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farewell, Bohol

December 24, 2003 — Leave a comment

I’m sitting in a [very] air conditioned airport in Tagbilaran, waiting to board the plane which will take me back to Manila. The weather is nice for a change, and this is a good thing. When I was in Naga (Bicol), they told me if the weather got worse the next wouldn’t fly until two days later, so for me, perhaps especially on Christmas Eve, clear skies are a valuable commodity.

I spent yesterday evening in the dining hut/hall/lodge at Nuts Huts, talking with Chris and with Rita and a few other travelers. While the setting at Nuts Huts is a lush jungle, the atmosphere is almost entirely European. In fact, I don’t think most Filipinos would like it here. There was a Pinoy couple here the first night and all they did was complain about how nothing was Gucci enough.

My American readers will laugh uncontrollably when they read the following, but I thoroughly enjoyed the bottle of Colt .45 beer I had last night. I don’t drink very often (maybe once a year), but when I saw a bunch of Europeans sitting around a table clinking their bottles of Colt .45 together, I had to give it a shot. Chris said, “I don’t think it’s the same beer you have in the States. Americans tell me Colt .45 is pretty bad in the States.”

I responded, “Yeah. It’s a pimp beer.”

Well, whatever way they brew it in Asia (I checked–it is brewed and bottled in Asia, not imported), it’s pretty damn good. It’s microbrewery good. If they brewed it this way in the States, their patrons wouldn’t feel like they have to cover bottles of Colt .45 with a paper bag.

In spite of the spiders and the creepy crawlies, I slept pretty well. This morning I packed up my stuff and had lunch before being picked up by Nerio’s pump boat.


The ride down the river was calm and somewhat scenic, though I couldn’t think of anything except Apocalypse Now. We passed a handful of boaters, and each boat’s pump or paddling rhythm had its own sonic fingerprint. Perhaps sadly, for a brief moment I thought myself a contestant in Pod Racer.


After an hour or so I ended up in Loboc, where the Loboc River meets the ocean, and Nerio was waiting for me on the motorcycle. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to see today, and I said “architecture and tarsiers”.

The tarsiers were easy. Tarsiers are these ridiculously adorable alien-looking primates. In proportion to the size of the skull, tarsiers’ eyes are 150x the size of human eyes. Tarsiers, like pretty much anything of any ecological value in the Philippines, are both exploited and endangered. There are many small “business” owners who keep unhealthy tarsiers in cages as a tourist attraction; I did the politically correct thing and went to the ecologically-friendly Philippine Tarsier Foundation. They keep tarsiers in a very large enclosure to keep them safe from predators, including an indigenous eagle which snacks on them. I took over 70 pictures of the three tarsiers I was able to find while walking around in the enclosure, which was huge (tarsiers are not).


While leaving Corella, I mentioned to Nerio that it’s good to know that at least some people in the Philippines have an eye on ecological concerns. I don’t know how exactly he conceptualizes the term “ecological”, but he then became hell-bent on taking me to the Python Preservation, which ended up being nothing more than small wire and wood box located in someone’s back yard. In front of the box, which barely contained an absurdly long python, was a donation bucket. To the right of the box was a display case which had some brief information on reticulated pythons and some pictures of this particular python eating the family dog. The photos were totally surreal–the first few of the python suffocating the dog and family members standing around in shock, then successive photos showing the dog slowly disappearing down the python’s throat with different family members posing in the background, smiling for the camera. The last photo was of what I can only guess was a very happy python, who was sporting a vaguely dog-sized hump in the middle of its body.

Nerio’s motorcycle needed gas, so I told him I’d pay for a fill-up at the nearest station. Turns out the nearest station wasn’t a station at all–it was a little stand at the side of the road featuring a wooden box standing upright, displaying several liter-sized bottles of oddly colored cola.


And as one quicker than myself might guess, the oddly-colored cola wasn’t cola at all, it was gasoline. You order so many liters of gas then pour the gas straight from the cola bottle into your gas tank. No pump needed. Brilliant.

