question. When I said no, he asked if I was sure. Yes, thanks. Wow, 2 offers in 2 days.
Later that night I went back to my shish-ka-bob place. Then it occurred to me. For someone who likes traveling and experiencing different things, I sure like to get in to a routine.
Manila is located on the main island of Luzon (the Philippines is made up of over 3000 islands). I decided to head north to the mountains in Luzon to do some hiking and see the hanging coffins and rice terraces. On my bus ride up there, I was talking with a real nice lady about living in the Philippines. We talked about the problem of the street kids in Manila. They are anywhere from age 4 or 5 on up, and live on the street, sleeping on top of cardboard at night - you see them everywhere. They run away from orphanages for various reasons, and elect to live on the street. Once a year, the city comes around and invites them to join the program in place to get them off the street. The program is open year round, but its once-a-year they make the effort to go try to get them to come in.
We were also talking about how amazing it is that even remote villages have internet cafes. She told me that there are less now than there were before. Many were closed down because they didnt govern kids playing video games too much. As someone who thinks video games are far too addictive, I applaud that.
There really are not that many tourists here in the Philippines. Especially up north in the mountains. You'll find that a fair number of locals will look at you, only because its a bit uncommon to see tourists here. A lot of them will strike up conversations with you as well. I met a guy on my second bus who was heading to his family reunion which was to have 200 people in attendance and his family could be traced back to the area as far back as 600 years. Amazing.
The bus ride to Bontoc went through the areas of the rice terraces. The rice terraces are large "steps" that cover the side of the mountains, making flat areas for farming rice. It really is a sight to see, entire areas and mountains stepped-out. The rice is grown with water constantly on top of the soil, so it looks like multiple stepped reflecting pools. As impressive as these ones were, there are better terraces that can be seen only by trekking in to the woods.
I arrived in the town of Bontoc in the mountain provence just before dark. I walked through the farmers marked to my hotel. As I was walking back through the market, a person selling chickens reached in to a cage, pulled one out by the wings, and beat it to death with a stick. Now, I have eaten chicken my whole life. I know they die somehow. But I am pretty sure that is the first time in my life I have ever seen an animal being killed. Its a very shocking thing to behold. I know the vegetarians out there would hope that this would be profound enough to turn me to their side. Sorry, still a carnivore.
I walked around town and met a few locals at a hangout spot called DJs which they insisted was the place to be that night (which was Friday). The owner of my hotel had said that the Cable cafe was a much better option, but as I had met the people at DJs, I opted to head there when night came at about 7:30. 7:30??? Yes, there is a town curfew of 9pm, and all bars, shops, etc must be shut at 9pm so 7:30 sounded like a good time to head out. Well, the guys I met at DJs earlier werent there, and it was dead, so I headed to the Cable cafe. Again, dead. I had one beer and headed back to the hotel to write out my postcards (my new years resolution: send postcards - send me your addresses people). As I sat in the nearly empty resturant, a few of the locals asked me if I'd like to try the local gin they had bought - Ginebra. Sure, why not.
We got to talking, and I told them that the Cable cafe was dead. They said it didnt usually pick up until 8pm or 8:15. But it closes at 9pm? Yes, thats right. Ok. The bottle of Ginebra we were drinking was made in the area and costs 45 pesos for a 750ml bottle. Thats 90 cents. And it was good. We did gin shots until the devil had won. You see, there is a drawing of Saint Mark on the label, as he is fighting with the devil, and clearly winning as he is on top. Fitting when the bottle is full and on the table. When it is empty and being tipped upside down, it looks (and feels) more like the devil has won this battle. We got in to a second bottle and I called it a night while St Mark was still winning.
The next day I took a Jeepney to Sagada to see the hanging coffins and burial caves. The Jeepney is the local bus of the Philippines. When the US military left the Philipines, it left behind all the old Army Jeeps. Someone decided to stretch them out, and put 2 bench seats in the rear facing each other. Add a hard roof, no back door, lots of paint and too many lights and viola - you have a Jeepney. But there were only so many people, and more demand for Jeepneys. So, someone started building these things out of stainless steel. Many then remain unpainted, and shine like a crhome schoolbus, others are elaborately painted, but oddly enough, they are all identical under their paint and lights. All of them have the front look of a Jeep. Most appear to be half dead, but I havent seen any broken down yet.
Back to Segada. Centuries ago, the Irogot people in the mountains of the Philippines would place their dead in wooden coffins made from a hollowed tree. The coffin would then be placed on the side of a cliff, or stuck up high on the inside wall of a cave. Hanging coffins website - Burial Caves Website
When I got to Segada, I wanted to find a guide to take me exploring in to the non-burial caves - another great attraction of Segada. I went to sign in and it turns out the cost of the guide is 300 pesos for 1-4 people. I told the guy I'd come back in an hour to see if anyone one else had signed up to share the cost. As I was walking away, a couple of backpackers, Sam and Monce came up to do the same hike, so we decided to all do it together.
