Now if all of you reading this post shared my intimate knowledge of Filipino history, culture and politics before I boarded my flight to Manila, then you'd all be as clueless as I was.
So although landing in Manila without any idea of what to expect was a bit daunting, it didn't take long to figure this country out.
If all of you reading this post shared my intimate knowledge of Filipino history, culture and politics ... you'd all be as clueless as I was.
The personality of the Philippines and its people can be easily traced back to the impact of the two superpowers that've held a stake in this country and its largely Malay population. While the laid back attitude and strict Catholicism of the Spanish, who arrived in the 15th Century, can still be seen in force today, it's post-World War II American culture that dominates. From the national obsession with basketball and kitsch, to the very un-Asian extroverted personality of its population and the American accents of the kids who shout 'Hey Joe!' to every foreigner in sight, the Philippines could almost pass as the forgotten son of the US. Even Jeepney's, the most efficient and pervasive form of public transport in the Philippines has American 'cheese value'. The idea is simple: take an old jeep abandoned by the US army when they withdrew from the country, deck it out in chrome, paint it in the most garish fluorescent colours you can find, give it a name like 'Daphne' or 'Marybell', hang a Virgin Mary doll from the rear vision mirror, then blast awful pop music from speakers mounted under the seats and charge people 3 piso (AUS $0.15) for the privilege of getting on.
But as interesting as Filipino culture may sound, I soon discovered that its capital Manila is a filthy, smelly, grey, avoid-at-all-costs, poverty-stricken, seedy, crime-ridden hole of a city. Now admittedly I'm not the biggest fan of big Asian cities, but after only 3 hours in this sorry excuse for a metropolis I was ready to get out. Unfortunately it took me three days.
I had checked in to a guesthouse in Ermita, the 'budget tourist' quarter of the city and one look at the other guests was enough to put me off: over half of them were desperate, 'before shot' men who'd flown into the country to find themselves a nice, young Filipino wives and leave ASAP. Sadly it usually works. I did, however, meet a friendly group of US Peace Corps volunteers on R&R leave from the south of the country who insisted I come out with them and experience a 'traditional' Filipino Halloween.
Being a cheesy American festival, it's no surprise the locals go all out for Halloween: not a shop is without cobwebs, not a bar is without themed nights, and not a person goes sans-costume … except of course for me. I spent the evening bar-hopping and drinking far too much good beer (can you blame me at AUS $1 a bottle?) and at one stage remember dancing with a "ghoul" who'd picked me out of a crowd of guys ordering drinks at the bar and led me onto the dance floor. Not wanting to let an obviously love-struck local girl down, I boogied closer and closer for a good twenty minutes, much to the whooping delight of my US hosts. But I am a gentleman after all, so before I reeled this fish in I felt obliged to lean close and ask my new found friend her name.
'Marcos', he said as he pulled off his mask and cloak to reveal a young, effeminate Filipino man, 'what's yours?'
Not another drink touched my lips for the rest of the night.
The next day, a national holiday for 'All Saints Day', was spent ignoring the many 'Where's Marcos?' quips from the now-annoying Peace Corp group and visiting the enormous Chinese cemetery where ten of thousands of locals turn up on this particular day to pray for the souls of their dead relatives.
I was expecting to see crowds of people hunched solemnly over gravestones. I was wrong. Filipinos have predictably turned All Saints Day into something of a loud, brash street party where everyone who turns up to the cemetery is treated to live music, market stalls and, despite a recent government ban, lots of drinking and gambling. I've never had so much fun surrounded by so many dead people.
Filipinos have predictably turned All Saints Day into something of a loud, brash street party ... I've never had so much fun surrounded by so many dead people.
It was during the following day's sightseeing however, that things turned nasty. Taking a stroll through the dank Rizal Park near the city's center, I (literally) bumped into a Filipino family while trying to find my bearings. After apologising I asked for directions to Intramuros, the old Spanish fort in the city, only to see the man's face light up.
