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Published: March 13th 2011
First of all sorry that we have got a bit far behind with the blogs, internet access has been somewhat sparse here in the Philippine Islands. We have nearly completed our 3 week visas and are about to embark on our journey to Indonesia tomorrow. The Philippines is so very different to anywhere else that we have been so far, so we have decided to note some of our observations.
The face of the Philippines; these colourful souped up American trucks are used as a form of public transport. You can bring along any luggage you like for a price, as the driver has no qualms about strapping barrels on the roof, chickens to the back, or wrestling a boat engine between the benches. Jeepneys run both short routes within cities and long distance routes between cities. There are no printed timetables; routes are etched on the window, and the jeepney will leave when there is no longer room to swing a baby mouse. We have taken jeepney rides where 38 passengers have been counted inside, then a further 10-15 clining onto the sides, roof and bonnet. Along the way the wagon will stop to pick up both people,
and/or goods which he can deliver at some point later along the route for a price. The jeepney makes for a very interesting journey indeed, and forms a large part of daily Filipino life. They are a fun way of travelling the Philippines, but just don't count on them being on time.
It is a tragic shame that this behaviour is not restricted by neither laws nor humiliation. Western men of a certain age shamelessly come to the Philippines with the sole intention of finding themselves a young lady- often obscenely young. Those couples who we have witnessed or indeed met, have sometimes involved men easily over 60, and girls who cannot be older than 20. Sometimes they have even started a family with these girls meaning a man approaching a pension age is responsible for two (almost) minors. There are many young pretty girls who are very poor, and the lure of money is probably a very lucrative opportunity for them so obviously this is a two way thing. Maybe there are the odd couples who are in the relationship for a genuine reason, but cannot see how this can be the case with a 30-40
year age gap. The young girls just sit there staring into space or texting on their mobile phones looking very bored. We witnessed an excrutiatingly awkward double date a few nights back involving two western men and two Filipino teenagers and have never felt more uncomfortable- the men trying to make conversation with the girls; 'So what do you cook in your Filipino kitchen?' was one of the questions they asked, trying to find a common ground. Obviously there are many happy mixed nationality couples here in the Philippines, which do not involve an old man and a minor, and we are not referring to these people. We are referring to the men who are here for what is commonly described as 'long term prostitution'.
80's Rock Ballads must have been a sellout in the Philippines. The Filipinos simply cannot get enough of old time tear-jerkers. In the public loos, in Dunkin Donuts, blasting out of young boy's mobile phones on the bus. Particularly popular are the likes of Mariah Carey, Boys II Men, Meatloaf, Celine Dion, Sinead O Connor, Bryan Adams, and Taylor Swift. Coupled with the fact that the most popular Filipino pastime is videoke, not
only do you get the real deal, you also get hundreds of CD steetsellers trying to fob you off with Filipino renditions of these all time favourites. People sing regularly to themselves, particulary when at work in restaurants, bars and shops, but also on local buses and in the street.
It's true. The Filipinos LOVE karaoke. There are videoke machines everywhere including bars, pubs, restaurants, and street markets. Often there will be many different videokes in use at the same time, and there will be competition of the loudest. The Filipinos know so many songs it's untrue. The videoke is a strange machine which couples the most absurd videos as background entertainment to the songs. Typical examples include rap artists dancing around while the words are to 'My Heart Will Go On'.
The trike, a funky take on the Batman and Robin motorbike and sidecar is one of the most common forms of taxi transport in the smaller towns of the Philippines. Of course the trike comes in many colours, shapes, and states of repair, but that all adds to the fun. At a local price of around 10p per 2km you can't really go wrong,
unless you get knocked off the road by one of the many vans with real motors that the drivers attempt to overtake. Our first trike journey (3 of us were piled into the sidecar) resulted in Katie's pack shooting out of the back at a speed of knotts, and us having to make a precarious u-turn on a main road to go and collect it.
