Manila, Makati and Movie-Making
Alleykat arrived in one piece, still a little shaken by the debacle at the Japanese airport and proceeded to build TanNayNay with a crowd of interested onlookers. (Al loved that the twenty-five-plus airport workers didn't have anything better to do than to stand around for an hour and a half and watch a couple of crazy people build a bike!).
We rode into the cloying heat, so hot we wore it like a coat. Somehow, via the express way, various epic roundabouts and with Alee trying his best to re-route us due to blocked roads, we managed to get to our pre-booked hotel. TanNayNay rolled through slums, shantys and busy streets alive with people to get to the address, where immediately we were kindly greeted and wowed by the cleanliness and awesomeness of the room. Tess and her family took good care of us and our stuff! That night we slept long and well with the air conditioner blasting away the stickiness of the oppressive heat.
In Makati, what we would later learn was the 'dodgy end' of the suburb, we wandered around the streets, bought the fast kind of food and had a very quiet day. In the late evening we spoke to Tess and one of her sons for a good while and learned a few bits and bobs about The Philippines, namely: always find a tricycle driver if you're lost or need a good bit of gossip to get into and don't drink the water offered by villagers (it's usually a prank played and will be gathered from the local well with water to make you very sick – not just on Westerners but on wealthier city-dwelling Filipinos who dare to venture into the provinces…hahaha?). She said absolutely do talk to people and that we must sleep under the stars.
By our third evening in Makati it was all systems go: Movie! Blog! Boom! Doom! Done! In the small, air-con-icy office we spoke some more with Tess and learned about the banana republic situation in the Philippines, we learned that corruption is the biggest problem here and that the Philippines didn't have anything else to export so they exported people! It seems strange but perhaps sensical, in a way? Tess offered us a free place to stay – her family is in the process of building another hotel and she said we could board there free of charge for however long we wanted it. Nice. Filipina hospitality!
Our good friend Kirsten (who works at the British School Tokyo) put us in contact with some of the crew at the British School of Manila – or more colloquially, BSM – and we'd lucked into another hook up, this time with Liza and Dave. We moved to Liza and Dave's place but they were at school during the day so, after navigating our way round in terrible traffic, we met them at lunch and after meeting a number of the staff (including Simon who does BSM's charity work, among many-a-thing at the school). With Dave we headed back to their amazing abode, following the scooter on our tandem. We had to pass through not one, not two, but three security gates to enter their home compound, that's a good number of guards we waved at and confused with our heavily laden bicycle!
Later that evening we borrowed Liza and Dave's scooter to head back into school for the Christmas concert. The mucic concert was performed by kids from bubs to graduates, with lots of nice Christmas-y jingles and occasional tingles when some super talented musicians played for us. Dinner was on us and we stayed up a bit late for a school night (albeit the last day of school) and afterwards enjoyed their supremely comfortable spare bed. For five enjoyably relaxing days we stayed with Liza and Dave, during which time we met Pinky their house elf (cleverly disguised as an industrious, sweet-hearted Filipina woman) and learned a bit about her family and life. Liza and Dave took us exploring in Makati a bit, together we watched some good movies, enjoyed their incredible hospitality, got burned at the pool with South African Paul and his bubbly British-accented daughters and finally left on the morning of our sixth day with them.
A first look at real poverty
During our stay in Makati, along with a whole hoard of ex-pat parents and their BSM kids, Simon took us to Tondo and were blown away by the project and the sheer power it had in combatting poverty. There we met Ann, Paul, Sacha and Manuel (and the lovely admin staff and the Fair Jewelery crew). Here, right in the middle of the slums we learned about the plight of the poorest people in Manila (the majority of the city live in some kind of slums) – seeing the children and adults alike sorting garbage, eating garbage, living in garbage. On Smokey Mountain, if you're not up to your ankles in other people's rubbish, you're inhaling noxious fumes every minutes of every day – making charcoal to earn your living. From Paul, Alleykat got a job offer but sadly felt we had to turn it down. We did however, decide that this was the place we wanted to dedicate our time, blood, sweat and tears to.
