Monday, 13 February 2012

Hong Kong and the Philippines Part 3: Cebu and Bohol


It's been a busy week indeed as I've been finishing my Balkan travelogue (90,000+ words!!!) but at last its done and I hope to start posting it here in full very soon. Reflecting on five countries is hard work indeed, (particularly when you've a kid and full-time job as well), so I'll be taking a break and heading off to Poland next week. Therefore, there shall be no update to look forward to Monday for Uncle Travelling Matt will be doing what he does best... travelling.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Hong Kong

Part 2: Manila and Lapu Lapu

Part 3: Cebu and Bohol

Part 4: Vigan, Badoc and Batac

Part 5: Bagiou, Montalban and Manila


We awoke early for the trip to Bohol and took the taxi all the way to the pier in Cebu rather than taking the cheaper, and slower ferry. Arriving in plenty of time we perused the various stores in the terminal before passing through the ticket checks and seating ourselves in the waiting room. Playing in the waiting room was a group of blind musicians and singers, who were heartily belting out all the Christmas classics that they knew in English and Tagalog, and even the Spanish 'Feliz Navidad'. A lady came around with a collecting bucket explaining that this was some support group for the blind in the city, so we willingly dropped a few pesos their way.
The boat was not a boat actually, it was a catamaran, one of the many that seem to be taking over ferry services worldwide. It was full and we sat down in our allotted seats and proceeded to watch the TV, which was showing a very bad film about ballet dancing, that was only interrupted by the safety instructions and a prayer for a safe voyage. Seated next to us was an American guy of about fifty and a young Filipina who was very obviously his partner.
One thing that I'd expected to see a lot of in the Philippines was tourists, particularly of the backpacking variety. After all everywhere else in South East Asia is teeming with them, and the Philippines does have a lot to offer. To our surprise however, throughout our whole stay we saw virtually no foreign tourists at all. The biggest group of all were the Koreans whom were easily spotted since they came in big groups and all the men had the same haircut. At first we thought that they might be Japanese, (I still can't tell the difference though there is a rumour that Koreans have slightly rounder faces), but after we greeted some in Japanese and they replied indignantly in English that they were in fact not Japanese but Korean. But of Westerners there were very few, and Westerners under fifty, well we saw only two, (ourselves), and a party of about ten Americans who jogged past up in the Philippines Military Academy, which led us to suspect that tourists they were not, and military personnel they were. No, the only Western tourists we saw on a regular basis were of the type seated next to us on the boat, old guys with young and sexy Filipinas in tow.
What to think of the whole situation is morally confusing for me I must admit. Firstly, although I know that a lot of girls favour the older man, you could plainly tell that most of this lot weren't in it for the love, since the guys they were with, (and we spoke to quite a few), were more often than not the rejects of their society at home. They weren't lookers and they certainly weren't over-endowed in the personality department either. You can certainly see why they enjoy the Philippines, after all, as Ryan said, "I think I'd come here if I was that age and I could get a hot bird like he's got. After all, most guys our age can't get women like that now, let alone when they're hitting fifty." He had a point, and so yes, we can understand the guy's motive, but the girl?
The sad fact is that much of it is due to poverty. There are plenty of young Filipinas out there willing to sacrifice their romantic bliss for the money. One could look at this in a negative light and say that they're nothing better than prostitutes, especially if they're only in it for themselves. But many actually enter such relationships with the aim of helping their families. For many uneducated, attractive young girls, the easiest way to enable their family to move out of their shack in a shanty town and into a proper house is to team themselves up with some elderly foreign man. They have their family's consent in all this, as in a way the girl's are used as a sort of 'sacrificial cow' for the welfare of the family. When this is the case, is it truly fair to look on such people as whores? Would we be willing to sacrifice so much for our families?
To be fair to the guy sat next to us, he wasn't a complete reject and he was actually a rather friendly fellow. He explained that his girl was from Bohol, (they'd met via the Internet), and he was going over to meet her family and then spend some time alone. He'd been to the island before and he recommended we hire a taxi for the day and do an island tour.
