Last full day in the Philippines

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My last full day in the Philippines… Woke up in Boracay, slathered on sunscreen, availed myself of the included breakfast buffet (which put pretty much all other breakfast buffets to shame), then relaxed in the sun by one of the hotel’s (3) pools before cleaning up, packing, and checking out.

I opted to take the “public transportation” option to the airport rather than pay nearly twice as much for the hotel’s airport transfer. This involved a tricycle to the ferry to a van to the airport. Everything went so smoothly that I arrived at the airport with over 3 hours until my flight. I waited in line and went through pre-security X-rays, only to find that when I picked up my bags on the other side, there was nowhere to go. What should have been lines for various airline counters and security was just a mass of people. I eventually navigated to the apparent line to check in with my airline and waited a good 15 minutes before getting to talk to an agent. I handed him my passport and he looked confused and said, “Clark?” huh? No…my name’s on my passport… We went back and forth with mutual confusion until it became clear that he was only checking in passengers on the flight to Clark. No check-ins for Manila for another 45 minutes. Okay. Where could I wait? Over there, by the wall. Okay. I settled in and read for a bit (looking up at the clock frequently) only to find that at some point the security guard who’d told me to wait by the wall had started having Manila-bound passengers line up elsewhere. Eventually he indicated that I should add myself to the end of that now-long line. It went on like that for the entire Kalibo airport experience (lines that weren’t lines, crowds, noise, disorganization, and delays). Despite the fact that there were no planes on the ground (and the most I ever saw at once was 2) all flights were delayed due to “traffic congestion” at our airport. While waiting, I wound up chatting for a bit with an American woman (from California, now living in Macau) and met her husband and kids.

Eventually, our respective flights boarded (a mad scramble as the line moved at the last minute to a different door than the one I’d been waiting at because the security guards apparently couldn’t find the right key to unlock the right doors). The flight itself was uneventful, just a couple hours late.

I caught a taxi to my hotel (the driver mostly drove with his brights on through heavy traffic), checked in, and talked with the receptionist about where I could find lechon for dinner. She did some googling and made some calls, but ultimately didn’t help much (other than to let me know that the place I’d been hoping to go would likely be closed by the time I got there). I decided to give it a shot anyway, and the doorman hailed a cab and talked to the driver.

The driver, Jess, said he knew of a 24 hour place that served lechon, and it turned out to be on the “top ten” list I’d found in my googling. We headed that way instead of the mall I’d been planning on. He seemed like a decent fellow, so when he mentioned the possibility of waiting for me while I ate (at 10pm, in an unfamiliar neighborhood), it seemed like a reasonable idea. Ultimately I wound up sharing some of my food with him as well, and got to hear a bit of his story in return — grade school education, 20 years working for San Miguel (the beer company, which apparently also sells chicken, gasoline, and is part owner of the airline I flew on). There, he started as a janitor, and worked his way up to public relations. He had 7 daughters (he’d kept trying for a son), now ranging from 21 to 32 years old. I got to see that he only had a couple of teeth left, and just one on the bottom front. Also, His shirt said “trustworthy” on it, which I decided to interpret as a good sign. He had a heavy accent, but was quite fluent in English. Forget formal education — dedication and a willingness to try win every time.

The lechon itself was pretty tasty, but I preferred the tender chunks of pork to the crispy skin. Jess kept encouraging me to slather on more sauce, but it was quite tasty on its own.

After dinner, on the drive back, he popped in an Air Supply karaoke DVD in his car stereo (which had video as well) and despite the constant blinking left turn signal, returned me safely to my hotel. The grand total fare (including time waiting) wasn’t much more than the round trip would have been: $7.50 (plus tip).

Back at the hotel, I headed to the roof deck for a couple San Miguel beers before bed. Early morning flight home.

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Banaue to Boracay by tricycle, bus, taxi, airplane, van, boat, and open-air shuttle

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Oh, my aching buns. On the “tail” of the night bus and Batad jeepney ride, I decided to explore a bit more around Banaue. Without much of a plan for the day, I let myself be upsold from a tricycle ride going to the 3 Banaue viewpoints to a much longer tricycle ride & guided hike out to a hot springs, through some other rice terraces near Hapao.

