Pocket Philippines

Sign on Bagio street corner.

Sign on Bagio street corner.

I had a hard time writing this entry, as is evidenced by my 1 1/2 month hiatus from this blog. Part of the reason is because I was freaking out trying to finish up grad school apps, and part of the reason is because I don’t actually have that much to write about the Philippines. After all, when a country is essentially perfect- what can you possibly say?

Overview: The Philippines are a difficult country to describe… partly because I’m not sure that I should be using the plural “are” for just one country. The Philippines is? That doesn’t sound nice either. Anyway, large archipelagos are always difficult to stuff under one umbrella description, so I’ll just say that in 21 days in the Philippines, I don’t think I had a single one that wasn’t stellar. The people are SO nice. Of course the people that deal with tourists are twats, but that’s really the case anywhere, isn’t it? After all, in San Francisco, I deal with tourists, and I’m a bit of a twat myself. (A nice twat, that is.) But yeah, more on this later.

Context: In the 40s, the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese, and 3 years later, the Americans helped the Filipinos to drive them out. I’m sure that we did lots of terrible things while we were there, but thankfully, none of the Filipinos remember them! They remember that for however much they hated us, they hated the Japanese more, and were generally quite happy to be rid of them. Also, apparently we built lots of schools there, which is why the English they speak is so very American, and why they play basketball instead of soccer, and why whenever you talk to anybody there, they know somebody living or working in the States. The feeling towards Americans is overall quite positive, and for the first time in years, I actually felt very much like I was at home. More than I feel in San Francisco, as a matter of fact!

My Favorite Thing: The country is actually CLEAN. There have been very few countries outside of Scandinavia where I would eat a Skittle that fell on the sidewalk (in Denmark, I’d even eat that Skittle if I wasn’t the one who dropped it and didn’t know who did) and, believe it or not, anywhere in the Philippines outside of the major cities fits the bill. It’s incredible. Everywhere you go, you see signs like this:

One of the many environmentally-conscious signs on Lambug Beach.

One of the many environmentally-conscious signs on Lambug Beach.

There is NO rubbish on the street. None. Your bus will get stopped on the middle of a twisting mountain road so a local villager can climb aboard and not beg for money (the way that it usually goes), but give an impassioned speech about environmental preservation, then hand out fliers about the appropriate way to dispose of trash. What makes this even more remarkable is that it all seems to be self-initiated.

In most parts of the developing world, there seems to be very little appreciation for how today’s actions will affect the future. You can see it everywhere, from the way that money is handled to health issues to attitudes towards education, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the local peoples’ complete disregard for the environment. Villagers in the middle of a national park will unload bottles of Coca-Cola from a cardboard box and then hurl the leftover packaging into the river, plastic bags are doled out with enthusiasm only to end up on the side of the road, cyanide and dynamite fishing wipe out thousands of miles of coral without which future fish cannot survive, large patches of the Amazon and Borneo are razed to the ground to make space for palm tree plantations, etc. It’s depressing.

I don’t normally run about in foreign countries telling people how to live their lives, but I feel like environmental awareness is every bit as much my business as their own. We’re all affected by it, and I feel that I’m well within my rights to speak up whenever I see someone throwing their crap all over the place. After all, that plastic bag that they just threw in the ocean could very well float across the Pacific, wash up on Ocean Beach somewhere, and murder my future dog. Not Cool! So yeah, the fact that it’s the locals who are “tsk”ing and giving the rich tourists a talking to when a banana peel goes flying out a window is… pretty awesome.

Food: I suppose the only real downside to the Philippines was the food. In Indonesia, they have “Padang Food” which is displayed in a giant glass case in the front of the store. They have plates of lots of things, from curried beef to hard boiled eggs to tuna steaks. You go inside, get a plate of rice, and then choose what you want off of the display. Although eating stuff that has been sitting out for hours under the hot sun is a generally ill-advised practice, the food is crazy yummy and it’s really easy to find. I get the runs every now and again, but hey- it’s a small price to pay for tastebud heaven!

In the Philippines, they have something similar, where pots are out on display at the front of a restaurant, and you just choose what you want. They difference is that the stuff inside the pots is fucking revolting. I once looked inside a pot to find balls of marinated pig’s fat with chicken heads thrown in for flavor. Literally. The lady described it to me as such. HERNGGH!! If it wasn’t gross as a raw material, then they’ve made it horrible with whatever they’ve done to cook it. Awful stuff!


People: Filipinos are fantastic. They are, across the board, genial, optimistic, outgoing and fun. Quite a number of them are highly intelligent, and the ones who aren’t are at least well-informed and thoughtful. The men are cheeky, and the women are warm and their laughter is so sincere that your skin feels kind of tingly when you hear it. The guys are usually well-built, the girls have dark, lovely eyes, and even the children are the cutest I’ve seen so far on my trip. (Does it make me a budding child molester if I want to pick up random Filipino children and blow raspberries on their cheeks?)