The quest for even colonial era architecture was pretty grim. With the exception of some churches, very little is very old here; structures don’t stand up to humidity and the elements very well. The only example of colonial architecture I found was this window made of capiz, which–believe it or not–is a translucent shell which is cut into squares which are then sandwiched between window panes.


The result is quite pleasant, I think. Certainly more pleasant than the unbearably gaudy capiz lamps which hung from the ceilings of my childhood home (and the childhood home of every Filipino-American, I’m sure).

There wasn’t much left to the rest of the day.  We rode around until my back couldn’t take it anymore and then, at my insistence, I took Nerio out for lunch. I gave him the remainder of what was in my wallet–far, far more than he was expecting, around 1,500 pesos (roughly $27 or so). The typhoon hit Bohol the week before I arrived, and during dinner last night Chris told me that just two days ago, Nerio’s shop and business fell into the river. Nerio lost everything, and here he was driving me around the day before Christmas. Pretty sobering.

In a really sick way, I’m looking forward to getting back to Manila. It’s not that I couldn’t use more time by myself, but tomorrow’s xmas, and Darth Mumbai has to be there for the kids.

Americano Promenade

December 21, 2003 — 2 Comments

Filipinos can be included in the small but noble minority of people in the world who prefer to watch basketball over soccer. One of the nice things about being here is that no matter where you are, if you’ve got time to kill and you’re too tired to do anything cerebral, someone nearby–a shopkeeper, a security guard, or any one of a number of public establishments–has a basketball game on the tele.

Nevermind the fact that a healthy majority of the games I’ve seen here were actually played up to 20 years ago and that in some cases, I know how they end.

One such game is on offer now at the Cebu ferry terminal, where I’m waiting for a boat to take me to the Island of Bohol. A boat which has been delayed for the third time on account of rough seas. Apparently there has been a typhoon/ cyclone/ badass-rain-maker brewing up in tne waters south and east of here. I’ve been keeping a cautious eye on it, and over the last 24 hours or so it has dissipated. Still, I can think of better places to spend the time. Somewhere between broken speakers blaring Celine Dion, babies screaming, flickering fluorescent light, no fewer than 15 cellphones ringing simultaneously, and a group of xmas carolers singing three notes higher than the top of their vocal range, lies the line between sanity and insanity. I’d put my earplugs in, but my left ear has decided it doesn’t like them. In fact I think my left ear is on strike. Can’t say I blame it.

I couldn’t sleep last night on account of anxiety about traveling over miles and miles of open water at the periphery of a nascent tropical storm. Yesterday I met an American I’ll call Wally, who told me that the first time he made the ferry ride from Cebu to Bohol, he didn’t know what he was doing and booked it n a bamboo raft. As a result of my encounter with him, I’m traveling on a Supercat–a very large and, I hear, very safe–catamaran which transports no vehicles, only passegers.

Anyway, around 1am I realized I hadn’t yet eaten dinner, so I headed out to a restaurant I knew was open until 3am to grab some vittles.

I’m trying to think of a time in my life when I more strongly felt in danger, and only one comes to mind–finding myself at the wrong end of a gun’s barrel in Chicago. In four short Cebu blocks, starting literally from the first step I took outside the hotel to the moment I turned into the restaurant’s parking lot, I was accosted seven times. Four times by pimps, calling out (not discreetly, I might add) variations on a theme–“you want chicky-chicky, I get you girls”, “hot chicks, you like hot chicks”, “hot girls, sir, I get you hot girls”, and my favorite, “pretty pretty girls for low low price.” Also on the list to harass me this evening: three different groups of male teenagers, one of which followed me the length of the last block to the restaurant, chanting, “Americano! Americano!” Maybe they just wanted to talk. Yeah. About the weather.

The restaurant, a quiet enough place during the day, turned into a kind of upscale nightclub in the evening. I was there for an hour or so, reading the paper and enjoying a very well-prepared meal, and about halfway through my meal the clintele changed hands as if a work shift had ended. The twenty-somethings paid up their tabs and packed into their cars just as a group of four white men, I’m guessing mostly in their fifties, accompanied by teenage-looking Filipinas sporting tiny skirts and pounds of lipstick, came in and sat down.

