Star Date: June 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(How are you? -Filipino)
sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the
opportunity in every difficulty.
On our stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we were entertained by a colorful palate of local characters. The regulars at our convenient, yet authentic, Indian restaurant were punctuated by a stream of street people dropping in for a meager bite. One guy sat in the corner talking, arguing and finally laughing at the jokes of his clever girlfriend. Just because she was a life size cardboard cutout of a woman didn't make him skip a beat and when dinner was done he simply put her under his arm and headed for the door. Definitely a low maintenance woman! He stopped and gave his regards to several well dressed transvestites and his artsy friend at an adjoining table, who sported a beret and offered to paint portraits. Not interested in a painting? Tah dah, he eclectically pulled bagpipes out of his satchel and proposed a tune. The old Indian gents didn't even notice as they efficiently plunked a generous helping of dahl, rice and naan before hungry customers. Who needs TV?
The Philippines is home to an enticing array of steamy jungles, pristine beaches, scorching volcanoes, self proclaimed and flaunted crooked politicians, treasure hunters, headhunters just 40 years ago and some of the last remaining pirates in the world; it is a menu that will whet any adventurers appetite. This 1900 km island chain was inhabited by Indo-Malays and Chinese merchants long before the 1521 'discovery' by Magellan. The new Felipinas, named after King Phillip II, was converted to Christianity by Spanish conquistadors, instilling the control that lasted for 333 years. The Americans followed the Spanish, like the Democrats replacing the Republicans, and ruled for 48 years. US troops defeated the occupying Japanese in 1946 and the Philippines were finally granted their independence. With close to 400 years of Spanish and American rule, intermarriage and Catholicism have molded the face of the Philippines. Within the space of only 4 days we traded Buddhist temples in Cambodia, for Islamic mosques in Kuala Lumpur, and Catholic cathedrals in Manila.
Even if only on the surface, Jesus is alive and well in the Philippines with church bells ringing, hymns sung and every home filled with statues or shrines displaying icons and photos of Jesus and the blessed Virgin Mary. The center of every town is a large church and a park with a religious statue. We saw a video taken by a Hungarian Romani or gypsy traveler during Holy Week. We sat with dropped jaws as we stared at the reenactment of this real life crucifixion, which takes place in San Fernando, Pampanga, a village near Manila. Complete with fanatical Christians nailing the modern day Jesus and the two thieves to crosses and lancing his side, we couldn't believe something as barbaric as this is allowed in modern times. I guess seeing churchgoers walking down the aisles on their knees is small time penance. Emulating suffering seems to be a by product of the wrathful God man has created. Time for an update. We did see a poster of a modern Jesus, looking like Fabio, wearing blue jeans and sporting a cell phone, inviting confused people to find their way to him, just call 068 87 234 A direct phone line to God! That's a first. I wonder if he/she has an email address?
With lingering fragments of the wild, wild west Manila certainly lived up to its reputation. Within 5 minutes of arriving downtown a well timed thief ripped the necklace off my neck as I boarded the bus. Upset and unable to do anything, I lamented that I would have never worn this necklace had I not been flying that morning and if the taxi drivers hadn't tried to cheat us we would have already been tucked away in our hotel. Blah, blah. Upset that I had lost the small but stunning opal that Joseph had bought for me at the mines in the Australian outback of Cooper Pedy, we carried on lugging our bags onto 2 buses then 2 jeepneys. As we jostled our bags off the final vehicle, down fell the stowaway pendant between our feet, having amazingly been perched atop my bag through all the jarring. Thank you, for second chances. We started noticing that every security guard carried a loaded gun at even the 7 - 11 stores. Larger, more important establishments called for bigger guns and each bank came with a machinegun toting guard. We decided to take a ride on one of the horse drawn carriages along the promenade in Matea the first night. A lovely ride turned into a fiasco when instead of taking us home the cordial driver pulled down a dark alley and demanded $50 instead of the agreed 50 pesos or $2. Joseph let him know in no uncertain terms that his scare tactics weren't going to work on these tourists and he had better keep moving. We jumped out of the carriage in front of a large casino, complete with it's gun toting guards, as we threw his agreed fare at him. How was that for a rousing, Welcome to the Philippines?