What are gays? Back in the UK a gay person is somebody of a homosexual orientation. Here, the word gay is used commonly, and although there are many more openly homosexual couples here than you would witness walking down the street at home, it is not these people who are being referred to. In the Philippines, we were informed by one local lady, a 'gay' is somebody who is male, but wants to be female. In other words, a ladyboy. We were also told that in fact there are many ladyboys here in the Philippines, however we haven't witnessed that many.
As of yet we are not completely certain of what laws are in place regarding possession of firearms in the Philippines. To be honest we'd rather not find out. What
we are aware of however, is that whenever you wish to enter somewhere slightly commercialised such as a shopping mall, restaurant, hotel, or airport, you are separated into male and female queues, have to walk through a metal detector, be the recepient of a good frisking, and then open your bags to bare all and for security to have a good poke around. Obviously this is a little inconvenient when we arrive to a shopping mall to use their free wifi, straight from the airport with all our luggage, but if it is for the greater good. It is also not uncommon that even within these places, and those without security operations, you will see signs which request that you give up your firearm upon entry. 'Please leave your firearms here' signs are not an uncommon sight.
When taking a hike in Banaue some friends had come into contact with a group of men carrying guns. We mentioned this to our trike driver-cum-guide later that day and he assured us that it is illegal to own guns in the Philippines and they were just air rifles for hunting. We weren't sure whether this was true or whether he was
trying to ease any anxieties we may have had.
Spitting seems to be a big part of everyday life in the Philippines, more so the rural areas. When in Banuae we were a little shocked when a young boy talked to us and it appeared that his mouth was bleeding. Throughout the day we noticed that everyone's mouths were bleeding. It turned out that locally people chew on beetle nuts which is an addiction like smoking, and probably cocoa leaves. The nuts whilst being good for ridding bacteria, emit a red coloured dye. It is questionable how good they are for you however, as we saw a rather large number of people missing many or all of their teeth.
Even in the cities there are often signs demanding 'NO SPITTING' alongside the usual 'No Smoking' ones. 'No Dogs' is never present however, as wherever you look there are at least five strays within your peripheral vision.
Something we will definitely be avoiding from now on. The sightly scoundrels around here, whilst in reciept of our sympathy, simply terrify us. After being informed by our trike driver that rabies sure is prevalent in the Philippines, and that
you cannot tell if a dog has the condition until you've been bitten, we have been constantly on edge. He also told us that whilst eating dog is illegal, it is still widely eaten in the mountain areas. Puppies are the preferred chice as they have soft skin which is good to chew on. The chewiness of the skin is apparently a lot more important than the taste of the flesh.
Reading James Herriot's Dog Stories a few months back has proved useful though as we whittle away our time attempting to diagnose all the locals' conditions ranging from a lame leg to skin problems.
Since arriving in Asia we have noticed an array of beauty products and cosmetics professing to have whitening properties. Apparently, there is an Asian fatuation to be whiter, which is bizarre as white people often want to be browner. It shows that the grass really is always considered greener. We have been told however that these products contain bleaching agents which are really bad for the skin, so we have been trying to avoid them. Even big brands such as Nivea have products such as suncream and lotions that offer this, and it
is quite difficult to avoid as most handsoaps contain it.
Arriving into the Philippines
Clarke Airport, Manila isn't tecnically in Manila. It is the terminal used by low cost airline Air Asia, and is about 3 hours outside of the city. For this reason Air Asia have kindly set up an onwards shuttle bus for passengers into the capital. To be fair to them they haven't completely taken advantage of the situation, with the bus costing 300 pesos, just over £4 each. The currency here is Philippine Peso (PHP) and there are around 70 pesos to the pound. We arrived into the Philippines full of expectation after dreamily staring into screensavers depicting Philippine beaches for nearly a year before our trip. Before we could make it to any beaches however we had yet another city to contend with.
