Spanish colonisation began with the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi's expedition on February 13, 1565, from Mexico. After this, the colony was directly governed by Spain, eventually unifying a country that was previously an agglomeration of small kingdoms and sultanates in a perpetual state of minor wars. Spanish rule was never entirely accepted however and ended in 1898 with Spain's defeat in the Spanish–American War. The Philippines then became a territory of the United States, entering another struggle for independence from a country they had mistakenly thought was their ally against Spain.
The Filipinos had just agreed their Independence when the Japanese began theri occupation during World War II, arriving only a few hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the Philippines proved to be the bloodiest theatre of the war for the invaders with at least 498,600 Japanese troops killed in fighting the combined Filipino reserves. Approximately, 10,000 U.S. soldiers were missing in action in the Philippines when the war ended, more than in any other country in the Pacific or Europe. An estimated 1 million Filipinos were dead.
When the war ended the Americans were welcomed back. Independence eventually went ahead, with the Philippines continuing to be heavily economically reliant on America.
More than a quarter of the Philippines' 105.7 million people live in dire poverty. This is a polarised society and there are few opportunities for social mobility, whilst there is rapid population growth. The rural areas are notably poor, but there are large shanty towns in many of the urban areas as well.
The Philippines is a relatively safe country to visit if you heed FCO advice (and this always tends towards the cautious). There has been terrorist activity with some kidnapping in the south and west towards the ocean borders with Indonesia., so these areas are best avoided - check for the latest guidance.
The people are delightful and very friendly, but because of the poverty there is a great deal of petty crime. Keep a constant eye on your belongings and don't travel alone on the jeepney taxis. They are very crowded and you will be very lucky to get out with still in possession of your money.
Be prepared to 'pay extra' to get things done. Unless you grease palms very little will happen - though the people will still smile.
Don't drive yourself. Labour is cheap and a driver won't add much to the cost of a car. If there is an accident and a foreigner is at the wheel there will be a lynching.
This is a fascinating and beautiful country, with incredibly sociable people, a contender for one of the most interesting countries in the world.
The highlight is possibly the rice terraces of Luzon - more magnificent and more ancient, rice terraces than the ones in Bali.
But also consider:
Luzon, home to Manila is the largest island in the Philippines and the 15th largest in the world by land area. It is famous for volcanoes. colonial Spanish cities, the best and oldest rice terraces in the world and (last century) American military bases.
North towards Bagiuo, a long day’s drive (because of the traffic) through Metro Manila, (mainly Quezon City which is larger than Manila itself) and skirting Manila Bay, which forms one of the best natural harbours in South East Asia. It’s just a shame it’s on the main hurricane route.
Past Pinatubo, which with Taal and Mayon forms the three most famous volcanoes in the Philippines. It eruption in the 1990s was the most cataclysmic since Krakatoa. But it’s still a popular climbing excursion. Through Angeles, which latterly was home to the American Clarke Air Force Base and is now the Sin City of the Philippines, a red light district and magnet for solo male travellers. It also has an overlooked and pretty colonial Spanish centre.
Baguio, known as the “City of Pines,” is an attractive mountain town of universities and resorts, popular because the weather is usually cooler here.
Continuing north to Banaue; to say this is a hidden gem is an understatement. The Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Ifugao peoples begin at the base of the Cordillera Mountain range, extending several thousand feet upwards and are known locally as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", Two of the terrace clusters Bangaan and Batad, are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Wikipedia says that their length, if put end to end, would encircle half of the globe. The terraces are thought (arguably) to be to be more than 2,000 years old and are irrigated by means of mountain streams and springs that have been tapped and channelled into canals that run downhill through the rice terraces.
Suffice it to say. that the rice terraces here are more ancient and far more magnificent than anything Bali has to offer, simply stunning, with their emerald dotted platforms running down the steep valleys. What’s more they’re virtually deserted, apart from the odd Ifugao attired in feathery millinery.
Sagada, also in in the Cordillera Mountains, has still more plunging rice terraces, but is distinctive for the hanging coffins of Echo Valley, displayed high on the cliffs. Close by more centuries-old wooden coffins are stacked in burial sites in caves. It's a macabre and fascinating visit.
Even further north, on the west coast, is Vigan with its preserved Spanish colonial and Asian architecture. Vigan is picture perfect with its cobblestone streets, malecón, horse-drawn carriages, bell towers and rustic mansions. The highlight for me is the white baroque cathedral of St Paul, with its distinctive triangular facade and Plaza Burgos, known for its street-food stalls. Others would say it's the classic Calle Crisologo, with over 200 houses still preserved from the Spanish Colonial period. Vigan has also received the UNESCO accolade.
This area is rich in history, with its numerous colonial ancestral homes and is the birthplace of at least one president. Further out are picturesque, but poorer, rural dwellings and, as is often the case in the Philippines, there are some signs that are amusing to us westerners - in this case a hospital offering assorted types of circumcision,
There is also an extremely pleasant and welcome sandy beach not too far away.
Siquijor is a small island, in the Visayas. It's the third smallest province in the Philippines, nestling south of Cebu and south west of Bohol and we reach it by air from Manila. There are a few domestic flights each week.
Siquijor has a reputation as a place of magic and sorcery amongst the Filipinos. The healers, known as mangkukulum, live in the mountains, every so often emerging to participate in festivals that focus on healing rituals where incantations are sung while the old folks make potions out of herbs, roots, insects and tree bark.
Filipino legend says that the island appeared when a great storm once engulfed the region. There was a strong earthquake that shook the earth and sea and Siquijor arose from the depths of the ocean amidst the lightning and thunder. Apparently highland farmers have discovered giant clam shells on their land, supporting the theory that Siquijor is indeed an island that rose from the sea
Elaine and I are equally interested, however, in the beaches lined with laid back mid-range resorts. especially in the south. The views are stunning, especially where trees grow directly out of the water in the pretty bays of the water. The snorkelling is good off nearly every beach, though swimming at low tide is problematic, because of the low reefs.
