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I am writing love letters to Vietnam from Hoi An; getting ready to head out for the evening.  I’d suggest booking a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City at your earliest convenience.  Don’t wait for the post here or uploads to Flickr, just do it.

Buy the Ticket

We returned to Kalibo in the rain last night after two boat rides, two lifts by motorcycle, and three buses.  We started that morning from sunny Driftwood Village – a collection of palm roofed, bamboo floored cottages on Sugar Beach, Sipalay, Negros Occidental, in western Visayas of the Philippines – waving goodbye from our bus to Charlie Bradley on his bicycle.

About three weeks ago, we departed Kalibo for Manila.  But not before my hosts passed two evenings idolizing a twelve inch statue of the local saint.  Twenty or so adults carried the idol from the church to a neighborhood living room, singing all the way, where, upon arrival, more song and an hour of prayer.  And a spaghetti feed. 

I understood that the episodes honoring the local saint would continue for another few weeks – fairly garden variety stuff in a society where belief in hereditary healing powers and witchcraft is prevalent.  Consider the aswang.  Of aswangs, Kim says: “Those things are scary!” 

The usual cavalcade cardboard box luggage met us in Manila, cluttering the conveyor belt.  The driver from our hotel, Melate Pensionne also met us.  The latter privilege, we later learned, runs 2x the metered taxi rate.  Noted.  But, still, arriving at 23:00 hours in a neighborhood – Melate – where everything is slicked with sweat and steam, where sad faced girls in bikinis beckon all traffic into their bars – I perceived a certain value in knowledgeable transport with obvious affiliations and loyalties.  (We found neither quality among taxi drivers.) 

Melate Pensionne provided clean, basic rooms for about $25 a night.  We stayed five, maybe six.  We ate cheaply in and around Melate.  I can recommend the arroz caldo ($3) at Cafe Adriadico and – owing to few other good choices – the grilled cuts at Super Six Grill on Remedios – just off Adriadico Circle.  The Lonely Planet recommendations are, by and large, unremarkable.    

But I don’t fault Lonely Planet.  The neighborhood is organized for other activity.  So, by night, in bars and at street side stands, we took beers alongside Caucasian, Japanese, and Korean men – the willing and outnumbered prey of sex professionals and semi-professionals.  Happy hours can last from 8am to 8pm at bars that never close.  I was routinely offered Viagra and Cialis.  “Perhaps sunglasses?  Perhaps rock ice?  Perhaps some gold coins?”  Skipping the ED drugs, I traded my 401K for the fake gold coins and was made wealthier as a result. 

By day, Kim and I wandered Manila – a city that World War Two demolished.  Contemporaries liken the destruction to Stalingrad.  But the few historical buildings that survived warrant visitation.  The highlights are Intramuros and the Manila Hotel.  Intramuros is the old walled city containing Fort Santiago. The Manila Hotel was MacArthur’s beloved haunt, where he occupied the entire top floor for several years – actively participating in management of the hotel while its guest. 

The city – which did not come into its modern form by incorporating neighboring municipalities until 1974 – remains largely under construction, with no end in sight.  Cranes, concrete dust, twisted metal, and exposed rebar featured prominently in Manila’s current instantiation. 

The Filipino economy is among the the one or two most dysfunctional in South East Asia – more so than Cambodia by recent measures.  Yet, in Manila, of the completed buildings, eight (or more) of ten are shopping malls – including the largest shopping mall in Asia.  On the surrounding streets, there are families that wash, cook, and relieve themselves in the gutters and on the sidewalks.

The designer neighborhood – Makati City – features international hotels and corporate headquarters; it is proportionally empty of life, culture, and character.  Elsewhere, architecture and design appeared to be of such maturity that my notes speculated: “The country may be secretly governed by the Care Bears”. 

We observed a taping of Wowowee.  That observation confirmed that the Pinoy nation is entertained, at least, by cartoonish adults.  The studio audience was brought to rapture by a plastic, lip-synching charlatan who commanded a small flock of half-dressed, B-list dancers. 

The show is the most mindless that I know of.  The format of each broadcast is identical: the same three games are played, the same simple songs lip synced.  Every episode.  The studio audience dances and otherwise goes berserk for the repetition.  One can hear the “dun-dun-dun-choo-choo-to-choo-to” chorus sung by Filipinos to themselves at work in the kitchen or walking to the market.  That and, since the world is cruel, “ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-romance”.    

