Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Act Two: Up Manila Down

(I’m lump-summing my vacation days and taking a three-week-plus trip around Luzon and the Visayas. Instead of synthesizing it all and writing a complete travelogue, I’m taking the easy way out and just posting notes I jotted down along the way. They’re grouped by location and are not necessarily chronological.

Part Two: the sights from Manila to Pagudpud and back.)

Early Beatles is drifting in through muffled speakers; posters of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean cover the walls, reflecting off their glossy surfaces the red and green neon thrown out by the tubes that run across the perimeter of the room. It’s an American diner stuck in the middle of Ilocos Norte. I wonder how many patrons at Macy’s Diner in Laoag could identify Marilyn or George Harrison, explain Route 66’s impact on the American psyche, or locate Sunset Boulevard or Rodeo Drive on a map? Yet they’re all represented here, and in perfect vintage style. Old advertisements for Coca-Cola, Lifesavers, motorcycles and other Americana – what could they possibly signify to Filipinos? If anything they’re reminders of the country’s colonized history. But maybe I’m thinking too critically, and the poster for It’s a Wonderful Life is just a goofy oddity for locals to wonder about, and all the names that define nostalgia in American pop culture – Natalie Wood, James Stewart, Liz Taylor – are as meaningless to a Filipino as Piolo Pascual to a young American.

The entranceway is dimly lighted and confusing metal objects line the ways like medieval weaponry. A resonant high voice intones choral strains. (A large air conditioner stands in one corner.) In the main room, the low lighting is directed towards the glass cubicle in the center. (A good thing, because the arrangement at its base looks like a misguided attempt at feng shui.) And inside the glass, resting on mattress and satin pillow, is the proud preserved body of Ferdinand Marcos. (His fingers look carved from Play-Doh.) Reposing in this quiet shrine, Marcos is free from vexing questions about his legacy. (Especially since, like most things in the Philippines, the mausoleum in Batac is poorly marked and obscured by large campaign posters.)

I’m instantly in love with Cafe Leona, a Filipino/Japanese/Italian place near Vigan’s plaza – it’s what I imagine an old-world bistro should be like, although I should try the food before I speak too hastily (and on a whim I ordered sisig – pork cheeks – which I could love or hate). Vigan itself is the opposite, its entry roads choked with tricycles and in a beautiful old building at a fork in the road, instead of a wine house or cafe converted from a brothel, squats a Max’s fried chicken joint. But I haven’t seen much yet, and some areas are apparently off limits except to foot traffic, so I’ll see where I am after an afternoon of wandering.

I don’t know anything about it but it doesn’t appeal to me” – old white guy at Cafe Leona’s next table; story of the west? Or all civilization?

Embarking on the last stage of the journey before Manila Redux – heading to Baguio soon on a wing, a prayer and an aircon bus. Vigan I’m split about: the one cobblestone street remaining is nice but it’s really just a long line of tourist souvenir shops (as in any resort town in America) – and there are plenty of gorgeous old buildings extant but that can’t last – they’ll either become bona fide ruins or they’ll be restored with gleaming fake facade, vintage 2000s. And of course everything is a reminder of the days of Spanish colonization. It’s perverse, really, to celebrate the legacy of European/American imperialism – the trick is to take it on its own merits, I suppose, but nonetheless it’s tough to separate the results from the crippling process.

I’m looking forward to Baguio just for a break from the heat if nothing else – and maybe it’ll be good to be settled for a couple days, all this one-night bouncing around has given me a feeling weirdly akin to restlessness but exactly opposite – or maybe I’ll just be bored out of my mind and spend lots of money on food and coffee – difficult to predict.

Baguio immediately gave me a weird uneasy feeling with its climbing hills and stairways leading off to unknown grottoes – I think this combined with the surprising crush of people (& it didn’t help that I arrived just as school got out of session, forcing me to battle highschoolers for the right to the sidewalk) made it feel very constricting and closed-in. But after I checked in at the mouse-warren-like Diamond Inn (through the night I could hear every footstep on the floor above, and dimensions seemed even further reduced from their standard three-quarters-American ratio) and stepped out again into the cool bustling night, I mostly changed my mind. Moreso than Iloilo, Baguio feels like a city – like things are happening – and in this place carved out of mountains, the absurdity of the neon just confirms that against all odds and logic, something is working.