We spend most of our time ensconced on beach beds, but there are also caves, waterfalls, Bandila (a natural park and butterfly sanctuary) to explore. The most popular tourist attraction is the Cambugahay Falls, where Filipino children cavort and jump and dive down the falls into the lake below, shrieking and grinning.
Close by, in Lazi, there’s also the Old Balete Tree, a highly venerated ancient strangler fig, that has grown over a spring.
Best of all are the amazing sunsets viewed (cocktail in hand) across the ocean. These are magical indeed.
El Nido Island, on the northern tip of Palawan Island is reached by Sea Air from Manila. It’s not a sea plane this time, (although these are on offer), but the plane skims over the dots of islands in western Luzon Province, as close to the water, it seems, as a sea plane, before bumping over the hills to land.
This area is (yet another) hidden gem of the Philippine Islands – a relatively unknown Halong Bay of feathery karst columns, each surrounded by its own idyllic white sand beach and colourful reef. What better way to spend a holiday than to commandeer a banca each morning and sail away to a different island with a picnic lunch that you can probably eat in total seclusion.
Some of the reefs of El Nido are recovering from the dynamite fishing that still is not completely eradicated. But, close by, Miniloc Island is famed for the clear waters of its Small and Big Lagoons. Shimizu Island still has fish-filled waters and engaging snorkelling and Dilumacad (Helicopter Island because it's ostensibly shaped like a chopper ) has a long tunnel leading to an underwater cavern. But you have to dive to see this, so I’m leaving that one out. There are encounters with grottoes (artificial and natural) and birds nest guardians to enthral instead.
There are upmarket (and correspondingly expensive) resort hotels, complete with their own islands, to be had. But I’m settling for Lally and Abet Beach Cottages. Its not the prettiest of all the many stretches of sand, but it’s comfortable reasonably priced accommodation and the owners are really helpful in sorting out each day’s excursions and in providing plenty of coconuts.
I’m planning to go to Kalibo for the weekend with Elaine. The biggest festival in the Philippines is held there annually - the Ati Atihan. Just about to sneak out of school at noon to go to the airport in Manila when we are told there is a riot in Makati. Pro and anti Erap marchers have clashed and pushing and shoving has escalated. About twenty people hurt but nothing too awful in the end. Numbers at the shrine continue to swell. The BBC says hundreds of thousands. We know better but still a fair number. The Embassy says we are to go nowhere near.
Then news arrives that the chief of police and then the head of the armed forces have withdrawn their support via phone calls to Erap. Ironically, the pro Erap supporters have forced the situation by beginning the violence. The protestors have said they will stay until he goes. The only way to stop the violence then is for him to go and the police don’t want to hurt their own people.
We learn all this through the usual text messages. This is effectively a bloodless coup (just like last time). Erap cannot continue and offers to hold an election in May at which he will not run. They won’t have it and now it is really only a matter of time before he goes. The stock market is already on the up as it all ends so peacefully.
Eventually, to the airport. Arrive there to a phone call from Lyn. Karsten from Bohol has arrived at school to see me. What timing – he is only in town for one night on his way to Puerto Gallera.
From one demonstration/festival to another. “Erap resign” signs all over Kalibo, a city on Panay Island. Only tricycle taxis here and Hugo, the drunk Swiss hotel owner meets us with one and takes us back to our bungalow style room. The Hibiscus, pretty, but well out of town. Well at least we’ll be away from all the noise. Then to the carnival. Lots of dancing in a big arena covered in flags and banners. Roll out the barrel and the birdie song at least a dozen times and without a drop of alcohol I end up leading snake dances all round with hordes of Filipinos tagging behind. They keep dragging me back in. White faces are such a novelty and white women on their own almost nonexistent. Elaine hides and builds up a file of evidence on her digital camera.
The programme says the main parade is at 7.30 a.m. We take a tricycle to the main square at 8.30. Nothing happening. I ask a stallholder who peers through balloons and feathered tribal masks at me. He says it starts at 9. I say “It is 9”. He says " Maybe 10 then". About 9.30 are were sounds of drumming and the tinkling of percussion and the parades begin. This seems to be a time for massing in the Plaza and we perched on a wall there for really good views of endless costumed revellers, tribal dancers, snake charmers, grotesque papier mache animals, decorated floats (Mary and Jesus statues in various forms, but usually a plastic modern doll) and hundreds of other outfits – witches/ skeletons/lion fish/a bright pink paunch in a nappy. Most people have painted faces and we get our faces blacked for us too. The festival re-enacts the handing over of Panay to the Spanish by the local, Borneo style tribes. They were head-hunters until comparatively recently.
These groups process round and round the square all morning – absolutely fascinating though we get the birdie song rather too many times again. Lunch in a restaurant facing the Plaza ‘Sorry chicken’s off Ma’am, sorry the last coconut’s just gone ma’am”.
Then it begins to pour down, through the plastic roof in buckets and into buckets. The street outside is like a lagoon. The parade begins again while it is still bucketing. This one includes all the previous tribal groups and more besides, businesses, banks, all marching along jigging to the Birdie song.
Another text message. ‘We are at the gates of the palace – face to face with pro Erap police”. Erap has finally given in and left the palace and half naked men cavort with Erap resigns in white paint all over their backs. Gloria Arroyo is being sworn in even as he leaves. Celebrations in Manila and even bigger ones here.
We watch with our hair becoming progressively more sodden and a veritable river running down my back. This parade goes on for 3 hours. Fantastic, though the revellers are also becoming progressively drunk, carrying large bottles of vile green spirits strapped to their waists as well as the large metal drums. As they drink they lose their inhibitions and keep approaching, giving us thumbs up signs, smacking palms and trying to get us to join their groups. One guy who said he was “a sailor” sweeps me way and won’t let go of me. Every time I try to slip away he grabs me again and says not to worry, he is a good man. Eventually I hide in the church. I am definitely a novelty as I am interviewed for TV four different times by different channels. Shame I can’t see it.
Exhausted by now. Back to the hotel for a nap and then out to a Chinese meal and visits to the night market. Lots of mini gambling type games hidden at the back. Roll coloured dice; bet on the right colour and so on.