But at least newspapers were available in Manila.  Which is more than could be said of Cebu City, in the southern Visayas, where we even spent a few nights as guests of a major Western hotelier.  “A newspaper with your coffee?  No.  Sorry.”  So, at breakfast, I was forced to exaggerate, lie, and speculate authoritatively to my old boss, Paul Tenney, about any subject up for conversation.

Kim, Paul, and I enjoyed a bit of beach time, cards, and pork.  It took two days to get the pork thing right what with all the mis-directions and bad advice.  Cebu is renowned for its particular preparation of lechon.  That reputation is deserved. 

The meat tastes richly of pork, as the animal is basted from the inside with rendered fat, salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and anise.  We took our two pounds in a plastic bag to go, and resettled poolside at the Marriot with sides of rice, and San Miguels.  I recommend the same:  Go to CNT in the top floor food court of the relatively plush Ayala Mall.  Look for the young lady whacking apart the whole animal with a machete.   

Before Paul arrived, Kim and I walked uptown and downtown Cebu, visiting the landmarks from Spanish habitation, before the imperial seat was moved to Manila.  In Cebu, Spaniards built what is regarded as the Philippines’ oldest street.  It hasn’t seen a coat of paint since.  They left behind Fort San Pedro which was remarkable foremost for its tiny size and burning down before finally being rebuilt in stone in the 1800s – what once protected Iberians thousands of miles from home now hosts quaint wedding ceremonies.  They left the Cathedral of Cebu.  They left the Santa Nino. 

The Santa Nino is a particularly peculiar relic.  It is considered the oldest in the Philippines – though, I do not know who does the official scoring.  The story goes that it – a twelve inch statue of Jesus, resembling Shirley Temple – was carried by the Magellan fleet of 1521, lost at Cebu when Magellan lost his head to local chieftain Lapu Lapu, and rediscovered when the Spanish returned in 1565.  News and ships travelled slowly over those forty-odd years, but today you can follow the local custom and kiss the glass case housing the doll.  For free.  Perhaps of even greater value, I noted that the holy water in the basilica gift shop is priced competitively with drinking water.     

Out on the streets, Pinoy drivers are oddly consistent in using a gear too much – third when second would be better choice, fourth when third is sensible – leaving the car underpowered for their daredevil maneuvers.  We left Cebu by boat.  We ferried easily to Negros

Sugar Beach near Sipalay on Negros is the remote tropical destination that you probably want to go to, if you want to go to the likely set of the Corona advertising shoots.  Supposing you don’t mind bamboo walls that allow light to pass through the slats.  And you don’t mind bugs either.  And supposing you don’t mind spending the day in a burlap hammock without the option of doing much more than that.  The internet didn’t work when we were there.  Perhaps the most significant hardship occurred when the Driftwood Village kitchen complicated our lunch order with the option of crab caught that morning.

Without a browser to open, Kim and I found time to meet Charlie Bradley.  Charlie rides his bicycle across continents and has done so for a decade.  Stories about cycling through lion country in the African bush?  He can share those exuberantly, as well as the sense of relief that the lights of a Colorado Denny’s can produce.  He whipped me in cards, asked great questions about the latest in the States (eg, financing higher education?) and characterized advertising as “immoral”.  He is a gentleman – the knowledge of which made me a little prouder of our species.

Kim, Charlie and I left Sugar Beach barefoot in the diesel boat chugging slowly back to Sipalay City where we were catching a bus, and where Charlie stashed his ride.  It was a crystal clear 8am on Monday morning.  “What would you be doing at this hour on Monday morning back in California?”

Hitachi cranes left the road shattered from Sipalay to Bacaload.  Around the islands, the road was randomly smooth, under repair, or dirt.  The show must go on, and, and fits and starts, did.  The buses wiggled by work trucks.  Motorcycle pilots – with their faces wrapped in cloth – split the difference and ripped through the dust. 

Within the bus, passengers sat shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.  For when the conventional seats are fully occupied, the next arrival was provided plastic stool to take to the back.  There they sat on the stool in the middle of the isle.  And soon the isle was stuffed with women on stools.  When a goat was hoisted to the gate on the back and secured, the porter gave the side a thump, and off we went.

While the buses are decked in placards reminding passengers to wear their seatbelts, no buses have them for the stools nor any other seat type.  Given the predictability of the sign and the reliable absence of belts, Kim suggested that a transportation law must be worded so as to mandate signage, but not belts, per se.