Once there we did just that, and hired the first driver we saw, a reasonable 1,500 pesos for the whole day. Our driver's name was Dan and he proceeded to take us through the island's capital, Tagbilaran, and on the standard tour. Our first stop was Bool, the spot where (allegedly), Legaspi (early Spanish guy) had made his blood pact with Sikatuna (local chieftain) when he had first landed on the island on 16th March 1565. A life-size statue of the Spaniards and the Filipinos in what seemed to me a rather jovial meeting commemorated the event, and when that was sufficiently photographed we moved on to the Parish Church of Immaculate Conception, in the town of Baclayon.
Monument to the first Spanish landing in the Philippines, Bohol
The church was built in 1595 and is allegedly one of the oldest in the Philippines. How true that claim is I know not, but it certainly was worth a visit. The museum was housed in the priest's quarters adjacent to the house of worship, which were constructed from timber and plaster and certainly had something of an aura about them. The church itself though, being a House of God I suppose was built from more durable stuff, coral rock. Inside it was cavernous, yet had a nice atmosphere I thought, not dark and dismal like many churches. One thing that struck me about that church, and indeed most of the ones that we went to in the Philippines is that often there is no glass in the windows, just ornate iron grilles. This is undoubtedly due to the hot climate though what good it must do to precious artefacts, having them open to the elements I can only hazard a guess. Despite this I quite liked it as it had resulted in birds flying into the building and nesting in the rafters. The chirping of the young birds lent the building a peaceful and natural atmosphere which pleased me greatly, totally in keeping with the spirit of the religion that the place was built to represent over five hundred years ago.
Free with entry into the church came a guided tour of the parish museum in English. Our guide obviously had a passion for his church and village and explained in detail all the various statues and fading photographs of Father's long departed. He lamented the theft of some items and showed us the area where the priest still dine to this day. Out in the back garden was a monkey, a pet of one of the Fathers he informed us. I thoroughly enjoyed looking round the musty decaying old church which reminded me a lot of our church at home; like this one it's still serves it's two primary functions, as a place of worship and as a repository of the heritage of the parish.

During the journey we got talking to the driver who turned out to be an interesting and informative chap. He told us that the car was not actually his, but part of a company who had about twenty drivers. That explained why none of the drivers fought in vying for our attention at the dock, or tried to undercut one another as happens in many places; they all got a share of the dough anyway. As we drove along he pointed out his house in a village, a small concrete abode. A concrete house, however small is a sign of wealth in the Philippines, normally the preserve of those who have relatives working abroad. He had never worked abroad however, nor had any of his family, so one must assume that driving tourists around is a profitable business.
I asked him what people do on the island and he explained that most income was derived from farming and fishing. There was a little industry he continued, but it was insignificant, the next biggest sector being tourism, though what with all the kidnappings in Mindanao, the flow of foreign tourists to the Philippines had dwindled to a mere trickle, most American and Korean, with a few Germans.
"What about in their free time?" I asked, "What do the islanders do?"
"Tuba" came the reply. "They sit around and drink Tuba."
Tuba, turned out to be the local brew, a potent wine distilled from coconuts, the island's main fruit.
We then went on to talk about our lives. "You work in Japan" he exclaimed, "a lot of Filipinos in Japan."
"Yes, we know some of them. They work in a computer company."
"Maybe, but most work in bars and clubs. Loose girls, we call them Japayuki. They're girls from poor families, but they come back with lots of money."
"But a lot marry Japanese guys," I added.
"Maybe they do, but they don't stay married to them. Their purpose is to help their family, once they are old they come back here. Many Filipinos leave but they always come back." We talked about the Japayuki's and the problems that Filipinas have when they marry the Japanese. "The problem is the values," our driver continued. "To the Japanese the company and work is number one, money is their God I think. But for the Filipino the family is most important, we are Catholics, Christians, we care more for our family than the Japanese. I think that is hard for the girls there to live with."