Finally to last night’s dance arena but too packed to move tonight – very sad. A spectacular firework display. Roman candles that split up like pools of wiggling sperm as they shoot away. Home to bed and our quiet area. It is unfortunate that Elaine snores.
Packing for a trip to Bohol and Cebu in the Visayas. There is a typhoon alert out in Visayas.
Helen and (husband) Stewart and I eventually leave for our flight to Cebu. The traffic to the airport in Manila is terrible as everyone prepares to move out for the forthcoming national holidays. A usually 15 minute journey turns into an hour and it begins to look as if we will miss our plane. We finally arrive at the terminus feeling we had minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we are turned away as is the wrong terminus. PAL has their own. Helen is extremely embarrassed and by the time we have found a taxi and got to the right terminus the desk is closed. The next flights are all very full so Helen and Stewart offer to come back early next morning (2 a.m.) to get stand by tickets for the next days flights and I go back to Merville.
Catch the 7.30 flight with number one stand by tickets. The flight is hard work for a wimp like me. The turbulence from the impending typhoon is so bad that not even the airhostesses are allowed to stand up and I spend the whole journey in a cold sweat. We make our connection to the ferry at Cebu with spare time only to discover that most of the crossings have been cancelled due to the weather. Our crossing is going but is preceded by a number of announcements “This will be a rough crossing” . I take two seasick pills, but in the event it is nothing like as bad as the plane. The two hour journey is was more exhilarating than frightening though the ferry does yaw considerably and quite a number of passengers are making use of their paper bags.
A taxi carries us across Bohol to Alona Beach on Pangalao Island where all is peace and sunshine. Little rattan huts on the beach and a superb restaurant with wonderful tamarind flavoured sweet and sour. We relax and sunbathe and stroll along the beach.
Spend the evenings till late drinking in the Safety Stop bar with a lanky Viking diving instructor called Karsten. The generator explodes sending sparks all down the beach.
On the beach the water has cleared enough after the typhoon to go snorkelling on the house reef. Like many of the local reefs it has suffered from dynamite fishing and (though to a lesser extent than in the Maldives) to bleaching of the coral because of the warming of El Nino. The crown of thorns starfish is a problem here also, as in other parts of the world. The shellfish that eats it has been totally depleted, so as to obtain its beautiful shell. Crown of thorns eats coral and has no other natural enemies. Karsten lectures us for hours about all these problems and vents his disgust at the way in which the locals cleanthe local weed off the beach by scooping it up and burying it. Nevertheless I see a big grouper, shoals of bright zebra fish and a black and white sea snake. The latter are poisonous but have very small teeth.
A taxi to the famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol, which are green at this time of year. They are an amazing clump of 1268 hills, which rise directly from the ground and are awe inspiring, in the same league as the Taj Mahal. We sit and drank in the atmosphere from a platform perched on the top of one of them and eat lunch in the restaurant before moving on to see the tiny local monkey called tarsiers down by the river. They have huge eyes and are really quite ugly. Many of the locals believe they are evil spirits and they have been stoned and hunted to the point of extinction.
We visit a reintroduction project. The monkeys crouch on my hand and then leap six feet back into their open cage. The scenery is beautiful and breathtaking – paddy fields, green swathed mountains, white beaches and glimpses of sea views though mangroves and palm trees. We watch the caribow cattle ploughing and crowds of children emerging from school in uniform.
Up at 5 a.m. today to travel south with Elaine and Alexis. Alexis has organised a driver called Ephraim and a Kia Spacewagon (so we can do a lot of shopping). We go via the South Super highway out of Manila and a Starbucks to the Laguna area.
This is a big lake bordered by the suburbs. It eventually merges into Hot Springs and resort areas lined with hotels and fruit stalls. Our first stop is Pagsanjan where we board canoes to travel up river to the falls. The canoes are precarious, paddled by two men, a father and son. The water level is dangerously close to the top of the canoe – they are really only designed for two passengers. Elaine is quite sturdily built. Another canoe with an inboard engine tows us along for the first stages and we pass settlements, women washing, children swimming in the water, little hut houses and animals grazing and bathing too. There are plenty of long horned water buffalo. The banks are lined with green water lilies and purple hyacinths bob up and down in our wake. The ubiquitous palm trees line the banks.
The boatmen take up their paddles as we approach the first rapids. For the next hour they toil upriver alternately using paddles and dragging us up ramps laid between the rocks. It must be exhausting and they take several well-deserved breaks.
Around us the riverbanks deepen into tall mossy green canyons, bright blue kingfishers dart ahead to point the way and clouds of iridescent butterflies hover over the rocks.
Shortly before we hear the thunder of the falls, the heavens open and we are soaked. We stop at a stall on the bank for the boatmen to have a drink and some barbecue chicken – their breakfast. The woman in charge sells us plastic poncho type raincoats.
Back at the boat we put on our rain wear only to discover that they are in fact large plastic bags cut down one side. The falls themselves are pretty enough and contained plenty of water. Elaine and I take a trip behind them on a raft made of lashed together bamboo like a giant panpipe. I am up to my waist in water just resting on the raft. Our passage through the fall must be very similar to being in a proper typhoon. The noise is deafening and we are buffeted and soaked. An unmissable experience.
Then back down the river shooting the rapids properly this time, although enough water comes into the boat on each passage to keep Alexis busy bailing at the front.
The journey back is accomplished in a third of the time. The father tells us he had been doing that trip once a day for thirty years. The son has been working for six months.
We disappear in to the local hotel to get changed (my clothes are still wet two days later) and then on to Paete and the local craft shops. All sorts of Filipiniana here. Much wood work, especially religious carvings. Also lots of papier-mâché masks, boxes, ornaments. Many are being decorated for Christmas. Then we find a factory that is mass-producing these items and watched the artisans painting baubles and Father Christmases on sleighs. We have lunch in The Exotic Restaurant - delightful flower gardens and a huge python called Samantha coiled in a tiny cage.
Next we drive back through Paete passing a large rickety building full of men shouting. It is called the Paete Coliseum and Ephraim says the event is cockfighting.
