Philippines 2015

Posted on July 15th, 2015 by Viveca in Travel

My paramour David designed the set for the Asian tour of Saturday Night Fever, which means he’s spending three weeks in Manila for load-in. This is his third production in Manila, so he’s been there many times, has friends there, and knows the city, but when he’s working, he’s mostly stuck in the theater all day and well into the night. I decided to join him for the last week of his tech, figuring by then he might have more free time during the day, I would get to attend the fabulous opening, and then we could travel elsewhere in the Philippines together once the show opened and his work responsibilities were over. I wanted to spend three to four weeks exploring the country, the way Jaime and I did in Vietnam, but there was no way he could stay another three weeks after already being away that long, so I booked a trip for two weeks, planning to spend one in Manila and one traveling together.

Only I didn’t know anything about the country, so I had no idea where we should travel. I asked around among friends who had been there and bought a Lonely Planet and got overwhelmed by amazing-sounding options—tarsier sanctuaries, wreck dives, volcanoes, chocolate mountains, amazing beaches, tribal communities—but getting to many of them would require domestic flights, boat rides, or long travel, and we didn’t have that much time or want to spend that much money. Also, we’d be there during the rainy season, which makes the beaches less attractive. Rain doesn’t affect diving too much, but heavy storms and typhoons close the dive operations, so we wouldn’t be guaranteed to see any of the good stuff. David was already in Manila before we decided where to go; actually he solved the dilemma by announcing he was interested in heading north into the mountains to see the famous rice terraces of North Luzon, the island that Manila is on, and that was just fine with me!

The flight to Tokyo took over 14 hours. After missing David for two weeks, I was impatient and couldn’t sleep at all. It was miserable. How sad is this? I played Delta’s multiplayer trivia game against myself. For hours. Then I had a long stopover in Tokyo’s Narita airport, which really made me want to visit Japan. I bought a vacuum-sealed metal bag of smoked oysters that were fantastic and washed them down with the same brand of bottled unsweetened oolong that I buy in New York. The food on the flight had been horrid, so I was also planning to sample the bright blue novelty bar pictured on the ice cream machine, but to my surprise it didn’t take credit cards, and I didn’t have any yen. I think it was just mint chocolate chip anyway. One of the stalls did have a toilet with lots of buttons to spray water on different parts of your undercarriage, apply extreme deodorant, or make noise to disguise the flushing sound. None of the buttons dried you off though. Smashing my stereotypes, the wifi in Narita stunk, so I killed the hours admiring mysterious packaged food in the gift shop.

Narita snack food display

Narita snack food display

Nobody else played the in-flight trivia on the over-four-hour flight to Manila either.

David met me up at the airport, and we took a taxi to his five-star hotel, the Makati Diamond Residences across the street from a fancy mall in a swanky part of town. When the taxi pulled up to the hotel, guards swept the underside of the car, as they would do for all incoming vehicles. They also had us pass through metal detectors and searched out bags every time we entered, but the search was completely inefficient. For example, I could walk through, set off the metal detector, and then hand back my bag for its cursory inspection, so if I had been carrying whatever they were worried about, they would never have known. This process would never have prevented any type of terror attack, but it wasn’t completely useless; as far as I could tell, it employed two to five people at all hours of the day and night.

Tuesday morning we headed to the markets in Baclaran. The taxi driver seemed confused by the request and insisted on dropping us at Baclaran Church aka The National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. When we got there, David only had 1,000 peso notes (I had no money), and the driver freaked out, yelling that he didn’t have enough change. 1,000 pesos is about 22 American dollars. I waited in the car while David went to 7-11 for change. While I was waiting, the driver locked the car doors and warned me several times about bad guys, and yup, as we sat in the cab, someone tried to get in. He didn’t try hard though, just tested the door handle. I realized that maybe the driver wasn’t mad at us; he was worried that if someone saw him get handed a big bill they might try to take it from him. But actually throughout our time in Manila, while we got lots more warnings about “bad guys,” we never encountered any.

The markets were endless and fantastic. Also, visiting them provided us a great source of amusement for the rest of our stay, because every time we told a local we’d been there, they gasped, laughed, and asked why. Most of them had never been. First, we walked into a big room full of fish and seafood. It started to pour, and we ducked out into a back alley, that was fascinating but too intimate to photograph. Both sides of the alley were lined with what were probably both stores and dwellings, but each was only maybe two square yards. Children, some naked, filled some of the floors. It didn’t feel like we should be there, but everybody was friendly and people got very excited if we said hello. The alley led to the church, where we lit candles and marveled at the odd asymmetrical Backgammon-board floor. I looked for relics, but the boxes of saints weren’t labeled.

Baclaran church candle room

Baclaran church candle room

Behind Baclaran church

Behind Baclaran church

We passed through the church square and continued exploring markets, which included blocks and blocks of street stands and giant indoor malls of endless booths, each specializing in the same merchandise. We visited one mall with dozens maybe hundreds of clothing vendors, for example, and another of knock-off electronics. As usual, I was most fascinated by the food, but although I am the most omnivorous person I know, most of it looked too gross to sample. Booth after cart offered chafing dishes of gristly meat, bony fish heads, and boiled fatty tissue. I decided I wouldn’t beat myself up if I needed to enter Philippine street food gradually, so I started with a cup bright green liquid with what might have been aloe or grass jelly in it. It was super sweet and too mucous-y for David, but I thought it was yummy. In the tiny alley, we split a perfectly normal fried vegetable egg roll, and later we got a cup of small fried garlic shrimp that we poured a chili-infused vinegar over. When we got too exhausted to walk any more, we stopped for iced bubble teas at a fast-food Chinese restaurant, but we didn’t eat there.

Wanted Female Bedspacers

Wanted Female Bedspacers

The only culinary goal I had for the trip was to eat balut. I’ve actually eaten it already twice, once on a sidewalk in Vietnam, where it was daunting but delicious, and once in a Philippine restaurant in New York where it was not pleasant. Still, I figured I had to eat in in country. I kept my eyes peeled but didn’t see any.

Eventually David had to go to work, and I wanted to meet all his colleagues, so we went to the Solaire Resort & Casino where the new, giant theater was located. The crew was just sitting down to a catered lunch, supplemented by a black squid-ink rice dish someone had brought in. We each took a Styrofoam box of gummy rice, corn starch-covered chayote, and a mixed meat stew. Halfway through the meal I commented that I liked the chayote more than the liver, but I shouldn’t have identified the meat because after that David couldn’t eat anything else. He was a vegetarian even longer than I was and emerged more recently.

He showed me around and introduced me to people, and then he walked me to the resort pool. The pool is for hotel guests, and we’d gotten mixed opinions on whether it was open to us, but David walked me right past the guards. He dropped me off, and I went downstairs to change into a swim suit in the odd dressing rooms that don’t connect to the hotel or casino. As soon as I came back upstairs, one of the attendants followed me halfway around the pool, and I was sure he was coming to kick me out for trespassing, but instead he asked whether I wanted to order a drink. I said no, he walked away, and then he came back with a glass of ice water and a chilled washcloth “to refresh me.” I could get used to that.

I sunbathed, listened to podcasts, and sat in the pool until it started to pour. As I said, it’s the rainy season, but David had said that morning’s rain had been the first he’d seen. At first I thought I was just unlucky, but then I realized he’d been in the theater all afternoon and evening every day so if it rained then he wouldn’t have known. I went downstairs, changed back into my clothes, and tried to dry my swimsuit in the hand dryer. As I dilly-dallied in the lounges, men scurried in carrying the cushions out of the rain, but by the time I went back upstairs, it was hot and sunny again, so I went back downstairs, changed back into my suit, and plopped onto another pool chair.

