Saturday, November 20, 2010

On To Greener... Terraces!

(As I write this post, Sandy, Kathryn and I are flying through the fog-drenched mountains of northern Luzon on a bus. In fact, we just passed the highest elevation point on the Philippine highway system, although I didn't happen to catch what the elevation actually was. Right now it is almost totally dark, raining lightly, and we are within three feet of the truck in front of us on these steep, winding roads. Terrifying to some, but I have total faith in our driver, and a big smile on my face!

Again, this will be posted as soon as I have an internet connection.)

Thursday began with the the three of us leaving our hostel around 10am for the Makiti area of Manila. The reason we were headed to that part of town is because they had one of their bank cards stolen earlier, and had to go to the banks office to sort it all out. The above photo is one of the many pedestrian underpass tunnels in the area, which were very nice.

So without a doubt my earlier assessment of Manila was overly harsh. Yes, Manila is smelly, dirty and full of hookers, but it is a large metro area of something like 20 million people, and also contains sections that are clean, orderly and full of businessmen.

Wow its hard to type on this twisting, bumpy bus ride... anyways,...

So to get to their bank, we went to what is known as the Makiti Business District, the heart of economic life in the Philippines, where the Philippine Stock Exchange is located, and probably every important bank in the nation. This part of Manila looks just like any western city really, and all three of us were glad to have seen this face of Manila after spending time in the neighborhood of our hostel.

This is a Bengal fig tree, decked out in Christmas lights, just one of the new and interesting bits of plant life along the way. This is part of Alayah (sp?) Triangle, a park which backs up against the stock exchange. The signage said it had free wifi, but it wasn't working...

So I suppose now would be a good time to introduce my new travel friends. Sandy and Kathryn are two sisters from Cape Town, South Africa. They have been teaching English in a Korean school for the last year, and are currently taking (a “much needed”) 6 months off to travel together. They are an absolute joy to travel with, and we are all thoroughly enjoying the new company on our respective journeys. They may give me a hard time for saying this (“we're going to read your blog and see all the awful things you say about us!”) but the way they interact and work together is absolutely adorable, haha. Naturally, I've offered up my place to stay should they come to the Seattle, and they have done the same for Cape Town.

So once they had finished their business at the bank's office (with some difficulty) we headed off, via a bus with a TV showing a Bruce Lee movie that takes place in Seattle (it was sweet, I'll have to see the while thing upon my return), and off to one of the countless bus stations in Manila. This bus ride took us to a new part of Manila, which was somewhere between the poverty of our hostel and the wealth of the business district. This day has been very good for giving all of us a much more rounded view (but still incomplete) of Manila and one I am grateful to have gotten. So this bus trip was to head northward, to Baguio, a 6 or 7 hour ride.

Around 11pm or so, we arrived in Baguio, and found a very helpful taxi driver who took us to three different places in our price range to find a place to stay. This little place was 250 pesos a night, and we had the 6-bunk room to ourselves. I ended up awake until around 1:30am, and woke for good at about 6am, listening to the sounds of the street. By 7am, those sounds included the many roosters in cages on the street corner (probably for cock fighting?), kids playing basketball, noisy vehicles, and a house across the street playing Elvis songs for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Once we all “showered”, which thus far generally consists of a large bucket of cold water under a faucet, and a smaller bucket with a handle to pour over your head, all in the same room as the toilets, which flush with varying degrees of success, meaning you just pour it all over everything and it goes down a drain on the floor, we went out in search of breakfast and information on our next bus. Breakfast was quite good, some sorts of noodle dish with eggs, meats and veggies.

Once we had figured out our next move on the bus, we headed to a place called Tam-Awan Vilage, 'a garden in the sky.” It was recommended by Lonely Planet, and was supposed to be a nice place to see traditional village life and arts of the mountain region, but it was really just a few huts and not much to see or do. We were all disappointed, but we ended up talking to a Korean girl who was learning English (she was quite good actually), and had a fun and hilarious little conversation with her (“Oh! So shy!!” *hands go up to cover face*) and with a local artist across the street who does bronze sculpture.

oh man, it fells like we are on a roller coaster ride in the dark, I don't normally get car sick, but this bus ride combined with trying to write is a real test of strength, but I will press on for my faithful readers!