Our main purpose in visiting Bohol was of course to see the Chocolate Hills, probably the second most spectacular sight that the Philippines has to offer after the famous rice terraces of Banaue. The hills are situated in the heart of the island and were formed way back in prehistory when two local giants had an argument. Their crossed words soon turned into a full blown fight where they scooped up handfuls of earth and threw them at each other. Those handful of brown earth are now the Hills, or at least that is the story according to '101 Myths and Legends of the Philippines'. The real reason behind these strange freaks of nature is not entirely known, though geologists think that the hills are as they are because the marine limestone underneath cannot support plants. Thus, the surrounding landscape is lush and green whilst these hummock-shaped mounds are covered only by a thin layer of grass; grass that turns brown in the summer causing the chocolate effect from which their name is derived. When we went it was not summer, so the hills were more mint green than chocolatey, but the effect was stunning nonetheless and difficult to describe, the hundreds of small, perfectly-formed mounds creating a landscape quite unlike anything else I'd ever seen. That landscape was duly improved by the placing of our handsome mugs between the camera and the hills, and that touristy task completed, we headed down to the gift shop where we purchased a few postcards for the folks back home. No stamps however, but we figured that we'd come across post office in Cebu, so we were not unduly worried.
The Chocolate Hills, Bohol
Considering that the hills are the Philippine's number two tourist site, we were once again surprised by the sparse numbers milling around. There were a few Filipino sightseers, but once again we were the only foreigners. Not that we were complaining mind, one of the strongest recommendations for going to the Philippines in my mind is that it is well away from the backpacker trail and thus all the commercial exploitation that goes with it.
On the way back our friendly driver stopped off at a small hut by a river. Here were housed the famous tarsier, the world's smallest monkeys, tiny creatures the size of a hamster but with huge bulging eyes. During his visit to the Philippines several years ago, my esteemed countryman, Prince Charles Windsor of Wales had also visited here so it was only right that us two ambassadors of internationalisation should stop by too.
The monkeys were extremely tame and climbed all over us. The only thing was, you are not allowed to pat them on their heads as they have extremely thin craniums. We resisted the temptation and got our photos taken, before taking a traditional Filipino fishing canoe up the river to see the allegedly famous waterfalls there.
Ryan monkeying around
The waterfalls, whose name I remember not, were to be quite frank a disappointment. Supposedly famous, I'd never heard of them before and with good reason since they were little more than rapids. Nonetheless, the boat ride was fun and when the navigator suggested that we take a swim, we did so with gusto, much to the amusement of a boat of Korean tourists who turned up later. Thus, dripping wet, we headed back into the taxi and drove back to Tagbilaran.
When we arrived in the island's capital there was still an hour or so until the boat came so our driver dropped us off at the shopping centre and we passed the time perusing second-hand books in a shop there. The Philippines is full of English second-hand bookshops, since most Filipinos read in English as much as Tagalog, (this is probably due to the fact that during their formative years at school, they are taught in English only, and not in their native tongue). I am a big fan of the second-hand bookshop it must be said, but I was rather disappointed with the ones that we came across, since they were all stocked with Mills and Boons, Harlequins, and sadly, not a lot else.
Leaving the shopping centre we met up again with our driver who'd now found somewhere to park his vehicle. He then announced that if we wanted, we could purchase some Tuba, the local moonlight juice that he mentioned earlier. We voiced hearty approval for the scheme, and so we followed through a jeepney terminal to a small shack of a shop where an old crone was selling the liquor in litre bottles. The smell alone told us that perhaps we'd never manage a whole litre, so she procured a smaller bottle and filled it full of the murky liquor, before demanding 15 pesos. Thus, armed with some local brew, we headed back to the ferry where we met our American friend and his Filipina from the trip over. He was not so chatty this time but he had a huge grin on his face for the whole journey.
"I assume he managed some time alone with her" said Ryan.