With the exception of the originating and destination bus depots, the bus stops were utterly unpredictable.  Passengers boarded wherever they stood.  The smallest signal from someone on the shoulder propelled the driver to the shoulder.  Unique groups of passengers often stood, say, twenty, thirty meters apart, compelling two unique pickups.  One hundred meters, a new pick up.  Another thirty meters.  Stop.  Go. 

To the American eye – like so many things in the Philippines – that seemed entirely absurd to the objective of mass transit.  Disembarking operated on the same principle.  Once on, passengers got off whenever it pleased them.  How that pleasure was communicated the driver remained a mystery to me.  I heard some hoots and some wedding bands making metallic chimes against handrails, but most often the action appeared to be telepathically controlled.

Last night, we spent about an hour conducting this routine after sunset in sheets of rain.  The road was lit primarily by ambient light from huts just off of the roadway.  That added no small element of fear to the proceedings – as our driver released his rage on the gas pedal, fueling his smoking monster over hills and through villages too small for maps.  People and dogs scampered out of the way.  Or, alternatively, crossed directly in front of the maniac’s headlights, fluttering a handkerchief, bringing to the heaving beast to a moment’s rest.  As the sign into Kalibo says: “happy trip and good luck”.

I wasted today at Latte – a cafe on Quezon Boulevard in Kalibo that will be famous to me for service so poor that it became fantastic.  A marvel.  And, accordingly, emblematic of much.  Four customers can overwhelm a service staff of five.  Two prospective diners will be waiting for menus; the others will have a portion of their order with the other part to be delivered promptly within the hour or so.  The careless faces confirm that the standstill is as it should be.  Perhaps I taught them everything they know.  After all, it was my office for almost two weeks about a month ago. 

The wireless router was misconfigured, defeating my reflex to download as many gigs of news as possible.  I knew better than to ask to fuss with router, so I borrowed one of the workstations and caught up on the news from the previous three weeks worth of slow news days: the People versus Goldman, a deeply challenged European Monetary Union, a new iPod, American home foreclosure records.  Nothing, really, that had not been known before I left.  And that, perhaps, more than anything, was the experience that I came for.  Life carries on pretty well without the hourly, 24/7, or even weekly news cycles.

I went for a little jog down the road tonight.  And in so doing became absurd to the Philippines.  Even at dusk, it was damn hot.  People gawked and mocked.  Never mind that nobody runs.  Anywhere.  Ever.  Who runs with a chicken dinner under one arm and “California Love” audible at ten meters from the iPod ear buds?  Even I found that pleasingly absurd.

Kimberly – at my left – is finishing a pseudo-academic tome we picked up from a chain book hawker in Manila: Bello’s “The Anti-Development State: The Political Economy of Permanent Crisis in the Philippines”.  The author gives a thesis with conviction (“neoliberalism!”)  that he erodes, contradicts, and complicates over the subsequent 332 pages.  Even with this high level guide to argue with, I have little idea of what’s really going on here.  Denis Johnson, speaking through his fictional Filipino Major Edward Aquinaldo summarizes the culture as “a lot of superstitious maniacs, miracle-seekers, statue-worshippers”.  I haven’t found evidence to deny that much.  Then again, I haven’t found evidence that denies the Santo Nino statue is miracle making machine.

Tomorrow, we are going to Ho Chi Minh City – the old Saigon – wheels down at midnight local time. 

It Takes a Village

Last week was Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) in the Philippines, the only Christian country in Buddhist and Hindu South East Asia.  Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, the islands’ slow pace slowed further.  Days were devoted to  recognizing the Christian savior’s trial and crucifixion – known as the Passion – and celebrating his biblical resurrection.  The proceedings in this 88% Catholic nation are renowned for modified crucifixions and self-flagellation – acts of such violent devotion that they remain unsanctioned by the Vatican.  Still more endure the excruciating tedium of holiday travel.  For this pain the Church has shown no mercy.

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What I observed in Kalibo tended towards the pedestrian.  Though, elsewhere in the isles, the usual blood was drawn: the national news broadcast images of nails driven through palms.  The primary Kalibo quarrels and questions revolved around what to eat and when.  This required the continuous work of, give or take, five experts in logistics and enough collusion to manipulate market prices.  Not that I minded. 

My contribution went toward the Sunday pig.  That the beast emerged from the coals as lechon, raised questions about a divine hand in the transformation.  I found pigs and women turning bamboo spits.

