This article was modified from a review I wrote of my 2010 trip to the Philippines. That review was written in email format and sent to family and friends. I edited some things and added hyper-links for further explanation and deeper exploration of the subject. This trip to the Philippines was very interesting and served as a good introduction to travel in Asia. I hope you enjoy reading it.
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I received a ride to the Allentown bus depot for a 2 hour bus trip to Newark International Airport. This began my long journey. First leg of the flying part of the trip was about 17 hours to Hong Kong. The plane was behind schedule when we arrived in HK and we were immediately ushered (running) to the next terminal for the connecting flight to Manila. 2 hours to Manila, I arrived just before midnight, then I waited there until 4:00AM to catch my connection to Davao City, another 2 hours of flying where I was met by David, his girlfriend, Emile and her Aunt Elsa. I have to say, I hate Continental Airlines (I had to laugh when I heard the news of Continental Airlines going out of business in 2011) for a host of reasons, not the least of which they lose my luggage almost every time I fly! The planes are dirty, the food is horrible and the flight attendants are often rude and cold. By contrast, Philippine Airways planes are immaculately clean, the food is delicious and the flight attendants are attentive, attractive and graciously sweet.
Arrived in Davao on time 6:00AM but no sign of my luggage. I checked with the supervisor and was assured that it would be there on the next flight, approximately 3 hours later. So we set out for a tour of Davao City and something for breakfast to kill some time as my luggage was en route. Well, I can tell you that as we drove around it was quite a stark difference from anywhere else I had ever been. Europe has its historical architecture and it is easy to see the connection of Western cultural roots and many folks there speak English but this was foreign in so many ways: the air quality in the city was dismal, the sight of so many economically depressed people who live in nothing more than tiny shacks with tarps or corrugated aluminum roofs and dirt floors, was overwhelming. Carbon monoxide, dust and smoke and dirt permeate the air, street vendors sell everything from sunglasses to food to retreaded tires. Squalor and filth abound, yet there seems to be a level of contentment and real happiness among these people…more on that observation to come.
David decided to stop for food at a place in close proximity to the immigration office so he could renew his visa for another year. As Elsa and I waited in the van we were approached by several beggars, 2 of them children, and Elsa declined to give them anything so I followed suit as is my normal habit even at home. This is a scene I would see repeatedly during my stay. Only about 9:00AM but feeling warm and sticky with a haze developing. I was hungry and wanting to go shower, but without luggage I would be without a change of clothes. Fortunately, before we left the airport Emile had acquired the telephone number of the man who said my luggage would arrive in a few hours. She was very persistent in calling repeatedly and respectfully demanding info on the whereabouts of my luggage. Nice to have a native speaker to deal with this type of problem. To use up the time we went for breakfast/lunch or what ever it should be……I was a little foggy from all the travel and not quite sure what day it was or what time it was. I did know, though, I was “not in Kansas anymore”!
First meal at a little fast food joint: David had Arroz Caldo, in China it is called Congee, a rice porridge with a chicken leg in it. This dish, minus the chicken was what David recently cooked for 300 street children in Tagum City as the start of his Feed The Children endeavor. He used his own money to do this and now is working with The Chef and Child Foundation to get a regular program together and to take it to the next level of developing a food bank in his area and beyond. I had a beef noodle dish that the locals refer to as Mami or Lumi (beef, greens, onions in a tasty broth). Emile and Elsa I think had a simple noodle dish.
Then, after a little shopping for sandals for me and a few items for the girls, Emile called again and was informed that my bag was on the incoming flight and should arrive around 11:00AM… okay, then, 3 hours turns into 5 but I think that is what is meant by Philippine time. I was happy to at last have my stuff to brush my teeth and change clothes after I got the chance to shower at David’s place, but we had to drive for an hour up the National Highway to get there.