I dont think any of the men knew each other, and judging by their demeanor and language, they were all American. I won’t spell out what was going on; let’s just say that one wouldn’t find the verbal arrangements made between these men and these girls transcribed in a church newsletter.

On my way out, I had a security guard call a taxi.

Perhaps yesterday I should have purchased a souvenir from this table at the market:


Cebu: day 2

December 20, 2003 — 1 Comment

I’m not digging Cebu very much. With the exception of a large market which specializes in dried fish, there’s not much to photograph. The weather doesn’t help. Before leaving the hotel this morning I purchased a small umbrella–my first purchase of something other than food since being in the country. My penchant for souvenirs withered away many years ago.


Today I went to the Tabo-an market, a market kinda sorta by the shipping port. Baskets and piles of dried fish mark the pedestrian avenues through this market. Oddly, I love the smell of dried fish, so being here is as much a mouth-watering experience as it is an eye-candy festival. [Pictures of the Tabo-an market in gestalt start here. Traffic from the market was absolutely horrendous, so I walked from the market back to the hotel–a considerable distance in the rain, but I’m confident I arrived sooner than any taxi would have.

After drying off and having lunch, I took a cab up to the Taoist Temple. It’s way up the mountainside, by an exclusive gated community called “Beverly Hills”. Sigh.

The temple was beautiful and a great example of Chinese architecture, but they didn’t allow photographs and of course it was overcast. I should have had the taxi wait for me; I was pretty far from the center of town and the few others who took taxis up to the temple had their taxis wait for them. As a result, I didn’t really have a way back. So I asked someone if I could grab a ride back with him and he said no problem.

He was a big, lumbering American from North Carolina. He married a Filipina and with her was setting up some businesses in Cebu in the hopes that in a few years’ time, they would sustain his and his wife’s retirements. He was extremely pleasant, and perhaps sadly, he and I bonded in a discussion about the problems we experience in encountering Filipino culture.

I think I’ll leave Cebu tomorrow. The discotheque scene is supposed to be great here, but that’s not really my thing anymore.

Cebu: non-day 1

December 19, 2003 — Leave a comment

My stay in Manila was short; the day after I returned I booked a ticket to Cebu, the Philippines’ second largest city. I arrived just in time for the tropical depression / typhoon / depressed typhoon to hit this area. I’m hoping to get to the island of Bohol via ferry in a few days; hopefully the weather will cooperate.

I’m spending the little that’s left of the day in my hotel, catching up on some work and answering some questions I’ve been getting via email. It’s a good day for this–it’s raining very hard outside, it’s ridiculously humid and warm, and as a result, I’ll be catching up on some sleep (I’m going on four straight days of 3-4 hours a night) and some work. With one or two [notable] exceptions, weather hasn’t been cooperating very much. The sky is either darkened by rainclouds or by pollution, making it difficult to take photos.

Anyway, more than a few people asked how I’m posting from the Philippines. There are countless internet cafes and bars, but I haven’t availed myself of their services. My aunt and uncle happen to have an older iMac, and all my posts to date (save this one) have been made from that. I write my posts on my Palm Tungsten T3 using the Palm Wireless Keyboard.

My email checking and resource-finding takes place on the road using my Palm and one of a number of connectivity options. This post is coming to you via a used, unlocked bluetooth cellphone and prepaid SIM card which I picked up for cheap at a market in Manila. All of my photos have been taken with my 10D and are stored on an X’s Drive II, a portable storage device which copies photos from card-media such as CF and SD. Once the images are copied from cards to the Xdrive, I can reformat the cards, and this process gives me all the storage capacity I need. I used a similar setup during my trip to Spain and Morocco in 2000/2001.

So far the setup has worked flawlessly. While my desire to be this connected to the website and people I know could certainly be termed pathologically obsessive, I am able to jot down my thoughts and memories in a much more convenient and productive way than having to rely on spending hours in internet cafes. This way, I can write in my journal (which is separate from the etherblog) while waiting at the airport or in traffic–two things I’ve spent many hours doing since arriving in the country.