From my breakfast vantage point on Session Road I have a straight-on view out the front door and the milling (not a verb I use often in the Philippines) people flashing by the door on a slant – those on the right several feet lower than on the left – texting and talking and some bundled up against the chill although it left the air some time ago – across the street a 7-Eleven “BIG BANG BINGO” the banner above the entryway is red and loud yellow – on either side a KFC and Western Union, with the graded streets I could almost believe I’m in San Francisco (every hilly city reminds me of iconic San Francisco – just as every skyscraper reminds me of New York – the same old comparisons, same old archetypes) – the world is one of each thing doomed to repeat itself endlessly? I hope not, I’ve got a lot left to see

Here in Starbucks a queer menagerie of international types from the South Asian students studying intently at the table behind to the European man speaking with perhaps an Italian lilt to his Filipina wife. My head turns shamefully at every American accent and typically finds only an older white man. Across the cafe floor a wrinkled elder speaks a croaking language all his own as he drinks his tea, and of course stray Tagalog floats overhead like dragonflies. In my little corner I’ve said not a word for two hours, and my companion, a young Asian student, has kept an identical silence in front of her computer for almost as long. Ours is also a language.

Sitting at Cafe by the Ruins and when I walked in Dylan was playing, a good sign. But it’s very expensive by my standards and I’ll have to withdraw money today to get back to Manila. Still, traveling has certainly been cheap from an American point of view, with my priciest room being 8usd (in Vigan) and having spent (once I pay for my last bus to Manila) something less than 40usd for transport to explore much of Luzon. Food and coffee of course have been the unpredictable expenses and as much as I want to save money, food has charms to soothe my conscience over spending up to $5 a meal.

Reflection in a motorbike helmet
Japan in November will be a shock (as Hawai’i was to some extent) when everything will be full-or-more price – no more dirt-cheap pensions or $.50 meals, at least until I get back to SE Asia. And Taiwan after Japan, and Hong Kong yet – if I end up going to these places at all – Act I of post-PC is going to be a drain.

Tilted mountains are skewing my eyes – I looked to the blue beyond the peaks and couldn’t tell if I was seeing sky or ocean

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(I artificially lightened this photo.)
One more long busride before I’m back where I started, and after everything so far I have to say the buses have been one of my favorite parts of the journey. Cruising by rice fields and green hills, swerving around blind corners when suddenly the coast appears like a dream – taking photos through the natural sepia filter of an ancient window – filling the hours with slow thoughts. Buses are inelegant, clunky, temperamental like humans and unreliable – all the way from Pagudpud to Laoag I held my window open with my hand after the latch broke – and sometimes they provide their own interest when the show outside starts to repeat.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Act One: Project Pagudpud

(I’m lump-summing my vacation days and taking a three-week-plus trip around Luzon and the Visayas. Instead of synthesizing it all and writing a complete travelogue, I’m taking the easy way out and just posting notes I jotted down along the way. They’re grouped by location and are not necessarily chronological.

Part One: Pagudpud, the “Boracay of the North,” on the northern shore of Luzon.)

Leaving now on my last big Philippines adventure, curtains up against the eastern sun and Shania Twain on deck on the busfront monitor – scene outside the window similar to central Iloilo with green rice flats and hill-mountains sprouting in the distance. There are men selling banana chips at the stops and outside a roughhewn hutch painted lime green (and lettering in darker lime green) claiming “CLEAN RESTROOMS” – in my town the only public CR is at the plaza in the midst of all the smoke and dust that choke our only major road – stalls guarded by a hatted-and-sunglassed old man collecting some minimal payment for their use. There are pantat-fish painted on the facade (and for me these colorful pictures are infinitely preferable to the real thing grilling on sticks meters away on roadside stands to be eaten like fleshy popsicles.)

Out of season, “fresh fruit” as part of a resort breakfast means “two tomato rounds and a slice of cucumber”

Forcing myself to move slowly I stop for the night – a midsize city with most of the amenities you’d expect and nothing more – thousands of trikes filling the morning air today with noise and smoke. Onward to Pagudpud now where my greatest fear is not finding an affordable place to stay and having to move on and further on.

Watched the sun set last night from my fifth-floor coffin, sinking behind the distant low mountains and sending glints of skittering light off the metal of cars and trikes and buildings – before wandering the streets in the gathering night, everything shut down early and dark and quiet except the mad ape squealing of jostling tricycles.

Tourism officer Harold assured me that “Actually there is no crime in Pagudpud” – despite the banner above the town plaza demanding justice for the attempted murder of the mayor… he was also shocked that I came here alone and confirmed the point with me over and over – and probably still doesn’t believe me, even though Pagudpud has no crime. (And no dishonesty either.)