David surprised me there pretty soon, and so I changed back again, and we went to one of the restaurants in the casino, Lucky Noodles for dim sum. The most interesting items were the mocktails: one with coriander-cucumber-grapefruit and another with mango and chili. I loved them, but David thought they were too juice-cleanse like. After dinner we went back into the theater, where the cast was working with the orchestra for the first time. It was fun to see the rehearsal, but the theater was freezing. Afterwards, as we waited for the van back to the hotel, I chatted with a few of the cast members, and one asked whether I’d found balut yet. I was surprised how many of the Philippinos said there was no way they’d eat that.

Church interior

Church near Chinatown, Manila

Funerals anytime

Wedding by appointment. Funerals anytime

Breakfast

Breakfast

Wednesday we walked around Chinatown and ate dim sum. David spotted a cardboard sign advertising a balut stand, but the vendor was nowhere to be found. After lunch, we took a trike, a side car on a tiny motorcycle, to the Chinese cemetery. As soon as we were in the trike, we realized two things: 1. the brakes were going to deafen us every time the driver used them, and 2. we were going to have the same problem of not having any small bills.

Canvas

Canvas

Chickenjoy Affordelicious

Chickenjoy Affordelicious

Sign but no balut

Sign was promising, but the balut vendor was nowhere to be found

Ongpin Street

We stopped here to look for Ongpin Street

Trike

Trike

When the driver stopped at a gas station, I jumped out and ran to McDonald’s to break a big note. Apparently school had just gotten out though, and I  waited quite a while on line among a few dozen uniformed teenagers. While I waited, trying unsuccessfully to access the promised free wifi, an employee came and took my order, which she carefully wrote down on a tiny piece of paper. During peak hours at some Starbucks at home, one employee will take you order while you wait on line so that when you get to the front of the line, you can just pay for it and pick it up. In this case though, she just handed me the tiny piece of paper, so when I got to the front of the line, I handed it to the cashier instead of telling her what I wanted. Then she repeated the order to confirm it anyway. It took forever.

McDonald's Manila

McDonald’s Manila

Manila canal

Manila canal

Finally, we got to the Chinese cemetery.  Its Wikipedia page actually doesn’t do it justice. First of all, it’s huge, like a small town. Second of all, the tombs are crazy! Most are the size of a small house, and some have many house amenities, including toilets and air conditioning. Then in other areas, there are just walls of, well, I don’t know what you’d call them—boxes? Drawers? Like a morgue. Those were particularly upsetting because the inhabitants were mostly children, many with the same birth and death dates. Some of the tombs were well maintained and others were falling apart. In a few, squatters had set up homes, with multiple pets and piles upon piles of belongings. A guide tried to get us to hire him, but he wasn’t too pushy, and we decided to walk around on our own. Maybe we didn’t learn as much, but it was still beautiful and fascinating. Also, our first date had been to a cemetery (long story), so it felt oddly romantic, especially since the grounds were beautiful and mostly empty, and many of the tombs were his-and-hers.

Chinese cemetery

Chinese cemetery mausoleums

Chinese cemetery crypts

Chinese cemetery crypts

Chinese cemetery tortoise tomb

Chinese cemetery tortoise tomb

From there we took another trike to the North Cemetery. Lonely Planet had promised that it was even weirder and more impressive than the Chinese cemetery, partly because of the notable figures buried there (wait, what’s the name for it if you’re not underground? I think “buried” and “interred” are both inappropriate for people in massive houses. Anyway, you know what I mean) but mostly because of the large community of squatters, whom the government had tried to evict on multiple occasions. The guidebook also implied that it was extremely dangerous and said it was imperative to come with a guide for safety sake, but we didn’t feel remotely threatened. Unlike the Chinese cemetery, where we only noticed maybe one squatter residence per block, this was a thriving neighborhood, with tons of people hanging out everywhere. Given the tiny alley we’d seen of crowded shacks, living in this spacious, landscaped cemetery of sturdy structures seemed not only reasonable but relatively attractive.

More Chinese cemetery

More Chinese cemetery

Chinese cemetery mausoleum

Chinese cemetery mausoleum

We didn’t last long though. It was super hot and huge, and fascinating as it was, without a guide all the wacky tombs were blending together, so we took a taxi back to the hotel, where we immediately passed out for a much longer nap than we’d anticipated. When we woke, it was too late to get dinner together because David had to race off to the theater. I went out, thinking about getting some food, but didn’t see anything appealing so instead walked in the direction of his massage parlor. I found it exactly the way he said I would: a woman in scrubs approached me in the street. She seemed a little surprised that I immediately agreed to her massage offer, and I said I’d been looking for them. She looked confused and asked whether I’d been there before, so I said no but showed her and her colleague David’s picture on my phone. They both recognized him: “Oh! Mr. David!” and welcomed me in for a lovely 90 minutes.

David got back to the hotel around midnight, but he’d promised me midget wrestling, and since we’d had a nap, I figured this was the best night to go, and David assured me it wasn’t too late. We caught a taxi to P. Burgos Street, which meant nothing to me, but David warned me that the area was “a little aggressive.” It turns out to be one of Manila’s main red light districts. The taxi dropped us off, and I felt deluged by neon and sordidness. It reminded me a little of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street but instead of drunken revelers it was filled with prostitutes. Aggressive was a good word for the sensory assault, although the people weren’t particularly aggressive. The most we got was doormen trying to talk us into their establishments. David had had dinner at the theater, but I was hungry, and as soon as we got out of the cab, what did we see? A balut cart! I asked for one and got handed the egg with no spoon. I cracked the wide end, peeled away some, and faced the embryo. David was trying to take a photo, but he could barely look at it. “Of everything going on on this street, this is what disturbs you?” I asked. I did have to well up some courage. First I drank some of the juice. That was okay. Then I took a bite. It mostly tasted like over-boiled egg, only a little meatier. I sprinkled it liberally with salt, which helped. The first half wasn’t that bad, but then the second half was, uh, tougher. Not emotionally but physically. Well, maybe emotionally too. I finished it, but I don’t ever need to eat balut again.

Balut 1

Balut 1

Balut 2

Balut 2

Balut 3

Balut 3

Gross as it was, it did perk my hungry self up, and we strolled down the street for a few blocks until we found our destination: Ringside. Whoa! I just looked that up, and the first link I tried has not just the bar but the balut. Guess they go together. Who knew. Anyway, Ringside is a boxing-themed brothel/bar. In the middle of the room, about eight girls in matching yellow crop tops and micro mini skirts “danced” in a boxing ring. I’m putting danced in quotation marks because I’m guessing they were supposed to be dancing, but mostly they were standing around or occasionally swaying, while chatting and giggling with each other. We sat in a booth and two older women in scrub suits immediately started massaging our shoulders. Apparently massage lady is a common retirement path for prostitutes, and people do come to these places wanting to be touched by strangers. We shooed them away, and they didn’t press it.

Actually, to my surprise, nobody pressured us for anything, and nobody propositioned us. We ordered Cokes and sat in our booth watching the girls in the ring for a long time.  I say “girls” because despite the signs everywhere insisting the GROs (“guest relations officers”) had to be over 18, they all looked like teenagers. Eventually one of them rang a bell, and girls in black took the place of the girls in yellow. Despite knowing what the place was, I didn’t notice any couples hooking up. Mostly small, mixed groups chatted at tables as women in bras and panties waited on them. Maybe four little people in what might have been basketball uniforms milled about, and eventually two men took the ring for a boxing match. David tried to convince me to referee, which he’d read was encouraged, but I guess I’ve lost my edge, and the whole scene was slightly upsetting me even though all we actually saw were giggling girls and staged fighting.  At the end of the round, the girls in yellow took over the ring again as the boxers worked the crowd for tips.

At one point, the girls in the ring all did a line dance together. Another woman, in jeans and modest street clothes, joined them. She kicked off her heels, and they were all laughing and chatting while they danced. I’m sure I would have been welcome too, but that felt even worse and fake, to pretend we were just girlfriends having fun together. On the other hand, as we didn’t see any business transacted, to some extent they were just girlfriends having fun together. I cannot fathom the economics of the place, or any of the places on the street, each of which seemed to have dozens of female employees but very few customers.

