The Philippines

Philippines Travel Blog

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Third weekend in the Philippines

Last weekend, I went to the Island of Puerto Galera to take an open water scuba diving course. It was a long trip and consisted of a jeepney, tricycle, bus and ferry ride and 4 hours of traveling. When I got there Friday evening, it was too late and my instructor and I decided to start at 9 am the next day.

On Saturday I was at the dive shop at 9 watching a video about the basics of diving. By 12 o’clock I was told that there’s another student in the shop who is also starting the course, so I’m going to have a ‘buddy’ which is a good thing because you always dive with a buddy and it’s important to learn the buddy system. At 2 o’clock I was in my wet suit, after breaking two nails trying to put in on, and I was in the pool listening to my instructor telling me to take off my mask and hold my breath under the water, swim across the pool with one breath, take off my BCD jacket and put it back on under the water and share air with my buddy while swimming to the surface. That’s when I realized my fear of water is much more profound than I had estimated and so I decided diving is not for me.

But one thing diving did for me was that it made me realize how I take simple things for granted. Small things like breathing effortlessly, running as fast as I want, whenever I want, and voice that enable us to communicate.

Then just when I thought I was totally in control of my life and nothing could stop or change that, I was asked to enter the water and breathe through a moderator for 10 minutes. I looked at the air tank and thought for the next 10 minutes, my life will depend on this small little device. It scared me but at the same time I had to trust it. I had to let go of control. In order to dive, I had to trust something I had no control over.

I guess that’s another thing diving taught me. That sometimes to accomplish something and to open new horizons, I have to let go of control and let someone else or something else take me there. Letting go of control doesn’t always mean denying myself freedom. It could mean being open to new possibilities and being receptive to what might happen that would take me beyond my limitations. That something or someone could actually take me where I wouldn't be able to go on my own. When the instructor asked me to take my mask off, close my eyes (so my contacts wouldn’t fall off) and let him drag me across the pool, my first reaction was: ‘what if he lets go of me? What if I can’t bring myself to the surface with these heavy weights attached to me, and what if the air tank falls off me?’ I was frightened and angry at myself for being there. But then a voice inside me told me that I have to let the fear go. That I can trust this guy that he won’t let me drown. I held on to his jacket and he turned me around, pulled me to the deep end of the pool and back to where we started. When he finally asked me to open my eyes and stand on my feet, I was relieved and happy to have accomplished something that I've been resisting for years. The ability to let go of control and to trust. And I promised myself to always try to remember that with trust comes great accomplishments.

On a much less emotional and intellectual note, my relationship with Chow King is now a complicated one. I guess my enthusiasm for Yang Chow Fried Rice got the cook’s attention because he sent the cashier and the busboy to find out more about me. Here’s how the conversation went:

After I ordered, I sat at a window table, hungry, and waited for my beloved Yang Chow. A minute later, I found the giggling cashier and the busboy standing next to my table.

Cashier: Hello ma’am!
Me (smiling): Hi!
Cashier: Ma’am, do you have a husband?
Me (with my eyebrows raised as high as they could, not sure if I heard it right): Excuse me?!
Cashier: What’s your name, ma’am?
Me: why?
Cashier: Ma’am, our head chef wants to know your name.
Me: hah?
Cashier: Our head chef wants your phone number too ma’am.
Me: oh …
Cashier: Our head chef wants to get to know you, ma’am.
Me: That’s very nice of him! But why he didn’t come to talk to me himself?
Cashier (giggling): Ma’am, our head chef wants to get to know you later.
Me: Well, tell your head chef that I’m probably too old for him. But thanks anyway.
busboy: How old are you, ma’am?
Me (thinking it wouldn’t hurt to add a couple of years): I’m 35. How old is he?
Cashier: He’s also 30 plus, ma’am.
Me: No, I think I’m much older than him. Thanks though. Bye bye now.

And that was the last time I had Yang Chow ... for now.

Second weekend in the Philippines

Although January is dry season in the Philippines, it’s raining almost everyday. Rain here is a part of life and after a while you just learn to ignore your wet feet and the drops of water falling on your nose, and live your life as you would if it didn’t rain. So when it started raining Friday afternoon, I decided to go on with my plan anyway and pay a visit to Liliw the shoe town. I was expecting to have two jeepney rides, first one to Santa Cruz and then another one to Liliw. But while I was waiting for a jeepney, I saw a bus with Santa Cruz sign. I flagged it down and jumped in. The good thing about Philippines is that you can actually ask the driver where the bus is going, as opposed to taking your chances and hoping for the best.