Trying to camp amongst the roosters
We biked out of Manila with great lengths of time tangled like long ribbons in our hair, and reached a camping ground run by Ma Ate and his lovely group of deeply Christian people. There we camped under a shelter because of the pitter-pattering of rain drops donating themsleves to the earth around us and much later had a welcome cold shower. A din of church music and caterwauling animals serenaded us through the night including a rather eerie 3am church service which is a traditional part of the Filipina celebrations in the nine days leading up to Christmas.
The next day we slowly but surely rode up the gently relentless hill to Tagaytay and bought a selection of fine looking fruit from a street stand. To our open-mouthed disgust as we cut into them a kilometre up the road, we saw the fruit was spoiled, with maggots wriggling and writhing in its sugary flesh. Luckily our food lust (and trust) was healed when we found German pretzels in a delicatessen, drank a young coconut out of a tenderly selected coconut shell, and whizzed down the switch-back hill to Laurel, trying to find the camping ground marked on Google maps.
The little tent symbol we were following (we all know how following a little tent marker can turn out, read HERE) turned out to be a resort, but, buoyed on by the clueless and powerless guards, we rode up a hill to just check whether we could pop out tent surreptitiously on the grounds somewhere. Unfortunately, instead of weary travellers, we appeared to the proprietors as giant money bags – they wanted to charge us a princely sum for the pleasure of camping without any facilities. Oh, and we couldn't cook our own food there!
We mused 'hmm, best not be taken advantage of' and simply aboutfaced to ride back down the hill and out the gates where instead we asked the first person on the street whether we could camp on their property.
That first person happened to be a bloke who worked for Charlie, who's house we were inside within minutes! We were asked to treat the house as our own, given the deluxe suite (Charlie's bedroom), used the bucket shower and Alee went with Charlie for a walk to see his workplace and gaze at the ferris wheel lit up and perched gaudily on the hill. Charlie lived with his mother and extended family and friends. His son, Charles David was the first of his generation we'd met who's name followed the double-barrel trend (and we'd meet many more aged between zero and forty who also suffered this particular fate – some chose to be called their first name, but more commonly people are known by their second half or 'middle' name. As far as we know this particular practise is limited to the Philippines, but different versions of it exist world wide: my grandfather Alan Donald was known as Don.
From Charlie's place after a night peppered with so many roosters' crows it was fiery, the road along the coast of Lake Taal was SUPER hilly and steep punctuated by short sharp inclines. Accidentally we found a school (simply by following the sound of youthful singing!) which was in celebration mode: the last day of school and physical fitness day (which meant dancing for all). The principal, Emma Rodriguez invited us in to her office – and to come back some day and work for the school! We ate and drank, made movies and had movies made of us! We left with invitations to come and teach with them still ringing in our ears (a couple of head teachers also extended the offer).
Later we made it up to Batangas and over the hilly coast to Anilao. As is our usual fashion, we checked with a few places for cost – all were wildly expensive! We found Anilao Backpackers and met Tim and Jo the owner and the manager respectively who seemed very nice but Alee still really wanted to camp so we kept on around the hilly road, asking to camp at various resorts – all their camping spots however were more expensive than having a room at the backpackers! Sensibly and luckily, we went back to Anilao Backpackers and stayed three nights. We watched Intouchables, a French film, with the gang – Brite and Tao, Bebot, Reggie, Sol and of course the movie-supplier Tim, all sat and watched and were enchanted. During our time at the hostel we managed to meet a whole host of famous underwater photographers and guides and finders – the merpeople with an outrageous talent for spying tiny, amazing sea life and helping others take incredible photos of it. Very cool crowd to be rubbing shoulders with, despite being total noobs.
Because we were without diving licences, we snorkelled instead, taking the opportunity after Tim casually suggested that we just jumped on a boat with a bunch of awesome American-Filipino fellows. We went for it. Oh, the silence. The colour. The secret underwater world! The feeding frenzy with the pan de sal rolls.
…We be devoting, full time to floating under da sea!!…
We left with difficulty, after many goodbyes (and a photo shoot with TanNayNay). Next, our first interaction with the infamous Batangas ferry terminal. We were in the presence of a holiday-frenzied storm; we felt the throng of a sweaty swarm of people trying to get home for Christmas. The terminal stank, was packed and the only way to discern any information about boats was to line up in the thick of it. Alee was the champion of the hour. As we were severly limited for choice, we decided to camp instead and hold off on our decision making for a less busy time.