The rest of the day is spent journeying to Villa Escadura, which Alexis has been told is an attractive and historic hotel at which to stay. It is on a coconut plantation in a hidden valley. The countryside is very interesting, full of densely covered green volcanoes and through a town called San Pablo that seems to have lots of steelworks. Roadside stalls are piled with all kinds of kitchen utensils and there are lots of jeepney factories, and the odd shop labelled ERAP (President Joseph Estrada’s nickname though I’m not sure why) - Easier Retail Access for the Poor. The journey is long. On finally reaching our destination we are told that the resort is full.
We have a quick peek at the pink walled mansion and drive on towards Tagaytay, our original planned stopover.
Dusk is falling and Ephraim’s driving becomes more exciting as he skirts the inevitable traffic jams by driving on the wrong side of the road, Like a Bat Out of Hell appropriately blaring out of the stereo system.
We compromise on a new hotel called Lima City and eat in the Japanese restaurant before falling soundly asleep. Next morning breakfast at the Malarayat golf club - very attractively set in the middle of flower gardens and more lush mountain peaks before Tagaytay is finally accomplished. The scenery here is stunning. Lake Taal with a volcanic island in the middle and fantastic views from the winding road up. The roads are lined with stalls full of fruit and vegetables so perfect they look like the little models I had bought on fridge magnets the day before. Stock up with bright red daisy like flowers, rambutans and slices of the huge jackfruit.
Lunch the next day at Sonia’s Garden. A summerhouse festooned with white netting set in the middle of an English style garden full of exotic plants and flowers floating in stone tubs and sinks.
We return to Manila and more inevitable traffic jams, via a side turning down, at Alexis’ s suggestion, a long winding dirt road. More spectacular views and past two abandoned villas built by the Marcos family and used just one night for a party.
Into Makati through the demonstrations. Very little to see, just some banners and groups waiting on street corners and all quite calm, but the crowd is building up again at the Ortegas shrine on EDSA. Reference is constantly made to the last bloodless revolt – they are determined to do the same thing again. They will stay there until Erap goes. I keep getting text messages updating me on the situation saying, “Pray for us”. Texting is getting bigger and bigger here and anti Erap messages have been escalating across the airwaves for some months.
Elaine and I return to Tagaytay to climb the Taal volcano. Noli drives us through the inevitable jams and then on to the town and lake. Fantastic views again marred by clouds. When is the promised dry season going to arrive? We take a boat across to the island in the centre of the lake. I laugh when Noli says he doesn'tt want to come because he’d get wet, but we soon find out why. Lots of spray, past the mini crater like peaks to a row of moored brightly painted bancas with very steep pointed prows. “Rent a hat ma’am 20 pesos, water ma’am, 20 pesos, guide ma’am, 500 pesos (One track up as far as I can see). Horse ma’am, 1,000 pesos.”
We eventually settle for two horses at 350 each, which is still a rip off. I tell the locals that I don’t ride and I want a quiet horse. They bring me a white creature with pink eyes that roll at me. He nips and won’t even walk up to the bench at which I am supposed to clamber on. I get my foot in a stirrup and am proud to swing a leg over unaided. The horse immediately bucks. Elaine has hysterics.
The journey is okay and the scenery would be great if we could see it through the clatter of pushing horses, crowds of people and clouds of dust.
Taal is billed as the smallest (and one of the most active) volcanoes in the world. At the top is a small crater lake bubbling away below the surface, surrounded by wisps of steam from countless calderoles. Japanese and Filipinos pester us to have our photos taken with them. I’m black with dust and my eyes are streaming. What can the pictures look like when they are developed?
We decide to walk down, much to the consternation of the guides. ‘You pay us ma’am not him. He is not to be trusted”. They follow us with the horse, worried we will renege on the extortionate deal we have agreed. I scramble around looking at fumaroles. “Careful ma’am it’s dangerous”. Elaine mutters that we are over 21. Five minute later my feet slide from under me and I land, with no dignity and much too quickly, on the ground. Elaine orders me to get up quickly and not to show I am hurt. But I am, my hands are bruised. To give them their due they do not laugh, but they cannot understand why we still want to wander slowly and admire the views. Once down the bottom payment is demanded. “No tip ma’am?”
Back to the beach. “Twenty pesos to use the bench to climb on the boat ma’am”. As we arrive back it starts to rain hard. We twist up the mountain to Tagaytay town and a late lunch in Josephine’s with plate glass promising good views if ever the clouds lift.
We fight more traffic home to Manila, stopping off in Alabang at the Festival Mall. Here there is a shop called Europa delicatessen – Coleman’s horseradish, Branston pickle, Heinz ketchup, Bounty bars, jelly babies and best of all, Sharwood's hot mango chutney. Now I’m a real ex pat shopper.
A weekend in Puerto Galera on the neighbouring island of Mindoro. This is a big diving and snorkelling centre in the Philippines.
We have to travel south to Batangas on the South Super Highway and turn right out of Merville and Manila for the first time. The roads in Metro Manila are bad enough. There are up to six lanes each side, no lane markings in many places and you overtake in any lane. Sometimes there is no central reservation and sometimes there are odd lumps of concrete there, which is even worse as they are not lit up. There are potholes and huge cracks everywhere. The South Super is almost worse as the fastest lane is the hard shoulder on which everyone overtakes. The scenery is not spectacular – concrete and factories throughout Metro Manila but as we leave the city there are tantalizing glimpses of mountains in the mist as night falls. When we get to the Batangas turn off the new slip road is closed and we have to drive across the central reservation and through the oncoming motorway traffic to exit the road.
Bancas, deep boats with wooden outriggers are waiting to take us on the hour-long journey across the water. It is dark by now and we sing most of the way (fortified by all the gin which had appeared on the coach), as we watch the lights ahead hopefully and try not to mind the choppy seas (very damp travelling).
Our hotel El Galleon is on the beach. All rooms are rattan style. The view is beautiful and the bay is lush, lined by mountains and palms. I walk round the point to the next beach, passing a lonely lamp post bearing a painted sign “Useless lamp post project” and go snorkelling. The coral is fair with a few good fish.
