I arrived in Manila two weeks after a state of emergency was lifted due to an alleged coup attempt by certain members of the military. There seemed to be no evidence of the previous weeks' troubles as I travelled through the outskirts of Manila to my hotel in the Ermita district. After checking in I walked around the local neighbourhood. Like many Asian cities, there is a large gap between the rich and the poor. People slept in doorways just a block away from the expensive condominiums of Roxas Boulevard overlooking Manila bay. I was asked for money many times. Some people would ask me directly, while others had more elaborate means of trying to gain a few pesos. I walked to Robinson's Mall, a large shopping complex not too far from my hotel. The entrance was guarded by armed security, and everyone entering the mall had to walk through a metal detector. People who were carrying bags had them searched.
After a few minutes I was approached by a man who introduced himself as a security guard at City Garden Suites hotel, where I was staying. Apparently he had just finished work and had seen me checking in. He walked with me for a while, talking to me and showing me some minor places of interest inside the mall. I was suspicious of his motives and expected him to ask me for money sometime soon. He continued to show me around the surrounding streets, warning me of the 'ladyboys' who hang around certain areas. "I am your friend, I want to tell you about these things so you don't get in trouble," he said. He took me to Roxas Boulevard where we sat and had a drink. It was late afternoon so it was not crowded. However, many cafes, bars and restaurants were setting up their businesses and erecting stages for the night's entertainment.
It took a while, but my new friend eventually got down to business. "You cannot walk along this street in the evening on your own," he said. "That is too lonely. You need a companion. Do you like girls?" This was not the first time I had had this kind of conversation during my extremely short amount of time in the Philippines. The taxi driver from the airport had also offered to be my driver for the evening to go and find some girls, and I am pretty sure the porter at the hotel would've reached this topic if I had been a little bit more open during conversation in the elevator going up to my room. "Let's go and find some girls. There is a dormitory only five minutes away by taxi," the man said. The idea was to go to the dormitory, look at some girls, and pick one to be my companion for the evening. I politely refused and laughed off the idea.
Knowing he had lost the chance to earn a commission from me hiring a girl, the conversation soon turned to his family. "I have three children, but my youngest is very sick," he said. "I need to buy some special milk for her from the hospital but I do not have enough money. But tomorrow I will get paid, so please could you lend me some? I will pay you back tomorrow when I come to work at the hotel. I only need 1500 pesos." This was a lot of money for the average Filipino. I politely laughed at his suggestion and finished my drink. "I have to go back to the hotel now because I am tired," I told him. "Okay, I will walk with you, and then I will go to the hospital to buy the milk after you have given me the money." We both walked back towards the hotel. When we were nearly there I told him I would not give him any money. "Don't do this to me," he said. He had invested a lot of time trying to get money from me; I had met him more than one hour ago. I turned the corner and walked into the hotel. He refused to go anywhere near it. It turned out that he wasn't working at the hotel the next day. It was a common trick for people to wait outside hotels, follow people who come from inside, and try this routine. He must have followed me for about 20 minutes that day before he approached me.
After freshening up in my room I went back to Roxas Boulevard. Dusk was approaching and I wanted to see the famous Manila Bay sunset. I sat and watched the setting sun turn the sky into shades of purple, orange, yellow and red. Looking at the sunset made it easy to forget the bustling city behind me and the dirty water in front of me. Ironically, it is the pollution from the bustling city that causes the sunset to be so beautiful.
Live bands began playing on the many stages at the restaurants and bars next to the water. Filipinos are a music loving people, and this showed with the crowds that the bands attracted. After dinner I happened to walk past the (in)famous LA Café, a seedier version of Hard Rock Café that never closes. Later in the evening they were due to have live bands so I went back to my hotel and returned one hour later.
The bar was crowded with mostly older western men (the kind of tourists who weren't there for the weather, the beaches and the scenery) and younger Filipino girls. Upstairs, where the bands play, was less crowded as there was a 150 pesos entrance fee. I spent the night watching the bands, and watching the western men act however they wanted. They knew that for a relatively small price, they wouldn't be spending the night alone, no matter how they acted on the dance floor. It was amusing to watch the old men act like teenagers. One of them saw my amusement, and he patted me on the back as he left the dance floor with a young Filipino girl on his arm and a twinkle in his eye.