Merryland Campsite became our new temporary home. Matriarch Lola Vecita (Lola means grandmother in Tagalog) and her daughter Evelyn took us under their golden wings. Later in the evening, on the prowl for some dinner ingredients we happened across an amazing restaurant called El Torro run by a German man of 13 year ex-pat history. Here we ate extravagantly (pifferlinger anyone? Sure, I'll imbibe some velvety German mushrooms foraged from the floor of the Black Forest, why not?!) BUT were almost turned off our food – we felt physically sick – after witnessing two 65+ old filth-bags who had taken for themselves a couple of beautiful 20-something Filipino wives, those poor women. The men oozed self-satisfaction and the girls were visibly uncomfortable, putting on a good show by eating the ice cream proffered to them from the unsavoury cups set before the two men. Luckily they left before our dinner came, and the avocado shake was just perfect, thanks for asking.
Our days in the sub-tropical paradise of the camoing ground were backdropped by a constant supply of videoke. The simplistic, noisy backing-track singing device is a an essential piece of equipment for every Filipino household, there were tens or even hundreds in our immediate vicinity; some of the homes didn't have floors but they certainly had a videoke machine! The Filipinos claim to have invented videoke, a precursor to the more well-known brother, karaoke. They remain firm that the Japanese stole the idea from them during the occupation. All we know is that you're never far from being serenaded; whether it's musical or not is a different matter entirely!
On Christmas Eve evening we were invited for an 11:30pm meeting at Evelyn's place, Alee fell fast asleep well before, and lonesome Kat thought it was going to be midnight mass but it was just an amazing spread of food! Midnight snacks and then some! With sticky rice parcels, buko jelly and a number of savoury dishes spread before us, Evelyn and Kat spoke at length about life and family and travel, what a phenomenally gifted and generous woman she was, not just personally but professionally – she essentially is a planner like Alee but has a good extra forty years of experience under her belt! Christmas Day was spent with Evelyn's family, we were well looked after by Charlotte Anne and we met another inspirational member of the Filipino workforce, Evelyn's brother Joselito who is a total champion – like the rest of the family!
On Boxing Day we had our last swim and then planned to have a last nice El Torro dinner which was ruined: Kat was bitten by a dog! Luckily the dog was owned by the proprietor who assured us she was regularly and just recently vaccinated and gave us chocolates in lieu of having any 'real way' to pay us back (we thought a full refund of the dinner would be ok but…). Kat was glad she'd spent the extra whack of money on her rabies vaccines back in Melbourne!
Puerto Galera: Where the scuba is sweet and the Westerners are Schwinehund
The weather was favourable, warm and lemony when we left in the early afternoon and caught a small boat to Puerto Galera. The second meeting with the Port of Batangas gave us a good kick in the pants in the form of silly additional charges for TanNayNay, but we loaded everything on and felt the salty sea wind in our locks for two hours across a small body of water. We headed immediately into the short sharp little hills of Mindoro and after a sweaty ride, arrived in Sabang. To get to our targeted place of residence, a not-quite-cheapest-of-the-cheap dive called Paddy's Bar, we had to climb a monster hill (and after walking up and down it for the next week we were shocked we were actually able to ride up it successfully while fully loaded!)
We arrived at Paddy's to the absence of Paddy, and instead a number to call plastered to the front wall along with three American-Filipino boys on holiday. They'd also only just managed to contact the bloke, John, who was supposed to be taking care of the place without Paddy – but apparently he'd been AWOL since the afternoon of Paddy's departure and mere moments after reassuring Paddy he'd be around. Later we found out he was “living” with three Filipina girls who essentially did everything for him, so he had no excuse to be too “busy” to be managing his friend's place!
A few hours later we'd met Adrian (also staying in the not-so-welcoming 'Bar' hostel) and Brett who was staying with friends locally and was 'just out on a walk'. That evening after cooking dinner as a threesome, we met Elli, a governmental security dude (who smoked weed when he wasn't securing Governmental things) and later adopted a tiny chestnut kitten who we named Nuss (she curled up and slept with Kat all night).
