We’ve been back less than a week from our 3-week vacation to the Philippines. Our itinerary was: 1 week in Alcoy, Cebu; 1 week in Dumaguete; 1 week in Palawan. It all went by too quickly. Here are some impressions.
I need to work on my drinking:
I had the opportunity to meet three expats for lunch while in Dumaguete. They were guys I knew online from a Philippines forum I frequent. Good guys, not an American among them, and it seems clear that when we move to Dumaguete, that if I want some expat friends, at least a few good ones live there.
But when it comes to drinking San Miguel I am woefully lacking. Had my standard 1 beer while two of my new friends were plowing through a 6-pack each. The waitress was running full speed to and from our table to take and then deliver the next beer run. Somehow the guys had the energy to flirt with her every time she arrived – which might have been the purpose. Finally I ordered a 2nd San Mig just to keep from looking like the lightweight that I am.
Afterwards Janet took one look at me and asked how many beers I’d had.
Is the Philippines the noisiest or most romantic place on earth:
Janet and I were in El Nido, Palawan – a beautiful place. We’d just had dinner and were walking back to our hotel. Janet spotted a cart with her fave grilled chicken intestines on a stick; and no I did not partake. I like Filipino food but there’s a limit. She is waiting with baited breath for the grilling to finish when suddenly we hear a dog yelping in extreme pain. Like most places in the Philippines the streets of El Nido are narrow, trikes, motorcycles, and cars rush along with little concern, and we assumed the dog got hit by something. Everyone was looking in the direction of the cries of pain, which did not stop and if anything intensified. Janet and I feared the worst and approached the dog. I was expecting to see massive injuries. Instead we witnessed two dogs humping happily. “Must be a virgin,” Janet remarked. Only in the Philippines!
Janet takes on the trike drivers:
One of the gripes for most expats is with the taxi and trike drivers trying to overcharge. In many cities trikes are regulated and there’s a flat rate wherever you want to go. For example in Dumaguete the rate is 6.5p/person. In Puerto Princesa, Palawan it’s 8p. During our stay in Puerto Princesa we went out to dinner and had no problem with a trike driver taking us from our hotel to the restaurant for the 8p x2 plus a small tip. On the way back we flagged a trike. Janet told the driver in Tagalog the name of our hotel. “40 pesos,” he said. “No way!” responded Janet and we didn’t get into the trike. She flagged the next one. “50 pesos,” he immediately told her. Now she’s pissed. Traveling in the Philippines, knowledge is power. We knew what the rates were and she would not pay more. Finally the 3rd driver took us home and we paid him the correct amount plus tip.
I am lazy enough that I probably would have overpaid, but do not mess with Janet!
Palawan really is that beautiful:
Palawan has been on the list of the most beautiful islands in the world many times and finally we decided to go. As a cynic I know that such lists are exaggerated. For example, despite the hype, Boracay, which I do like, is far from the best place to vacation in the Philippines.
But Palawan is beautiful. El Nido has to be seen to be believed and we just scratched the surface. Even the 5+ hour drive from Puerto Pricessa to El Nido was extraordinarily beautiful.
There are so many mountains on Palawan that they haven’t bothered to name them all.
We will be returning!
Yes, sometimes there is progress in the Philippines:
The Philippines is not known as a place where change happens quickly. We spent a week at our favorite resort in Alcoy, the BBB (Bodos Bamboo Bar). Ok, truth be told there aren’t a lot of options in Alcoy so every year it’s the BBB. The 1st time we stayed there some years back, we had a very nice cottage. The cottage had a fan, but no aircon, which was doable. The cottage had no hot water in the shower, which was not doable to my standards. I don’t need luxury but even in a place like Alcoy in the summer, I want hot water. But worst is that while the hotel advertised free wifi, the wifi only worked in public areas, not the cottages.
But sometimes, if rarely, things change in the Philippines. This year the cottages were equipment with aircon. Modern hot water was plentiful. And what’s best is that the wifi worked everywhere and the connection was reasonably fast. At the end of our stay I approached the owner, told her we’d been coming for several years and appreciated the improvements, particularly to the wifi.
Of course the rate for the cottages was increased 50%.
Everything is crispy in the Philippines:
In the Philippines “crispy” is king. Lechon must be crispy. Anything grilled is only good if the skin is crack in your mouth crispy. The first time Janet had KFC in the US I ordered Original Recipe. She tasted it and crinkled her nose. After that we always ordered Extra Crispy.
