Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Strange new world


When I arrived in the Philippines, I had a cadre of Filipino Peace Corps staff to coddle my way through the first three months. I had a host family providing my food, eleven other volunteers almost within shouting distance, and ample time to adjust before I was thrown out on my own.

My dad, conversely, only had me for support, so it’s somewhat miraculous that he survived the ordeal. He spent about ten days here and had to dive right in, like the boy above. His trip encompassed the busy Holy Week, so I had to break from my traditional practice of not planning ahead of time. Even so, the fallout of procrastination forced me to change plans once: I had originally wanted to spend some time at Sugar Beach in Sipalay, a place I have yet to visit, but another volunteer’s inquiries revealed that all lodging there was already booked by the time I got around to planning.

The alternative, Siquijor Island, was more than acceptable as an substitute. But to start at the beginning…


Before meeting up with my dad in Manila, I had a PNVSCA (Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency… or something similar) “sharing session” in Cebu. PNVSCA is a monitoring agency that basically prevents volunteers from working independently. In my opinion, it’s nothing more than an excuse to keep tabs on volunteers and a way for the Philippine government to assert authority over them.

In keeping with their front as a useful agency, once a year they host a sharing session for volunteers in the Visayas and Mindanao (and I believe a separate one for Luzon volunteers). I didn’t attend last year’s session, but I heard some interesting stories about surprise beer and spiked punch. This year Peace Corps called me personally to ask if I’d like to attend. I suspect this is because I had yet to do any Peace Corps-related events (I had wanted to help with the training for last year’s batch, but something conflicted every time I had the chance to apply).

The session was basically a collection of foreign volunteers and a few Filipino volunteers who had worked in other countries. Our goals were to discuss how we could support each other and work cooperatively, and also to tell PNVSCA how to do its job. Practically speaking, not much got done, but it was a good opportunity to meet other volunteers and see who was available near my province. From there I flew straight to Manila.


The above photo is from Cebu, not Manila. I didn’t take any photos in Manila this time, so just imagine that the Cebu garbage is Manila garbage. In reality, Manila’s trash is much deeper. And trashier.

We stayed at the New Solanie Hotel in Malate, situated just a block from the LRT-1. I spent a lot of our time in Manila trying to figure out what there is to do in Manila, long after I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much. We walked, way more than any sane people in the Philippine hot season should walk. One neat place was Divisoria, a sidewalk bazaar area more crowded and bustling than probably any place I’d been to before.

Other than that, we ate a lot. I brought my dad to an Ethiopian place in Malate, but our order was misinterpreted; instead of getting a full Ethiopian meal, we got chicken curry. And we kept waiting, not sure if there was more food to come, until finally we called for the bill and saw what they had erroneously brought us. We also got always-delicious shwarma, and I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to visit the Outback at Ayala.

My pasalubong for my dad was also food, sort of: I gave him some kape alamid, graciously procured by mountain-dwelling fellow volunteer Christina. Kape alamid is civet coffee – the stuff that’s partially digested and then excreted by civet cats before being collected and sold for an outrageous markup in Western cafes. The Funnel Mill, the one coffeeshop in Los Angeles that I know served kape alamid (or kopi luwak, the Indonesian name) charged, I believe, $65 a cup. Here in the Philippines, where’s it’s actually produced, it is of course much cheaper – but it’s still four times the cost of regular coffee. I’m not a coffee expert, so I can’t really comment on how it differs, but to me it just tastes like a really good cup of coffee. Not sixty-five bucks good, but quite good. People say the digestive juices of the civet reduce the acidity, or something like that. Personally, I think reusing the beans makes sense simply because the civets are probably better judges of coffee quality than any humans, so the coffee cherries they pick are likely to be the ripest and tastiest.


After Manila we jumped down to Iloilo so my dad could see where I live and work. My center had known he would be visiting, and I had spent the last couple weeks being very vague about exactly when we would be stopping by. I didn’t want them to prepare a presentation or force him to watch the organization’s infamous eight-minute video. Of course, when we did turn up, the kids had painted two banners welcoming him. Luckily that’s as far as it went.

The kids were very excited to meet my father. They’ve always been intensely interested in my family, so actually meeting him was a big deal. We lagaw’d around all the residential houses and met the house mothers, posed for pictures, and generally hung out. I also showed him my house and took him on a tour of the community, which of course didn’t take very long. He did get to meet Honey.


The second day in Iloilo we rambled down to the port area, where children of dubious hygiene leaped into water of indisputable filthiness. They always enjoy mugging for the cameras of foreigners.

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We hopped across the strait to Guimaras, mostly for the pleasant bangka ride. The Jordan port was pretty quiet, but we bought some mangoes and photographed the jeepneys and boats.


