10.07.2009 - 09.08.2009
Greetings from my final days in the Philippines, to travel in it's been a country of extremes; from the ease of the beaches to the toughness of the jungle, the unpleasantness of the cities to the beautiful countryside and the ovewhelming friendliness and positivity of the people in the face of mounting problems facing the nation. v rarely it seems to have been in the middle and it's not somewhere that I've ever felt completely at ease in.
After finally leaving sprawling Manila I got as far away as I could and went into the jungle for for a few days. I walked across the island of Palawan with a machete in hand and a local tribal chief for company. We passed through a couple of remote villages in the middle of nowhere that were enjoyably 'oldschool'- the men were covered in homemade tats, the women all went topless once they'd had kids and the kids would simply stare at me for minutes at a time. And absolutely no-one could speak a word of English which made for some terrible/amusing conversations. It was actually very tough just eating rice and bananas and we had to cross the rivers (at a minimum of thigh height cos it's rainy season) about 30 times with the last 3 having to be swam. This was particularly scary as I had to put my bag in a plastic sheet, start swimming and hope I'd hit the bank I was aiming for rather than the rapids another 50m downstream. We did make it OK however, and gloriously came out on the other shore at the worlds largest subterranean river; it is as it sounds and you can go for some 8KM in pitch darkness along the cave with nothing but a paddle boat and bats to keep you company.
I then had to rush to catch a 30 hr ferry off the remote island- if I'd have missed it I would've been stuck for 3 days, and this highlights one of the main problems of traveling here. A quick glance at a map will show quite how spread out the islands are and forming an effective let alone logical itinerary is nigh on impossible. Several times I was stuck for a day or two whilst you waited for another boat or flight off the island you were on and it meant that even with a 6wk time budget I was having to constantly plan ahead. The boat landed on one of the central islands which are called the Visayas and it's here that the pace of life is almost Caribbean like with gorgeous beaches, vast sugar plantations and very much a 'no worries' attitude amongst the locals. I spent a couple of weeks getting burnt and then decided to change things up a bit by going to the large southern island of Mindanao. It's way off any tourist route (and insurance coverage) as it's due to here that the Philippines tends to get in the news due to the Muslim insurgency in the West of the island. There were 2 separate bombing incidents whilst I was there but it only affects a relatively small part of the island and 100km away from the bombings the people were certainly not too worried by it. Whilst there I climbed the Philippines highest mountain the brilliantly named 'Grandfather' but it was actually quite easy taking just a few hrs to get to the summit. Much harder was the journey back to town, try and picture 4 fully grown men plus 30kg of luggage going on a steep unpaved downhill road for an hr, on a motorcycle. It was the only way back and the first 10 minutes in particular were truly scary.
Unfortunately at the top of the mountain there was plenty of rubbish just dumped by locals and was more evidence of the lack of concern for the environment that I realised Filipinos have. The government have launched a huge 'green' campaign with slogans and ads everywhere but the people haven't really adopted it yet. A Swiss beach resort owner told me he had to spend 2 days after every national holiday cleaning up the beach as the locals leave it in such a state and time and again you'd see areas of natural beauty ruined by litter in the most inappropriate of places. Along with the rats that always seemed to come with it.
As you might expect in a country that has one of the meatiest diets in the world, they've a terrible record on animal cruelty too, with cockfighting (tragically along with karaoke) basically being the national pastime. In Mindanao they even get stallions to fight by parading a mare on heat in front of them to get them worked up and the winner 'gets her'. Not pleasant.
But there are many great things about the country too; I think if there's one thing that I'll remember the Philippines by it will be the contrast between the cities and the countryside. Without exception any settlement of any size that I visited was just horrible. All the cities were just polluted, chaotic messes that sprawled for dozens of kilometers along seriously ugly roads. But once you got out into the countryside it was just awesome. Aside from the beautiful coastlines and beaches, the jungle covered interiors were lush and relaxing and amongs other natural wonders I got to see the chocolate hills of Bohol and even got to see some tarsiers in the wild. The Philippines also has the cheapest beer in the world (about 25p a bottle) and at that price I found I could even forgive the fact that every single night out seemed to end up with the locals covering truly terrible tracks from long forgotten American soft rock groups like Journey and Air Supply. I refused to sing anything other than Westlife or Metallica and it's testament to Pinoys good natures that rather than become violent they actually seemed to find it quite funny.
