Letter Bridge 3: Letting Mom in on the fun

Manila Travel Blog

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"Kindly leave your fire arms at the door before entering"


The sign greets an unsuspecting Canadian diner in Manila. I just want some food, see. A lot like Nicaragua, all this gun toting, except where, in Central America blue uniformed private-infantrymen-cum-security-guards stood vigil outside such bastions of civilization as banks and jewelry stores, asking that you park your weapons before entering... well, here they're even needed to guard the restaurants.


Keeps one musing while slurping one's bowl of "special Korean noodles". The octopus tentacles staring back at me warily with their suction cup eyes.


On my way back from Banaue, I ran into a couple of Swiss girls, who were also heading back to Manila.

Guesthouse, Sagada
One had short dark hair. She was an "alternative radio personality" and packed a k.d. lang kind of persona. We got to talking as we sipped bad instand coffee and waited for our respective buses. She and her companion (probably an artsy lesbian pair) are on their way down a different route: from here to Pakistan, then east to the silk road into China, then west to Europe via the trans Siberian highway.


Gosh. & I thought I was being adventurous! We chatted about women on the road and she struggled to push the word solidarity through the language barrier (I've got no German... yet)


There's a story in the pages just of these travel encounters...


While in Manila, I had to decide what to do with a six week gap in my flights, since a planned trip over to Papua New Guinea fell thru. I decided to move on with only a brief stop in Thailand, after toying with the idea of entering a Buddhist monestary for a month-long stay.

Typical building, Sagada


I would extend my time in India, instead.




April 11/93

Manila Philippines


Dear Mom,


It's always hard trying to sum up weeks of new experiences (scrapes, irritations, inspirations and the mundane).

Rice terraces
  I've been plugging off letters and postcards for the last week, trying not to say the same thing every time.  Today I fly to Bangkok.  I have decided to spend only 1 or 2 weeks there and then move on to India.  I did some reading and relaxing in the northern parts of Luzon here in the Philippines, and my India handbook kept hinting at strange and wonderful things in that land.  the past three weeks have been both trying and exciting--as usual.  I spent the first five days in Manila arranging for a Thai visa so I could stay more than two weeks  (now a wasted effort).  And Manila isn't the greatest place to be stuck in for five days.  Like every third world city I've seen (and really, almost every big city anywhere), this place is inhospitable, noisy, aggressive, dirty, and polluted.  But the pension I've been staying in is comfortable, and there's a small cafeteria in its basement that opens onto a rare city garden, complete with palm trees and tropical blossoms--an oasis of sorts.  That's where I am now as I write this letter.


A couple of weeks ago I spent most of my time here too.  Awaiting my visa, and avoiding the hassles of the men and the touts who were always wanting: "Come with me Missus."  "You take ride in my rickshaw."  "Hey missus."  After 26 hours on planes and in airports, I needed the rest then.  And after my first night, I was more than happy to find this touristy guesthouse with its garden sanctuary.  'Cuz that first night Mom, was hell.  Getting off the plane after 1:00am, taking the last available spot in a booked up city, I slept (sorta) with my knife in hand.  Waking  every half hour or so, until finally I could clear out at 6:00 am.  The place was off a dirty unlit alley, see, no locks on the outer doors.  The "common" bath--without running water, shit everywhere, no mirror, no way to wash, and no curtains across the dirty broken windows, neither there, nor in my "room".  No sheets on the grubby stained sack-of-lumps mattress, and of course, no one else in the other rooms (who'd be crazy enuf to stay here?).  Phantom footsteps in the alley.


Not exactly an auspicious start to this leg of the journey...


& it seems I always have trouble with accommodations.  Probably the one thing I'd appreciate about traveling with others instead of alone: with others, one person would watch the bags while another scouts for beds.  When I got to Banaue, my first stop up north, I also had trouble.  The place I'd hoped to stay at was booked.  i had lugged myself and my pack a half kilometer up the hill roads and stepped walks to get there(the town is built on a mt. slope)--all this after an awful 11 and 1/2 hour bus ride, where the bus blew a tire and we had to wait around under the mid-day glare of a hostile sun to fix it.  THEN.  …to be turned away at the door.


"Okay, Gayle" I tell myself, "Pick up the stuff"  puff. puff.  "You can do it; just another 15 min. walk to another joint."  sweat.  sweat.  "Stiff upper lip, eh?"  Near collapsed with the effort.