There is no such thing as rare meats in the Philippines, Most meats are cooked to death – probably for health purposes. But that’s the taste that people are used to.
But it seems that this crispy thing was taken to an extreme when I saw that all the cigarette ads advertised the flavor of the cancer stick in question as “crispy.”
As I mentioned in a previous posting, after initially deciding not to go to Boracay, Janet and I changed our schedule and spent five days in the most popular tourist beach in the Philippines.
Boracay has a lot of pluses: a long, white beach; island hopping and snorkeling; decent restaurants and hotels; dinner served on the beach; nightly free entertainment; massage places every ten feet. You can eat and drink yourself to exhaustion (and I did).
After 5:30PM the beach is magically transformed into the Philippines largest and longest restaurant. Each restaurant and hotel gets a strip of beach and sets up tables. Cute Pinays call to you as you walk by to check out the menu or buffet. All you can eat buffets line the beach; you can typically eat all you want for $10 or less and many sell two drinks for the price of one.
Each night two of my strongest characteristics clashed; my fundamentally lightweight drinking vs. my cheap-assed love of the bargain. The latter generally won and my standard one San Miguel became two. Most of the buffets served lechon and Janet was overwhelmed by the notion of unlimited lechon, a concept far removed from her upbringing, where lechon is a prized treat only served on very special occasions.
As you can see from the photo, one buffet advertised “organic lechon.” When I asked what made the pig in question organic, I was told that it was fed vegetables. Sounds organic to me 🙂 Janet actually said that it tasted different from standard lechon, but that didn’t stop her from going back for seconds.
As darkness set in and the tables filled with patrons, the music and entertainment began. The Philippines, known as one of the karaoke capitals of the world, where romantic 70s music is revered as if brand new, is also a hotbed of very talented singers and musicians. Go to most Asian cities and you will see imported Filipino musicians. On the beach in Boracay the musicians were plentiful and of good quality; that is if you’re an old fart like me and want to hear the tunes of yesteryear.
But in addition, bands of fire dancers entertained and generally brought in bigger crowds than the singers. The fire dancers in the Philippines are almost always ladyboys. I asked Janet why most fire dancers are ladyboys and got what would in the West be a politically incorrect answer; something about their loose limbed style of movement.
For that matter the moniker, ladyboy, would be highly incorrect here, yet the term is pervasive in Asia. Considering the Philippines is a conservative and Catholic culture, ladyboys, and indeed all manner of “alternative” cultures are accepted and enjoyed in the Philippines. I am not saying that they are as accepting as we aspire to be in the West, but I suspect that they are more accepting than we actually are.
But the bottom line is that despite the title of this piece, I don’t really know why ladyboys are firedancers in the Philippines, but it seems to be a pretty good skill to have and tips given by spectators were substantial. It’s a job opportunity here guys 🙂
I really love snorkeling and so island hopping is something that I look forward to when I come to the Philippines. Because I had injured my finger the first day we arrived and the doctor that patched me up discouraged me from getting into the ocean for a week, Boracay was my first opportunity to snorkel.
You can hop on a boat with a bunch of other people or find a private boat, which is what Janet and I did. The prices are reasonable and in my experience the vendors do not conform to US laws; that is price fixing is the norm. I actually found the system to be a little bit different from when I was in Bora 3 years ago. I didn’t pay the boat; I was led to a table where I paid and was given an actual, real life, no shit receipt, after which we were taken to the boat.
The snorkeling was fun if not spectacular. I think the most fun was that after I climbed back on the boat after a tiring dive, I saw a man in a small kayak paddling toward the snorkeling boats. Who says Filipinos aren’t creative business people? The man rowed to each boat yelling “ice cream.” He had a cooler in the boat. Now if only he’d had a cooler filled with San Miguels.
One of the biggest negatives in Boracay is the price of hotels. I guess most tourists want a fancy hotel and room with all the amenities. If you need this you’re going to pay. Janet and I are too cheap for such luxury. I want a decent bed, aircon (it was April, which is summer in the Philippines) and a shower with decent pressure and warm water.
So, for the second time I stayed at the Island Jewel Inn. The room is the size of a postage stamp but it has all the amenities we want. It’s not right on the beach (maybe 200 feet away) and best of all it’s located in Station 3, which is a 10 minute walk away from party central and consequently a place you can actually sleep. Actually, best of all is that at $50/night, it met our cheap-assed traveling budget.