The next morning I checked out of my hotel and caught a taxi to the airport. I was due to fly to Bacolod, on Negros Island, about 350km south of Manila. I arrived at the fairly basic airport far too early, so I spent the time reading my guidebook and watching a strange television show. A man sitting next to me saw that I was reading about Negros Island, where he was going, and insisted that I need a guide for my trip. I told him that my guidebook is all I need.
The passenger sitting next to me on the aeroplane was a large American called Doyle. Doyle was a missionary who had lived in Bacolod for many years. He had just returned from a mission in Vietnam. He asked me about my plans. I told him that when I landed in Bacolod I wanted to take a taxi to Silay, about 20km north. I wanted to see the old ancestral buildings that are dotted around the city. He told me his wife was on the board of directors at one of the museums in Silay and that I should meet her. She was due to meet him at the airport in Bacolod.
We landed after dark at an even more basic airport than the one we left in Manila. There were no conveyor belts for the luggage, you had wait until you saw your luggage and then shout one of the workers to pass it to you in exchange for a luggage-ticket which was given at check-in. Luckily Doyle often used the airport and had a friend who worked there. He gave them his luggage tickets, along with mine, and we went and sat in his car with his wife and waited for the luggage to be brought to us. There were many child beggars who would knock on the window and ask for money. "If I thought the money would be for them I would give them some," Doyle's equally large wife said. After my experiences in Manila I naturally assumed that Doyle's wife would be a younger Filipino, however, she was also American. Eventually the luggage came and we left the airport.
I was driven to the outskirts of town where a taxi to Silay would be cheaper than one from the airport. Doyle and his wife told me a brief history of the area before arranging a taxi to take me to Silay church for 250 pesos. There was only one hotel in the centre of Silay so I was relying on it to have vacancies. Thankfully, thirty minutes later I was relaxing on the bed in what would be my room for the night. After a meal I went to sleep to the sounds of the karaoke bar across the street.
I woke up early the next morning as I only planned on staying in Silay for a few hours before moving on. I walked to the church, where the taxi had dropped me off the night before, and around the surrounding streets. Silay has 31 ancestral homes spread throughout the city. They were mostly built between 1880 and 1930. I saw some of these homes, but I didn't have the time, or the determination, to see them all. As I walked around the pleasant streets some children shouted "Hey Joe!" (this comes from GI Joe, the nickname for American soldiers, who once occupied the Philippines).
I had a long journey ahead of me so I needed to go back to the hotel and pack my things. I needed to get back to Bacolod so I could catch a bus to Dumaguete, a university city in southeast Negros. The only way to get to Bacolod was on a Jeepney. A Jeepney is a Jeep which has been converted to accommodate more people in the back. They are used all over the Philippines instead of buses to get around. They have set routes and it is usually possible to get on and off at any point along these routes. Many of them have extremely flamboyant designs and are very colourful. The Jeeps which the Jeepneys are based on are another remnant of the American occupation of the Philippines.
The Jeepney ride to Bacolod took about thirty minutes and cost 10 pesos. I didn't know where to get off so I waited and got off at the end of the route. I then asked a local security guard how to get to the bus station. I took another Jeepney for five minutes arriving at the bus station a few minutes before a bus was due to leave.
The journey was due to take about five hours, cutting across the centre of Negros Island through the scenic mountains. Many small villages lined the route with old, basic, wooden houses. What was surprising was that in the middle of many of these crumbling villages were extremely modern immaculate brick churches belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is hard to believe that the money used to build these churches couldn't have been used in way that would bring more benefits to the poor communities that surround each church. Towards the end of the journey, two Mormons, easily distinguishable in their short-sleeved white shirt, black shoes and trousers, tie and name badge, walked along the side of the road, no doubt trying to recruit more people to their cause.
