Monday, February 20, 2012

ready, set, travel

13° 00 N, 122° 00 E

Kumusta kayo?

I hope you're all doing splendidly. Today is the first "idle" day I've had since the beginning of my trip. To be honest, I've been sitting here in the hotel coffee shop for a while now trying to figure out how to start this blog and what to say about the trip thus far. Alas, I'm at a loss for words. I think I need to accept that it will be some time before I can fully process everything - what it means for me to be here, twenty-one years after my parents chose to leave and start a "new life" in America; the different places I've seen and the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I've had over the last two weeks; as well as what still awaits over the next two months. For lack of being able to articulate anything with real depth, here's a recap of my trip thus far...

Day 1: Los Angeles - Seoul - Manila
My mom and I arrived in the Philippines after a thirteen-hour flight to Seoul and another two-hour flight to Manila. I got my first look into the country's psyche within minutes of our arrival. Filipinos take the idea of "what's mine is yours" to a whole other level, and also hold familial obligation in high regard. I knew that we would be staying at my dad's nephew's second home for a few days but was surprised to find his driver and maid/cook waiting for us at the airport. They were to be on "loan" to us for the week, a gesture I understood and appreciated but nonetheless found to be very awkward.

Manila is a strange city in that half of it is very new - huge, expensive condominium complexes in the midst of being erected alongside shiny shopping centers and American chain restaurants - while the other half is in decay, sad and ramshackled. What makes it odd is that by no means are the two halves segregated. It's as if someone took a city from 2012 and a city from the 1970's (or earlier), mixed the parts together ...and dropped it in the middle of a jungle. The disparate cityscape is a tangible reflection of the socioeconomic state of the Philippines in that a middle class is hardly in existence here; you either have money or you don't, and poverty is the more rampant of the two.

Before dropping my mom and I off at LAX my Uncle Joey had made a comment that I would get to see "Manila, where four lanes turn into eight." No kidding. I quickly grew accustomed to other vehicles cutting us off every few seconds and staring at automobiles veer within mere millimeters of ours, the drivers seemingly unphased. It felt like being in an ongoing game of Chicken, except that all of the other drivers lacked the fear factor. Traffic congestion has gotten so horrendous here that the city has enforced a coding system. Each vehicle is outfitted with a sticker with a serial number. On a given day of the week you may be barred from driving if your vehicle's sticker ends with a particular number. "Hustle and bustle" has never been so apparent or literal, with men, women, and children alike in the middle of the crazy roads and roundabouts, in between said (non)lanes selling cigarettes, food, and other goods to passersby.

My brother had already been in the Philippines for two weeks. As we waited in the middle of town for him to meet us, I took a walk around. I was taking pictures of a little shanty town when I was approached by a group of little boys. My older sister had warned me that children go around begging for money, but I quickly realized that these boys simply wanted me to take their picture. I took a couple of shots and showed them on the screen. They giggled uncontrollably and one little boy teased his friend saying in Tagalog, "Wow, I never knew how ugly you are!" I turned to continue my walk but within a few seconds the boys had brought some friends to get their turn. My brother, who was arriving by taxi, said he almost missed me because all he saw was the swarm of children who were now in a full uproar over my camera and the instantaneous reflections of themselves. I took the moment in, reminding myself to be thankful for things I've now come to expect, like photos from a digital camera. Who knew having one's picture taken could bring so much wonderment? The little boys reminded me that it should.

Day 2: Manila
As I mentioned, my brother had already been in the Philippines for about two weeks prior to my arrival. Typical of my brother, within that short time he found himself mingling with the young artist/expatriate circle of Manila. We were invited to an event at the local art museum honoring the late J Dilla, legendary hip-hop artist and producer. His friend DJ was hired to paint a mural of J Dilla during the event which was later auctioned off. I was still jet lagged and didn't feel much like making conversation, so I sat quietly on the side and watched him work.

Day 3: Manila
My older sister, Leah, arrived to join us with her husband, Kyle, and my nephew, Elijah. Shortly after we were also joined by her parents-in-law, Maggie and John. For those of you keeping count, we now had a traveling group of nine, three named Jan (me), Jan (my brother, pronounced Jon), and John (my sister's father-in-law). Needless to say, some aspects of the ensuing trip were a bit trying and confusing.

Day 4: Manila - Panay Island - Boracay
Our first destination was the island of Boracay, widely recognized as one of the world's best beaches. My parents joked that this is probably so because it takes some effort to get there. From Manila we took a plane to Panay Island, which provides the shortest route to Boracay. From the Caticlan Airport on Panay Island we took a "multicab" to the port so that we could take a "pump boat" to Boracay. From the shore we took another multicab down the main road in town to get to our hotel.