Once back on shore I am pursued by an endless succession of hawkers who have no understanding of the concept of quiet relaxation alone. I eventually settle for a massage and decline the pearl necklaces, bracelets with my name woven in and wooden carved birds. In the afternoon on a banca to a nearby island past the harbour, some beautiful white sands and lots of coconut palms. It is idyllic. Then to the Coral Gardens Beach. Some more snorkelling with good coral but choppy water - so lots of spluttery mouthfuls as I swim along. To end with - another massage.
The sea is as flat as the proverbial millpond on the way home and schools of porpoises leap in unison round us as we speed back towards Luzon, the main island.
It seems that since I accepted my job offer in December the Philippines has rapidly become once of the most unstable democracies in Asia.
I am met by Maria, the school bursar, who has brought a mini bus in anticipation of me bringing vast quantities of luggage. My three smallish bags are loaded into this and we bump through the streets as I begin to renew my previous brief acquaintance with the jeepneys, tricycles and general chaos of the Filipino roads.
The house I remembered from the interviews is now beautifully renovated and we sit down round the pool with a bottle of champagne. The maids Sally and Malou are there as arranged and now giggle at me from the kitchen. Coconut palms tower overhead and I’m told that the gardener (when arranged) will climb up and fetch me down all the coconuts I want.
I tour the house – three bedrooms all with bathrooms and cavernous wardrobes. Master bedroom with huge dressing room and bathroom. Sitting room, dining room, kitchen, maids room, wet kitchen (for washing) and a long wooden floored room running the length of the house containing not much more than a 29” colour television.
Feeling like Rockefeller I am swiftly brought down to earth when the maids arrived to tell me that the previous occupant has removed absolutely everything from the kitchen including the waste bins and the oven shelves.
In the mall with Malou. It is her job to do the cooking and shopping. Sally does the washing and cleaning. I think it is a good idea to take her to the department store and show her what I want.
Two exhausted hours later I come back and retire to bed. Every time I asked her a question Malou giggled and followed me nervously round the shop, scared to do anything. In the end I shopped while she watched. Everything on the list was on the opposite side of the shop to the preceding item and the soap powder for some reason is stored in the middle of the food section. I bought Woolite, pleased that so many English items were available. Later I told one of the teachers.
“You should have got two,” she said. “It won’t be there next time.”
Meat and fish is no cheaper than England but the prawns are huge and exotic. Fish like lapu lapu look good. In compensation, papayas are 20 pence each and there are wonderful mangoes too. Gordon’s gin is the equivalent of £1.50 a bottle and local rum is just 50 pence. I checked the prices twice to make sure.
In the evening I rattle around my mansion and watch Home Box Office. BBC World is available for round the clock news, but the picture is terrible. The story is that the Chinese jam it as often as they can.
Sleeping is going to take some getting used to. It’s hot and the air conditioner is on. Planes are taking off at the airport just over the way. There’s a mynah bird in the house over the road that wolf whistles all the time and a cockerel next door that crows throughout the night. No doubt I shall adapt eventually. This is a peaceful part of Manila.
While I am at work there is a leak through the kitchen ceiling at home and the two rooms are flooded. When I arrive home the two maids are dancing around with mops like sailors doing the hornpipe. They get paid about £80 each a month and free food and lodging. I’ve borrowed a TV for them but they don’t seem very interested. They are beginning to talk to me now - Malou says she has a boyfriend. There is a spare room by the garage, which is bigger than their current room. There is also a room, over the road, which apparently is mine and which was rented out to an entire family before I came for 700 pesos a month (about £10).
There is some talk about the maids taking the bigger room. They posture and say it is up to me, so I ask which room they would prefer. They like both, they reply but the bigger room would be good for putting up their family if they want to stay. I decide to abandon that idea for the moment.
Malou is a very good cook. Her pumpkin soup and chicken with coconut are scrummy.
I just give Malou the money at the beginning of the week and she does all the shopping and pays the gardener. I’m still having trouble explaining that the amount of money left in the cash box should equal the difference between the receipts and the amount given however. It’s worrying how quickly one adapts to life at the manor. I’ve already started leaving my clothes on the floor because I know that Sally will pick them up. My knickers are all arranged folded in beautiful little piles in the drawers. I like watching the maids sweeping. They use a little twiggy broom in their right hands and move along balancing their left arm behind them like speed skaters.
Visit the site for the new school. It’s very exciting, as so much is happening at last. We are taken around in a four-wheel drive that bumps and lurches over huge ruts and bogs. The actual site is just like a scene from Antz ,with 300 workers swarming everywhere, carrying poles and materials. I have this strange feeling they will stop the instant we disappear.
The traffic in Manila is terrifying. There is no lane discipline at all and everyone just goes for it. People hang off the back of jeepneys and crawl though windows. The scenery is equally disorderly. One second, millionaire villages surrounded by security guards; the next rows of shanties crammed along and under flyovers with children playing on the railway lines and in the rubbish.
Merville, the suburb where I live is a mix of both with big houses like mine and streets of tricycle taxis and little shops and bustle. My driver, Noli sometimes gives me a commentary. Noli is 55 and has 5 children, the youngest of whom is only 4. The car is a Honda Civic, black with tinted windows so no one can see in. I keep disgracing myself by trying to leap into the wrong car when I’ve arranged for Noli to pick me up.
All the roads round here are named after places. I get lost on the way to work driving myself and travel from Washington to Madrid via Rome instead of Athens. The journey home is even more exciting as it has become dark and the roads are full of cars returning home from evening mass. The tinted windows are hard to see out of and they then steam up. I only just avoid the water company hole in the road as a tricycle loomed up in front of me.
Decide to spend the afternoon relaxing quietly by the pool, but the days are no more peaceful than the nights. The neighbour is doing piano practice, the planes are still taking off, the birds (the mynah and the cockerel), are still in full voice. A full-scale basketball match seems to be taking place in the road.
Just as I’m beginning to doze off two workmen arrive to put lights all round my garden. They call them Christmas lights (lots of plain white ones). Apparently Christmas starts here in September.
Sitting on the terrace at night the new lights look lovely. They’re wound round all the palm trees in best Caribbean hotel style. I shall have them on all year whatever the neighbours say.