I checked into one of the nicer hotels in Dumaguete at the southern end of Rizal Boulevard, overlooking the sea. Dumaguete is a pleasant city with a large university in the centre. Rizal Boulevard is lined with bars, hotels and restaurants which cater to both the city's university crowd, and the relatively few tourists who visit this attractive city. Many businesses had banners congratulating the year's new university graduates.
In the evening I sat at a bar on the boulevard and chatted with Mike, a retiree from Florida who, in his own words, usually doesn't start drinking until 4 o'clock. I asked him if there were any bars with live music. He seemed to misunderstand my question because he started to talk about bikini bars near the airport. "One has rooms upstairs for 1500 pesos where anything goes, another has sofas at the back where no-one can see what is going on," he said. He entertained me with stories about his time in the Philippines which including him unwittingly chatting up a transsexual, until his friend pointed out his mistake, and a gun incident at a local bar. Apparently a foreigner had annoyed a local Filipino, who then went home to get his gun… Guns are everywhere in the Philippines. During my time in Manila, I had even seen armed security guards at places such as Starbucks and McDonalds. The bar in question was currently closed for 'renovation.'
After a short while we were joined by an Argentinean man who was in the Philippines for a SCUBA diving holiday. He displayed the typical arrogance which is present in many divers when speaking to non-divers. He said a few things which were of little interest to John and me. It was soon 10pm and the bar was due to close early since one of its employees was having a graduation party. I took a stroll along the walkway next to the sea, joined by three small children whom I had bought peanuts from earlier at the bar. They were 11 years old but their English was good and they were very friendly. I then went back to my room, watched TV for a while, and went to sleep.
The next morning while I was checking out, I happened to meet the diver at the reception of the hotel. "What did you get up to last night after the bar?" he asked. Judging by the Filipino girl on his arm, I didn't have to ask the same question.
My next destination was Cebu city, which is on Cebu Island, the next major island east of Negros. Mike had described it as a step up or a step down from Manila, depending on how you look at it. Coming from him, this could have been taken in a many number of ways. After writing down my full name and age on a piece of paper in case of accidents, I was issued a ticket for the ferry to Cebu city.
The journey was extremely rough. The high speed ferry leaped off the large waves into the air, before crashing back down into the water, drenching the entire front of the ferry. Sick bags were handed out by employees. A few people used them. After we passed around the south of Cebu Island the ride became smoother. On the TV there was a DVD playing which documented the work of Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst, a German development organisation which works in many countries around the world. One project involved using solar power to provide computers with internet to Cabilao National High School on Cabilao Island, an isolated place with little electricity. The students now have unlimited access to any kind of information they need. After school hours the computers are used as the Philippines' first solar powered internet café. Both tourists and local people (many Filipinos have relatives working overseas) pay to use the computers meaning the project is financially self-sufficient. Another project involved educating local fisherman about coastal resource management which has seen the rejuvenation of local marine ecosystems. Fish that were nearly extinct not so long ago were now in abundance, and the catches of the fisherman have increased. It seems that this organisation brings more benefits to the people of the Philippines than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The kind of money needed to build a modern brick church could do a lot of good in the hands of an organisation like this.
The boat arrived after dark at Cebu port to a crowd of taxi drivers hoping to charge an inflated fare to the hotels uptown. I walked past them and crossed the busy street. Children came to me hoping to earn a commission by providing a taxi with my custom. I continued to walk before negotiating with a driver to use his meter providing I gave a tip. We drove through the old downtown district to the more modern area uptown. The taxi stopped at Fuente Osmena Circle where I was easily able to find a hotel for the night. The armed security guard at the hotel was also my porter. He tried to persuade me to let him arrange a private massage for me as he carried my luggage to my room.