Manila has earnt itself a bit of a reputation amongst travellers as being one of the worst cities in Asia. To be honest we think that it has been a little hard done by on this account, whilst it is by no means a Singapore, it is not terrible. We only had one full day in the
city on this occasion so cannot comment too much, but we did see a fair few areas namely Quezon City, Malate and Panay.
We arrived into Quezon City as we had the intention of Couch Surfing. However, after bustling through the overpass to our first mall, our first strip search, a trip to the national bookstore to buy our first Lonely Planet guide, then into McDonalds (not our first), we were a little disappointed that our host had not emailed to confirm our arrival time. We were pleased with the McD menu which included sprite floats which are green fizzy drinks topped with cream- so had a quick snack, then decided to make our way to the recommended tourist friendly area of Malate to find somewhere else to stay. We decided to take the metro, as it was surely cheaper than taking a taxi. In hindsight we should have taken the cab, as we later found out just how cheap they are, and how difficult it is to navigate your way around Manila's complex metro system. We found our way from one metro station to another throulgh a series of malls and overpasses which was a little strange but
we eventually found the LRT yellow line. En route we got talking to a local lady who was a little surprised to see tourists in Quezon City and told us it was not a touristic place. After around an hour we had found ourselves on a street in Malate but with no hostel booking, we decided to try and find Friendly's Guesthouse which was listed in the Lonely Planet. The road names were few and far between and confusing, and it was dark. We had been carrying our packs for around an hour and a half and were pretty hot and tired. Getting a taxi was impossible as we realised they were all full. Eventually after asking about 4 people and being told the wrong directions entirely (despite us showing them a map) a security guard directed us along the right path. The footways were lined with people, street vendors selling everything from popcorn through to plates of (possibly) dead cockroaches. Then we came to Robinsons mall which is probably considered the centre of Malate. This is a very upmarket affair containing establishments such as TGI Fridays, and is absolutely huge.
After walking too far down the street then
having to come back on ourselves we were exhausted and were relieved to have found Friendly's which was just a door in the wall. We really needed a bed, and were more than a little disappointed when we were told they had an electricity fault and that they could not accomodate any guests. With our heads dragging on the floor we found another 'pensionne' which had no rooms, and were almost ready to give up when a man in the street asked us if we were looking for somewhere to stay. We said yes and apprehensively followed him down a dark alley to another street where we were shown to a hostel offering a tiny room where the door didn't open properly due to the bunkbed frame. Other than the bunkbed the only other thing in the room was a showerhead on one wall which surely would have struck the top bunk when switched on. We said no point blank, especially when hearing the price was 1000 pesos. We were desperate but literally this place was a dive. We requested to be shown somewhere cheaper, so the guy lead us across the road to a suspicious looking club with blacked
out windows which was fronted by two girls in short dresses welcoming us in. It looked like a 'pay by hour' place and when we reached the third floor our suspicions were confirmed when we were asked if we wanted the whole night. We looked at the room at a bargain fo 400 pesos and it was possibly the worst room we have ever been offered. A box room with no windows (generally a given) but housing one half collapsed bed with a white sheet riddled with stains. The walls were cracked and peeling, so disgusting we couldn't imagine anybody would stay there. It was as dirty as an underpass, or a stairwell in an old carpark. We declined again and although we were desperate we decided we still were not that desperate.
Out in the street we thanked the man and decided to look around for ourselves, when a child offered to show us where the Stargate Pensionne was. By the way, we found this a lot in Manila- children offering to show you where places are. We had seen this place earlier but thought it was out of our budget. We decided to disregard budget as we
were getting pretty desperate and longing for a good bed. Realising Manila was an expensive place to stay we decided to take the room offered to us for 1280 pesos which was really quite nice. After a quick change we headed out to check out the nighttime scene of Malate. There was a main street which had a few bar and grill places opening out onto the roads, and it felt quite touristy. We weren't too hungy, just tired so popped into 7/11 for some water, where Katie was very excited to see that they sold Mudshakes. These are alcoholic milkshakes and are the most amazing drinks ever, so we treated ourselves to three flavours then headed back to the room to plan our time in the Philippines.