After the jeepney ride, I really should have known to ask about the quality of the roads involved in this 3 hour tricycle ride, but it didn’t cross my mind. About 5 minutes in, we hit gravel, and not long after that the road deteriorated into a rutted muddy mess I wouldn’t take my car through. Apparently one advantage to the tricycle design (motorcycle with semi-enclosed sidecar) is that it has pretty decent clearance under the sidecar. Despite the discomfort of the barely-padded bench seat, it was worth it. I got to see a bit more of the rural areas — roads with sleeping dogs on the (rare) paved sections, chickens constantly crossing the road (no-one knows why), and (sometimes very young) children walking along unaccompanied by adults.

My guide was a local from Banaue. He had long hair “but only in the back” (think “rat tail” style, not mullet), and chewed betel nut, so his mouth was very red. It was too noisy during the ride to talk, but during the hike and at lunch he filled in some of the (many) gaps in my knowledge of rice. Each family owns specific terraces that are passed down from generation to generation. Rich families might own 17-18. In this area, they plant once a year. Specific sections of paddies are built up and rice seedlings are planted there. The drier soil keeps the snails away, and plastic tape “fencing” or upside down suspended broken umbrellas flap around in the wind and scare off chickens — both threats to the seedlings, otherwise. The paddies are sometimes tilled with help from a water buffalo. Once the seedlings grow to be a few inches tall (maybe a foot?) they’re transferred to the main rice paddies to finish their growth. Harvest time is a full-family affair, with extended family helping out to get it all done. My guide, Noli, was from a family of 13 brothers and sisters, but only 5 or 6 are still in Banaue.

At harvest, rice is cut off at the top of the plant. Here’s where I get a bit fuzzy, but at some point the rice is gathered into fist-sized bunches, at some point it’s dried, and at some point the grains are removed from the stalks. To remove the husks, they grind the rice with a big wooden mortar and pestle. Somewhere in there is also a step involving some sort of sifting in a big flat basket, and a step of laying a bunch of rice out on a flat tarp. I know this because I saw it beside (or on) the road.

The families don’t typically sell their rice — it sounds like there’s really not a market for it (too expensive compared to other rice available, I guess?). Families occasionally sell some to one another, but mostly they eat their own rice throughout the year. The rice served in Batad and Banaue restaurants is local rice.

Walking to the hot springs, we saw seedlings, a water buffalo, and bundles of rice grain-less stalks (in bunches) that had been tossed back into the paddies. After the hot springs and beautiful river, we jostled our way back to Banaue, had lunch, and checked out the viewpoints (among them one that has the view depicted on the 1000 peso note). There was also a famous actor visiting, so there was going to be a downhill race on wooden scooters. Several ambulances were on hand, but the race hadn’t started by the time we had to go.

I checked out the Banaue museum which had some historic artifacts from the natives of the region, and then headed into town for some awesome strawberry cookies and “perly shell” from a local bakery before my night bus back to Manila. This bus was significantly colder than the first, and despite the more comfortable seating situation, I didn’t get much sleep. 7pm-4am vs 10pm-8am might have something to do with it, too. When I got to Manila, I took a minute to use the bus company’s wifi to look up which terminal my flight was leaving from, then got a cab from a driver who agreed to use the meter. Even at 4am there was significant traffic, but not as bad as during the day.

After being sent back and forth between 3 different ticket windows, I managed to get an earlier flight to Kalibo for about a $12.50 change fee. Landing at KLO with no plan to get to Boracay, I went with a van + ferry service for a little over $5. On the (90 minute) twisty turny van ride, I saw a tricycle with a pig in its sidecar, along with some nice island scenery. At the ferry station, I still had to go to 2 ticket windows to pay various environmental fees. Why they couldn’t just include those in the ticket price I don’t understand (there were also different people to check each one, so I kept handing a fistful of tickets at people, never knowing which they’d need).