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On minor and somewhat less minor points, fidelity to history did not seem to be a principle concern.  “When baby Jesus was born in Jerusalem…”  Do tell. Other customs borrow the hallucinatory aspect of the American Easter, kids seek out hidden pastel eggs set by a rabbit – conflating the pagan and the pious.  Like the American tradition, Easter egg hunting is supposed to be a kid’s activity – except for when a unique local risk materializes – when the eggs are discovered first by the assembled adults.

It was related to me that, in previous years, when the grown-and-gray of the extended family were informed that some eggs contained pesos and chocolate, the hidden eggs vanished before the children were turned loose.  Imagine those sad faces.  No small measure of planning went into making sure that never happens again.  (Local grocers know the risk to chocolate: they put it under lock and a dedicated security guard detail.) 

Where pinpoint historical accuracy lacked in the events, enthusiasm picked up.  On Tuesday, singing the Passion, a tradition known as Pabasa , lasted from 9:20am to approximately 4pm.  Impressive endurance by any standard.  I understand that 24 hour stretches are common.

Tuesday concluded by outfitting the float with spotlights and updating Mary’s wardrobe.  Finding her bust lacking, the wooden figurine was fitted with a bra stuffed with two young coconuts.  For the next thirty minutes, two men and two women adjusted Mary’s cloak to alternately emphasize or deemphasize, well, her coconuts.   While the girls preferred a more boxy presentation of Mary, the boys seemed intent on a more matronly silhouette.  T-Pain’s “Bartender” played in the background.  (No joke.)

During Holy Week, including the one just passed, normal business halts completely on Thursday and Friday.  Wednesday is a day of preparation for the upcoming two.  But, Thursday, of course, is really just a day of preparation for Friday.  This provided opportunities to partake in hobbies like eating, gossiping, and solving intractable puzzles such as what member of the social network was chatted up while out on errands:

“When we got shu mai, I saw that one.”

“Which one?”

“The cousin of that one.” *points with pouted lips to Auntie Rita*

“You mean the second cousin of that one?”

“Nooo, the first!  I don’t know.  Maybe the second.”

“Jo?”

“Nooo!  The one you went to school with.  The one that makes the shu mai – Uncle Willie!  It’s Uncle Willie!”

“Who is Uncle Willie?”

“The husband of that other one.” 

“Oh.  That one.”

One can only speculate how much GDP might be retrieved with improved adjective and noun usage.  I speculate: a lot.

Conversations of this type – and they seem to occur regardless of the speaker’s native language, the language spoken, or even the subject matter – typically require the input of anyone and everyone within earshot.  Even then, I am skeptical that the core questions truly get resolved – but rather interest wanes and intractability of the puzzle frustrates the group.  Perhaps the one identifier that has currency among the affiliated network is “the Americano”.  Whoever that might be.

026 The week climaxes on Friday with a procession of floats – rolling dioramas depicting scenes of Jesus’ trial and execution  –  around city centers across the islands.  So, on Thursday, I witnessed fourteen assemble to arrange the flowers on one such vessel, eat cookies, and drink Tang.  The fabric skirt was ironed.  The flowers clipped.  The news gossiped about. 

God – the man – is supposed to have succumb to the crucifix on Good Friday.  (The person naming this day was, presumably, never himself or herself crucified.)  So we woke at 4:30am – for church, I thought.  Instead, we caravanned to what looked like a microscopic country fairgrounds. Ad hoc snack vending and a battalion of Hollister-clad Filipinos assembled at the base of a rain-slicked trail leading up a hill. 

So I hiked.  The trail was segmented by fourteen “stations” – large dioramas portraying the Passion.  Those served as a stationary, less flamboyant previews of the rolling dioramas to be featured in the evening. The scenes were the same – just the mode of engagement differed: hike to versus tow behind.  Having some knowledge of innovations in Christian theme parks in the United States, I looked for animatronics.  No dice.  Bloody Marys?  Also denied.

The lower altitudes were pleasant enough.  But foot traffic jammed precariously at the steepest part of the summit – the station of Jesus’ tomb.  The throngs pushed blindly towards the edifice – reaching out with their arms to the plaster idol.  Sandaled feet scrambled for footing on the smooth rocks, reaching at jungle branches, shoulders, anything that appeared stable in the blinding morning light.  From my vantage point, it was unclear the way back down.  Crowds pushed in and up.

062  We were spared a lemming-like demise when an organized tour moved down a staircase on the opposite side, relieving the swelling.  I can’t confirm the exact size of the crowd, but it likely exceeded whatever limitations a sober fire marshal might establish.  Questions like “is it better to go earlier or later” are based on a false premise – it is, likely, better to not go at all.  But, if you must, bring golf shoes.

