09.06.2009 - 10.07.2009 38 °C
Greetings from a seemingly perma grey Manila from where I hope to catch a boat to the slightly greener island of Palawan on Thursday. It's a city few could love including its inhabitants; being a sprawling, dirty, dangerous hulking port that supports a horrible amount of poverty. Unfortunately I've been stuck here a few days now for reasons I'll hint at later...
It was a fairly low key opening couple of weeks of traveling on 'beautiful' Taiwan. Formosa, its original Portuguese name means beautiful but it's perhaps not the adjective many would use to describe it as now. Probably the most memorable thing about it was the sheer density of population. If you ignore the tiny/city states of Singapore, Monaco etc only Bangladesh has more people per sq km but Taiwans geography makes the sense of crowds unlike anywhere I've ever been. Effectively only 65% of the country is really habitable to any extent as a huge mountain chain runs as a central Eastern spine down the country with a thin sliver of habitation on the East coast. People often describe the North East coast of the States or the Ruhr valley as essentially one super-conurbation broken down into different names but the Western coastal plains in Taiwan I would describe as a true 400km+ long megalopolis. I traveled completely up the West coast by (the brilliant) trains and don't think I could never see 3 storey building of some sort. Whilst places had different names it was only the ingeniously well cultivated small pockets of land that could offer any sort of differentiation from the urban environment.
What land that is used for cultivation is extremely fertile and it is this (along with huge industrial investment by the US/Japan) that has seen Taiwan become rich but quite an interesting mix of cultures.
It's an island that has essentially been colonised by both Japan then China for 50 yrs (there are still some v poor aboriginal communities left) and there are strong elements of both cultures. The Han Chinese started moving across from the mainland in the 19th century and the food, language etc are very Chinese; but along with the twin national obsessions of baseball ad hot springs, the 'super hi tech' society is definitely more Japanese in feeling. Everyone seems to have their own laptop constantly on the go and the fact that professional computer games playing can take up primetime TV was just silly. As in China I found the people fantastically friendly. Despite its highly urbanised population I would def pick Taiwan as the easiest place to hitch I've ever been, in about 5 days of it I counted 3 cars that didn't pick me up. Much of the reason I was doing it in the first place is due to the almost complete lack of any tourists there, and of those I'd say literally 90% are (somewhat amusingly) American men with Chinese heritage girlfriends. There is actually some gt stuff to do there in the Taipei 101 building, Taroko Gorge and the SunMoon Lake but the Taiwanese have no interest in doing things independently. They all choose to travel in group bus tours so there's actually an incredible lack of tourist infrastructure in places as people are simply bussed back out of the interesting areas at the end of the day. This meant I got to camp and stay in some damn cool places but this also highlighted just how bad the weather was, when I arrived it was 35 degrees on the tarmac and the temp hit 40 whilst I was there. It's rainy season but the huge daily storms didn't disguise just how disgusting the humidity of the climate made you feel- in 2 weeks I had to wash my clothes twice.
I did really like Taiwan but I always felt there was a sense of unreality about it. When fervently capitalist Taiwan split from the mainland after the civil war in '48, the dictator Chiang Kai-Shek wasted no time in erecting all kinds of visual propaganda which I remember as being remarkably similar to the stuff in China- the only difference being the emphasis on where "..will be reclaimed". But as in Korea it definitely feels like 'one people' separated by an ideology and the Taiwanese willingly cheer on Chinese sports teams, music acts etc.
Whilst the politicians give a lot of rhetoric about the identity of 'the (Formosan) Straights', if and when China decides to adopt democracy then I think they probably will rejoin sooner rather than later.
From Taipei a took a flight to the main Northern Philippine island of Luzon. The Philippines is a vast archipelago of 7000 islands and some 90 million people but have seen some gt stuff already on just this one island. The Philippines were colonised by the Spanish (and indeed are named after the 2nd King) and it's the only Christian country in Asia. The church is still a huge presence here and the ecclesiastical architecture that survived the bombing in the 2nd world war is still glorious to look at in some unusual places (barns attached to churches, 18th century stained glass windows etc). The people tend to have mainly Spanish names and the local lingo (Tagalog) is a hilarious mixture of local words, Spanish and modern English words. This is a legacy of the American colonisation in the 20th century and this has been def less visually pleasing on the eye than the Spanish influences. Manila in particular is full of chain stores in horrible sanitised malls that feel completely out of place; not only with the often jaw dropping poverty around you but also when compared to the glories of the countryside.
In a place called Batad I saw the original '8th wonder of the world' rice terraces and few places have made me feel more humble. Whilst most people I know do fairly soulless work in front of computer screens what has been achieved there over thousands of years made me feel like we have wasted much of our working lives in turn of the millennium Britain. Through an incredibly intricate and fascinating irrigation system they've managed to maintain rice cultivation in a landscape which most people would think is gd for little more than climbing. The workers in the fields were so friendly and chatty but this really belied quite how back-breakingly difficult their jobs were, wielding scythes for 12 hrs a day in searing heat up the side of a mountain. They've created terraces with a combined length longer than the Gt Wall of China and as I said it was a truly humbling landscape to behold from both near and far.
Aside from that I've seen the amazing Taal volcano which hosts a lake within an island within a lake and slightly tipsily galloping on horseback down to the 2nd lake was a definitely surreal memory. Unfortunately, this was due to a story I've chosen not to explain but as I enter my 7th nite in Manila, I'll just say: 'Don't use drugs'....