We waited quite a while, but the midgets didn’t return to the ring, so we left. The street was still full of cis and trans-women prostitutes, but again nobody propositioned us. We walked into another club that looked fancier on the outside, but it was even more dismal inside. Maybe six women were scattered about or dancing, and only one customer sat by himself. We turned around and left without even sitting down. It was late, and we could have caught a cab, but it was nice out, and of course I was still hungry. I stopped at another food cart and bought a bowl of goto, or Philippine congee, planning to walk with it for a while and then catch a cab. The vendor cut something up with a scissors and put it in my soup, and I added fried garlic and chili oil. Unfortunately, he gave me a real spoon and bowl, the latter wrapped in plastic so he wouldn’t have to wash it between customers. That pinned us at the stand, since I couldn’t walk away with his stuff. The soup was good if plain, and the fried garlic, which I’d originally thought were peanuts were delicious, but whatever he cut up with the scissors was disgusting. I honestly have no idea what it was, maybe just gristle. Seems to be a lot of that here.

I still wasn’t ready to get in a cab and a hotel. Sometimes you just want to stay outside in real air, so we walked for a while, figuring we’d get tired and catch a cab at some point. Even though we were walking on a wide avenue in a commercial district, some bodegas were still open, and we didn’t think we’d have trouble finding a cab, but in fact we wound up walking the whole way. The only trouble we had was at one giant intersection we discovered we were fenced in. All four corners had fences that extended a long half block in every direction, and an underpass connected the corners to prevent people from walking in what was probably a dangerous intersection during the day. Only the underpass was closed, and there was no traffic. It would have been really far to walk around so we clambered over and made a dash for it. We lived.

The next day David had a car and driver to take us to Taal Volcano. Actually for some reason we got a whole van to ourselves. Guess that’s what they had. We were also told the driver would play tour guide and help negotiate better rates with locals, but he didn’t even seem to know where he was going. David slept on my lap while I enjoyed all the little oddities of the drive. For example, every time we approached a toll booth, a uniformed man walked up to the car and exchanged money or a card with the driver, but we still had to stop at the toll booth 20 feet later, so I didn’t know what the pre-toll attendant did. I think it was like the woman at McDonald’s who wrote down my order while I was in line and then handed my order back to me. Everything here takes a lot more employees than at home. In a few areas we drove through mini-districts that were all devoted to the same thing. For example, in one area we passed maybe 20 stores selling giant wood products—furniture, houses on stilts, 10-foot sculptures—and then we passed ten identical fruit vendors.

When we got close to the volcano, a tour guide approached the van, and the driver talked to him while we took pictures of the crater lake. He told us it would be 6,000 pesos for a full tour, including the boat ride through the crater lake, two horses to the top of the peak with one-on-one helpers, a tour guide, and lunch. The guide book estimated that the horses should cost P500 each, admission P50, the guide P200, and the boat P1,200-P1,800. It also said we didn’t really need a guide, but That didn’t add up to P6,000 no matter how many times I added it up, so we said no thanks. The driver talked to him some more, they seemed to reach an agreement we didn’t understand, and then the tour operator turned on his motorcycle, and we followed him down the mountain. The longer we wound downhill, the more it seemed like we might be committed to the man leading us, but on the other hand, nobody here gives directions. If you ask someone where something is, they walk you all the way there. We hadn’t committed to anything!

Taal Volcano crater lake

Taal Volcano crater lake

I felt very savvy for comparing the prices against the guide book until we got to the bottom and sat down with a different tour operator (although I’m not sure whether he was from the same business). He opened a binder of photos and pulled out two laminated cards with a list of everything included on the tour. Printed on each card was a price: P5,000 for the two-person package or P6,000 for two people including lunch, and he walked us through the lunch menu. I still couldn’t make the numbers add up, but since the Chinese cemetery I’d been thinking maybe it would be worth hiring occasional tour guides to get more out of our sight-seeing, the numbers were printed right on the card, so they couldn’t possibly be ripping us off, the driver who was supposed to be our local facilitator expected us to pay, and anyway, we didn’t see any other options. We paid the P6,000, and the operator assured us that everything on the other side was included. He said our individual horse guides might ask for tips or people might try to sell us stuff, but it was all optional and not to feel pressured.

We met our guide, who was about 17 years old and climbed a plank onto our private junk, which took about 20 minutes to reach on of the craters in the middle of the crater lake. Yup, a little confusing. Lake Taal is a big lake in the crater of a prehistoric volcano. Within Lake Taal are 47 craters and 35 volcanic cones including the still active Taal Volcano, aka Volcano Island, and within Taal Volcano’s crater is another crater lake, that contains, you guessed it, another island. Lonely Planet compares it to a set of Russian matryoshka dolls. When the boat reached the volcano, we disembarked to find a tourism factory, with a line-up of tired men leading tired horses. David, the guide, and I each mounted a horse and were led up the winding lava trail to the summit. The horses didn’t always want to go the way the men directed them, but we did all reach the summit, and along the way we passed occasional sulfur fumes reminding us we were on an active volcano.

Taal Volcano horse

Taal Volcano horse

Taal Volcano trail

Taal Volcano trail

We reached the summit separately, at different times and on different trails, but we were both greeted by the same thing—someone shaking us down to buy a drink for the guy who guided our horse. It was a hot day, but I say “shake down,” because we could see that only the tourists were paying for drinks. Among the locals, even our teenage guide just reached in and took a bottle when he wanted it, so I’m sure the horse guides would not be denied a cold Coke. We’d reached the crest of the crater; we were still surrounded by the crater lake we’d passed through in the boat, and we could look down into our crater lake and see a little island, possibly another volcano, within it. This lake didn’t have any boats in it though, as it was too hot to enter. The summit was crowded with stands selling ashtrays with giant penis carved on them and other precious souvenirs and people trying to convince us to hit golf balls into the crater lake. Our guide did not have any additional information about anything.

Volcano in volcano

Volcano in volcano

Us at Taal Volcano

Your protagonists at Taal Volcano

Sulpher on crater lake

Sulpher on crater lake

David in look-out perch

David in look-out perch

We lollygagged in the heat, took some photos, didn’t hit golf balls or buy penis ashtrays, and eventually found our horses and guides to return down the mountain. David’s guide spent the entire journey telling David how poor his children were and asking for tips. Mine was silent. We got soaked on the boat ride back. When we returned, we sat by the lake in a private hut and ate the meal we’d ordered in advance—grilled tilapia and garlic shrimp. Of course we’d wanted the fish that are only in that lake, but they were out of season. The food was delicious, and we had more of it than we could eat.

Descending the trail

Descending the trail

David on his horse

David on his horse

Here are a few more pics of the day.

Taal Lake boat

Taal Lake boat

Village on Taal Island

Village on Taal Island

Taal locals

Taal locals

On the way home, we stopped in the parking lot of the People’s Park in the Sky, Ferdinand Marcos’s unfinished summer home. We didn’t enter because it had started to rain too hard to want to tour ruins, but the parking lot was filled with fruit, souvenir stands, and men selling rolls of doughy coconut candy. The vendors plied us with samples, and we loaded up on fruit, buying a soursop, a jackfruit, a dragon fruit, a pineapple, and a bunch of miniature bananas. We also sampled some rambutans and coconut candy. Each fruit stand had exactly the same selection, and so did each souvenir stand. I loved the purses made out of zippers but suspected I might regret buying one since they didn’t have any internal pockets and might be so poorly made they’d fall apart immediately. I was also paralyzed by color and size options, but David saw me starting and bought me one of the larger bags in purple and pink. Once I realized how silly I was being to waffle about something that cheap, I bought myself a smaller one in blue that came with a change purse. Total expenditure under $10, and I felt so decadent buying two and a half purses at the same time. I wanted to get my sister a laptop-sized one too because they were so cute, but I was worried that it might be too flimsy to hold a laptop, so I only got the ones for myself.

