I'm still alive in the Philippines though it's been difficult. Manila is the most awful city. It is noisy and hot and crowded and polluted and ugly. The home is directly on a major road featuring slums and shacks and there are motorcycles rushing by constantly so it's like trying to sleep on a NASCAR track. The air-quality is probably worse. Earplugs help only slightly. It's constantly 34° not factoring in the high humidity and only one room is air-conditioned. I was already very sleep deprived when I arrived and this combined assault caused me to be anxious, dizzy and nauseous the first several days and I was unable to eat or sleep much because of this. Panic attacks in the night were narrowly averted by the music I luckily brought with me. Of course I couldn't bear to deal with Chris on top of all of this. He wanted me to socialize more and mix with the family and friends but I was in no condition and the Tagalog conversations are shrill and disorienting to my ears. He dragged me to 3 malls bustling with squawking masses in one day and pushed me into a fully packed tram (not like the Canadian standard of ‘fully packed’ but more like sardines in the literal sense) even after I told him how exhausted I was and how the crowds made me feel at the mall.
Typical Manila street
I knew I needed to get away and my chance came when Chris said he could not go to Boracay as planned for lack of funds so I left by myself despite his reservations and warnings about my safety there. Boracay is very crowded and touristy by vacation standards but compared to Manila it is paradise. The beaches at least are very nice. There are countless restaurants to try and the food is usually cheaper and better quality than what we get in Winnipeg. One highlight was buying live seafood from the wet market and using a cooking service to prepare it nicely. Very expensive but worth it: best prawns ever. Oh, and I met a bat friend. Gradually I adapted to the heat and humidity and culture shock since I was now able to get adequate rest even though I had caught Chris's cold by the time I arrived.
Boracay at its bestToday I have returned [reluctantly] to Manila blistered, sunburnt and still sick but hardened to the merciless forces that plagued me from the moment of my arrival. I was considering an exit strategy before but I am hoping that it will not be necessary now. The only thing left to adapt to is Chris's snoring.
Busy busy Boracay
Busy busy Boracay
This week Chris, his friend/ex who also l lives here, his mother, and I went to North Luzon to stay with some relatives on their farm. Getting there is a long exhausting journey that requires several modes of public transportation. The farmhouse is little more than a cement shack with tin roof that somehow houses a family of about 15, half of them being small children. How they managed to fit us all in there I haven't been able to figure out. Although there is no traffic noise here, the noise that there is comes from the children, dogs, farm animals such as roosters crowing really early in the morning but I was generally able to sleep better here. The host is generous kind and hospitable. The amenities are as basic as they come but the food is home grown or locally sourced. I was sick most the time or overwhelmed with noise so I spent most the time in my room and was not very social.
From here, our first excursion was a long winding mountainous drive to Baguio. This is supposed to be a place where locals and tourists alike can get away to enjoy the cool fresh mountain air. However, the city proper has become crowded noisy and polluted much like Manila and finding the quiet secluded spots is tricky. Chris first wanted to visit the strawberry farm he had fond memories of from his childhood. Upon arriving he was disappointed to find the surrounding area was now overdeveloped and crowded with lots of shrewd Asians picking over what tiny remains of crops there were. Chris did not bother entering the gardens proper. I told him, “You know you can find vast and wonderful strawberry fields back in Manitoba, right?”
My choice of locales was the park to commune with nature but Chris preferred to remain on the paved open areas crowded with the rest of the selfie-snapping tourists rather than venture into the forest, which reminded me kind of how it's like in British Columbia. Lastly we climbed up to the lookout point and saw the cloud mix with forest covering the mountaintops while it rained. It was a spectacular view and I wish I could've stayed there more than a couple minutes or taken the moment with me as we ventured back into the hellish city for the long ride home.
Next day we went with the whole family to the beach several hours away. It was an unpleasant bumpy ride and for some reason only Chris and I shouldered the full cost to rent the jeep we needed and the sheltered sitting space at the beach (and I knew I had already seen the best beaches, at Boracay). Though it was expensive I thought it was only fair since they had done so much for us already. For a little while I actually got into the moment, playing in the powerful waves.