We had made the decision to extend our visas in the Philippines. On entry UK nationals are provided only with 21 days, which meant that we needed to vist the local embassy in Manila to extend our visas to 59 days for a total of 3030 pesos each- pretty pricey. We were made aware that we would not be granted admission to the embassy without full trousers and shoes, which meant
a morning shopping trip in Robinsons mall, followed by a frantic goose chase. On the internet we had found the address for the visa place, but when we finally arrived there by taxi we were told that it was somewhere else. Fortunately the 25 minute taxi ride cost only 120 pesos but it meant another ride across town with the chance that the embassy wouldn't be open as it was getting later. We finally flagged a taxi which of course had a broken meter (as we are tourists we suspect) so we refused to take it and waited for another. There is a humorous phenomena in the Philippines regarding taxis. If someone sees you trying to flag down a taxi on the side of the road they will slither past you and try to flag one about 20 metres in front. We were non the wiser to this at first but by the time we reached Baguio a few days later we were utilising this trick full force and trying to compete with the locals. En Route to the embassy we read in the Lonely Planet that visa processing was a piece of cake in other cities, and to avoid
the visa office in Manila like the plague. We had decided to head north that evening by bus so made a last minute decision to try and extend there instead. So with this decision made we redirected our taxi to the Florida bus station to buy our tickets for our overnight bus. Although we had initially come to the Philippines to see beaches, we were somewhat attracted to the idea of travelling north first to see the famed rice terraces and reputed beautiful mountainous scenery. We wanted also to see the annual flower festival at Baguio. Tickets bought to Banaue at a bargain price of 300 pesos each, we headed back to Robinsons to grab some lunch. All of these taxi rides cost 440 pesos in total (just over £6) and we must have been riding around for at least an hour and a half.
We found a great little pasta place which offered pasta, calzone and ice tea for just 120 pesos for lunch. We spent rest of the afternoon browsing in the shops and not doing a lot, then headed to the bus station around 7pm, even though our bus wasn't until 9 as the traffic is
pretty bad in the city. Before leaving we made a reservation in Banaue for the following evening, knowing that we would not get a lot of sleep on the bus and did not want to be competing with the other tourists when we arrived, or find ourselves in the same position as the night before. The bus left on time and wasn't as bad as expected, although it was here that we were first properly entertained by the Filipino love of ballads. The bus seemed to be equipped with every rock ballad ever created, and they were played at full volume for around the first 6 hours of the journey- impressively there were no repeat tracks. The air con was on full blast and we were glad that we had kept hold of one of the sleeping bags.
We arrived in Banaue at the very early hour of 5am, where we were met at the 'terminal' and taken to our hostel in a trike. We had decided to stay at Green View Lodge which was reportedly the most popular place in town. When we arrived we were pretty shocked to see everyone was up and about eating breakfast at
such an early hour. We decided to have eggs and toast which cost around 50 pesos each, then were approached by the trike driver who had collected us to see if we would like to take a tour with him.
We felt a little pressurised as he was trying to charge us over £20 for a trike ride around the area. Knowing what we do now we are really glad we turned him down as we would have been very ripped off. After breakfast we met a Russian girl Anya, and an English guy Tom, who were about to take a hike. We decided to go along, and told the trike driver that we would come back at 12 for a trip to the viewpoints only, for which he was charging 200 pesos without a guide.