On the ferry, a girl was going around signing people up for an open air shuttle van ride to various hotels. I was tired and at $2.50, it looked easier than hiring a tricycle for me and my bags. Despite her assurance that I’d be dropped off first (based on my hotel’s location) I instead got a free tour around the island, as i was the last off.

When I got to my hotel around 10am, my room wasn’t yet ready. Tired and wanting a shower, I decided to splurge on a fancy spa massage. Mmm, 90 minute massage, showers before and after, and a sauna, steam room, and jacuzzi! By the time I was done getting pampered, not only did I feel much better, but my room was ready. Can’t justify that kind of thing often, but man was it nice!

After unpacking, I wandered along the beach a bit, wound up at a German bar eating Filipino food and talking to 2 guys from San Francisco (who’d asked if I was German and then were surprised to meet another American here). I wandered back to my hotel, caught the sunset from a beach chair, and wound up fast asleep in my room by 7pm.

Today, after a good long night’s sleep, I did a little shopping, hung out on the beach, read a bit, went kayaking (and snorkeling!), and found some good food along the way.

412 steps and counting

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First, let it be noted that row 2 seat 8 is not a good seat. Sure, it reclines, and it’s next to the window, and it’s far enough forward to see out the front a bit, but it has one major problem. It’s over the wheel well. As in, the seat is mounted on the wheel well, and what should be legroom and a place to put your feet under the seat in front is also…wheel well. Knees even with shoulders kind of stuff. Before the bus left, I went back to the ticket office to see if I could change my seat and was told no, and that people would be “sitting in the middle” as well. As in, they brought in some plastic chairs and placed them in the aisle to fit in a few more people. All that, plus the a/c and music blasting throughout plus the jerky bus movements through switchbacks should have done me in, but I was somehow able to sleep a decent amount. Didn’t even use my earplugs!

Got to Banaue more or less on time (maybe an hour late? We were stopped at a complete standstill due to “traffic” at one point for many minutes).

After we arrived, I overheard some people talking about going to Batad and I talked my way in to sharing a jeepney up there — cheaper for everyone to split it 6 ways instead of 4 (Norwegian girls) or 5 (+ a guy from Seattle living in Japan). None of them wanted to come back via the jeepney, but the guide said it was the same cost for round trip as one way, so it worked out. 1.5 hours jeepney ride (up a pretty legit jeep road) to the “saddle” and I think we were all ready to stop sitting for awhile. We hiked about an hour down, down, down to the town of Batad and the girls picked a guesthouse to stay in. Their 200 peso/night each rooms made my 1600 peso a night place seem extravagant. That said, I got a private bath w/ hot shower and view, and still came out paying just $40 US. I had lunch at the guesthouse in Batad with the girls. The guy had expressed interest in maybe hiking back to Banaue (a 7 hour hike per the book) and was last seen talking to a guide.

After lunch, we hiked farther downhill and toward a waterfall. I was concerned with getting back up the mountain by 3 (when I was supposed to meet the driver) so I only went as far as the rice terraces themselves. It was pretty neat being in a town of 1000 people not on the road system, set in spectacular mountains with lush vegetation.

While hiking back up the mountain on my own, I stopped to chat with a lady selling souvenirs along the trail. It was only as I was leaving that she even suggested I might buy something — the rest of the time she was just friendly and wanted to talk a bit and seemed happy to let me sit on her bench. When I said I didn’t want to carry anything more up the hill, she didn’t push. In retrospect, that’s exactly where I should have bought something.

As I neared the “saddle” I opted to take the “shortcut” of 412 steep steps instead of the “longcut” we’d taken on the way down. At the top, out of breath and drenched in a lovely mix of sweat, sunscreen, and insect repellent, I was happy to see that the driver had waited for me. He let me rest for a few minutes before we headed back into Banaue.

Since it was just me, I asked if I could sit in front with him and he was fine with that. Much softer seat than the bench in the back! I also got to chat with him a little. Yes, they do sometimes get stuck. And apparently every day, the schoolboys at one part of the road hop onto the back and then climb up to the top of the jeepney to get a free lift home. Seems horribly unsafe (especially when other little boys flung pebbles at the boys on the roof as we drive by), but apparently many of the kids have to walk 1-1.5 hours to school in the mornings, so I can’t say that I blame them!