The rain let up on the drive home. We got back to the hotel exhausted but instead of passing out, we dropped off our fruit and raced back out for a his and hers massage. That sounded like a lovely, romantic idea, and it was fine, but really you’re just lying in separate beds not talking to each other anyway. At the end, David fell asleep, and nobody disturbed us. It felt decadent to lie on the table without having to race out, but finally I woke him up so he could return to the theater for rehearsal, and I returned to the hotel to flip through bad television in Arabic, Korean, Chinese, French, German, English, and Filipino broadcasting boxing, scrolling news, more boxing, music videos, more boxing, more music videos, and Christ, Christ, Christ. Two hotel employees knocked on the door to offer turn-down service, which I turned down, and then almost immediately two others arrived to offer a bag of thank you gifts, which I happily accepted. We didn’t open it for a few days, but it turned out to be filled with dry cookies and chocolate-covered marshmallows.

Makati Diamond Residences Manila

Makati Diamond Residences Manila

Fruit plate

Fruit plate

Hotel gift bag

Hotel gift bag

I’d posted something on Facebook tipping the fact that I was in Manila, and to my surprise a friend I hadn’t seen in years messaged me that she was now living in Manila! The next morning, David and I met Catherine at Cafe Adriatico for a lovely brunch. Catherine suggested this restaurant because it was popular with ex-pats and visitors, and she was right. It serves a great combination of local specialties and international dishes in a comforting, clean atmosphere.

I knew Catherine only slightly when she was studying in New York. As a volunteer at the World Youth Alliance, she had brought me and some friends in to teach a juggling lesson. Since then, she’s lived in many other countries and then returned home to Manila, where she creates installations that combine art and science and sound super cool. It was a real treat to discover that this woman I barely knew was having real success getting grants to create fascinating art around the world.

The one thing everyone had recommended we do in Manila was to take Carlos Cedran’s tour of the historic district. The shows projection designer and a few other crew members had said Carlos was a good friend and a fantastic guide, but he’d been out of town the whole time we were there and doesn’t offer morning tours, so we were planning to race from Catherine to him. When we mentioned we were looking forward to a tour, she said, “Oh, from Carlos? He’s a good friend!” Turns out she’d designed and drawn his logo! She also raved about his tours, but she also told us they were 90 minutes long and over an hour from our hotel, and no matter how many times we tried to add up the time, we couldn’t figure out a way to take the tour and make it back to our hotel in time to get ready for opening night, so she sent him a text letting him know we had to cancel.

Instead, we headed in to see the old city on our own. Catherine insisted on helping us get a taxi, telling him in Filipino and English to take us to Fort Santiago. He went to Intramuros. We kept saying Fort Santiago, but he didn’t seem to believe we’d want to go there, so finally I said we needed to go where we’d said because we were meeting someone, and after circling around asking people where it was, he finally dropped us off in front of the visitors center, where we picked up free maps and explored the beautiful grounds on our own, rejecting a series of aggressive potential tour guides waving laminated pages in our faces, promising all the sights they could show us.

Thicket

Thicket

Flowers

Flowers

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago

I’m not great at identifying trees, but I was sure I recognized the large ones with dark, waxy leaves and big white flowers. Only I couldn’t think what they were. A while later, I stopped in the public bathroom and was instantly overwhelmed with the smell of gardenias. Then I saw the vase of fresh flowers on the counter and recognized the flowers from the tree. Isn’t it funny how the brain works? If I’d seen the flowers first, I still wouldn’t know what tree that was, but I recognized the smell instantly.

Intramuros guard

Intramuros guard

Birdhouses at Fort Santiago

Birdhouses at Fort Santiago

Closer flowers

Closer flowers

Bamboo bicycle

Bamboo bicycle

The heat was blistering, so we ducked into an air-conditioned gift shop, and I bought post cards and stamps. On the way out, we got a pandam buko (coconut) shake from a stand. The dude took forever to carefully measure cups of powder into the blender, but when he finally handed us the large bottle, it was delicious. We walked through the walled city of Intramuros and toured the lovely Casa Manila, a reproduction of a Spanish colonial house the Imelda Marcos had built and furnished with period furniture. Every time I visit some place like that, I want to re-decorate. I didn’t take photos because the ticket taker asked us not to, but I did confront a security guard taking selfies and tell him, “no photos!” He was amusingly defensive but not actually amused. We also walked through San Agustin Church and the Baluarte de San Diego, but I couldn’t figure out how the concentric stone circles were meant to provide defense.

Intramuros

Intramuros

Baluarte de San Diego

Baluarte de San Diego

David on Baluarte de San Diego

David on Baluarte de San Diego

On top of the Baluarte de San Diego

On top of the Baluarte de San Diego

It got too hot, and we were worried about traffic, so we cut our visit short and hailed a taxi. Only when he heard where we were going, he threw us out! He said it would take too long to get to our hotel at rush hour, but I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t be happy to be guaranteed an hour-long fare. The taxis in Manila are too cheap, and traffic is the worst I’ve ever seen. Eventually someone took us home, and we quickly showered, dressed, and headed to the theater. Before the show, we had dinner at the swanky Fresh buffet, which included not only traditional Philippine food but also Italian, Japanese, and other dishes. I loaded up on seafood, and then we went to opening night. The show actually had a few technical glitches, especially with the sound, but the crowd enjoyed it, and I enjoyed seeing so many audience members all dressed up for opening, some in fantastic 70s garb. After the show, we walked down the hall to the opening party. We were still too full to enjoy the chafing dishes of goodies, and everyone we talked to was trying to figure out how to procure drinks. We all managed to flag down waiters, and I sipped and chatted while David signed autographs and posed for photos. Some people even insisted on including me in their photos although I barely knew anybody. David’s a real star there. The producer and the company manager had made gift bags for key show personnel and they sweetly made me one too. The bags turned out to have a big mix of local snacks: chili-lime corn nuts, dried mango slices, and all kinds of goodies.

That’s odd. I don’t seem to have any picture of the opening. I think I didn’t carry my phone. I’ll ask David for some. Or just trust me: we looked good.

After the high of getting all dressed up, having a nice dinner, attending the premiere and party, and luxuriating in our five-star hotel, our situation changed drastically the next day. We checked out and took a cab to the airport in the rain. I’d reserved a rental car through Expedia, but when we got to Avis, they wouldn’t let us take the small car up into the mountains because the rain was reported to be the beginning of a series of typhoons headed our way. We agreed that we’d rather take a four-wheel drive car, but they didn’t have one. We wandered through the gravel parking lot in the rain, dragging our luggage and goodie bags through giant puddles to different trailers that housed rental car offices, but none of them had a four-wheel drive vehicle available. We went back to Avis and begged, they made some calls, and suddenly a Mitsubishi Montero appeared for our examination. It was going to cost five times as much as the economy car I’d reserved, but we finally decided it was worth it. The Avis people gave us a lot of lectures about where we were allowed to go and when, and then we drove from the rental car parking lot to a different parking lot, where we crossed through a flooded yard to yet another trailer to sign the paperwork.

Eventually we took our car and took off. I wasn’t willing to abort the whole trip or wait an hour out of Manila as they’d suggested, but I did revise our whole itinerary to circle Luzon in the opposite direction, hoping to hit the rice paddies in a few days after the typhoon passed. It took us over two hours just to get through Manila, during which time we realized from the contents and paperwork of the car that it wasn’t actually a rental, just someone’s car. No wonder it was so expensive. We drove another hour north on a clear highway, and I said I sure hoped we faced some more challenging roads up north or we’d wasted a lot of money getting the four-wheel drive. David said, “Actually I have some news for you. I figured it out about an hour ago but didn’t want to upset you. This car isn’t four-wheel drive.” D’oh! At least it was big and high and maybe that would be enough.