(I do have a few faithful readers, right? I'm not just talking to myself here?)

Ok, back to the pictures. So this is just a typical view of the town, being the beginning of the mountain region, flat ground is a scarce commodity, if available at all. That said, the Philippine people seem to choose intentionally precarious spots and intentionally tall and precarious buildings to construct. This photo is tame compared to much of what we have seen actually. Maybe there is some logic to it, but it escapes me.

Kathryne and I in a jeepney back to town. I think I mentioned it earlier, but these are considered the 'symbol' of the Philippines and are everywhere. A ride costs 7 pesos, and you just pass your money to the next person down the seat, it gets up to the driver, he looks at it and gives correct change while driving, and the passengers pass the change back to you.

This is a shot out the window of our place for the night, on the top of a hill, but one of the flatter parts we saw today.

Because Sandy and Kathryne don't have a lot of time, and because we decided there wasn't that much to do here, we hopped a bus further north towards the original goal, the town of Bontoc near the famous rice terraces. This is just a child I saw looking out the window of a jeepney. The transit hub here was pretty impressive. In a rather small parking lot type area, there were just dozens of taxis, jeepneys and a handful of buses, in a chaotic looking but carefully choreographed system.

Another cluster of hillside homes.

And here we are getting farther up into the mountains.

Because the hills are so steep, and also a result of deforestation, slides are common. This was just one of many washouts we crossed. These roads and drivers really are crazy, but somehow it all seems to workout.

It's a twisting and bumpy 7 hour ride, but that doesn't mean you can't try and get some rest! That doesn't mean we got any, however.

(we have arrived in Bontoc, and I have more to add to this post)

During the last hour of the ride, we stopped and had no idea why. After waiting around for a short while, a woman on the bus who spoke English told us the road had been, surprise, blocked by a slide! Not knowing how long this could take, given all the major slides we passed on the way we got a bit worried, but we had created our own little compound of our gear in the back of the bus, and sat around in the dark playing silly name/word association games, and it ended up actually being pretty fun.

It turned out the slide was minor, and it was clearly an area where such problems were common. The whole section of hillside seemed to have slid many times, and they even had some heavy machinery at the site for just such occurrences.

Shortly beyond the slide, we arrived in Bontoc. Maybe 20 feet from the drop off point was a little police shack, where we asked for advice on a place to stay. The officer was very friendly and pointed us roughly a block away to a 'new hotel'. We were initially worried it may be expensive, but it turned out to only be 400 pesos for a very spacious, clean, double bed room!

In search of food, as we had not gotten a dinner stop on the bus, we were quite hungry and ventured off into the night. Upon hearing music coming from somewhere down the street, and we walked into a bar that had a live band. We ordered chicken and pork dishes that were only 100 pesos and quite good, and watched the unusual display going on before us. The band had males on bass, guitar, drums and keyboard, and a rotating cast of three females singing. Sandy and Kathryne recognized one of the songs as a Korean pop-song, and the other song we recognized was Poker Face by Lady GaGa. When one of the women was singing the others would dance, and at various times young men from the audience would walk up, pick a woman and dance with her for a short time. The most amusing part of it all was that the ladies seemed to make little effort to look interested if they didn't like the guys, and after a short dance would climb back on stage with rather unhappy looks on their faces, haha. For some reason, the music stopped at just 10pm, and we headed back to our room.

So tomorrow we are going to do some laundry, visit the Sunday market, and figure out when to visit the rice terraces. According to the sign, there is also a hot springs in the area, which sounds fantastic!

Well, goodnight and good bye for now.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sorry Manila, But You Smell Bad.

(So the internet at the hostel isn't working, so this will be posted whenever I get a connection again)

I know I just posted yesterday, and I don't want to spoil you readers by thinking you will get updates daily, but here is one because I have time I guess... day two in Manila.

I ended up sleeping until 10:30 because I have a windowless room, I had earplugs in, and I was exhausted. Upon waking, I had breakfast downstairs, then took a pedalcab which is a bike with a makeshift sidecar. These things are all over the city.