Then it was off to Siquijor, the Island of Fire to the Spanish and still feared by many Filipinos as a hive of witch doctors and black magic.

But getting anywhere in the Philippines requires extended travel, and the journey to Siquijor, about two hundred kilometers as the crow flies, took a full day. We took an early boat to Bacolod and then endured the long bus ride across Negros Island to Dumaguete, where we caught the ferry to Siquijor. (This ferry was, I believe, the last of the day, and I didn’t tell my dad but I signed our names in two of the last spots on the passenger manifest. A few minutes later and we’d probably have been spending the night in Duma.) And from the port in Larena, the island’s biggest town with approximately twenty thousand people, we had one last long trike ride to the tiny municipality of San Juan, on the island’s southwest coast.


We stayed at Charisma Beach Resort, just a short walk down from Coral Cay, where I stayed during my last visit. Siquijor was thankfully as beautiful as I remember it being: the beach on which our resort rested may not be as manicured as Boracay’s, but it’s just as gorgeous and less bland and manufactured. And best of all, there weren’t rude outsiders everywhere elbowing their loud way through the locals’ territory. There were some foreigners, of course, but Siquijor has managed so far to largely avoid the development that has made Boracay and other areas sovereign places, plastic palaces far displaced and well-insulated from the real Philippines.


Charisma Resort, which I’d recommend, is run by a Londoner, Daniel, and his Filipina wife, Jeziel. Daniel’s a huge guy, gruffly affable with guests but rather abrasive with his all-Filipino staff. Throughout our entire stay (and even before, when I was making arrangements), Jeziel was extremely kind and helpful. She helped us make our travel plans and arrange my dad’s flight out of Duma and was generally a wonderful presence.


As usual, I got to know some of the local kids. I taught some of them how to snorkel (at first they always wanted to dive deep underwater, totally missing the point) and we played beach volleyball and hung out on a covered raft anchored offshore.

One of the older Filipinos I met had known a Peace Corps volunteer who had lived nearby until recently. (I won’t deny being envious of volunteers who are placed at a site as gorgeous as Siquijor.) He talked about the development of the island; I had thought it was fairly well-preserved for a resort island, but he told me that “Every day, it is becoming Boracay.” I hope that’s not true. Rich people who have no desire to experience the country already have enough luxury bubbles in which to take fantasy vacations. If Siquijor falls, it’ll be a huge loss.


We didn’t “do” a lot on Siquijor, which was by design. During Holy Week there’s a festival up on a mountain, and that’s where the witch doctors supposedly mix up their potions on Black Saturday. We didn’t attend, and to be honest the whole thing seemed like a show for foreigners. I have no more desire to see Filipinos fake culture for the benefit of outsiders.

Instead we spent lazy days swimming, lounging, eating and beachcombing. The water off San Juan is very shallow, and at low tide the sand is exposed many meters offshore. The locals as well as visitors use this time to collect shells and snails.

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Even with all the lazing, we explored more than I did last time I was on the island. We had breakfast one morning at a nifty cafe overlooking Larena, which is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, and we investigated the little fish markets and eateries in Siquijor Town and San Juan.

But to me, the best things to do in Siquijor are to relax and not worry about doing anything: just enjoy the natural beauty, the clear blue water and the sun setting over Negros Island to the west.

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Unfortunately we had to leave sometime, and after a few days we boarded our fastcraft and headed back to Duma, where my dad flew back to Manila (after a final lunch at Mang Inasal, of which he is now a fan) and then to the States.


There is one more story, about my trip back home from Dumaguete. Traveling here is rarely comfortable, so this is just one more amusing entry in the logbook; but after four hours of waiting for a bus in the dead of night, a sore knee and shoulder from slamming against the window when our driver became overzealous about steering, truly excruciating pains in my legs from being unable to move for hours (we made a rest stop partway through; however, the bus was packed solid and everyone was afraid of losing their spot, so nobody budged), and of course a copious amount of sweating, my only consolation was that the nauseated little boy next to me managed to direct his vomiting into his mother’s lap instead of mine.

Of course, that doesn’t diminish our vacation at all. I had a great time and I’m glad someone in my family was able to visit during my service, to get an idea of what my life is like here. In many ways the Philippines is still a strange new world to me as well, and it’s hard to explain every difference and every quirk just in words and pictures. You have to be here yourself.


Julie.Schrier said...

I love this post, and your photography is stunning (as always). However, was definitely hoping for some pics of your dad. Get on it.

Ryan Murphy said...

Yeah, yeah. I'm a terrible tourist-photographer.