'We're going that way,' he said, 'you can follow if you like.'
It turned out that this 50-ish man (his name escapes me) was a merchant sailor from Manila but was showing his generously proportioned 40-ish sister and his 30-ish niece from South Luzon around town for the first time. They were quite a hospitable family and it wasn't long before we were laughing our way around most of Manila's limited tourist sights. After Intramuros and a Belgian church built entirely of steel (I'm sure there was a good reason, but I for one can't figure it out) the sister said she was tired, but the niece wanted to continue on. So it was decided we'd drop the sister off at the man's house and continue on with tour.
It was, as usual, a boiling hot day so as we dropped the sister off inside the man's oh-so-humble lodgings the niece asked for a drink. He returned a few minutes later with a jug of iced water, three glasses and a smile. Being deadly afraid of the city's tap water - which looks more like a Science Show exhibit about sewerage gone horribly wrong - but not wanting to offend my host, I took a couple of tentative sips and made some small talk, all the while thinking, "Geez, Filipinos sure are I hospitable bunch."
Ten minutes later the drugs kicked in.
At first I thought I was just a little tipsy. Had I been drinking? Surely not. So then why was the room swaying? And why was I feeling a bit drowsy? Even through the mental haze that had enveloped me it didn't take long to figure out that I'd been drugged. To make matters worse I had no idea exactly who these people were, where I was, or even if I could walk.
To be honest the next hour or two are a bit of a blur and I can only remember ten-minute segments here and there. I remember being asked if I wanted a massage and being led to the bedroom where I was stripped down to my boxers and, despite what you're all probably thinking, was actually given a normal massage. Then I remember being put on a jeepney and taken to the bus terminal where the man actually helped me buy a bus ticket to the famous rice terraces in North Luzon (which I had planned to catch that night and had mentioned to him earlier in the day). Then I remember insisting that I had to get back to my guesthouse because I was meeting someone there at 7 pm (which was about the only lie / excuse I could manage in my state) and lastly I remember being dropped off around the corner from my guesthouse and being told that they'd be back in an hour to pick me up for dinner and then give me a lift to the Bus Terminal. I stumbled into the guesthouse courtyard, collapsed in chair next to a few of the backpackers I'd met, and told them what had happened.
Being a sympathetic bunch they decided to console me by buying me dinner, and idea which I would have rejected had it not been for the drugs clouding my judgment. Although my memory of the rest of that night is also in short, muddled fragments, I do remember smoking seven cigars (which, for someone who doesn't smoke is quite an accomplishment), trying to explain the finer points of existentialism to a Japanese backpacker that could barely speak English, and downing five Bloody Marys in a single breath.
The next morning, still hoping the previous day had just been a Twin Peaks inspired nightmare, I recounted my story to the guesthouse owner, Gabi. Over coffee he helped me answer the questions I had, most importantly: Why hadn't they stolen anything from my wallet? Why had they helped me buy the ticket? Why had I been so compliant with them? And what the Hell was with that massage?
The way Gabi figured it, the massage was just a ruse to get me down to my boxers - not that I could have refused in my drugged state - and check to see if I had a money belt on. Thankfully, I'd left it (along with my passport) under lock and key in the guesthouse safe box. Seeing that my wallet had extremely little cash in it, they had decided to help me out with a bus ticket to North Luzon, wait till I was packed and had my money belt and passport with me for the trip, and then offer me a 'lift' to the bus terminal… at which point they would have robbed me. Gabi theorised that had I drunk more of the water, and the Rohypnol he concluded it contained, then I probably would have met them at 8 pm like a docile puppy. The Rohypnol, he told me, would also account for the fragmented memory and my compliant nature.
I was a bit of a mess that morning. I was obviously angry about what had happened, but also thankful that I'd retained enough nouse through it all to make it back to the guesthouse safely. I was also a little disappointed that despite all the warnings and stories, I'd still fallen victim to the oldest trick in the tourist-scam book.