Besides the car, the other problem we were facing was that we didn’t have any money. I hadn’t withdrawn any pesos yet because we’d been living on David’s per diem, but the Taal Volcano incident wiped us out. David had lost his ATM card before I arrived, and he’d recently had a fraud hold on his credit card, so it was blocked for some purposes, including withdrawing cash. I’d left my bank and credit cards at home and only brought my PayPal card because it imposes a lower fee for foreign transactions, but I was pretty worried it wouldn’t work. I kept looking for an ATM the entire time we drove through the city, and I finally saw one as we were almost out of town. I withdrew 10,000 pesos, about $222 and hoped that we’d be able to charge gas and hotels on our credit cards. Given the way the taxi and trike drivers had reacted to our big bills, I didn’t want to carry more cash than necessary, but I also didn’t know how common ATMs would be where we were heading.

Road sights: Boneless Bagoong

Road sights: Boneless Bagoong

Road sights: look-out

Road sights: look-out

As we drove, we passed Mt. Pinatubo, other volcanoes, and several towns that Lonely Planet described as former US military bases that closed but left behind a red light district where 10,000 sex workers still ply their trade. We didn’t get off the highway. We also didn’t get off the highway when we passed a sign directing us to mummies. I had picked the route partly to see them, but it had been raining hard for maybe 20 hours by then, and I didn’t think we’d enjoy the hike to the caves in the rain and mud. We were aiming for Baguio. As the rain got worse, so did the fog, and at some points we were slowed to 10 mph on the highway. The headlights on the brand-new car weren’t aligned well, and the high beams of course just reflected fog.

We arrived in Baguio around 7pm after maybe seven hours in the car. It turned out to be a bustling city, and it was hard to negotiate the confusing maze of one-way streets in the dark and rain. I’d randomly put one of the hotels in Lonely Planet into the GPS, but when we finally got there and asked, it didn’t have any rooms available. We expected everything to be empty during this off-season, but we tried a few more hotels and they were all booked too. Maybe it’s the off season for foreign tourists, but it turns out Baguio is a popular weekend destination for domestic tourists, although I never figured out what they were there to see. Even in the rain though, the streets were packed with pedestrians. After two hours of trying different hotels that were all either booked or dismal, we took a room at a hostel called the Summer Palace that we’d noticed driving into town because it’s set on a hill and covered in neon. The only room they had available had three double beds, but the staff assured us both that we wouldn’t have to pay for six people and that four others would not be joining us.

You enter the ten-story Summer Palace on the seventh floor and then take the down escalator to our room on the fourth floor. Yup, just like staircases in NYC public schools, one elevator only runs up and one only runs down. The top floors are all restaurants and function rooms, but none of them would let us in to eat dinner because they were either closed or filled with special events, so we ordered room service. It all looked horrible, which somehow convinced David to order twice as much, hoping to find something edible. I don’t remember exactly, but I think we got two different pastas, a grilled fish, and a plate of mushrooms. Neither of us are very picky, and we were both hungry so we ate almost everything. Plus we had cookies and other snacks from our goodie bags. We had a porch, but it was covered in plastic, and the fog prevented us from seeing anything anyway.

Breakfast at Summer Palace

Breakfast at Summer Palace

The rain continued all night and into the next day, so we spent the morning at the lovely Ben Cab Museum, which exhibits work by local artist Benedicto Reyes Cabrera, traditional wood carvings, erotic art, and prints (when we were there it was prints of WWII soldiers in the Philippines). The museum was lovely, but when we stepped out on the decks, the fog hindered our view of the gorgeous landscaped gardens and surrounding mountains, and the rain prevented us from exploring the farm and gardens.

Ben Cab Museum Gardens

Ben Cab Museum Gardens

Terraces behind Ben Cab Museum

Terraces behind Ben Cab Museum

Red house

Red house

Baguio hillside

Baguio hillside

David checking to see whether the road was passable

David checking to see whether the road was passable

For lunch we went to Lonely Planet‘s highly recommended Cafe by the Ruins (I can’t make that link work, but I’m hoping that’s temporary). The restaurant is only partially covered, so half the place was closed because of the rain, and we had to wait a long time to get a table. I had packed for Manila’s heat and had to change in the car once we got to Baguio to put on more clothes. As we waited, I was wearing all the warm clothing I’d brought but was still shivering in the rain. Finally we were seated and immediately split a spread made of cheese and smoked fish. David got the recommended shrimp and mango curry, which came with a satisfyingly bewildering array of side dishes or possibly condiments. I got a pork dish that was too fatty, like most of the meat here. For dessert, we shared a suman at tsocolate (sticky rice covered in chocolate sauce), but by shared I mean I ate till I couldn’t eat any more and David took maybe one bite. It was huge. While we were eating, the power went on and off. David ordered coffee, but they told him they couldn’t make one without the electric coffee maker. When I ordered dessert, I asked again, and they said they could only make “brewed coffee.” Well why hadn’t they told us that? The coffee came with what we thought was a cookie on the side, but it turned out to be a brick of sweetener, maybe sugar, but it didn’t feel like it. Anyway, it was a sickly sweet surprise if you bit in expecting a biscuit!

Lunch at Cafe by the Ruins

Lunch at Cafe by the Ruins

Jeepney

Jeepney

After lunch we decided we were done with Baguio so we drove to Sagada, about five hours away. We’d planned this part of the trip knowing we’d be spending hours a day in the car because our main goal was to enjoy the scenery, but the fog only allowed us peeks at the mountains around us. It wasn’t as bad as the day before though, and sometimes we could see the famous rice terraces as we wound through the cordillera. The area was super rural. Luckily the diesel car got great mileage so we didn’t have to worry too often about finding gas stations, but we did have trouble finding public bathrooms. At one point David couldn’t take it anymore and pulled over to pee like a cab driver. When someone else pees next to you, it makes you have to pee even more, and I would have been hopping from foot to foot if I hadn’t been huddled in the passenger seat. Still, I thought I could hold it until David said he’d give me 100 pesos to pee right there, so I stuck my butt out into the rain and peed by the side of the road, clinging to the roof rack to keep my hold on the car.

Road Recon

Road Recon

Efficiency

Efficiency

About 100 feet later we saw a sign proclaiming the highest point in the Central Cordillera Mountain Range. Even though we’d just stopped, I made us pull over to see whether we could see anything. It was worth it. Even through the rain and fog, the view was spectacular. As I headed back from the scenic point to the car, I noticed a sign for a diaper-changing station. I peered under the shelter, and yup, there was a set of fully functioning public toilets. D’oh!

Highest point

Highest point

Actually the whole drive was full of things like that that we found just after we needed them. For example, this was the day that David found the car’s low beam fog lights. Could have used those yesterday!

Road sights: House, hammock, rocks

Road sights: House, hammock, rocks

Road sights: rock

Road sights: rock

Rocks

Rocks

Spooky house

Spooky house

We got to Sagada after 9pm, and it was the opposite experience from arriving in bustling Baguio; Sagada was closed. Really. We had entered a hotel in the GPS just to have an address to put in, and when we got there we couldn’t find the hotel or the town! We pulled over when we saw a few people walking down the street, and David got out to ask them while I tried to figure it out from the off-line map on my phone. He was gone a really long time, and I finally got out of the car to look around and realized we were parked right in front of the hotel we were looking for, the Masferré Inn, but it had a sign in front saying it was closed. How could a hotel be closed? I knocked, and some people appeared who confirmed that yes, the restaurant was closed, but the hotel was open and even had a room available. Only where was David? Finally, he returned, and it turned out that he’d knocked on the same door, asked if they were open, they’d said “no” without explaining that only applied to the restaurant, and he’d struck up a conversation with the three drunken Spanish tourists, who had led him to go ask at a few other hotels, all of whom said it was too late or that they were full.

