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 their 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 one 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.
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:
El Nido Island, on the northern tip of Palawan Island, in the Philippines, is reached by Sea Air from Manila and North Luzon. It’s not a sea plane this time, (although these are on offer), but the plane skims over the dots of islands that form northern Palawan, as close to the water, it seems, as a sea plane, before bumping over the hills to land. We stop at Busuanga Island on the way out. This is where folk go diving over World War II Japanese wrecks that were sunk by American navy bombings in Coron Bay,
Palawan Province is named after it's largest island and it's the largest province in the Philippines. It's also known as The Last Frontier, as it's on the western reaches of the archipelago. And Palawan is often referred to as The Best Island. I'm hoping the reasons for that will become clear.
El Nido 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, with Neil, than to commandeer a banca (local boat) each morning and sail away to a different island, with a picnic lunch that you can probably eat in total seclusion. all you have to do is wander down to the pier in the fishing village. It all adds to the fun, when the boat breaks down.
Some of the reefs of El Nido are recovering from the dynamite fishing, which is still not completely eradicated. But, close by, Miniloc Island is famed for the clear waters of its Small and Big Lagoons. Shimizu Island 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.
El Nido means “nests” in Spanish and this is the home of the island’s endemic swiftlets. The birds, known locally as balinsasayaw, use threads of their saliva, instead of twigs, to build their nests in crevices and caves on the cliffs. Climbers called busyador brave the slopes each day, to collect the nests. These are highly prized by the Chinese for making soup.
My favourite island, of the many, is probably Pinagbuyutan Island. It's tranquil, less visited, and has dramatic cliffs which tower over the minuscule stretch of sand, with its one shack. The snorkelling, just off the beach, is pretty good too.
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. It's not the prettiest of all the many stretches of sand, but it’s comfortable, reasonably priced accommodation. The owners are really helpful in sorting out each day’s excursions and in providing plenty of coconuts. Like many Asian villages it's a little noisy at night. The dogs never seem to stop barking. There are plenty of restaurants serving local food, of varying quality, like squid in its own ink. Now back to Manila
Luzon, home to Manila, is the largest island in the Philippines and the fifteenth 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. I'm driving north, with Neil and driver Henry to explore. I've borrowed Henry from work. I've been strongly discouraged from driving in the Philippines. Apparently, if there is an accident and someone is hurt I will get lynched. Henry becomes more chatty as the journey progresses. We've dubbed him Henry the Navigator, as he isn't great at finding the way. To be fair, the signposting is pretty bad. and we have been subjected to endless misdirections from the helpful locals.
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 form the three most famous volcanoes in the Philippines. Its 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 more than 2,000 years old. They are irrigated by means of mountain streams and springs that have been tapped and channelled into canals , which 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. The tourist shops provide an interesting foil to the stunning scenery. They are wonderfully chaotic, dusty treasure troves.
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. The Lumiang Cave houses over 100 coffins the oldest date back over 500 years.
They are stacked in a macabre wall nine layers high an eye-catching wall at the entrance of the cave that rises nine layers high. It has been estimated that the oldest coffins are around 500 years old. There are different theories as to why they're placed at the entrance. Daylight may help to ward off evil spirits. The coffins are small, in length. It's thought that the bodies were laid in a foetal position - you exit life as you you came in. We have to take a jeep to get up here. the road is too bad for normal vehicles. But it's a fascinating visit.
Heading north through La Union province, into the Ilocos Region of Luzon now. This is where we find the renamed colonial architecture of the Philippines - mainly churches. Santa Maria Parish Church is one of a group of four Baroque churches awarded UNESCO status. Its grand full title is The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. It's sturdy rather than beautiful built of bricks and mortar atop a hill so as to keep a wary out for the Chinese and Muslim invaders. Friars and soldiers lived here together.
Next stop, 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 (calesas), bell towers and rustic mansions. The highlight for me is the white baroque cathedral of St Paul, with its distinctive triangular façade 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.
The streets are lined with life size statuary, saints alongside Bugs Bunny. Live chickens in a basket amidst them. Some nuns roll by in a calesa. This is where we sample bibingka, a Filipino baked rice cake, which is traditionally cooked in a terracotta oven lined with banana leaves. The Filipinos eat it for breakfast or as a merienda (mid-afternoon snack) especially at Christmas. (Christmas goes on a long time in the Philippines. You can often hear carols in September.)
A little further north and another important religious building. the Roman Catholic Saint Augustine Church, commonly known as the Paoay Church, at Paoay, in Ilocos Norte. It was completed in 1710, and is another solid building, with huge buttresses. Nevertheless, it's still picturesque, with its bell tower alongside. The bell towers were built separately in case of earthquakes.