But what saddens me is that the family that duped me were normal. I mean I've developed some street smarts in my travels so far and have politely evaded dozens of scams ranging from guys offering me great deals on government gems, to ridiculously good looking girls buying me drinks in bars and wanting to go 'back to theirs' after only ten minutes. But this case was different: I had approached them; there were no shifty glances from side to side; no outrageously gorgeous women used to lure me … just a normal, run-of-the-mill family. And so now the next time any local in any country makes a genuine offer to share some food, show me around, or visit their house I'll probably be too scared to accept. While that's probably the safer option, I can only think of the positive experiences I'll be missing out on when I do.
Unsure of where to head next and desperate to get out of Manila, I recalled the name of an island that the Japanese backpacker, Natsu, had dropped the previous night. Malapascua, he had told me, 'is very, very, beautiful … and nobody know it'. I recalled that his eyes had almost glazed over as he struggled to express his four days on the island. 'Beautiful,' he kept saying, 'so beautiful'. As a last test I looked in the index of my Lonely Planet and couldn't find it listed anywhere. Perfect, I thought: a deserted tropical island that no tourists had discovered yet. This was just what I needed.
I jumped in a cab, headed to the airport and hopped on a flight to Cebu, the second most populous island among the 7,000 or so that make up the Philippines. The tiny plane was owned Cebu Pacific, a budget domestic airline that prides itself on its rather strange in-flight entertainment. After an hour of in- flight karaoke, sing alongs and bingo (I missed out on the free Cebu Pacific baseball cap) we arrived in Cebu City and I vowed that come hell or high water I'd fly with these guys again.
One night, a four hour bone-shattering bus ride and a trishaw trip later I arrived at the small fishing town of Maya on the northern tip of Cebu. There, with the help of another foreigner (Duncan) who I'd met on the bus, we hired a local fishing banca (a tiny bamboo outrigger with an old Honda engine to propel it) to take us oversea to Malapascua. Duncan's story is an interesting one: after recovering from a near-fatal car crash in the UK, the 29 year-old quit the rat race and decided to 'live life'. He opened up a dive shop on Malapascua one year ago and hasn't looked back.
'What's the island like?' I asked. I could've sworn Duncan's eyes glazed over like those of the Japanese backpacker and he just smiled, looked at me and answered, 'Beautiful.'
But by the time we arrived and I had jumped onto the beach the sun had set, so I had to take his word for it. I checked into one of only twenty bungalows available for rent on the island and with the remaining hours of electricity (the island gets only four hours of electricity a day and has no phones) I met the bungalow staff, Anita and Eva, who cooked me a mean traditional dinner.
I was woken in the morning by the sound of waves crashing 10 metres from my window. Stumbling out into the sun I finally got my first look at the island, and suddenly I knew what everyone had been trying to describe. Malapascua truly is heaven on Earth. This tiny (you can walk around it in a couple of hours) palm-filled island gives way at either end to rolling white sand beaches that are caressed all day by calm, crystal-clear turquoise water. The local fisherman who live here are the friendliest people on Earth, the sunsets are spectacular, and the weather gorgeous, but most importantly it seems relatively undiscovered. Only a tiny corner of the island has been 'developed' (and I use the term very loosely) for tourists, with a bunch of bungalows, a restaurant, a few dive shops and a floating bar all having popped up in the last two years. Although there is talk of even more development in the future Malapascua was, for now at least, my temporarily unspoiled haven.
Who can guess why I loved this island so much? Enlarge »
Unsurprisingly, my first three days on Malapascua were fantastic. Lazy days spent learning how to scuba dive under Duncan's guidance, sunning myself on the beach and chatting to the few other tourists blended into balmy nights whittled away at the only restaurant / bar, discussing the finer points of travel with other backpackers and innocently flirting with the staff, who took any foreigner's arrival as a chance to shack up with them and impress their friends.
