April's Notes from the Road: The Philippines (2000)

Madagang tanghali and Selamat siang -- or should I rather say (take your pick-- I've heard them both frequently), "Hello ma'am! Hello mister!"  Said with the utmost of sincerity, a beaming smile, and the seemingly universal wish for me, an 'exotic species' in Southeast Asia, to respond.And so, my adventures continue.  Continue wonderfully, exceptionally well, and unfortunately all to quickly.  The last time you heard from me I had just wrapped up in Viet Nam, and in the month since then I have explored two very different archipelagos, those of The Philippines (Filipinas) and Indonesia (the 'capital' island of Java (Jawa) and the paradise-on-earth called Bali).  This installment could also be called The Island Phase, as it has entailed significant island-hopping, endless kilometers of coastline, and yet another new manifestation -- and appreciation -- of diversity.  This time the diversity is that which has been dictated by geographic distance and remoteness.  While Indonesia as a whole has several aspects in common with Malaysia, both Bali and The Philippines are worlds apart.  I found each of them to be wildly and uniquely fascinating, and all the moreso when put in reference and contrast to the places I've already visited.The Philippines is a Catholic, meat-eating, English-speaking, basketball- and America-obsessed 'blip' in Southeast Asia.  The people and the 'eighth wonder of the world' rice terraces of North Luzon rank among the best things about the country (see below), and the congested megalopolis of Manila is undoubtedly the worst.  Little idea of the latter did I have upon arrival there.  My first impressions were shaped by traffic, television, armed security guards and artificial ingredients.  To call Manila 'a big pit' is an understatement; a 10-km, 1 1/2 hour taxi ride to my guesthouse was ample proof of that.  En route I had plenty of opportunity to view not only the capital's urban filth, but also the delightful Filipino adaptation known as the Jeepney.  Basically refit, decorated, and blessed-by-the-virgin-Mary US army vehicles, jeepneys are the brightest thing on the road -- though they do not provide the most comfortable ride!  Gone were the cyclos and tuk-tuks...... And in came Western culture.  Too much of it for my taste.  Filipino society goes nuts over anything American, and I even heard the country joked of as "the 51st state" by Filipinos themselves.  Where this insatiable interest comes from, and whether it is more the result of US exportation or the Filipinos actively seeking it out, I don't know.  However, in a rare change of suit for me (who usually finds fault with McDonald's and The Disney Store as instigators of cultural homogenization) on balance it seems that the Filipinos collectively are more responsible for the mass influx of music videos, tshirts and fast-food joints.  New York Knicks game statistics grace the front pages of the major newspapers and 4-year-olds can sing Madonna tunes by heart, yet I didn't see noticeably more advertising or physical US presence than anywhere else in Southeast Asia.Oh, yes, the fast-food joints.  They are an unavoidable part of any Filipino town, and are in large part the culprit of the pathetic state of Filipino food in general.  What a lowlight!  Granted, coming on the heels of Viet Nam and preceding Indonesia, it was up against stiff competition.  But even so, not only could it not compare, but I would have to rate it low even relative to other countries like Hungary or Iceland.  Definitely not a source of national pride!  Empty calories, fried snacks at every turn, and the fact that there exist more pre-packaged foods than in the United States.  I had looked forward to Spanish-inspired arroz dishes and spicy island fish, but was sorely disappointed.  The four main food groups appear to be:  Nescafe' (with non-dairy creamer only -- indeed, what baffles me still is that there are NO dairy products available of any sort.  No fresh milk, no yogurt, no cheese... and this in a country chock-full of cows!  Just one of several Filipino conundrums...); potato chips; fried pork of every imaginable sort; and various white, super-sweet pastries.  And ironically, portions were often large enough to serve two!  It was a no-win situation.  Granted, there are some tasty national dishes such as Adobo (pork, chicken or beef stewed in a marinade of soy sauce, black pepper and vinegar) and Pancit Canton (wide noodles stir-fried with mixed greens, peppers and liver) which I enjoyed.  And one bonus (term used tongue-in-cheek) that the eating experience did permit was in-depth observation of karaoke and videoke culture.  Yikes!I had decided to focus my time in The Philippines on the island of Luzon, and spent 8 days doing a circuit through its northern reaches.  This area is home to the native Ifugao people who, some 2000-3000 years ago, constructed spectacular wet-cultivation rice terraces.  The first stop on this loop was the hill town of Baguio, nestled in the mountains some 7 hours north-west of Manila.  You arrive via the windy Marcos Highway, which is complete with a mini Mount Rushmore version of Ferdinand himself.  Baguio is little more than a transit and market town, whose claims to fame are (in my opinion) a silver workshop run by European missionary nuns, and the biggest, brightest carrots I've ever tasted.  It was interesting to see the various steps involved in filigree silversmithing (most of the workers are disabled and would otherwise be unemployed), and I overdosed on vitamin A-- I had to take advantage of the few fresh fruits and vegetables I could get!I stayed in Baguio long enough to get my bearings and plan my circuit properly, and then headed east to my next stop:  the 'alpine' village of Sagada.  The 6-hour curvy, scenic bus ride got off to an unexpected start with casual, no-big-deal talk of a military coup on the morning radio news.  