Off we go to Tagum City with a stop for lunch about halfway between Davao and Tagum. This meal was a variety of items that we all shared. My favorite was Sisig, a sort of hash of tuna (or often made with pork), chopped onions, peppers, and some spice served on a sizzle platter with an egg on top that gets stirred in and cooked from the hot plate. Emile asked if the Sinigan, the national soup of pork broth, greens, and onions with a sour vinegar flavor, was sour and was told yes, very sour. She declined because she prefers it to be not so sour. We also had some BBQ pork (baboy) and BBQ chicken (Lechon = BBQ over coconut charcoal, Manok = the native chicken, all dark meat) and a dish called Kinelaw, fish marinated in rice vinegar and then topped with coconut cream. As a condiment the locals use Calamansi. They call it a lime but it is very small compared to what we recognize as a lime and the inside fruit is orange in color and not terribly sour. This is squeezed into a small side dish and mixed with chili peppers and soy sauce. I think we also had some Pork Adobo. Sometimes made with chicken, Adobo is a relic from Spain, braised with a touch of sesame oil, garlic, seasoning (cinnamon was the secret spice) and soy. This was another of my favorite dishes and I had it a number of times during my stay. Everything is served with rice.
As we drive up the National Highway I am gawking at the sights and David says, “welcome to S.E. Asia”! The vegetation is lush, jungle in this part of the archipelago of over 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippine nation.
I am told that the northern provinces are more savannah and many of the other islands are deep, pristine forests of exotic wood, inhabited by ancient tribes, many of whom have never seen a foreigner. Many of these natives transmigrated over time from other parts of S.E. Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere. All just a short skip across the sea.
I think I lost a day somewhere here, now we jump to Sunday. It is the Festival of Santo Nino/Saint Jesus. Interesting interpretation of Christianity here. Unlike the Western view of Christ as Son of God incarnate to the man Jesus, redeemer of mankind. If I understood things correctly, the Philippine view is one of the Baby Jesus as a gift to the world bringing peace and love to all of humanity. So for this festival we arrived at Emile’s parents’ house around mid-day. Ernesto (Toto) and Matilde (Tilde) are a very warm and loving couple who live in a small 3 room house with 7 other people including children and other extended family members. Elsa lives with them. Tilde is Elsa’s sister and about 33 years her senior! I was told that Elsa and Tilde’s father had 9 children with his first wife and then when she died he remarried and fathered another 6 kids. Hence the huge spread in age between siblings. Elsa works as a Ya-Ya (nanny) for them caring for the children. Toto and Tilde also have a small store connected to the house and a large garden of flowers, including orchids in the yard. Ernesto does a lot of different things to make ends meet. As one of these endeavors he hauls pigs to slaughter in the pig wagon, called a “top down”. For this he is paid 1000 pesos (= about $20 U.S.). He also leases land for coconut and banana harvests….all of it is hard work.
The feast of STO. NINO is the official end of the Christmas season. I was privileged to meet a good many of the family: children, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, first cousins and on and on. Many of the young children were quite shy of this foreigner, with my gray hair and big mustache and of course, I am much taller than the average Filipino man. The show of respect toward elders was so sweet when some of the less shy children will shake your hand as they greet you and press your hand to their forehead as a blessing….very endearing. MABUHAY!!! This is frequently exclaimed by the Philippine people. It means, GOOD LIFE. It speaks directly to an attitude of happiness and enjoyment of life. Coming from our oftentimes neurotic culture of excessive consumption and chase of material wealth but seemingly not finding contentment or happiness, it is refreshing to see such sincere happiness and quite striking to realize how little these people have in terms of worldly possessions, but they are truly happy. Poverty really is a state of mind. I believe the Philippine people have a wealth that many in America and the West have lost sight of: family, contentment, a true sense of enjoying what you have and being thankful for the gift of life.