The other tourist must-see here is the Malacañang of the North. It was Ferdinand Marcos' home, when he was president and is now a presidential museum. It was built by the Philippine Tourism Authority in 1977, in time for Ferdinand Marcos's 60th birthday. He was born in Sarrat, not so far away, and this area is very much a Marcos stronghold, despite all the attendant corruption.
North, some more. Laoag is the capital of Ilocos Norte region (the regions are subdivided into barangays) and home to the capitol building. Another place rich in history, with its numerous colonial ancestral homes. The Laoag Cathedral was built in 1612 by Augustinian friars to replace a wooden chapel.
Tourism is up and coming here, with new hotels being constructed. There's even a McDonalds. My Lonely Planet hasn't caught up yet. We've followed instructions to find accommodation and ended up in a school camp. There are weaving demonstrations, cane wine, local vinegar and melons and mangoes galore. 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: 'Summer time is circumcision time.....,'
Right on the tip of Luzon, is the white-sand beach resort of Pagudpud. The Marcos-era mansions contrast with the photogenic but poorer rural dwellings in the stilt villages here. The food isn't yet tourist standard either. It's truly terrible. Our soup is cabbage water and chicken stock. I'm beginning to wish I hadn't by passed the McDonalds.
It's a long way back to Manila (560 kilometres) and Henry is exhausted. I risk it and take to the wheel. Next stop, El Nido.
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. 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. I realise I've forgotten to bring any swim wear. It's a good job my underwear matches. We have very acceptable little thatched bungalows on the beach. 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. Lazi also has a huge convent, built out of coral, a contender for UNESCO listing.
Best of all are the amazing sunsets viewed (cocktail in hand) across the ocean. These are magical indeed.
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 the anti Estrada riots are blocking the route (see Manila Envelope).
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.
The Kalibo Ati-Atihan Festival, is held every January in honour of the Santo Niño (Holy Child ). As the Fiesta de Santo Niño, the event goes back a long way, to at least the seventeenth century, when the Spanish sought to strengthen ties to the local church. However, it's thought that its origins trace back to animist celebrations. The tourist board have promoted the festival (and others) over the years, so that they have come more to emulate the Rio Carnival and tribal gatherings, like Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Exotic costumes, body paint, music and dancing have been incorporated.
They also changed the name to Ati-Atihan, which means "to imitate the Ati people". This reflects another belief, that the celebration is to thank the indigenous people of Panay, for their care and welcome, to settlers. Just to make things even more complicated, part of the festival re-enacts the handing over of Panay to the Spanish by the local tribes.
The Ati-Atihan Festival is also known as the "Mother of All Philippine Festivals.". I have high expectations.
On Friday evening, there is dancing, in a big arena covered in flags and banners. Roll out the Barrel and The Birdie Song at least a dozen times. Without a drop of alcohol, I end up leading snake dances all round, hordes of Filipinos tagging behind. Every time I make an escape they drag me back in. Elaine hides and builds up a file of evidence on her camera.
Then, to the carnival proper. 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 nine. I say “It is nine”. He says " Maybe 10 then". About 9.30 we hear faint 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 perch, on a wall there for really good views of the parade known as Sadsad., which is also what the locals call their way of dancing where the foot is momentarily dragged along the ground in tune to the beat played by the marching bands.
Endless costumed revellers, marching bands, 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. These groups process round and round the square all morning - absolutely fascinating -though we hear the birdie song rather too many times again. There are very few foreigners here. I am definitely a novelty, as I am interviewed for TV four different times, by different channels. It's a shame that I can’t watch it. Or maybe not.
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 rain, pouring 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 teeming. This procession 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. Half naked men cavort, with Erap Resigns in white paint, all over their backs. Gloria Arroyo is being sworn in as the new president, even as he leaves. Celebrations in Manila, and even bigger ones here.
We watch, our hair becoming progressively more sodden and a veritable river running down my back. This march goes on for three hours. Fantastic, though the revellers are also becoming progressively drunk, carrying large bottles of phosphorescently gleaming green spirits, strapped to their waists, as well as the large metal drums. As they drink, they lose their inhibitions and keep approaching, making thumbs up signs, smacking palms and trying to persuade us to join their groups. One man, 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 cathedral alongside the main plaza.
Exhausted by now. Back to the hotel for a nap and then out to a Chinese meal and visits to the night market. 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 peaceful area. It is unfortunate that Elaine snores.
Packing for a trip to Bohol island in the Visayas. There is a typhoon alert out in Visayas.
