Saturday, February 25, 2006

Fear and Loathing in the Philippines

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The title of this blog is applicable on a number of different levels. All of which have taken place over the last 3 weeks here in the Philippines. Hope you got a bit of time, sit back and relax, this could be a long blog. We even have a guest writer. I'll begin with the serious and move to the playful.

Firstly, as many of you have read and or seen, there were major landslides that occurred February 17th on the island of Leyte, in the province of St. Bernard, here in the Philippines. They were cause by weeks of continues rain that was an effect of the "La Nina weather pattern." The massive amount of relentless rain, and years of illegal logging produced the conditions for this disaster, which has left 200 dead and a 1000 still missing. As of today they have officially called off the search for survivors. The saddest thing about this tragedy is that it is the 3rd of its kind in the Philippines in the last 15 years, with the largest happening in 1991, killing close to 8000 people. This was called ORMAC and occurred on Leyte Island as well. The deadly combination for ORMAC was also heavy rains on an area that had experienced massive illegal logging.

The second event that lead me to the title, Fear and Loathing in the Philippines, occurred less than 24 hours after my friend Tin Tin had left to go home to England. I heard about it early in the morning of the 24th of February. Quickly a little background. The 24th of February was the 20 year anniversary of ESDA 1 or People Power 1. This was the event that removed than President Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986 after 14 years of Marshal Law (there was also a People Power 2 that removed Presidant Estrada in 2001). Exactly 20 years after the removal of Marcos many people where once again very unhappy with the current president, GMA, or Gloria M. Arroyo. This unhappiness stems from a number of reasons, but some of the largest reasons are quite clear. One is in late 2005 it was discovered that GMA had attempted to rig the past election. Tapes were discovered and released to the media with her speaking about "routes of action" with a high ranking election official. She admitted what she did was wrong, but refused to step down from office. There was impeachment proceedings that followed, however GMA had to much support in Congress for them to work. The other major reason, however underlying, is also late last year a 10% EVAT (tax) was added to almost everything in the country. In one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the most corrupt country in Asia, the people are quite leery of where 10% of their expenditures will now be going. Most people work paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings so you could make the argument that the tax takes a 10th of there income. Okay, back on track sorry. So Friday the 24th, it was released to the media that the government discovered an attempted coup attempt, involving high ranking military officers and politicians. These members where "detained" and the President announced a state of emergency. The state of emergency gives the President very expanded powers and limits the rights of the people. For example the right to assemble is withdrawn and free speech is heavily monitored. The best way to describe it is like a "light" marshal law. Fitting seeing it was 20 years to the day that Marcos was removed.......

Before I go on, I'm quite safe and these political events have a very small impact on my everyday life, just as they have a small impact on the everyday lifes of the people around me. So basically what I'm saying is don't worry about me.

So that’s what is going on in the Philippines that warrants the title Fear and Loathing. However I’d like to think that my 2 week vacation with my friend Tin Tin (Stuart Skinner) from England warranted it slightly as well. We did a little tour de "Visayas" and had a blast. I'm going to let Tints tell you about our trip though. For those of you who don't know, I met Tin Tin back went I studied abroad at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is English, but was born in and spent the first 15 years of his life in Hong Kong. At Kent we played on the American football team together. Five years later we have become very close friends. If you have never met Tints the best way to describe Tin Tin is to have you read the following quote by Jack Kerouac. That’s Tints in a nutshell.

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" --Jack Kerouac

On to the's Stuart Skinner.

What an honour I have bestowed upon me! Unsurprisingly, it’s cold wet and miserable outside as I write this. Unsurprisingly, I’d rather be back in the Philippines… despite the stampede, mudslides and the recently declared national state of emergency after a thwarted coup. When Lloyd was assigned to the Philippines, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I took advantage to go back to the area of the world I was born and raised. After my antics in Milwaukee, I’m sure a few people thought mayhem would ensue, but amazingly, I spent a lot of the time in silence, absorbing some of the most spectacular surroundings and dreaming of possibilities that would allow me to escape the nonsense of big city life.

Two weeks after booking my ticket, a delayed flight later and an enforced night in Manila, I was reunited with my dear friend and it felt completely normal that we were doing so in the other side of the world. First port of call was three nights in Lloyds town of Miagao. I had arrived for the latter stages of the Salakayan festival, which is a celebration and commemoration of their ancestor’s efforts at repelling the evil Moro raiders who first pillaged Miag-ao ten years after the town was founded (1731). The festival was marked by several re-enactments of the town’s heroics and we can all be rest assured that those evil Muslims will not be returning to the town of Miag-ao.

It was all very entertaining if not somewhat bemusing. The Miagaowonans had obviously put a lot of effort and passion into the festival and it really highlighted the pride that these people felt as a community for their past. Accompanying the festival was a lot of food, boozing and dancing and that is of course when I am in my element. I was completely blown away by Lloyd’s command of the local dialect, Illonggo. It was very entertaining to watch Lloyd converse in Illonggo and to see the often very surprised look on the unsuspecting locals face. I grinned like an unwitting idiot, feeling a lot of pride for Lloyd, not knowing that he was using it is an opportunity to tell those he was introducing me to as “single and available” and that I was “uncircumcised”… cheers mate!

The community spirit of Miag-ao and the Philippine nation as a whole, really blew me away. The average Philippino survives on under $2 a day and therefore, Westerners are the subject of envy for the wealth we have and the luxuries that are afforded to it. However, it is perhaps their lack of wealth that has created a community of open doors and open hearts. I can’t help but feel that it is a tremendous shame that our two “great” nations place so much emphasis on individualism at the expense of the community and I know we are worse off for it. Lloyd is slightly revered by his community and this is testimony to his strength of personality and his acknowledgement that learning the language is imperative to integration and his subsequent effort in learning Illonggo. This does however, mean that he is frequently mobbed and the next stage of my trip undoubtedly proved a welcome break for him.