The hike and the cave was amazing. Its incredible that no matter how much caving you do, each one seems to have unique qualities which just make it amazing. This one was no exception. I think the guide said it went 550 feet in to the ground, but it didnt feel like we went that deep, but I dont think we went all the way either. We reached a spring at the end, and all jumped in despite the fact the water was just a tad above freezing.
When we got back, the guys introduced me to their other travel partner, Matt, and told me about their plans to head south to the festival of Ati-Atihan. http://www.bibingka.com/phg/ati2han/default.htm Its been described as the Mardi Gras of the Philippines. Although I wanted to see more of the mountains, the festival sounded too good to pass up, so I asked them if I could join in on the trek southbound.
Before leaving Segada, I headed out to check out the burial caves and hanging coffins. The other guys had already seen them, so I went alone. A little creepy going in to a large dead-silent burial cave in the early hours of the morning while the dew is still on the grass and a mist is in the air.
We made it to Manila last night and headed out to the bar across the road from our hotel. Manila has a pretty decent nightlife, as you'd expect most bigger cities to have. Most bars seem to have live music. The bands I've seen so far have been alright, with the odd exception.
Which takes us to today. We leave tomorrow for the festival, which should last through Sunday. The group I'm traveling with is a great bunch, so it should be a pretty good time.
Hope everyone is doing great, and had a fantastic holiday.
January 23th, 2004
Subject - Karaoke King of Kalibo
I didnt think it existed, but it does. And its here in Manila. A 24-hour bar. Who comes up with these evil ideas? Our little group was rather beat from traveling, and when I returned from sending the last update, everyone was sleeping. So I slept too. When we all woke at 1am, we felt rested and felt like going out, but all the bars were winding down. Except the LA Club. It doesnt wind down until.... well, it just doesnt. Its a bit of a strange place. Clientele is a bit suspect, with a good number of working ladies in the bar who immediately took us for potential customers the minute we walked in. I felt like a piece of meat just thrown in to the cage at the zoo. After fending off advances for an hour or so, we were left to mingle to our own devices, which we did until the sun came up, and finally left about 8am.
Normally, this type of behavior is not a problem. But we were scheduled to take a 5pm ferry that day, which meant checking out of our hotel at noon. That hurt.
We all walked around in zombie-like states until we got on our ferry for the 14-hour journey to Caticlan. Other than abandoning my bunkbed on the ferry which was designed for a 5-foot Filipino in favor of a couch where my feet could hang over, it was a smooth trip.
Caticlan is the gateway to Kalibo (where we were headed for the Ati-Atihan festival) and for Boracay, the most touristed spot in the Philippines. The ferry is too big to dock on the sandy beach, so it pulls up to within a half-mile, and these little 'barcgas' come out to get the guests. The barcga is a tiny outrigger boat, and when it arrives at the ferry, it is filled with porters who scramble like mad aboard the ferry, looking for the bags which will get them the biggest tips. It really is a sight to see, all of them flooding on to the ferry like that. The festival we were headed to Kalibo for was thr 792nd annual Ati-Atihan festival. Yes, thats right, its been going on for nealy 800 years. In this festvial, all the neighboring tribes come together from their respective areas beating on drums. Drums and costumes are the main themes of the festival, although I would have to say chaos is a pretty major theme as well.
Our first day of the festival, was a non-costume day. All the groups march around the street beating their drums and playing the zylophones. But unlike other parades or festivals, there is no 'route' that the groups must follow. They just start whereever, then come walking in to the streets which go around the town square. Some groups march clockwise, some counterclockwise. I dont know if the goal is to be louder than the group next to you, but it seemed like everyone was aiming for, and accomplishing, that goal. I couldnt understand how the drummers could keep a rythm when the band they were passing was belting out a different rythm. Sound chaotic? Well, add to that, the roads are not closed to traffic. Cars, delivery trucks, moped, pedestrians... all driving and swerving through the groups. Need more chaos? Hows this.. the groups are comprised of drummers and zylophoneists (is that a word?) and some people holding signs. If you are not part of one of these 3 roles, your role is to carry the alcohol and cigarettes and make sure everyone gets a drink every now and then. Drummers can apparently smoke their cigarettes while playing, but cant hold a cup, so they need to be fed drinks.
On the second and third days we were there, they did block off the traffic at some points, and only authorized vehicles were allowed through. Authorized vehicles being seemingly anyone who asked to go through.
Our second day we were interviewed for the local high-school media team, and asked to say what we thought of the festival. It wasnt surprising, as by this point, we were the only non-locals in town for 2 whole days. The guide books recommend only coming to the festival for a couple hours as a side trip from one of the resorts. All of us were really happy with our decision to come here for 3 days. We got to watch the build-up of the festivities, and feel the momentum grow. It really was one of the best festivals I have been to. It had a great vibe to it, and really got you energized.
