Off to the islands with a less than conscientious captian.
The Philippines isn’t a likely destination for the bicycle tourist due to it’s inaccessibility and the somewhat unfair media it gets. I was planning on arriving by boat but the American media blew the whole supposed terrorist situation out of proportion that the locals chocked and vetoed all access to the troubled island of Mindanao. For those however who do make the effort of trying to cycle the islands, with over 7,000 of them on offer, rewards will be sweetly reaped! Also if you are a boat fan like myself, the Philippines is the place to get your fix.
I arrived into Clark airport north of manila in a deliberate attempt to avoid the well documented yet not so easily avoided scams in Manila International Airport. Being scammed right off the mark is never the best start to a journey in a new country so instead I happily pedalled out of Clark old military airport with no hitches. In no time I was cycling past the most infamous red-light district of Los Angeles thoughtfully catering for the military base and made a beeline for the central business district of Manila…..until the monsoon rains hit that is!
Bed in a market.
Backstreets, old town.
As they say when it rains it pours and Manila was no exception. Raindrops the size of 5 cent coins limited my visibility to 1 metre and within minutes the water level had reached my pedals. Literally all traffic came to a standstill and those brave enough to attempt to walk in the waist deep water were contributing their flip flops to the ever increasing river of flip flops formally known as the highway. The local beggars stripped down to their underwear (or perhaps that is all they were wearing in the first place) and attempted to collect the floating flip flops, I shudder to think what other diseases they were collecting as they brushed past dead rodents and other deceased furry friends. Sitting in amazement in the elevated viewpoint from a streetside coffeeshop, I will never forget the sight of drowned rat and cat floating by as casually as the 11A bus back home. It immediately brought flashbacks from the Ganges river in India, with dead animals substituting humans drifting past! Welcome to wild Manila!
Heart wrenching, slum child.
...and her neighbours. Words fail sometimes.
With the karaoke bars and honking horns as the soundtrack I made heavy work of exploring Manila. The Jeepneys (colourfully adapted mini-vans) ,metro, numerous buses and a few entrepreneurial motorcyclists make navigating Manila a possibility but a long drawn out one. On average I reckon I spent minimum 4 hours a day in transport during my stay there. Manila is disparaged by many tourists and I can’t argue it’s blemishes but surely one expects that from a megacity. Manila is manic but it has a human feel which a lot of megacities don’t have. Although the Jeepneys look like they are gunning for you as you attempt to cross the road I am pretty sure they would stop at the last second…..although I was not brave enough to test this theory! Underlying the mayhem, chaos, corruption and shambolic nature of the city is a population of jovial, laid back locals with a unique sense of humour I miss dearly.
Manyan tribal home.
The food in the Philippines is certainly for the more adventurous among us. By the sea the wealth of fish in an adoba (vinegar and garlic) sauce was a gastromic delight. The dishes in some more remote places were more of a resourceful nature. Pig lungs are delicious to the locals and digestible to the polite guest. Balut or vile embryonic eggs were again to my dismay featured on many a menu and a treasured gift to cyclist which was a greatly appreciated gesture purely in its symbolic form. Sometimes my stomach is simply not as diplomatic as my morals. Aso dog meat stew is also a hit and no less prized is Bayawak monitor lizard which is often served BBQ’d. Throughout my travels I have eaten many unidentifiable meats and fauna which has left me with the constitution rather akin to that of a goat. That said the Philippines provided many an opportunity to test it. Beetles sat replacing garnish on top of many a bowl of soup. First presumed by accident but its frequency led me to think by design. Steemed ants nests was really an unforgettably trying moment but with a room of eager staring eyes I somehow managed to perform an outer body experience chanting “mind of matter” repeatedly in my head and digest some of it. This was much to the relief of the host family as it really is a delicacy (in their eyes) but I seriously hope this will be a one hit wonder party piece on my part. I got quite used to the sight of stuffed intestines as it is the most favoured BBQ snack from the street vendors who hem the streets every afternoon and evening. Blood cubes, chicken heart and liver were fighting for second place but these tipbits popular throughout Asia are as common as peanuts to me at this stage! There were countless other recipes which were nameless but never tasteless and even the locals made hardwork of deciphering what was in them. I doubt consulting the Mitchelin Guide would leave me any the wiser!