By the by, I'd forgotten to mention that that particular day was December 24th, Christmas Eve. The previous night I'd asked the receptionist at the hotel where a Mass in English could be heard and he recommended the Redemptorist Church in Cebu City. That was not until the evening however, so when we got off the ferry in Cebu, we decided first to walk the short distance to the area around the cathedral which seemed to perhaps be the centre of the city. The short distance on the map seemed a lot longer on foot but the walk was fascinating nonetheless, taking us through the dockside slums to the town park. These slums were perhaps not as poor as the ones near Tayuman Railway Station in Manila but it was nonetheless shocking to see them. That night however, being Christmas Eve, was party night. Whole streets had clubbed together and hired disco units which were blaring out music in the middle of the street, young and old dancing alike. Every street also contained a small chapel with pious maidens sat inside praying devoutly. Despite the fact that they were so poor and we were obviously rich Westerners, not once did we feel threatened. People shouted 'Merry Christmas' to us and wished us well, but that was all, not once was a robbery or attack attempted, and it would have been so easy. The only danger we were in was from marauding fireworks which whizzed and banged around the streets.
We ended up by the Santo Nino Basilica, the oldest church in the city, surrounded by old ladies urging us to buy candles for a peso a piece to light inside and say a prayer. Inside the church people milled around, looking at the crib and praying to their favourite saint. Santo Nino, like Santo Agustin in Manila was a beautiful old building, dating from the Spanish days which had a peaceful ambience despite all the hustle and bustle.
Time and tide wait for no man however and it was getting late, so we hailed a taxi and got him to take us to the highly recommended Redemptorist Church. The Mass, we learnt, started at ten, so we dined at a nearby Austrian Restaurant, before joining the masses in church.
And masses they were. We arrived around five minutes before the service was to commence yet already the church was overflowing. We managed to find places to stand at the back however, but many later arrivals didn't and there were several hundred worshippers outside the church also. It certainly is interesting to think that this must have been what it was like in Britain in Victorian times and before, when a real religious zeal pervaded the whole population. I personally have only seen churches as full for funerals, a half full establishment being considered a large congregation these.
Quite how and why Britain lost it's religious zeal I don't know, but one thing is certain, it's definitely still there in the Philippines. Whilst we were there the Redemptorist Church was being extended and judging from the size of the congregation that evening, it needed to be. All over the country we saw new churches being built, perhaps the only construction projects that ever get finished.
I would imagine that the Philippines is one of the most Christian countries on earth these days. 85% of the population are Roman Catholic, and only 8% of the people follow a faith other that Christianity. They are mostly Muslims, but we saw few of those, since they are located largely in the south, on the isle of Mindanao. Like their Catholic brethren, the Protestant sects here also seemed to be flourishing, particularly the homegrown Igliesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), a sect that does not believe in idols, however flowers on the altar instead according to one taxi driver. What's more, there seems to be a remarkable level of harmony between Catholic and Protestant, something that a few other countries could learn from I'm sure.
The Redemptorist Church however, was Catholic, part of an international sect of the church that has a particular missionary zeal. At the service we attended there were priests from Vietnam, the UK, Indonesia, Malaysia, Eire, and the USA, as well as the native fathers. The service we listened to was good though not the most inspiring I'd ever heard. Still beggars can't be choosers and I suppose we were lucky enough to have just found one in English.
Leaving the church to the strains of Handel's Joy to the World and the sight of fireworks exploding everywhere, we decided to head out for a drink or two, before returning to the hotel, so we made our way back to the Austrian restaurant and headed into the adjacent bar.
The low lights, smooth music and bikini-clad girl dancing on stage soon made it clear that this was no normal bar. We settled down for a drink and were joined by two young girls, who informed us that they were eighteen, but looked considerably younger. We had chanced upon a hostess bar it seems.
The girls that we talked to may not have been ugly, but the problem was they were definitely boring. The idea of hostess bars is for the hostesses to talk to guys, but these two had nothing to say and in fact looked decidedly miserable. It soon became clear that they were from the poorest parts of the city and had left school at the earliest age possible. The whole place was sleazy and when they asked us if we'd like to take them home, we realised that this was not really the place for us, so after one drink each, (and buying the girls the obligatory beverage), we left and caught a cab home, stopping off at a petrol station for some ale.
Thus we spent a quiet Christmas Eve in the hotel, drinking beers and phoning loved ones at home As a climax to the day we decided to crack open the tuba, Bohol's native brew. It was vile, and smelt disgusting, and in the end we had to mix it with a lot of coke just to get it down. Unsurprisingly, both of us had a cold for the next few days, we did not doubt what caused it.
