Dubai, Taiwan, and the Philippines 2017

Two years ago I traveled to Chile and Argentina for one month. When I returned, I felt a desire to be far more proactive in my lady searches. Only a couple weeks after being home, I joined match.com and once again began the joyous activity of meeting ladies. Nothing scandalous happened.  It was as if there was some sort of invisible Puritan chaperone present. That said, my Puritan chaperone was at least accepting of the diverse backgrounds of my match.ladies (I’ll sell you that domain for $450). In order of their appearance, I went out with a Dominican, a Vietnamese, a Jewish American, a Chinese, and finally a Filipina. This was not intentional on my part. It just so happened that ladies outside of my cultural sphere found my receding hairline a must. But with my fifth date, my Puritan chaperone fell asleep and got drunk; for this fifth and important lady became my wife, a wife I like to call Pam.

For our honeymoon, we decided to visit Dubai, Taiwan, and her home country of the Philippines. The previous year we visited the Philippines where I met a battery of her relatives (which you can read about here) and was looking forward to my return.

Our trip was delayed a day due to a nor’easter rudely dumping about a foot of snow on our plans. This actually worked out okay since it allowed us to enjoy a classic New England winter day filled with snowshoeing, snow blowing, red wine by a fire, and a viewing of the recent cinematic remake of The Magnificent Seven. The next morning my neighbor brought us to the train station for which she received a bottle of red wine because in New England, in the winter, everything but our cars run on red wine.

After 12 hours of flight, we went from arctic conditions of snow and five-degree temperatures into a dry, comfortable 77 degrees in Dubai. This was our first time in the Middle East and given the recent travel bans enforced by the Trump administration, I was a little hesitant to come here. This concern quickly melted away as Pam and I boarded an immaculate, modern, and polite subway and found ourselves travelling through a city equally clean, modern, and polite.

The business hub of the Middle East, Dubai is an interesting place. The first hysterical thing we noticed in our hotel’s neighborhood was a concentration of Filipinos beaten only by Manila. They seemed to be working in every shop and hotel we passed. As it turns out, they represent about 21% of the city’s 2.4 million inhabitants. Pakistanis come in around 20%, Indians are also close to this number, and those actually from the UAE represent a small amount. As you looked around this modern, expanding city, it was hard to believe only 40,000 people lived here in the 1940’s. It was also hard to determine which came first: the modern day Dubai or George Lucas’s Coruscant.

Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Some animated Burj.

Later in our hotel room, Pam and I somehow pried ourselves away from an 80-minute nap that could have gone on for a lifetime. We took the Metro south to visit the manmade island of Palm Jumeirah. We boarded a monorail that travelled along the spine of the palm tree-shaped island. One quirky thing we noticed in some of the subway cars was the existence of a pink line on the floor with instructions dictating that women and children should be on one side of the car. At first pass, some women may not like this sexist segregated approach but believe me, the women’s portion of the car was consistently less populated and less odorous. I was always packed in with many dudes that together, smelled like some nervous unpopular geek’s armpit. In the ladies area, there was always enough room to ballroom dance or play roller derby.

On our way back, we ate across the street from our hotel at a wondrous Arabic restaurant named Al Shami. It was populated largely by locals and offered the best pita and hummus I’ve ever tangled with. After eight or nine hours of fairy tale sleep, we buffeted in the lobby. As I only do on my multi time zone trips, I drank coffee like a disgruntled high school teacher ten years from retirement in hopes of attaining that unspeakable kind of regularity, for during international travel, it seems your only two options are: 1) no movements or 2) movements beyond calculation.

We took the metro south, over Dubai Creek, disembarked and walked through the old quarter of the city that had been restored to the point it felt like we were walking through a museum. In a small souvenir shop, they were selling some Iraqi paper currency that had Saddam Hussein’s picture on it. I assume Saddam was alive during the initial circulation of the bills. He probably though it was very sexy to have his face on money. He probably could have gone up to anyone, grabbed the money out of their hands and screamed, “It’s mine!” But what he should have realized is that 99 times out of 100, if your face is on a monetary note, it probably means you’re dead. That said, let us consider it a bad omen to put our faces on money.

Gurl in the old town.

After paying way too much for coffee and tea at the well-known Arabian Tea House Café, we winded our way through the ridiculously packed Dubai Museum. Pam and I then braved the gauntlet at the Old Souk or market where shop owners aggressively sought our business. For whatever reason, it was the guys selling cashmere scarves that were the most ferocious. One would have thought or hoped that their disposition would have been as gentle and glorious to the touch as the fabric they were selling. The only way to get through this area was to pretend you were a hot chick determinedly walking through the halls of high school as dirty nerds approached you with invitations to a semi-formal dance. You had to keep your head down, walk fast and avoid eye contact. A couple days later, we made the mistake of entering a tiny jewelry shop in the same market and as we tried to leave, one of the employees literally stood in our path in the doorway.

Gurl in a lamp shop.

