January in Taiwan can feel surprisingly chilly (considering it's on the Tropic of Cancer), so landing several hundred kilometers south I had to adjust to a land where it's hot and muggy all year round. The thick, choking pollution of Manila (supposedly the 4th highest in the world) couldn't help but add to the oppressive ambience. My first case of reverse culture shock on this quite Americanized archipelago nation came within a few minutes driving from the airport in my overpriced taxi (the airport taxi drivers gleefully charge double or even triple to tourists fresh off the runway - after all, they have no choice, and who wants to lug their luggage several hundred meters to the closest public transport station, in this sticky heat?). Rolling by, over the heads of the street beggars knocking on car windows for spare change, I spotted a fine institution of American mercantilism, the pawn shop. Pawn shops don't exist in Taiwan - wasteful and environmentally ignorant as Taiwanese society generally is (I have always insist, "Mei-o dai-tze" [no bag] when they offer my two or more for even the smallest single item) - and so people either throw or give away unwanted and old materials. They don't even have garage sales in Taiwan. I don't know if they have them in the Philippines, but they did have plenty of open-air markets everywhere in the city of Manila, along with the usual cavalcade of street vendors one finds in most of Asia (barring ultra-modernistic Japan). After getting over my disappointment with the weak tea (living with the Chinese has spoiled me for good tea and rice, which no one else in the world does properly), I found the milky coconut juice incredibly sumptous and just the right pallative for a day's walk along the hot pavement of the urban jungle. In fact I downed three plastic cups the first time I partook of the brew.
And Manila indeed qualifies as an almost literal urban jungle. The infrastructure in the country definitely qualifies as third-world, with cracked pavement roads full of potholes winding alongside gutters filled with the stench of rotting garbage. During the daylight hours I felt free enough to wander all over the city, but when darkness fell I took the sensible precaution to stick to the Ermita and Malate tourist districts, and even there I felt uneasy being assualted by touts trying to peddle everything from fake watches to fake women to me. I mean that literally; as in several other major Asian cities, 'ladyboys' are a problem. Since the physical features of many Asian men lean towards the effeminate, passing for the opposite gender is pretty easy. However, there are several tell-tale signs. First, the Adam's apple, which the large doses of make-up they pour on can't hide. Then look down and you'll notice big feet and hair on the legs, neither of which Asian women possess. I'm not homophobic, but having one of these creatures accost you in close quarters in the street can be a bit unnerving! But there are even more unnerving sights in the mean Manila streets - such as having to watch your step as you cross over ragged homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks directly across from 5-star hotels.
But perhaps worse than the poverty and sleaze on every corner is the plain fact that the Philippines is a violent country. As of now - May 2001 - the new president Arroyo has declared the city to be in a "State of Rebellion." When I came in late January, the streets were tense with worries about the upcoming impeachment of then-president Estrada on corruption charges. Metro Manila almost certainly has the highest per-capita number of armed security guards in the world - every convenience store, department store, and fast food restaurant had a machine-gun toting rent-a-cop strategically placed at the front door. I have never seen so many guns in one place - the numerous bars around Manila all have prominent signs in front with two rules: 1) No unescorted females (to prevent street prostitutes from coming in - whores are in-house for the bar to make a profit off of!) and 2) No firearms or weapons allowed past the door. Because of several past bombings, everyone is patted down in line by a pair of security guards. To tell the truth, I spent more time than I should have in the malls in Manila, because they were one of the few places that were pleasantly air-conditioned, and more importantly, where I felt relatively safe. After 5 hours off the plane, my thoughts were slowly turning towards, "Get me out of this godforsaken hellhole."
I waited for another couple of days before I left Manila, however. My first day I felt tired having to catch a 7:30 A.M. flight (I am not a morning person and spent most of my flight conversing with my seatmates, a pair of Filipinas sitting together by chance who found out they came from the same province in northern Luzon), and after waiting around until noon to snag a hotel (had to wait for guests to checkout), I slept my way through most of the afternoon. My second day I wasted sitting in traffic, which is always jamlogged in Manila. Taiwan traffic is dangerous, but it's generally fairly fast because everybody has convenient motorbikes and scooters zooming through every little passageway they eyeball. There aren't many motorbikes in Manila, aside from these absurd-looking motorcycle taxis (motorcyle with a passenger seat attached to the side; even more absurd are the numerous bicycle taxis with passenger seats). Public transport is mostly handled by jeepneys, which are old US Army jeeps converted into minibuses. They really decorate these jeepneys very colorfully with all sorts of bells and whistles, and getting around on one is dirt cheap - 4 pesos for 4 kilometers. However, they are jampacked with as many passengers as possible, and being sqeezed from all sides by a couple dozen other sweaty humans is not a pleasing experience...of course, you can just grab and hang onto the back rails. Fortunately, by the third I discovered the Manila Metrorail, which runs from north-south across the Pasig river. Again, very cheap at 10 pesos to any train stop, but as always very, very crowded, particularly during rush hour. Stepping off the MRT once, I had to have my backpack searched by the police, who asked me if I spoke any Tagalog - since I was in their country, I should speak Tagalog, since they like most Filipinos spoke English. So I dashed a bit of hasty Spanish to prove that I was not a wretched monolingual like most native English-speaking tourists, which favorably impressed them enough (many Filipinos speak a bit of Espanol, naturally, considering it was a colony of Spain for four centuries).
