A festive ‘hi-ho’ from the beautiful Philippines. As a terrorist hotspot, famed for its military coups and a high-risk of kidnap for foreigners, I felt it was important to keep a low profile. Therefore, in an effort to ‘blend in’, I’ve donned a full body rabbit costume and have been insisting I’m the ‘Christmas Bunny’ to any fool who’ll listen (see fig.1). It’s the Christmas school break in Hong Kong and I’m back in the capital, Manila, wrapping things up after joining 15 friends at a beach resort on Mindoro island.
At first glance, Manila bears the hallmarks of any other Asian city. The hustle and bustle, random scraggly dogs, a lingering smell of street food and shit, street kids weaving in between a dozen different forms of honking, beeping gridlocked vehicles, blistering heat intensifying the thick pollution, sprawling shanty towns meters from glittering new shopping malls, spitting and deep-excavation-nose-picking in public, frightening toilets and hawkers ambushing tourists. In the Philippines, however, there are a few subtle differences. Everyone’s English, for instance, is fantastic and the people themselves are genuinely super-friendly – it’s said to be the only ‘Latin country’ in Asia and certainly has a very Latin feel – plus, it’s a Catholic country so Christmas is celebrated fervently. Around the hostel, I’ve found that the touts and prostitutes aren’t as persistent as elsewhere, though it’s the first time I’ve been offered Viagra on the street, several times in a row. I’ve taken to walking down the middle of the road to avoid it, choosing to risk my life instead of risking my dignity.
The food is also quite unique too and perhaps not for the fainthearted… One of the iconic dishes is the delightful ‘Balut’ – basically, a boiled egg but fertilised – the locals love nothing more than the crunchy (i.e. the bones!) texture of a feathery winged chicken abortion. I decided to pass on this but my HK housemate was happy to tuck into his chick foetus – graphic video coming soon. Also popular is dog meat strew, beetles, tree-ant nest, pig face, pig lung, monitor lizard etc… all good reasons to be vegetarian in the Philippines!
As a somewhat spoilt and gadded traveller type, I felt I was running out of places to see in Asia and that a visit to the Philippines would somewhat be ‘scraping the geographical barrel’. However, there’s only Laos, Mongolia and here where I’ve felt the people are truly friendly to visitors. Manila isn’t just another Asian city. From the moment we stepped out of the airport, pretty much everyone has been smiley, festive, pleasant and tripping over themselves to help or just say ‘Merry Christmas’. The Philippines has 70 languages across its 7,107 islands, and not one of them features a word for ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘anguish’ or even ‘boredom’. The national psyche is governed by what is known as ‘bahala na’ or ‘what will be will be.’ With endless coups, nutty dictators and a long dark history of occupation-after-occupation, Filipinos have learnt to grit their teeth and laugh at everything. They’re brilliant – almost to a fault. I’ve had taxi drivers refuse to take me, suggesting I’d save time and money by getting one from across the road, market traders have repeatedly insisted on not inflating prices and a waitress stopped us mid-payment to inform us our Christmas dinner was 180 peso cheaper than we’d thought. They’re truly the personification of friendly.
Before meeting up with 15 other friends at a beach resort we’d booked together, I’d scheduled a full day in Manila – the troubled, sprawling capital of the world’s second-largest archipelago. Local transport here is defined by the humble yet brash ‘jeepney’ – after WWII, hundreds of American jeeps were left to the people, who extended them, added a roof and used them as a means of public transport. Each one is colourfully decorated, despite most being rusty old clapped out pollution spewers. The kamikaze drivers often seem to have problems committing to a single lane, but if you can find one going your way, they’re an exciting and cheap way of getting around (under 9p flat fare).
Opting for a taxi, my friend Sam and I went straight to Intramuros to explore the ruins of the city walls, forts and moats. We had a guided horse-drawn tour of what remains of the Spanish fortifications, which were the focus of the British, Japanese, Spanish and American occupations. Our guide told us of the country’s bloody past and equally unstable present, occasionally he’d throw in a joke or two… Apparently locals say that the walls ‘were once for war but are now for love’, as the forts are a favourite getaway for young couples at night. Certainly, he was no Peter Kay – Sam and I laughed nervously as he revealed the true extent of his fascination with the city’s ‘young lovers’, and how he’d occasionally ‘like to watch’.
70% of the area is shanty town and, after being allowed to watch a wedding take place at Manila Cathedral, we wandered the alleyways, got ourselves lost and ended up playing board games with a bunch of locals. The Chinese have mahjong, the Japanese have Go, and in Manila they play street bingo! After a quick round, I was allowed to do the calling (fulfilling what my high school computerised ‘career questionnaire’ programme predicted I would become after graduation).