Another improvement I noticed since three years ago is the process of transferring to Boracay. It’s still mass insanity but there is now a sense of organized insanity. Here’s how it works: you fly into Caticlan, take a car/van ride (just a few minutes) to a ferry, take the ferry to Boracay, and then a van from the ferry station to your hotel. Almost everyone sets up the transfer in advance. The transfer company grabs you right off the plane and tags your shirt like you’re a new student in the first grade. Hundreds of people are thrown into vans, then various ferries, and then onto other vans for the ride to your hotel. Only in the Philippines could such an insane system actually work. The price was not horrible, although every porter along the way wanted a tip. It ended up being easier just to grab our own bags.
Overall Janet loved Boracay, but after 5 days we’d both had enough and were anxious to get back to something that resembled the real Philippines. More on that with my next installment.
One more positive regarding Boracay. Before our trip I had scheduled my annual physical for the week we arrived home. When we got home I was worried. After all, I spent three weeks eating and drinking. I am a lightweight drinker and literally had more beer than I have ever consumed. I figured my blood work would be through the roof. Imagine my surprise when the tests came back with my cholesterol down and the doctor saying “whatever you’re doing, keep it up.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that what I was doing was eating pork, drinking like a fish and chasing my young wife 🙂
Here’s how our weekend went:
It was Saturday and I knew it was bound to be a crazy one. My son was going off to college as a Freshman and my emotions were mixed; between sadness about my little boy leaving home; and unbridled ecstasy about my little boy leaving home. The plan was to get up early, have breakfast, pack the car to the brim, and take off for the two hour drive to his new life.
I got up and volunteered to make breakfast so that Janet could get up and eat with us and say her goodbyes (“regards” in the Philippines). I’m a lousy cook but managed to rustle up a bunch of eggs, bacon and toast and didn’t burn any of it, which was a very good sign for the day ahead.
Janet stumbled out to breakfast. My son wasn’t nearly ready, so the two of us sat down to eat. That’s when I noticed her eye…
Let me go back a moment and tell you that Janet is a very sensitive young woman – physically. I mean if she comes within an inch of brushing the dining room table the next day there is a large bruise. She works in a store and comes home almost daily with bruises on her arms and the occasional burn. I implore her to deal with these accidents at the time they happen but I think she just knows herself well enough to blow it off.
But Saturday morning across from the breakfast table as I glanced at her normally pretty face I saw a good sized mouse under her eye. “What happened to your eye?” I asked shocked. She didn’t have a clue what I was taking about. “You have a black eye,” I exclaimed. “Did you bang your eye?”
She assured me she hadn’t but then said, “I did cry a little bit last night.” She was missing her family and some tears did fall.
“Crying should not cause a black eye,” I said still shocked at how she looked. “Does it hurt?” I asked. She shrugged, still not really comprehending my concern.
Finally she giggled. “Well, I guess I’ll have to tell everyone you hit me.”
“What! That is not what you want to say in the U.S. And the last place you want to joke about being hit is in Portland, Oregon – and certainly not this week.”
“Why not?” She genuinely appeared confused.
“Because it’s a terrible thing to do to a woman – to anyone. And this week there’s Ray Rice.” I was sure she didn’t know about that.
“You know I would never hit you, right? I have never ever hit a woman.”
It took me a few terrified minutes to explain the trouble I would be in if anyone believed such a joke. “The cops would haul me off and throw away the key.”
“I’d just tell them it was a joke,” she calmly said.
“You don’t understand. They would assume you were lying, trying to get me out. People take this sort of thing very very seriously here.” I added, “…And for very good reason,” just to emphasize that I was a liberal, good guy who would never consider hitting a woman.
“I mean Roger Goodell’s gonna lose his job over Ray Rice and he wasn’t even in the elevator.”
“I mean Roger Goodell’s gonna lose his job over Ray Rice and he wasn’t even in the elevator.”
Janet looked at me clueless but agreed that she would not mention that I’d hit her. She then asked me about who this Ray Rice was and excitedly asked if she could see the video.
Her plan in my absence was to go out with her best friend. For a moment I considered emailing the friend to assure her I had nothing to do with the eye, but before I could deal with that my son came upstairs, we packed the car and took off.
In the afternoon, after I’d gotten back home Janet texted me asking if I’d like to meet them. I walked over in the hot afternoon sun. After we greeted each other, I asked Janet’s Filipina friend if Janet had told her about the eye. “Yes,” she said. “My husband one time rolled over in bed and kicked me hard. So it can happen.”
