Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS: SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST ;-)


After four days in Pohnpei, FSM, some of them with drenching rain, all of them with power blackouts, it’s good to get the hell outta’ Slidell, that is Pohnpei.  I’ll leave half a bear of honey behind, but the flashlight and Virgen de Guadalupe votive candle will go with me, presumably all the way back to LA, since the trip’s almost over.  And certainly the brownies will come along, too.  Micronesians make damn good brownies btw.  So I board the plane—a pound or two heavier—in a downpour and get back on UA/CO flight 172, aka the Micronesian milk run.  Three stops later I’m in Majuro, Marshall Islands, and the first feel is good.  It’s clear, breezy, and dry.  And the manager of my hostel-and-no-tell-motel is a nice Fijian guy who could pass for African-American.  For the price of a dorm bed, I’ve got the entire left wing to myself.  There’s even a live band playing at the adjacent club.  I’m good.   
Don’t look too hard for the Marshall Islands on the map.  You might hurt your eyes.  These are true atolls, semi-circular wisps of coral barely above sea level surrounding an open lagoon, the stuff of Gilligan, the Professor, and Mary Ann.  In general the islands of the Pacific are one of two types: low coral atolls or high volcanic “true” islands.  If/when global warming becomes a reality, M.I. will be one of the first to go.  Others, like Nauru and Tuvalu, have already made contingency plans.  But they don’t have close connections to the US.  They’re looking to Australia and New Zealand.  R.M.I. might be looking to China.  Chinese people are here in force, and that seems to pre-date the current export-the-revolution (what revolution?) mentality.  This seems to emanate from Taiwan in the post-WWII reshuffling of the deck.
This difference between RMI and Pohnpei, FSM, is notable.  Though little more than half the population of FSM, the Chinese presence gives RMI probably one of the higher commerce-to-consumer ratios in the world, with supermarkets popping up about every half mile or less.  Now these aren’t all Carrefour, Ralph’s, or even Piggly Wiggly’s quality standard, but still … compared to FSM’s ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall mini-markets, it’s an improvement.  They’ve got those, too, of course, and many of them are also Chinese-owned.  They didn’t come to plant rice.  Of course with that many Chinese, there are bound to be a few Chinese restaurants, and there are, but at prices as much or more than typical US rates—which offends my budget travel sensibilities—so I’m slow to dive in.  Menus are almost a carbon copy of a typical US one, also.  I get it.  Apparently there was even a passport-selling scandal not long ago involving Chinese using RMI as a gateway to the US.
The Marshall Islands are most famous for the nuclear tests conducted in the late forties and fifties on the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak.  Yes, but for some marketing decision made in the fashion district in Paris, we’d have watched the girl from Ipanema strolling by in her slim form-fitting Enewetak…or not.  All that’s passed, of course, but I still cringe when I hear a linguist refer to the eastern closely-related dialects as “nuclear Micronesian,” bad choice of words.  RMI and FSM are still closely tied to the US and their foreign aid, but that may change one day soon.  The tourist potential is enormous, of course, but that requires political cooperation within the region to get some of those tourists in Guam out here to see the “real Micronesia.”  A national airline would help.  France stopped nuclear testing in their neck of the ocean in 1996 btw.
Me, I’m feeling a bit peaked, whether from all the rain in Pohnpei or the grueling long walks, I don’t know.  All I know is that I’m feeling a bit wobbly, like sitting on loose stools.  Maybe it was the sakau in Pohnpei.  I’m sure keeping the already-dubious sludge in a fridge during power black-outs is not recommended.  Hey, cut me some slack!  I don’t drink or smoke, hardly anything ever, not much anyway.  On top of that, the hostel manager now informs me that there is a special “water time,” an hour each in the morning and evening when the water is on.  What, do they have so many leaks that it’s just easier to limit water use rather than fix the pipes?  Or maybe they don’t want late-night trysters from the club next door playing water-massage.  Actually they just don’t have much fresh water. 

But the scenery is a revelation to me, that you can walk down the (one) street and see the windward side of the island to your right, and the leeward side to your left.  So I walk as far west as I can go, then wait for the tide to go down, so I can walk across to another island and walk some more.  They all do it: Mom, Dad, kids, dog.  This is how they go to market.  It’s peaceful over there, I guess about as “traditional” as you can get without flying or sailing even farther into the outback.  No, they don’t live in grass huts or wear grass skirts, but still life is mostly a quiet family-based affair.  The effect is not too dissimilar from some of the US’s Indian reservations or similar groupings of indigenous people across the border in Mexico.  Some are nicer than others, and there are frequent references to the donors of aid: Japan, Taiwan, and the EU, which donated tanks to catch rainwater off roofs.  Hey, now there’s an idea… 

Again there seems to be an almost total lack of tourists, despite at least one major “resort hotel” on the atoll.  I don’t think those tourists get out much, though, probably staying with “their own kind” on the compound.  That’s not how my itinerary works.  Next day’s Sunday, so that means church day, of course.  I don’t think I’ve been to church since the middle of 2010 in St. Johns, Antigua, so I guess I’m about due.  I’m still looking for divine intervention.  The day’s looking a bit cloudy anyway, so that’s good.  I’m battered and fried from the previous day’s walk.  I definitely don’t need another one today, maybe tomorrow, when I’ll need to kill most of a day before the red-eye to Honolulu, with onward connection to LA. 

The hostel guy says his English-language inter-denominational church is fairly unexciting, but the local-language churches can be quite entertaining.  I’m not traveling with a Sunday suit, of course, but I do have long pants and figure to try to spit-shine one last glow out of my semi-retired Doc Martens.  They’ll just have to live with my flowery Hawaiian-style shirt.  Well, they’re all wearing flowery outfits, of course, especially the women, that serving as the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ uniform of choice.  Many of the local churches are hardly defined by cross or steeple anyway, but by their congregations.  Every village needs a church I reckon.  The one I happen into is one of the more nondescript of the lot, a barn-like structure with exposed rafters and tin roof.  One of the members greets me and acts as my guide. 