Following this morning the curve along Pagudpud’s Saud Beach to the west, tramping pristine sand and bluegreen water and almost as beautiful as the beach itself is the genuine wind farm spinning its (counting) 60 blades along the perpendicular shoreline. Ilocos Norte is remote, far from any major urban center, and places like this need and are in a position to utilize (thanks to lack of existing infrastructure) renewable energy sources effectively and as part of ongoing development…

Massive strong waves bowled me over yesterday when I went swimming in the morning and today they remain substantial though not quite as angry. In the afternoon I took a walk east along the road – bad idea – within minutes the stifling heat had me pouring sweat and within the walls of trees I could hardly breathe. So of course I headed back for the ocean, discovering several campsite resorts seemingly abandoned for the offseason fringed along the still-pretty shore to the east. But now writing this there is an older European here at the Emohruo Beach Resort hitting on the Filipina staff and it’s putting me off my pen…

I suppose when you live in one place for as long as two years perhaps it’s impossible not to develop some kind of regional fondness, but it’s still strange to me when I find myself missing my “home” province. To my ears the voices here are a bit harsher than the rhythmic gentle lilt of Visayans (in my head I exaggerate this singsong quality, imagining their voices creating a soft landscape of easy hills and shallow valleys), but it could be simply the delusion of a nostalgic mind. Certainly I’ve had no cause to mourn the loss of Ilonggo kindness: everyone has treated me with utmost friendliness… but somehow it always makes me a little bit glad to step off the boat in my own dirty, crowded city and take my shortcuts home.

Walked about as far as possible along Saud Beach to the west until the growing cliffs made the way impassable. The rocky part of the beach is in its own way just as pretty as the sandy lagoons, and it was even emptier than the main swath this morning: I saw several groups of Filipino tourists and one chubby European boy obstinately facing up to the waves. In the afternoon I trekked back the several kilometers to the town center – thinking for some reason there was more to see than was actually there – read in a shady pavilion after a carinderia lunch, snagged some groceries and went back beachward. On the way I passed vast rice fields filling up the yawning valley in which Pagudpud rests. Muscular worn karabaw plowed up the soil in empty ponds and a single figured dressed all in black stooped – to pluck or to plant I don’t know; I was too engrossed in imagining the perfect photograph of the scene, ironically, to actually notice its full reality.

Sunburned of course, red in the face and arms after beach day one – despite the tube of sunscreen lying in my backpack, the gift of a concerned sprite -

Nine thousand miles to the Philippines and 40+ hours of travel from my site to Pagudpud, and all so I can eat the “American Breakfast” – and the great thing is I find it more amusing than depressing.

I bought some ponkan Tang yesterday and mixed it up in my trusty water bottle which I’ve had since PST and which has gradually gained a splotchy film of mold on its interior. Drank the Tang. This morning I noticed my bottle has been scoured of most of the mold – the difference is remarkable – and am forced to conclude that something acidic in the Tang broke down the splotches, which I then unknowingly drank. But hey, clean bottle.

And now drinking brewed coffee at one of those beachside resorts I can’t afford, a few meters from a little stony cliff falling off into the morning’s strong waves. I can see the entire halfmoon parabola of Saud, and from here to the far zenith the water grades through a dozen shades of blue from a beigeish aquamarine to a mysterious deep ocean tint and back again; and at the distant point jutting jauntily into the sea, one tree stands apart and squiggly whitecaps charge the shore like cheery tildes. If you follow that point back into the land, cradling green hills rise and then disappear into the distance behind the frontline palms.

For some reason I woke up this morning thinking “One day we’ll have Tom Jones impersonators and at that point it might be time to reset this big experiment”

Friday, July 9, 2010

One monochrome Sunday


Kalibo is the capital of Aklan province. It’s the dirtiest place I’ve visited in the Philippines: trikes are common everywhere, but Kalibo’s air is so thick with pungent fumes that it makes Manila’s pervasive-but-more-diffuse air pollution seem almost tolerable. Like many locations in the Philippines, Kalibo actually suffers from a surfeit of transportation – or at least an uneven demand that leaves the streets choked with empty, exhaust-spewing motorcycles during off-hours.

The same is true of Iloilo City when it comes to jeepneys: while the constant stream of vehicles makes it easy to get around the metro area, for most of the day these jeeps scurry about at quarter-capacity or less. Coupled with construction projects that crawl along at the pace sang ba-o, the result is excessive traffic and smog-blackened streets and sidewalks.

As I knelt along the highway to photograph this flower outside a local residence, ancient buses piled high with luggage and canvas bags roared by just behind me. It’s surprising that some of these buses, with their metal sides pierced through by long years of rusting and abuse, can limp along at all – much less traverse the rough hilly roads north of Iloilo. But they stumble on, swaying precariously as they dodge pedal trikes and dogs.


I came across this man hacking at something hidden in the shoulder-high weeds along the roadside. The rains have finally started after an unusually long, hot and dry summer, and the province is greening again at last. Away from the cities, the Philippines can be beautifully lush and alive; rain transforms the shriveled rice fields into meadowy pockets, and the yawning mountain valleys seem to absorb all the grime kicked up by bustling humans.