Lectures, departures

December 17, 2003 — 3 Comments

My last day here in Bicol will forever be remembered, by me and sixty or so students at the university in Iriga alike–as the day I gave a lecture that flopped. Actually, saying it flopped would imply the lecture had some life, which quite frankly, it didn’t.

Let me start, however, by saying that though it’s hard to believe–it could have sucked more had I not asked a pre-emptive question. This morning I thought it would be a good idea to ask how many people would be attending my lecture. My aunt said they had a small auditorium which would hold about 300 people.

You know, I don’t have any problems giving talks to 300 people. Unless I have nothing to say, in which case 300 people is 299.5 people too many.

I was also told that the audience would mostly be economics and accounting students. I have about as much in common with economics and accounting students as I have in common with lesbian Hungarian bakers (which, in case you’re wondering, is nothing).

So I set down some rules: I would speak to no more than 30 people in the field of literature or English or something even vaguely related to the Humanities, and my presentation should be referred to as a “discussion”, not a “lecture”.

While my aunt was off trying to wrangle some poor students into a classroom to talk to me, I sauntered up to the ice plant, where I found out how ice is made (a process, quite honestly, that I’ve never questioned). This plant churns out a lot of ice, most of which gets trucked to the coast for use by fisherman and fish processing plants. I told my uncle that I hadn’t noticed any refrigerated trucks at the plant and he said they didn’t have any. They had one, but it was captured by the NPA, and when he refused to pay the ransom they demanded, the truck was torched. So the NPA has resorted to trucknapping. Wily bastards. Anyway, I found the iceplant a rather beautifully organic kind of industrial place, and snapped lots of photos. I’ll explain the process if anyone’s interested. Yes, the light goes off when you close the door.


Drove a little more around town, taking a little sidetrip just so I could take a picture of the sign above, which I saw yesterday, then I went off to the university to talk to the kids. On the way, I thought a suitable topic for presentation would be a brief discussion on how it is that my students can take an “Intro to Horror Film” class. Every mention of this class since my arrival in the Philippines has been met with complete astonishment over the fact that such classes can exist anywhere, so I figure go with “shock and awe” and use horror to my advantage. My ill-conceived plan had me talking a little bit about horror film and its social and cultural role in the US and using that to segue into a spiel on how new media can and should be integrated into high school and college curriculums as a form of cultural, historical, and literary study.

Well, I entered the room and sure enough, it was an auditorium which held 300 people. Luckily, there were only 60 or so people there, but none of them were sitting at the front of the room. In fact, because the room was dark, I couldn’t make out their faces–I could only see the white shirts of their school uniforms.

So after asking a few questions which no one responded to, I had the lights in the room turned on and I moved closer to the students. I think this scared them. If I asked any questions–even something as tame as “anyone here watch a lot of movies?” yielded complete silence. If I looked directly at anyone they’d look at the floor. They clearly understood me–everyone would laugh when I told a joke or made some sarcastic remarks.

After about twenty minutes of this I told them that I had wanted to have a discussion with them and that if there weren’t any questions, they could leave. They all stayed, though, and a few adventurous souls asked me questions. And here’s the tragic part–all of their questions were about how things were in the U.S. “What’s a class like in the U.S.?” “I hear there is a teacher shortage in the U.S. How difficult is it for a Filipino to get a job in the U.S.?” “What TV programs do you watch in the U.S.?” “Are there a lot of Filipinos in the U.S.?”

About twenty minutes later I dismissed everyone and was then given a tour of the university by an administrator, who was in the room while I gave the presentation. I asked her why the students were so shy and she said that most of them were probably embarrassed to speak English to an American. I wish I had known! They could have spoken in Tagalog and if I hadn’t understood them, surely someone could have translated for me. Argh.

Then I was told that all of the students in the room were economics students. Double argh.

She also told me that students at that university, and at most universities in the Philippines, aren’t used to talking to their teachers during class. Most of the education, she explained, was really centered on memorization and testing, not discussion or creative thinking. I spent the rest of the daylight hours watching people playing tennis at the university tennis courts. I was told that one of the gentlemen playing was a doctor–a full-blooded M.D.-certified, has his own private practice doctor–who was retraining as a nurse so that he could immigrate to the U.S.