If you think the buses in Korea are made for small people, then you should check out the buses in the Philippines. Even I, at 5 foot tall, was squeezed between the seats behind and in front of me. And another unusual thing was that vendors get on and off the bus to sell their products, from popcorn to roasted peanuts. The driver, of course, gets his free dose of goodies for allowing the vendors to sell on this bus. At Santa Cruz I got on a jeepney for a not very pleasant an-hour long ride. I was amazed at how something could be so cute and so uncomfortable all at the same time.

When I finally got to Liliw, I thought the painful ride was worth it since I found myself smiling by the sight of thousands of shoes on display. I walked my way up the hill looking at the shoe stores till accidentally I came across an old church with huge statues of Jesus and some saints I didn't recognize. Then it started pouring. Since my arrival in the Philippines I had being resisting the need to buy an umbrella because I have actually being enjoying walking in the rain, until that day! And it turned out that umbrellas are not sold in the convenient stores. So I had to get on a jeepney to get back. Two hours later I was home and I was amazed at the outcome of the day. I had gone to the shoe haven and back without buying one pair! That must have been a miracle.

Friday morning before the trip to Liliw I decided to join the group and check out one of the two public high schools in Los Banos. And I’m glad I did. I learned some facts about the education system in the Philippines that made me wonder how they manage teaching/learning despite all the problems. For example, books are lent to the students and must be returned to the school in mint condition after the students finish the exams. It means no writing, underlining or highlighting the text. There are on average 60-70 students in the class in a public school (40 in private school). So the teacher to student ratio is on average 1 to 65. The female to male ratio enrolment was just the opposite of what I expected. There is 25 percent more female students than male student enrolled at high school level (well, in one of the public school in Los Banos). The tuition fee is free of the students although the parents are encouraged to contribute as much as they can since the government pays the school only 600 pesos per student per school year. I was shocked and speechless to hear this because I had just bought a pair of heels for 650 the day before. It was hard to believe that my shoes cost more than what the school gets for each student for 10 months.

On Saturday, my not-at-all-anticipated 31st birthday arrived and I decided to do what I do best. Sleep all day. Since I was now officially too old and can now get away with stuff like being a lazy bum, I slept till 1 pm and woke up sore and tired. Then I figured, well, it’s my birthday and I should probably indulge myself in something nice, like a hot spring. So I slowly got out of the bed, slowly got ready, packed my bikini and sunscreen, slowly walked down the rows of beautiful palm trees and got myself into a jeepney to go to Calamba where most hot springs are. When I got there, I walked into the biggest place that got my attention, Splash Mountain. There were pools, Jacuzzis, water slides and rooms. The outdoor Jacuzzi sounded the best till I asked the price and found out that it’s 500 pesos for an hour. I asked to see it and found myself looking at an empty diamond shape pool that takes at least half an hour to fill up. The worst part was that it was right next to a swimming pool packed with hundreds of screaming kids and adults swimming in t-shirts. so I started debating my decision of picking the biggest spa in the area. “Bigger is not always better’. Bigger draws more attention, therefore it won’t to be all yours. So unless you like to share, bigger IS NOT better.” I thought to myself. I was not going to be the only one in bikini. I wanted to be invisible and not being stared out. Being the only one in a yellow bikini doesn’t translate into being invisible. So I walked out and decided to get something to eat instead. It was my birthday so I treated myself to a whole fresh-water Filipino style fried fish, with rice and an enormous plate of buttered vegetables. I loved the fish and enjoyed every bite as three waiters attentively attended to me, the only customer in the restaurant. Then I walked out stuffed and happy. I walked to the main road getting all soaked up in the rain, and patiently waited for a jeepney. Then I went to the best spa in town, the V-loung and got a full body massage for an hour. As I was being pampered in the hands of a professinal, I thought to myself, "This is how I want my birthday to be from now on until I die."

When I got back in the hotel around 7 pm, I found all of my 20 students jammed in the tiny classroom waiting for me with a cake, candles, beer, snack and smiling faces. They had thrown me a surprise birthday party. We cut the cake with a plastic fork, we attacked it with our spoons, we drank beer like fish and we laughed for hours until we were ask to keep it quiet by other guests in the hotel. As I lay down on my bed, I thought, this was a good day. And maybe turning 31 isn’t that bad after all.

On Sunday, we went to Manila, to the third largest shopping mall in Asia called Mall of Asia. There were all sorts of shops, from Calvin Cline and Guess to little Gap style shops and boutiques. I found my perfume which wasn’t sold at Gimhae airport, bought some clothes, souvenirs and a jeepney magnetic for each of my 20 students who had so thoughtfully remembered and celebrated my birthday.