In the interest of full disclosure: we went to a second hill, after the one above, to hike a second Passion.  I cursed my misfortune.  I nearly stayed behind, and am glad I did not.  The crowds were thin, the stations less garish by a factor of infinity.  Amid the tropical trees, I observed calm, humility, and integrity befitting of the occasion.

The 10,000 or so gathered for Kalibo’s Passion procession broke that peace – transforming private mourning into public performance art.  Floats lined up early like a hot rod car show; flirting kids enjoying a day off reclined on their scooters; vendor carts set up a perimeter.  Most vendors sold sweet, iced “scrambles” – ice, condensed milk, sugar, strawberry syrup, and perhaps Pepto Bismol – to parents trying to pacify panting children.  I bought two. 

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The floats are decorated in a style more akin to Vegas than Nazareth.  The figures: carbon fiber; the floats: polished steel, lights, and roses.  Here, the modern showman eclipsed the ancient carpenter.  The procession was two hours of shuffling feet and hot candle drippings.  (To summarize, bring golf shoes.  Also, bring oven mitts.)

Easter itself revolved around a neighborhood banquet (40+), attended by three actors representing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus – a man of forty, and woman of sixty, and a boy of eight, respectively.  The table of honor was reserved  for these three; they were offered food, Cokes, and cigarettes. 

One by one, “Joseph” blessed the assembled from the neighborhood.  Donations to the thespians were collected and divided into three zip lock bags.  Old women piled plates with enough pork and strawberry cupcakes to stuff Henry VIII.

I suspect that some of that was clandestinely ziplocked away into purses.  Along with the kids’ Easter eggs.  For all of the planning that went into defending this activity, greed defeated it.  The actor playing Joseph secreted three into his pant pockets.      

That theology seemed to have an incidental role in the week suited me fine.  If I had fewer doubts that the week marked the earthly murder of the creator of universe, I would have been upset about the occasion.  It also provided fewer risks for getting into trouble with impolite legal questions: “More criminally liable for the systematic sexual abuse of children – Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict?” 

The week featured sacrifice that required no particular faith to appreciate.  Any sinner on the farm could witness the forsaken go from trotting, to thrashing, to bled and shaved with a machete in unceremonious minutes; dressed, roasted, and served that same afternoon.  And so, a small tribute to the nameless swine, whose death did not eternally pardon our wickedness, but quietly fattened souls on Earth for another curious day.

Passing Time

The primary problem in Kalibo, in the Philippines, is how to pass the time.  There is a surplus to dispense with.  That is true not just for Americans, like me, on the lam.  Locally, they are making it an election issue.  Actually, no, they’re not – it’s too hot to make much of anything.  But supposing that it were, I expect Filipinos would do what they do about most things: not much.   

Well, that’s what I would do, anyways.  Having unsubscribed from much of the corporate email that I used to receive, confusing myself with Kalibo’s everyday amusements has been a full time job.  I had a vague notion how much time my new subscription status would accrue back to me.  It turns out to be a shocking sum – 24 hours per day!  Still early in an ill conceived odyssey across Asia, there’s little I don’t like about it.

Public life starts at about 5am.  The roosters have been doodling all night, but are now becoming serious about business.  Bread vendors on bicycles sell sweet rolls, honking what I can only describe as clown horns, confirming that today will be another circus.  The countryside starts to wake up, breakfast on boiled bananas, and hang the laundry.  Yet, the few fashionable coffee shops do not open until 9:30.  Which is tragic (though less than a Starbucks would be) because it allows my caffeine addiction its revenge on me.  I have a boiled banana too and watch the rice paddies from the still cool shade. 

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The newspaper doesn’t hit newsstands until 11am.  So, waking, caffeinating, and laughing at the business section – usually synchronized – is fucked.  Desperately needing something to read,  I’ve asked university employees and a Museum of Kalibo curator about bookstores.  Both referred me to the same second hand shelf in a popularly air conditioned mall.  I can’t necessarily recommend a visit since I lifted the six titles worth a shot.  (Bonfire of the Vanities has lost none of its currency.)

The timing of these events is required by the midday heat.  Business gets done before 10am or hardly at all.  After that, have a coffee,  maybe a beer.  Gossip.  Rake the rice drying in the sun by the roadside.  Watch Wowowee – a television program having all the qualities of a variety program, except variety.  But what lacks in variety, it makes up for in emotion and tears, singing and games, and prize money.  TV is charming largely for the dominance of lip syncing and absence of production polish.

