Published: December 20th 2007December 4th 2007
the beach boys
local lads holding their pet chickens!
Why oh why do air-conditioned buses always turn the air-con onto full? It’s as if they only have two settings: “off” and “right, let’s make 'em freeze”. The direction vent above your head can’t be turned off, and so you are subjected to an icy breeze throughout your journey. I’m usually sitting there wearing a fleece, and I am used to cold weather. The poor locals sit there wearing blankets and wooly hats. Makes no sense. And the larger long-distance companies insist that you turn up an hour before your journey. Why? It’s a bus for gods sake, not a plane. Also, for some reason, when you arrive an hour before the engine is already running. Gasoline here is expensive, about a dollar a litre. Everyone complains about it. So it makes no sense to leave an empty bus with it’s engine running for a full hour before leaving. The only reason that I can think of is that it gives the aircon enough time to get it nice and frosty for maximum passenger discomfort.
Anyway, after a chilling twelve hour bus journey, I reached part of the Philippines known as Bicol. Unfortunately it was the tail-end of the rainy
polluted, dirty and depressing
The main street of Naga. Friendly locals though!
season which, as the name suggests, means RAIN. They say the eskimoes have a hundred words for snow. Back in England we have a hundred words for rain. And here in Bicol I experienced everything from drizzle to light showers to torrential downpours.
My first stop was Naga, an uninspiring town with no redeeming features whatsoever, The only reason I was here was to visit Mount Isarog National Park, about 30km outside. I was traveling solo, because there were no other backpackers to be seen. I took a jeepney to a tiny village with only ten houses, and then persuaded a man with a bike to take me the final five kilometers. The entry fee to the National Park should have been the princely sum of twelve pence, but the entry booth was closed. It was covered in cobwebs and the gate was swinging gently in the breeze. The walking paths were overgrown and I had to battle through the foliage in places, walking past abandoned huts. Clearly this place was rarely visited, a forgotten park, and the whole experience was somewhat eerie. By scrambling down a vague path of rocks and tree roots, I found a beautiful lagoon
the secret lagoon
the perfect place for a skinny dip. Watch out for leeches on your "bits" though!
in a clearing. Having the whole park to myself, I stripped off and went for a refreshing skinny-dip in the emerald green waters.
I wanted to explore the park further, but I came to a crumbly ledge with a steep drop, and thought it might not take the weight of my substantial belly. If I fell and broke a leg, it could be weeks before I was found. If ever! So I left the park, walked five kilometers back to the village and hitched a ride on a motorbike and sidecare. The tricycle picked up several more people on the way. By the time we reached Naga, there were three of us sitting on the bike, a girl and a sack of corn in the sidecar, a guy hanging off a ladder on the back and a box of chickens on the sidecar roof!
My next stop was Sorsogon, a grim town which was perpetually clogged with traffic. At this point I had not even seen another backpacker or Westerner for over a week. I checked into a nice hotel as a treat, and found I was the only guest! There were six people working there, and me.
beast of burden
the Karibou is a Filipino buffalo, and is used for farm work
There was the manager, two people at reception, one person in the kitchen, one person for laundry/cleaning, and one person whose duties seemed to involve keeping an eye out for other guests and generally milling around. I was half- tempted to trash my room, rock-star style, just to give them something to clean up! Next to the hotel was a restaurant, a huge building the size of a banqueting hall. This was equally empty. The restaurant was a turo-turo, which means”point-point”. It had trays of food on display which you point at, for them to reheat and serve. One of the cardinal rules of displaying food is that the food has to look appetizing. This sorry display of cuisine nestled somewhere between rank and inedible. One tray contained large chunks of pork fat. Another had deep-fried prawns in batter, but you could see from gaps in the batter that the prawns still had their shells on! Yet another tray had bits of bone with grey lumps of meat and gristle attached. This place would be better named as a “bark-bark” restaurant, where stray dogs could wander in and bark at the food they wanted. This was all it was good
a stormy day at Bacon Beach
rain, clouds, seaweed and a complete lack of Bacon
for, feeding to to the dogs. I headed into town instead, and settled for an average place serving average food.
I was overjoyed to see some blue sky the next day, the first for over two weeks. I immediately packed my towel and swimshorts, and caught a jeepney to a nearby beach. There was no time to waste. This valuable patch of blue sky could disappear at any moment. The beach was next to a village called Bacon, but there wasn’t any bacon to be had anywhere. I know this because I popped into a couple of restaurants on the off-chance of a bacon sandwich. The village beach was predictably called Bacon Beach, and I was excited about a sunny day on the coast. But no sooner did I step onto the sandy shore than dark clouds closed over, and I felt the first drops of rain. Damn damn damn! But I was here now, and I was determined to make the most of Bacon Beach, even if I had to put my towel down on the wet sand and “cloudbathe” in the pouring rain. I soon decided this was a silly idea, and just walked along the coastline
a wet and windy walk
sheltering in a beach hut on Bacon Beach
in the drizzle. I walked to the next coast around the corner which I christened “Sausage Bay”, which had majestic cliffs the colour of hash browns, and clouds the colour of fried mushrooms. But the rain soon became a despicable downpour, so I went back to the hotel, having experienced neither sun nor bacon.
