Monday, April 2, 2012

The Philippines: Towering Rice Terraces to Aquatic Wonderlands

I love the Philippines. We've been here for two weeks and it feels like a lifetime--in a good way. The first week involved a lot of traveling around the Cordillera region: we went from Manila (overnight bus) to Banaue to Batad to Baguio to Sagada to Vigan and (overnight bus) back to Manila, where we caught a flight to Tagbilaran, and made our way to the haven of Alona Beach, where we spent the last week finally just taking it easy.

This is Batad, a tiny village in a valley. Those are 2,000-year-old rice terraces!
Both Monica and I broke our cameras along the way. Monica broke hers first and already replaced it in Baguio, but I'm waiting to buy another in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, I don't have many photos from our last week at the beach. It all went wrong when I was trying to pee in the ocean, making quite a scene. Our boat driver, Monica and a couple other people on the shore were laughing at me. I turned around because someone said something to me and then I fell off the little rocky cliff I was standing on. My camera was in its case, strapped around my body, and just dipped briefly in the salty water. I guess that's all it takes to break a camera. Whoops!

The last photo I took before my camera broke.
There isn't much of a "backpacker trail" here. Most people only do the route we did on the mainland (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, often including Malaysia and sometimes Burma and Indonesia), but most don't make it to the Philippines, which has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it's nice to be able to feel like we're really experiencing the local culture without streets and whole towns being built-up for tourists, but on the other, it makes traveling here more difficult. For example, the buses aren't easy to figure out, which means we were the only foreigners on most of the buses we rode around the country. I think most tourists fly from destination to destination, and stay at the big beach attractions like Palawan and Boracay.

English is widely spoken (it's usually a Filipino's second language), which makes things easy. A Filipino's first language is their local dialect (there are 175 individual dialects in the Philippines). Most are a mix of English, Spanish and indigenous words. We learned that people from one island often cannot understand neighboring dialects. In that case, they rely on English to communicate.

Our flight from Bangkok was full of Filipinos coming from Kuwait. The plane basically just stopped to pick me and Monica up in Bangkok and then went on to its final destination, Manila. After getting off the plane, we realized that most of the people on the flight were migrant workers, and it all made sense.

A few fun facts about the Philippines:
  • The country is made up of over 7,000 islands.
  • There are 11 million Filipinos living outside the country, many of whom are migrant workers.
  • More than 90% of the population are Christians (80% Roman Catholic).
  • The names of many streets, towns, and provinces are in Spanish, as well as many Filipinos' names and surnames.
  • There are 1,268 "chocolate hills" on the island of Bohol.
  • They think that all Americans are rich.
  • There are 91 different kinds of bananas in the country.
  • Halo-halo doesn't have anything to do with angels. It is a traditional dessert made out of shaved ice and evaporated milk with various beans, fruits and pastas mixed into it. I tried one and it seemed like it's the sort of thing that's concocted from whatever is lying around your kitchen.
  • Karaoke was invented in the Philippines under the moniker "Sing-Along-System." The Japanese later adopted it and named it "karaoke."
  • Jeepneys (my favorite thing about the Philippines) are the most popular means of public transportation.
  • Q: "Do fish eat peanuts?" A: "Sometimes," according to a coconut vendor we met on Virgin Island.
Okay. I have a lot to cover in this blog post, so I'm going to break it into sections based on location.

Manila is very different from the cities we've been to so far--it really feels dangerous. There are signs everywhere reminding you to "watch your belongings" and to "be aware of pickpockets." Upon entering taxis, drivers almost instinctively lock all the car doors. People repeatedly warned us, "Be careful!" and one older gentleman we met even gave us his phone number, just in case something happened to us or if we needed something from him during our stay.

Police officers told us to write down the license plates of taxis we got in. Several officers even took note of the taxi themselves if they saw us get in one.