Apparently gigolo-actor-turned-prime minister Joseph Estrada was having yet more difficulties in office, and his popularity (along with the stock market, thanks to rumors of corrupt officials and his doling out key business deals as favors to close friends) continued to plummet throughout my visit.  I tried talking to several people during the week about politics -- from Marcos to Aquino to Ramos and now Estrada -- but got overwhelmingly disinterested responses.  From what I could tell, it is not at all that Filipinos are ignorant or fearful of discussing politics, but they are very apathetic towards it.  They would rather talk about cock-fighting, or their families, or (you guessed it) basketball.The people.  The Filipinos are the best -- unbelievably friendly, curious yet polite, helpful yet respectful of one's space and privacy.  All foreign women are "ma'am" regardless of age.  Foreign women traveling solo are considered quite an oddity but not 'fair game' to harass as in so many other countries.  In fact I found the men to be exceptionally nice, and all-around quite different from their counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia; with their machismo, dark sunglasses, gold chains, heftier builds and moustaches, they struck me as more akin to Central American hombres.  But without incessant whistles and catcalls, it was welcome relief.  (I have also by this point 'given up' and been saved a lot more hassle when questioned about my marital status by responding, "Yes I have a boyfriend, and in fact we are meeting up again this weekend to travel together."  It works like a charm!)Sagada is a tiny, lazy village that serves as a good introduction to the rice terrace region (as there are several series in the area, which look amazing to the first-time visitor but pale in comparison to what comes next) and has some excellent hiking opportunities.  I climbed up mountains, down to waterfalls, and across valleys to see some famed 'hanging coffins' (really, preserved wooden coffins suspended mid-air!).  And even in this most remote of locales, there were missionaries.  It is strange; they are omnipresent and though the Filipino population is 90% Catholic, religion per se oddly is not very visible at all.  Churches are plentiful and people attend mass (it was neat to stumble upon a wedding once), but it all occurs in a very sedate, done-without-thinking manner.  It certainly was a change from the spiritual fervor of most other countries on this trip.Just 10 km (or an hour by jeepney) from Sagada is the town of Bontoc, and I headed there the following morning.  My plan was to hike to the famed Malingcong terraces and village of the same name.  Upon learning that the 8 km one-way trip was straight uphill, I followed my guesthouse owner's advice and took a jeepney there-- and am so glad I did!  For had I not, I would not have met Nora, Brenda, Josephine, Manny or Nimrod.  These were 5 of the 15 people crammed into the vehicle, and we enjoyed a lively chat together.  This group was indicative of a larger phenomenon in The Philippines:  that of bilingualism.  Everywhere, nearly everyone speaks at least some English.  This is a boon for travelers -- even for me, who usually strives for a more 'authentic' (read: at times frustrating) experience with locals.  Even among themselves, friends switch from Tagalog to English from sentence to sentence -- it certainly makes for interesting eavesdropping! We spoke about the terraces (they all came from Malingcong village, population 300), my trip, and North America.  They asked me about my family (response:  boyfriend!), and I asked them about their names.  Many Filipinos carry first names of English or Spanish origin and Filipino last names; it makes for quite a combination.  I did see/meet some pretty funny examples en route, however, such as a man named Boston (his grandfather had been the first person from that village to go to the US, and had gone to Massachusetts), or Red (yes, after the Sox), or the unfortunate person named Inept.  Ouch!We arrived at the end of the road (literally, as the village of Malingcong itself is further 3 km into the hills and accessible only by narrow footpaths through the terraces) and were greeted by a cool, light drizzle.  Great, I thought, it will add to the ambiance and I won't get swelteringly hot while climbing around.  I began the descent and was left breathless within 2 minutes.  How can I describe the terraces adequately?  Level upon level of still water, hand-constructed earthen banks (at Malingcong, or stone at Batad), shimmering and placid, with tufts of bright green springing up by the hundreds from the water.  April is rice planting season, so I was there at the best possible time.  The terraces are perched on rugged, steep hillsides, usually occupy an inner cove-like area, and often extend down gorges and valleys beyond eyesight.  It is said that if all of Luzon's terraces were put end to end, they would stretch for more than 20,000 km.  Often, but not always, you see old women in cone hats, standing calf-deep in the water, hunched over and tending the sprouts; it is a sight to behold.I clambered down, over, around, through, and back up the other side of the terraces and arrived in the village (if you can even call the collection of tin-roofed lean-to's that-- though there was a one-room primary school, and old posters tacked up in English!).  Turning around, and getting hungry, I started the hike back.  About 15 minutes into it, just when I had reached the middle of terraceland, an unbelievably thick fog rushed in from nowhere (like on Mount Everest, but warmer) and I found myself totally lost, on a mud bank the width of a balance beam, with nothing and no one around.  Trying not to panic and realizing quickly that I was up for an adventure whether I liked it or not, I began slowly to navigate in the direction I had been heading.  A good idea until I reached the end of that terrace, when both bank and stairs ceased to exist.  