Helen and (husband) Stewart have booked the trip and made the arrangements. We eventually leave for our flight to Cebu. There's an onward ferry to Bohol from Cebu City port. 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 have 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.
We 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 cleared for departure 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 more exhilarating, than frightening, though the ferry does yaw considerably. Several passengers are making use of their paper bags.
Bohol province has one main island, named Bohol (the Filipinos call it 'God's Little Paradise') and 75 smaller ones. A taxi carries us across Bohol to Alona Beach on Panglao Island, just off the coast from the capital, Tagbilaran. Panglao is renowned for its diving. It features on those unreliable Top Ten in the World Lists. Here, 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 sand.
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 by hunting, so as to obtain its beautiful shell. Crown of thorns eats coral and has no other natural enemies. Karsten, a lanky Viking diving instructor, lectures us for hours about all these problems and vents his disgust at the way in which the locals clean the 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.
Spend the evenings till late drinking in the Safety Stop bar with Karsten. The generator explodes, sending sparks all down the beach.
A taxi to the must-see Chocolate Hills of Bohol, which are greenish at this time of year. They are an amazing clump of 1268 hills, rising directly from the ground. They 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 the hills.
Lunch in the restaurant before moving on to see the tiny local monkey called tarsiers down by the river. They are endemic to the Philippines and are only the size of a fist. They have huge eyes, which are fixed in their heads, so they can rotate their heads 180 degrees instead. I would have said interesting rather than cute. Many of the locals believe they are evil spirits and they have been stoned and hunted to the point of extinction. It doesn't help that they are solitary animals, preyed on by cats and owls. 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 breath-taking – paddy fields, green swathed mountains, white beaches and glimpses of sea views though mangroves and palm trees. We watch the caribao cattle ploughing and crowds of children emerging from school, in uniform. The tranquillity is marred somewhat by a local cockfight. This is possibly the most ancient of all sports. The pitting of cocks against each other was brought to Greece by the Persians, although most experts agree that it originated in Southeast Asia. Bets are exchanged, around the cockpit, to shrill shouts and much excitement. Five inch blades are attached to the roosters' left legs. Blood is spilled.
Time to return to Manila.
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 and a Starbucks, to the Laguna area.
Laguna de Bay is a very large lake, which stretches almost all the way across Luzon, south of Manila. It's bordered, for some way, by the city 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 splashing 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 the 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 the ponchos are in fact, large plastic bags, cut down one side. The falls themselves are pretty enough and contain 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 kinds of Filipiniana here. Much wood work, especially religious carvings. Also, papier-mâché masks, boxes, ornaments. Many are being decorated for Christmas. Then, we find a factory that is mass-producing these items and watch the artisans painting baubles and Father Christmases on sleighs. They use a process called taka, which involves a wooden carved mould. It was invented here, and is now used worldwide.
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 town, 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 Escudero, 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 City, which seems to have a great many steelworks. Roadside stalls are piled with all manner of kitchen utensils and there are 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. 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. The city is perched precariously along Tagaytay Ridge, over 600 metres in height for the most part. It stretches 20 miles from Mount Batulao in the west, to Mount Sungay in the east. The ridge is actually the edge of the original Taal Volcano caldera, which contains Lake Taal. There's a small sub volcanic cone, forming an island in the centre. This 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.
The whole makes for fantastic views, from the ridge, and the roads winding up there. These 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. I stock up with bright red gerberas, 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 traffic jams, via a side turning down, at Alexis’ s suggestion, a long bendy dirt road. More spectacular views and past two abandoned villas, built by the Marcos family, and used just one night, for a party.
Elaine and I return to Tagaytay to climb the Taal Volcano. Driver Noli steers 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't want to come because he’d get wet, but we soon find out why. Spray flies around us, as we pass the mini crater like peaks and the rows of moored brightly painted bancas (local boats), 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 pesos each, which is still a rip off. I tell the boys that I can'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, where 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 reasonably sedate after that 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 on earth will 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, watching the 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.
Boracay has a lot to live up to. Its beaches have been touted as the best in the world. (On those many contentious lists). Tourism here began in the 1970s after Boracay appeared in a few films. But it was Jens Peter who really put Boracay on the map, when he wrote that it was 'Paradise on Earth'. in 1978. That's when the backpackers. Eventually, the inevitable happened. The infrastructure couldn't cope, especially the sewage and septic systems, and there were outbreaks of E.Coli, which understandably, put tourists off coming.