It is not uncommon to witness Philippinos pray as they get onto public transport and not long into our 6 hour journey to the port of Dumaguete, I was beginning to wish I had a God to pray to. It didn’t help Lloyd informing me that he sometimes thought there was a problem with bus drivers using crack and I quickly began to wish I had some form of substance to alleviate the terrifying fear that was beginning to grip me. The bus journey did take us through some spectacular scenery, particularly through the mountainous region which I did enjoy when I could avert my eyes from staring death directly in the face. After a quick stopover in Dumaguete, it was off to the bloody gorgeous island of Apo.

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(Apo Island, view from Negros Island)

Apo is a 72 hectare island of pure beauty, untainted by the conveniences of Western life. I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders as I stepped on the sandy shores and breathed in the fresh, salty air. Apo has a population of around 700 and fishing provides the main commercial revenue for the people. The local people are striving to create a harmonious co-existence with the environment that allows for commercial activity without the expense of the local habitat. In fact, they benefit as the conserved area provides an increasing abundance of fish, which in turn, they are permitted to catch. Apo serves as an exemplary example that conservation does not mean financial hardship and by upholding the areas outstanding natural beauty, tourists and locals benefit alike. Upon arrival we immediately made way for the protected area for a spot of snorkeling that was truly breathtaking.

On our way to the site, we were distracted by the sound of cheering and we decided to investigate. I was in luck. We had stumbled upon a cock fight, something that I had been eagerly anticipating after my first night. After a journey that saw me leave London and not arrive at Lloyd’s for some 36 hours later, I was all to ready to get a good nights sleep. However, the devil in disguise decided to wake and keep me so with some incessantly raucous crowing. It is now my belief that the devil is a cock. I must admit to having some slight reservations about cockfighting, but after that first night I asked Lloyd’s neighbours and keen cockfight spectators if the cocks “die a slow and painful death” as I hoped they did. Any of you who have ever eaten chicken or eggs that are non free range, then I’m afraid you forfeit the right to pass any judgment on cockfighting for I know which of the two I find more disgusting

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(Apo Island beach from our balcony)

We spent our evenings there hanging out with the very talented and friendly local artist “Elbaens”. It was really satisfying that three men of the same age, from completely different backgrounds were able to hang out, united by our mutual appreciation of good music and of course, beer. The next day saw me do some diving where I hung out with the cast of “Finding Nemo” whilst Lloyd was working very hard on becoming the first person to make an ass-groove in a hammock. We were there for Valentines and there is perhaps very few other places more romantic than Apo island, and as much as I love Lloyd, I did wish that there was someone of the opposite sex to share the double bed with me that overlooked the ocean abyss… sorry, after having been the subject of desires for some local homosexuals, I feel it important to re-iterate my heterosexuality… especially as Lloyd tried to convince me it was culturally acceptable (which it is)… again, cheers mate!

(Photo by Tommy Shultz, taken at Apo Island)

It was perhaps be-fitting that after
Apo we traveled to another area of outstanding beauty, though this time, it was inland. Located on the island of Bohol, Nuts Huts consists of nipa huts clustered on the banks of the river at the base of the hills, cloistered from civilization. Again, it was truly breathtaking and I was mesmerized by the pure tranquility of it all.

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(Loboc River, heading to Nutz Hutz)

Whilst there, we visited the freakish geological occurrence, the “chocolate hills”, swimming in the river with local kids, hiking amongst the hills with most inadequate footwear, and visiting some of the local bats. I was however, at my happiest there, whilst swaying in the hammock, overlooking the river on the backdrop of the hills, enjoying some quiet, introspective time… and sipping on some quite delightful banana shakes with generous lashings of rum.

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(Chocolate Hills)

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(Monitor Lizard that we spotted while sipping on our Bannana and Rum shakes)

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(Entrance to the first of two caves we entered. Many bats awaited us on the inside)

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The only downside was sharing this wonderfully sublime time with a load of French people and not the two hot chicks of any nationality bar French, that Lloyd and I constantly wished were waiting for us at every destination. Alas, no such luck so we had to make do with using the homemade sauna with just each other for company again.

We forfeited a night in the very Westernized island of Cebu for another night in Utopia and I really found it difficult to leave… especially as this entailed a 13 hour boat trip. We arrived back in Iloilo feeling the strain of a week on the move and it seemed apt that we go for a massage. Our final night saw us meet up with some of Lloyd’s fellow Peace-Corps and finally, we had our night of mayhem. I don’t really know quite what happened and at what point the mayhem started but it was all very messy and a good way to send me off.

So that’s that really. I feel rejuvenated and revitalized after a fantastically wonderful time. My mind is filled with future possibilities and I know for certainty that one day, Lloyd and I will have our own heaven on earth and that it will be commercially viable. A lot of hard work is needed before hand to ensure this and I am more prepared for this now than I was before. I left Philippines feeling a lot of pride for my mate and all that he is doing with himself. I can’t wait for the next time we meet up, whenever and wherever that may be........

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Brief Update

I just wanted to note to everyone I am well and healthy. I was unaffected (physically) by the landslides that occurred on Leyte Island. It is a great tragedy here in the Philippines. They came such a short time after the stampede deaths in Manila. Its a difficult time for so many people here in the Philippines. Thank you to everyone who called or wrote me regarding my well being at this time.

On a lighter note, I have been on vacation traveling around the last 10 days with my mate Tin Tin from England. It has been a very enjoyable vacation, pictures and stories will follow within the next week. Tin Tin will be writing one of the posts for my blog as well.