Sometimes while I travel, I have a really hard time getting to know the locals. Of course, every backpacker swears that it’s at the top of their list of priorities, but at the end of the day, doing so is tiring and usually a bit awkward. It’s worth it, of course, to make new friends and see how other people live. However, you can’t pretend that the language barrier, different social norms, and massive gap in income isn’t a challenge. Only when traveling through parts of Latin America could I come close to the 100% local experience that ranks so high on the backpacker to-do list, and at the end of the day, I was so exhausted from speaking in another language, all I wanted was to be left alone (how do the Europeans do it?!). Thankfully, the Philippines have been an absolute joy to travel in this respect. The locals speak great English and love to talk, do things, and party. Their values are different, and there’s still an income gap that makes things awkward from time to time, but hanging out with a group of Filipinos feels natural and easy- they make it that way. It’s so strange that a country that is so close in proximity to the rest of Asia can be so different. People in this 7,000 island archipelago aren’t reserved or afraid of the sun. They don’t slather themselves in whitening cream (or if they do, it’s not working), and they love being active, outside, and happy. I’m not normally very attracted to Asians, but the Philippines, with its fit, basketball-playing populace, has given me reason to pause, cock my head to the side, and say “oooooo.” It also doesn’t hurt that the Latino influence on the islands has made them all great dancers. ¡Olé!

Other Travelers: There is one downside to having spent a great deal of the last 7 years of my life on the road. When I first started traveling, everything was new and exciting. The manner in which a country packaged their milk was cause for exclamations, a few pictures, and a Facebook status update. Each day was a brilliant journey, and I laid my head to rest each night teeming with emotions from my experiences. As the years wore on, the destinations changed, the overall cost of each trip changed, and I myself changed. The trips weren’t any worse or any better than those that had come before them, but I seemed to need more to get myself charged up the same way. Travel is like crack. You start of getting high on just a little bit. Then you need more, more often and in greater quantities. Suddenly milk in a bag is normal, and riding 20 hours in the bed of a truck seems like the only sensible option. This is all fine, and I think it comes with the territory, but the sad thing is that meeting people doesn’t have the same intensity as before. You no longer have this feeling of, “this will be the only time I ever talk to this person- I should find out everything I can!” You suddenly find yourself craving time alone, and opening up to other travelers only after performing a cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth going through the same old conversation? (Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? How long are you traveling for? Etc. etc. etc?) How long am I going to end up traveling with this person for? Do they seem like a douche or like they’re traveling on a much different budget than I am?

Strangely enough- with this attitude, you end up meeting other travelers who feel the same way, and often, by some unspoken agreement, you either completely ignore each other on the bus, or you pointedly evade all the token travel questions and don’t even bother asking for each others’ names until after a couple of days of joint travel and camaraderie.

This is sad. I’ve always said that the best part of traveling is the people you meet, and suddenly here I am actively sidestepping opportunities to get to meet them.

So in 7 months, I have had a lot of great conversations and meaningful moments with wonderful people, but the first one with people I had just met a couple hours before was to be had in Siquijor that first night, with an Italian named Manuel, and a Geordie-posing-as-a-Londoner named Sham. They were both absolutely fascinating people, and for the first time in years, I actually WANTED to listen, and wasn’t just waiting for my chance to talk (an odious trait of mine- I know). I wondered afterwards if it was just my happy luck meeting these two at the same time, or if it was the qualities of one bringing out the attributes of the other, but I really think that the people you meet in the Philippines are much different than the others you’d meet in SE Asia. In the Philippines, like in Indonesia, getting around is in itself a labor of love. No one island has everything, and you’ve really got to plan carefully and be prepared for some rough rides if you want to be able to see a decent amount within the 21-day visa limit that they offer on arrival. I already told you how bad the food is. Accommodation, (by Asian standards, anyway) is pretty expensive, and you do NOT get what you pay for.

Most of the people traveling who have money to spend don’t have the will to rough it, and those that do have a bit more mettle don’t usually have much money to spend… or at least they’re looking for the chance to make it go further- which it will on the mainland. So, then you’re left with the in-betweeners… people that choose to spend their money seeing something a bit different, think of accommodation as just being a safe place to lock up your backpack and hibernate for a night or two, and either have no interest is going where other people are or have been or have already been there and done that. It makes for a pretty interesting cocktail of people, and it was refreshing.

Kawasan Falls, Cebu.

Kawasan Falls, Cebu.

Hmm. Seems I did have a lot to write. Oh well- I’m out. I’ll post soon about Hong Kong!

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