Some of these problems have been addressed - some remain. (More recently the island was closed for six months to enable renovation and upgrading of systems). Big chains have moved in. Spas and nightclubs, even a golf course, have sprung up, side-lining the original inhabitants. There’s a huge tension between natural beauty, rest and relaxation and the desire to make money. Talking of money, Boracay has the highest density of merchants that accept bitcoin outside of El Salvador. So it might be acquiring yet another soubriquet - "Bitcoin Island".
Boracay (often locally shortened to Bora) is a small dog bone shaped island in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines, just half a mile off the northwest coast of Panay. It’s seven kilometres long and a kilometre wide at its narrowest point.
Boracay is an ideal place to spend a few days away from Manila, seeking rest and recreation. There’s no airport of course. We have to fly to Godofredo P. Ramos Airport (now renamed Boracay Airport) in Caticlan on Panay Island and take a motorized tricycle, the one kilometre to Caticlan port. Then it’s a ferryboat to Cagban, on Boracay. It’s cheaper to fly to Kalibo, on Panay, but that’s another 30 kilometres away. Once on Boracay, it’s another motorized trike. There are no cars allowed on the road that runs north-south, through the middle of the island. It’s too small. (The hotels are permitted vans and these have to be white).
Boracay has two main beaches, to choose from. White Beach, on the west coast, is about four kilometres long and is lined with resorts, hotels, lodging houses of all price ranges, restaurants, shops and diving shacks. With its classic clear crystal water, bendy palm trees and sailboats with eye catching equilateral sails, it’s the contender for Best Beach in the World.
Bulabog Beach, across the island, on the east coast, attracts more wind, and is the main windsurfing and kiteboarding area.
So, it’s going to be White Beach, in a mid-range establishment with cottages and a wicker bar. In the middle of the beach here, the lodgings sit behind a Beachfront Path ,separating the beach itself from the establishments located along it.
What to do on Boracay? It would be very easy to do nothing all day, except laze on a sunbed and admire the view. Just getting up to eat. There’s great food to be had in the many restaurants that line the powdery sand. Juicy giant prawns are on offer. But there’s good snorkelling to be had, particularly from the many bobbing boats, all keen to offer their services. Or a wander north to local landmark, Willy's Rock, a tiny islet with a shrine atop it, just in front of Willy's Beach Resort.
And the sunsets? Truly stunning. Especially with a cocktail in hand.
It seems that since I accepted my job offer, to run a school in Manila, last December, the Philippines has rapidly become one 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, In Merville Park, Manila, 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 'games 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 arrives to tell me that the previous occupant has removed absolutely everything from the kitchen, including the waste bins and the oven shelves.
Manila is the capital of the Philippines and the most densely populated city in the world. It's not the biggest city in the country that's Quezon City, just to the north of Manila. But, the name "Manila" is commonly used to refer to the whole metropolitan area, Metro Manila, as its officially called, includes the much-larger Quezon City and Makati Central Business District. This is one of the most populous urban areas in the world, and one of the wealthiest regions in Southeast Asia. Its also a city of contrasts. There's plenty of shanty housing too. It's all too obvious as the plane comes in to land. This is also the world's first global city, the centre of commercial networks set up by Spain and a fine port for galleons. The Pasig River divides the city into north and south sections.
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, which 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 two rooms are flooded. When I arrive home both 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, behind the kitchen. 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).
Some discussion follows around 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 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.
I visit the site for the new school we are building. It’s very exciting, as so much is happening at last. We are conveyed 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 their windows. The jeepneys are decorated minibuses made from converted American jeeps. I've been forbidden from travelling in the Manila jeepneys. Apparently, pickpocketing is guaranteed. The other public transport on offer are tricycles. These are motorbikes with sidecars, which have seats on three sides. They often carry six passengers, two on each seat. Like the brightly coloured Jeepneys ( 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 Roman Catholic churches. There is a massive turn out on every saint’s day or festival.
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. There is undoubted poverty here. It's 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”.
Merville, the suburb where I live, is a mix of both, with big houses like mine and streets of tricycle taxis and minuscule 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 vehicle, 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 loomsup in front of me.
I 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.
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, together 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.
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 sauce. I'm enjoying the Filipino food, though they put sugar in everything, even bread and burger buns. The local chain, Jollibee, do much better than McDonalds, as they put this knowledge to good use. I suspect 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.
Nights out on the town, visiting ex pat bars. We move location to fit in with various happy hours at the hotels and bars (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, mime to songs such as Shirley Bassey and Whitney Houston, dance and attempt to embarrass the audience. The quality of the acts is variable but it is fascinating and colourful.
I have a growing menagerie. I started with a kitten named Dong, which means boy, but that seems to send a message to Sally and Malou that we should feed all the strays on the block. Some of them are very cute. I open a kitchen cupboard door and a large mouse jumps out. So much for all the cats.