Beach somewhere in Pangasinan
The day after that I was too sick to do much so I stayed home while most of them went to Tarlac to put a candle on a distant relative's gravesite or something like that. Later that evening the host showed me the nearby field with giant dried-up riverbed with great views of the surrounding mountains. Out here there was almost no sound; such was the lonely desolation of the landscape. I told him that I had finally found what I had been looking for: cool breeze, nice view, and complete silence. Too bad it was already time to leave as was getting dark and rainy. If I had known about this place sooner I would have spend more time here.
Quiet, at last
It's been kind of frustrating here lately and I am counting down the days until I get to go home. This week we went to the big island of Cebu to stay with more family. The cities here are like mini-Manilas. My hopes rose when I saw that our host drove a nice new SUV and few people seem to own vehicles here in the Philippines. However, the accommodations weren't any nicer than on the farm. To get here, one must cross the River of Unspeakable Things via wooden plank and duck under thorny trees to arrive at the front gate. Again, there is no separation between where one showers or bathes and where one uses the toilet which doesn't seem particularly sanitary, particularly when you consider that Filipinos use water rather than toilet paper to clean themselves back there. Everything people do in there involving water shares one floor drain and that’s it. My room there was a small plywood shack or large coffin depending on how you look at it. And again there were the requisite yappy dogs, chickens and children making a racket all around the clock. So I knew I needed to escape once again.
River of Unspeakable ThingsI picked one of the less developed island groups, the Camotes, to flee to for a couple days while Chris and the gang visited the local churches. This required a one-hour bus ride to the next town and a two-hour ferry ride to the island. The plan was to stay here for two days so I could return to join Chris to go to Bohol. I learned there that it may be difficult to leave on a Sunday because that's when everyone tries to go back. So instead I decided to leave the next day. This didn't give me much time there since I arrived at sunset and learned one hour from departure that there was only one ferry leaving from the nearest port at 12:30 pm. In this time span, I took a brief sunset walk to a waterfall that turned out to be all but evaporated, took a morning swim at the island's nicest beach and then again, briefly, at some rocky cliffs just before my ferry was due. The place overall wasn't as nice as Boracay even though it was less crowded. The brief glimpses of its unspoiled beauty were nice but even the slightest modern development, however small, felt like a blight upon the land, such as at the beach, and I felt strangely out of place. I'm not sure why this was. It's as if even the subtlest of Philippine design can transform something otherwise paradisal into something gaudy or tacky. Maybe it's the bright color schemes, the purely functional construction without regard to good taste, or perhaps all it takes is one karaoke machine and an overzealous drunkard to ruin the mood. Karaoke is all the rage here, by the way.
Chris didn't know I was back in Cebu, being early, so I explored the old ruined 16th C Spanish colonial fort and nearby basilica. The fort at least was charming and I discovered that I could not hold the Spanish accountable for whatever caused the concept of style to perish in the Philippines.
By the way, there was an old authentic-looking Spanish rapier sitting on an unmarked counter in a room at Fort San Pedro without any display case or bindings to fix it in place. So when no one was looking I picked it up and took pleasure in brandishing it, which took me back to the times of valiant musketeers.
Ahh, those were the days...In the end, Chris decided he didn't have the budget to travel to Bohol so we were stuck in Cebu for three more nights without much planned because Chris booked the return flight right before he decided he didn't have the funds to make use of the extra days. This inability to plan may also explain why we're now stuck in Manila 10 days before we leave without an itinerary or much ambition to make one.
One day in Cebu we traveled to see an old monastery, a word that fills me with excitement and longing for it represents peace and tranquility. When we got there I was disappointed to see it was the exact opposite of those things, with its throngs of Filipino tourists and Tagalog prayers blaring through a loudspeaker constantly in what made me think of the Borg droning in unison about their plans to assimilate everyone. Everything was painted bright white, decorated with gaudily painted saints, angels and each of the torments of Christ and there were many stairs leading in all directions to nowhere. Chris wanted to take pictures of everyone against the backdrop of the monastery from every angle possible and it was very hot and humid. In all its facades of serenity it was truly a hellish place.