There were some pretty big parties thrown at night as well. The crowds were a bit unusual, with it being almost all male, with the exception of girls under 15. I suppose it could be the same as it is in Guatemala, where all the girls who are 16 and older are home with their kids. In any case, it made the majority of the people at the festival pretty young.
The final day of the festival was the day of the elaborate costumes, followed the next day by the mass of St. Nino. On the costume day, the 4 of us were wandering through town, when we were invited to join in with a group. We grabbed our beers and joined in the procession. We took on the role of dancer/drinker among the group. For the rest of the day, we would periodacally latch on to any group that would let us. Really fun time.
Our last night in Kalibo, Mons and I went to go meet our new freind Eric in the hotel bar. Just like 99% of the rest of the bars in the Philippines, this one was a karaoke bar. Karaoke in asia is a bit of a cult thing. When we were at the internet cafe in Kalibo, next to the internet stations were booths you could sit in and practice your karaoke with your friends for 5 pesos per song. All the karaoke booths were full, most the internet stations were empty. Get the picture? Just about every single bar uses the same video-karaoke machine that rates your score when you are done and gives you a rank agains everyone else who has sung so far that night. I dont like to sing karaoke. Occasionally, I get talked in to it, and 2 lines in to the song, I realize how really awful I am at it. But Mons prodded me to do a song, and I figured I will never see these people again, so why not. The book was full of awful love ballads (the choice of everyone else in every bar in the country), but I wanted something different. Then I found it. "I'm too Sexy", by Right Said Fred. I sung it. Badly. I wish I could even say that I jumped to my feet and made a scene and exuded how bad I was (which was my plan), but I cant even claim that. Once I heard how bad I really was, I just had to suffer through it as the 50 or so people in the room looked around to see who was doing such a disrespectful thing to their national sport. Score: 99. Rank #1. I kid you not. I am the Karaoke King of Kalibo.
Sam and I left a day before Matt and Mons, as Sam wanted to see Boracay before he left to Thailand, and I wasnt interested in the last day of the festival. We got to the bus station, and the bus leaving right then was full. The next one left in an hour. Or we could sit on top of the one leaving now. Sitting on top of a bus seemed like a cool thing to do, but maybe not for a 2 hour trip. But we did it, and when it was all said and done, I would travel on top rather than underneath any day of the week, for any length of journey.
We caught a barcga to Boracay and arrived about mid-day. Boracay will make most official lists of top 10 beaches in the world. It has some of the finest, whitest sand you will find anywhere. The water is an amazing clear blue, and the skies always seem to be perfect. Perhaps why it is the most visited spot in all of the Philippines. However, because of this, its become quite a touristy place. And in my opinoin, most tourist beaches end up becoming just like each other. Lots of people selling watches, beads, massages, cold drinks. They all have that same feel. Not that its a bad feel, but I just prefer beaches that havent made the top 10 list yet. :)
Our first night there, we headed out to a couple of the local bars. The crowd was an interesting mix of ex-pats, travelers, toursists both domestic and international, and locals. Lively little place. Thankfully, no karaoke. I would hate to have to dominate this town too.
The next day, Matt and Mons arrived and Sam took off for Thailand. It was sad to see him go. In the past week, we'd had some good times and good talks over a few bottles of Tanduay.
Boracay has some amazing dive spots, so the next day I headed out to do some diving with one of the local dive crews. Each time I dive, I realize how much I love it and vow to do it more frequently. We did 2 dives, the first of which was shallow, but amazingly colorful. I saw something called a featherstar, which looks like a plant, but gets up and swims around. Nutty. The second dive, unfortunately, we missed our dive site and swam in to some jellyfish infested waters.
The next morning, I caught the ferry back to Manila. I would have loved to have stayed in Boracay for a few more days, but I really wanted to see the Chinese new year. This year it fell on the 22nd, so this ferry would get me back in on the morning of the 22nd - time to sleep for a bit and see the festival. The ferry made a stop at a port at the 4-hour mark in the journey. All the local kids there have a tradition of jumping in the water and the passengers will throw coins from the ferry in which they then dive to catch before they sink out of reach. My jellyfish stings started acting up later in the trip and kept me awake and in agony throughout most the ride. I didnt get relief until I checked in to my room and put scalding hot water on it. (Note: This is a good trick for poison ivy, jellyfish, mosquito bites or anything that itches. Put it under running hot water until it feels like its going to burst. The hot water makes it itch more, but wait until the sensation peaks (about 5 seconds), then falls off. It pops the histamine bubbles and relieves the itch for 4-6 hours).
I headed out the next day to see the Chinese New Year festivities, and upon arriving in Chinatown, realized I had the right date, but wrong thinking. The new year was the 22nd, which just like the calendar new year, is celebrated on midnight of that morning. Missed it by a day. There were still some festivites going on, as its actually a 5-day celebration, but I missed the major part of it. No worries.
I am headed a bit north of here in the next day or two to do some diving at some old WW2 ship wrecks, then headed back south to get on the sailboat. The boats' route is changing slightly, so I am just going to treck a little bit out to meet them.