The end of the Philippines, a return to Thailand, and A Comment On The Evils of Karaoke

Last sunset in Coron

Jen and I have now gone in our separate directions, and while Jen has filled you in on what she has been up to, I so far haven’t told my side of the story. So here goes…

Our last stop together in the Philippines was a town called Coron, located on the island of Busuanga, off the northern tip of the island of Palawan. Coron was the sight of a famous battle in World War Two. With an entire fleet of Japanese warships moored in the harbour, the Americans launched a surprise attack, sinking the entire fleet and setting the stage for the future invasion of Coron by budget dive operators anxious to take you on underwater tours of the wrecks. With only one free day together before Jen had to return to Manila, we had planned a day of diving together. But unfortunately it was not to be - I awoke the morning of our tour sick as a dog and spent the rest of the day in bed with a high fever. That makes twice since passing our dive course that we’ve booked a dive trip, only to have one of us wake up sick. I guess we’re just not meant to dive!

I was feeling marginally better the next day, and so Jen and I at least got to spend some time together before I saw her off that afternoon. Evan meanwhile had started his PADI Open Water course, which gave me three days to recover and relax. Our hotel was situated on a pier, with a great patio and hammocks overlooking the bay, in which I spent most of my hours. And while doing so, I discovered that Philippine karaoke is Cruel and Sadistic.

The Taiwanese love their Karaoke. And Jen and I loved Taiwanese karaoke as well - it was a huge amount of fun. You head out to one of the Karaoke centres - usually a building about 10 stories tall, filled with hundreds of private karaoke rooms (they REALLY love their karaoke!) You rent your own private room with a pile of friends and then proceed to make fools of yourselves all night singing these ridiculous songs. It’s a blast.

Philippine karaoke is entirely different. A Philippine karaoke parlour is just one room, just a bar, and anyone who wants to sing does so in front of whoever happens to be in the room at the time - friends, family, complete strangers. While Taiwanese karaoke is done in complete, sound-proof privacy, Philippine karaoke is a very public exercise. And they also love their karaoke there - they REALLY love it.

The unfortunate result was that over my three days of recovery at that hotel in Coron, the karaoke bar on the neighbouring pier engaged in a systematic and ruthless assault on my sanity by continually and mercilessly subjecting me to some of the most horrid singing ever to be broadcast over high-powered speakers, beginning daily at 10 in the morning and not ceasing until the middle of the night. Unless I was lucky and got a short reprieve when we were struck by one of the town’s frequent brownouts (”Damn those guys at the power plant!”, swore the proprietor of the local internet cafe, watching his rows of computer screens go black. “They just turn off the power so people have to use their diesel generators. Those assholes that work the power plant are the guys that sell the diesel!”). At the end of all of this I had turned into such a quivering ball of jelly that I decided to hop the next plane out to Thailand with Evan, where I am currently relaxing on the island of Koh Pha Ngan trying to regain my senses.

Actually it was really more of a laugh than anything. Coron was a great little town overall, on just a beautiful island, and at some point Jen and I will have to return, not get sick, and put some time into exploring the above- and underwater environments on offer. But with the flu still holding a grip after three days there, I decided I really wasn’t up for any more exploring of the Philippines over the end of my trip, and I instead took off to a beach I knew, where I could end my Asian adventures with some relaxation.

But tomorrow is the start of the trip home. I head out in the morning for Koh Samui to catch a flight back to Bangkok. Sunday I fly to Hong Kong, and then on Tuesday I finally leave Asia for Vancouver. Home soon.

Volunteer Work in the Philippines

Today was my official first day of volunteering in the Philippines. For those of you interested, I signed up through the Global Volunteer Network based in New Zealand. They’ve got a lot of volunteer opportunities around the world. I’m working directly with an NGO called Center For Volunteerism (CERV) in the Philiipines.

