I’ve been in the Philippines for two weeks now and have seen and done some amazing things. However, before I write about that, I feel that I need to dedicate a whole post to the greatest thing of all within these 7000 islands: the people. My time in Sagada, Banaue and days like today (in Naga) lend as perfect examples to help illustrate the point, yet there is hardly a day that goes by without experiencing the kindness and generosity of these wonderful people first hand.
Today was my first day in the city of Naga and with Lonely Planet and the Internet offering little more besides cable wake-boarding in the realm of activities, I set out to find a shop which organizes climbs up Mt Isarog. I talked to the helpful staff for about 10 minutes and even though I wasn’t able to organize I climb, they did suggest a waterfall which was a slight trek up the mountain. On top of precise directions I was even given a lift to the jeepney station, which there was no way I could have found on my own.
With a bit of help from another local I got off at the right stop and then took a motorbike as far as I could go before setting out on foot. The path wound through some beautiful farmland, even walking past six caribou bathing in the mud before reaching the registration house. Finally the path descended down a dense forest path, complete with fallen trees operating as obstacles. Before I could even see the waterfall I was able to hear the sounds of a group of Filipino’s waving and calling out to me, surprised to see a foreigner in their local swimming hole. They invited me over and flooded me with smiles, handshakes and questions before quickly gathering up plates of Filipino classics: bangus (milk fish), pancit (stir fried noodles) and pork adobo (pork in a soy/vinegar sauce) before handing it to me. Declining wasn’t even an option. And besides, I was pretty hungry.
After eating, and having a bunch of photos taken (Filipino’s. Nay, all Asian cultures love photos) a bottle of brandy was pulled from the cold waters of the stream and was handed around the circle, each person taking a shot and chasing with some fresh mountain water. I think the fact that I enjoyed/could handle the shot surprised and impressed them because they certainly weren’t ready for a smile after my turn. I’m confident that I can take anything after shotting Lao Lao (rice whiskey) day and night in Vang Vieng. After finishing one bottle, the eight security guards on their day off and myself jumped in the ice cold waters for a dip, before rejoining the circle where a second bottle was pulled out.
By the time we left at 3.30pm we’d finished off a third bottle, had plenty of laughs and sung along to some typical Filipino kareoke songs by Celine Dion, Queen, Jason Mraz and even Frank Sinatra. But not Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. On the way back to the city we ended up hitching a ride on the back of a farm truck for a while before swapping to different jeepney’s and parting ways. A very unexpected, yet fantastic day. And that’s only one example.
In Banaue, home of the magnificent 2000 year old rice terraces I found myself experiencing more spontaneous Filipino hospitality, before having it risen to the next level. Setting out for the trek to the terraces alone, I met a Filipino/American woman at a lookout who invited me to join their family/group. The whole day was spent hiking through beautiful scenery, mostly with her daughter and myself ahead of the pack after bonding immediately. I was invited out to dinner and drinks that night and then hung out with them (well, her daughter mostly) for another three or four days once back in Manila. Enjoying meals, drinks, kareoke, stories and incredible times.
I was adopted on another occasion in Sagada by a couple and their friends who befriended me for the few days I was in town. I hiked to the hanging coffin’s with them and also got a very interesting tour through the market, learning about the different meats and vegetables the Filipino’s use – and how they are prepared. As a final example; On Good Friday in the town of San Fernando, a unique ceremony is held following the stages leading up until Jesus’ death on the cross. The finale is a selection of devout catholics nailing themselves to the cross for 10 minutes. Upon the ceremonies completion I was on my way out of town to find a bus when I found myself in a conversation with a local who volunteers to help the processions. He invited me into his family’s home where a huge feast was prepared for all of the family members that had arrived from all over the Philippines for Holy Week. I then spent two hours eating and talking to the family about everything ranging from Catholicism in the Philippines to ideas for an export business. They were so welcoming and caring that they made me promise to send them a text message to let them know I made it back to Manila safely.
I do wonder if those traveling in groups would experience the same level of friendliness/hospitality and curiosity expressed by locals as someone traveling alone. The question I’m asked the most, and took me a few days to come to terms with (besides ‘where are you from’) is ‘where is your companion?’. Perhaps the idea of traveling alone to a highly collectivist culture is found fascinating, or maybe everyone gets a similar warm welcome to what I have. Whatever the case, the Philippines has manged to stay off the radar for the majority of SEA tourists, who don’t know what they’re missing. With such wonderful people, beer for less than $1 in bars, amazing things to see and do – which you’ll see in future posts, I really don’t want to leave.