I know that popular American opinion on immigration, particularly among people who feel they have something to lose to immigrants, differs widely from my own opinon, and I don’t want to open that can of worms here. Let’s just say that this man’s story–shared, I’m told, by legions of doctors-turning-into-nurses all over the Philippines–is an incredibly sad one to me. Both because this kind of mass migration will result in a brain drain in the Philippines and because of the idea that simply being in the U.S. can somehow be worth throwing away half a lifetime’s worth of training and experience as a medical doctor.

The college administrator and I talked at some length about the current political, social, and cultural realities in the Philippines–a conversation I’ve been trying to have with as many people as possible. I’ll address these conversations in a later post.

Anyway, I’m heading back to Manila tomorrow. A cousin of mine who lives only two hours away from me in California will be in Manila (her mom is the aunt with whom I’m staying). I haven’t seen her or her family for years and I’m looking forward to spending some time with them.

Rice and Coconuts

December 15, 2003 — 1 Comment

I’m half-Filipino and half-Indian (as in India Indian, not Columbus-fucked-up Indian). If that says anything about me, it’s that I eat a lot of rice.

In the last few days I’ve gained a real appreciation for rice. This area, as is probably true with most rural areas in the Philippines, is predominantly agricultural, and the crop seen most often in these parts is rice. Rice paddies extend beyond the horizon outside anything which vaguely resembles a town, and virtually every paddy has a rice farmer tending it the old fashioned way: walking around in the mud, harvesting rice with a machete-like knife.

I grew up in Illinois, and for those of you not familiar with the U.S., Illinois is about as middle-of-the-country as you can get. As such, I’m no stranger to agriculture–most of my childhood memories involve running through cornfields (nevermind that I was running from people trying to beat me up). The sight of tractors pulling tillers, seeders, and fertilizers marked Spring and the sight of huge combines throwing ears of corn and stalks of wheat into the air marked Fall.

I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier, but rice, at least as grown in the Philippines, can’t be (or just simply isn’t) planted or harvested with the aid of machinery. The only mechanized process in rice farming here is tilling, and even so, I saw many more water buffalo (the local term is calabao) pulling tillers than I saw hand-operated tillers (in fact, I saw only one of the latter). All this to say that every rice plant is planted and harvested by hand. I find this amazing given the extremely low cost of rice. These farmers definitely aren’t making a kiIling.

I saw plenty of planting, tending, and harvesting of rice while driving around the last few days. I had my uncle arrange for me to visit a rice mill, where the actual grains of rice are mechanically separated from their husks. The process was fascinating, but given the amount of dust and fine powder which results from the milling, let’s just say that rice mills aren’t particularly asthmatic-friendly. I managed to get a few decent pics, though.

Next on order was a visit to the coconut oil mill. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, it’s at such mills that coconut meat is pressed for oil. The mill I visited wasn’t operating due to their ritual end-of-year two-week equipment cleaning period, so I ended up taking a lot of pictures of vats, machinery, and coconut shells (known locally as copra), which they burn as fuel.

Later in the day, on the way to Consocep, a mountainside lookout on the inactive volcano, Isarog, Dan (the driver), who has really keyed into my desire to see things not necessarily on postcards, took a sideroad to show me yet another aspect of the rice-production process. On the side of this road was a small mountain of discarded rice husks, brought and dumped by the truckload, and on top of this mountain were a handful of people re-sifting the husks (using a large, flat, bowl-shaped wooden pan called a nigo) to find any grains left by the milling process.


When I arrived there, the wind was blowing hard and parts of the mountain were disappearing into the sky (which made for neat pictures but really shitty conditions). The people, who Danny termed tahip, basically scavenge the remnants of an industrial process, but it’s this kind of resourcefulness which characterizes so much of the rural Filipino culture I’ve encountered. It also makes me fondly recall one of my favorite aspects of my grandfather–he had a use for everything, from empty cereal boxes (which, with tape and a homebrewed origami, he turned into elaborate filing systems) to discarded detergent bottles (which he’d turn into planters).