After freshening up I went out to find some food. While I was crossing the street I accidentally made eye contact with a young woman who was just waiting around at the side of the street. She took this as a sign that I was interested in her and immediately came up to me and started asking me questions. "How are you? What's your name? Where are you from?" I walked into the nearest restaurant which happened to be Pizza Hut. My server for the evening was named 'Sugar'. Sugar greeted me like a long lost friend and showed me to a table. I was unable to eat the whole pizza. Sugar saw that I had left quite a bit of food and looked concerned "How was the pizza?" Sugar asked. "It was very good but I wasn't as hungry as I thought I was so I am unable to finish it," I replied. "That's a great answer from a great customer like you," said Sugar, while gently touching my leg. Sugar was not female. I would find out later that this would not be my only experience with same-sex attraction that evening.
I went back to my hotel but it was still early. I wanted to do something so I went downstairs to catch a taxi. I asked the driver to take me to a bar with live music. We ended up at the Ayala Center, an entertainment complex with shops, bars and restaurants. I walked towards the liveliest sounding bar where a band was playing. The armed security stopped me at the door to search me before I went in. They didn't search my pockets; they searched my belt for guns. Inside the bar I watched a talented Filipino band play a greatest hits set of mostly western songs. All of the bands that I had seen in the country so far had been extremely talented - the many bands on Roxas Boulevard in Manila, and the bands at LA Café. On a previous trip to Shanghai, all of the best bands that I saw at bars in the French Concession entertainment district were Filipino bands.
At the table next to me were an Australian man and a Filipino man. The Australian man introduced the Filipino as his bodyguard. When I told him I was travelling alone his response was, "be careful, be very careful." Apparently he had just come back from two weeks in Davao, on Mindanao Island, about 350km southeast. Parts of Mindanao Island are extremely dangerous with both Filipinos and foreigners falling victim to kidnapping by Islamic militants. In some cases hostages have been beheaded. However, Davao is relatively safe compared to other parts of the island, and a having a bodyguard in Cebu I felt was completely unnecessary.
A few minutes later, someone who would get along well with Sugar sat at the other free table next to me. (S)he started to initiate conversation but luckily I had nearly finished my drink. I knew that if I started replying then I would be stuck with this person. I said goodnight and walked outside. A few seconds later I heard the footsteps of someone trying to catch up with me. A rather feminine male voice asked, "Hey, where are you going?" "Err, I'm getting into this taxi," I said as I quickly looked around to find one. "Can I come with you? We can do something." I jumped into the taxi and just told the driver to drive.
The next morning I packed my things and checked out of the hotel. I wanted to stay in Cebu, but I thought I was paying more for the location than for the quality of the hotel. I found a cheaper, nicer hotel fifteen minutes away. The porter asked the standard questions as he carried my luggage to my room. "Where are you from? Are you travelling alone? Do you have a girlfriend?"
I caught a taxi downtown where many of Cebu's historical sights are located. The driver tried to persuade me to hire him for a few hours to see more of the sights. I politely refused and alighted at Basilica Minore del Santo Nino, a large Spanish colonial church and convent. The white stone church shone in the midday sun. Close to the church lies Fort San Pedro, built in 1565 to look out for approaching pirates. The ruins have now been converted into a pleasant walled garden where many local people were relaxing with their friends. Many canons still remain on the walls of the fort, but now they just point at the neighbouring buildings. After being given a brief but very professional history of the fort by the armed security guard at the small museum, I left to walk back uptown.
Later, as I was checking my e-mail in an internet café, an Australian man entertained me with a story about his experience with a 'she-male,' as he put it. The story started with a 'beautiful young woman' approaching him out of nowhere in a local shopping mall, and ended with the moral that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
I walked back to my hotel in the evening past what seemed to be a homeless or extremely poor woman and her two young children. They were sitting on the side of the street doing nothing in particular. What little clothes her children were wearing were quite dirty. She smiled and said hello to me. She didn't ask me for any money like all of the other poor people who often spoke to me on the street. I said hello back to her. As I walked away she happily began to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her children.