I took that to the Baclaran Market, which is a giant flea-market type place, of clothing, food, shoes, bags, electronics and nearly everything else.

I then decided to have some major contrast, and went to The Mall of Asia, a complete western-style mall that had everything from an IMAX to an ice skating rink to a Coach store. Like all malls, it was all decked out for Christmas.

From the mall I took one of the public taxis, which is essentially a small SUV-type vehicle they cram as many people in as possible. There were the two front seats, four people in what would be the back seat in a normal vehicle, and then the very back had two bench seats facing each other with me and 3 other people. Very crowded, but also very cheap, 30 pesos for my ride.

I ended up at Rizal Park, which is dedicated to national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. It has a large open grass area, and various gardens off to the side. I walked through the 'Japanese Garden', which can only go in quotes, because to my untrained, but not totally clueless eye, it had very little Japanese influence, not to mention it was totally run down. I did notice I was the only solo person in it, it costs an extra 5 pesos to enter (the main park is free) and as near as I can tell is just for young couples to have some place quiet to lay down with each other. The Chinese Garden was better, but not by a huge amount.

(having trouble getting the video where I want it, it's at the bottom of the page)

At the park I found a group of kids doing flips and whatnot, and when I pulled out my camera, they got very excited, and put on a bit of a show. I thought about busting a move of my own, but you know, I had too much stuff in my pockets :p. (also they were a million times better than me!)

And here is the monument to Dr Rizal himself, complete with honor guards.

From the park, I walked around the Malate area and came upon Malete Church, which was built in 1588. There, I sat and listened to part of a service for kicks, much of it was even in English.

From there, I wandered around for probably two hours. According to the map I was handed at the airport and put out by the Secretary of Travel, this is supposed to be “the center of nightlife, dining, leisure and entertainment in Manila”, but go figure, I mostly found prostitutes. All I wanted was a bar and some live music, but every place that seemed to offer those things was also swarming with 'lades' out front so I just kept saying “No” and walking away. I walked quite a while tonight in search of a place to sit down at, but just couldn't find what I was actually looking for. The places that looked the most legit, also looked way more expensive that I was looking for.

Oh, the picture, ha. It's a central square in the area, that even at 8pm (after dark!) had tons of little kids playing and having a great time. One of those things you just don't see in the States.

I spotted a lively looking bar that I even saw had some westerners in it, and a sign on the door that said “No prostitution or drugs allowed!” Relieved, I came in. Right away the man at the door sat me at a 2-person table. With a prostitute. Ugh. On top of that, I looked at the drink menu, and it was nearly as much as a bar in Seattle! I grabbed my bag and walked straight out the door.

So I walked and walked, in search of the kind of restaurant I was looking for. I ended up at this Japanese place, and they were all very friendly (and not in the prostitute kind of way!), telling me about the Philippines and practicing their English skills. It was just the kind of relaxing place I needed, and the food (pork with an egg over rice) was very good. When I said I was from Seattle, an older (Japanese?) man who was sitting at the counter as well said “Ah, Ichiro!”

Back at the hostel, I sat down to write up this blog post, and the internet kept going out. However at the table I met Sandy and Kathrine, from South Africa (I forget the mans name). Well, we got to talking and tomorrow I am going to join them on a bus trip up north to see some of the mountains and the famous rice terraces. This kind of flexibility and ability to meet and explore with new people is exactly what I was hoping for on this trip, it's nice to see it all actually happening.

Well, that's it for now folks. Tomorrow I will be taking a 6-hour bus ride and getting the heck out of the smelly, dirty city!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Thrilla in Manila

It is currently 7:44 PM local time, and I am sitting in the hostel (next to a Chinese kid playing StarCraft on his laptop) here in Manila. Let me show you how I got here and what my first day has been like!

Monday morning, after going to bed late and waking up before my alarm, I finished getting the place ready, getting my bags ready, and getting myself ready for Brendan to pick me up and take me to the airport. Naturally, it was cloudy and raining in Seattle, a fitting good-bye. Due to a stop at the drug store, traffic, and security lines, I got to my gate with only about 15 minutes to spare which was a little stressful, but on the other hand I didn't waste any time waiting!