Yesterday, I was sent to buy some Cokes just before lunch.  Many of the roadside stands selling sundries and snacks in front of family homes were open, but vacant.  Others were occupied but tended to by women napping in muumuus.

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Little trips for “errands” – picking up fish at the market or dropping off clothes for hemming – are excuses to purchase ice cream or other cold, sweet treats.  Halo halo – shaved ice with condensed milk, mango, corn, ice cream, and gummy objects that I can refer to only by color – is another desirable choice. 

Errands are also opportunities to deliberately forget to pick something up, so that you can go back out later.  They also create chances for impromptu visits with extended family – cousins, uncles, grandparents, and other parts of a family’s lineage that I scarcely knew existed.  On one such occasion, I learned that my girlfriend’s second cousin just received a degree in criminal justice from the College of San Mateo – where, incidentally, my grandfather once taught that same subject after retiring from the San Carlos PD.  These cordial affairs thus pass the time and the news. 

Cost does little to deter this absurd, enjoyable behavior.  Ice cream costs seven pesos, or about a dime.    It’s kind of like America in the 1950s.   Happily, Filipinos have a one hundred year history of, generally, liking Americans.  Even if – like me – your Tagalog comprehension is below that of the local dogs.  The United States Navy ejected the last vestige of the Spanish Armada from Manila Bay;  I met a special operations police commander from Manila whose father served the United States in World War I; American and Filipino prisoners suffered  the Bataan Death March together; General MacArthur made good

The internet is something you have to drive to access.  (That takes some getting used to.)  Your lunch?  Free range and hatched under a bush.  Or line caught last night just a short walk up the road.  Yellow fin?  At 200 pesos per kilo, you’re paying $2.50 per pound.  (That does not take any getting used to.)  Owing to nature’s bounty – bananas, mangos, papayas  – foraging isn’t a semi-organized political statement, it’s just convenient.  The American rediscovery of frugality, ingenuity and self sufficiency?  In the Philippines, those qualities don’t warrant news coverage and trade marking.  They likely never will.

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Kalibo’s best quality is that it is not in Lonely Planet.  It’s on the tourist trail.  But merely as a transit point for Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Americans headed to Boracay: exit plane from Manila or Seoul, enter bus for the beach.  Not a bad trade.  Boracay is spectacular.  Choice real estate in listed comfortably in the seven figure USDs. 

Still, in March, one can kind easily zig of the Boracay footpath, laze undisturbed under a palm, and feel something like tranquility for a few long hours.  Development feels organic – compared to, say, the resort-in-a-box-ness of Cancun.  But, depending on your persuasions, trouble may loom.  There are not one but two Starbucks.  On the footpath, you will decline two or three parasailing offers every second.  There are nightclubs that measure liquor by the meter.  Pizza does brisk business.      

Back in Kalibo, cheap San Migs complement  respectable live music in palm leaf thatched bars on Fridays.  I have spotted one pizza place, but it might be closed.  I sometimes have a very hard time discerning whether businesses are open or closed. Or, for that matter, whether a given structure is in a state of construction, destruction or abandonment.  Between the haphazard building, horns, karaoke, the ten percent of GDP coming from remittances, the ratio of adults in replica basketball jerseys, mildly psychedelic TV, spaghetti for breakfast, sugar at all times, and toothy smiles, there is a Peter Pan-ish quality to Filipino culture, amplified by Kalibo’s small size and rural distances.  The primary Philippine transport is called “a tricycle” – a vehicle type that I very closely associate to being five years old.  Which makes it difficult to worry seriously about global debt ratios, for example, as a passenger in one.

Kalibo may be reached by flights from Manila, Seoul, and Cebu.  Seoul to Manila to Kalibo will be cheaper, but less convenient.  There are few sightseeing opportunities, unremarkable nightlife, and, mercifully, no boxes to check.  (The Spanish built only lightly.)  But, for contemporary concerns, it is a perfectly reasonable hiding place to reclaim time and do not much at all. 

But I’m not here for a permanent peace in a parallel universe.  At least not yet.  On April 7, I am headed to Manila with a ticket to Wowowee.  (I’ll never know how I got tricked into that one.)  Still in the Philippines, the Visayan city of Cebu represents the next stop.  Cebu grew from a fort established by Magellan to project Spanish imperial power in the region.  I will observe a birthday there, and then retreat to a beach on the neighboring island of Negros.  Even more distant, on April 28, I depart the Philippines and land at midnight in Saigon.  

