scratching a surface


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i arrived at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport on November 25th for the second time.  this time i cleared customs and checked into the Pink Manila Hostel in Malate city.  making the transition from easy comfortable Hawaii back to a jet-set backpacker’s life was a hard sobering blow.  one might think that after almost nine months of this, snapping into survival mode would come as easy to me as it would to John Rambo if you plopped him in the middle of a forest full of uncertain dangers.  the reality of the matter is that i’m nothing like Rambo.

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"A ray of hope for the Philippines in Manila" - new traveler friend Tuya

“A ray of hope for the Philippines in Manila” – new traveler friend Tuya

luckily for me, the light at the end of this tunnel was the promise that i would be reunited with a familiar face.  my dear friend from home Alisha Aufai just so happened to be at the tail end of her own odyssey and Manila would be the place that our paths would finally cross.  for the next two days i blissfully followed her every move and hounded her for stories of back home and information regarding the well being of our loved ones.  the whole experience only reconfirmed my suspicion that surrounding one’s self with people who have known you longer than a week is a crucial element to maintaining one’s mental and emotional stability.  a suspicion that i greatly underestimated last March when i said goodbye to everyone i know and love.

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with Alisha came new friends, including Tuya – a very sweet half Egyptian girl from New Hampshire and an older ex-military gentleman whose mission in life is to rescue young girls from a dismal life of human trafficking.  as he explained to us, he accomplishes this by posing as a customer with special needs that only a young girl can satisfy, procures said girls, then drops them off at an orphanage against their will.  you can quite literally think of him as the Robin Hood of prostitution.  needless to say, the four of us made quite the team.

one evening we set out from Pink Manila with the full intention of attending an ever popular nightly midget boxing event but instead became happily stuck at a cozy karaoke club.  i got to shed a few tears when Alisha performed a few of my favorite songs that she wrote.  then after the buckets of strong Red Horse beer came bottle after bottle of Tanduay Rum at less than $2 per liter.  then when a sizable group of Filipinas arrived the evening turned into a sloppy dance party, the details of which were a little more than fuzzy the next day.  Manila is just not one of those cities that likes to get a lot of sleep and i knew that if i stayed there too long i would eventually get pulled into a pattern of reckless behavior.  with Alisha leaving the next day and only three weeks budgeted for Philippines round one, i decided to tag along with Tuya up to the mountain province of Sagada in Northern Luzon.

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we arrived groggy in Banaue after an over-night bus journey.  this town is situated in a vast valley of steep terraced rice fields.  it’s also home to one of the most epic landscapes that Northen Luzon has to offer.

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from there we rode atop a jeepney up into the mountains to Sagada.

 

“jeepneys” are a staple of the Philippines as well as the most popular form of transportation.  they originated from the surplus of leftover World War 2 U.S. military jeeps.  since then, many more have been created in their likeness.  their owners pimp them out quite decadently with painted murals and hood ornaments.

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if you can imagine, Sagada is the crème de la crème of this travel jaunt.  a perfectly laid back cool village in the hills equipped with every excuse a traveler could need to get stuck for weeks or even months.  in several places around its periphery, hundred-year-old coffins are hung along side cliff faces.  and to top it all off (or rather to bottom it all off) there is a giant cave that extends for several kilometers underneath it.

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oh Sagada i just gotta!

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Sagada friends: Ryan, Iya, Tuya

Sagada friends: Ryan, Iya, me, Tuya

we signed up for the “cave connection” tour after the few days it too to calm our fears.  then we mounted our headlamps and spelunked barefoot for three hours through the most dangerous cave i have ever had the pleasure of surviving.  it began with a rapid decent into darkness as we contorted our bodies and squeezed ourselves through the tight cracks of a massive pile of fallen boulders until we reached an open cavern at its base.  then things got a little technical as we traversed along a section of a slippery rock face ten meters high.  then came the ropes course – a series of ups and downs, hoisting ourselves up overhangs and lowering ourselves down through crevasses.  after the worst of it was over we were rewarded with a break and a swim.  to make matters a little more interesting, a very nice Israeli guy we met along the way nonchalantly twisted up a spliff and generously passed it around.  at that point things just got silly.  our guide suddenly became adamant about pointing out all the various stalactite/stalagmite formations that resembled animals.  he would rush us over to some awkward corner and say “come take a look at this frog!” or “come take a look at this elephant’s head!”.  then he asked us to lay down on our stomachs and peer through a small opening at “the princess”.  when i did as he asked he started to laugh uncontrollably as i realized that what i was actually looking at was an impressively clear depiction of the princess’s nether regions.  there was something mildly comforting about hearing a laugh that genuine coming from a man who has been in this cave more times than he can count.  when we reached the heart of the cave we were presented with a smooth beautiful wavy rock formation that jutted up from the ground and resembled some kind of enchanted fortress.  embedded along the walls nearby were fossilized seashells from when this part of Luzon was submerged underwater billions of years ago.