The flight from Seattle to Seoul was 12 or 13 hours, and uneventful. I was sitting in the dead middle of the plane, so I couldn't see anything, but I don't think there was anything to see anyways. I was hoping to sleep on the plane, but couldn't because I just wasn't tired enough I guess.

When we arrived in Seoul, it was only 8pm or so local time, but the place was amazingly empty and a little creepy. I had been hoping to get out of the airport for the evening, but when I got there that didn't seem like it was really an option, and besides it was like 4am Seattle time and by now I WAS tired. I spent some time on my computer, got a 1-line chat in with Nick before he disappeared (?) and tried to sleep in the above 'Rest & Relaxation Area'. The whole airport was very nice, and it even had very nice, clean free showers. Again, I tried to sleep for the night before my 8:40am flight to Manila, but sleep would not come, mostly due to the uncomfortable chairs I was trying to crash out in. Oh well. Again, I woke well before my alarm and just wandered the slowly waking airport before my flight.

 The flight from Seoul to Manila was similarly uneventful. I will say, the airline (Asiana) seemed kind of nice compared the domestic flights I've taken recently. Not only did they give food (which wasn't that awful), but every 30 minutes it seemed they were walking around with drinks. This time I had a window seat, but we were above the clouds and there was nothing to see until the last 30 minutes as we were nearing the airport. (and there wasn't much to see)

This is the Immigration station (and past it is customs) at the Manila airport. Despite the government saying they require an outbound flight for entrance so as not to overstay the 21-day visa they give, when I tried to show the agent my papers, he wouldn't even look at them! Another amusing thing was the customs declaration paperwork. At the bottom in red, it says  "WARNING: DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS"

Once I was out of the airport with some local money in my pocket, the Philippine peso, I hopped a taxi to my hostel. Luckily he started the meter, but must have thought I didn't see, because when I reached my drop-off, he asked for 200 pesos, I saw the meter said 116 or something. Partly due to a lack of smaller bills, I ended up giving him 150 (~$3.40) and calling that good. 
The hostel is what I expected I guess. Not fancy at all, but it was close and easy. The tree growing out of it is pretty neat too.

 I decided to spring for a private room,and here it is. Small, smelly, no windows. Oh well, the price is right, haha. Instead of a ripoff, I actually caught a deal on this. The reservation said I had to pay 700-something, but they only asked for 600 pesos (~$13.70) for the two night reservation I made from the Seoul airport.

As soon as I put my things away and got myself somewhat organized, I headed out to walk around the area and see what I'd gotten myself into.  Small garbage-strewn streets, random dogs and chickens, kids playing in the streets, all that I expected. Literally within 5 minutes of leaving the hotel and walking around for the first time, I was offered a prostitute. By a kid that was like 5 years old. I knew it was big here but it did catch me off guard a bit, at least coming from such a little kid. 

Anyways, I kept walking, and the first thought that came to mind was 'disorganization'. It ain't the west here, folks. It is a sort of semi-organized chaos, where things seem to happen by some form of rationality, only no part seems to know what the other is doing and everything just sort of collides into one jumble.

I kept walking, and wound up on some pretty small narrow streets. In my 4 hours of walking, I'm not sure I saw a single white person. I certainly attracted some attention, with lots of strange looks, people calling me "Joe" (what they call all white people, I reference to the American military presence decades ago, and GI Joe I guess?), "Americano", and "Daddy" (what the prostitutes call people). Little kids constantly ask me for money, some walking with me for half a (US-length) city block, just saying "Give me Pesos! Give me Pesos! Give me Pesos!"

This place was weird. Just blocks from my hostel and only 2 miles at most from the airport, sat this building, the Coastal Mall. In reality, the building was nearly abandoned.  It is a crumbling 3-story mall, but only the bottom floor is used, mostly by one big warehouse store, and small kiosks selling pirated movies and cellphone accessories.