Much of it seems familiar, with nods to both Catholic and Protestant forebears.  Witnesses testify, and singers sing along with what looks and sounds like a Farfisa organ.  Kids wander among the aisles throughout, and more than once half the congregation wanders around shaking hands with the other seated half.  I even get a red silk-flower lei, which I figure is a very nice gesture.  The sermon itself is pretty animated and animating, too, though I can understand scarcely a word of it—just “Jesus, Christ, amen”—still the vocal inflections and exhortations reverberate through the rafters and off the tin roof carrying with it the weight and power of righteousness, presumably offering something like heaven for the true believers and holy hell for the miscreants and misanthropes.  They probably deserve it.  I finally leave after what seems like a couple hours.

They’ve got some mean dogs in Majuro, too, I’m here to testify.  Sons-of-bitches simply will not take “ssshhh” for an answer.  It drizzles off and on all day Sunday, which somehow seems fitting, then storms through much of the night.  That’s the breaks.  So Majuro is not perfect, much less paradise.  Prices for basic needs—like Internet—can be high.  Five-dollar Wi-Fi card gets you fifty minutes?  That’s the highest I’ve seen since Havana.  And I’m here for only three days over a weekend?  I’ll pass.  And three bucks for an espresso?  Nescafe’s okay.  And no, restaurants are not cheap, but as always to do it on the cheap you have to do it like the locals.  That means the two-dollar lunch boxes they tend to offer at gas stations and elsewhere, decent hearty fare for low dough, what we used to call “blue plate specials.”  Maybe I should make it my mission to turn the locals on to Internet.  Need creates the means to sustain it.

Unlike Pohnpei, there’s not much fish available, and the fresh vegetables, well, they’re probably best unmentioned.  There’s some Chinese people selling produce they probably wouldn’t eat; that’s all I’ll say.  But for a limited time, you can get three solid scoops of ice cream over at the Formosa Shopping Center for only fifty cents, so it’s not all bleak on the food front.  Better hurry.  And now I realize that the reason I got so sunburned is because the air is so clear.  And there’s not a red light to be found on the entire atoll, unsurprising with only one long… winding… road… hmmm, maybe that could be a song…   When I check in for my flight I realize why there’s not much fish available locally.  It’s all being carried in ice chests on the flight to Hawaii, in checked baggage!  Standby passengers pass through immigration, even though they might not get on the flight.  People wander in and out at random.  It’s a zoo.

More than anything else, the Marshall Islands seem like the perfect metaphor for our lives and times.  Somehow we got here, on this narrow band of livability, with intent and purpose, despite all odds and enduring all hell, but existence is still fragile even when life is easy, and we really haven’t got a clue where we’re going from here.  That just about sums it up.  In a few minutes I’ll be on the plane, back to Honolulu, back to those United…States…of mind… I hope.  That’s a wrap.  This trip’s history.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

MICRONESIA: GUAM’S GLITTER GULCH & POHNPEI’S NOSERVICE ATOLL


Unbeknownst to most of us Guam has had much of the same history as the Philippines, first coming to the world’s attention during Ferdinand Magellan’s famous booty call to the region in 1521.  I suspect he found more in the Philippines because he died there and Spain didn’t get around to formally colonizing Guam until 1565. That’s the way it stayed until the Spanish-American War, when ownership passed to the USA.  After WWII the Philippines became independent while Guam stayed American.  As such it has many of the things most superficially American, the most obvious being US currency.  But that’s also used in FSM (Micronesia) and the Marshall Islands, too, which are technically independent, except in matters of defense, and full members of the UN.

Truth be told, Guam does not feel especially American, much less than American Samoa down south, I’d say.  That’s probably because of its large Japanese presence and high level of Asian tourism in general, not to mention its own homegrown Chamorros and immigrant Filipinos and others.  Thus it has more of a generic Asian feel, and English-speaking in much the same way as, say, Malaysia, English as a second language, though Guamanians are full American citizens.  Out on the main tourist hotel strip at Tumon it feels like something of a cross between Las Vegas and Ginza, with Japanese maybe even predominating as a written language. 

For the Japanese Guam is a convenient tourist destination, a little piece of America only a few hours away by flight time, and dirt cheap by their standards of food and accommodation.  Throw in reasonable prices for Louis V and Giorgio A and you’ve got a business plan, good enough to bring in over a million tourists a year, and family-friendly, too, something lacking in much of the region.  Throw in a few American divers and surfers and you’ve got an interesting mix.  The restaurants are Asian; the bars are American.  At a lower sea level, Guam might even be connected to Japan, or at least one of its shimas or jimas, according to regional taste, though culturally it’s traditionally Micronesian, albeit the largest and most modern of a fairly diverse lot.

That doesn’t keep them from marketing Guam as somehow “Hawaiian,” of course.  That’s an easy marketing hook, so references to it are used liberally, maybe because for many Japanese families, this is the budget alternative.  There are even Jamaican juke-joints, so I guess all islands are game for the game of tourism.  The vastness of the Pacific region is hard to visualize.  The distance from the Asian mainland to thinly settled Micronesia is equal to the length of the US or China.  The distance from there to Hawaii is that much again, ditto Hawaii to the mainland US.  It’s almost like another dimension, one of water…and fish.  The fact that Micronesians and especially Polynesians mastered this dimension is one of the most phenomenal—and most overlooked—facts of history, and a blind spot to the understanding of it IMHO. 