The one niggling element of Manila that irritated me is their quest to be America. Every street is adorned with row after row of American fast-food outlets. (jolliebee the grass roots version of Mc Donald’s being the exception) and the generic mall syndrome is prevalent throughout. The most depressing point however is that after a day’s work in Mc Donalds you havn’t even earned enough to buy a Big Mac meal!
Never saw a digital camera before....explaining zoom lens was not in my Philippino vocabulary.
The train from a young age.
The old centre of Intramuros aside, Manila is not a beautiful city but it does captivate you. From the controversial cockfights, to inner city slums and infectious all night karaoke, Manila was a city I unexpectedly enjoyed.
First on my hitlist in the old town of Intramuros was a museum which I thought would equip me with some background knowledge to try and appreciate what I was seeing around me. Alas no one was stirring in the building and I eventually discovered it was closed for maintenance. Across the street however there was indeed some stirring. I casually asked the nearby security man was the gathering of people a family event “Of sorts” “ What do you mean of sorts?” “The daughter has stabbed her mother and they are trying to see will she live”. A reassuring nougat of information to leave the old town with!
My favourite character from Manila.
Old town, Intramuros.
Bananna farmer, Mindoro.
Makes cycling around the world easy....
Quest to be America. Actualy I didn't ask them to pose surprisingly enough...
A pattern has been developing in my travel route of late. The seasons have not been in my favour and have found myself following the monsoons or perhaps it’s just my Irish blood in search of it’s rain quota. Due to the scale of the Philippines my plan was to head to the Visayas as they are the most sheltered of the islands from the undesirable hurricanes and monsoons…..unless the hurricanes come solely with tailwinds! The most memorable of the Islands for me was undoubtedly Mindoro.
Overshadowed by it’s touristic neighbour Boracay, Mindoro manages to keep its local charm in tact. I am not the only person to be attracted to this charm as the island boasts a riot of retired expats with beer bottle and young Philippino wife in tow. I was always incredibly sceptical of these marriages particularly after Thailand but after speaking with a few of these local women I can now understand why they married them. By marrying a foreigner they instantly have financial security, the husband normally appreciates that he is a very lucky man to get such a beautiful wife and treats her well. Her only alternative is to stay with her unemployed and consequently escapist drunk and sometimes violent boyfriend/husband. A lot of these escapist drunks also die very young from liver cancer (often as young as 28) and then the wife is damaged goods sent to the fields to try and support her children alone. I’m painting a very negative view of the Philippines but this extreme case is obviously not always the case. When the reality is explained bluntly to you I certainly am in no position to judge and can’t blame them for racing to the dock eagerly awaiting the next shipment of eligible retired men.
Ah my favourite, intestines for dinner.
"Illegal" cockfight the police man directed me to.
Mindoro is divided into east and west by the impassable mountain ranges. It offers secluded beaches, coves and rich tribal communities. The remoter parts particularly in the west are almost a law unto themselves with their beliefs and traditions firmly intact due to their remote location. The Philippines offers many treasures like this waiting to be explored but on more than one occasion I did have to admit defeat and swap the bike for a boat as landslides make heavy work of the roads to the point of impassable even when kitted with mountain bike tyres. Swapping pedal for paddle only added to the experience of discovering the islands and was a fitting way to enjoy the water while not actually get wet…theoretically anyway. (My spider bite was finally well on the mend and I didn’t want to chance it getting infected in the water)
Comprising 10% of Mindoros population it’s no wonder that when going off the beaten track many of the Mangyan tribal villages can be seen. They can be spotted happily continuing their traditional livelihoods of swidden farming in the dry season and hunting wild pig, monkeys and anything with a heartbeat in the wet season. The women can often be seen making the long trek to the touristic areas such as Puerto Galero to sell their handicrafts. After being involuntarily involved in many a war by the Spanish, Americans and their own, it’s remarkable that their culture is still striving 800 years later. After meeting them I can only presume it was their courage, vitality and sheer tenacity that carried them through.
My time was undoubtedly too short in the Philippines but despite the set back of the boat from Malaysia and an impending flight to Japan I uncovered enough of the Philippines to know that I will return. Of all the islands and coastlines I have seen throughout South East Asia , in my eyes the Philippines wins every time. Apart from the great memories I will also leave the Philippines with a new skill of fishing. A special thanks to Oliver and Japoy my excellent teachers, boatmen and company who are now responsible for turning me off eating fish after catching Nemo…..I guess the Sushi in Japan will soon iron out that fear!
The three musketeers, Japoy, Oliver and Kate go fishing!