I kept walking, and the blocks just didn't end. I probably went more than a mile down this one street before there was a way to turn right or left off of it onto something else. When I did, I found myself in some crazy dead-end streets where I'm sure other tourists never go. haha. I'm still trying to figure out how things work here, but from what I can tell, people sort of lock themselves off into little 'neighborhood compounds' . Off the streets like the ones I've show, are side streets with gates and guards. The guards just sit there with a club and a sign that says "no sticker, no entry" and only residents are supposed to go in. While I expected this in more well off areas, I was walking through some pretty poor areas, so it was a bit of a surprise.  Most stores have armed guards at the doors, one convenience store even had a guy with a tactical-style shotgun at the door!

A quick video of what a walk down these streets is like.

Walking across a bridge somewhere in the neighborhood (Oh, now that I think about it, I did see a white person today, standing on this bridge).  What these streets are full of (besides people walking, jeepneys and the motorcycle/sidecar taxi) is little snack shops. It seems like 3 of every 4 storefronts is a shop selling the same candy and other snacks. There are also countless little places to grab food, mostly chicken it seems, but I hear you can find dog if you want ; ) .

Oh, another thing I find strange, is how much English I see. It's not that I didn't expect to see it, because it is the second most common language in the Philippines and what is used in government and education from what I understand, it is where I am seeing it. Nearly all these little shops have signs in English only, despite the obvious fact they are not in a western tourist area, and as far as I can tell, the people don't actually speak English from what I have experienced thus far... maybe someone can explain it to me.

Because it was getting dark, I decided I'd better get back to the hostel and dinner there instead of on the street.  I'm still a little worried about figuring out what street food I can eat without getting sick... but the other reason I wanted to go back to the hostel is because I thought it would be a better place to meet someone I could actually talk with. 

Well, it worked. This is Chris from South Africa. He has been in the Philippines for two weeks now, and is headed to the island of Cebu to meet up with some Danish people he has met, and to do some diving. Well, going to Cebu and learning to SCUBA dive is also on my list of things to do, so after I spend a little more time in Manila, I'll likely head that way and meet up with, amazing how that works out on my first day of the trip, huh?

So that is where I am at right now. Tomorrow I will leave my little neighborhood and start to explore this crazy city. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Now Boarding for Manila"

Tomorrow is the day I set off for what I hope to be one hell of an adventure.

Despite the many things on my agenda to get ready, this weekend has been surprisingly laid back. Between all the errand running, I've had time to visit so many of you friends and family members, all giving me your best wishes. The support and words of encouragement from all of you have been wonderful.

Unfortunately I didn't think to take any pictures while shopping and visiting friends yesterday, but Kevin and Jamie made me a wonderful lunch at their new place, and I have to give a shout-out to Graham for the party last night!

Mom and dad came over this morning to help me with some final preparations and to say goodbye.

Visiting with Sazzy and Kevin. Sazzy, see you in India, looking forward to it!

And finally, this evening Brendan, Sam and Noel came by to get some grub (Ballard Brothers) and take a sauna, which felt amazing. Brendan, see you somewhere in southeast Asia in January! 

And here is every single item I am bringing with me. It consists of my big backpack and day pack, short and long sleeve button up shirts, lightweight fleece and rain shell, one pair of zip-off pants, short and long sleeve t-
shirt type shirts, four pairs of undies, two socks, bandanna, beanie, small towel, swim shorts, sleeping sack, toiletries, laptop, bug net, hard camera case and camera, toilet paper stash, bug hat, bag of goodies, money belt, sunglasses, baseball hat, book, and sandals.

I feel like I may have too much stuff, but I just don't know what I'd cut right now. Talking to Nick, he was saying how much he wished he had a 20 pound pack, and I weighed mine at nearly 30!  The heaviest parts are the packs themselves (about 1/3 of my total weight!), and my toiletries bag. Well, I guess I'll just have to see how it goes and maybe mail some things home if I discover I won't need them. 

Now, I'm just getting ready for the last night in my bed for quite a while, making sure the place is ready to leave, and getting some quality time with my cats. I will say, they certainly know that something is going on, and I will miss them. Aww. Anyways, tomorrow I'll get up, probably well before the alarm I set, do the final preparations, and then Brendan will be giving me a ride to the airport. (Thanks Brendan!)

My next post will be from the Philippines in a few days, so stay tuned!

(just checked the weather in Manila, 87 degrees)