I arrive home at seven, to several surprises. The pest man has been and a cockroach and two mice have been accounted for. so much for the cicada. The cats mewl, while I demolish the superb jumbo prawns in sweet and sour sauce that Malou has prepared.
I am able to eat dinner on my terrace, to the sound of Van Morrison. My new sound system has arrived and been installed. The speakers inside connect up to some outdoors. 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's very bad manners to say No. say you don’t know, or even worse, admit 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. The President, Estrada is nicknamed Erap. I'm not sure why.
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.
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. 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..
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 greetings card, but can’t face it all again.
The number one pastime in Makati, is sitting outside Starbucks, watching the rest of the world go by.
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 the bay 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. It has a grisly history. The building was commissioned by Imelda Marcos, but construction, in 1981, was rushed in order to use the building for a Film Festival. The scaffolding collapsed, and at least 169 workers fell and were buried under quick-drying wet cement. The event was shrouded in secrecy. Neither rescuers nor ambulances were permitted on the site, until an official statement had been prepared, nine hours after the collapse. According to some sources, such as the book Ghosts of Manila, that I'm reading, the bodies were left in the cement, so as not to hold up proceedings. Others point to the accident as both heralding and symbolising the fall of the Marcos regime.
Design and architecture writer Deyan Sudjic wrote: 'The very buildings being presented as the icons of a bold new republic seemed to embody the corruption and incompetence of the regime'.
Before the Spanish came, the Manila area was ruled by Rajahs. A Tagalog-fortified polity called Maynila existed on the site. After defeating the rajah, in the Battle of Bangkusay, in 1527, Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi built a walled fortification, called Intramuros, on the ruins of the older settlement. Manila became the capital of of the Spanish East Indies, which included the Marianas, Guam and other islands.
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.
The cathedral of Manila is also here. 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 another must-see, a mini city, with its rows of elaborately decorated tombs. and next to that, the possibly even more fascinating Chinese Cemetery.
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 to 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 requests.
Off, in my one decent long black dress to the Cultural Centre. Here, all the President's 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 and 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. 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.
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.
A few days away in the island paradise that is Boracay.
The Philippines is rife with corruption. You can't get anything done without greasing palms. Otherwise your request just sits idly in an in tray. The government sets the general tone. But President Estrada has pushed things to extremes. 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 Estrada’s resignation.
There have been protest marches and more of Estrada's 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. This is the way that Marcos was ousted and for similar reasons - a corrupt regime.
Incidentally, 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 read Erap instead.
Estrada boasted on TV last night that one advantage he had over the previous 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, it wasn't 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 four and I get home and go upstairs to hear dripping water. The taps in my bathroom sink have been left on and water has 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 of him. So, he cuts his hair, shaves off his moustache and dons old clothes. He wanders out into the shopping mall and eventually into an electrical goods store. He 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.
Crowds have gathered on the circular overpass known as EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue after a local academic ), commonly referred to by its acronym EDSA, It is, incidentally, the longest and the most congested highway in Manila (and that is saying something), stretching some 15 miles north to south from Caloocan to Pasay. More to the point, there is a focal point, a shrine here, at the intersection with Ortigas Avenue in Quezon City. It was built, to commemorate the first People Power Revolution, in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos was toppled. Reports say 100,000 have attended and were addressed by the aptly named Cardinal Sinn.
Eventually, the senate votes to impeach Estrada. It is expected to be a long process and he still says he is innocent and is refusing to resign.
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 kindly 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 was an attempt to try and buy him more time but it clearly hasn't worked. If I’d known before I could have spent longer on the beach. Especially, as there is another typhoon on the 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 try 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 travelling for Christmas. Beggars and street vendors out in force. Masses of Christmas lights and amazing tableau at the entrances to all the villages. Most of the houses are bedecked with lights and some have their own tableaux – reindeer, crib scenes. Some actually look quite good. The Filipinos love Yuletide and start carolling in September.
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’ve 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 two 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, to meet me at the airport 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 a longer break, 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 Estrada 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. And now the impeachment court have voted (very narrowly) not to look at the evidence against him. 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 on EDSA. Reference is constantly made to the last bloodless revolt – the people 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.
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.
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 Erap 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, with Marcos). Erap cannot continue and offers to hold an election in May, at which he will not run. The people won’t wear this 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.
Kalibo for the weekend with Elaine. The biggest festival in the Philippines is held there annually - the Ati Atihan. And while we are there, Estrada resigns.
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”.
But, tomorrow I'm heading for England.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.