The weather improved the next day, so I tried my luck at another beach on the South Coast. This was a more rewarding day, and I walked a 5km stretch of gorgeous coastline. There were wooden houses and fishing boats scattered all along, and I was a curiosity to the local kids. They swarmed around me, asking where I was from and where I was going. I asked if I could take their photo and they shrieked “yes yes, photo!” They all grouped together, smiling, and when I showed them the photo they all jumped up and down and laughed in glee. I took one photo of some kids in the sea, and other kids came splashing through the water from all around to be in it. One kid was gathering driftwood, and in his eagerness to be in the photo, his planks of wood
click and enlarge, and take a closer look at these kids. Have you ever seen such beaming happy smiles?
knocked two other kids flying into the water. Never before have I seen such a group of kids smiling away with unabashed happiness. Simple village kids with nothing, and yet they seemed infinitely happier than most western kids with all their toys and trappings of civilization
My next stop was Legaspi, another town which was never going to win any beauty awards. Once again I was glad my imaginary girlfriend was traveling with me. It helped deflect the offers of Filipino women from the taxi drivers gathered outside the hotel. I visited a tour agency called “Bicol Adventures”, and spent a few hours in the office chatting with Ray and Luis, the owners. Genuinely nice guys. I organized a hike of Mount Mayon the next day, an active volcano which loomed over the town with it’s deadly presence. In November 2006, Mount Mayon had cut a path of death and destruction down to the outskirts of Legaspi. Millions of litres of water had collected in it’s crater during the rainy season, and an eruption had caused the crater walls to collapse. An incredible mass of water had flowed down it’s steep slopes, gathering dirt and boulders into an unstoppable
blue skies are very welcome during the wet season
river which destroyed the houses on the outskirts of Legaspi. The force of this flood had been so great that it gouged a valley through the lowlands which was ten metres deep and about 80 metres wide. At the moment, however, the local Philvolc monitoring agency pronounced Mount Mayon safe.
It was a tough but rewarding climb. There was no clear path or route for ascending this mountainous monstrosity, so much of our time was spent scrambling and climbing up rocks. The upper half of the volcano was shrouded in cloud, and after a few hours it started raining, which curtailed our climbing activity. Rain doesn’t always stop a climb, but in this case the rocks and mud were too slippy to continue. My guide was as sure-footed as a mountain goat and didn’t fall over once, despite only wearing flip-flops. I was wearing hiking boots and I continually tripped, slipped and stumbled. After my first few falls, I made a mental tally of my tumbles. I fell no less than fifteen times, either on my face or on my arse. I was battered and bruised by the time I made it down. Bloody good climb though!
dubbed the "world's most picture perfect volcano." My attempt to climb this fella was foiled by bad weather
some interesting people in Lepaspi. First was a Filipino police woman who took me out for breakfast. She gave me her mobile number as well, so if I found myself in any tangles with any corrupt police officers, I could give her a call. I also met up one evening with a security guard called Lorenzo, who used to be in the Filipino Air Force. He served in the Gulf War, teaching a Filipino martial art to the American troops. The martial art is called "Arnis", and is a form of stick-fighting where two "rattan sticks" are wielded simultaneously.
From Legaspi I flew back to Manila to meet Justine, a friend from England who was coming out to travel with me. The lack of security at Legaspi airport was astonishing. When searching my hand luggage, they found my deodorant and asked me to go back and place it in my checked-in luggage. So I went back to the check-in desk, and they let me in through a hatch, then pointed to a door at the back. I went out, BY MYSELF, and there was a large pile of unattended bags and no-one else in sight. I rifled through a
is this a rock or a hard place?
one of the easier parts of the Mount Mayon climb
few bags, finding a nice camera and two i-Pods, and then removed a large parcel of explosives which I placed in someone else's bag. I then left the airport. Obviously, I didn't actually do this, but the frightening security lapse makes it possible. Most security that I have seen over here is a joke to be honest. At large hotels in Manila, security guards check the underside of cars for bombs, using mirrors on sticks. But they never check the boot! It would take a terrorist all of ten minutes observation to see this obvious flaw. There are bag searches at shopping malls, but all them guard does is open the top of the bag and peer inside. Because that is where terrorists would hide a bomb isn't it? Right on the top, not hidden at the bottom. Even at my old HSBC building in London there were security loopholes. The building has x-ray machines installed, and bags would be scanned in the mornings. But at lunchtime, people would come back into the building with plastic shopping bags and never be scanned or searched. So a lunchtime bomb in a French Connection bag, straight through, no problem. Much of the security is just to make the public feel better, rather than an actual deterrent. But so far, I have not been blown up, kidnapped or shot, so I consider the trip to be going fairly well!