Knowing it could only get better, we walked through parks, impressive cathedrals and 'Intramuros' or the old walled city. Declaring a tenacious past on it's bronze placard, one building was looted by pirates, crumbled by earthquakes 3 times, burned twice, wiped out by a tsunami, and leveled by shells during the final battle with the Japanese. Resilience came to mind. That is what it takes to live in Manila. Just ask the over 300,000 squatters who live and survive off "Smokey Mountain", Manila's garbage heap north of the city.
Jeepneys or stretched out old army jeeps, one of a kind icons of the Philippines are convenient vehicles that run continually, each custom designed, painted, tinted, 'pimped up' and lighted. Blaring everything from sappy love ballads to rap music to tinny campaign jingles it is fun to point out a new sensational model drive by with names such as The Immaculate Conception Express, Heavenly Love Bites, Persian Nights, Cute Dimples,...
Taking care of business that often only a larger city allows, we also had visa photos taken, withdrew cash from ATMs and had a friendly young guy at an internet shop fill in a new 'cheat sheet' in the Filipino or Tagalog language. Armed with an instant way to communicate we headed off to the market and enjoyed some vegetarian street-side food, something that would have been very difficult without our new laminated pocket size language sheets. They have made our lives so much easier and opened up new channels of communication with the locals. Learning one language after another is a real challenge, especially with tonal languages. The first day we learn hello, thank you, the 2nd day: "Where is the toilet?" and "How much?" and a few phrases or words each day until we can get around a little better. We chuckle along as they laugh at our bumbling attempts to communicate. Our effort is always appreciated and with the addition of our growing repertoire of well done pantomimes and gesticulations we are ready to take on any country!
Our goal with this webpage is to simply share the world with as many people as are interested. We were shocked to read the statistic in Encarta that only one in 12,000 Americans went overseas last year, and then mainly to European (Caucasian) destinations. Led by their fearless leader, King George, (who himself didn't own a passport until required by politics) a sad thought crossed our minds. Does the USA have to be involved in an international conflict or war before the general population learns anything about that country or region? Thanks for taking the time to expand your global mind. Pass this interest on to those around you in hopes of building bridges with our international neighbors, rather than constructing walls of misunderstanding and fear.
Once in the countryside 'bahala na' or go with the flow, kicks into gear. Naga (this lizard name keeps popping up) was our first destination out of Manila, but the bus we were on was so luxurious that we decided to continue on to Legaspi. In our air conditioned comfort we watched 3 movies, made possible with the new, inexpensive Chinese 12 movies in one DVD technology. The twelve hour trip just zoomed by, a little different than some past trips where we cringed at each bump. The sleepy city of Legaspi, one of the disaster capitols of the world, is regularly plagued by volcanic eruptions, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. When asked if we would like to see pictures of the November 2006 typhoon and flood we quickly turned away when the bodies of some of the nearly 3000 nearby villagers flashed on the screen. Possibly this was one of the rare global bits of news to reach you via CNN. Or as witnessed recently, maybe it was eclipsed by the more sensational 20 minute clip of the musical diva Britney Spears shaving her head. As I am writing this, loud claps of thunder are booming in a sunny blue sky and we can't help but run to the window and check out the condition of our looming pyroclastic neighbor, Mt. Mayon. Like Mt. Pinatubo that covered Clark Air Force Base with up to 50 ft of volcanic ash in 1991, this unruly volcano is as unpredictable as they get. Unlike Mt. St Helens in Washington State, where victims were warned but refused to leave, these poor folks don't have the luxury of this technology, thus they have been caught in this whirlwind of catastrophes for centuries. Such is life on the 'ring of fire'. Saying goodbye our homes on the side of the active Hawaiian volcano, Mauna Loa, we left our fate in the hands of the gods. Legaspi has a vibrant central market and to our surprise a large 4 floor mall complete with a food court. Out of all the hundreds of items displayed we were able to choose from only one dish without meat. In Asia most buffets have at least 4 meatless vegetable dishes to one side, for the benefit of Buddhist clientele but Filipinos put meat, fish, egg or mounds of white sugar in absolutely everything. We sat enjoying our lunch, while watching a sort of talent show for little 5 year old boys and girls, all dressed in white, singing and moving to music. Joseph took advantage of the height of the building to sneak up to the roof and take a photo of Mayon Mountain, the world's most perfect conical