But if Guam is a good place for Japanese people to get a quick cheap taste of America, likewise it’s a good place for an American to get a quick taste of Asia, especially Japan.  It’s unfortunate so few avail themselves of this opportunity, because there are real opportunities here.  A Japanese-speaking American might quickly find himself a very popular guy.  Speaking Chamorro might not be a bad idea either.  But I don’t have time for any of that, not now anyway.  I really have just a two-night stopover, so one full day.  I pretty much decide to just chill on my one full day here.  Whatever I could accomplish with a $100 rental car on a Sunday in Guam I should be able to accomplish several times over down the road in Pohnpei, FSM.  But If I were a younger man…

I approach all my travels as if I were looking for a place to live, not tour.  That means buying groceries and doing laundry.  So that’s what I do on my Sunday in Guam, only $2.50 a wash/dry load one flight up in my hotel, cheap as any laundromat back in the US; you don’t want to know what it costs in the UK.  Groceries are another story.  If there any supermarkets in the Tumon hotel district, then I haven’t found them.  Fortunately the ABC convenience stores have—in addition to hot dogs and other fast food—sushi, which is where sushi belongs IMHO, befitting the fast food that it really is. 

Now I love sushi, but I never bought into the concept of it as a double-digit-dollar delicacy.  Can you imagine tipping a hot dog master ten bucks as he fashions the perfect split-bun weenie wrap while wowing the crowd at some high-price hot dog bar downtown, squirting ketchup and mustard over relish and onions with a flair for the dramatic?  Me neither.  They also have other Pacific favorites, including (drum roll, please)… SPAM!  Spam f**king sushi!  Don’t they know that was a bad WWII joke?  Don’t they know that the word is now synonymous with “junk?”  I guess it’s an acquired taste… and otherwise Japanese have such good taste…  So I assume it’s an island thing…  Oh well, at least the Burger King has Wi-Fi, so I’m good…     
           
Pohnpei, FSM, is the exact opposite of Guam, even though both are considered to be Micronesia.  Kolonia on the island of Pohnpei is the metropolis of FSM, topping out at over 30,000 souls in a country of barely over 100,000.  I deliberately avoided its sister FSM island Chuuk because the good book says that you can’t walk the streets there at night.  Sounds like a ‘tude problem.  That won’t work for me.  It’s not like that here.  People seem friendly, if not effusively so, and rather healthy human specimens.  Even more inspiring are the presence of ruins here, Nan Madol, perhaps second only to Easter Island in importance to Oceanic archeology.

But the ruins will come tomorrow, if at all.  Tourist services here in FSM are almost non-existent, and that includes archeological tours, which scarcely exist, or tours of any kind, for that matter.  Apparently they don’t realize what a gold mine they’re sitting on, one of only two major sets of ruins in an area of civilization larger than Eurasia.  So I’m scheming and scamming, trying to come up with something less than an $80 taxi charge.  It’s not like I really want a taxi tour anyway … but that’s the deal.  That’s the reason I’m here really, especially a full four days.  Otherwise I’d be better off elsewhere, especially since the power’s off every day for four to six hours.  Even when it’s on, nothing works.  The toilet’s not bolted down, so almost threw me for a flip.  The microwave oven is but decoration.  Only one out of four burners on the stove works.

Pohnpei represents a stereotypical island mentality as accurately as I’ve ever seen, that “manana” attitude toward life, that’s not laziness so much as just lack of initiative.  I don’t think these people wake up wondering, ‘What’s the plan today?’  I think they see every day as largely the same, something to be endured and tolerated.  They come alive at night, when the ice chests roll out on to the sidewalk and everyone starts drinking the brown gunk called sakau.  It’s like kava, but seems stronger.  No ceremony is required either, though that seems a matter of individual preference.  It’s sold in bottles up and down the street starting around sunset, but it seems there are purists who will only drink it in the communal fashion.  I don’t think they exclaim “bula!” after every drink like Fiji

Here kava/sakau seems more of a contemplative medium.  It’s supposed to make you sleepy, but doesn’t have that effect on me at all.  I find it stimulating.  I’m drinking it right now.  One improvement is that the bottled version here comes chilled.  They should add cinnamon, just sayin’…  Daytime is for betel nut, the source of the red teeth gums and spittle so common to the South Pacific.  When my taxi driver offers me some I can’t resist.  Seems they like to mix it with tobacco and lime (the powder not the fruit) to release the effect.  The first time doesn’t do much, but the second time does.  I felt a lump in my chest and everything stops—lights sound action—including my heart.  There it’s back now, lub dup lub dup lub dup.  I’m good, got my $50 ride to the ruins, too, good thing since cars drive on the wrong side of the road.  No, I don’t mean the left side; I mean the wrong side, because the steering wheels are on the right side.  So if they drove on the left side, then that would be the right side; I mean the correct side, I think.

The ruins of Nan Madol have got to be some of the most under-visited in the world.  When I finally go, I am the only one there.  We get stopped and asked for money three times by people whose property we are apparently infringing upon.  I have to take off my shoes and socks to wade over to the main site.  You get the idea.  If/when fully reconstructed, it’d be one of the most beautiful and exotic in the world.  These are some 100 multiple islets rising up out of the water, mind you, with oceanic canals connecting them.  Use your imagination.  But I doubt that the gubmint will ever get its poop prepared for this.  They seem too inept.  I mean, rolling brown-outs as energy policy? That sucks.  Not many places seem inclined to provide their own either.  I suspect it’ll get worse when the US pulls the plug in a few years.  They might score a few points as China’s bitch, but that usually comes with a price.  We’ll see.  China have many girlfriends already.

If I’d known about the power sitch, I wouldn’t have planned a full four days—that’s for sure.  But it was either two or four, since, like the bus from Coban to Sebol in Guatemala, UA/CO flies back and forth every other day.  So there’s nothing to do now but endure.  I’ve had a lot of practice at that.  Next stop is Majuro, Marshall Islands.   C U there.

Friday, February 17, 2012

PHILIPPINES: BOONDOCKS OF BONTOC, SAGADA, BANAUE...& MANILA

After a near panic-attack—or maybe it was claustrophobia, I’m not sure—from being in rooms without windows for six days straight, I get on the bus from Baguio to Sagada resolving to do better.  I even find banana bread.  That’s a good sign.  “You ever have before?” the lady behind the smile asks.  I smile back.  Does a hippie live in the woods?  “I’ve had it all my life.”  That’s probably the first thing I ever cooked. 