In the morning, we rode into town to check out what the scuba diving deal was. There were literally hundreds of diving shops and centres lining the shorefront, and we surfed a few options, however, most of the people we spoke to were either half-arsed about the whole thing or had enough drugs shoved up their noses and gluing up their brains for our questions to just seem plain silly. We arrived at Blue Ribbon and it was different immediately; more professional, a warm enthusiastic atmosphere and a comforting number of people were actually diving (or who had just come back from doing so). Not only had it come with a high recommendation from Brett, but anyone could tell they were the best on the beach. We signed up for an open water diving course and rode back up that monster hill again!
By now we'd realised that Paddy's Bar was probably great when the owners were there, but, without them the place was a shell – and we didn't even have access to a common area, a kitchen, a balcony; nothing. So, with Adrian, we moved down another hill out the back of Paddy's, through a series of houses, back streets and palm groves to Tuna Joe's. Now, this place too had not much to offer even the most hardened of backpacker-travellers – the bloke who'd run it (and apparently run it well) had died not two years before our arrival and although his wife, Elsie, did a stellar job just remaining there and keeping the place running, it had unfortunately gone plunging into despair. But, we had more common-room space, we had a pool upstairs and we had Adrian – it seemed right. Elsie has two of her six kids living with her, who are part Aussie by nationality and thoroughly Filipino by nature; they played endless games in the dirty street out the front of the Tuna building, didn't fear the innumerate mangey, literally mange-ridden dogs who ran the place and were the same as the young Filipinas; with an air of total freedom about them.
A couple of days before New Years we began our diving course. Baz, an ex-army diver was our teacher. We were joined on the course by two French dudes, Arthur and Xavier (please say those names out loud with as thick a French accent you can produce) and a Norweigan fellow named Siva. We began our journey by getting wet, all six of us in the pool. There was a lot to learn but Baz was patient and clear with us, obviously he knew his stuff and then some. By the end of the day we'd graduated to the ocean in front of the Blue Ribbon centre – who knew that just five metres out there was crystal blue water, technicolor coral and fish as far as the eye could see?! Baz had us doing somersaults and checking out small specimens of sealife, it was another world and we could see why it is just so addictive to the hundreds and thousands of divers dabbling in the waters of the Philippines.
Our days swam by in a sea of loose routine (waking, walking and wading into the water) eating delicious foods at the Sabang Cafe, whose prices were somehow reasonably reasonable and about half that of any other food place in the rather tourist-driven town. We cooked and ate together with Adrian each day and got to know each other quickly. Gradually we got better at diving and learned about how to deal with every potentially chanllenging situation under the water… although, we felt our itchy excitement to get out into the ocean was likely to kill us quicker than any of the possible problems we'd encounter there!
Oafishly Responsible for Sex Trafficking
Thoughout any expereince and with pursed lips and puckered sphincters we noted the deluge of dopey, dastardly old creepers (western men from countries such as Germany, the UK, the US and of course, Australia) who proudly carried their beautiful Filipina arm candy around the town. We learned too late that there are human trafficking and prostitution rings all around the Philippines and that we were smack-bang in the centre of a fairly virulent one.
It was so depressing to see the situation that these poor young women (and too often young girls) found themselves in, we coped with it by making light of the situation and loudly commentating on how filthy these old sickos were, discussing well within earshot how these perverts were kidding themselves and how disgusting their behaviour was. We ended up talking in such proximity of the majority of them, but they couldn't say anything. They should be so ashamed of their role in this.
Let us give you a mental challenge: just suppose it was the other way around and there were thousands of rich, portly, OLD men travelling to your home town and procuring, through direct and deliberate flaunting of their wealth (and the law), the beautiful young women you know. Imagine it. How wrong and utterly unacceptable should it be? Then why do these men think it's ok to do?!
Alee heard one perv loudly remonstrating his “wife” with: “Hey, I said 'yes, Peter', this is how you should respond to me, say it, say 'yes, Peter'”. He was in the middle of complaining that he had been sitting on his ocean-view balcony for half an hour and his “wife” hadn't yet thought to bring him his coffee and water. We felt sick to our stomachs and resolved to find out more and see what we could do to help.