Luckily, our room at the Masferré was fine, nicer than lots of the ones we’d seen in Baguio, so we’d adjusted our expectations, and we dug the wood cabin feel and historic photographs in the lobby. Again, we had a balcony, and again we couldn’t see anything because it was night and still raining. Plus, the hotel staff kept smoking on the balcony next to ours, so I didn’t want to leave the door open. After checking in, we walked back out onto the street to try to find an open restaurant, but everything really was closed, so we asked the woman at the front desk for some hot water, and we made instant noodles in our room. David had bought them when he was sick in Manila before I got there, and I was so happy we’d brought them in our goodie bags of car snacks!

Sagada’s main tourist attractions and the reason I’d insisted on coming are all morbid. First we drove to the two major caves. We had a really hard time finding them, but every time we stopped to ask someone, it turned out we were already there. The larger and more popular of the two is Sumaging. We went there but then balked at spending two hours exploring a wet cave. Also, we hadn’t arranged for a guide, and you need one to get in. We drove back to Lumiang. The cave entrance is marked only by a shack with two men sitting in it smoking and some chickens wandering around. I tried to get a photo of a chicken crossing the road. Why?

Sign for mummy caves

Sign for mummy caves

Cave entrance shack

Cave entrance shack

Across the street from the men in the shack, we looked down from the road to another cave and could just see something man made piled in the entrance. We crossed the street and hiked down a step path to the Lumiang cave entrance. As soon as you walk in, you seen dozens of wooden coffins piled along the rock walls. Some are mounted so high on the walls that it seems entirely possible or even likely that other people were killed trying to place their dead relatives. Some of the coffins were decaying and bones and human remains spilled out. Many appeared to be closed only with wooden pegs, but I resisted opening them to examine the contents. From the coffins, you could see Lumiang descend from the majestic entrance to the narrow cave opening. I wanted to explore, but David was adamant that I not walk any farther in my flimsy sandals on the slippery rock. Oddly, he would have been comfortable exploring the cave if it was completely submerged. He dives sites like that. If we had a lot more time, I would have liked to spend the four hours hiking from the Lumiang entrance back to the Sumaging exit, but besides not having the right footwear, we didn’t have a lantern, and I wasn’t about to try to explore a cave using the flashlight function on my iPhone!

David in mummy cave entrance

David in mummy cave entrance

Mummy coffins

Mummy coffins

Bones

Bones

Bones through crack in coffin

Bones through crack in coffin

Lots of coffins in cave

Lots of coffins in cave

Exiting cave

Exiting cave

After we left the burial cave, we tried to find the Echo Valley hanging coffins. Lonely Planet said “it takes less than half an hour to get down to the coffins via the overgrown trail that runs by the cemetery, but people do get lost without a guide.” Well, first we had to find the cemetery. The hanging coffins are Sagada’s most popular tourist attraction, but we couldn’t even find a sign to them. We asked around, and eventually someone directed us to a church. Behind the church, we kept walking down a road until we found the cemetery, but maybe the three days of solid rain had altered the landscape because we couldn’t even tell out which change in the local ground cover was supposed to be a path. I kept trying to use my offline map and compass to figure out which way to walk, but I had to hide under mausoleums to keep my phone out of the rain. We set off in what we thought was the right direction and wandered down a path into the woods. Some of the downhill sections involved too-big steps onto mud or wet rocks.

Path to hanging coffins

Path to hanging coffins

Rock walls

Rock walls on path to hanging coffins … or at least we hope it’s the path

Signs outside shack

Signs outside shack

David on path

David on path

Giant fiddlehead thing

Giant fiddlehead thing

After a while we came to a rock-climbing station with a tree covered in posters of apparent craziness and a wood shack with advertising, but we didn’t see anyone there to ask for directions. The hard part was that we didn’t really know what we were looking for, so we kept scouring the sheer cliff faces on the mountains around us, craning to see whether we could spot coffins on them. The path kept splitting, and I’d run ahead to explore, hoping not to get too lost or hurl down a hill. David was ready to quit as it really seemed too dangerous to continue wandering lost in the woods when we couldn’t tell where the paths were, but then on one of my scouting missions I suddenly found a clearing facing a wall of coffins and chairs hanging from rock! We were much closer than I’d expected, and it was definitely worth the walk. On the way back I couldn’t help exploring one other stray path, and under an outcrop I found one more coffin. This one had burst open, and bones were spilling out on the ground.

Hanging coffins

Hanging coffins

Hanging coffins

Hanging coffins

Breaking coffin

Breaking coffin

Woods between church and hanging coffins

Woods between church and hanging coffins

On the way back, we stopped to explore the church.

 

Church

Church

David

David

Altar

Altar

Can I get an amen?

Can I get an amen?

All that death can make you hungry. We returned to town for lunch at the highly recommended Yoghurt House whose menu, oddly, did not include the tangy yogurt sauce we were told to eat with local vegetables. In fact, it’s really hard to find vegetables on Philippine menus despite the fact that they’re clearly growing all over the country. Still, lunch was fine, and I think my salad dressing included some hopefully homemade yogurt.

Our plan was to drive from Sagada to Bontoc. On the map, they look right next to each other, but Google maps showed a long, circuitous route, and so did my offline maps.me app.

Google maps route from Sagada to Bontoc.

But you can see a direct road right there! The car’s GPS put us on the direct road and predicted a 20-minute trip. Almost as soon as we left town, we passed a sign saying the road was under construction for one year beginning April 2014. As it was July 2015, the construction should have been long over, but instead, the road disappeared into deep red mud. Aha, we thought, this must be why we can see a road but the directions don’t include it; it’s still under construction. David stopped the car and walked out to try to determine whether the road was passable. I didn’t really want to turn back, but it didn’t look good. Actually I wasn’t sure we could turn back. We were stopped on a muddy one-lane road with a mountain on one side and a cliff on the other. After a while David came back soaked in mud up to the knees, but when he got back in the car, he put it in drive and we moved forward.

Is this a road?

Is this a road?

Road or no road?

Road or no road?

The next maybe one hour was among the most terrifying of my life. The car sloshed and skidded sideways in the mud, but we couldn’t stop while we were making our way uphill, so we pushed through until we could find flat ground to stop on, and then we’d stop so David could scout again. At some points, the new pavement would appear next to the mud alley we were in, but we couldn’t get up onto the pavement, and occasionally it would be blocked by giant pieces of construction equipment. David was only worried that we’d get stuck in mud and have to push the giant car out, but I was convinced we were going to skid out of control and hurl down the cliff next to us. Maybe 30 minutes into this harrowing “20-minute” drive, we pulled onto a flat spot, and huh? there was a man sitting in a perfectly clean little two-door car.

It actually is very telling that I don’t have a picture of this car to show here. David and I both document experiences compulsively, but we were both too focused to think of taking pictures during this drive. He was keeping us alive, and I was paralyzed in terror. The man in the car assured us that if we kept driving in the same direction we would, in fact, emerge safely. I have no idea what he was doing there or why he was sitting in his car in the middle of an empty mud road, but it was slightly reassuring to pass one human being.

Finally, David said, “Hey! There’s a two-lane highway down there,” and sure enough, we could see a real road running parallel to us. We finally made it down to join it, but I was so spun around that I had us turn in the wrong direction. We figured it out almost immediately, but the road was beautiful, running along a river with crazy tiny bridges across it. We turned around, drove less than five minutes, and re-entered Sagada on exactly the same road we’d come in on the night before. WHAT!? That whole under-construction nightmare wasn’t a secret shortcut to Bontoc. It was a pointless detour to nowhere.

Rice terraces

Rice terraces

Scenery

Scenery

Infrastructure

Infrastructure

We didn’t find frogs or dogs on any menus or street carts in Bontoc as I’d hoped, but we did visit the Bontoc Museum to check out photos and artifacts from the region’s past and explore a recreated village, complete with hog, in the backyard. We also snooped around a local elementary school.