Right now I am in Manila for two days training and orientation to help get my feet on the ground. Today we learned a lot about the history of the Philippines and why they are currently in the situation that they are in. Raymund, the director of CERV, told us about how the Philippines were first occupied by Spain and then later the USA. Filipinos were treated as very inferior during these times and many suffered a great deal or were killed. Apparently Manila used to be a gorgeous city with a lot of spectacular buildings and cathedrals made of marble and gold - the city was actually designed by the Americans to mimic Washington D.C., and if I remember correctly, it was actually designed by the same person who designed Chicago. But in World War II, the Japanese came down to the Philippines and eventually made their way into Manila. The Americans decided to attack the Japanese by bombing the hell out of Manila. The US won, but consequently Manila was completely destroyed, and the Filipino people were left alone to pick up the pieces.

Girls in the slums of Manila

Ever since then, the Philippines has never been the same. They are stuggling a lot and the government is corrupt. 40% of government money goes to pay off debt and 30% is reported to be used for various “government needs”. That only leaves 30% for everything else, which leads the country into a large crisis, especially in social programs like health care and education.

I am heading to Tablas island in the province of Romblon on Sunday, and there I will be teaching kids. I am going to be living with a Filipino family. Other than this, I don’t know what to expect! I’m nervous, but very excited about it all.

So far the staff Raymund, Pom, Eden and Vincent are great and making Lucie, the other volunteer (from Switzerland), and I feel very welcome. Everyone is very kind and seems to have a great sense of humour.

Anyway, time to go, so more on my experience later!

Woo! What An Amazing Place.

Well, the Philippines is a very interesting place to say the least. New scenery, new smells, new food, and new modes of transportation (ie. “tricycle”: a motorcycle with an attached sidecar, “jeepney”: see Jon’s previous post). The people here are all a part of the fun too - they’re easy going, full of smiles, and like to chat. We are often greeted here with “Hello Sir” or “Hello Ma’am”, which at first comes off as a little strange, but you get used to it. When passing people in the street, you are always acknowledged with a “hello” or a raise of the eyebrows or a nice smile. Despite the poor conditions some of the people live in here, everyone seems to be generally happy.

This past week and a half we have been hanging in Palawan - an extraordinarily beautiful place. It’s a bit difficult to get your way around from town to town, but Jon, Evan and I have seemed to manage okay. One highlight included an 8-hour bus ride packed with locals through the jungle along some good muddy stretches. Tires were changed a couple times. Imagine a large jeepney with all the bags on the roof with the “bag guys” who sit up on the roof the whole trip to watch them. It was actually a really enjoyable trip scenery wise. There is so much beautiful vegetation in Palawan. You go through stretches of jungle, and then here and there you pass a nipa hut with a few kids running around and waving at you. Each nipa hut had water buffalo, pigs, dogs and chickens hanging around without any concern that a big bus full of people was driving by.

A typical beach in Palawan

Palawan is so beautiful, it’s hard to believe sometimes what you are seeing. There are beautiful islands and beaches and limestone karsts jutting up from the blue-green ocean. There are secret lagoons and spectacular caves to check out too. Apparently there’s some treasure to be found around the Philippines too… If you’re reading this and you’re a pirate, the Philippines is where to come. Arrgh! Throw the carrrcass overboarrrd! Anyway, this makes for lots of adventuring around, which we managed to do a lot of. We were able to hire a private boat to ourselves for 2 days to check out caves, go snorkeling and just relax on the beach when we felt like it. On the downside, there seems to be a lot of coral damage around, which we are unsure of the exact reason for it (dynamite or cyanide fishing maybe?). Nevertheless, we were able to find some pretty amazing reefs and fish to check out. And, as a bonus, we were 3 of very few foreigners around. You can’t ask for more when you’ve got a gorgeous place all to yourself!

Evan has fantastic rain attire

So things have been great all around! The trip has especially been fun with Evan hanging around - you can’t beat his sarcastic humour and fantastic rain attire. But, things are also changing very soon - Evan’s off to Thailand in a few days for some lazing around at the beach and mingling with the ladies. I’m off to Tablas Island in the province of Romblon here to do some volunteer work for 2 months. Jon’s got 2 more weeks before he heads home to sort out his life in Vancouver before he starts (gasp) law school.