The following morning I woke up early. I needed to buy a few items before I was due to leave Cebu in the late morning. My next destination was Panglao Island, a small island just off Bohol Island. The taxi dropped me off at Cebu port ten minutes after a boat was due to leave. Fortunately it was running behind schedule so I was able to catch it. The two hour ride to Tagbilaran on Bohol Island was uneventful. I hired a tricycle (a motorbike with a side compartment for passengers) for 200 pesos to take me the 15km to Alona Beach, on Panglao Island. Panglao is connected to Bohol by two bridges.
Alone Beach is a stretch of white palm fringed beach with a few resorts. It isn't very commercial like other beach resorts in the Philippines. There are no cash machines or fast food restaurants on the whole island. The main artery connecting all of the resorts is the white beach. I set off walking along it to find a place to stay. Eventually I rented a beach-front bungalow at a resort on the west end. The resort had a large restaurant overlooking the beach and sea, a diving centre, a swimming pool and a laid back bar next to the beach.
The only convenient way to get around Panglao is by motorbike. I rented one from my resort and rode west. As I passed houses people both young and old would shout hello. A coconut fell from a tree hitting the ground just a few metres from my speeding motorbike. Soon I came to Panglao Church, an old stone church with accompanying bell tower. There was a school close to the church so the grounds were crowded with children. Many of them saw me from quite a distance and shouted hello and began to wave. I continued to ride until I couldn't ride west any further. This wasn't far, as the island is only about 15km long and 5km wide. I turned around and rode back to the resort.
In the centre of Bohol Island lie the Chocolate Hills. These are 1268 nearly identically shaped hills ranging from 40 metres to 120 metres in height. During the dry season they turn from a lush-green to a chocolate-brown. They are 70km from Alona Beach and I wanted to visit them. The receptionist at the resort said a tour to the hills would cost 2000 pesos. I decided that this was too expensive and enquired about the possibility of going there alone by motorbike. She said that this could easily be done. This became my plan for the next day.
In the evening I sat at the bar next to the beach. "You look pale, you must be from England," a voice said from the end of the bar. I congratulated the speaker on his keen eye and we began talking. His name was Jonny from Denmark. He was travelling around the Philippines with his Norwegian friend researching the possibility of buying some property. They first went to Davao where his friend had met a young Filipino girl, 20 years his junior, nearly half his age. He invited her to join them on their trip, of course all expenses paid. After gaining permission from her family and getting blessed by the local priest she joined them. Jonny thought that this could end up with his friend taking the girl back to Europe with him. He didn't like this possibility because he thought that it would rob the girl of her youth.
I asked Jonny if Davao was dangerous since I had met someone in Cebu who spent two weeks there with a bodyguard for the entire time. With a perfectly dry sense of humour in a thick Danish accent he replied "It depends on how you look at it, we only heard of one murder while we were there." Apparently someone in the building next to their hotel had been murdered during the night. Despite this he told me that he really didn't think it was a dangerous place. We continued talking at the bar. He bought me a Long Island Iced Tea, after complaining to the barman that it was so strong that it was rocket fuel, and a Singapore Sling. I stopped drinking before I drank too much, or my ride to the Chocolate Hills wouldn't be very enjoyable, and I went back to my bungalow.
The weather in the morning was perfect for my ride to the Chocolate Hills. The sun was shining and there were few clouds in the sky. I bought a map of Bohol Island from the reception and studied it over breakfast. I would have to ride along the coast for half of the journey, before turning left and heading into the centre of Bohol.
I left Alona Beach and rode eastwards through Panglao back to the bridges which connect to Bohol. Children were on their way to school, and local people were walking their goats and cows. The tank was full as I had filled it the night before. I crossed the bridge back onto Bohol. The island has some of the country's best examples of Spanish colonial churches. I passed some of these as I followed the road round the south of the island. I didn't stop as I wanted to reach the Chocolate Hills while the weather was good. There was plenty of time to stop on the return journey. The road heading towards the hills through the centre of Bohol passed small Jungle fringed villages. Children shouted and waved as I rode past. Eventually it turned into a winding mountain road before straightening out again as it reached the Chocolate Hills. It had taken two hours to get this far. During the entire journey the sun had shone down on my face, arms and legs. I was wearing sunscreen but I knew that it wouldn't be enough. I rode up the winding road to the visitors' centre where there are a few lookout areas. In some directions, the hills go as far as the eye can see. Some of them were still green, while some had already turned brown. To be honest, I wasn't impressed as I thought I would be. I enjoyed the ride there more than I enjoyed the hills themselves. My guidebook says that opinion is divided over the hills. Some think they are the most surreal natural wonder on earth, while others can take them or leave them. I was in the latter category.