A cat has made my acquaintance. It’s very scraggy, mews continuously and piteously and has no eyes. I can’t decide whether or not to feed it. It’s obviously starving but I don’t want it as a permanent guest. I slip it some scraps of meat.
Try to get up early to go to school. I have asked for fruit for breakfast every day and salad for lunch, in anticipation of getting slim swimming every day. Mango, papaya and pineapple arrive with liquidised juice made from the same fruits. The pineapple is particularly wonderful and luscious.
My gardener, Leon, all gap toothed smiles, has started work today. £6 a day, but he says he can’t climb the palm trees. He has planted lots more shrubs - bird of paradise and other exotica. The hibiscus are flowering, huge and pink and the formerly straggly coleus are now a foot high.
Arrive home to find the cat asleep on the terrace.
The nights in the big house feel very strange. Especially as I have discovered more fauna. A huge flying creature was leaping around my bedroom walls last night. I think it was only a cicada, but it made me jump and I slept all night with the sheet tight round me.
I find a resident’s association newsletter is distributed regularly. Today’s edition is warning about the Dugo-dugo gang who telephone houses and persuade maids to take money out to strangers.
“Do not be alarmed.” It says. “But rather take this advice seriously - do not attempt to call back this group and confront them. It may only endanger your lives!”
Malou continues to serve up delicious food – especially all sorts of fish with coconut and chilli or sweet and sour. I like the Filipino food though they put sugar in everything, even bread and McDonalds’ burger buns. I think the dentists do a roaring trade.
Lunch with a vice president from the bank. He and his colleague are great fun. Most of the Filipinos seem to have a good sense of humour and are very open. They ask all kinds of personal questions straight away. Are you married? Do you have children? Nolan seems like a good contact. He says he knows lots of rich people.
The food in the Chinese restaurant called The Good Earth is excellent too. I even try century eggs – buried in the ground for several days and a little ripe.
Breakfast has now expanded to mango, pineapple, banana, papaya, melon and kiwi fruit. It takes me half an hour to eat it. I shall have to have words.
Shopping in the malls in Makati, the commercial quarter of Manila. They are huge and bewildering and none of the maps seem to bear any relation to the actual location of the shops. Am now the proud owner of a VCD player that I didn’t know I needed and a video tape player that I did – both for £76.
Nights out on the town, visiting ex pat bars. We move location to fit in with various happy hours (3 till 9 at the Shangri La). Most of the male staff have decamped to Heckle and Jeckyll where West Ham is playing Man United live on the big screens. Some spectators are wearing their West Ham gear and happily sing, “I’m forever blowing bubbles” somewhat affected by too many San Miguels. Home at one.
Malate, the thriving nightclub area, full of bright lights, thronging people and little balconies. It reminds me of the North Laine area in Brighton, where you can sit and watch people in the street below. .
Then on to Politixx, the transvestite show club, where men of varying degrees of attractiveness dress as women and mime to songs such as Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston, dance and attempt to embarrass the audience. The quality of the acts is variable but it is fascinating and colourful,.
Yet another addition to the menagerie. Open a kitchen cupboard door this morning and a large mouse jumps out. So much for the cat, but maybe he can’t do much with no eyes?
I arrive home at seven to several surprises. My menagerie had numbered four, but three are now dead and one of those had been wrongly identified. The pest man has been and a cockroach and two mice have now been accounted for. The cat is still here and is mewling while I demolish the superb jumbo prawns in sweet and sour sauce that Malou prepared.
I am able to eat dinner on my terrace to the sound of Van Morrison. The new sound system has arrived and been installed. The speakers connect up to some outside. The initial noise is absolutely mind blowing until I realize that the amplifier that has been attached (the system itself already has 260 watts per channel) works so that setting 0 is actually the loudest volume. Still I now know what to do next time the piano practice or basket ball game starts.
I swim to the sound of music. Now my garden is just like aforesaid Caribbean hotel with four sun beds, four tables, eight chairs and piped music too. There is just enough light to swim in the dark, though with goggles on I have to be careful not to crash into the ends.
One problem I am increasingly coming across is the Filipino propensity to try to soften the blow. It bad manners to say no say you don’t know or even worse that you are wrong. Even if you misdial on the telephone you get a message saying “The number you have called is not yet in use ...”
Nicknames are very common here and are often used formally. There are hosts of Bings and Bongs as well as Girlies and Babies. A Baby tried to sell me a laptop last week.
A dinner party. The guests are discussing the Filipino propensity for understated politeness and co-operation and recall an event during the coup here a few years ago:
'A couple’s house had been commandeered by the rebel party. They had very politely been asked to leave, but had been assured by the rebels that the furniture would be looked after. In return for this, the rebels were presented with all the food in the fridge. Overcome by this generosity, the rebels offered to forward all incoming phone calls. The couple moved in with friends, gave the rebels the number and the calls were duly forwarded. They soon received a call themselves informing them that this group was now going off duty but that the next shift would similarly forward calls. As the rebel leader was speaking there was the sound of gunfire in the distance. “Excuse me”, came his voice. “I have to return fire”.'
Jesus has been in my life twice this week. It turns out that this is the name of the pest man. My cockroach has reappeared with reinforcements. I don’t mind the scuttling on the wall and in the bathroom so much and I can even cope with the antennae waving through the hole in the skirting board but the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the uninvited visitor on my bedside table was the last straw. Jesus’ ministrations seem to have been successful. All is now quiet.
Into Makati to do some shopping. I’ve started sitting in the front of the car now. Noli seems to think this is not very dignified but I can see where I’m going and I’m less likely to be sick.
The tricycles are motorbikes with sidecars that have seats on three sides. They often carry six passengers, two on each side Like the brightly coloured Jeepneys (converted jeeps) they have names like “Carmina” and often carry religious slogans such as “Jesus saves”. The Filipinos are a very religious people and most go to the Catholic churches. There is a massive turn out on every saint’s day or festival.