NYE, Examinations and Exit
Soon it was New Years Eve. Unfortunately for Kat, who's ears, heart and sanity don't cope we'll with sudden loud noises, every idiot with a few pesos can get his or her hands on fireworks. They were going off all day, willy-nilly. It doesn't really make sense, does it? To have fireworks during the bright sunshine-y day?! By nightfall there was finally a reason to let them off, and more and more people took this opportunity. Alleykat and Adrian wandered beachwards and arrived at Blue Ribbon in time to meet up with our French/Norweigan diving gang and more new friends – Captain America made an appearance (cleverly disguised as our new friend Scott who could also sing like a champion), Marthe (another Norweigan, who'd been helping us learn about diving and was looking rather different out of her wetsuit and in a little black dress) and a whole collection of Brits who were part of a rather confusingly-related family.
The evening was relaxed, if a little subdued, until the clock chimed midnight and hundreds of fireworks cracked open the sky. We watched with smiles on our faces, although we were sometimes a little doubtful due to the dubious manner (and direction!) the fireworks were being let off at! Some daggered dangerously into the crowd on the pier close by and exploded in a rain of screams and laughter. Some hit trees, others exploded beneath the waves. It was beautiful to watch, but a little nerve wracking for some.
Soon we were at a venue called… Venue… and there was loud music and limbs collectively pulsing and waving. There were a couple of demonstrations of rather raunchy dancing, and a lot of tut-tutting on our behalf at the sheer number of oldies getting too close to the youngies. The night ended for us at around 3, although for those who, unlike us, didn't have to sit a diving exam on the first day of the new year, the night raged on and on and on.
Our exams went smoothly, we scored in the high 90s a piece and felt at ease and excitement for our final two dives, before getting qualified to be done the next day. Later that day however, Kat managed to catch a sinus sickness and so after a day of painful rest, on the third day of the year, we were finally qualified open water divers!
Our other coach Chris, who also happened to be a long haul bike tourer, told us about his adventures – he's travelled some of the globe for three years before coming to stay in the small heaven called Sabang. After taking great care of us during our last two dives, Chris signed our papers and smiled at us newly qualified scuba-dudes.
It was time to start heading back to Manila to begin our volunteership with Young Focus, so we packed up, bade Adrian a fond farewell and with much greater ease than the journey to Puerto Galera, heading back was simple: we swanned onto the boat and left the port in our wake.
Little white butterflies made the two hour journey with us, why they'd decided to tackle the thirty kilometre trip across the ocean we couldn't tell you, but great numbers of their group flittered and fluttered alongside our long vessel the whole way to Batangas. From there we paused for Phô on the roadside and rode into the night. After nightfall we hadn't managed to find a place to camp – the rains had been through the hills and most of the fields around us were doused in a pond-worthy amount of water. We hoped that a very empty but very open hotel venue would let us pop a tent in their extensive gardens somewhere but unfortunately it was either rent an expensive cabin or nothing. We rode on and landed in San Fransisco. No, we hadn't jumped countries, it's just a town on the outskirts of San Pablo in the south of Luzon.
The by-the-hour hotel was very basic but did us well for the evening, I think we might have confused the owners; we aren't exactly their usual clientele! After a brief breakfast and a ride around the lovely lake of San Pablo (where thousands of people live quite happily bordering its green banks) we were back on the road. We had to climb back up to Das Mariñas, and after what seemed like an endless hill, we crested and coasted back to the first campsite we'd stayed at on our way out of Manila – Jabez Compound. They of course remembered us, and us them – after another relaxing evening we invited them to come and camp in Australia with us anytime!
Tuesday morning we rolled along Roxas Avenue and into Tondo, through heavy traffic and a lot of happy faces. Alee managed to navigate all the way to just around the corner from Young Focus where we fatefully bumped into Ann, one of the senior staff at the charity.
Young Focus is a foundation which holistically supports the children and their families who live on and around Smokey Mountain. Smokey Mountain is essentially a slum built on a garbage dump. Through the aide of hard working staff, volunteers and international donations, these kids (and their families) are supported educationally, emotionally, physically, nutritionally and environmentally. Helping here felt amazing and life-changing.
After settling into a room in a house (owned by the lovely Lola Mely, who is 'The Godmother' of Tondo) just across the street from the main building of Young Focus, we met Amelia (aka Meely or Mia who's name people in many countries have great difficulty pronouncing, thus the alternatives!) who, at 19 is putting us to shame with her already worldly ways, international orphanage volunteerships, membership of the UN and general generous awesomeness.