After I got back to the hotel, I enjoyed a hot shower (nifty hot water heater knob thing — had to decrease the amount of cold water going in to get really hot water, tho). Dinner at the hotel on the veranda followed by an early night to bed.

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Yesterday I called the Banaue bus folks (Ohayamitrans) and reserved a seat on tonight’s bus. Seat 8, window, second row from the front. Today after checking out of the hotel (and saying goodbye to A, who’s headed to Hong Kong via Bangkok), I took a taxi across town to the bus station. Took about 45min ($5 fare w/meter). The first cab that I got from the hotel, the driver wanted to negotiate a price more than twice that. I made him stop and let me out when he refused to use the meter. Second cab was fine with the meter.

The waiting area at the bus “station” is outdoors but covered. A few benches and a tv. And wifi. Not really a place to want to hang out for a long time, though. I paid for my ticket and the girl confirmed that I should come back between 9 and 9:30pm for the 10pm bus.

Once that was sorted, I caught another taxi to the Ayala Museum and Greenbelt mall. Or rather, I tried to. The driver was friendly (and fast!) but even after looking at my map a couple of times, he still stopped at a different museum. After a couple of redirections, I eventually decided to just walk the last 4 blocks. Part of the day’s goal has been to stay indoors since it would be no fun to set out on my 9 hour night bus ride sticky from sunscreen and sweat. As a result, it’s been a day of taxis, museum, and (swanky!) malls.

Unfortunately, I still wound up sticky after walking just a few blocks in the humidity (not to mention waiting at the bus station). Ah, well. Can’t be helped!

I bought a few books to read over the next few days and some earplugs for the bus. Earplugs are just as hard to find and just as overpriced here as at SFO. I ultimately found them at a hearing aid shop inside a drugstore. $2 for 1 pair of simple foam earplugs seems like a ripoff. Still, if the bus is anything like the one in Vietnam from Nha Trang to Dalat (blasting obnoxious tv programs) the earplugs could be a lifesaver.

After the museum & shopping, I grabbed a light dinner, picked up a bottle of water, and collected my bags from the hotel. The bellhop helped me get a good, honest taxi willing to use the meter, and he did a good job. The driver not only got me to the station in short order, but spoke great English. He gave me his number for when I come back, too.

No wifi listed at my next hotel, so this may be my last post for a few days.

Manila, too

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Monday, November 19th We decided to forego a day-trip out of Manila and instead continued exploring the city. Where Sunday’s walk took us through several poor parts of town, Monday we walked through some nicer areas on our way to the Manila American Cemetery. This cemetery and memorial paid tribute to the 16,000+ men who died and the 32,000+ men who went missing during WWII in this area. As we entered, the list of rules we were shown included guidelines not to sit or picnic on the grass and also not to practice driving there. It was a very peaceful place, in a relatively quiet part of the city.

After we were done visiting the memorial, we wandered to a nearby mall to see what their food court had to offer. Unfortunately, not only was it an outdoor style mall (we were seeking a/c!) but it was full of western style restaurant chains — a decent variety, but no Filipino food to be seen. We settled on a Japanese restaurant since we didn’t want anything too heavy after the heat.

My guide book mentioned a river ferry, which sounded like a nice way to see a bit more of the city, so after lunch, we hailed a taxi and went up to the Guadalupe lightrail station (the driver didn’t know what we were talking about when we mentioned the Guadalupe ferry station). In any case, the map showed that they were near one another, so we walked from the lightrail station, thorough a dense-with-jeepneys very poor area before getting to the ferry station. Upon arriving, it turned out that the ferry was closed “until further notice” so we wound up just walking along the river back toward our hotel. There was even a sidewalk for most of the way! After awhile, and with the assistance of my “OffMaps” offline gps iPhone app, we turned in from the river and wandered through some neighborhoods before getting back to Makati avenue.