On that same day we traveled further on the road toward Oslob, place of whale shark viewing. It was late by the time we arrived so I stayed the night while the others returned, having no interest in the world's biggest fish. The sharks were obviously tame, being led back and forth by our little canoes with promises of fish, which the sharks eagerly gulped en mass. The payment scheme varies widely whether you are snorkeling, diving or just watching from the boat but they don't do much to help you do any of that. I brought my own snorkel but they still charged me the same as if I had rented gear and I didn't even get flippers, which is essential in deep open waters. So I had to just hang onto the boat and dunk my head under to see the beasts from time to time. Not ideal, but nothing makes you feel smaller than being beside a 4 meter long shark.
I was still sick the whole time and by the time we got back to Manila my condition had deteriorated enough to need to see a doctor. Today, I was diagnosed with bronchitis and conjunctivitis in both eyes and have loads of pills I'm expected to take. I need to rest more than ever but it's even tougher than before here as construction next door has been added to the din and the family spontaneously gets up to answer Facetime calls from Canada at 3am and chattered loudly at length. If I recover enough I hope to go back to North Luzon alone this time to see the rice terraces (frustrating because we were halfway there before and no one else wanted to go). It will be my longest most difficult excursion yet but I think it will be worth it.
Greetings from Banaue in the cordillera! To get to Banaue you need to take an overnight bus ride that lasts 9 hours and the bus does not have a bathroom. It's an unsteady journey winding between mountains that shakes you to and fro, and side to side and by the end my arm was slightly bruised from constantly bumping against the window side of the bus.
The bus arrived early in the morning and all foreigners were all corralled into a basic hotel where they were persuaded to purchase tours of the area. Some of these tourists were disappointed to learn that they were no longer permitted to hike the trails on their own after someone died attempting this in recent times. One of the options was a three day hike with guide and accommodations included in the villages situated along the way. This is what I chose to do, even though it blew my budget, because I had planned to attempt the three trails anyway and there seemed to be no alternative if I wanted to fill my days with hiking. After breakfast, Lance, my guide was assigned to me and I learned that the longest most difficult part of the hike would start right away, even though I had barely slept a wink on the bus. I heard other tourists decline for this very reason but I went along with it anyway since I believed that my body could do whatever I wanted it to do given the right amount of willpower.
After pausing to take in the sight of the Banaue rice terraces from the viewpoint we were dropped off at the foot of the trail which led into the jungle. From here to the village of Pula, it’s a 4 hour hike that gently rises through forest and later hugs the mountain side for a steep drop on one side that allow for some wide open views of the neighboring mountains. I could see Pula from here far off on the distance, and Lance also pointed out Cambulo, the village after that: tiny specks of huts and terrace that seemed impossibly far away but that we would need to get to before sunset.
Banaue rice terracesMy sleep-deprived body was not pleased to be hiking at this time and I found myself lightheaded and began to perspire heavily but after an hour or two I found my rhythm and proceeded at a good pace without much fatigue. The temperature in the mountains is about 10 degrees cooler than the lowlands making it feel like a typical Winnipeg June day, albeit more humid.
Tiny white specks = where we need to get to
Tiny white specks = where we need to get to
Eventually we could see rice terraces lining the mountainside as we got closer to Pula. These rice terraces are all very breathtaking to view from a distance and the feeling is indescribable. When you first see them your eyes feel half-fooled by what they see, as if they cannot fully make sense of what they are looking at, and unlike looking at pictures of them, the richness of visual information and dimensionally overwhelms the mind.
Then we reached Pula, quaint in its smallness and naturalistic charm - like a minuscule Eden, and I took a much-needed swim in the cold waters of the local waterfall-fed stream to cool down and ease my knees, which took a hammering in all the countless steps leading up and down. Frequently bracing yourself from slipping down gravelly declines is also very hard on the knees.
Village of PulaAfter a brief rest we continued on to Cambulo and this is where things got particularly treacherous yet all the more awesome to behold. For much of this three hour trek we had to balance on the narrow stone ledges that separate the terraces. Such ledges ranged from 30 centimeters of pavement to single 10-centimeter-wide stones that we had to navigate across, since, on one side was a silty rice bed, or a stream that irrigated them, and on the other side was a precipitous 12-18 foot drop to the underlying terrace. Eventually we came to the highest terrace with terraced mountains facing us on all sides and we were treated to one of those classic panoramic views that you only see in movies or Freedom 55 commercials. It was the most incredible view I had ever seen for real.