We learned that our challenge, should the three of us accept it, was to properly decorate the Child Care Plus building which had burned down not a month after being finished the first time. The idea behind this – coming from Ivan and his colleagues – was to transport the children from their world to another entirely; to provide a beautiful, safe respite from the harsh reality of Smokey Mountian. We took it in stages – Kat the arty-shmarty one lead the way. After discussing our ideas with Ivan, the head teacher and carer, we did a general outline and went on a colourful rampage. Within five days of full-time painting we managed to turn a completely blank three walls into a mural with a sealife-rich underwater scene, a richly forested section and a farm set amongst the rolling hills. It felt good to have left something visibly changed in our wake. During our time painting we had help from Karen and her artist friend Maud, who both live in Manila and do a great amount to support Young Focus and specifically the Child Care Plus centre.
Part of the smelly Tondo furniture
The days became a nice routine, filled with smiles and positivity from the always-hard-at-it employees in the office and in the feild at Young Focus – we interacted with our new friends the 'ates' and 'khuyas' (sisters and brothers) – and 'the Angels' – the women and mums who staffed the child care centre and lived at Smokey Mountain everyday. We spent our days travelling to and from the dumpsite either via tricycle or by foot and before long, we became part of the furniture to the people in Tondo.
We made fast and firm friends with Canadian Tareina, bonding initially over the rescue of a small kitten with very broken eyes. We named her Nussy the Second (in order not to get too attached) and took her to a number of veterinary hospitals before settling her with the PSPCA who adopted her and put her straight on a regimen of antibiotics and love. It was around then that another feline needed medical attention; Kat's ears and congested chest continued to plague her, and a visit to the skilled ear doctor at the Chinese Hospital brought to light an eardrum a day away from perforation. Thank science for drugs, eh?
Life wasn't just work and volunteering though, our evenings were warmed by friendship and food. We cooked and ate together with Meely every night – and when Tareina took her friends to visit her favourite part of the Philippines, Palawan, we moved into her apartment. We left the rumble of trucks, wafting of humans and garbage, and crowing of roosters that is Tondo a couple of times, freshening up for a night in Greenbelt (a HUGE multi-facited shopping mall, not green in the slightest!) with Meely's family friend, British Hugh and his friend Hugo for very sophisticated evening of drinks and people watching. We met up with another ex-pat in the Philippines, the father of our duo best friend, Michelle. He treated us at TGI Fridays in another part of the city, Eastwood which isn't a country-and-western themed section of the city but is a heavily westerner-dominated area. The food was delicious and the company friendly. It was a heart-throbbing reminder of our friends in Melbourne!
The Unique Public Transport of The Philippines
The public transport in The Philippines – and Manila – is unique. Giant tin cans on wheels with rusted, chromed or painted outsides are virulent. The jeepney is a mini-bus hop on, hop off style of movement, and at 5 to 12 pesos per ride (the equivalent of no more than 20 cents!) it's worth the noisy, horn-honking, open-air experience. They're everywhere and if you're not riding in (or on top of) one of those, chances are you're stuffed inside of clung on the outside of a tricycle. Motorbikes with sidecarts run in the congested, plaque-like traffic like water through pipes – going with the flow, slipping through cracks and driving where they shouldn't.
We took a variety of this kind of transport in lieu of wanting to brave the twenty kilometres as a threesome on TanNayNay (again, we regret our decision against getting a third seat on or tandem and just riding with a triplet instead!). We also rode around on the rail system, squashed together with hundreds and thousands of Filipinos much like hundreds and thousands sprinkled liberally on a birthday cake.
Meely had once before braved the questionmark that is the jeepney but one afternoon all three of us took the omnibus travel option (jeepney, train) on our way into Makati, the residential zone this time and to hang out with another Meely's friend of the family, Lainey and her extremely well-grounded and worldly kids Alice, Eliot, Ruth and Max. Here, surrounded by the opulent wealth of the neighbourhood we walked their dog Merlin after a deliciously extravagant lunch. The taxis we'd been taking back to Tondo in the evenings had varied wildly in cost: depending on the honesty of the driver! But we paid because there are only some drivers who will drive into the belly of the beast that is Tondo because of its literally murderous reputation and streets equally as difficult to navigate in a car as in a B-double truck.