Without fail I make this mistake: letting my arm hang out the sunside window during long bus rides. Inevitably I arrive at my destination with one arm manifesting a festive swath of red, while the other retains its blotchy brownish hue.


Many of the families in my town are familiar with me because I taught at my center’s preschool during my first year at site. It’s very common for me to hear calls of “Tito Ryan!” coming from windows and porches; frequently the shout of one of my former students will cause a scurrying of younger siblings to grab a look. These boys are the brothers of a preschool student, since graduated. They were only too happy to mug for pictures…


… and they called a couple of their elders to join them. The man on the right is likely their grandfather, but in a typically sprawling Filipino family it can be difficult to tell exactly how everybody is related. (I never figured out all the relationships in my second host family.) Usually Filipinos extend their gracious thanks for my taking their pictures, although really I should – and do – thank them for allowing me the privilege.


This fellow, also in the previous photo, is what Filipinos refer to as a “special child” (sometimes regardless of age). Among rural families there seems to be little knowledge of how to deal with special-needs children, in the sense of capacitating them to live fulfilling and independent or semi-independent lives. My friend above, like many with mental handicaps, is likely to live a fairly cloistered life on his family’s compound and subsist only on his relatives’ professionally-uninformed support. That support is far from negligible, however: families often lavish real affection on their special children, treating them with respect and love. This may be one of the positive aspects of the stereotypical bahala na fatalism, allowing parents and siblings to accept a difficult situation instead of bemoaning their luck and becoming resentful about their added responsibilities.


Just like westerners who don kimono and saris, young Filipinos are keen to adopt glamorous exocultural fashions like the ones they see in western exports, like the Hollywood-dominated blockbuster films that make it to their theaters. These Aviator-wannabes are a relatively benign result of borrowing, but one of my boys has done his best to compile a legitimate facsimile of the British chav look, complete with oversized foam trucker hat and the shiniest sneakers in town.

Friday, July 2, 2010

My little speck of Earth

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This is Asia. It’s real big.

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Southeast Asia. Still pretty big.

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And the Philippines. Not really that big, but it can seem big when it takes nine hours to get from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Compared to some other volunteers, my travels within the Philippines haven’t been very extensive so far – but I have a long, long vacation coming up: I’ve only taken three days of Peace Corps leave since September 2009, and I’m about to cash in all those days I’ve accumulated.

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This is my island, Panay. It’s roughly the size of Hawai’i (the Big Island), and getting from Iloilo to Boracay takes about five hours by bus (and a short fastcraft ride). I don’t live in Iloilo City –  I’m actually in a small town a few kilometers outside the city. In all there are eleven volunteers on Panay, one on Guimaras and three on western Negros.

Bacolod is the city on Negros Island where I had my training from August to November 2008. (Yeah... 2008.) Up on the north coast is Roxas, a nice little city lacking many of the annoyances of Iloilo; Nueva Valencia is a small town on Guimaras Island where some of the good beaches are; and Nagarao is a tiny, pretty island off the southeast edge of Guimaras.

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And here is downtown Iloilo, where I spend much of my free time. I’ve labeled some of my usual haunts: Coffeebreak is a decent cafe (part of a homegrown chain) that’s cheap and has wifi. Lumpiga, tucked into a pension house along Gen. Luna street, is a cramped, smoky pillow lounge with sometimes-good live music and an appealingly relaxed atmosphere. When I have to stay a night in the city, Ong Bun is my pension of choice – mainly since it has rooms for P150 ($3), although some of them resemble closets in their physical dimensions. Some of the cubicles on the fifth floor have nice (and rare) views of the city.

Traversing The Alley is a rite of passage for newcomers, mostly because I enjoy their mounting discomfort as the alley gets narrower and more twisty and appears to wind directly through people’s living areas. I refer to it as a shortcut, but in reality it cuts nothing short.

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If there’s anything in Iloilo that could be called a Peace Corps hangout, this square is it. SM Delgado is a small branch of the mall chain that is represented in every somewhat major city in the country, and it’s good for buying groceries or other supplies. Dulgie’s has my favorite American-style food in the province (really on the entire island) and is usually where I meet with other volunteers when we have to plan projects. Also has delicious brownies a la mode. Blue Jay Cafe’s food isn’t as good, but it usually has reliable wifi and pretty good coffee, and they keep its aircon on frigid. JJV is a nifty open-air cafe that’s nice for cooler days, and it’s a thirty-second walk from Mang Inasal, a tasty and cheap Iloilo chicken place that has been spreading to a ridiculous extent around the Visayas (I’m aware of nine Mang locations just within Iloilo City, and I’m sure I’m missing a few). And, well, there’s a McDonald’s, which I’m not proud to say I visit with some frequency.

AsiaSoutheast AsiaPhilippinesPanayDowntown IloiloDulgie's Square