So… lots of change, nervousness and excitement to come!

As for friends in Taiwan and back in Canada - we’re thinking of you a lot and miss you tons!

No more teaching, and on to paradise

Well, that’s done with.

The past two weeks have been hell. Exams, marking exams, writing student reports, and then finally teaching was over. But no relief, as the end of teaching only ushered in a frantic 4-day rush to pack up all our possessions, throw them in boxes, toss them on a ship and hope that they arrive in Canada in one piece. Finally, finally it was done, just in time to hop into a cab and make a mad rush for the airport for our flight to Manila. We made it just in time, and three hours later we found ourselves in the jeepney and exhaust-filled traffic chaos that is Manila.

What’s a jeepney? Take a WW2-era jeep, cut it in half, lengthen it by a couple metres, weld it back together, toss a couple bench seats facing sideways in the back, and you have the Philippine version of public transit. Before it hits the streets, be sure to paint it silver and adorn it with a thousand multi-coloured pieces of flare to show your jeepney-driving pride.

We just spent one night in Manila, just enough time for Jen to meet up with her volunteer organization and to deliver her ten-tonne suitcase full of donated books for Philippine schools that had been dragging down the tail of the plane and throwing my back out all the way from Taipei. We spent the night there, and the next morning, caught another two-hour cab ride back to the airport where we hopped a flight to Boracay - Boracay, pride of the Philippine tourist industry, with white-sand beaches, turqoise waters, manicured resorts and countless requests for you to part with your money. It was a great time. We met up with our friends Dave and Yumi from Taipei and had three days of relaxation. But the resort scene isn’t what we came to the Philippines looking for, so after the third day we left the island of Boracay for the neighbouring island of Panay and caught a minivan south for the city of Iloilo.

The drive there was spectacular. Inland, the island was covered in green verdant hills shrouded in mist, with rice farms worked by water buffalo-drawn ploughs on the coastal lowlands. Five hours later, much of it through driving rain, we arrived.

Judging by the stares, not many tourists come through Iloilo. In fact we didn’t see anyone else immediately recognizeable as a foreigner the whole time we were there, with the exception of the many Koreans who travelled there to attend English school. We have in fact been generally surprised about the amount of English that there is here in the Philippines. The country is a strange mix of languages reflecting its colonial past - names are almost all Spanish in origin, but street signs and advertisements are almost universally in English, with the odd few written in Tagalog, itself a blend of local languages with Spanish. The resulting creole tosses you just enough recognizable phonetically-spelled Spanish words that you can almost fool yourself into thinking you understand it. We spent a day in Iloilo travelling around the nearby island of Guimaras, famous for its mangoes, visited a mango plantation, and came home with more mango products than I knew existed. Dried mango, mango jerky, mango pickles, mango jam, and mango poisoning. I’m not sure about the mango poisoning yet, but if such a thing exists, we’re going to get it in the next couple days.

This morning we caught a flight out to Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan. Palawan is to the Philippines what Borneo is to Indonesia and Malaysia - a remote paradise renowned for its natural beauty and biodiversity, covered in lush tropical jungle and ringed with pristine waters, white beaches and coral reefs. We’ll be spending the rest of our time together on this island, working our way north, and when Jen has to leave on the 19th, I just may spend my last ten days here as well.

Tomorrow my good old friend Evan Thomas, who many of you may know, is joining us, and we’ll be travelling together for the next week and a half. He’s on a vacation between getting called to the bar and starting his job with the big law firm. Which reminds me that I haven’t written anything about my plans after our holiday here. While Jen heads off to the island of Romblon to volunteer for two months, I’ll be spending another week in the Philippines and a couple days in Hong Kong before flying back to Vancouver on July 31st, this time to stay. This September I’ll be starting law school at UBC. So big changes in store, but I’m looking foward to it. And most of all, I’m looking forward to coming home.