Having painted the floor in a puddley pond of green rubberised paint and done the final touches to the walls, it was time to spend a bit of time out of metroploitan Manila. By this time we'd pretty much just become part of the dirt on the streets, people were pretty used to us and had various 'cat-calls' like “Hey Miley Cirus! I came here with the wrecking ball!” (to Kat with her short hair), asking our names, asking if Al plays basketball (and challenging him to perform slam dunks) and constantly serenading Meely with wolf whistles, and shouted declarations of love for her beauty and sexiness. She responded admirably just smiling and waving passively, it must've got old pretty quickly!
The Mee-alleykat threesome left early morning to get to the ferry terminal, although it turned out that despite the tickets telling passengers to arrive four hours early, we probably didn't even need to arrive with the two hours to spare that we did: we could've rolled up five minutes before departure and no one would've batted an eyelid.
We were sharing our foursome cabin with a young Filipina but didn't realised until after she'd won the videoke competition (and offered one of us the dinner-for-two she'd received as a prize) that she was actually rather lovely! Joanne took us for dinner in the fancier section of the boat (where there was more than just fried chicken and rice to eat) and after eating our fill we all left the deck for bed rather early after a little more Videoke (in which Kat was the only one participating!). 4am rolled around as sure as the waves beneath our hull and it was time to rise unwillingly into the darkness of the harbour below. We found a place to drink a couple of disgustingly sweet 5am coffees and burn a bit of time before we contacted our contact in Iloilo at a slightly more reasonable time. Tisay gave us directions and the ok to arrive 'whenever we liked' and short of being able to follow the loose instructions for two jeepneys and a tricycle she'd described, we decided to taxi our way there.
Although we'd arrived with our eyes rather hooded with sleepiness at Tisay's lovely little home there was just a small amount of time spent nourishing ourselves with a bit of lie down and some breakfast. Then it was into Iloilo city on the tricycle / jeepney service where we were dumped unceremoniously at the edge of the city and simply followed the crowds of excited Filipinas into the centre.
The Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo
Our three days were spent mostly at the festival. Sometimes watching street parades and something called the solemn march and other times wandering and watching and eating delicious Indian cuisine at a little restaurant tucked behind a car wash. One morning, in search of particular drumming event we wanted to see, we accidentally perched in an arena and instead of the tribal drums, out came a series of school groups for a kind of school spectacular. Somehow we managed to be invited to sit next to the Mayor and the Congressmen and got blown away for a couple of hours by the most talented groups of kids we'd ever seen. EVER. We were taken around the streets by volunteer tour guide trainees and Kat/Meely got awful henna on our hands. We ate mango waffles and enjoyed buko-mango shakes, bubble tea and the occasional Starbucks (a chain impossibly popular all over the Philippines). As some of the only obviously foreign people in the throngs of people attending the festival, we had lots of stares and questions and more than a few sneaky photos and not-so-sneaky photos taken of us every day. Through sheer accidental birth-event of being non-Filipinos, we met whole hoards of kids and adults who wanted to learn more (and more!) and were intereviewed twice on camera.
The very close-by island of Gimoras was a worthy alternative to the festival on the Sunday after three frustrating hours spent wandering and trying to see the Ati (tribespeople) performances – unfortunately we just couldn't find anywhere to view the performances from – Alee almost blew a fuse! We just left the thrumming, thundering performers and their accompanying crowds and spent a little time on a beach in Gimoras and took a crazy fast motorbike back to the ferry terminal.
Boracay: 'The Best Beach In The World'
We waited for what seemed like an age for a taxi to the bus terminal – we were heading up to the officially voted Best Beach In The World: Boracay. Once in this rumoured paradise we downed numerous daily avocado and banana shakes, lounged on the beach, watched Harry Potter in the evenings and generally tried NOT to fit in with the disgusting crowd. On our second last afternoon, Meely and Kat wandered a little further afield in search of the perfect (and perfectly priced) smoothie and stumbled upon a sliver of real life on Boracay; streets cramped with fruit vendors and men in semi-reclined positions fixing every kind of vehicle available on the island. It was there we felt suddenly less like we were dirtying up the place and instead as though it wasn't just some mirage created out of very convincing plastic made just for the western tourists. And, of course the best smoothies were hidden in these streets, not for tourists but for locals!