The feast was a large gathering and we were served a wide variety of foods: BBQ pork belly, Lechon Manok, Pork Adobo, Kinnelaw, another dish called Pancit is a noodle (buckwheat I think) it was served with pork liver (really delicious) and another was made of pork blood called Deniguan, very rich and I could not eat much of it. There was beer from San Miguel and soda pop. Rice served with everything. The girls like to drink their beer with Pepsi! They really have a sweet tooth. David bought a large layer cake at the market before we arrived and that was devoured quickly after the meal. We took pictures of the family, well, most of them and then headed out to go back to David’s place. Salamat = Thank You…..I was deeply touched by the kindness and generosity of this family…. warm and welcoming in a manner I have never before experienced anywhere.
Next day we all went to the Pelinga (pa-linky) which is a large open air market. Stalls with vendors selling rice, fruits and vegetables, fresh and dried or salted fish, fresh meats and poultry. It is poorly lit and by all measure of Western standards, er…..a…. quite unappetizing. This place would be condemned by what we call the Board of Health. There is no refrigeration. Large sections of meats hang out in the open air and are cut to order. Blood runs in a drainage gutter system and the smell can be quite overpowering at times. The vendors are mostly women and when they see a tourist with a camera they love to wave and smile to have their picture taken. Big happy faces greeting me with “hello sir, good morning sir”. I was a bit taken aback by that but got used to it and found it to be another of the warm characteristics of the natives. Many people staring but not in a menacing way. Just curious to see someone from a faraway place. Many pretty young women sort of flirting but not in a crass way. Just sincerely friendly. This was the norm everywhere I went. Friendly people saying hello sir and smiling widely. People will ask “where are you from?” and are delighted to learn about your homeland. Even little school children would stare and I would wave and they would giggle and scurry off……cute, innocent and funny! We purchased food for dinner and then went home and the girls would cook a feast with rice. They eat rice 3 times a day. Rice with eggs or sometimes left-overs from dinner the night before for breakfast, rice with the mid-day meal and of course, rice with dinner. I like rice too so it was good with me.
One evening we went out to the town square after dark and the people come out to eat at the local hot food stalls that line the street for what seems like endless blocks. Chicken, fish, pork, beef all prepared in a variety of ways and served with rice. Then people gather and listen to music in Freedom Park next to City Hall. This is a regular happening. We happened to be out during a brownout that had lasted for several hours that afternoon and evening. The Philippines are part of the “ring of fire“. The next day we were told that there had been an earthquake of approximately 5.5 magnitude, in Davao. We didn’t feel anything. I was also relieved that we didn’t experience any volcanic eruptions!
For my birthday we all (8 people) piled into the van with gear for the cook out and 3 guys on one motorcycle heading for the beach. A trip to the beach is a big family event! Before we left though, we went to the Pelinga to get some food. It was funny (in a yukky kind of way) to me when I handed the vendor money for payment, she made change and counted it out on the bloody hunk of pork that was on her cutting board! EEK!!!! Oh well! Everything is cooked well done so I guess it doesn’t matter. There was fried chicken, BBQ pork belly on skewers, Emile’s Adobo made from leg meat and fish cooked a couple of different ways. We also had Camote, a type of sweet potato they just boil and peel out of the skin to eat after cooling. It was tasty but David and I both told them we like to eat sweet potatoes with salt pepper and butter and even some brown sugar or maple syrup. There is also a purple sweet potato that is very sweet and they make ice cream with it. Before we left the women all got together to do food prep and then when we arrived at the beach the men went right to cooking on the coconut charcoal. Delicious…..and did I mention we had rice with this meal? Another curious thing is they like to swim right after they eat. They also don’t really swim. They just kind of flop around and splash in the water. David and I were the only white folks Caucasians on the beach and the only with swim trunks. Another oddity for the locals was to see our white legs and bare chests! They all swim in shorts and tee-shirts. So at all the cabanas there were folks staring at us open-mouthed… we even had people coming to talk with us and pointing out the fact that we were being looked at by everyone. I thought it was hilarious!
