Saturday, February 28, 2009

From a Soggy Notebook (Philippines Trip '09)

I've been sinking back into the grind of teaching several rather remedial bunches of Chinese college students, and duly forgetting all promises to self that a new year would merit a return to regular postings. So here I turn to the daily log I kept whilst sailing the blue waters and trekking the dread jungles of the Philippines. The log is rather soggy because I took it up into a cloud forest that was perpetually rainy and sodden. I will now attempt to decipher these heiroglyphs scrawled within its ink-stained pages. Can I discover anything legible therein?

January 15th

Day One

My flight left Shanghai at half past midnight, the peril of using a budget airline (Cebu Pacific). Taiwan and the restive Pacific ocean passed below us. I never have much luck sleeping on flights, and this time was no different. I only achieved oblivion for about half an hour out of the four hours in flight. Coming down over the Philippines' largest island, Luzon, just before dawn, we were greeted with rampaging lines of fire burning semi-circles from the darkness. Were these lava flows descending from volcanic heights, or merely farmers burning their fallow rice fields? I couldn't determine which. It seems unlikely that our flight path would descend over active volcanoes, however.

The first shock of arrival in Manila, was a generalized feeling of freedom. There must be some hidden tension involved when a citizen of the democratic world lives in an authoritarian country for some time, witnessing in his daily life some acts of repression, censorship, and various small intrusions of the state into the private lives of even its more privileged citizens and guests. In the Philippines, whatever flaws it has (government corruption and interference from the Catholic church should be mentioned), at least I could be free to make use of wikipedia, the BBC, various blogs, and other websites that I find to be routinely blocked in China; I would also find myself able to see the law-enforcement in a more benign light.

The second shock was the degree to which English permeates this country whose national language is not English but Filipino (Tagalog). Advertisements are usually printed in English, with maybe a few words of Filipino added mainly for emphasis; daily conversation, news reports even are sprinkled with English words, particularly technical words, words referring to artifacts of modernity, and catchphrases. In fact, most Filipinos are remarkably fluent in English, even those who can't express themselves well (but can at least understand what they hear). Coming from a country where even serious students of English have great difficulties understanding what they hear or expressing themselves in rudimentary terms, this was a vast difference. Several things account for this difference: (1) The Philippines were essentially a US territory for many years, between the Spanish-American War and the end of World War II; (2) English is an official language of the Philippines, and continues to be (supposed to be) the main language used for teaching students of all ages; (3) the Philippines has been a remarkably open country for quite some time, so welcoming tourists and travelers and catering to them is one of the most important industries.

The third shock was the number of foreign food restaurants, even in poor neighborhoods and remote towns. Perhaps the tourists or Spanish/American colonization account for this, but it seems that the Filipinos aren't in the habit of turning up their noses at any potentially delicious cuisine (unlike, say, the French or the Chongqingers), and thus happily incorporate many different culinary traditions into their country.

The last shock I will mention is naturally the vast difference between leaving the Siberian chill in Shanghai for the tropical heat of Manila and my final destination of the day, Cebu. The Filipinos, however, were all bundled up that day. This winter had been unseasonably cool, with quite a few rainstorms sweeping across the islands. For me, however, this unseasonable cold felt a bit like the middle of May... utter temperature perfection!

* * *

In Cebu city, on the island of the same name, I arrived exhausted. I had been awake since about 1pm of the previous day... the time was now about 11AM. But unfortunately for me, my day was not yet done. After checking into an overly expensive hotel (still confused about the conversion rate), I decided to take a quick trip down to the local visa bureau to get my visa extended. That couldn't take very long, right?

Wrong, of course. I waited there for about four or five hours, in total. I waited in a room stuffed with nuns and what seemed to be an AARP convention. Hordes of balding, fat, ancient, white men shuffled about the room with bronzed Filipina beauties on their arms. Each time I thought the travesty could not be topped, in would walk a yet older, balder, fatter man with an even more teenaged-looking girl. I felt a strong urge to hie myself to the jungles, and escape from this beastly scene. Of course as I've said before, such relationships do have the benefit of being, probably, a more equitable and sustainable form of wealth transference than making the national government of the Philippines apply to the IMF for loans.

I finished my day with a trip to the Ayala Mall (where the affluent locals, and myself, were able to buy cans of A&W Rootbeer) in order to exchange my Chinese RMB for Philipine Pesos, and then booking a cheaper place to stay (literally the custodial storeroom of a pension) for the next few days during the famous Sinulog Festival.

More on the festival, Cebu, and sacred dolls in my next post. I end here with the peaceful image of myself slumbering at last in an air-conditioned 'double' room, vastly surplus to my usual needs.

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