The Philippines really are nice; they just respond better to an old-fashioned approach—wing it.  You’ll pay extra to make reservations, and then they’ll put you in a room with no windows—and those are the nice places!  So I have only one requirement in Sagada: a room with a window.  I don’t care if it’s the ugliest view in the world.  I want to see it.  I don’t need a breakfast buffet, either.  I’m not a lumberjack.  I’m an espresso-sipping intellectual, ready to solve most of the world’s problems while jacked up on caffeine.  Watch me try.  Actually what bothers me most about a windowless room is that the world may have changed around me outside while I was inside plugged in to the intravenous TV drip.

So the bus on the infamous Halsema Highway to Bontoc comes with a warning on the package: don’t look down.  But actually it’s not so bad, certainly not as bad as the road from La Paz, Bolivia, down to Coroico.  That’ll put the fear of God in you.  This road only really merits some mention when it turns off the main road, and then starts heading up the hill to Sagada itself.  That stretch I might not want to see in the rainy season.  But the scenery all along the route is beautiful, a miniature version of the terraced rice fields I’ll see in Banaue, I suppose.

Beware what you ask for, of course.  I’ve got a window in my room in Sagada, but not much else … though I do have Wi-Fi, all for less than ten bucks.  How’s that for a backpackers’ wet dream?  Yes, the Westerners are here in force, but still it’s not too overwhelming, not in the slow season, at least.  There’s just not much to do.  The caves are the big attraction here, but other than that, long walks are about as exciting as it gets.  This is a relapse to another era for me, like maybe Panajachel, Guatemala, c. 1975 or maybe Sapa, Vietnam, c. 1995, the main difference being that the local people aren’t as colorful.  I know they have some ethnic identity that I’m sure includes a language, but no indigenous costume or crafts.  Oh, well.  The language sounds like someone choking btw.

The landscape is the big attraction after the caves, and it is nice.  There are karst rock formations in addition to the wet rice paddies that are surrealistically beautiful, whether terraced or not, especially in sunlight.  So the hippies and backpackers once again find a diamond in the rough and then put the word out that there’s a cool new place, and next thing you know, the leisure tourists are “discovering” it, after the backpackers have helped hone some of the rough edges and shown the locals what we white folk like.  I’ve seen it over and over again.

Next day I decide to press on to Banaue to see its famous rice terraces.  That means stopping in Bontoc, which I’m fairly certain is cognate with the English word “boondocks”—the Indo/Malay bundok certainly is.  Of course Malays & Filipinos can only communicate in English nowadays, ironically enough.  So now I can’t get the old Billie Joe Royal song out of my head: “Down in the boondocks…down in the boondocks…people put me down but that’s the side of town I was born in.”  Most of the music on the radio, though, is country, American country.  The road to Banaue is pretty dicey, probably the worst of the lot in north Luzon.  It should be smooth sailing back to Manila.  “Take me home, country roads…”

If there’s reasonable accommodation in Banaue, I’ll stay a night.  If not I’ll go back to Manila early.  There is.  And the terraces ARE indeed lovely, though there was one set of them along the way that was at least as nice, if not nicer.  Wet padi rice is always beautiful even when it’s not stretched halfway to heaven.  It’s the water levels that are so magical, like some heavenly stringed instrument of varying resonances.  Then there’s something about the way the rice shoots are all at different heights and levels of development, gently waving in the wind.  Mayan corn planted up the same hillside wouldn’t be half as picturesque.  Of course the only way to make those terraces level is to flood it with water, then adjust ground levels accordingly.  It’s a long-term project, presumably brought over by the original Austronesian immigrants from the Asian mainland.

The guidebook disses and dismisses the town of Banaue itself as short on “ooh…aah” moments, but for my money I’d probably prefer it over Sagada.  For one thing, it’s not so bad.  For another, Sagada’s not so great.  The rusty tin roofs that invite such scorn are present in both.  Sagada I guess is groovier—with its reggae bars and yoghurt parlors and such—but that’s not why I’m here.  Sagada also is a little pricier, the same local grub that costs P85 there only P35 here in Banaue.  Of course there’s no yogurt here in Banaue and the coffee sucks, too, so it’s a trade-off.  Here only the hotels gouge.  How do you spell “authentic?”  More importantly, though, the people in Banaue seem friendlier, downright effusive I’d say, though the people in Sagada are hardly sullen or surly.  Sometimes these things are just cultural inheritances, Ingorot vs. Ifugao in this case I believe.

Both places seem to have 9 p.m. curfews, and they act like they want to button down tight, though I can’t imagine those reggae bars flourish before 9 p.m.  I’d bet money they flourish after.  The strange thing is that even the light rail lines in Manila shut down at 9 p.m.  Maybe the idea is that after that, everyone is suspect.  If you’re up late, then you’re up to no good.  It sounds like Rankin County, Mississippi.  Ironically nighttime is almost the only time to travel long-distance.  I hate to miss the scenery, but I certainly don’t mind missing the congestion.  Outback like this is hard to find, especially in Asia.  Thailand has none to compare, except maybe the short stretch from Pai to Mae Hong Son.  Guatemala is hard to beat for beautiful outback, of course.

It’s a shame that traditional culture seems almost extinct here, because it must have once been extremely beautiful.  I finally find some old-timers in original garb posing for pictures overlooking the terraces, but that’s about it.  The old lady laughs when I tell her how cute they look.  The old ways are dying fast.  This area seems to be the chicken dung capital of the world, so I guess that’s the future.  I assume the other islands have even less, though I’ve read some interesting reports about Siquijor and its shamans and healers.  But it’ll have to wait.  Time’s up.  I take the all-night ride back to Manila and there’s nothing left to do but wait for my plane. 