Thankfully, the tourism board of the region provides guides to take you from the Caticlan Airport to your destination in Boracay. Our guide, Ni Chi, related that she was just recently "hired" for the position. She then related that it was actually her late father's job and she more or less inherited it when he passed away. She explained that her position was a coveted one, to have a steady job with the government, and that openings only came by death or similar situation. The job keeps Ni Chi away from her children in another region for weeks at a time but she could not be more thankful to have the means to support her family. One day one of her children will fill the position.


The long travel day was worth it, to say the least. The moment I stepped onto the beach I felt this instantaneous feeling of perfect calm envelop me, as if for a moment in time the world stopped then resumed moving with a new whispered tone. It was one of the strangest sensations I've ever felt, both peaceful and a bit jarring in how quickly and entirely it came on, contradictory as that may sound.

Day 5: Boracay
Weary from being on the move, we spent the entire day lazing on the beach. I lost count of how many rounds we spent swimming and playing, eating and drinking, then falling into short naps.

Day 6: Boracay
Well rested after our lazy beach day, we had the energy and curiosity to see what the rest of the island had to offer. We took a multicab to a viewpoint of the entire island. We also couldn't resist trying out the "Zorb Park." I don't know where people come up with this stuff, but Zorbing is basically crawling into a large inflated ball where you can either slosh around in water or be harnessed to the walls, then rolling down a long, bumpy hill into a pool of water. My sister and I did it together and screamed and laughed so hard I was brought to tears. For lunch we went to the local outdoor marketplace, similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle. There is a place called Mica's Kitchen right across from the market where they will cook your newly purchased items (be it prawns, clams, or pork chop) for a small fee. Of course, we couldn't help but spend the evening back on the beach, which had the most beautiful sunsets.

One thing to note about Boracay is that the landscape is also poignantly indicative of the blaring gap between rich and poor. Imagine the most pristine beach you can conjure in your mind, with white sand as fine as baby powder, clarion shades of tropical blue, lined with a few bars and lounges sparkling and eager to serve. The street directly behind said establishments, however, is instead lined with decrepit homes and small businesses desperate for patrons.

Day 8: Puerto Princesa - El Nido
The Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan was recently named one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature. To get there we drove for about two hours up a winding mountain dirt road then took a pump boat to get to the mouth of the river. A guide took us into the Underground River in a small boat and gave command of the spotlight to my dad. It was nearly pitch black in there. The stalactites and stalagmites were absolutely beautiful. On the other hand, the 40,000 or so bats were creepy. The guide assured us that cold droplets from the roof of the cave were simply water droplets... it was the warm splashes that you had to worry about.

After our river adventure we drove five hours to our next destination, the town of El Nido. What we didn't know is that the hotel we booked online was on the other side of the island, inaccessible by land. There is something to be said about traveling the vast ocean on a small pump boat in the dark of night. I am awe of the boatmen who spend their day to day navigating the seas by experience alone (even moonlight was scarce on this night). The "hotel" (actually a group of standalone huts lining the private shoreline) is run by a generator, which meant that electricity was only available from 6 - 11 PM. 

Day 9 & 10: El Nido
We spent the next two days island hopping, taking a pump boat to nearby snorkeling spots, hidden lagoons, caves, and other sights. The first day was characterized by unrelenting rain, though none of us really minded since we were bound to get wet at some point anyhow. Snorkeling in the pouring rain is an experience I'll never forget. We were treated to a completely different climate the next day, with clear skies and bright sunshine. I ended each day with a cool shower, a banana pancake, and a cold drink.

Day 11: El Nido - Puerto Princesa - Manila
We had to get up at 4:30 AM to make the five hour drive back to Puerto Princesa for our flight back to Manila. I more or less overlooked the electricity factor the evening before and paid for my lapse of judgment in the morning, fumbling around with my headlamp to collect my belongings. I was happy to come away with only one stubbed toe. We boarded a pump boat and were off ...until the boat skimmed a rock and the propeller went kaput. Groggy eyed and delirious, my exhausted body veered in two directions - I shot straight up and my heart sank - when one boatman stuck his head underwater and exclaimed to the other, "Na sira!" My understanding of Tagalog is elementary at best but even I knew that to mean, "It's broken." In the end, as all things go, everything worked out. The boatmen more of less performed a miracle (according to John, a contractor) and we were able to watch a beautiful sunrise. Laughing and making light of the situation with my brother at the back of the boat while being momentarily stranded in the middle of the ocean in pitch black conditions - with an alert three year old and my sister's mother-in-law praying feverishly -  is another event I'll likely never forget.

I am extremely thankful to have the opportunity to be taking such an incredible trip. I am also really grateful to start my trip off in the Philippines, my place of birth, and to share my first time experience with the rest of my family.

For those of you who stuck through to end of this post, I commend you. I'll try to write again soon so that the next post is not as cumbersome. Love and miss you all.

Ingat kayo,