We all went out for dinner one night with another couple, a German expat and his girlfriend. It was a French Bistro owned by a Frenchman named Yves and his Filipina wife. It was a prix fix menu of 3 courses, appetizer, main course and dessert with a glass of wine for 650 pesos. A great deal and a pleasant surprise to find in Tagum City. Also a nice change of pace.
Local grocery stores have a pretty good selection of food for foreigners like canned soups and dried goods not normally found in Asian food stores. Milk is kind of odd. Hard to find due to the fact that many Asians have lactose intolerance but what they get is an ultra-pasteurized product that does not require refrigeration. It comes out of New Zealand as does much of the non-native beef. I am told that what is seriously lacking for the foreigners’ diet is cheeses and smoked sausages…..perhaps this could be a good business opportunity? There are a substantial number of ex-patriots from Germany, U.K., Canada and the U.S. Most live in gated communities away from the locals. The attraction, of course, is the low cost of living and generally pleasant life-style.
I have not eaten at McDonalds in years but one day David and I went to town and he suggested we get lunch at McD’s. I jumped at the chance to have some French Fries….not that they are that good but because at this point, I must admit, I was a little tired of rice. After lunch we went for a massage……no, no, no….I know what you are thinking. It was not the happy ending kind of massage, though they are available also. This was a legitimate therapeutic massage. 1 and 1/2 hours of deep tissue massage and spinal manipulation for 200 pesos. That is roughly $3 U.S. I could not believe it and David had done it before so he recommended we give them 500 pesos total each. They looked at us with jaws dropping “Thank you sir!”. In the states that type of massage would cost between $75 and $100 but even with the tip it cost us only about $10. I will also mention at this point, the dollar goes a very long way in Mindanao. Dinner for 4 and I mean a big spread that you waddle away from the table will cost about $20 – $25. Wow!!! The children that beg for money on the street won’t get money from us but we would give them a bag of our left-overs.
On the second Saturday of my visit, Emile was working, David was doing his online class for Seattle Community
College and Elsa was at school studying for an upcoming exam. I decided to go for a walk. Funny to hear shouts of “Hey Joe” or tricycle drivers tooting their horns and waving at me. At no time did I ever feel threatened or afraid for my personal safety. I happened to walk past where Elsa attends school and apparently she saw me go by. When I got back to the house at 4208 Venus Street (I love that address) David showed me a text message from Elsa. It read something like this: “Good Noon sir David. I saw sir Kevin walking walking. why?” She was quite alarmed and assumed that I was lost or could not get a tricycle driver to drive back to Venus Street. Very sweet. I later explained that I wanted to walk and she thought that was just odd. It was only a mile or 2 from downtown to David’s place but an interesting walk to see all the local places along the way.
Two days before my departure we took a trip to a place called the “Garden of Eden”. It is a large piece of property owned by a prominent lawyer and set in a trust for preservation. There are organic vegetable gardens, groves of fruit trees with mangoes, papayas, cocoa, cashews, dragon fruit, star fruit, lychee nuts, chestnuts and more. There is also a restaurant and day spa and walking trails. It was a lovely drive up the mountain with wonderful vistas of the ocean, mountains/volcanoes and bamboo groves and flowers along the way. The temperature was a little cooler up on the mountain and I found it to be refreshing. Back down the hill to Davao and the smog and grime.
During my stay I learned about the multipurpose uses of coconuts. Of course, there is coconut milk and the meat of the coconut as well as oil but in addition to those common items familiar to Westerners, the coconut trees yield a variety of other items: coconut wine is made then distilled to make a rum drink, (I chose not to try it as I am not much for strong alcohol) the shells are burned for charcoal, the leaves are woven for clothing and other fiber uses. Bananas are also everywhere and unbeknown to me they propagate like brambles or bamboo with runners. The skins are used for pig fodder.