That would be too easy, though, so when I show up at my hotel in Manila at 9 a.m.—after killing time for four hours—they inform me that I can pay an “early check-in charge” or wait until 2 p.m. I tell them I’ll wait, but I’m not happy about it.  I wouldn’t mind if there were nothing available, but there is; they have a half-price special rate, too… for locals only.  That’s racial discrimination.  So I content myself with Internet, my eyes drooping and saliva drooling, until finally at 10:30 I tell them I’ll go ahead and check in.  I’m tired.  I hand them my credit card.  “Four percent surcharge no problem?”  I grab my card back.

"Four percent surcharge yes problem," so I walk down the street and find a place for half the price and they have my room ready in ten minutes at no extra charge and I can even get a Wi-Fi signal in my room.  At least in Thailand they have a religion that reminds them that greediness is bad, while here they have one that urges them to love each other.  Well they aren’t especially hateful, so that just means to make more babies, and they’ve got enough of those already…and a hotel room rate to cover every conceivable (pun) circumstance.  Give it a rest, guys!  I think I know what’s causing your baby boom…

So what’s the verdict on Philippines?  Well, it all seems very familiar, maybe like Indonesia without the Islam or Thailand without all the tourists.  I guess here in the Philippines they’re all concentrated in a few areas…the beaches.  Like the others, there is a multiplicity of services, with typically about ten people doing the work of one person is any “civilized” country.  There are a lot of islands, and there are a lot of cheap airlines, too.  To my knowledge Indonesia doesn’t have that.  As a matter of fact, they make Philippines a reasonable place to stop over on a flight to Bangkok.  Otherwise Philippines Air is too pricey.  They even have good interest rates on savings accounts and secrecy laws that’d rival Switzerland…

On the whole, though, the Philippines have been a revelation, and a pleasant one at that.  Outside the capital city of Manila, it feels downright fresh, and that’s not a word I’d planned on using here.  You can keep Manila, with its prostitutes and street urchins and homeless people living on the streets of the main tourist district in Ermita.  Even Bangkok is better than that.  So the Philippines are not perfect, but … I’ll be back.  Next stop is Guam.

Monday, February 13, 2012

PHILIPPINES, LUZON, BAGUIO: FRUITS & VEGGIES, GARDENS & FLOWERS


Baguio’s cool, and I don’t just mean the weather, though that’s significant at this altitude of some 1400 meters, around 4500 feet.  It’s a nice place also, a true garden city in every sense of the term, complete with “orchidarium,” a term I was heretofore unfamiliar with.  The markets are replete with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beans, and all kinds of greens, a fact reflected in the local cuisine, too, with quite a few more vegetarian options than seemed readily available in Manila, or even Vigan, ironically. 

Baguio is the “summer capital” of the Philippines, where all the wealthy lowlanders come when the sweltering and sweat become too much to bear.  It’s the kind of place that I like, too, as a traveler, a mid-size city, something like Montego Bay to Jamaica’s Kingston, big enough to allow for plenty of diversity, without being so big that it’s overwhelming and crime-ridden.  Sure there’s some petty crime, but here it’s mostly good clean fun, bars with more guitars than girls, song-and-dance shows instead of dog-and-pony shows.  Long walks are the order of the day, and the scenery is nothing short of splendid.  All in all it’s pretty darn delightful. 

By some quirk of fate, I seem to be staying in one of the town’s leading hotels, its ads plastered all over the roadside on the way up.  In fact it’s about the only place I could book online through my normal sites, same as Vigan.  This is not a situation I normally find myself in.  That says something important about the reasonable prices in Philippines, and also about my desire for Wi-Fi whenever and wherever possible.  Of course the room sucks.  I can’t stay in a room without a window. Why do they do this to me, unless they want to see claw marks in plaster?  That little patch of blue is my wormhole to another dimension!  Okay, I guess translucent glass bricks are better than nothing, but not much.  I’ve already booked a different place for the return from Vigan.  And room discounting is heavy here as well as Manila, special rates by the hour, by the half day, after midnight, walk-in only, locals only, you name it.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

Those reasonable prices can be downright dirt cheap when you walk in unannounced.  If the best hotel in town is only $40-50 to begin with, then maybe it’s as little as half that without a res.  The amazing thing is that I seem to be almost the only tourist wherever I go, only Western tourist at least.  Thailand—with nothing more than this on offer—has Westerners they can’t get rid of!  There they’re already in the blood lines like an infection that’ll just have to run its course.  So on my return to Baguio I’ve booked a room for less than thirty bucks US, with similar amenities.  It can’t be any worse than the first place.  I stayed there two nights, and on the second night they called at 10 p.m. and asked if I needed my room made up, 10 p.m., mind you.

The predominant local folk art here, as elsewhere in the Philippines, are the colorful jeepneys—local transport—adorned and styled to taste.  Smaller cities such as Vigan may be the exception, with their smaller three-wheelers similarly adorned and dominating local transport need … or that may just be Vigan.  Other towns along the road tend to limit their creativity to color selection, to which they all conform within each town, so that scattered along the way there are green towns, yellow towns, pink towns, and so forth.  But the big thrill along the way was a woman walking completely naked along the side of the road.  You don’t see that every day!  The kids loved it.

But my big project for the return to Baguio is to continue my investigation into the culinary genome of chop suey.  It’s a familiar dish in the US’s old-timey Chinese restaurants that date from the railroad era—but not the new ones—and there are various similar names and versions that I’ve seen and tried in such varied places as Chile and Indonesia.  Now here it is in the Philippines, spelled the same way as the US version.  Now the Philippines get most of their Chinese references straight from the source, not from the US.  They don’t eat spring rolls; they eat lumpia.  They don’t eat “Chinese hamburgers;” they eat sio pao.  So this could be the definitive test.  After hearing on TV yesterday that some Jewish guy in San Francisco invented egg fu yung, this exercise takes on renewed importance, especially since I know there’s a dish in Indonesia called fu yung hai, served on all the same menus that include cap cai.