Welcome to Bontoc

Welcome to Bontoc

Bontoc school

Bontoc school

Hog

Hog in museum

Pig in street

Pig in street

Pig in street in rain

Pig in street in rain

We didn’t stay in Bontoc though. From there, we pressed on to Banaue and both immediately fell in love with the town. Baguio was too urban, Sagada was too sleepy, but Banaue was just right, a lovely mix of street stands, markets, stone staircases, and shops set against sweeping mountainside rice terraces. We stayed at the lovely Sanafe Inn, whose restaurant was on a deck with a gorgeous view.

Trying to figure out rice

Trying to figure out rice

View from deck

View from deck

Banaue

Banaue

Figurine on terrace

Figurine on terrace

In the morning, we didn’t have water, but the hotel dude did something on the terrace, and then we did. We had breakfast on that same terrace, dropped off our laundry at a local shop, and then went back to sleep. I feel a lot of pressure on vacation to get out and explore, but we’d been running ragged for days, everything we wanted to do was outside in the rain, and I was tired of being cold and wet. It felt so decadent and lovely to nap through the morning, and we still got out by noon, but when we went to check out, we discovered that our breakfast wasn’t included in the room rate as we’d thought, the hotel didn’t take credit cards, and we were just about out of cash. The closest ATM was 93 kilometers in the wrong direction. David had already changed all his American cash when he lost his ATM card in Manila, but he had one 20 pound English note, so we walked to a money changer to try to convert that to pesos. They wouldn’t accept it because it was slightly crumpled and torn, so we returned to the hotel, and I found my maybe $26 total in American money, and luckily they accepted it, and we had enough to pay for breakfast, laundry, and a few more hours in the country.

Banaue staircase

Banaue staircase

Rice

Rice

Banaue

Banaue

Banaue bridge

Banaue bridge

Of course all his pictures are of me. All my pictures are of him.

Of course all his pictures are of me. All my pictures are of him.

While we were waiting for our laundry, we spent the afternoon hiking through rice paddies to tribal villages. Well, tribal village actually. The guide book said the path “could be done without a guide, provided you frequently ask for directions.” We picked up a map in the visitor center, found the starting point behind the Banaue Hotel, and trekked down the rainy path to the first village, Tam-an, a mix of houses and huts on stilts. In one of the stilted huts, a teenager was collapsed, looking stoned on betel nuts. Chickens and dogs were everywhere. I’ve never seen as many stray dogs as I have in this country. A woman came out of one house and offered to show us the bones of her ancestors, which she had saved to show tourists. We declined. I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures.

Directions

Directions

Handicrafts

Handicrafts

Map

Map

As we started to leave, the villagers told us we were going the wrong way and pointed us towards the next village on our itinerary, Poitan. We walked down a path that led to a rice field, where it forked in three directions. As we walked, we passed two men coming the opposite direction, both barefoot and carrying a long stick with bundles of rice tied to it. Since the villagers had pointed us straight, we tried that for a while, but almost immediately it turned into a tiny mud ledge through the rice paddy, so we doubled back. The right fork didn’t look like it went far, so we turned on the left one that skirted the paddy. We hiked through rice paddies and forest paths for maybe 45 minutes before emerging … right back in the town we’d left. Guess the center path was the right one after all. Oh well. Even though we missed three out of the four promised traditional tribal villages, we had a lovely walk.

Ifugao rice terraces

Ifugao rice terraces

Walking through rice terraces

Walking through rice terraces

Hike

Hike

Re-emerging into Banaue

Re-emerging into Banaue

Mushrooms!

Mushrooms!

Banaue staircase

Banaue staircase

Path

Path

David on path

David on path

Back to Banaue

Back to Banaue

We hiked back through town to the car and started the long drive back to Manila. As soon as we saw a roadside fruit stand village, we stopped and ate pineapple and watermelon by the side of the road. We never saw a solitary fruit stand; the only places we saw one, we saw at least six.

Fruit

Fruit

We also stopped at a car wash because even the rain hadn’t taken off the intense layer of mud from our off-road adventure. Three men scrubbed the inside and outside of our large car for almost an hour while we chatted with the owner and explored the strangely beautiful car wash grounds. Out back there was a lovely landscaped terrace with private, covered tables, clean bathrooms, and the best-looking concrete we’d seen in the country. The owner turned out to be a sea mechanic, who’d been home on vacation for about a year and had opened the car wash/recreation center but hadn’t started booking the recreation center yet. The car wash cost about $4, and the car looked great. We could not have hoped for a more perfect place.

Roadside garden

Roadside garden

Village traffic

Village traffic

Strange fruit

Strange fruit at a roadside stand. Someone explained it to me, and I looked it up and read all about it, but now I can’t remember a thing, not even its name.

Roadside diner

Roadside diner

After several hours of driving, the traffic got significantly worse. In many towns, barricades were set up to force traffic to slow down, sometimes for inspections, although we were never inspected. We were still on windy, hilly roads, but the later it got, the more clogged they became with trucks. My guess is that the trucks were driving overnight to make early morning deliveries to Manila. We sat, stopped, for ages, as police let one vehicle at a time pass through barriers. I could not stay awake and don’t know how David did. Luckily he was driving. By maybe 10pm, he couldn’t take it anymore either and pulled into a hotel. I woke up when the car door closed, and while he went in to ask for a room, I sat in the passenger seat watching a frog jump around. There was no room available. At the second hotel we tried, maybe around 11pm, they had a room, and we immediately passed out.

I forgot to note that besides trikes, jeepneys, and trucks, the roads were often full of dogs, chickens, and occasionally cows.

Jeepneys

Jeepneys

The next day we made it to the highway, only at the first toll we realized we didn’t have enough cash to make it back to Manila, and the toll booths don’t take credit cards. We asked the toll booth operator where we could find an ATM, but we didn’t have enough money to get where he directed us, so we turned off the highway, set the GPS for “Bank,” and drove on side streets for ages, peering intently at every business, looking for an ATM. Eventually we entered a big city, and to my massive relief, the only card I’d brought worked fine. It felt so stupid to take out money the day before leaving the country (actually, David was flying out that night), but we needed to make it back to the airport. Once we could stop worrying about money, we stopped for a seafood lunch. We also got a plate of steamed vegetables, as we were tired of gross meat and plain rice every meal, but the three vegetables on the plate turned out to be okra, bitter melon, and some kind of green, bitter pepper. Not my favorites and anyway they were covered in some kind of corn starch or something instead of just steamed plain.

Punch line: our detour to look for an ATM took us so far out of the way that the car GPS re-routed us a much cheaper route. D’oh!

At one point, we passed a car pulled over with two men standing outside it picking something off a roadside tree. We pulled over, and they said the tree was very rare, and they were gathering alibangbang leaves. Another man pulled over, also excited by the tree, and he said to put them in food to make it taste better. Or something like that. We didn’t take any.

We were looking forward to having dinner back in Manila with the show’s director, Bobby, only we didn’t know what time we’d get back, we didn’t have wifi, and David had to catch a plane at midnight. Oh yeah, I didn’t mention that. Originally, the show had booked David a flight home at 9am the next morning. To save $300, I’d booked myself an earlier flight to Tokyo, and then we were going to meet there and take the same plane back to New York so we could come in from JFK together. Only while we were in Manila, another client summoned David to Cairo, and he agreed to fly there directly. I insisted he not cut our vacation short, so he told them he couldn’t fly before July 9. They booked his flight for 12:45am July 9, which c’mon! is really July 8. I tried to swap out of my coach seats into the fully reclining business class seats he wouldn’t be using, but not surprisingly, Delta wouldn’t allow it. Anyway, so now he had to be at the airport the night we got back to Manila instead of the next morning, and I had to be there just a few hours later. I figured we’d return the car, and I’d sleep in the airport, as I couldn’t see paying for a hotel room for myself just for midnight to 4am.