With the exception of some photogenic kids loitering at the mountainside lookout, Consocep, the trip up the mountain was a letdown. Once we reached the top the fog and rain rolled in, cutting the view down to nothing.

I could spend all travels learning the kinds of things I learned today and meeting the kind of people I met today. I realize the problems with such statements–what I find fascinating as a spectator is in actuality a pretty difficult day-to-day existence for those I observe, and as such I don’t take for granted the luxury of spectating. I’ve never understood the “let’s sip drinks at the beach resort” kind of vacation. I’ve stomached a day or two of such vacations, and I always feel like those days are wasted. Days like today, however, only amplify my amazement about the myriad ways in which the world works and give me a sobering appreciation for (and critical take on) the life I lead.

[Photos relevant to this entry are viewable in gestalt.]

Mumbais and Volcanoes

December 14, 2003 — 2 Comments

I’ve escaped the chaos of the city for the more rural area of Bicol, roughly 500km (310 miles) south and east of Central Manila. I had to wake up at 4:30am to go to the airport, where I met an Aunt I don’t think I’ve ever met before. She’s flying home to Bicol and I’ll be staying at her house. She said I was easy to spot; I stand out in a crowd here. I’m a head taller than most people and, even though I’m half Filipino, I don’t look Filipino at all. Most of my relatives, when trying to describe me to people, use the term “Mumbai”, which I’ve learned means Indian, though probably in the same way that “gook” meant Vietnamese in the late 60s. I’ve tried to “own” the term and will now insist that all my nephews and nieces call me Uncle Mumbai or Darth Mumbai (they can choose).

I landed in Pili, a small town in Bicol, and the airport couldn’t be more rural. Apparently flights only take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I’m here until next Monday unless it gets foggy, in which case I’m told I’ll be here indefinitely. Parts of this area, mostly south and east of here, have been victim to the NPA (New People’s Army), a group of rowdy communists who like to do things like hijack trucks or bomb cell phone towers and other such unpleasantries. My aunt told me I can’t go to Sorsogon, the capital of the area, because the NPA is quite active there. I tried to joke that I’m a card-carrying member of the NPA and that at the last NPA bakesale, I sold more fried lumpias than any of my colleague rebels. I don’t think the joke translated very well. My fault.

My Uncle in Bicol is, among other things, the president of the local university in Iriga City. I have an Uncle General and an Uncle President, but to my knowledge, no Uncle Dictator (though in my mind, my aunts are Aunt Supreme Commanders, if not in name then in action).

The “university” seems to comprise grades 1-12 as well as the standard freshmen->senior college levels, so there are learned folk of all ages running around. It would appear Uncle President and Uncle General purchased the same Magic Wand™, because when I woke up this morning I found out that two local school teachers have been snatched from their 1-day weekend, assigned to accompany me to “see the sights”, as it were. Teachers and students alike don’t get much time off here; they’re in classes from 7am->5:30pm Monday->Saturday, so I felt particularly bad about usurping these teachers’ Sundays, particularly because I didn’t request any company. They didn’t seem to mind, though. I think (and hope) they were getting paid for it. In addition, my uncle and aunt have given me full use of their driver, Dan, and one of their cars. Ernie, a biosciences teacher, and Gerald, a social studies teacher, and Dan are some of the nicest people I met since being here, which in some ways just amplifies my guilt, but I’m finding out that there’s little defense against my relatives’ hospitality.

I deal with such guilt by apologizing profusely, a habit I really have to lose while I’m here lest I get someone in trouble. Maids and servants totally freak out when they see me take my own plate and silverware to the kitchen, and if I in turn refuse to let them port the dinnerware, so to speak, they tend to get very anxious. I think the help has the impression that if my relatives see me lifting a finger they’ll get fired. So I’ve taken to telling my relatives that I’m not used to having help and that I prefer to do things on my own. That seems to have worked. I can actually walk–unaccompanied–out of my relatives’ eyesight now, as long as I stay on the house grounds.