On Christmas Day 2001, we arose late and after a lazy meal in the hotel restaurant, we headed into Cebu to see the sights. Our first port of call was the San Pedro Fort, the smallest yet oldest Spanish fortification in the country. The fort was almost complete and was a peaceful haven of tranquillity away from the bustle of the city. One of the guards kindly opened up a room of artefacts found by a recent French team of divers on the wreck of a nearby galleon. It was fascinating to see the old coins, cannons, astrolabes, pottery and other such stuff that had lain at the bottom of the sea for so long. The exhibition also contained a scale model of the ship and it's history in English. We were not disappointed, the guard was though, I am not the type to tip unless I have to.
Next we went to Magellan's Cross by the Santo Nino Basilica, the cross where legend tells us the first Mass in the Philippines was said. How true that was we know not, but next door a Mass was definitely going on. Thousands were gathered in the courtyard in front of the church listening to the Christmas message. Unable to understand the local dialect of Cebuano-Visayan ourselves, we passed through the throngs of worshippers and took a look at the nearby Cathedral, a classical building and far less inspiring than the baroque Santo Nino. The cathedral too however was crammed with the faithful, so we decided to take a trip out of town to the Taoist Temple on the hills above the city.
Nothing illustrated the inequalities of Filipino society better than the taxi ride that followed. The Taoist Temple is situated in an area of town called 'Beverley Hills', a fenced off community for Cebu's rich and famous. All around were appalling shanty-towns, yet once through the perimeter gate we were in a land of spacious gardens, well manicured lawns and large houses complete with a swimming pool.
The temple itself was the crowning glory, a brightly-coloured pagoda rising up from the millionnaire's mansions. Beautifully carved wooden lions and dragons, and even a replica of the Great Wall firmly stamped the Chinese cultural mark on Cebu's map and showed us who holds the money there. Everything was immaculate, including the dress of the worshippers.
I went inside, and lit some sticks of incense for the Gods before asking heir advice in the traditional manner. I'm not quite sure about the answer that I received mind, do they answer truthfully to non-believers?
We viewed the stunning panorama of the city that the temple provided and took some pretty cheesy photos of us playing ukuleles in front of dragons and other oriental beasts, before heading back down in the dwindling light and taking a jeepney into town where we dined at Jolibee, the Filipino burger chain, where they sell rather tasty chicken with gravy.
The King of Balls, monarch of a Cebu shopping centre
On our final day in the locality we both decided that we couldn't really be bothered going into Cebu City again, especially since we'd probably seen all that there was to see, so instead we hired a taxi to take us around the island of Maktan itself, after all it is one of the most popular tourists destinations in the Philippines so it must have something to offer.
Surprisingly though it didn't. Despite the fact that our driver took us most of the way around the small isle, there was really nothing that stirred our fancy. The places was flat and really quite boring. The only things to see there were beach resorts, so in the end we went to one of those, but even that was not particularly impressive at all, far inferior to the one that we later visited in Ilocos Norte.  Very soon we tired of the meaningless driving about, so we asked our driver to stop somewhere for a drink. He pulled up in the next village but again we were unimpressed. The place was overpriced and full of swarthy Filipino men who wished to take us out on a boat trip for some exorbitant fee. Despite the fact that the alternative was stopping in the hotel, we had no hesitation in declining and climbing back inside the taxi; we simply weren't in the mood. To be fair though, it wasn't just the drive around Maktan that had put us in bad humour. That morning we'd paid our hotel expenses and had been horrified when presented with a bill for just over 10,000 pesos (just over a hundred quid), for the six phonecalls we'd made on Christmas Day. That the rates were exorbitant was bad enough but on top of that, they also charged about a pound for each call that didn't connect. We were far from impressed, and vowed there and then not to bother returning to Days Hotel, Cebu on our next trip.
We boarded the towering mass of the WG&A Superferry 12 already in a nautical mood, after having taken the ferry across to Cebu from Lapu Lapu. Although I've not sailed as much as I would have liked to, I must profess to being a lover of journeys by sea. Cars I dislike most, cramped in a small space and without the opportunity to meet new people, though aeroplanes come a close second, (again the space, but more the fact that I'm missing out on all the interesting places that are passing me by below). Trains are of course my favourite, but ships and boats come a close second and I for one was eagerly looking forward to the coming trip.