Sign in a mall's bathroom stall: "Use only this bag hook." Maybe if you leave your bag on the floor it will get snatched?
Monica and I tried to go out "sightseeing" on our one day in town. We went to Intramuros, the historic center of Manila and saw the San Augustin Church, which has an amazing ceiling painted to look 3D!

Those are fake shadows! I was blown away.
There is a huge disparity of wealth in Manila, and it's quite obvious as you walk around. Passing one fancy hotel after another, you see mothers with naked, dirty babies sleeping on cardboard with cockroaches crawling around next to them on the streets. I thought I was pretty familiar with homelessness, as San Francisco has a very large homeless population, but there I never see babies or young children on the streets ... pretty sad here, and shocking.

Many people keep roosters leashed up like this all over the city. I hypothesized that they were prized cockfighting champions, and we talked to a local who said I was right! He told us that the owners even go jogging around town with them sometimes to keep them in tip-top shape.

A street in Intramuros.
A little bit bummed about how dangerous the city felt, we headed to a German restaurant for lunch. It was a good call.

Next we traveled north on an overnight bus to Banaue. It was just a regular bus--not a sleeper or anything special. We were in the very back in a row with five seats. I had a lot of trouble sleeping and Monica and I were comforted in the fact that we probably don't have too many more overnight buses left before our trip ends.

The view from our breakfast dining spot upon arrival.
Banaue is a small village with enormous character. We happened to be there on a Sunday and a huge wedding celebration was going on in the local school's outdoor recreation area. From our room, we awoke to the sound of booming voices and music. The sound was reverberating off the other side of the valley and we actually thought it was coming from over there. It turns out we were right up the street from it, so we walked down to check it out.

The children's line for food.
We talked to some locals who told us that everyone in the surrounding villages is invited to all weddings so that people are aware of who is married and who is not.

Close-up of the pushing and shoving in line.
The food is provided by the families of either the bride or the groom, I'm not sure.

The plates were overflowing with food.
Monica and I were invited to eat, too, so we got in line like the rest of them. We weren't crazy about the meal. It was rice, noodles, and many different types of (what I think were) pig parts. One of the pork dishes looked delicious--it was dark and brownish-red in color. When I ate it, I was repulsed. It just tasted like nothing and the texture of the meat was no good. A kid next to us said it was pork cooked in pig's blood. Yikes!

Everyone was eating with their hands, which was kind of fun, but also challenging, especially when you got an itch on your forehead (no napkins). After eating, there was a spigot where people got in line to rinse off.

It was quite an experience to remember. I'm glad we dove in and participated.

This is a Filipino "tricycle," basically a motorbike with attached sidecar. They're used as taxis in the Philippines.
Filipino "taxi stand" in Banaue.
We decided to get back into hiking, so we hired a guide to lead us through the nearby rice fields.

The commencement of our hike...

Our sweet guide, who spoke excellent English.
Monica, descending...
Passing through private land, we encountered people tending their fields (it's rice planting season now)...

... kids hiding under jungle leaves

... mini waterfalls

... snail eggs

... lonely palm trees

... and a lot of village life.

The houses are elevated from the ground to keep insects and animals out. The circular structure around the supporting beam pictured below keeps rats out of the house (they're unable to climb up and over).

We walked along the edges of rice terrace after rice terrace, keeping our eyes focused on the left side. Some edges were cement and others were just hard mud.

A wide version of the edges we traversed.
The rickety bridge back to downtown Banaue.
Sunset view from our room.
That night we went out to the one bar in Banaue, "Friends Country Music Bar." A band covered old country favorites by the likes of Johnny Cash and Neil Young.

The locals all wanted to have their turn dancing with me, Monica and the other white girl in town.

Note the height difference. This guy joked about standing on a chair during our dance.
Batad is an even smaller village, a Jeepney ride away from Banaue.

We did another hike through rice fields, this time on our own.