In spite of this, in the company of three very nice men assigned to escort me from place to place, I just finished a whirlwind tour of the scenic area surrounding Mount Mayon. Mount Mayon is a massive 2462m (8077 ft) active volcano which last erupted in 1991. As lava flowed down the mountainside during that eruption, it rather eerily formed the shape of the virgin Mary. I read this in my guidebook, thinking that perhaps if one squinted and stood upside down while on acid, the lava flows could be construed to form the shape of the virgin Mary. Well, I’ve since seen pictures of the lava flows from that eruption, and yep, they sure do form the shape of the virgin Mary. Or perhaps the lesser-known virgin Gertrude, who didn’t give birth to God’s son, per se, but who was made famous by her spectacularly delectable chicken fried steak.

Most of you probably know this, but the Philippines is often considered the most Catholic nation in the world (maybe next to the Vatican). As a whole, they like to throw around such superlatives, so the veracity of such statements is dubious at best, but sure enough, this is one Catholic nation, perhaps especially in the rural areas less affected by modernity and other such cosmopolitan, secularizing temptations. Today I saw four churches: one in Cagsawa, of which the belfry is the only remaining structure (it was destroyed in an earlier eruption of Mount Mayon); one in Daraga, constructed entirely out of volcanic ashes; one in Ligao, which is just old, and one on Mount Mayon itself, which is less a church and more a “rest area” 1/3rd up the mountain side.

There are those that say the Catholic church did wonders for the Philippines by giving a once-tribal region of the world a unified voice and purpose. There are others, like myself, who think of such endeavors–Catholic or whatever flavor religion–as an insidious form of proto-globalization, the kind of which makes contemporary multinational corporate dominance seem like child’s play. If you count the number of crucifixes and other religious tchotckes in any given Philippines municipality and compare that figure with the number of McDonald’s signs or Pepsi signs or the like, God-swag would win hands-down. Talk about product placement! Anyway, I have nothing against missionaries per se, but I prefer to think of them as salespeople. The kind that come to your house, sell you a vacuum, then live in your house forever to make sure you’re using the vacuum correctly (and to ensure you breed future customers).

Anti-religious soapbox speech aside, however, the churches are weathered enough to make for some good scenery. Still, I don’t feel like I’ve seen much culture here other than cellphones and churches and foodstuffs. I’m not enough of a cynic to think that’s all that’s left of Filipino culture, so over the next few days I’ll make efforts to sightsee less and speak more with people on the street. My Uncle is making arrangements for me to visit a rice mill, and sometime in the next few days I plan on venturing up to the ice plant my Uncle owns. I’ll say one thing for the people in this area–they’re extremely kind and hospitable, particularly in comparison to the folk in Manila, who seem to be too busy shopping or texting to do anything but stare at me.

I’m suffering from a certain amount of anxiety over the fact that my aunt here, the vice-president of the university, has arranged for me to give a lecture. I said, “you’re going to make me work on my vacation?” and she said, “It’s not work…consider it paying your rent.” Fair enough.

I don’t give lectures very often–my classes in California are predominantly discussion-based and discursive in nature, and beyond that, what the hell am I going to talk about? My standard academic coping strategy kicks in: procrastinate. Maybe a lecture topic will come to mind at the rice mill? Yes…a lecture entitled: “Got Rice?”

Happy Whatever

December 13, 2003 — 4 Comments

Now that I’m back in Manila from a 5-day trip to Cebu and Bohol, I’m going to break the chronology of posts just to say Happy Whatever to etherfarm readers everywhere.

I’m spending a delightful xmas with extended family and all the wonderful characters featured in Disney’s Holiday on Ice, an event at which I’m told my presence is mandatory.

Have a good one, folks.

note: this message was written on xmas, but I’m going to change the entry date temporarily to better fit the chronology of posts from my trip. I’ll change it back to December 25, 2003 when I return from the Philippines.


December 13, 2003 — Leave a comment

If it’s true that American life revolves around the television, it could definitely be said that Filipino life revolves around the cell phone.

Several times already I’ve been at a restaurant, people watching, and I’ve noticed that groups of 2-6 people sit around a big table saying nothing to each other. They’re all looking at their phones.