“I didn’t kick her and didn’t give her the black eye!” I exclaimed frustrated but finally laughing at the absurdity.
Now, this concerns me and not just for my near brush with the law. Janet is a very honest person and Filipinas often filter their conversation to save face, or at least expect you to filter what you say. While out in public she sometimes shushes me or scolds me for pointing.
But in fact she has much less of a filter than I do and there are many things she says that she does not realize you cannot say in the U.S. We may be out in public and she will get my attention and motion toward someone and say “she’s ugly,” or “he has a very long nose.” Cleanliness if very important in the Philippines and one of the worst things you can say about someone is that he/she is not clean, yet Janet has no problem motioning toward someone and indicating the person “is dirty.”
Of course in the Philippines no one points to anyone like we rude Americans do. Janet raises her eyebrows or points with her lips, as is the Philippines custom. I know her well enough to know she’s motioning toward something or someone and probably not in a good way.
“You shouldn’t say she is dirty,” I will admonish.
“But she is.”
“True, but people here take such comments very seriously.”
“Then she should clean herself better.”
Janet works with the public and is well liked by her employer, so I assume she hasn’t offended any customers. But as a new husband I worry that she might cause herself troubles because of cultural misunderstandings.
“Just be careful. Someone may hear you and take offense. And you’re smaller than most American women.”
“I will kick them,” she replies and I am reminded that she’s a lot tougher than she looks.
On Sunday Janet and I did our weekly grocery shopping followed by a trip to her favorite Asian store. They sell lechon on Sundays and I had promised her some. We were checking out the fish section when we saw Janet’s BFF from the day before and her husband, also there for the lechon, fish and live crabs. Next thing I knew they’d invited us to dinner and the women were organizing a feast. Janet spent the afternoon baking bread. Around 5:00 I asked, “So when are we supposed to go over there for dinner?”
“Oh, they are coming here. Our grill is better than theirs.”
“No problem,” I said by now immune to changes in plans. “But I guess I’d better go out and clean the grill.”
“You didn’t clean the grill yet?”
“No, of course not. How was I suppose to know…” I caught myself and laughed.
It’s more fun in the Philippines or in the West with a Filipina.
Last year after proposing to my now wife, Janet, I accompanied her to meet her parents in Alcoy, Cebu. Her family is sweet, provincial, huge, poor as to be expected, and welcomed me every time I have been there like I have rarely been welcomed in my life.
I sat down and explained that I wanted to marry their daughter. This was no surprise to them, as Janet had been keeping them up to date with our plans and our efforts to obtain a Visa, but I wanted to do the formality thing. Their only question was why did we have to marry in the U.S. I tried to explain the K-1 Visa process with Janet translating. Since I barely get the convoluted U.S. procedure myself, I’m not sure they understood but in the end gave their approval. Part of that approval was contingent on our returning the next year for “the party.” The wedding ceremony could be done elsewhere, but “the party” was a family necessity.
As we prepared for our spring return to Alcoy I asked Janet what she wanted for the wedding party. I proposed that we could have a nice event at the small resort, the Bodos Bamboo Bar, better known locally as the BBB. Janet passed the proposition to her mother. “No way” I was told. Mom insisted that they host the party. The main reason was that the party had to be for the entire neighborhood and most of the people from their barangay would feel uncomfortable with the luxury that was the BBB and would not attend.
I asked Janet to make a list of the foods she wanted and approximate costs and discuss it with her mom. Lechon was at the top of the list.
In the Philippines, pork is ubiquitous and lechon is king. Lechon is an entire roasted pig, similar to what I had seen at a Hawaiian luau. The crispiness of the skin is what Filipinos seem to love most. I’ve enjoyed it too but as a Jew, don’t have the feeling about the food that Janet and her fellow Filipinos have, and certainly would rest better if I didn’t have to see the pig snout snorting and eyes glaring at me as I gobbled its crispy skin.
In the Philippines, pork is ubiquitous and lechon is king.
In the Philippines, ceremonies are measured not by how many people will attend but by how many pigs you have. A “three pig” event means you are a big shot politico or a rich Kano. Since I am neither we budgeted for a two pig wedding party.
The first pig would be for the lechon as tradition requires and the second pig would be for what Janet described as “chop chop” which I gathered was anything else that required pork.
“So, they just go to the market before we arrive and get the cooked pigs?” I asked naively.
“Oh no. You can buy lechon but very expensive in the market by the kilo. Better to just buy the whole pig and feed him.”
“Feed him? The actual pig? Where?”
