Travelling by air is a disorienting, magical phenomenon, like the experience of a baby: earthbound and drooling along the floor one second, she is suddenly heaved up into wieghtless flight in an unfocused world of rapidly approaching and retreating parental googly eyes the next. One minute we are in Keith’s Volvo, at night, crossing the Arthur Lang bridge to YVR; the next is amid a stampede of luggage trolleys to a taxi stand in a Manila morning , and guttural Tagalog as our driver shout-asks directions in the crunched, run-down side streets of Ermita. Like the tumbling baby our squealing pleasure is enhanced, concentrated, by a soupcon of mistrust and unfamiliarity, the fear that accompanies abdication of control.
We have never been to the Philippines before, so unlike our usual first port of call, Bangkok, there aren’t the deep patterns of recognition to fall back on. We are in the Philippines now partly because our neighbourhood in Bangkok is underwater, and partly because of the above: in 30-odd years of travelling around Asia, neither of us has ever been here. There is a faint voice of justification that prompts us, unconvincingly, to search for new goods for the business. But really (admit it) we just want to go to a beach on Palawan.
Manila certainly isn’t Bangkok. Our cabbie from the airport, between watching a video on his dash, instructs us, as all cabbies will in the next couple of days, to lock our doors. First impressions: concrete squalor unable to hide behind the drag-queen tones of paint; street business where survival is the only bottom line, like the pervasive tin and wire Xmas ornaments lined unfestively in front of crate-like slums; jeepneys; basketball.
The Spanish were the first Western Imperialists here, going way back to Magellan’s round-the-world voyage. He claimed the islands for God and Spain, and took a spear to the head and died for his troubles near Cebu in 1521. For 478 years Padres pounded Catholicism into the natives, and did whatever it took to confine the spread of Islam (a home-grown specialty), keeping it sequestered in the distant backwaters of Mindanao. The heavy tread of the Americans arrived with a fleet of warships in 1898. Having ill-advisedly declared war on the Yankee upstarts, Spain took a spanking, and ended up at the bargaining table in Paris selling Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico to the Americans for $20 mil. About one waterfront mansion in West Van.
As soon as the Americans had wrapped up concessions for agriculture, mining and military bases, they let the Filipinos have a spin at democracy – keeping one hand firmly on the steering wheel. The benefits were mutual: in return for exploiting the country’s resources and using the massive Subic Bay and Clark’s bases for bombing the shit out of the Vietnamese, the Americans provided employment for more than 100,000 local prostitutes.
Hence basketball: give the colony a sport that they will never beat you at, and they will just play on the street with lower hoops. And jeepneys: leave behind a huge mess of expendible equipment, and the Filipinos will expend the length, put in benches, tart them up to make them absolutely unrecognizably American, and bus people around the country.
Manila has the reputation in the travelling community of being one of the armpits of Asia. No one would say that it is pretty, but there is also no denying the energy and utter uniqueness of it. Manila is a cocktail of Jersey City, Caracas, and Jakarta. Shaken, and stirred.
Two days in Manila, especially through the prism of sleep-deprived jet-lag, is enough, and a one hour flight takes us to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. From 15 mil. to 150,000. From “jeepney” to “tricycle”. If three-wheeled passenger conveyences in Asia are as distinct as dialects, the tricycle is a language of its own. Someone took a 155 cc Honda, and fastened a boat prow on it. Then they put a bench beside the driver, added a flat roof and a cereal-box of a windshield for an amoured-car look, and pronounced it Good. The airport is pretty much in downtown Puerto, with a few blocks of streets levelled off for the runway. A crab-like line of tricycles out the main door will take you anywhere you want to go for a buck.
Our first choice of lodging in Puerto is Lonely Planet’s designated favourite: Casa Linda. Casa Linda isn’t bad, but with a plain room with rattan walls fetching nearly $30, my instinct tells me we can do better. But at 2 in the afternoon it’s stinking hot, the air is sticky, and a cloud the colour of eggplant is coming at the city like a rolling pin. I leave Katheryn with the bags, and go out to troll a few options. It’s not looking good, and I am about to give up, but decide to give one last place a try: Color Mansion. I dismissed it the first time by because the sign procliamed it could do birthday parties and weddings, and I had visions of stuffing in earplug after earplug while screeching children played “tie-up-little-brother” on our balcony, or rum-filled maudlin uncles discovered the Celine Dion DVD for the videoke machine. But with no parties booked the room was great, and we were the only guests of a delighful family.
We woke up in the morning and decided to go to Port Barton. Actually we woke up, made a coffee, watched Al-Jezira, and then suddenly decided to madly pack and leave. A tricycle to the depot got us to a beefed-up jeepney, and soon we were lumbering through central Palawan. For having spent only 3 nights in Asia, by the time we left the paved road, it felt like we were getting way out there. The lingering rainy season made the last 1.5 hours into Port Barton a challenge for the driver and the bus, fish-tailing through slick ruts and yawing suddenly at perilous angles, leaving us leaning over jungle-covered ravines, planning routes of escape.
From 150,000 to 1,500. With a journey like that, it’s easy to see why people don’t want to leave Port Barton. Although it might also have something to do with the sweet town, palms fringing a beach the colour of Brit Ekland’s hair, and turquoise waters in a bay full of islands and coral reefs. Oh, did I mention the volcano in the distance?
I know I mentioned the rainy season. Every day we have to disappoint Alan, who has got a lock on our (eventual) outrigger trip to the island reefs. The boat guys greet the jeepney when it arrives, and their little collective decides who is who’s. We are Alan’s. But every morning the clouds are gathering, and sooner or later they bind together in sheafs of rain, and we don’t want to pay the (fairly steep) price for an overcast snorkel. Finally enough is enough, and we sputter off in his barca, returning before the afternoon rain. If our trip was any indication, the coral in the Philippines is severely stressed. Beautiful in patches, it still lacked critical mass, and we saw none of the larger species of marine life that indicate health and abundance.
The only other foreigners on our jeepney from Puerto Princesa were a French couple, Ivan and Patricia. On a boat trip they took, they stopped at a small resort on an outer island – Albaguen – and liked it so much they decided to go out for a couple of days. We tag along. If you dream of escape, dream of Albaguen. I don’t need to tell you; you’ve already got it in your mind. The rotund and gracious owner, Micheal, started it up 4 years ago, having returned to the Philippines from America. His parents in New York thought he was crazy. Now he and his wife preside over four thatched cottages on their perfect bay. With their staff, and a Korean family who arrive later, the population soars to 15.
A note to our new blog followers: the regulars know: for lots more photos go to http://www.kebeandfast.com and click the flickr link at the top of the home page. For amazing videos of the places we have been, check out Katheryn’s videos: http://youtu.be/9M_R-vv8YGs http://youtu.be/O6iECo3dU-w http://youtu.be/dm8VecrLxsY http://youtu.be/xXLWbYyoxng . These and many more can be found on our youtube channel: just go to youtube, and search for kebeandfast.