In town I manage to navigate round the Glorietta Mall. “Revlon Flex? Maybe next week Madam.” Christmas carols everywhere in September and a huge dress-up-your-Hello Kitty competition in the middle of the mall. Try to buy a desk lamp and a clock radio in Landmark. The lamp takes half an hour – every thing you purchase in here has to have a handwritten receipt that you get from the assistant, then you queue up at the cashier and then again at the claims counter. “Clock radios – maybe next week”. I think about buying a card but can’t face it all again.
Then I ask Noli to take me on a tour of some of the sights of Manila. I live amazingly close to the sea, but it seems so complicated to reach it. Manila Bay is dirty and full of fish farms and very large ships waiting at anchor. The Westin Plaza Hotel has good views across it and is supposed to be the place to go at sunset. Nearby is the World Trade Centre. A bit further along is the Filipino Cultural Centre where Miss Saigon is shortly to open.
Rizal Park is a large pleasant park where the world and his wife walk. It’s named after a hero of the Independence movement who was imprisoned and executed at the end of the last century. His shrine and cell are open to visitors at Fort Santiago. This is part of Intra Muros, the old walled Spanish city. Horses and traps take visitors on tours round the buildings, gardens and fountains. Weddings are taking place in all the churches. All the major participants and anyone who has contributed to the ceremony financially wears white and they all sit on a dais together in front of the altar. I wander round the fort and then along part of the Bay. As so often I am the only white face among a sea of brown but everywhere I go I am greeted by warm smiles and eyebrows raised in greeting
As in all Catholic colonial countries the cemetery is a must see, a mini city, with its rows of elaborately decorated tombs.
Back along Roxas Boulevard bordering the sea to return to Merville along an airport back road. Typical Filipino street life here. Children squat in rubbish along the sides of the road and burn the odd bonfire. Everything is lively but dilapidated, poor, dirty and shabby.
The hostage crisis in Mindanao has made everyone very jittery. There could be a million dollars on our heads. The French Embassy has advised nationals not to travel - two French people were kidnapped. The British Embassy merely says be careful.
The Embassy has scored points on another front however. We are all invited to a Reception next week for the cast of Miss Saigon. Great excitement, especially from the male members of staff. The invitation says smart casual, which apparently is a Filipino euphemism for smart.
I have also received an invitation from the President himself. It’s to a special gala presentation of Miss Saigon. The papers declare that this is the most important function of the last ten years and that everyone is fighting for tickets. Formal evening dress this one says.
Off in my one decent long black dress to the Cultural Centre. Here all the Cabinet, theatrical stars and diplomats are assembled in full sparkling regalia. I am introduced to so many Ambassadors I immediately get them all mixed up. Finally, President Estrada and his wife arrive and after the national anthem they kiss to prove that all the rumours about their tiffs and splitting up are not true.
The performance has altered since London and the staging is spectacular. Lea Salonga deigns to appear –she has been, allegedly, throwing tantrums and Cameron Macintosh refuses to arrive while this is going on.
Afterwards the cast assemble in the foyer for photos with the president and his extended family. I talk to the composer, Schonberg – try to persuade him to bring Les Mis over next time. It’s a maybe.
A weekend in Puerto Galera on the neighbouring island of Mindoro.
Have my first Filipino haircut at the Peninsula Hotel. Three people do the highlights at once so it takes half the time and is also half the price it is in England
Working very late and trying to pack for Singapore tomorrow.
The political situation is deteriorating so badly that interest rates have risen by 4% to up to 20%. The Vice President has resigned in protest at the President’s alleged bribery scandal and there are constant calls for President Estrada’s resignation. There have been protest marches and more of his cabinet are denouncing him. Gloria, the Vice President and Cory Aquino have both been involved. Large marches and riots are planned and take place. There is none of the expected violence though an impeachment petition has been served. The feeling is that he has too large a majority for it to succeed, but a large section of the population want him to go and this is the way that Marcos was ousted and for similar reasons
There is undoubted poverty here, its hard to decide who to support, to know when a case is genuine and not contrived. I’ve heard the people defined like this ‘You couldn’t get taken to the cleaners by a nicer lot”.
I found out why Estrada is called Erap. When, as a fading film star, he was elected he promised to look after the poor, so he was dubbed Pare or friend. As he cannot spell and is generally considered not to be very bright however, it soon became reversed to Erap instead.
Estrada boasted on TV last night that one advantage he had over the last President, Ramos (now a national hero in comparison) was that he had never had a power cut. Today there is a black out over the whole island. MERALCO (Power company) deny sabotage (oh yes says everyone else) and also no to jelly fish in the works (last year’s excuse). The school has its own generator so school proceeds without problem but home is uncomfortable as there is no water there– the pumps won’t work. The power comes back at 4 and I get home and go upstairs to hear dripping water. The taps in my bathroom had been left on and have overflowed all over the cupboard tops and into my medicine drawers. Little packets and tubes are bobbing everywhere.
Current joke told at dinner: Estrada decides to disguise himself and go out among the people to see what they really think. So he cuts his hair shaves off his moustache and wears old clothes. He wanders out into the shopping mall and eventually into an electrical goods store. Goes up to the girl behind the counter, points to the shelf behind her and says, "How much is that TV up there?"
"Oh Mr. President," she says, "how lovely to see you in here"
Estrada is furious. "How did you know it was me?” he bellows.
'Easy," she replies. "It's a microwave oven".
The papers are full of the scandal and the peso slumps to 50 to the dollar. (Over 70 to the pound). It is the second worst performing economy in the world (Cypriot is the worst). Good for our pay packets as we are paid in sterling.
The anti Estrada rallies get bigger. there is one held on EDSA (a main thoroughfare ). They say 100,000 attended and were addressed by the aptly named Cardinal Sin.
Eventually the senate votes to impeach Estrada. It is expected to be a long process and he still says he is innocent.
A trip to Bohol and Cebu in the Visayas. There is a typhoon alert out in Visayas.
Back to Manila and a national holiday. All Saints Day is important and everyone spends the day in the graveyards having parties and visiting the graves of their relatives. The cemeteries are full of fast food vendors and lamp sellers.