As we climbed up the hill, this guy was hidden by that bush and scared us.
A taste of how difficult this hike was.
And finally the well-deserved pot of gold at the end of the rainbow:


Going back was way more challenging...

Taking a break for a second and contemplating the mountain we have to climb.
This is serious hiking. We don't know how we survived the Inca Trail.
The million-dollar view from our $10 room.
The next morning this old-timer was doing some planting.

She is permanently bent over like that. She's not just doing it to reach the ground.
I bought some toothpaste, cool packaging.
We had dinner with a nice guy from Seattle, and I rode on top of my first Jeepney with him the following day.

Riding on top of Jeepneys is my favorite thing to do in the Philippines. These are some scenes from atop a Jeepney, riding through the Cordilleras...

I rode by myself on the roof of two more Jeepneys, listening to music through headphones and waving back to happy people on the streets.

A comfortable bed of pig feed.
Passed under an overhanging rock...

... and found myself in Sagada.

Sagada reminded me of Athens, Georgia in a way, mainly because of the vegetation and climate. It was cool at night and heated up during the day. The hills were blanketed with pine trees and there was some type of omnipresent vine--a Filipino version of kudzu.

The big attraction in Sagada is going spelunking inside the caves, but we actually didn't do it. Seeing the hanging coffins is the other big one, which we did do.

Monica, about to pee in the cemetery we passed through to get to the hanging coffins.
The coffins hang off the side of that flat stone wall area of the mountain.
Close-up of the ten or so coffins.
A couple locals told us a bit about the coffins. They said that people were "buried" on the sides of cliffs to prevent evil spirits from getting to them, so they can watch over their fields and also to give the deceased a splendid view in the afterlife!

Signs like the one pictured below were all over the northern part of the country, where chewing betel nut ("moma" or "momma") is common practice, even for children. It's actually areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf, sometimes mixed with a catalyst like ground-up snail shells. We saw people doing the same in Vietnam, except they use lime juice as the catalyst. The mixture turns the teeth and gums bright red. Monica has a hilarious story about this. I reminded her to write about it in her blog post.

This little girl showed us how she held her kitty--when it started writhing around she would just shake it up and down until it stopped ... poor cat.

Below is the scene from our window at 7:00 am.

Pig slaughtering.
 I thought I'd seen some pretty minimal bathrooms along our journey, but this one takes the cake (well, besides that walled outdoor area in Vietnam). Women line up against this wall and do their thing in those holes, side by side. Women's version of a urinal I guess.

We decided to stop in Baguio for a night on our way to Vigan, where we could take a "VIP" overnight bus to Manila.

Tam-awan Village (where we stayed) is off the chain! Located outside the main part of the city, it's an art collective with a restaurant and six traditional Ifugao huts available for rent.

Home sweet home (for a night).
Skulls hanging under our roof.
Inside our hut: I started a fire in the fire pit, but the smoke had nowhere to go so I extinguished it.
That's not a lime! It's a calamansi, and that drink is an iced tea infused with it. Monica and I will miss calamansi juice, basically lemonade but instead of lemon, you use calamansi (native to the Philippines).
We had a little photo shoot with some of the things lying around Tam-awan.

Headhunters. That upside-down "V" cut out at the bottom of the shield is for holding someone's neck down on the ground before you chop their head off.
Monica, demonstrating.

That night, we had the time of our lives with the owner of Tam-awan Village, and the employees.

Terribly grainy photo, but it captures the vibe of the night: laughter.
These guys know how to chill. Every night they get together like this, tell stories, laugh and act like 16-year-old boys. A hilarious French guy was also spending a night there, so he was part of the goofy crew that night, too.

Intentionally fertilized and opened chicken embryo. Neither Monica nor I could eat it.
That night I had a disgusting dish of my own, called Pinikpikan. I thought it was just a regular chicken dish served with rice. The chicken meat was tough and the flavor was strangely off-putting. Later I found out what pinikpikan means ("killing me softly") and how it's prepared (a live chicken is beaten to death by a wooden stick!). The process of beating the chicken--a slow and painful death--brings blood to the skin's surface, in effect bruising it. I think the chicken must tense up in those final moments, making the meat tough. I think I tasted the fear, stress and pain that the chicken went through...