Pula's rice terraces
Pula's rice terraces
Muck or death: you chooseNow, Cambulo could be clearly seen in the distance but after 6 hours with more steep ups and downs, my legs were stiff and would not cooperate and I had to take the steps slowly. Leading to the village was a dubious and very narrow suspension bridge overlying a rushing stream far below in which children frolicked and leapt from the rocks. This idyllic village could have existed in times centuries past, such was it lacking in modern conveniences. Of course there are no vehicles in any of the remote villages and electricity is only a recent addition. I was so sore and stiff I accepted an offer of massage from one of the locals – something they are only too eager to offer in these parts – for I was not sure if I would be able to do much more hiking and yet that was the only way out, with no roads for many miles.
Balancing at the top of the world...
...just don't look down!
Minecraft eat your heart out
Still more terraces
Watch your step
Balancing at the top of the world...
...just don't look down!
Minecraft eat your heart out
Still more terraces
Watch your step
Village of Cambulo
Dubious suspension bridge
This helped only slightly and unfortunately the hike to Batad and neighboring waterfall the next morning, though shorter by a few hours, was even more challenging due to its steep rises and drops with its innumerable stairs. I won't go into detail about how much difficulty I had getting there but suffice to say, I was starting to have a healthy respect for the limitations of my body. The waterfall there drops from a 30 meter cliff and foreigners and locals alike come to cool off in the deep pool below. It generates a lot of mist which is also refreshing. Even this reprieve was not enough however to prepare me for the steep journey back up to Batad where our guest house sat high above its terraces, and hundreds of meters above the low-lying rapids that we then had to depart. I had to stop a moment to catch my breath and wait for my racing pulse to subside slightly every 15 steps or so. My guide said I must be dripping liters of sweat and suggested I might attempt a shorter hike the next day instead of the 3 hour one he had planned. It seemed I was very dehydrated despite drinking 2-3 liters of water per day and I wondered if whatever remained of my illness and the medications I was still taking was contributing to the difficulty.
Sight for sore eyesI was sure to sleep and drink a lot in Batad before heading out the next morning and though still stiff, I felt refreshed enough to attempt the longer journey. It's a good thing I brought ear plugs because the locals were partying loudly into the wee hours of the morning and there were lengthy funeral rites going on nearby from which music happens nonstop, day and night. In the evening they sang somewhat out-of-tune simple 3-chord guitar songs that all roughly resembled “You Are My Sunshine” and after about 20 of those it was starting to drive me crazy. In the morning, though, I was treated to the mystical sounds of the traditional percussive instrument that the Balinese call a gamelan, which appropriately complements the scene of 2000 year old agrarian rice terraces that completely cover village’s valley bowl.
Village of BatadThis third hike was easier than the two that came before but it was not as breathtaking and offered little I hadn't already seen before so there is nothing of note to be said about it. My guide praised me in that I didn't fall once during these three days though I slipped, slid, or lost my footing several times, even stepping into the watery muck the rice grows in, but never wiping out completely. When I asked if anyone ever falls to the terrace below he said sometimes they do but they are rarely severely hurt because they take it especially careful and slow whenever there is a particularly dangerous drop. Well, lucky them and lucky me!
Batad from behind
I had completely run out of pesos by this point as I had to save my last 500 for the taxi home in Manila. That meant no souvenirs, and nothing to eat but bread, rice and water. It also meant I left a day early but I thought I had seen pretty much all there was to see in this region save for some hot springs that I didn't much care for anyway.
After another harrowing journey on the bus, I arrived back at the house in Manila by 4 AM and it took a while for anyone to wake up to realize I was at their door.
I've had three days of downtime since. The construction annoyingly still continues and it is much too close for comfort. Because the houses are spaced barely one meter apart we were greeted one morning by a block of wood which sailed through the open side door and landed in the kitchen a few feet from us, baring nails. Chris' mother took it outside and called out in mildly indignant Tagalog to those working atop the roof beside us.
It will be SO good to be home again, finally safe and sound after this too-long adventure.