Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Asia Trip 2013: Philippines: Volcanos and Old Cities and Hats, Oh My!

For awhile, we were the hat brigade. Or the hat posse, I can't remember. But the point is, there were hats involved. I, obviously, travelled with my goofy straw cowboy hat (how could I not?); Shane didn't but when we went out, we, and the people we joined up with for awhile, borrowed hats. You see, in the Philippines, we stayed in a youth hostel; a new experience for Shane, old hat for me (see what I did there?)

I'm actually a big fan of hostel. I know they have a reputation for being cheap, dirty, run-down and rowdy and I've definitely been to a few that are all of those things at the same time. But sometimes, they are so much more. Sometimes they are an opportunity to meet fellow travellers; road-weary yet excited, sunburned and passionate and ready for the next adventure. The hostel we stayed in in Manila was like that-it had a well-equipped common room (cold drinks, couches and a table, some food and internet access). We were in the more upscale area of Manila called Makati, having been warned that Malate, another frequent backpacker destination, was rather… insalubrious. And meet people we did-Irish, British, Spanish, American and Dutch–hostels attract all kinds.
And we wandered with them. We learned about how to ride the Jeepneys, where the good food joints were, and when they wanted to go on the walking tour of Intramuros (the historically-Spanish part of the city), we joined them, as it was high on our itinerary as well. We'd heard glowing review of Carlos Celdran's walking tour and wanted to learn about the country and its history.So we borrowed hats from the hotel and made our way into the somewhat dilapitated area of Intramuros. I can't do Carlos' tour justice, except to say that if you go to Manila and don't go on the tour, you are missing out. He is funny, animated and passionate, knowledgeable about Manila, the Philippines and history and the tour is both wide-ranging and entertaining. A must-see, Carlos details the rather storied history of the Philippines with verve, humour and a series of rather pantomime actions. Also included is a horse-drawn buggy ride through the city centre, a walk through a beautiful church and a sampling of Halo-halo, the national dessert.

The other highlight of the Manila trip was Taal; a small volcano in the souther area of the main island. Taal emerged from an inland lake, erupted and formed a crater with a small island in its centre. This particular island, therefore, is an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island in the ocean. Just call it isleception. The trip to Taal was something Shane and I had hoped to do, but thought we'd run out of time. Instead, going along with another group of hostellers, we decided to chance it on our last day back. Another rather entertaining journey-jeepney to the metro, metro to another jeepney, to a mall to catch the bus, and then a motorcycle taxi with sidecar (requiring intense haggling to get a decent price) to the boat to the volcanic crater island. Taal itself is rather small but very beautiful. The hike isn't too hard on its own, but the sweltering heat (38 degrees and 100% humidity give or take, more on the mountain itself, since it is, in fact a volcano) made it sweaty work. But the view at the top and the sense of achievement made it all the more worthwhile. The splendor and tranquility of the surrounding land and water-even through the murky heat of the intense summer day-spread out before us in a grand vista and we enjoyed a cold and refreshing drink or four with the guys we'd met at the hostel. Then I hit a golf ball into the crater lake, because that was too entertaining an opportunity to miss!

The trip back back provided one of those weird happenstance things that you could never plan, but which provides a great story. It starts with the only time I felt like I was being ripped off as a tourist in the Philippines. Remember those motorcycle sidecar taxis from the ride down? Well, it turns out that when you are stranded far from the town and have no other way to get back, the price goes up. Way up. Far more than we were willing to pay, on principle alone. We tried a number of different drivers, to no avail (each one we said no to would shout to his compatriots to ddeny us a better deal). In the end, one of our group spotted a large van with government markings. Speaking to the driver (a member of the provincial council), she explained our predicament and offered to give him some cash to get us to the bus stop. He accepted and we crammed into the back of the van, five people in seats made for about three and pottered off down the road to a different town, but one with better bus access. Despite my fears, the man and his wife were not serial killers, but instead were incredibly lovely, chatty people. We told them of our trip and how much we'd loved the Filipino people and the food and how we were sad to be moving on, but our next stop was Thailand. As we approached the town, traffic began to swell and I began to sweat: with a three-hour drive ahead of us, and our plane taking off in six hours, it was getting close. THe minutes ticked by as we inched forward painfully slowly, finally arriving at the street where we would catch the bus, only to spot the bus preparing to depart! A mad, and unsafe dash across the road and I blocked its exit until my companions could join me and we took of for a blissfully air conditioned and surprisingly fast journey to Manila (turns out the streets are packed with cars but the motorways empty). In the overcrowded Manila streets, the feeling of being stuck in thick molasses returned and we jumped out (because walking would be faster than the bus was able to go).. A jeepney ride and a lot of half-walking-half-jogging later, and Shane and I made it to the hostel, loaded our bags into a cab and made for the airport! We made it on time, spent our last pesos on some pre-flight food and boarded our flight to Thailand.

I was left with a warm and positive view of the Philippines. It reminded me strongly of the time I've spent in Cuba: there is some poverty and deriliction, certainly. And environmental standards aren't the most stringent in the world. But there is a genuine warmth and caring amongst the people driven not from a callous desire for tourist dollars, but seemingly from an enjoyment of life and of people. The muggy, tropical environment, too often battered by storms and tsunamis has bred in a resilience and adaptability that is truly remarkable. Of all the places I've travelled in my life, Manila sits in the rareified air of one of the ones I could really see myself living in. It's not the most prim and polished, nor the most modern and wealthy, but it feels like a place with real opportunity around every corner and smiles in every door.

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