Riding Tricycles

Going on approximately zero hours of sleep in the previous thirty, we met Kim’s dad for coffee at about 7am in the Manila airport.

Manila to Kalibo, a town of about 100K on the southern Visayas island of Panay, is mostly over water.  The short, sixty minute view from the airplane window shows few of the 7107 islands that constitute the Philippines.  I looked for pirate ships and was disappointed to not see any.  That statistic reflects well on the government’s anti-piracy measures.  Or the pirates’ high seas stealth.

Where the bright blue Visayan Sea stops, Panay unfolds emerald farmland.  Motorways and buildings are all but invisible except at the lowest altitudes.  And that makes sense the more I learn about the state of local construction science (variable), materials (more variable still), and the imperative to build in the shade (imperative).  On the banked descent, flooded rice paddies sharply refract the early morning sunlight, literally bling blinging observers leering over the dipped wing. 

We unloaded to the tarmac.  Kim and I tried to keep up with her dad, a man keeping the gold medalist pace of someone back in the town in which he grew up, maintains a residence, and frequently visits.  We lost him among the battalion of Boracay tour sellers, Boracay tour pick ups, and others accustomed to helping lost white faces find the white sand of Boracay’s White Beach.  “Boracay!” “Boracay?” Boracay!”  Later.  Preparing skin types like mine for an ultra violet environment like Boracay’s requires sunscreen with weapons grade sun protection and a full blown project plan.  No time for that now.   

Outside, Kim’s dad spotted me over the crowd.  He beckoned us to his waiting “Cadillac’”.  Here, “Cadillac” is Mr. Cantero’s term of endearment for the ubiquitous tricycle – a Filipino Frankenstein welding a covered side car with one load bearing wheel to an underpowered motorcycle. 

A quick introduction to our driver, Jony, and out we went.  These vehicles are capable of carrying six Filipinos (Kim says seven, counting “the one on top”) or three Americans.  They are as varied in appearance, material, and color as they are in name: Peace, Bad Teeth, Minnesota Timberwolves.  Some have gigantic subwoofers hidden under the seat, loudly broadcasting, perhaps, DMX, Kenny Rogers, or Tagalog favorites.

Those balladeers compete with roadside sound systems for attention in the soundscape.  So far, my favorite competitor is “Coming Around the Mountain”, sung in Tagalog, overheard passing by one of the zillion storefronts decorated in banners for Coca Cola and cell phone companies. 

If advertising reflects the aspirations of a society, then Filipinos desire sugar water and unlimited text message plans above everything else.  Just like Californians and, indeed, the rest of the world.  Skin lightening products rank third in the advertising ecosystem – indicating, perhaps, an untapped market for weapons grade sun protection. 

The prime directive in Filipino road rules is to move forward.  Based on my observations, there are no qualifications, skills, or rules that govern execution in the anarchic traffic.  No road signs, signals, approvals necessary.  Wait for blockers; see day light; pick a path and take it. 

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Traffic appears to be incoming from all directions simultaneously – head on, passing from behind, on the port and starboard sides, and from all angles in between.  And this is in Kalibo, a small, largely subsistence agriculture kind of town – not the megacity particle colliders of Manila or Bangkok.  Still, it is not necessarily always clear where individuals are trying to go – nor how, generally, they intend to get there.  In other words, imagine the email traffic you might see in your corporate inbox any given morning. 

But through negotiation, patience, and lots of wiggling, it seems to work.  Traffic in Kalibo, that is.  I have never not gotten to my destination.  I have never heard any cursing nor seen anyone lose their temper when, inevitably, a misjudgment is made about the physical feasibility of a certain maneuver.  Nor, suppose, when someone carting a crate of chickens and a gaggle of uniformed Catholic school kids executes a three point turn in an intersection, circles back to make another pick up.

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Footnote

This is driving system is highly disorienting to the American perspective – “how dangerous!  how do they know what’s going to happen?”  They don’t.  And, accordingly, drive with a defensiveness that promotes survival.     

American traffic systems outsource decision making to signs and signals.  And, accordingly, promotes driving with the Chicago office on speaker phone and critical thinking facilities jammed in neutral.  Embedding intelligence in static signage, though, offers certain advantages, such as the possibility for higher speeds; longer distance travel; bigger vehicles with a wet bar; the comforting sense that just following the signs will allow any Glen Beck-ish half wit to safely arrive at point B. 