Revelling in the island's post-typhoon calm, my last night on Malapascua gave me this stunning sunset. Enlarge »
On the fourth night Josie, the manager of the bungalow I was staying in, invited me to a party in honour of her mother-in-law's birthday. At least I think that's what she said. Josie is a 40-ish, notorious alcoholic of the rum-and-coke-in-her-hand-at-8-am variety who always slurs her words, so I could never be quite sure what she was saying. But when seven o'clock finally rolled around, ten of us sat down to the best BBQ chicken I've ever tasted (sorry, Dad) and coconuts full of cocoloco, a drink made from the milk of young coconuts, mangoes, and a whole lot of rum. And amid the finger licking, laughter and raucous conversation I sat there thinking to myself, "You know what, Ally? You've finally found a place where you could chill out for a month: the locals are nice, the tourists are few and like-minded and the island is beautiful. You've done well, things are going great."
And that's when, on cue, Typhoon Ling Ling hit.
Without warning, and with speed and ferocity that surprised even the experienced locals, Typhoon Ling Ling - which would ultimately kill over one hundred Filipinos in the area surrounding Cebu and is currently wreaking havoc in Vietnam - descended upon Malapascua within minutes and sent everybody racing off to secure their homes and possessions. With winds like I've never seen, vicious waves creeping higher and higher on the shoreline and rain being driven horizontally into the island, this party was definitely over.
After a sleepless night wondering if the roof of my bungalow would hold, I braved the still strong winds and took a morning walk along the beach to survey the damage. Overnight Ling Ling had destroyed dozens of boats, flattened countless homes and had reclaimed about two metres of sand off the beach. Even the floating bar, which had been previously been anchored 150 metres offshore with four blocks of cement the size of refrigerators was now washed up on the beach, anchors and all.
When I dropped into the dive shop I found Duncan distraught. Two of his local boat boys had taken the shop's banca out the previous night to steer it into a sheltered bay nearby but had not been seen or heard from since. Their wives and children, who were silently hunched over the radio listening for news, would occasionally glance at the violent sea in the distance, bow their heads and sob quietly. This wasn't looking good, especially for Duncan who now had the potential deaths of two family men to plague his conscience (he had, after all, sent them out to move the boat) and the most valuable asset of his fledgling business destroyed.
Five tense hours later though, and just as everyone began leaving the vigil at Duncan's dive shop to begin their mourning, we received word that not only were boat boys alive and kicking, but that they'd steered the boat unharmed to Maya several kilometres away. The look in their wives eyes as they got the news is not something I'll forget anytime soon.
Ling Ling wasn't through with us yet. After helping the locals pack and secure everything that had survived the first night's pounding, Tom (another Britpacker staying in the bungalow next door) and I spent the next few days and nights holed up inside Josie's dining room with her and her staff eating, drinking, laughing and gambling, all while Ling Ling continued to decimate the island around us.
Thankfully the typhoon didn't do too much damage to this boat and its understandably upset owner was adamant he'd have it back on the water in no time. Enlarge »
But finally, after three days of meteorological chaos, the winds finally calmed down, the waves slowly receded and the sun broke through the clouds. The death toll on the island had ultimately been one: a young local had fallen victim to a falling coconut while standing under a palm tree; a tragedy which, as funny as it may seem, is actually major cause of death on the island. As the local fisherman began the ominous task of rebuilding their lives, I took on the comparatively easy challenge of completing my open water diving course. Despite my nerves I seemed to master scuba relatively quickly, although Duncan didn't seem to find my 'oh my God I've just run out of air and I'm drowning!' underwater joke as funny as I did. British sense of humour, I guess.
Finally, after seven days stranded in paradise, it was time to farewell Malapascua. After an hour spent saying goodbye to all the locals and assuring them I'd be back soon with lots of friends for them to marry, I jumped on one of the few bancas to resume service after the typhoon and headed back to Cebu. Another night and day of travel later and now I'm back (thankfully briefly) in Manila boarding a plane to Korea.
Korea? There's yet another country I know nothing about.
Oh well, I guess it's time to find out.