The hike was around the local rice terraces and weaved in and out of villages. It was made up of quite a few steps but the scenery was beautiful. The first village we came across was really cute and still had traditional houses which stood on stilts, with the main body of the house encompassed within the roof structure. We saw a
little goat having a fight with a Jack Russel and met a boy with a red mouth. We continued on through a grassy forested area where we came to a t-junction and didn't know which way to take. A local woman offered to guide us for 100 pesos then the next man we came across ignored our presence despite a separate 'hello' from each of us. We were beginning to feel the hostility but continued on towards the next village. Along the way a local man told us to watch out for part of the path which was crumbling- and he wasn't exagerrating. The slab which once formed the path was precariously balancing in thin air, the ground which once stood below it had fallen down in a mudslide. There was no other way to walk other than crossing over which was a little scary.
We eventually found the second village where we were regarded by the local people with watchful eyes. We said hello, and whilst the children ran around waving at us, some of the elders spat in contempt. We rushed quickly on through then started our ascent back up around some more terraces and to another
village. There was a waterfall eventually, but we didn't make it all the way to the end of the trek as it was close to 12 and we had already paid upfront for our tour later that day. We walked back towards the hostel in the main town, crossing over a terrifying bridge made up of slats of metal and wood haphazardly nailed together (sometimes not even connected). After a quick lunch of curried rice (for 70 pesos) we headed out for our trip to the viewpoints. We were really exhausted after the morning hike and not having slept at all on the bus, however we really wanted to see the terraces so took our trip. We were glad that our driver was not the guy who we had bargained with earlier that day- it turned out he was a really nice guy and we spent around the next 3 hours with him chatting about various things.
Riding in the trike was still quite a new thing for us and was exciting. We bumped over the mountain roads to the first viewpoint which could easily have been reached by foot, but it was nice to have the transport. As
we approached three ladies stepped out from behind a wall, dressed in 'traditional' clothes, timely placing big hats on their heads. They sat at a bench next to the viewing platform- we knew their game. Careful not to look at the ladies we took pictures of the landscapes. The ladies were clearly agitated that we had not tried to photograph them so they could charge us an absurd price, so one by one they would cough to get our attention. As we were not taking the bait, eventually they asked 'you take picture?' We politely declined and were so glad we did as we were faced with the same at the next 3 viewpoints.
The next viewpoints were just as impressive, and it was really interesting taking to our driver who told us that rice terraces are passed down by generation to generation- the oldest child being given the biggest terraces, and then the youngest the smallest. He told us that this can often become problematic as people have lots of children as they don't have TV or anything else to do at night (his words) and then the younger children often end up with no rice terraces. In
these regions you are only considered rich depending on the number of rice terraces you own, it doesn't matter how much money you have. Possible suitors are considered on possession of rice terraces, and it is often the case that a first born will only ever wed a first born for this reason. The farming of the land looked extremely arduous, and we were shocked to find that all of the rice yielded from these fields only feed the town for about half of the year. They still have to import for the other 6 months of the year as they simply cannot not eat rice.
After viewing the rice terraces from a number of viewing platforms, our driver asked if he could take us somewhere else. He had been so kind to us talking to us for the past 2 hours, even though we were only paying him as a driver and not as a guide. We could tell he was embarrassed to suggest that we pay him more so we agreed to go along, it was only going to cost about £5.50 in total for the whole afternoon and he was such a kind man. He took
us to a beautifully landscaped area with traditional houses and statues and monuments depicting how life would have been lived in the olden days. We had seen identical houses in the villages we had visited earlier that day but didn't tell him that. The most exciting part of this adventure was seeing the giant skulls of animals strapped onto the sides of the houses. After our trip we headed back to the hostel where we were shown to our room. The room was lovely- the rooms were downstairs from reception as the whole structure is built into the side of a cliff, and has stilts. Luckily our room was more on the cliff side than the stilt side, and was accessed from an open balcony area that had views over into the valley. At just 500 pesos a night for the room it was a real bargain, and we definitely made the most out of it, having a 5 hour nap when we got back. At 9pm we dragged ourselves out of bed for an omelette and a game of cards with the guys that we had trekked with earlier on in the day. We then headed back to bed
as the next day we had planned a jeepney ride to the nearby holiday town of Sagada.
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