I've found Filipinos a curious bunch to be around. They remind me of Brazilians in their perennially happy, party loving outlook and you could not hope to meet a chirpier, more positive race of people. Wherever I went I was always met by 'Hey Joe!' (a nickname they had for USAF men) in their almost Caribbean sounding English, they have a wonderful sense of humour and the music, films and the seemingly ubiquitous presence of all round entertainment legend Willie Revellame was a brilliantly enjoyable culture to be around.
But so much to frustrate too! I found the position of women in society utterly contradictory; The Philippines has had 2 female presidents (inc one who's just died) and many other high ranking politicians but its on a day to day level that you really see their elevated position in society, seemingly 70-80% of lower and middle management jobs are filled by women and it was unusual to be in a post office or a travel agents for example that didn't have a female manager. It's a country where women for the most part 'hold the purse strings'... but at the same time it has one of the biggest 'accepted' sex trades in the world. Every year 10s of thousands of its young women leave for Japan or possibly Korea to be little more than legally 'sex trafficked'. In Manila and a couple of other cities too in particular there is a roaring 'nightclub trade' where (again predominantly Japanese and Korean) 'tourists' come in on chartered flights to be 'entertained'. This is a seemingly seen as a legitimate borderline career choice and whilst prostitution is technically illegal, it's fair to say the police/politicians make little effort to enforce that law.
Whilst I'm obviously well aware they are driven to this by poverty, I found their acceptance (and even pride) in essentially being a subservient race I found frustrating to the point of being almost shameful. 1 in 10 of the population lives and works abroad and slave wage cleaners in (for example) Singapore and construction workers in the KSA are heavily celebrated here (special tax rates, special offers aplenty etc.) but most insidiously the effective 'sale' of vast numbers of their young women to Japan and to a lesser extent South Korea on (in Japan they are literally called) 'entertainment visas' I found almost unforgivable. When even the street drug dealers greet you with 'Good morning sir, would you like...' you know they're too polite.
One of the key themes that glues Pinoy society together is that of the family; they're extremely close (and big as it's a Catholic country) and this has mixed results. Whilst on a visual level it's nice to see families enjoying themselves together as a large group in ways you don't often see in the West (going on day trips to the beach, taking over Karaoke bars etc) it's also given rise to negative side effects too. It's a very much 'protect your own (and damn everyone else)' culture and this has produced terrible levels of nepotism and one of the highest corruption rates in the world at seemingly all levels of government. I think this attitude also helps to explain issues like littering in public (rather than in private) and why economic growth has been so hard to come by unlike almost all of its neighbours and is dubbed 'the sick man of Asia'. In recent years they've been seduced and ruled by glamorous leaders (actors, former models etc) who've had little to no political experience and proved to be some of the worst, most corrupt leaders in the world outside of Africa; if you speak to the people about this however there seems to be a almost universal indifference to past crimes and is just shaken off and seemingly forgotten.
Neatly amplifying this point was an article in a local tabloid I read the other day which described Imelda Marcos as 'the Philippines most valuable national treasure'. If you look past all the nonsense about the jewellery and the shoes then this is a woman who, with her husband (this is a country where 80% of the time the women hold the purse strings) effectively stole/wasted over $10bn whilst literally 10s of millions of her fellow countrymen live in abject poverty. She's never served any sentence however, in her 80s still lives an extraordinarily glamorous/opulent lifestyle and in the media at least is treated more positively than the British Queen is in the UK. This is I found staggering and there were just aspects of Filipino society I found difficult to deal with; certainly my long term plan of buying a bride here has at the very least been put on hold.
My last week has been very enjoyable in an area called Bicol, I visited a volcano called Mt Mayon which literally translates as 'the beautiful'. And that it is, widely agreed by vulcanologists to be the single most perfect conical volcano in the world (a giant perfect triangle to look at) unfortunately you can't climb it as it's too dangerous at the minute. The area is experiencing 10 minor earthquakes a day at the moment and is on the 2nd highest warning level so I had to make do with the volcanic black sand beach nearby. I then carried onto a place called Pagsanjan which is where the jungle scenes in Apocalypse Now were shot, truly stunning scenery going from there to Angeles where I am now sums up much of the extremes I've experienced in the Philippines. By a former USAF base (which is where my flight leaves from) it's a truly horrible city that sums up much of the negative sides to the Philippines outlined above. Dangerous, polluted and the centre of the sex industry here and it's fair to say that I'm looking fwd to the Orangutans and jungle that Borneo promises on my flight tomorrow. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed my time here but just not the easiest place to travel in.