Now I don’t know much Mandarin and even less Cantonese… but I DO know that cai means vegetables and so does choy, I think, so the fact that that’s what they gave me when I ordered chop suey should come as no surprise, especially after eating chilies yesterday called sili.  “Chop” is a fingerprint of course; Hop Sing taught us that on Bonanza (“everybody have different chop”), and I’ve heard it used in Indonesia the same way, too.  But I suspect it also means just … chop, like “whack,” to slash with a thud, onomatopoeia all over the place, i.e. bifurcate your beans and greens with extreme prejudice.  Now why didn’t you just say that?  Because chopped mixed vegetables are what I got, in a light brown (presumably oyster) sauce, no soggy canned bean sprouts or canned crispy noodles necessary … unless that’s all you’ve got I guess.  Egg fu yung will be my new project for the future.  I can see you Chinese people smiling.  I should be talking to you about all this, right?  Maybe I can buy you a drink sometime…
 
Sundays are not to be believed here, not that everyone is in church, mind you, quite the opposite.  No, they’re everywhere, filling the streets and filling the parks, making the smallest stroll difficult, if you’re in a hurry.  It seems everybody’s got a babe in arms, if not a couple in tow, if not a little tribe of pot-bellied poopers spread out following in wing formation like ducks on a pond.  This seems like nothing so much as a nation of teenagers, learning their multiplication tables in bed at night under cover of darkness. 

Baguio is the city we built, we Americans, that is.  So I’m staying right across from Burnham Park, which includes a lake with paddle boats and kiddie playgrounds, the whole amusement park feel.  It’s been a long time since Clark Air Force base closed, of course, and longer still since the colonial days.  But the American influence lives on here.  I guess that’s why it took me so long to come.  It was always too closely associated with America in my mind, so not exotic.  Too bad that influence never crossed over to the supermarkets, which look like a Chinese Ma and Pa store got bigger without getting any better.  They’re pretty shabby, and no brown rice either.  That’s too bad.  Otherwise Filipino food is pretty good, and the breakfasts are the stuff of Filipino lumberjack legend.  I don’t even want to know what’s in the mystery meat.

My hotel left a newspaper outside my door this morning.  Don’t they know I’m a backpacker?  I’m not used to treatment like this.  Abuse me!  Insult me!  Question my native intelligence or I might develop an ego complex!  Or worse even still, I might lose street cred with you, my faithful readers.  I don’t want that.  I need you.  So when the day dawns cloudy and gray, I decide to stay another day.  But I don’t know what to do with myself.  I don’t need any surgery, or any dental work, or computer repairs, so I get some passport photos made.  They’ll come in handy.  Then I go to the big new mall up the hill.  They still have mall rats here!  Does anyone still go to the malls in the US?  It’s certainly not the paradigm that it used to be.  Internet is.

The rainy day depresses me, and the windowless cubicle doesn’t help.  Fortunately the Net’s up at least half the time, like flickering consciousness, so that has to suffice as my little patch of blue on a day like today.  Hopefully the sun will be out tomorrow, so I can get out and see some landscape.  That’s my porn, and my Bible, and most everything in-between.  Where I’m heading is nothing if not exotic, the Ifugao rice fields.  Stay tuned.  I’m finally past my jet lag, and now my trip is half over.  Yeow!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

PHILIPPINES, N. LUZON, VIGAN: RESTAURANTS & RUINS, EMPANADAS Y ESPANOLES


Baguio is the only bump in a long ride up the coast from Manila to the far reaches of north Luzon.  I’m sure there’s a route that hugs the coast the entire way, but I wanted to stop at Baguio first, before continuing on to Vigan.  Manila is only 150mi/250km away from Baguio, but after a seven-hour bus ride, seems much farther.  That’s because the going is so slow through town after congested town full of motorbikes and three-wheelers putt-putting around and clogging up the main road, that it’s almost impossible to travel more than 40m/60k per hour.  Factor in rest stops and it’s a slow go.

It’s worth it, though.  I was skeptical up until the last hour that Baguio was truly a “mountain” town, but sure enough, we finally start climbing, and the scenery immediately becomes more interesting and the roadsides full of wood-carvings and furniture made from the local forests.  This region is called the “Cordillera (mountain range),” sure, but without any real connection to the Spanish language other than through the past, terms are subject to change over time.  It’s been noted over and again that language proceeds exactly like biological evolution, for some strange reason, some innate law that has yet to be firmly and finally articulated.

So after Baguio the road continues on through the hills for about another hour or so, and then heads right back down to the coast again, back to the congestion of an exploding population forced onto an infrastructure that fails to keep up.  At least on this side of the hill it’s firmly and finally separated from the metro-political madness that is Bangkok, uh, I mean Manila.  Apparently the population of the Philippines has doubled in the last fifty years, ‘nuff said.  I’m starting to dislike these dense congested lowlands so much that I’ve already decided to drop Donsol & Legaspi down in south Luzon from my itinerary for this trip.  Swimming with the whales in Donsol sounds way cool, and Legaspi sounds nice enough, too, but it’s the distances between them that I dread.

I love cruising through the countryside more than anything else, really, but not all the civilization in between.  The highlands and the world-famous Ifugao rice fields will be the focus of my trip, I’ve decided.  If I do go south, I’ll fly, one way at least.  But all that’s after I return to Baguio.  For now Vigan is the project.  I’ve been to so many of the various Spanish Colonies around the world—including the original one at Las Palmas de Canarias—that it would be a shame to miss it.  Five hours or so up the road from Baguio, it’s the town considered the most representative of the Spanish colonial era, an honor for which it’s won UNESCO World Heritage status. 

It’s pretty nice, too, I’ll have to say.  Quite a bit of the old Spanish architecture is still here, but it’s more than that, for it’s somehow embedded into the collective consciousness, too.  They even have empanadas, albeit something of their own style.  Other than that the cuisine follows themes present elsewhere in the Philippines.  Maybe this is where there remain some Spanish speakers left over from the old days.  Except for the “pero…pero…pero (but…but)that punctuate modern spoken Pilipino/Tagalog, you might not know just how full of Spanish the language actually is.  But like mitochondrial DNA, it’s there, floating without a nucleus down through history through the female lineage.  That’s a metaphor. 