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our cave-high inspired us to write this song (recording to follow eventually)

from Sagada we relocated to the busy town of Baguio then took a bus to Vigan – an old port town that was overtaken by the Spanish in 1572 and colonial-ified.  the sudden shift to old-world European architecture and cobblestone streets was quite a treat.

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after touring Vegan’s attractions and quaint streets for several hours my eye got caught on a “conjugal visit” sign.  then i realized we were standing in front of a jail.  an adorable jail.  and the front door was wide open.  so in we went on a sudden burst of over-confident impulsion.  when we got past the guard and crossed over into the main hall we were given a very warm welcome by the inmates.  the jail was comprised of two open courtyards joined together by a hall of dorm-style cells, many of which were decorated with magazine clippings of attractive women.  several inmates were playing cards in their rooms.  others were constructing Christmas decorations for the upcoming pageant that was to be held in the town square.  but the main attraction of this jail was of course the karaoke machine.  the inmates were all crowded around it and singing their hearts out one by one and when they saw us coming it was soon made clear that we were not getting out of there without taking a turn.  i gave into the pressure mighty quick when i realized they had my goto song.  i let loose on the microphone and belted out “I Am I Said” by Niel Diamond like i had done many times before at the Chinese bar up the street from my house back home.  then i finished her off with R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion”.

that night’s festivities was the annual celebration of the lighting of the giant Christmas tree in the town square and it was quite the spectacle.  all the town’s people gathered around to witness an automated fountain light show choreographed to music.  this was followed up by dancers and a choir of carolers.  Filipinos celebrate Christmas in the four months leading up to Christmas day.  as long as there is a “ber” in the name of the month, you can bet Christmas is being celebrated in the Philippines.

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after Vigan, some wind-down time was in order in the laid back surfing village of San Juan.  there i finally broke down and partook of an infamous delicacy of the Philippines called “balut” – a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell.  quite tasty with lots of salt though a bit disconcerting if your eyes are open because you can see all the cute little feathers of what was almost a life but ended up being a street snack instead.

another notable event that occurred while in San Juan was my 9 month anniversary of being a traveling fool.  when i first embarked on this odyssey on March 11th 2013 i told myself that 18 months would be the absolute longest i would stay adrift.  if i were to actually stick to this arbitrary time limit then this day would mark my half way point.  will i actually make it to a full 18 months or will i succumb to the physical, mental and emotional pressures of hard travel before then?  only time will tell.  what i can tell you at this stage in my travels is this: physically, i am solid as a rock and have never felt better in my life.  mentally, i am sharper than ever though occasionally tend to suffer from the fatigue associated with constantly having to make the same 25 minute decisions based on insufficient information (a condition that is easily medicated by a bout of relaxation).  emotionally, i have apparently blossomed a little.  the consistent barrage of new discoveries compounded with searing glimpses into the human condition has both humbled me and increased my capacity to care.  this has rendered me both excitable and sensitive, much like a child on a playground on the first day of school.  while this is indeed an extremely wonderful thing, i can’t help but ignore the slow growing void in my heart where my friends used to be.  don’t get me wrong, i have forged some uncanny bonds on my journeys but there is just no substitute for those relationships built upon decades of elbow grease, tears and hard compromise.  almost every night it’s always the same dream but in different forms.  i am back in Seattle surrounded by the ones i love and you all have the same confused looks on your faces fueled by the strong desire to know exactly what the hell i am suddenly doing there.  with that said, i still have enough wanderlust in me to feed an army of blood thirsty Gorkhas and for the foreseeable future i will continue to use this world as my playground.

upon returning to Manila i had the pleasure of being invited to a birthday party of a friend of a Tuya’s local surfer buddy Geno who lives downstairs from Pink Manila.  there, we were also reunited with our dear friend Iya whom we had met while in Sagada.  we were the first to arrive but the house was soon filled with a warm gathering of local friends, one pug and one pig.  the pug did all the oinking while the pig sniffed tirelessly at the carpet fibers.  there was a spread of delicious home cooking with a seemingly endless supply San Miguel beer to compliment it.  i could not have fallen ass first into a better situation.  this night’s love and camaraderie made the perfect lasting impression of a vast country whose lands and peoples i have only just begun to explore.

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you have not seen the last of me Philippines.  round one was a triumphant success but round two will blow the hinges right off!

  1. #1 by pete on January 5, 2014 - 8:24 pm

    the living dream still lives. machst gut, dude.

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