We went to check out a rooftop bar (at the hotel I’ll be staying at when I’m back in Manila for one night), but the bar wasn’t yet open so we headed down the street. We passed on the strip club style places but found an open-to-the-street Cuban themed bar with shade, fans, and ice cold beer. Oh, and free wifi that, unlike the hotel’s, actually allowed me to post my last posterous update.

When it was late enough that the rooftop bar would be open, we paid up at the Cuban place (only to find that it must’ve been happy hour, as our beers were not the $2.50/ea we expected, but about 1/3 of that). As we got up to the rooftop bar, it started raining, but the seating area was covered. The rain didn’t last long, and it was really a great view so we ordered a pizza and hung out a while longer.

After a quick stop back at the hotel to wash off the sunscreen and sweat, we headed out for second dinner (noodles at a Chinese place). I was wiped out again and fell asleep by 9pm.

Not in Kansas, but…

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The Philippines is super westernized. Although people speak to one another in other languages, everyone speaks English (some very well), and all the signs are in English. There are still a few things to remind me that this ain’t home, though.

The first, and my favorite, are the jeepneys. Although most of the cars are just like what you’d see at home (including a handful of really big vehicles like Toyota and Ford SUVs, and even a few Suburbans), there are also some pretty unique vehicles that you don’t see in the US. The jeepneys are a cross between a jeep and some sort of work transport vehicle. Jeep looking front ends, with spare tires strapped to the sides, and in the back there are long benches extending back on either side. They’re covered and have open windows, but no door in the back, so people just hop in and out. They’re often brightly colored and shiny. Based on their unique paint jobs, I get the impression they’re individually operated, but they act as a form of mass transit. I’d like to ride in one, but apparently in Manila they’re a good place to get robbed (or pickpocketed) so I’ll hold off.

Also on the streets are “tricycles” — motorcycles with sidecars, and “pedi cabs” — bicycles with sidecars, both offering cab services. Yesterday, though, despite all the interesting vehicles, we mostly just walked. Through Makati, south for a bit, then west and back north toward Ermita. When we got to Taft avenue, we hopped on the LRT lightrail and for about 30 cents rode on up to the Central Terminal stop just next to Intramuros.

I’m sort of regretting not having signed up for the walking tour of Intramuros that a coworker’s sister had recommended, because walking around there on our own, I really wasn’t sure what I was looking at. The old wall of the city was obvious, but I’m afraid we missed a lot of interesting bits. We could’ve taken a pedicab tour with one of the many men offering (each waving around a card showing the different sites they’d show us), but we didn’t.

We were tired from walking for hours, so when I noticed a hotel roof deck and suggested we go up there for a drink and a view, A wasn’t a hard sell. The view was great, and although the beer was certainly marked up significantly from what we saw in the stores, it was still just $3/bottle. For that, we got a fantastic view, comfy seats, air conditioning, and a password to the hotel wifi.

After that break, we walked along the wall for a bit before grabbing a cab back to the hotel. The cab ride probably took 20 minutes or more with traffic, but worked out to be about $5 (the driver used the meter).

Not much of interest in the way of food just yet. Breakfast at the hotel (including pork adobo and noodles, which were pretty good), a quick fast food snack when we needed a dose of a/c in the afternoon, and a mediocre Chinese dinner near the hotel. We were about to go to a much more interesting Filipino restaurant (with a menu full of stuff I didn’t recognize), but noticed that they had a guy playing guitar going around and playing AT the tables, and we knew that if we went in, he’d be all over our table. No thanks, not up for that. Maybe another time.

After dinner, beer, snacks, and tv back at the hotel, and I fell asleep by 8:30pm.

Pictures include toilet bowl planters, a parking for costume purveyors only, grocery store checkout, jeepneys on a big street, and hotel roof deck.

China unfiled

I’ve been home from China for a few months now, but realize I had a few last things written up that I hadn’t actually posted yet. I think I was waiting to see if the picture of market street dentistry turned out, but I still haven’t tracked it down and here I am about to head out on another trip, so here goes.