Our last morning was a slow one, but that wasn't any different from every morning for the majority of the island; the roosters and the Filipinas were busy around the clock but the slovenly tourists didn't make much of an appearance before 9am, and even that seemed to be a little too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for most. We pancaked and smoothied on this, our last morning together, and parted with lots of hugs and knowledge that it'll only be time until we see each other again. Meely, the lucky duck was off to Palawan, a mostly untouched jungle island, and was to meet up with her cousin before heading back to Manila for some more volunteering.
Alleykat scrambled to catch the 12pm ferry to Roxas on Mindoro Island (lest waiting another four hours to escape the opressive human-driven heat in the terminal) and just made it. The ferry ride was made easier through the deft magical hand of Harry Potter and his friends and before we knew it, we were unloading and reloading into a 'private van' headed for Calipan. Of course, The Philippines being the rather lax sort of place that it is, we waited half an hour cooking inside this first van before realising the van was only going to move when a full load of passengers had been procured, if not a full load and a half! We were poked and prodded onto another van and were soon zooming our way along the very wet roads like a bat out of hell. Along the way we braced ourselves a number of times, clenching all there was to be clenched as passengers were spied out of the dark corner of the driver's eye – brakes were slammed on and every passenger who could be sardined in with us was fish-tailed in. Over the course of a few hours we picked up and dropped off more people than could fit on a train in India, and managed to make it to Calipan by late evening.
Sitting in JolliBee that evening, waiting for Alee's peach and mango pie, we reflected on how different it is to travel without TanNayNay, how much we enjoy relying on ourselves and reading our own schedule, rather than guessing at others' loose time-reading.
The Fast Cat ferry was indeed fast, we nimbly swept through the water and alighted once more onto the docks at Batangas Port. From there we were thoroughly ripped off by a tricycle driver (we parted with more than three times what we should've paid) and were laughed at good-humouredly by the Jeepney driver on our busy beeping way into Anilao. We wandered up the costal road and were suitably impressed by our friend Tim's newest venture, his second and third places of hospitality. That evening just so happened to be his birthday, and we were lucky enough to celebrate with cake (six during the party, Tim tells us there were two more delivered the next day!) and a lavish spread put on by his lovely business partners-come-friends Jo and Jess. When there were only a few of us left, including new Malaysian friends Dani and Shaz and Japanese super-kawaii-lady, Kana, Tim sung us into the new day, his dulcet tones vastly preferential to any recorded music we had.
We were lucky, as is so often the way, to catch a properly private van ride back to Manila with Dani and Shaz, with plans to meet these good men again in a few months in Kuala Lumpur. We squeezed ourselves onto the train and what was probably our last jeepney, backpacks and all, and arrived at Young Focus to say a proper goodbye. We have a wonderful fridge magnet to remember our time there!
Back in Tondo, it felt like home
Across the road, at Lola Mely's place, it just so happened to be the magnificent matriarch's 71st birthday and we attended, making firmer friends with her tribe, Jeff, Boom and his partner Sean. The party was lush, so much food, lots of decorations and fair enough for such a decorated lady!
We bought some beautiful jewellery from the Fair Jewellery section of Young Focus, a part of the charity that allows many students who've graduated from the countless YF programs to learn a craft and make a good living – thereby not needing to return to scavanging through rubbish or making charcoal to survive. A worthy cause and, under the guidance of resident artist RikJem, the pieces are amazing!
After saying goodbye to Young Focus (and receiving presents including a huge mash-up photo magnet!) and a couple of evenings together with Boom and Sean, we spent our last day in Manila (which was meant to be dedicated to movie making and blog blathering) fetching the box we'd brought TanNayNay over with us – we managed somehow to squeeze onto the train where people were supporting our weight rather than our feet and legs. Boom, Sean, Lola Mely and another of her daughters, Pinky, drove us and everything we own through two hours of traffic thicker than Rapunzel's hair to the airport – thanks team and thanks Philippines! Cambodia here we come!
Don’t forget to catch our film, Alleykat Admires the Philippines!
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More of our Asia LP
⇒ Track 1: South Korea
⇒ Track 2: Japan
⇒ Track 3: The Philippines
⇒ Track 4: Cambodia
⇒ Track 5: Vietnam
⇒ Track 6: Laos
⇒ Track 7: Thailand
⇒ Track 8: Malaysia and Singapore
⇒ Check out our Central Asian series HERE
⇒ Try out our European series HERE