volcano, smoking and looming in the distance. Unfortunately by the time he got down he was followed by over ten security guards yelling that he was in a restricted area, and he couldn't revisit the scene of the crime to show me the way. The photos had to suffice and luckily we were able to see it clearly while out on the ocean later. The Philippines is lauded as the 3rd largest English speaking country in the world but we question this claim as many locals are afraid to try out their school English. Everyone, down to the smallest children know "Hello, where are you going?" Often it is simply, "Hello, where are you?" This always brings a chuckle and a smile as we have to often think hard to answer this innocuous query. You can always find someone in every location who speaks enough English to help out or wants to talk. We felt as though we were in the west rather than Asia. The hot emotions of the Spanish are still apparent in Pilipino music and colorful life, while the American language, infrastructure, and basic expected amenities, including a fast food joint on every corner, remind you that you just flew 4 hours away from SE Asia. Asians tend to be more reserved in outward emotional displays and encounters, possibly requiring a drink to loosen up. The boisterous, gregarious Filipinos don't need anything to cheer them on and their enthusiasm is contagious. Living 'la vida loca', music is a common thread running loudly through their culture and it seems every home or hut with electricity has a karaoke machine, belching out mainly American love ballads. Music is their life and it is nothing to have a whole waiting room on a ferry or all 20 people in an internet cafe simultaneously burst into song and loudly sing the love ballad on the radio. It's easy to get caught up in the fun.
Donsol, we had finally arrived. I made a note of this small fishing village while in Western Australia 3 years prior, as the only other major congregating site of the world's largest fish, the whale shark or 'buntanding'. Our effort was well rewarded as we took a small fishing boat out with 3 other people to swim with these gentle giants. From December to May every year large groups of whale sharks migrate here to eat their fill of the lush plankton in these warm coastal waters. Organized with the help of the World Wildlife Federation the fishermen no longer hunt these amazing creatures but instead are employed in various aspects of ecotourism. As the spotter yelled we quickly jumped off the boat, lured by the spots or moving mouth and gills of this massive 'underwater ferryboat'. At first just being alongside the world's largest shark, with the theme song from 'Jaws' looping in our heads, it was a little intimidating. Reaching up to 54 feet (18 meters) in length and 68,000 pounds we were reassured to know that these monoliths were vegetarians, leisurely straining whatever plankton and unlucky little fish happen to be in their slow moving path. Joseph had a rare encounter with one inquisitive fellow. He dove down near his eye and waved friendly greetings, which prompted the curious whale shark to change directions several times. The butanding then swam up to the surface just as I was over his large dorsal fin. I reached out and unintentionally patted our new friend. All of a sudden I realized how up close and personal we had become and allowed this enormous whale shark to slowly move away and play with Joseph for another 5 minutes. Completely harmless to man, the Japanese unfortunately still hunt these large defenseless creatures and this fact, compounded with their low reproductive rate, puts the whale shark on the endangered species list.
As the red sun sizzled on the horizon we found ourselves in an altered world, while the new moon darkness descended on the river running through Donsol. Tranquilly paddling along, blanketed in the complete darkness surrounding our small outrigger canoe, we were treated to a light show that can only be supplied by Mother Nature. As the stars twinkled and jumped out of the lightning filled heavens, thousands of fireflies played in the large trees along the shore, and sparkling, effervescent plankton streamed through the waters below us. A spiritual experience, we were completely surrounded in an 'other worldly' bubble of pulsing brilliance. Amid the non stop blinking of these 1 inch phosphorescent fireflies we started to notice an underlying rhythm, as if they were trying to communicate. The male fireflies, it seems, pulse every 5 seconds, while the females inherently needing more attention, pulse every 2 seconds. The nightly rhythm is initiated by a single 'pacemaker' firefly who throws the switch and lets the party begin. Waves of light travel up and down the trees or pass from tree to tree, and at one point a gust of wind caught the unsuspecting beetles and blew them out into the darkness, like sparks from a fire. Crickets, cicadas, frogs and night birds chimed in on this feast for the senses. Mesmerized we watched the show for over 2 hours before heading back to our bungalow on the beach. We passed 'sudsod' fisherman, with their unique kerosene helmets, gathering crustaceans and fish along the shore. We will long remember this visit to another realm.