Anyway, we managed to find public wifi along the way to send Bobby an estimate, and he sent back the bad news that he was visiting the producer in the hospital. She was suffering from serious health problems already and unbeknownst to us had a stroke the night we left town. We guessed what neighborhood we’d be meeting in and parked in a local mall to find wifi. David got a shave and a haircut, and then we bought a ton of stuff with our extra cash, mostly stickers for me and presents for his kids.

Mall stop

Mall stop

Finally, we heard from Bobby and immediately left to meet him at a sushi restaurant, which he said was at another mall. We set the GPS for that mall, and it immediately turned us into a night market. Seriously. We were on what would have been a wide avenue, except that both sides were completely lined with vendors who had set up awnings and products in the street, barely leaving enough room for a pedestrian to pass through, much less a car, much less a Mitsubishi Montero, and yes, there were pedestrians pushing through everywhere. This turned into ridiculous driving escapade number two. If I learned one thing this trip it is that my boyfriend can drive! This time we weren’t alone. One car was in front of us, and our two-car parade made its way down the street by stopping until the vendors on both sides could unbolt their awning frames, move their merchandise out of our way, make a gap in the pedestrian throng, and direct us through the tiny path they’d cleared. We’d pass that stand and repeat the process. The GPS insisted this was a street, and after maybe a block that took maybe 45 minutes, we went through a light, and the market ended.

Driving through a Manila market

Driving through a Manila market

Hey we just followed the car in front of us.

Hey we just followed the car in front of us. … The only other car on the road.

Still, it took forever to get to the mall, and we had no way to tell Bobby we were running late. Then, when we got to the mall, we couldn’t find the restaurant! We walked all the way through the food court, no luck. We asked people, we walked around, we could not find it. The rain had gotten worse, and we’d heard reports of flooding. In the mall, we saw employees bunkered up for the night because they couldn’t get home. Were we going to make it to the airport? Was the plane going to be able to take off? Eventually someone had heard of the restaurant, and directed us down a floor, outside, and around. Bobby was just finishing what looked like a lovely sushi meal and wasn’t angry at all, only worried about David making his flight. Still, we had a hurried but delicious sushi dinner, and then drove to the airport. When we got there, I kept going in to pee over and over, passing right through beeping “Authorized Personnel Only” metal detectors every time, while David threw away his ruined muddy sandals, rearranged his luggage, and finally went in to catch his flight.

The reason I peed twice was that I’d changed my mind about how I’d spend the next few hours, and I was nervous about my new plan. I didn’t know whether the airport would be open all night, whether it would offer only plastic waiting chairs, or what, so I’d decided to spend the night in the rental car and return it in the morning. Now that David was gone, I got in the driver’s seat for the first time, set the GPS for “home,” and actually made it back to the rental car trailer no problem my discomfort at driving a giant, unfamiliar car in darkness and rain. When I got to the maze of parking lots, aka puddles, I did realize for the first time how truly useless the headlights were.

Finally, I pulled into a space right near the place I hoped someone would be at to sign in the car and drive me back to the terminal at 4:30am. It was about midnight, and I climbed into the back seat to nap for a few hours. Nope. It was boiling. Okay, I climbed back into the front seat to crack the windows. I turned the car on, lowered the electric windows slightly, trying not to tip them so much that I’d get soaked from the rain, and turned the car off. The car didn’t like that. An alarm went off, and all the lights started flashing. Now, I was not feeling so comfortable about spending the night alone in an almost deserted lot, and I did not want to draw any attention to the car. So I closed the windows. Didn’t help. Alarm went off again. So the heck with it. Might as well be comfortable if it’s going to alarm anyway. So I opened the windows again. Alarm. Every time the alarm went off, I clicked desperately at the key fob, as once David had set off the alarm by accident, and he’d disabled it immediately with the fob. But when I pressed buttons, sometimes it went off, and sometimes it stayed on. Even when it went off, a bright blue light kept blinking on the dashboard. And then maybe 30 seconds later, after I thought the car had calmed down, all the alarms and blinking lights went on again. I hadn’t touched anything! Maybe it didn’t like having the keys in the locked car. Maybe it didn’t like the windows being open. Maybe I have no idea what was wrong with it. I think finally I settled on windows open, doors unlocked, and my sweatshirt thrown over the dashboard to muffle the bright blue light, and that’s how I finally dozed off.

The car was stifling, even with the windows cracked, and I sure wasn’t happy about leaving the car doors unlocked. Yup, less than an hour later, two men opened the door, and then were incredibly startled to find me in there. They apologized and left, and eventually I fell asleep again, until someone else knocked on the door (thanks for knocking at least) and said, “you go now?” I said, no I was staying there until 4:30, and I’d go then. He kept repeating “you go now?” while another man circled the car, presumably checking it for damage. I repeated, “no, I”m sleeping here until 4:30. My flight isn’t till 6:30am.” Finally they left me alone.

For a while. At 4:15, the insistent man woke me up, saying it was time to go. It was still completely dark. I walked with him to the trailer, where he directed me to an outhouse of sorts, and then the same man who’d rented me the car signed it back in. I pulled my luggage from the back into another car, and the guy who woke me up drove me to the airport. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I said I’d like to check the car again because I wasn’t sure I’d gotten all my belongings out as it was pitch black in the unlit parking lot and I was pretty groggy. The man asked if I wanted to go back, but then we realized I’d given back the keys, so I figured I was probably being OCD, and we left for the airport. He asked for a tip, which I crankily gave him even though he’d woken me up twice, and 15 minutes earlier than I’d said on a night I was desperate for sleep.

What else? The Philippine airlines food was actually inedible, and I am the least picky eater I know. The plane also didn’t have any screens, so I slept and read my way to Tokyo. I had a long stopover in Narita, so I tried to change my pesos for dollars, but they would only change them for yen, so I loaded up on yen and then tried to spend them all. I loaded up on ramen (curiously bad), iced tea (the first unsweetened tea I’d found since leaving America!), snacks, and candy. The wifi worked this time, and I actually enjoyed catching up on email while hanging out in the noodle shop. The shop girl let me take the tape off the American plug, and the American tourist next to me kept trying to chat me up, and it was overall quite enjoyable.

Carlos Celdran

Airplane magazine mentions the tour guide we didn’t get to meet in Manila, Carlos Celdran

Narita bus instructions

Narita bus instructions

Narita snacks

Narita snacks

Then I had a middle seat for the long flight home, and when I got there, David was still in Cairo indefinitely. Not an exciting return. Still, it’s always good to go away, and it’s great to come home.

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The End of the Line

Weighing the options

SIR: St. George, Staten Island

Monday, April 9, 2012 Spring break for the Salisbury (CT) public ...

3: 148th Street/Harlem, Manhattan

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 I read a bit of that Quran, ...

S: Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn

Thursday, August 11, 2011 Boy if I thought Damaso changing his ...

NQ: Astoria/Ditmars Boulevard, Queens

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 It’s been almost five months since our ...

JEZ: Jamaica Center/Parsons Archer, Queens

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 We take the J because we both ...

SIR: Tottenville, Staten Island

Saturday, March 26, 2011 Holy end-of-the-line, Batman, Staten Island is really ...

2: Wakefield/241st Street, The Bronx

Thursday, March 24, 2011 We pull a last-minute switcheroo on our ...

R: Bay Ridge/95th Street, Brooklyn

Sunday, March 20, 2011 Ooph. No beautiful glowing glass art at ...

L: 14th Street/8th Avenue, Manhattan

Friday, March 18, 2011 This trip feels oddly important. It’s the ...

1: South Ferry, Manhattan

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 Sometimes, admittedly not as often as I’d ...

L: Rockaway Canarsie, Brooklyn

Sunday, March 13, 2011 After 18 years here, the cultural associations ...

6: Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx

Monday, February 21, 2011 We went to Manhattan. We went to ...

M: Middle Village, Metropolitan Ave., Queens

Saturday, February 19, 2011 Yesterday kids were playing basketball outdoors in ...

A: Inwood-207th Street, Manhattan

Thursday February 3, 2011 The idea had been hanging over my ...