Spanish mostly occupies that middle level of the language that is not necessarily essential, but highly useful, the artifacts of culture, especially cuisine, but also including names dates and the hours of the day.  It’s immediately obvious in the written language, albeit with some spelling changes.  With cuisine, though, the original spellings tend to remain intact, more or less.  So I had arrozcaldo for supper last night, good as any rice soup I’ve had anywhere in Asia or my own kitchen, and pandesal is a staple for continental-style breakfasts.  Adobo is the national dish, of course, but I’m not sure who copied whom with that.  Of course that has nothing to do with the presyo dyaryo of rice in Cebu.

Everyone has Spanish surnames of course, with the possible exception of the Chinese.  I guess you could get some interesting combinations there, maybe Wong-Garcia, or even Fong-Torres ... use your imagination.  At one time Spanish must’ve played a role similar to that of English in the present.  In fact I suspect even within my lifetime you could once have honestly said that “everyone in the Philippines knows Spanish.”  But you can’t say that any more.  I’ve heard tell of a group of speakers hanging on precariously somewhere in the archipelago, but I’m not sure if that’s current info.  Will English eventually suffer the same fate?  It probably depends on the evolution of their own national language.  The more it develops as an educational medium, the less the need for English.   Is edukasyon the solusyon, or would it kill the Philippines greatest asset?

The Chinese are equally present in the Filipino cuisine, with such staples as sio pao and sio mai on every corner, and chau fan and lumpia in almost every restaurant.  In general, though, the native culinary approach doesn’t differ much from that of up-country Thai, if not Thai restaurants abroad, meat and veggies in creative combinations over rice.  They’ve even got sticky rice in very similar forms to that of the Thai.  Too bad they don’t have brown rice.  Noodles play almost exactly the same role, as alternatives to rice.  Then there’s quail eggs, fried pork skins, coconut-based concoctions, even fried chicken skins!  It all seems so familiar… everything but the temples.     

But Vigan has got as many of those as you’ll find anywhere, churches, that is, and santos to boot, some of the nicest carved wooden ones I’ve ever seen.  I might have to buy one; I could use the divine intervention.  I haven’t seen anything this nice since Guatemala, and they were no cheaper than this … not that you can put a price on a saint…or a priest…or a poet.  But maybe the nicest vestige of Spanish culture is the presence of plazas in the town center…or even the town center itself fer Chrissakes!  Such is not usually the stuff of Asiatica.

The ubiquitous Chinese tend to occupy every available line of sight with a billboard, or a logo, or a pretty girl, something for sale creeping through the back alleys into your mind.  Malang is my favorite city in Indonesia for that very reason, that and the fact that it sits up at several thousand feet.  No tourists go there.  But here not only is there a town center, but there are even horse-drawn carriages to supplement the colorful three-wheelers which dominate local transport.

The only tourist activity on hand here seems to be the “river cruise,” but that doesn’t sound too compelling, so I walk several miles to the beach and back for my “day trip,” eventually playing basketball with the kids at my destination as my payoff.  I haven’t done something like this in … years. 
I go up to a store with a large Coca Cola™ sign.  I flag the old man over.
            “I’d like a Coke, please, ice cold.”
            “RC.”
            “How about Pepsi?”
            “RC.”
            “How about an RC?”
            “Seven pesos.”
            “Siete pesos?”
That’s seventeen US cents, and I get an SNL routine to boot.  I’m good.  I figure if I’m going to try Spanish out on anyone, this would be the place.  Otherwise I’d just be un rebelde sin causa.  So I give it a go … but no luck.  Oh well.

The picture on the eatery’s wall looks like green beans, so I order that with rice.  It turns out to be stir-fried chilies.  I guess that’s why they called them sili.  Oops.  I brace myself, then dig in.  It’s delicious.  I think an episode of history has just become clearer.  I’m good.  I go back to Baguio tomorrow, then Sagada—hippie capital of the north—the next day.  Bus tickets in these parts can not only not be purchased online, they can’t even be purchased in advance.  Sounds like somebody needs a computer.  Me, I’ll revert to an earlier era of travel not only without reservations, but without a guidebook to wander the streets looking at, something that I hardly ever bothered with anyway.  That sounds good to me.  C U there. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

MANILA, COUSIN TO BANGKOK: A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Manila is one of those sprawling mega-cities that somehow defines the modern era, somehow defines Southeast Asia, and somehow defines what it is to be human in an era in which quantity seems to have triumphed over quality.  We just may be victims of our own success—reproductive, that is—as the fruits of our collective loins threaten to overwhelm us.  The Philippines share much of the blame for this, being the only Catholic country in a region mostly Buddhist or Muslim, and with a reproductive rate higher than almost anywhere outside Africa.  That may not change any time soon, as religious fears weigh heavily on a largely under-educated population.  Other travel writers celebrate the “post-modern” nature of travel.  It’s maybe post-apocalyptic, I’d say.