The trip back was long…seemed longer going home. David and the girls drove me to the airport and we said good byes. I was delighted to have made new friends. At the airport I had to pay a fee to leave Davao and then again to leave Manila. I also got stung for a surprise luggage tax and I challenged that because I was leaving with less than when I arrived! I was told I could lose some weight or pay up. Fortunately, I had stashed an extra $50 cash in my wallet for such an unexpected surprise. Actually I could have traveled with much less stuff especially because the girls did laundry every morning. That brings to mind an interesting observation; the school kids are required to wear uniforms even in public schools but of course, they only have one set so they wash their clothes everyday.
Leaving Davao to fly to Manila I bumped into a very friendly Filipino man who sat next to us at dinner at the French place and he remembered the conversation we shared. He was familiar with parts of the U.S. and was warm and welcoming to see an American in his part of the world. He was quite cordial and invited me to please return soon to his country….another example of the hospitable nature of the natives.
As I boarded the plane and found my seat I sat back to dwell on this wonderful visit to such an amazing place. We started down the runway and the flight attendant ask if I would like a beverage. I asked for water and as she handed it to me she spilled it all over my lap….I was glad it was only water! 2 hour flight to Manila Airport arrived at near midnight, there, I recovered my suitcase and retrieved a dry pair of jeans and changed. Then I had to wait until 8:00AM for the next leg of my trip, the flight to Hong Kong. At about 6:00AM the shops in the airport concourse began to open and one offered a 1 hour body massage for $28 U.S. Same deal, deep tissue massage and spinal manipulation. Even at the inflated airport prices it was still a bargain. I tipped an additional 500 pesos or $10 = 30%.
Arriving in Hong Kong this time during daylight hours I was struck by the natural beauty of the airport located on the water and just across there were little islands that rose sharply up out of the sea. It has long been a goal of mine to visit this city and spend some time…..maybe next trip. The HK airport was clean and very state of the art. The security measure for returning to U.S. were quite ridiculous; screen my carry on bag 3 times while I walked through a metal detector each time as well. Then after all of that they actually did individual pat downs of everyone who boarded. Not sure what they hoped to find at that point but I suspect they are fearful of having a plane leave their airport and do some sort of harm on the way to America. The flight from HK left at 10:30AM on the 27th and arrived 15 hours later but at 1:30 PM on the 27th! That time zone thing really caught up with me upon arrival….what day is this? was my overwhelming sense. I caught a cold on the flight back. 15 hours seems like an eternity and I was happy to get my feet back on the ground. Customs was easy as I had nothing to declare. Stamped and greeted with welcome home was nice to hear. I caught the bus back to Allentown and then Ralph was kind enough to pick me up and take me home.
Overall I was delighted with the experience and grateful to David, Elsa, Emile and their family for their wonderful hospitality. Enchanted by the dear friendship, I would love to return and venture a little further into the extensive archipelago. Palawan Island is a place of pristine beauty and Manila nightlife might be fun to fun for a night or two. I was assured I could come back anytime. Salamat and Mabuhay!!!
For any of my friends who may have had their interest piqued, I am told that acquiring a work visa before leaving the states is easy and inexpensive. They are good for one year. Work visas are harder to get once you are there. There are jobs available teaching English as a second language and most everyone speaks some English. David informs me that many of the restaurants and hotels need purchasing agents due to the fact that there is no type of purveyor delivery system. So the chef at any hotel or restaurant must do the buying daily as he goes to market. This is a task that detracts from the main job of running the kitchen. They would welcome qualified help in this area. The women are lovely, gracious and demur. Everyone is friendly, they love Americans.
As an advisory note, I would recommend that you drink only bottled water and naturally get the recommended vaccinations for Typhus, Hepatitis A and B and have your Tetanus booster up to date. Surprisingly, no need for Malaria vaccine if you are not going to venture into the mountains….and we were told not to go into the mountains because there can be trouble. Bandits, Maoists, Islamists etc.
Hope you enjoy the review. I would enjoy hearing comments from of you.