Catch up on the papers. Estrada’s position has deteriorated and the peso is now the worst performing currency in the world. His “storm” is compared in the Inquirer with the typhoon, which hit Manila while I was away. Forty locals dead in landslides, 260 injured and many more missing. The kitchen has flooded again and a falling coconut has smashed one of the glass tables round the pool. Malou has left the glass to show me.
All Souls Day today and another national holiday. Estrada declared this one at the end of last week. The speculation is that it is to try and buy him more time but according to the newspapers it doesn’t seem to be working. If I’d known before I could have spent longer on the beach. Especially as there is another typhoon on its way.
Noise from the wind begins to increase and I stay on the Internet trying to track the storm and look out of the window at the same time. The palm trees are bowing and bucking and the rain comes down in sheets. There is quickly a foot of water in the garden and coconuts are bobbing around in my new pond. Water again pours through the kitchen ceiling and into the dining room and Sally and Malou tried to keep up with mopping whilst hiding under umbrellas.
I eventually go to bed at 7 a.m. The garden is a mass of wreckage, leaves, nuts, undergrowth and the pool is full of vegetation. The cables outside are all down.
A bleak day. Very dark because of the weather. No power, so no water and eventually no telephones either. Roads all over Merville are blocked by fallen trees. Some streets are flooded up to waist height as creeks overflow and the tide comes in. There is a fridge upended in the mud up the road. Many of the shanty houses have collapsed or been washed away. Noli says that his house has lost the roof on the kitchen and the bathroom.
A quiet day catching up with work and trying to swim round the branches in the pool. It is cool enough to sit out in the full sun – I usually retreat under one of the palm trees. Phone calls from England. There are bad floods there too. The papers say that another 40 have died in Manila – landslides, floods and bridges collapsing. It was the worst typhoon here for the last 15 years.
Arrive home to find that Malou has disappeared. Her brother is very ill and she has gone to look after him. He had been taken into hospital with fever and vomiting. Off to Kathmandu for a conference.
Finally back to Manila from Kathmandu. The heat is uncomfortable after Nepal. I have already swollen up like a balloon. Two of my jackets hanging in the wardrobe have got mildew all over them. The one bright note is that everyone seems to think I have lost weight. Appendicitis does have its compensations.
The traffic in Manila is terrible – everyone's out for Christmas. Beggars and street vendors everywhere. Masses of Christmas lights and amazing tableau at the entrances to all the villages. Most of the houses are covered in lights and some have their own tableaux – reindeer, crib scenes. Some actually look quite good.
Go home and try to sort out my stacks of work. There‘s a cockroach in the den. My legs are already covered in mosquito bites. Ask Malou to summon Jesus.
Give Sally and Malou their thirteenth month pay. All pay here is divided into thirteen months so you get double at Christmas. After they’d got it they immediately make holiday requests. We had agreed they could take holiday whenever I’m away which is quite a lot. Now Malou says her boat home only goes every Wednesdays so can she go this Wednesday? (I leave for Vietnam on Saturday). Sally suddenly tells me that her sister is getting married on January 13th and can she have 2 weeks around then!
Carols at the Embassy in the evening. Mince pies and mulled wine, very strange in the heat.
Vietnam. Leave a pile of packing out for Sally to deal with. Am very pleased with the small number of things I’ve cut it down to until Sally comes down to ask which second bag I’m taking.
There is Noli as usual and I return to Sally asking me when she can go on holiday.
Sally rings me at work to ask about her holiday. I relent and say she can have longer with no pay (her idea). I get home to find she has left, having helped herself, a week in advance, to her fortnightly salary from the shopping money. Now I have to decide whether it’s worth the hassle of sacking her. Good maids are hard to find and Malou might want to leave to be with Sally.
Malou’s culinary offering tonight was interesting. Aubergine stuffed with fried mince and garnished with six prawns. I hope she doesn’t try it again.
The tortuous soap opera that is the impeachment trial has begun again. The Filipinos are glued to their TVs every night, but the plot is incomprehensible and never ending.
The streets are full of rubbish. All the tips in Metro Manila have been closed down due to the protests and now the rubbish is piling up in all the streets. The villages are alright as all our garbage is still being removed but no one is sure where it is going. We suspect it is being added to the huge heaps along the suburban roads. Children are skipping around playing in all the mess and every so often a pyramid is set on fire. The fumes are not pleasant. The TV says one heap in one day is worse than one month’s worth of standard factory output!
A huge rat ran up my wall tonight. It's twice as big as the cat. Jesus to be summoned yet again.
Demonstrations are again building up all round the country and Estrada's trial has totally lost credibility. Sinn is leading the movement to get Erap to resign and another mass has been held at the EDSA shrine, totally blocking the main highway. It seems that the people will stay there until they get what they want. The peso has now fallen to 56 to the dollar and 81 to the pound. We are rich.
As businesses close for the day or shut early many more of the more affluent Filipinos are making for Makati and streaming along EDSA. There is a real buzz of excitement around.
Into Makati through the demonstrations. Very little to see, just some banners and groups waiting on street corners and all quite calm, but the crowd is building up again at the Ortegas shrine on EDSA. Reference is constantly made to the last bloodless revolt – they are determined to do the same thing again. They will stay there until Erap goes. I keep getting text messages updating me on the situation saying, “Pray for us”. Texting is getting bigger and bigger here and anti Erap messages have been escalating across the airwaves for some months.
Kalibo for the weekend with Elaine. The biggest festival in the Philippines is held there annually - the Ati Atihan.
To the Embassy for a tour with H.E. ,the birdie song still going round and round my head; I didn’t expect the building to be so big. It takes up three floors of a tower block and is the eighth largest British visa issuing post in the world.
Work at my desk. Clouds of mosquitoes have congregated in the well and keep attacking my legs. They have gorged so much on me that they are very fat and lethargic. I can squish them easily and my own blood is streaked down my legs just like the D.H. Lawrence poem. At least I have my massage to look forward to. I have finally tracked a home masseuse down. She doesn’t turn up. Eventually a phone call. “Emergency ma’am, neighbour heart attack, pregnancy, new baby, am in hospital in San Pedro. Tomorrow ma’am”.
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