Traveling through the Philippines

In the last two months I had the pleasure of traveling through the Philippines quite a bit; I went to the chaotic metropolis of Manila; where street vendors selling traditional rice snacks for pennies on the edge of an eight lane road are within a block of a Latin cafe with ladies in miniskirts looking for such a high-level sugar daddy that they don’t even look at me, despite being foreign, but foreign and not rich looking. Then I went to the beautiful coast of Batangas, with its Turnerseque sunsets over the rolling hills of southern Luzon; and with its absolutely mindboglingly biodiverse reefs just at the feet of these hills. I traveled to fun Sabang and got drunk on a floating platform in the middle of the village bay, singing along some of the mighty heavy metal I grew up with; and again marveled at the reefs, but just not the day after that party. I also ventured to the near-pristine lush eastern tip of Bohol, an island with monkeys no bigger than a rat and a 16th century Romanic monastery built from coral rock; which had lasted 450 years and survived the Japanese invasion, just to crumble during an earthquake 2 years ago. On Bohol’s eastern corner, in Anda, I saw 20 species of gobies during one dive and swam in the shadow of a huge school of jacks, besides a reef so healthy it was heart-warming. Then I took a trip to Moalboal in Cebu, chatted over some beers about the Australian outback, and swam in a gigantic, dense aggregation of sardines right along the edge of one of the best wall dives I have seen. Moalboal is also where I ended up moving to this month.

Travel here is a bit slower than in Europe or the US, but pleasant and there is always a bit of adventure to it. There is a lot to observe: a dude giving his water buffalo a bath; or one of the many stray dogs oblivious to traffic, only avoiding an oncoming bus at the very last moment; A market full of the most fantastic tropical fruit; with a heavy saturated smell of ripe bananas and sweet mangoes; fruits in all kinds of shapes and colors, some of them so exotic I have never seen them outside of the Philippines, like guyabano or lanzones. While you travel you can watch groups of guys just hanging out; there always are some guys just hanging out at some corner or in front of a sari sari corner store; and often one or two guys at a street corner shack are involved in repairing something, most of the time a motorcycle. There is always someone watching when one guy works on the repairs. And of course there are amazingly pretty women to check out in the Philippines: petite ladies with calm smiles and shiny dark long hair; and with bodies which make them rightfully unafraid to dress sexy.

The physical aspect of travel in the Philippines is so much more pronounced than in the Europe or the US; In Germany you can sit in a wide, comfortable chair in the ICE bullet train and barely feel the seat touch your ass all the way from Munich to Hamburg. It’s comfortable, but kind of bland. The trip to Hamburg will feel and look and smell almost the same like the trip from Munich to Cologne or Kiel. Not here! Every jeepney, that’s a truck modified into a bus originally based on a US military jeep, has its own, different creative decoration. Some have words of wisdom painted on their backs; others showcase images of Jesus, or of comic superheroes, or of Jesus and the superhero side by side. The traveling occasionally really comes down to a real work out: these jeepneys were not originally designed to transport people, and especially not 100 kg people like myself! So it’s always a climb into the passenger compartment, over the laps of the other people sitting there, into the last remaining piece of space of the bench; a few times I had to stand on the back of the bus, on the outside, holding onto a bar; only the grip of my hands kept me from falling onto the road right below me during the ride. It wakes you up a little bit. These jeepneys really fill up during rush hour. On one particular journey the jeepney was absolutely stuffed with people, and I was sitting in a spot near the front. To get out conventionally, 6 or 7 people would have had to get out of the way for me, then I would have had to pull off a balancing act between the feet of the 20 folks sitting along the benches in-between me and the exit at the back of the bus. To avoid all of that hassle I decided to take a shortcut, and I grabbed a bar on the outside of the jeepney; I pulled myself up and hoisted my body through the window, to land on my feet on the roadside next to the jeepney after some bus-side gymnastics. The lady sitting next to me handed me my bag of groceries, and off I went.

On another recent trip I was riding on a motorcycle with two other people, three in total. That’s not even a particularly high number of Philippine standards; when driving in a car you get used to passing these overpopulated motorcycles, with 3 or 4 or 5 people; More fit on a single bike if they are little kids, who then stand between the sitting adults. Sometimes you see a young mother holding her wide-eyed infant who still hasn’t decided weather to enjoy the exciting journey or to be afraid. This time, I was one of the multi-person motorcycle passengers. None of us wore a helmet, and I suspect that the driver didn’t have a license. The moped was probably modified too. He was giving us a ride for a small fee, but I am certain that he had no taxi license to provide that service. Recall the moral panic which resulted when Uber was offering taxi services without all the right paperwork in place in some Western cities! Taxi drivers were going to loose their jobs and Western civilization as we know it was going to collapse! Imagine the amount of state action that our little ride would have caused in the Western world! At least five punishable infractions at once, that would keep the moped riders and several serious state representatives busy for hours, on multiple occasions. Hefty fees would be payed, and paperwork would pile up. The blood would boil on both sides. In contrast, not all is streamlined and over-regulated in the Philippines yet; I like it that way.

I am sure my trip was more dangerous than the equivalent trip in an orderly licensed taxi with seat belts in Sydney, but by how much? Slow driving and actually paying attention to the road goes a long way. Is the gain in safety worth the gain in nanny state? I think not; but even if you disagree with me here, it’s an issue worth pondering, as opposed to slavishly accepting each and every rule and regulation thrown at you!

The Philippines draw two really distinct groups of expats. The first, to which I certainly belong, just loves the country & the people & the diving, and are here to actively enjoy the place and all it has to offer. If you see a fit looking tattooed foreigner with the smile of someone who has been out of the rat race for so long that he forgot about it; or if you see someone who seemingly spends the same amount of time underwater as your average corporate minion spends in management meetings; or if you spot a happy dude with his lovely Filipina wife in their tropical farmyard: then you have seen one of us.

But there is also a second group, of typically obese white dudes, near, past or well past retirement age, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and eating sausages in the beach bar from the early morning on. They are typically too bad in shape to be sex tourists – some are comically, nearly spherically round, others are scarily skinny and look totally worn out. I am not sure why they are even here – because it’s a cheap place to retire? Or because it’s a place where you can try to run a business with paying the staff peanuts? This 2nd kind of expat spends a lot of time complaining how the Filipinos want to cheat them, and occasionally offer, without anyone asking, lectures on their bizarre right wing world views. I guess that time will solve that problem, but then maybe there’ll be new old weirdos coming from the depths of weirdo central. Fortunately these kinds of foreigners are usually restricted to their foreign-beer and sausage places.

A lot of this travel between the occasional obese expat, the kids on overcrowded motorcycles and the water buffaloes takes place in front of a backdrop of awe inspiring landscapes; In Negros, where I spent most of the last 6 months, you’ll see the cloud-covered peak of mount Talin tower over Dumaguete. Behind the city this dormant volcano of 1800 meter rises out of the Pacific ocean like a boss. From the place I stayed at in Anilao, in the province of Batangas, I could see a horizon-reaching row of steep green hills framing their own side arm of the Pacific ocean. Very often a short boat ride completely changes the geology; while the beaches of Negros are made up of dark volcanic sand, the beach in Apo half an hour by banka away is a ribbon of white coral sand around the island. Even sand is a source of wonder here.