“They will bring them home and feed them for a few weeks. Pigs require lots of grain.”
“Of course, “ I agreed. “Because after all they’re – well – pigs. But really it’s an imposition. Your mom shouldn’t have to have pigs in her home.”
Janet laughed. “They won’t be in the home silly! They will be tied up in an open area.”
“Of course,” I again agreed. “That’d be the way to go. So, when the time comes, does your dad, you know,” I said hesitating and squirming, “slaughter the pig and cook the lechon.”
“Of course not. The guy is hired. It’s part of the deal when you buy the pig. He comes the morning of the party and…” She slowly performed the slitting the throat motion and I made a mental note not to ever piss her off too badly.
Her parents spent a couple weeks searching and couldn’t find two decent pigs. This seemed to me to be weird in the Philippines; like not being able to get beef in Texas, craft beer in Portland, or an Elvis impersonator in Vegas. But it was explained that it was fiesta time and summer in the Philippines and so pigs were at a premium. Nonetheless, two were eventually procured and brought to the family compound. We breathed a sigh of relief.
As a Jew, my notion of what’s involved in raising pigs is – well – limited. I figured it was just a matter of throwing feed and getting out of their way. Not quite. Janet explained that there were regular baths that had to be given, daily brushing, and of course clearing away the inevitable massive quantities of poop produced by the young lechons-to-be. Her mom and dad did most of the work, assisted under duress by a couple of the teenage kids. I knew by the time of the party that the effort of the family would be extensive and while Janet’s presence might be worth it, I doubted that mine would be.
But then disaster struck. About ten days before we were scheduled to leave for the Philippines, Janet started receiving reports that one of the pigs was ill – vomiting.
“I think they may have overfed him,” she speculated.
“Pigs are pretty used to gorging themselves. I think the pig should have been able to handle it.”
Despite my encouraging words Janet and the family were panicked. Her dad stayed home one day instead of attending the annual fiesta, where he was scheduled to have his prized rooster involved in the traditional cock fighting. At least the rooster benefited from the pig’s illness.
I found out later that Janet’s mom had told Janet, “Don’t tell Dave,” assuming that I would blame the family for their care of the pig.
“I would never blame them!” I told Janet.
Actually, Janet was the one who was into the blame game, still assuming that they overfed the pig.
“I am sure the pig will be fine. Just a touch of the swine flu maybe,” I said, suppressing a giggle, while my Filipina wife stared glacially.
There was no consoling Janet who called home multiple times that day to get an update on the pig’s condition and prognosis.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I asked soothingly. “There’s still another pig.”
“We need two for the party!” she insisted. In America, brides fill small claims courts swearing that the catererer or the baker or the dressmaker ruined a wedding. I guess it’s the same the world over; in the Philippines the pig broker can ruin the wedding.
The next day I received the tragic news that we’d been dreading; the pig died. Janet’s father actually took the pig to the lechon guy to have an autopsy performed. They take their pigs pretty seriously in The Philippines. They discovered an enlarged heart causing heart failure. “I’d have a heart attack too if I knew I was gonna be cut up in a week,” I offered.
Janet and her mother cried over Skype. I tried to be supportive and reminded myself repeatedly to be somber and not crack up.
“Sweetie, it’s OK,” I assured her.
“The party will be ruined! We will have to get another pig. I told my mother to find a small pig and not to overfeed the one that is alive.”
“How will they buy the replacement pig?” I asked, always the pragmatist.
“My mother said that the family will manage.”
“No way,” I proclaimed. “I’m not having your poor parents go broke buying another pig.”
“Why not – the first one was their fault,” she proclaimed.
“It was not their fault!” I said, exasperated. “Animals die. People die. Someday I will die.”
“I won’t overfeed you,” she assured me.
So 4,000 pesos was sent and another, smaller pig was obtained. The disaster was averted. Ten days later we arrived in Alcoy to prepare for the celebration. Janet went to the family home the day before to help with the preparations and perform the ceremonial singing videoke till 3:00 AM ritual.
She returned the next morning and proclaimed, “The pig is small.”
“You told them to get a small pig,” I reminded her.
“No, the one for the lechon – it’s too small.”
“But you told them not to feed it much.”
“It’s too small.”
Fortunately, the wedding party went off without a hitch; the food and games were a big hit. The next day I posted pics on Facebook as I routinely do.
Janet received a note from one of her best friends back in the US. “Hope you had a great party. I’m sure it was fine – but the lechon looked a little bit small.”