At the Baguio mall, intense security check at all entrances.
We spent the afternoon walking around a big market downtown.

Sea of strawberries. The green cast is from a tarp hanging above this part of the market.
Colorful flowers, not sure what they're used for.
Multitudes of dried fish.
That blue color around the edges is real.
Snow cones? No, it's salt sold in bulk.
Baguio was big on sausages.
Cute fish girl.
Vigan is a World Heritage Site because it's one of the few Filipino cities that wasn't destroyed in WWII, leaving much of the original Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets intact today. Horse-drawn carriages parade down the small streets alongside Jeepneys and tricycles in what makes for quite a unique scene.

Fried corn kernels sold all over Vigan. I tried some and they were okay.
Our carriage driver. Please note the guy on the bottom-left, taking a photo of us. People acted like we were the first white people they've ever seen! Or like we were creatures in a zoo.
The old bell tower.
Our driver took us to a clay jar factory.

They were cranking these out a mile a minute.

The coolest part of the factory was the clay mixer: a steadily-employed carabao (water buffalo) that walks through the clay pit until it's all mixed. I guess this is sort of like grape-stomping to make wine.

Lumber to feed the kiln.
We dined at a place called the Hidden Garden Restaurant, which was pretty cool. It was basically one huge garden that you walk through before you get to the dining area.

I wonder how many mango shakes I've had so far...
A tricycle drove us to the desolate, windy beach.

Inside a beach lounge hut.
They like basketball!

The sky covering the ocean.
In downtown Vigan...

Back of a tricycle. Everything is individualized and special here in the Philippines.
I like these handmade movie advertisements. I guess they don't get real movie posters sent to them way out here.
And a couple photos of the Vigan streets.

Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol
Here begins our week of straight chilling. For seven nights, we stayed at the Bohol Divers Resort, in a simple room near the beach.

Ours is second from the right.
Monica took a SCUBA diving course through the resort, so we ended up getting a 20% discount on our room rate. In the end, we each paid about $45 for accommodation for the entire week. I could live here...

One day, we took a boat trip with Louiejie (whose boat is pictured below). He took us to see the dolphins at 6:00 am, then to Balicasag Island for a bit of snorkeling (where I destroyed my camera) and then on to Virgin Beach.

I still think it's paradise even if the beach is covered in seaweed sometimes.

It was hard to get a good shot of the dolphins because they moved so fast, but you can see them here.
Unfortunately this is the end of my photos. Monica and our new friend Jake have photos of us all on our big day out: we rented motorbikes and went to the famous Chocolate Hills, the Simply Butterflies Conservation Center and saw Bohol's claim to fame, the tarsier.

During the week, I treated myself to a couple massages and green mango shakes (unripened, quite sour mangoes).

I went out on a boat with Monica on one day of her diving class. She dove with her instructor while I snorkeled above an extra diver, Ryan.

After a while, he motioned for me to come down and join him, and use his extra mouthpiece for air. I resisted at first, but the second time he motioned for me to come down, I took a deep breath and dove down a few meters to meet up with him. He gave me his extra mouthpiece and we linked arms and swam next to the coral wall in the ocean. My body was floating upwards because I didn't have any weights attached to me (he didn't have any either), so I just kept kicking myself down with my fins so we didn't float up. When we finally surfaced, Monica and her instructor were in the boat looking for me. They didn't know what happened to me ... to them, I just disappeared.

Ryan joked that I qualified for the "advanced snorkeling certificate." One day I'll get my real SCUBA license...

Alona Beach was a much-needed break for us, and now I think we're ready for crazy Hong Kong. It's hard to believe we take off in a couple hours...