I left the hills and rode a little bit further into the centre of Bohol before turning around and taking the same route back. I stopped at several of the churches along the way including the magnificent Alburquerque Church, built in 1886, and Baclayon Church, built in 1595. Next to all of the churches I passed were schools. Children always spoke to me when I stopped to look around.
I headed back to Tagbilaran, where the boat from Cebu docked the previous day, because I needed to withdraw more money. Tagbilaran is a small noisy polluted city with hundreds of tricycles riding round. On the back of most taxis seemed to be a religious message. "Jesus loves my soul," and "A good man gives generously to the poor," are just a few examples of what I saw. The Spanish had done a good job of Christianising the country during colonial times. There seemed to be few rules on the road. I navigated through the busy streets weaving in and out of traffic before heading back to Panglao with a fresh supply of money.
That evening at the bar Jonny noted that I did not look pale any more. However, I was in pain from the four hours of direct sunlight I had received that day. Later, some customers were speaking to the barman about his life. The resort provided him with accommodation and food, but paid him only 2000 pesos per month for working twelve hours a day, six days a week. In contrast, I was paying 1000 pesos for my bungalow at the resort per night. The resort has many bungalows and rooms.
I spent the next day visiting a conservation project for the Tarsier, one of the smallest primates in the world. It is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, it has eyes which are many times larger than those of humans in relation to the body, its fingers and toes are long and thin, and it has a long tale. The guide showed me around an enclosed area where I was able to see four of these creatures. On the way back to Panglao I stopped at the town of Corella to look at its church where I was invited by some friendly children to join them in a game of volleyball. I gladly accepted their offer. They practised their English by asking me questions before sending me on my way with waves and big smiles.
It was my final day in Panglao so I spent the rest of the day relaxing and hiding from the burning sun. I paid for my accommodation and my rather large bar tab in the evening before going to bed.
I woke up extremely early the next morning in order to catch a flight back to Manila. I arrived at Tagbilaran airport and listened to a blind band play while I was waiting for the flight in the departures lounge. They played Leaving On A Jet Plane, to the appreciation of many passengers, while everyone lined up to board the plane. Many people gave them tips. On the flight back to Manila, the stewardesses played a game with the passengers. They had done the same the previous week on my flight to Bacolod. They asked questions and gave challenges and the first person to answer correctly, or complete the challenge, won a prize such as an airline t-shirt. Apparently they did this on every flight.
I checked into the same room in the same hotel as I had stayed when I first visited Manila. I left my hotel to see some men waiting on the opposite side of the street. After walking for a few minutes a man introduced himself, "Hello, I've just finished work at the City Garden Suites Hotel," he said. He was trying the same trick with me as the other person had tried the previous week. I gave him half-arsed answers to his questions and he soon got the message to go away. My routine for the day was exactly the same as I had done on my first visit. I went shopping, watched the sunset over Manila Bay and went to LA Café to listen to some music and watch old men act young again.
The following morning a new person tried the same thing yet again. It was my final day in the Philippines and I was just wasting away the last of my pesos. "Hello, I'm Tony from the hotel," a man said as I was walking down the street. He didn't mention which hotel. "It is my child's birthday today and I am going to meet her at McDonalds." "That's nice, have a nice day," I replied. "Wait, can you buy my daughter an ice-cream for her birthday?" he asked, showing me a picture of his supposed children in his wallet. "I am sorry, I can't," I replied as I walked away. "Wait," he said, "Can I have a tip?"
The people that I had met were what made my travels around the Philippines so enjoyable. It was the perfect end to my trip.