So I spent another five days recuperating. This time in Banaue.  But it was worth it in the end.  the horrendous stretch of clear-cut desertified hills gives way to beautiful green mountains a few hours before arriving at Banaue, and this town itself, with the surrounding valleys of the Cordellera  mountains is spectacular!  the slopes of the valley are completely terraced for rice planting.  The green fields like gigantic steps scaling the mountains.  Old women with straw baskets on their backs bent over, transplanting rice-lings.  You follow paths along the edges of the terraces and up the hills to tiny villages where the people live in thatch and mud huts.  Their network of houses connected by steep paths scattered dogs and pigs and chickens.  and the little girls along the way all offering their assistance: "I take you to waterfall Mam."  "You need guide Mam?"  "You pay me what you want.  I use the money to buy books, Mam, for school."


At night I stand on the balcony and watch the sun set on the greens of the terraces, and I listen to the barking dogs, and the tuk-tuk of the motorcycles as they taxi-ply the few roads.


Roads are scarce here: vehicles and buses ramshackle because the terrain isn't made for anything but walking.  The "tracks" are more ruts and landslides than roads.  The odd uniquely Filippino jeepenies (jeeps garishly painted and modified to carry perpetually-squished-in passengers) are always breaking down.  On the way to my next stop (Sagada)  we also had a breakdown.  Again in the middle of no-where.


When I did eventually make it to Sagada, I found an intriguing edge-of-time kind of village surrounded by pine covered mountains and limestone caves.  I stayed in a wonderful place built into a limestone wall.  Looking all the world like it belonged in the Swiss alps.  Yet it was very much Philippino.  The large family who run the place are kept constantly busy dealing with water shortages, power shortages, the pig barn when an animal needed feeding or slaughtering (a side business), or they're busy building a new path of steps up to the place, or with providing a never ending supply of beer for the patrons.  The children ranged from about 16 years old to about 2, and only the toddler was exempted from a full day's work.  Everyday.  I've never seen children work so hard, so much of the day, without complaining.  Brenda, the oldest, polishes the wood floors every morning: using the half shell of a cocoanut--push scraping it back and forth, back and forth with her left foot, as if it were a skate and she were on ice.


& I've met lots of interesting people en route.   We spend time swapping stories about where we've been and what we've seen.  Sometimes I feel like I'm just a beginner at all of this; when I run into a British man, for instance, who spent 11 years in Uganda before Idi Amin, whose been to Central America, all over Africa and Asia, and is now a consulting lawyer to the Chancellor in Hong Kong. He’s here on vacation in the Philippines, visiting his Filippina wife's family.  A bombastic old colonial, he has stories of pulling out of Africa during civil war, and dealing with China as Hong Kong works out the terms of re-unification.


It's all part of the experience.


Tho, of course, there are times when I'm just plain wiped out as well.  And then I wonder why I bother.  Like the day before last.  I got to Baguio--my last stop on the way back to Manila.  I was peacefully wandering the city streets, taking in the festival air of the Filippino tourists who flock here over the Easter holidays (mostly to avoid Manila's heat and smog).  It wasn't until Good Friday that I realized I was going to be in trouble.  Because there were 200,000 people visiting this town of not much more than 200,000 people.  And by Saturday night, they are all looking for a way to get back to Manila.  Every bus outta there that could be booked was booked...thru to Monday.  MY PLANE FOR BANGKOK LEFT SUNDAY.


So, equipped with a horrible mountain-air cold, and the first day of my period, I had to get up at 2:00 am Saturday morning and lug my stuff to the chaotic bus terminal of the one company that didn't take advance reservations.  Me and hundreds of other panic stricken travelers mulled about hoping for a ticket on the 3:00 am bus heading for Manila.


It was a weary wait and an even wearier ride, but I made it.  & you know, Mom, there was a moment, as the sun began to rise, turning the sky amber over the open rice fields of the central plateau (the scattered trees passing my vision in silhouette, and a volcano rising up from the flat stretch, looming like the future) …a moment, when I figured: Yeah, okay.  This really is all worth the effort. And then some!

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Guesthouse, Sagada
Guesthouse, Sagada
Typical building, Sagada
Typical building, Sagada
Rice terraces
Rice terraces
photo by: Deats