But is the Filipino free-for-all more dangerous?  By one statistic, it is not.  Over the past ten years, the declining American fatality rate has ranged between 12 and 14 per 100,000 members of the population.  By comparison, the Philippine National Police reported 674 fatalities in 2006.  Assuming a population of 89,000,000 across the islands,  Filipinos average less than one traffic fatality per 100,000 members of the population.

Disclaimers apply.  Not the least of which is that, per 100,000 people, there are likely many more drivers driving more miles in the American sample than in the Filipino sample.   In turn, that creates many more opportunities for apocalyptic accidents between death star sport utilities.  That is not to imply that the comparison is a damned lie.  Rather, that is to highlight differences in the two samples which probably have explanatory power for the different fatality rates. 

Those factors biasing the statistics – more people driving more miles – should not be excuses of any sort.  But, instead, possibly, simple byproducts of a system that superficially appears more orderly and more safe.

The general idea discussed here is not original.  Consider the work done by the Dutch traffic engineer, Monderman, in the Netherlands:

At a loss, Monderman suggested to the villagers, who as it happens had hired a consultant to help improve the town’s aesthetics, that Oudehaske simply be made to seem more “villagelike.” The interventions were subtle. Signs were removed, curbs torn out, and the asphalt replaced with red paving brick, with two gray “gutters” on either side that were slightly curved but usable by cars. As Monderman noted, the road looked only five meters wide, “but had all the possibilities of six.”

The results were striking. Without bumps or flashing warning signs, drivers slowed, so much so that Monderman’s radar gun couldn’t even register their speeds. Rather than clarity and segregation, he had created confusion and ambiguity. Unsure of what space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating. Rather than give drivers a simple behavioral mandate—­say, a speed limit sign or a speed bump— he had, through the new road design, subtly suggested the proper course of action. And he did something else. He used context to change behavior. He had made the main road look like a narrow lane in a village, not simply a traffic- way through some anonymous town.

Now Departing

A Virgin America flight to Los Angeles departed from the gate next to my noon flight to Seoul.  A tongue-in-cheek gate assignment if I have ever seen one.  On a more sensible travel day, I would be bound for Los Angeles – where I lived approximately six of the last eight years. But I finished my most recent lease in January.  Besides having no residence nor business in LA, it was more convenient to go to Seoul.  I had a ticket.

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Kim and I booked Korean Air 024 over Thanksgiving last year, resolving to leave our perfectly respectable jobs and take the scenic route from the Philippines to India till we ran out of money or fun.  (Stocks of the former being in the shortest supply.)

I gave notice about my plans to my employer more than three months ago.  My last day was yesterday – or, perhaps, three days ago given that it’s 6:38am on Saturday morning in Manila.  Sometime in the intervening period we successfully laid over in Seoul – making time to find kimchi in a terminal otherwise colonized by the most opulent retail yet developed by man.  I mostly find peanuts and an Economist sufficiently therapeutic to cope with air travel; Bulgari offered neither.

So, by Korean standards, wearing the same quick drying, parachute fabric costumes that we left in, Kim and I didn’t exactly arrive in style.  And for the better.  We have now passed almost five of the six hours separating our landing in Manila from our departure to Kalibo.  To my surprise, we spent those hours among company, among hundreds of other travelers sleeping on their cardboard box luggage – or each other – outside in the sticky tropical early, early morning.  To approximate the effect, imagine  if every three of four people working in a UPS warehouse took a nap with the heat cranked up and a mister on.  (Sidenote!  I would later found myself on a plane that featured misters in the cabin, mistaking passengers for produce.  Kidding.  It was helpful.)

The airport power goes in and out, and the lights with it.  I understand that is a recurring issue across the Philippine islands – and no one seems to pay it any attention.  Security shuffles their feet; conversations continue; Jollibee – a 24/7 fast food outlet offering fried chicken, pancakes, and spaghetti – does brisk business by virtue of the generator coughing just off the kitchen.  Mercifully, they also sold water.  Even to the likes of me.

Famed travel scribbler Paul Theroux described air travel as a lesser form of travel – more akin to time travel in its ability to make the coverage of territory a more theoretical than a practical experience.  You travel up the aisle to stretch a bit; complete Up in the Air and a few glasses of juice; and emerge from the machine on the opposite side of Earth not knowing what day it is.  But, from somewhere inside my terminal, a rooster with timing just uncorked a champion cock-a-doodle-do.         

Hello world!