Our cabin was accommodated a total of four, each passenger being allocated a small bed and a locker for their baggage. My only gripe was that the bed, being designed for Filipinos, was too short. But one shouldn't complain, on the last long sea voyage that I'd undertaken, I didn't even get a bed, only a seat, so this was high class as far as I was concerned.
I set off to explore the craft and found it containing far more amenities than I'd expected. Not only was there a bar, a restaurant, a disco and a shop, but there was also a swimming pool at the stern (filled with sea water), and the only onboard chapel that I've ever come across. I settled down on deck and continued reading Viajero (from which I was learning all about the history of the Philippines), and observed the process of the ship's departure from Cebu.
As the light dwindled we made our way into the restaurant, where we met with a middle-aged white guy seated at the bar, nursing a San Miguel. He turned out to be John, originally from Australia, but now living in the Philippines for around twenty years as the boss of a construction company. "It's not a bad place" he confided, "I stay here for two reasons mainly, this [the San Miguel], and the women. Can't beat the women, I should know, I'm married to one."
"What was that like?" I asked.
"The thing is, if you marry a Filipina, you're not just marrying her, you're marrying the whole damn family. Everything's the family here. But they're a nice lot, her family are, and I've got no reason to go back to Oz, after all me kids there are grown up now."
"What are the Filipino's like to work with then?"
"Ok, lazy bastards sometimes, but who isn't, eh? The only thing is, you think they speak English, right. Well they do, but they don't understand you. For example, when I was working in Indonesia, you give a guy instructions in English, you know the bastard hasn't understood ya. But here, I tell them, and it's 'Yes John, no problem' but does it get done? Does it hell, the guy never understood ya in the first place!"
"What about the politics?"
"Politics! What a bunch of corrupt bastards they are! All as bad as each other, best one was Marcos probably. Thing is, the Philippines is a rich country, I'm not kiddin' ya. Loadsa money, but there's only a few bastards that have got any. Thing is, there's not middle classes here, just very rich and very poor. When the poor guy gets power, he doesn't know what to do with all the money, it just goes to his head, look at that bastard Estrada, the money he spent on homes for al his mistresses and stuff. Yeah, an' like all good Filipinos, he was at church every Sunday with his missus. No, the politicians here, Jesus! Nothing get done. Like that railway that they're planning, Manila to Mindanao. Bloody pipe dream mate!"
We later left John to eat our tea which was included in the ticket cost. When we returned to the bar he wasn't there, so I got talking to the barmaid instead. She told me all about working on the boats, how it was good work since you got good money and degree of freedom from your family.
"Don't you have a boyfriend?" I asked her. She was after all, quite a bonnie lass.
"Boyfriend, yes I had one. I loved him so much, you know, but obviously he didn't feel the same for me, he left me for another girl, they're married now." Her sing-song voice lamented the traditional lament of love lost, timeless over centuries and as heart-rending each time. It was only stopped when the band started up, singing covers of famous Western hits. I requested Angelina before retiring to the disco, which was virtually empty. Soon bored with that, I went up on deck, watching the waves roll past and feeling like an extra on Titanic. However, no Kate Winslet's appeared on the deck above for me, so I turned in for the night and fell sound asleep on my bed for the vertically-challenged.
The arrival of morning was heralded by the playing of eighties hits over the tannoys. I lay in bed reading and listening to Human League classic before rising and showering to '99 Red Balloons' (in German). When the time for 'Video Killed the Radio Star' came I climbed up on deck, where I read more and later lazily took a dip in the pool. The day whiled away and in what seemed like no time at all the soaring towers of Metro Manila could be seen on the skyline, so below deck I went and prepared for disembarkation. The trip had been enjoyable and relaxing and the only regret is that it wasn't longer. Still, refreshed and invigourated after our time at sea, we were both now ready to face the smog and traffic of Manila our bid to journey ever northwards, towards Ilocos Norte.
On board Superferry 12

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