Having learnt how to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Tagalog, we were big hits with a particular group of nearby children who we decided to buy a ball for. Predictably, the ball disappeared with the local bully within a minute, so we pressed on with festive songs, funny faces, games, animal noises and dancing. Suddenly the rabble of streetwise kids insisted we follow them, leading us to a small room in which Sam and I found ourselves hastily locked. A moody transvestite appeared and helped seat us on small plastic chairs whilst he arranged some music. Whilst Sam and I thought through the bad and weird things which could happen at this point, the kids arranged themselves in a dancing formation. Then (in moves reminiscent of the finale of the film ‘Little Miss Sunshine’) the children burst into a synchronised dancing medley of R’n’B hits – complete with highly inappropriate, sexualised grinding and gyrating. To say it was bizarre would be an understatement – and although there was stationery and posters strewn about suggesting it was a day-care centre, I wondered how on earth I’d explain being locked in a sweaty small room with half-a-dozen erotically dancing kids and a temperamental transvestite.
Later we tried to head to a market area but ended up in Chinatown – which many of the locals insisted on us visiting, probably unaware that we live in Chinatown and have been trying to take a holiday from it! The heat was beginning to take its toll and we lasted around an hour, exploring the backstreets before taking a jeepney back to the hostel to meet friends. The Philippines seem to lack what we know in Europe as ‘seasons’, holding down an average temperature of around 28c for pretty much every month of the year. It’s been odd to celebrate Christmas whilst sunbathing on a beach, but it’s been a welcome change to Hong Kong where temperatures have dipped as low as 15c (which, for the kids I teach, is considered to be ‘freezing’!).
Our few days in Puerto Galera were filled with festive banter, reading, board games, a ‘secret Santa’ present exchange and a turkey dinner on the big day. Whilst sunning ourselves on the beach, we’d occasionally be interrupted by vendors selling all manner of wacky merchandise – there were guys selling four foot galleons, another was peddling a bow-and-arrow as another was trying to flog huge tacky shells ‘to improve your living room’. I couldn’t understand what their business plan must look like – as pretty much all the objects would either be liable to prompt a thorough investigation at customs or would be a logistical nightmare to get home – how did they make a living? After saying ‘no thanks’ for the umpteenth time, I felt like suggesting they look into, I dunno, cold drinks or ice-creams, beach paraphernalia – spades and the like?
On Christmas Eve we checked out the nightlife in nearby Sabang, only to find it was pretty much a huge brothel. Sleazy go-go bars and restaurants lined the beach with signs on the doors insisting patrons ‘leave deadly firearms at the door’. 400,000 women work in prostitution in the Philippines and 20% of them are underage. The area was swamped with sex tourists – practically all of them aged, overweight, balding white men – most with a young Filipino girl on their arm. One even seemed to have his child with him. I read that the girls see very little of the money they make, as most goes to their managers and to pay for rent and protection from the police – it still, however, provides more than a lot of other work. I found sitting amongst all of this revolting and I resented having to overhear the sickening way in which the men spoke about the women and their supposed ‘conquests’. It’s a shame vast areas and towns here, and in other countries in Southeast Asia are defined by and exist purely around this horrible trade.
For the final day on the island, we rented motorbikes and checked out a rope bridge, a few towns ‘off the beaten track’ and a waterfall. Although we were caught in a downpour and drenched through, we found that the waterfall – on the way home – had transformed from a gentle clear flow to a roaring brown surge. It was magnificent! After a 6 hour boat and jeepney journey, I’m now back in Manila.
Yesterday Sam and I paid a visit to the Chinese Cemetery. Covering several acres, this huge area is basically a ‘town for the dead’ – the roads are abandoned and the houses are all large mausoleums for rich families – some with areas ‘reserved’ for the rest of the family. Each mausoleum includes a bathroom for the use of visitors who usually pay their respects for a couple of hours every Sunday. Each building seems to compete with the next in terms of luxury – with some mausoleums including air-conditioning and plush marble seating. A separate section is set aside for babies and another for bodies after the expensive 25-year lease runs out on a tomb. Our guide told us, with some obvious bitterness, that the garden of one of these mausoleums was around the size of his own home – and it was apparent to us, when we looked across the road, that living conditions for the dead were considerably higher than those enjoyed by the local people.
Today is Rizal Day, a national holiday in honour of the national hero. It’s a low-key event though, as it’s been marred by multiple terrorist attacks across the capital a few years ago. Tomorrow, I head back to Hong Kong for the New Year’s party we’re hosting and to face the kids again on the 2nd!