            Manila suggests nothing so much as Bangkok, a city I’ve been to many times in the ten some-odd (some very odd!) years I lived in Thailand.  Bangkok’s not so much a city as it is a concept, the place where hundreds of thousands of otherwise-impoverished Thais go to stake their claims and claim their steaks—and a disproportionate number of females among them—serving variously as restaurant workers, factory workers, customer service representatives, you name it, and hopefully Mom and Dad will believe it.  Thais have a saying: “Don’t think too much,” one which they follow without much concern for the logical conclusions, because that would be to… you guessed it…
            But Thailand is a country literally swarming with foreigners.  Now I can’t claim to know too much about Manila after only two days, but the obvious question that comes to my mind is why there aren’t more foreigners here.  There is the language problem of course—everyone speaks near-perfect English.  That wouldn’t work at all for someone like me who prefers a good challenge.  But otherwise the two places are almost indistinguishable.  If you plopped me down here blind-folded in the middle of the tourist district, I’d have to look around awhile to correctly identify the place. 
And I’m sure most people could deal with the language problem better than I.  It’s certainly better than the pidgin poop that passes for English in the Land of Smiles, and would seem far preferable to the local tongue, or language, here in the Philippines, too.  Ever hear the way Bollywood stars talk in the movies, translating Hindi to English as they speak every other sentence?  Filipinos do that in real life within each sentence!  Linguists have a concept they apply to bilinguals that they call “code-switching” to describe the circumstances under which a speaker will speak one language or the other.  Here I think it’s just mindless mingling.  Describe those circumstances.  Welcome to SE Asia.
But Manila seems less modern than Bangkok and other similar cities in Southeast Asia.  While the others were modernizing, Ferdinand Marcos was apparently siphoning off $5-10 billion from the country’s coffers, efforts to recover it still plodding along to this day.  Thus the Philippines are only now getting the makeover that most of the rest of the region has already experienced, with the help of the Japanese, certain Europeans, and now, Chinese.  Or maybe the American connection hindered it, or maybe the Christianity.  Manila gets bad press for crime, but I don’t really see it, just poor people living on the street, no big deal, certainly not compared to Africa.
Manila is sprawling and shambolic in the Asian fashion, centrality not the operative concept, shared transportation terminals the stuff of travelers’ dreams.  As it is, individual terminals are scattered about and around, and so are the other functions of the city.  Intramuros is the ancient Spanish heart, the area long enclosed by its eponymous walls and something of a museum at present.  It’s pretty nice, but no great shakes by my estimation.  Ditto for Chinatown, laid out sprawling across the river with not much more than a few red lanterns to define its presence.  Just a guess, but I don’t think the Filipinos—and Filipinas—need a red lantern to tell them where and how to do business.  I think they’ve probably got a natural instinct for it.  Still “the Chinese” have always specialized in doing Asia’s business, and it’s no different here. 
Here the difference is that they maintain their separateness from the local population, something not the case in Thailand, where after a generation or two, they’ve somehow “become Thai, so that’s okay,” and Chinatowns as such don’t really exist.  Sure, they’ll take you to Yaowarat Road in Bangkok, but if there’s a “friendship arch” by now and epicanthic roof line eye-folds, it’s strictly for tourist consumption.  Any urban core in Thailand could pass for Chinatown in the Philippines, that being about the only other difference between the two cultures.  Genetically I’d wager they’re darn near identical, along with the other half-dozen or so countries that comprise SE Asia, a region that includes as many languages and every major religion in the world.    
So Manila is pieced and patched together without much order or too many ordinances, the law of survival pretty much the operative concept.  This must involve a certain amount of crime, I suppose, given the fact that all businesses inspect bags upon entry (except churches) … but not upon leaving, so that’s terrorism prevention, not theft.  The Philippines has a problem with its restive Muslim populations.  I don’t know why.  They tolerate the loud speakers at five o’ clock in the morning here.  But that’s not enough for the people of Mindanao, is it?  They want an Islamic state, don’t they?
Me, I just want something cold to drink.  After slogging through Chinatown and Intramuros, I take the wrong exit and find myself in the port district, neither a short cut nor the scenic route.  Just about the time I’m sure I’ll die of mid-day heat or at the hands of desperate slum-dwellers, one or the other, there ahead of me looms what must be like an oasis to the eyes of a caravan driver in the Sahara: Starbucks, one on either side of the street in Asian copycat fashion.  It’s real, and so are the prices, the equivalent of three bucks US for a twenty-ounce big boy brew.  And they even comp me dessert bite-size freebies supermarket style.  I’m good.  So’s the coffee, losing nothing in translation.  It’s ironic that I rarely frequent Starbucks in the States—too generic.  Here it’s like a gift from heaven, and prices reasonable by comparison. 
Seven-Eleven charges half that for twelve ounces of dreck and no apologies.  They’re ubiquitous, too, at one point close to my hotel three of them visible in three different directions.  They serve hot food, too, ready to nuke, and not bad, either, though not much for a vegetarian.  I’ve already lowered my culinary standards and figure to go even lower before it’s over (I can’t believe I ate sit-down style in a 7-11).  But the coffee works its magic and the remaining distance to my hotel suddenly seems walk-able, notwithstanding my new-found foot pains from the previous few miles.  Still the sun seems not so hot in the leafier neighborhoods of Ermita and it all suddenly seems so familiar, cousin to Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district so many miles away.
It transforms itself at night, when the antique shops fade into the background and entertain takes center stage, pun intended.  The bright lights come on—no brownouts, guaranteed, indeed—and young girls in Catholic-girl-school uniform (that’s not fair!) line the entrances to what lies inside.  I can guess.  At this point in my life I don’t even want to look at the four-color brochures of the touts and taxistas, letting my fingers do the walking and talking to inform them of my intent.  One guy on a perch simulates eating a banana air-guitar-style for my benefit—he looks like a monkey—but I ignore the suggestion.  I get it, but I’m not hungry.
Sex in these parts has been variously described as a commodity on a shelf ripe for selection, or maybe a catalog item available for order, but I’m here to tell you that those reports are false.  It’s more like fast food, actually, eat-in or takeout, billing options negotiable.  Would you like fries with that?  How about something to drink?  Don’t forget your condiments!  Still it all seems so sanitary and pre-packaged that it must be intended for high-yellow Japanese and Korean consumption, an emotion seconded by the food selections available in the neighborhood.  So I take another turn down a darker street, like tractor beam GPS honing in on the familiar.  I finally find it, three dingy GI bars strung together with raucous blaring music, full of Western foreigners and bar-girls in T-shirts and blue jeans!  Any comment would be superfluous.  Today I go to Baguio.