After a long day of walking around the shopping mall and spending more than I had planned to, I was ready to go back home. As the van was driving through Manila, I thought I would really like to come back and see this city, where the average income is 200 dollars a month and where most people spend less than a dollar a day. So I decided to spend my last weekend in Manila, instead of Borocay, to see what life in the Philippines is really like.

the Philippines

Los Banos

I'm now in the Philippines, in a city called Los Banos, 'the baths' in Spanish. Ever since I stepped out of the airport, I've been feeling much more alive. Palm trees, heat, mist and smiling faces make me happy. And the other thing I'm happy about is that since I got here I got my appetite back. I'm once again eating with passion, making up for the starvation in past couple of months. Philippines has had much to offer!

Los Banos is home to a branch of the University of Philippines, the International Rice Science Research Center, as well as many hot springs (hence the name 'the Baths'). Although very small, the town is lively because of its young population of filipino and visiting international students. The UP campus is huge and it's filled with coconut palms and many beautiful exotic-looking trees and plants. It's hot and humid, even in January which is considered winter/dry deason in the philippines. The temperature can be as high as 35 degrees during the day. It hasn't rained at all since I got here and I consider that great luck since I was prepared for too much rainfall and therefore lots of staying-in.

The first thing that got my attention as uniquely filipino was the jeepneys, the taxi/minibus jeeps which take you wherever you want to go. You tell the driver your destination, and if he nods, you jump onto the back of the jeep and sit next to as many as 15 other people. After my first ride I decided that I like jeepneys not only because they're an extremely inexpensive way to get around, but also because my hair flies in the wind and gets all tangled up. It reminds me of Cambodia and the Tuk Tuk rides. And you never have to wait more than 10 second to flag down a jeepney.

Today I went to the Rice Research Center and found myself in a pool of little school children running and screaming around the musuem. There was so much information about rice and how the livelihood of many countries depends on rice production. For example, an average asian person consumes about 200 pounds of rice per year. An average european person on the other hand only consumes 20 pounds a year. It was interesting and informative and I would definitely stay longer if the museum wasn't so noisy.

Then I took a jeepney back to the town and asked the driver to take me to the Makiling Botanic Garden on the Mt. Makiling. The driver agreed but a filipino guy who was sitting next to me suggested that I get off at the university gate and take a jeepney in the other direction to save time. He then pointed his index finger to the sky and said this is how you tell the driver you want to go to the Botanic Garden, because it's on the way to the top of the mountain. He invited me to go scuba diving with his scuba diving club next weekend, which I politely turned down since they were all certified divers and I still don't have any training at all.

So I got out of the jeenpney at the campus gate, crossed the street and waited for another jeepney with my finger up in the air pointing to the sky. The first 3 jeenbeys didn't stop, the fourth did and I hopped in.

At the Botanic Garden's ticket office I was told that the eagles' exhibition is closed and the garden will also close in an hour. So I hurried inside, got my camera ready and started walking. I expected lots and lots of flowers and plants carefully planted but it was actually more like a tropical rainforest, tall trees, wide leaves, uncomfortably humid, and no room for the sun to shine through. I followed the sign to the 'pool' and found myself to be the only one in the area. It was absolutely empty. I was wondering where all the visitors are when a filipino man approached me and asked if I wanted to see the pool. I hesitantly asked him where the visitors are and he said this is the quietest time of the day. Most tourists come to visit in the morning. I asked him about the pool and he explained that the pool is not actually a pool but a lake where people can swim in but nobody's there at the moment. I thanked him for the info and continued my way in the other direction. He followed me explaning that he works at the garden as an artist and offered to show me the endangered eagle's exhibition. By then I was already on the main road. Later he explained to me that when the ticket agent saw me there alone carrying a camera, he asked him to accompany me for my own safety. He said it's not safe for girls to be by themselves and that a tourist got robbed there a couple of days ago. 'You're so brave!" he said, "in the Philippines we don't let our sisiters go to places like this alone."

Although I was at first annoyed by his uninvited company, he turned out to be a good man who genuinely seemed to be concerned about my safety. He walked me to the eagles' exhibition in the forest and asked them to let me go inside even though they were closed. It was nice of him. (I learned that eagles are as mean-looking in person as they are in pictures). Then He walked me back to the gate and advised me to keep my camera hidden in my purse. I thanked him again, jumped into a jeepney and got back to my room.

My mission tomorrow is to go to a town which is the shoe mecca in the Philippines. It's an hour away from Los Banos on the way to Manila. After the long walk at the museum and the botanic garden today, I'm ready to take a break from heels for a while. Flip Flops have never sounded more intriguing.

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