The rural villages we wandered through were very poor and a bit more reserved, due only to the language barrier of speaking a different dialect, but once they warmed up they are as welcoming and sociable as their town or city counterparts. A stroll through the thatched huts made us immediately admire the pride and cleanliness of each small compound. Although in some of the poorest living conditions we have seen since Laos, great care was taken and many tiny yards were filled with orchids, flowers and fruit trees, sand raked and not one piece of litter.
When coming in from the beach to Donsol town we spotted a jeepney and piled in. We were surprised to see everyone wearing bright blue t shirts and visors acclaiming 'Mrs. Senorita's New and Improved Corned Beef'. When offered a sample of their various compressed mystery meats, like lambs into the mouths of lions, we explained that we didn't eat meat. We all had a good laugh at the situation and this private jeepney full of fun folks went out of their way to drop us in town. Vegans on the Corned Beef Express.
A home stay with the Hernandez family in Donsol was a good look into local Pilipino life. The old wooden floored pole house was spotless, the kitchen for our use, and the living room was full of religious statues, a table overflowing with big stuffed dolls and animals, large photos of the family, vases of brightly colored plastic flowers, a TV with 4 karaoke microphones and 5 enormous speakers, a sweet pet monkey on the balcony, topped off with a glow in the dark crucifix in each bedroom. La Bamba blared every 15 minutes from the shop across the street and rotating jeepneys and carts with loud speakers larger than the vehicle blared campaign music. Why is it we have to end up in the thick of upcoming elections? Maybe it is karma for missing the 2004 Bush - Carey fiasco. One good thing about moving on to a different district is that the campaign jingles changed to Yellow Submarine, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, or you name it.
Like our experience waiting for the Water Festival in southern China last year, we came here in search of the yearly Butanding Whale Shark Festival. When down by the river at the posted time, to observe the opening candle ceremony we were told maybe tomorrow.... When is the main parade with music and dancing? Maybe the 18th, or 19th or 20th - at 8am or 2pm. Having fallen in love with Donsol and all the Donsolians, and without further expectations, we decided to hang out with the Hernandez family and see what unfolded with this elusive festival. The official opening the next evening was right across the street. When the political speeches and dancing were over we started talking to the mayor and complimented her on her cordial, welcoming town. We were given the lei right off her neck, whisked away to have the Manila TV reporter take our picture with the VIPs and then invited into her chambers for dinner. The only thing we could eat was fresh pineapple but we enjoyed it while visiting with everyone.
Following the annual basketball tournament a loud competitive game of Bingo began in the town park. All of a sudden music started blaring and since there was no hope of sleep, we decided to go check out the "Rave Party". Similar in name only, local bands played great music from the 70's and 80's such as The Eagles, Santana, and endless Pilipino love ballads. We gave away our tickets for 6 free beer and rather than just sit there like all the other hundreds of partiers we got up and danced. Joseph then started pulling people up to dance with us and a good size group got rocking. We kept dancing for over 2 hours and fell exhausted into bed. Rave on!
Catholics here (90% of the country's population) like babies, bingo, boxing, bright colors, beauty contests, blaring music, balut*, cock fights, pawn shops, and Dunkin Donuts. Filipinas (women), who have retained their femininity, rule the roost in most houses and confidently wield power in business or public office. The next night was the much anticipated 'Body Watch' where 7 young men and women competed for King & Queen in a glitzy extravaganza, accompanied by ear shattering pop songs. Each village has an annual Fiesta of it's patron Saint and it seems that all the traditional dancing and singing has been replaced with this modern 'boom, boom'.
The highlight of the 4 day festival was the old style Maritime Parade with the fisherman sailing into Donsol Harbor carrying 30 ft realistic life size replicas of whale sharks on deck. Started decades ago, the fishermen and their families give thanks and pray for safe sailing and bountiful harvests. Now that they are employed in whale shark ecotourism, rather than eating the whale sharks, it seems their prayers have been answered. The following town parade was a bundle of colors and confusion as dancers, campaign hopefuls and marching bands, complete with costumes from a Norman Rockwell painting, proudly and loudly strutted their stuff as the crowd went wild.