Anyway, aside from the shopping and restaurants, there wasn't much to hold my interest in Manila, so my third day I found the bus station and hopped on a 2:00 A.M. bus headed towards the mountain town of Baguio in northern Luzon. Luzon is the biggest island in the Philippines, about twice the size of Taiwan, and since I only had about a week of sightseeing time, I decided to concentrate this one area of the country. I had originally planned to circle around the island, but that proved unfeasible given time constraints. I also planned on saving time by sleeping on the bus, but that was a mistake, because outside of Manila, the infrastructure really goes straight to hell, with even the major highways being only half-paved. And going up through the rocky mountainsides up into Baguio made for a rollicking ride, making sleep impossible for half of my 6-hour trip; by the time the bus pulled into the popular mountainside resort town, I was in desperate need of a soft, non-vibrating bed....so I wasted yet another half-day curled up in my air-conditioned hotel room. However, it was worth the trouble as I soon discovered wandering around the winding mountain streets; the scenery around town was lovely and the temperature was refreshingly cool as autumn - it was like being in a different country, with the vegetation of pines reflecting the different temperature zone we were in. Quite literally a breath of fresh air coming from Manila, though even here I had to fight my way through a crowded market square to get to the lookout point. And despite the natural beauty, there were several signs of unpleasantness that gave the same apprehensiveness I felt in Manila....firstly, as the bus pulled along the dirt road up to Baguio, spray-painted on several rocksides in red was the slogan, "Go Gringo!" Further down, Mr. Anti-Gringo had left several more, "Go!" "Go! Go!" "Go Gringo! Go!" for several kilometers stretch of mountain road. Also, I found out that it wasn't just Manila that had an overabundance of machine-gun toting security guards, but that they were aplenty in in the provinces, too. It's a bit surreal to eat at a Dunkin' Donuts with heavy artillery.
I wanted to go further in the mountains to see the famous rice terraces of Banuae, but after discovering that it would take 10 hours by bus to traverse there, over hard mountain road, I decided to forego that particular destination - more rocking and rolling on a 10-hour bus ride was definitely not on the agenda. So I headed down the mountains towards the oceanside, which proved to be quite beauteous. For the first time I felt truly relaxed, swimming and lazing about, paying a fisherman 300 pesos (that's $6 U.S.) to take me on a leisurely sunset tour of the bay. Most Filipinos are fishermen, and while they can be busy in the morning casting nets, in the afternoon they have nothing to do, so there are always plenty trying to hustle tourists for boat-rides. The resort town area near San Fernando seems to a popular vacation spot for holidaying Australians, as I ran into a large group of them around there. Funnily enough, the Filipinos who talked to me rarely got my nationality right. I was mistaken once for a German, and another time for an Isreali. One particularly highlight of my several days' stay around the Lingayen Gulf area was the 100 Islands, a national park off the coast of many small uninhabitated islands - too small for people to live on, some are little more than giant rocks with a few patches of grass & trees, though you can camp if you want on Children's Island. After that, I spent a day in central Luzon, which was a day too long - the area, much of which bears the ashy mark of 1991's Mt. Pinatubo volcanic explosion, has to be one of the flattest, driest, dustiest, ugliest destinations in the world. And so, after another couple of days hanging around Manila waiting on my return flight to blessed civilization, I bid goodbye to a place I doubt I'll ever return to again. I'm happy for the experience, as always, but aside from the beaches and the dirt-cheap third-world prices, there's not much enticing there, and a lot of reasonable reasons to not risk an extended tour in the Philippines - I managed to escape the country without a scratch, since I wisely stuck to the major cities and tourist areas, but some aren't, as tourist kidnappings and piracy still remain problems among the islands. Stepping off the airplane in Kaohsiung and telling my taxi my destination in Chinese, for the first time I had the strange warm feeling of coming back home. It feels good to be safe here in the first world.
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