Trying my best to keep my balance, I stretched my leg gingerly down towards the next visible bank, and -- flop -- before I knew it I was calf-deep in rice water and mud, with the rain now pouring down and the fog still soupy.  I tried to lift one leg up and -- big oops -- the muddy quicksand ate my sandal.  Now this was really getting comical.  I took off my rainjacket to that I could plunge my arms free into the muck and retrieve my shoe.  Success, but now I was soaked-- to say nothing of dirty, and still lost!  I sat down on the bank, covered in mud, and as I was putting on my soggy sandal noticed a triangle of bright yellow.  It got bigger and... oh my god, it was the pointy cap of a woman checking her rice stalks!  She was startled to see me, but I couldn't have been happier to follow her back.  I still had another 11 km to walk back to Bontoc, but it was fantastic-- the fog gradually cleared as I descended to reveal a stunning landscape of forested mountains, rushing rivers, country architecture and terraces visible around almost every corner.As if Malingcong wasn't enough, it was when I left Bontoc and went south to Banaue (45 km or 2 1/2 hours by jeepney -- by now you're probably getting a good idea of the condition of the roads!) and especially to Batad that the fun really began.  Truly, otherworldly.  The 3 days and 3 nights spent in this area were in all honesty not only the highlight of Filipinas, but one of the entire trip as well.  I still cannot imagine who would/could have ever built such terraces at 90 degree angles on sheer mountain crests -- or why, or why here on these mountains -- but at this point such questioning is futile.  Rather, it is better to focus on having gone, tread lightly, marveled, come away with a much refined appreciation of so many things in life (and hopefully taken some good photos).My arrival in Banaue set the stage perfectly.  As the jeepney blew up dust and we (there were only a dozen or so passengers-- a light load) barreled into town, the funniest, most 'old meets new with style' sight appeared.  On the side of the road was an ancient (she could have been 60 or 100, and had the weathered tanned skin of a fragile elephant) Ifugao woman.  She stood perhaps 4'8" in height and was small-boned as a sparrow.  She was naked from the waist down except for a wide indigo sash which was wrapped haphazardly around her waist (but did a good enough job for modesty).  Her hair was wrapped in a similar indigo turban, upon which was perched a giant pair of mirrored plastic sunglasses, lopsided.  Furthermore she had a frayed Chicago Bulls scarf draped over her shoulder, and when coupled the the gnarled branch that she used as a cane to hobble with, it made for a perfect lesson in 'cultural awareness.'I settled into my guesthouse room overlooking the Banaue gorge (price:  $3.50 per night), tromped around 2 nearby villages in the afternoon, made sure all of my plans and packing for the trek to Batad were set, ate some pork adobo and called it a day.  The trek to Batad is a notably strenuous one, typically involving a tricycle ride for 12 km to the junction where the road ends, and from where all persons must hike -- uphill -- approx. 3 hours to the village itself.  No problem, I mused, I should be there by noon.  Famous last words... you can imagine what went through my mind the next morning when I awoke to learn that there had been a landslide the night before which had made the road impassable to all vehicles.  Ugh!  But not to worry... what's an extra 12 km? I set out along the road, and most happily walked the whole way.  I passed the landslide on foot (it was a doozy -- a good 10 feet high), met a group of 3 young Filipino women with whom to hike, and witnessed some of the most incredible scenery in my life upon arrival (at which point, yes, I was sweaty and tired-- but overawed).  Again, how to describe it?  Batad (population 1000) is situated IN the terraces; it is a small village of thatched roofs and tiny Ifugao people that is approached from the crest above.  It is as if you are on top of the world, and the world is nothing more than green, rice, banana trees, waterfalls, and steep cliffs.  Indeed, not only are there no roads bigger than a footpath into Batad, but there is no electricity, no consistently running water, no 'products' other than what is carried in by hand-- and interestingly, there is essentially NO desire to change this status quo.  And I must say, after a further 4 hours of hiking (for a total of 9), waterfall-swimming, and terrace-scrambling in the afternoon, sitting on the terrace by candlelight that evening, listening to a young village man strum the guitar, and staring down into the black nothingness of Batad by night, I've got to agree.  My only wish is that they could have ice somehow, so that the beer could have been cold!We awoke before sunrise for another full day of trekking, this time with a guide; most of the trails in the area are far too sketchy to trust one's instinct.  More amazing views, more waterfalls, more women planting rice and sweet potatoes, more chirps of "Hello!" as we passed by.  By the time we made it back to Banaue early that evening, I was utterly exhausted.  And happy.  And it was time to begin reflecting on my Filipino experience and preparing for the next islands...On balance, The Philippines are not among my favorite countries in Asia, but they are definitely unique.  In addition to the Spanish influence, Catholicism, and the obsession with Americana, one also finds an exceptional basketry tradition (though otherwise the tourist goods to purchase are depressingly cheap and tacky), a wonderful laissez-faire attitude, and a zest for living that has led to a disproportionate number of 24-hour shops and restaurants.  I enjoyed my time there and would welcome an opportunity to return -- but don't mind that I didn't plan to spend more time on my first visit.