Staying a week in Donsol we quickly made friends with many people, including Pulante the midget, the 2 toothed copra buyer, the little girl who sold warm fresh roasted peanuts for 5 cents and countless shop keepers and villagers. Joy lived up to her name and going against the flow she decided to only have one baby so that she could take good care of her and educate her properly. She still held on to progressive ideas that she had formulated in college many years ago and hasn't sold out to tribal pressure or norms yet. Everyday we would buy our vegetables and coconuts from her and right away we met the baby, husband, mother, sisters, and a string of friends. Soon we felt like part of the family. We asked if we could buy coconut oil, since the whole country is covered with palm trees. Not surprisingly, they don't make it at home anymore but instead buy the cheap, semi poisonous processed palm or canola oil. (We have since found good virgin coconut oil in larger stores. Her friend, Mila said if I bought 18 coconuts she would render them for us. The next day we had 2 litres of clear, tasty cooking oil. We were then invited to meet the family. Up we went into the mountains and walked the path through the lush vegetation to Mila's simple, tiny thatched hut, without electricity or water. To our surprise out popped one head after another and we shared fresh coconuts, corn and cassava with Mila, Jerry and their 9 children. We spent a blissfully quiet morning hiking through their hilly rented land and gardens before walking an hour back to town. I bought Mila and her friend one of the popular halo halo (mix, mix) treats of a dozen toppings over shaved ice, that is located on nearly every corner. They savored each spoonful. It is nice to be treated special and have time to yourself when you have such a demanding brood waiting back home. We sent a packet full of laminated photos of the family, stickers, balloons and colorful maps. We hope the address of this remote road led the goodies to this wonderful family.
Traveling south involved a ride in a jeepney, a bus, a mini van, a ferry, and another bus. The bumpy roads and thick vegetation told us we had left Luzon and were on Samar. The scenery was spectacular with jungle and costal views and the small town of Calbayog looked very appealing. We wished we had stopped there but our destination of Catabalong was an interesting choice.
Arriving after dark we were greeted by Clyde Swartz, the 61 year old illegitimate son of an American soldier. As a half American, half Filipino, he was between cultures in looks only. Most people seem to like Americans, possibly because they were liberated from the Japanese by US troops in WWII. Yelling "Hi Joe!" when we walk by is an amusing greeting - especially since it makes Joseph feel really welcome. Everyone knows him and he just arrived in town. We have a lot of fun with that. By the second day word had gotten out and as we passed locals would whisper in waves that we were Americans, 51 & 58 years old, and have two kids. It's hard to be tricky when several words of each Filipino sentence is highlighted with English. We were even asked twice if we were Clyde's cousins from America. On a role with names we met Dahlia La Boos Boos, Jesus Corazon (heart), and Rudolph Del Cuckoo in the market. It reminded me of living up on Savage Island in remote northern Manitoba, Canada. All the local Native Crees, who couldn't speak a word of English, had been obviously renamed by missionaries at some point, leaving behind Alpheus McDougal, Lydia Longfellow, and Henry Charlie Thoreau, etc. Names are interesting and often entertaining the world over. A rose by any other name is a... dahlia?
And so it goes........................................Next the island of Mindanao. As you are enjoying your summer's activities remember to look for the opportunity in everything life throws your way. Take care and thanks for keeping in touch.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 48 pesos.
Pocket size Quick Language Reference - click here to see
Air Asia: We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Manila for free (regular fare only $25)When flying around Asia don't forget to check out www.airasia.com. Their website actually allows you to purchase tickets with a credit card.
*balut: boiled chicken egg containing partially formed chick embryo, crispy beak and feathers free of charge.
Manila, Luzon: Pick a safe, clean, slightly more expensive hotel in the Matea area. Be aware of your surroundings, especially after dark. Don't wear jewelry or flash money, your camera, etc.
As most of the airline websites
don't work well enough to allow booking a ticket, it seems best to
drop by several local travel agencies. They seem to know mainly about
their local routes. These large Manila agencies were
recommended. Give them a call from anywhere in the country
Legazpi, Bicol :
At the bottom of the stairs, Digital Fix Computers. Friendly, good service.
Visa extension: Josephus, the Alien Control Officer (like Men in Black), at the Bureau of Immigration on Rizal St, helped us extend our visa for the 4 months needed, for an 'extra' fee. So much easier than dealing monthly with governmental offices intent on controlling the aliens!
At the beach we would stay at the Amor Farm Beach Resort, (650p cottage w/bath), near the start of the beach area. Good vegetarian curry and helpful owner.