Our last full day in China, A and I took a train to Hangzhou, a UNESCO world heritage site about an hour outside Shanghai. That is, some portion of the area is apparently a world heritage site, but most of what we saw was relatively new. I’m talking structures built way back in 2002. In any case, we took a boat to an island and then another boat to a different part of the lake shore. It’s quite possible that there was older stuff hidden away that we missed, but we didn’t see it.

Everywhere we went was jam packed with tourists. Again, lots of shops selling junky souvenirs but still no shot glasses. If you want a toy that you pour water into that turns into a fountain of a little boy peeing, on the other hand, that’s your town. I didn’t get you one, so you’ll have to pick it up, yourself. Sorry…

Back in the main town, we enjoyed wandering around a pedestrian street and got some unusual desserts involving things like basil seeds and black sticky rice. We saw people walking around with little, deep-fried crabs on sticks. They looked like they’d be tricky to eat, but food on a stick is pretty universally popular.

Other observations about my experiences in China: Traffic is not as crazy as in Vietnam. Fewer scooters, more stoplights. That said, the rules of the road are different than in the US, and a “walk” signal should not be interpreted as indication of a pedestrian’s right of way. Unless pedestrians outnumber the scooters, scooters and bikes won’t stop at lights at all. Cars, trucks, and buses stop at lights (eventually) IF they’re going straight. If they’re turning, however, they don’t even slow down. because of all this, it was often safer to jaywalk than to cross with the signal. In any case, you definitely had to pay attention and look ALL directions before crossing. One thing that makes this tricky is that there are quite a lot of electric scooters. These are fast and (unless they’re carrying a creaky load), nearly silent, so they come out of nowhere. In terms of cars, Volkswagens were very popular, as were Buicks. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new Buick in the US, but in China they were pretty common.

The other danger on the streets was of a completely different kind. I’m referring of course to the spitting. Men and women, well dressed or not, could be heard and then seen “hocking a loogie.” Indoors, you’d hear the noise and then they’d spit into a napkin (at a restaurant) or into a “sanitary bag” (on the train). Incidentally, this is why it’s important to check the bags for their tear-off seal and not just assume it’s unused because it’s flat, and then stick your hand in to deposit a candy wrapper. For example.

On a related note, very few of the restrooms we visited had soap. I like to imagine that kitchens have it, but I didn’t really want to find out for sure. In any case, I was happy to have had hand wipes and sanitizer with me. I know, I know, I’m a germophobe. One good thing I can say about Hangzhou is that at least the public restrooms were pretty clean and had soap.

In the train station bathroom in Shanghai, we saw a boy washing his feet in the sink of the ladies room. Then, he reached in the basin and splashed water on his face. Then when a woman spoke sternly to him, he trotted over to the men’s side and began washing his feet over there (we could see the sink area from the woman’s side). He had no shoes. Still curious what his story was.

Speaking of having things (and buying things), I found it challenging to shop in China. It wasn’t clear to me which shops had fixed prices, and which were places that you shouldn’t dream of paying the quoted price. Market stalls were obviously the latter, but shops varied. Musical instruments – haggle. Clothes – haggle sometimes, sometimes not. Grocery stores – firm prices. The thing that made it especially challenging for me was that part of what you need when buying something is to know how to evaluate its quality — you can’t rely on the quoted price or the words on it (whether brand names or information about the materials used). “100% silk?” Real wood? Maybe, maybe not. Sellers did things like pull a thread, light it on fire, and rub it out, or to sand the backside of a carving, in both cases then holding it up to let us smell. I don’t know what burnt silk is supposed to smell like, or how it differs from burnt fake silk. Maybe I’d know it if I smelled it, maybe not, but buyer beware. And be educated.

Then comes the pricing game. It’s quite a dance, and they know all the fancy steps. Opening with an absurd price, then reminding you throughout the conversation about how far they’ve come down from that original price, each time typing the number into a calculator for clarity and dramatic effect. “Usually 350, then I said (clear calculator) 280, then I said (clear) 200…” for something that should probably go for 50. But who knows!

All in all, it was a good trip, and I hope to be able to make it back to China soon — maybe even before my visa expires. I could really go for some scallion pancakes about now.