Text messaging (or ‘texting’ as they call it here) is a phenomenon largely absent in the U.S. Thank the gods. You think talking on a cell phone is distracting while driving? Try avoiding a driver whose attentions are diverted towards texting. Personally, while I can see how sending short messages could be useful in some cases, I can’t stand it. I’d almost rather hand-write a letter (something I haven’t done in years).

It’s my prediction that in a mere 500 years, Filipinos’ thumbs will evolve to itself have thumbs to facilitate easier texting.

The thing is that everyone has a cellphone here, and almost no one uses them for talking. Texting is cheap: 1 peso (currently 56 pesos for 1 US dollar) per sent message, so even squatters have cellphones.

A large fraction of the Philippines economy is dedicated to accessorizing cellphones. I challenge anyone to come to Manila and spend more than ten seconds in any public place and not hear a cellphone ring. The Philippines could easily double its landmass (and maybe its productivity) if everyone tossed their cellphones into the ocean.

I’m not particulalry fond of cellphones in general. The idea that one needs to be in touch all the time disturbs me. That said, if I’m going to do anything by myself while here, I’m going to need a cellphone, if only to quell my relatives’ anxieties. Unlocked phones are cheap here, so I plan on getting one which connects wirelessly to my Palm device so that I can check email, post to etherfarm, and “text” without having to use the damn keypad on the phone.

update: got an unlocked, refurbished, and cheap Sony Ericson T68i which works great for text, web and email via bluetooth and my Palm T3. I’m thrilled to have something productive to do while waiting for busses and planes and boats, all of which have yet to arrive and/or depart on time.

Yesterday I spent time with one of my favorite cousins. Back in the 80’s, he spent a few of his vacations from his alma mater, West Point, with my family in Illinois. I fondly recall his first encounter with snow; he took it in his hands and put it on his face, smiling all the way towards frostbite.

We didn’t do much. We met his dad, Uncle General, for lunch, then I waited at a mall while my cousin had a meeting at Starbucks with a client. The malls here are full clones of upscale malls in the US, with the single exception that perhaps the muzak is a little more upbeat on this side of the Pacific.

My activities for today, however, were arranged while in Uncle General’s office. One of Uncle’s friends found out about my penchant for fishing and offered to take me to a fishing cove on Manila Bay. I’m not one for deep sea fishing, really–it’s a little too dependent on luck for my tastes, but I agreed, hoping to see some of the Bay.

Well, the day didn’t really get off to a great start. There was an accident on the highway, which turned three lanes of regular bumper-to-bumper traffic into a five-lane parking lot. I’m still adjusting to the time, so I slept and about an hour and a half later, woke up at the fishing place.

It was a cove alright. And as far as I could tell, it was on Manila Bay. But deep sea fishing would not be on the roster of today’s activities. The place was a restaurant and the gimmick was you get to catch your own meal (or just pay for the fish by the pound). The fish–milkfish (or bangos, as it’s called in Tagalog), were delicious and plentiful, though none found their way to the hook at the end of my line.

As I’ve come to expect in Manila, We spent about two hours there and about four getting there and back. I’d like to articulate just how bad the traffic is here, but calling it traffic implies a level of organization which just doesn’t exist. Lights and lanes mean nothing to anyone. There’s a policeman at almost every intersection, but they just don’t care. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see them leaned up against a concrete post, sleeping.

One was doing just that at the intersection of Burgos St. and Roxas Blvd. on the way back from the fishbarrel fishing cove. As the main entrance to Intramuros and the site of the famous Manila Hotel, it’s a rather conspicuous place, and it’s here that many beggars congregate to peer into cars, banging windows with amputated limbs, asking for money. Four hours of sleep made it all rather surreal, and I was deliriously contemplating the sleeping policeman’s lack of concern for job security when I heard the following from Uncle General’s friend:

“Would you like to see my cock?”

I turned my head and looked at him, wondering if he said what I thought he said. I responded, “Excuse me?”

He asked, eagerly, “You want to see me fight my cock?”

It took me a few moments to realize he wasn’t proposing a WWF-style smackdown with his manhood, he was talking about pitting two roosters against each other. After recovering from the mental images spawned by his queries, I told him I just wanted to go home and take a nap. He said, “Maybe next time.”

Maybe next time indeed.