The more I walked around Dubai, the more I knew something was missing. It took me a few days but I finally realized what it was: I did not see or hear one single dog in the five days we were there. As far as cities go, this was a dramatic first. There were, however, many stray cats. Although I saw no rats, I saw rat traps everywhere. Perhaps the city encourages the stray cat population as a way of punishing the rat population.

Later the next day we went on a desert tour with Arabian Adventures. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Pam and I shared a Toyota Highlander with a Turkish couple and two young ladies from India. I looked around the inside of the vehicle and noticed two things: the handles above the windows were broken off and there were roll bars inside, reinforcing the top of the car.

When we eventually made it to the desert and our driver Sherin was unleashed, it became clear to me why the handles were missing and the roll bars were present. He drove up and down sand dunes in a way that caused legitimate fear. It was fantastic. What an incredible job these drivers have. All at the same time, they get to drive a car in a way we have always wanted to drive a car and they get to scare tourists. Fortunately, I had read a review on TripAdvisor that warned me not to eat a big meal before the desert drive. This turned out to be sound advice.

Then our Toyota and about 25-30 other Toyotas just like ours then pulled into a desert camp next to some large sand dunes. When we got out of the car, sand seemed to quickly find its way into every uncovered part of my body. It instantly made me appreciate the various desert outfits one might see on the desert planet of Tatooine. Until now, I thought the outfits were one of style and attitude but it turns out they are high in functionality due to their ability to protect you from sand.

Our desert camp and way too many Toyotas.

Pam and I grabbed some snowboards from a large bin and slowly climbed to the top of a large sand dune. Soon we found ourselves “sand boarding” down the dune at a pace that bordered awkward. Somehow I managed to make it all the way down the hill to the sound of a golf applause which originated from 15 or so spectators. When Pam reached the bottom, we took a very short ride on a smelly camel that was foaming at the mouth.

Gurl!

As the sun began to set, we first sat down in a large area and smoked a large apparatus called shishe which resembles a hookah. As the day faded, the many lanterns became more prominent. In the center of the camp was a huge carpet where a beautiful and exotic desert lady belly danced for a good 20 minutes after we finished our delicious meals.

Trying to get lit on the crazy desert bong but failing miserably.
Desert lady danced so fast at times she became pure energy. Lit up sand dunes in the background at no extra cost.

Soon after Sherin drove us back to Dubai and began to tell us how the UAE, particularly Dubai, is one of the safest places in the world with an incredibly low crime rate. He spoke proudly of the cleanliness of the city, the kind nature of the police, and the absence of taxes! There seemed to be sales taxes but apparently there’s no personal income tax. Gorgeous dancing ladies, no taxes, and desert drives that make you barf…whoever would have thought that heaven is located in the Middle East?

With all of this I have mentioned, I am forced to say that Dubai is an excellent place for Americans to start with the Middle East. Much of the Middle East seems perhaps a little too dicey for the average tourist. Given this and the fact that some Americans have a subconscious (in some cases, very conscious) aversion to Middle Eastern Muslim culture, Dubai makes the perfect place to experience that culture on its own turf. By doing so, I believe the average American will find themselves with an improved regard for Muslims in general.  And as a bonus, every person I spoke with had an impeccable handle on the English language.

The following day, Valentine’s Day, Pam and I metro’ed south to the Mall of the Emirates which boasted of an indoor ski hill. After looking at this novelty through a glass window, I noticed the novelty of it melting for me so we headed north again, bought some gifts in the old market and enjoyed a profound, romantic, multi-layered buffet at a noteworthy Japanese restaurant.

This is just silly.

The next morning, we went to the airport and boarded our flight to Manila. Waiting to pick us up was Pam’s mother, Andrea, and her driver/employee Marlon. On the way to the house we bought a sinful amount of food for only $12 at a restaurant that was supposed to be fast food but due to the longer waiting times, should more appropriately be called “moderately-paced food”. Because Pam and I are now romantically legit, we were shown to our own room at Andrea’s house. With barely the strength to cuddle, I did my best to satiate Pam’s ravenous cuddle needs before descending into a sleep so deep you could have fallen from the sky into my sleep and survived.

Although it was only Thursday, the next day was easy like Sunday morning. It was pure joy to return to the Philippines and the reassuring domestic surroundings of Andrea (and yes, because Pam and I married, I now get to respectfully refer to Pam’s mother as “Andrea” – membership has its privileges). After a few hours of little more than existing, Pam and I rode a tiny motorbike into town and did laundry. I was yet again receiving caring glances from some of the locals in this non-tourist town that pleasantly reminded me of my white skin. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Los Baños. It’s filled with a wide array of regular Filipinos doing regular things.

In the evening, Pam, Andrea (love being able to do that), and I visited Laguna Hot Springs as my enjoyment of it last year was well known. To remind you, this is the large spring bath that contains a hot spring at one corner where small tilapia fish kinkily nibble on your legs and feet. On the opposite corner lies a massage/bathing area where, if you’re lucky, the sturdy lifeguard will come off his throne and give you a vigorous massage bath for the world to see. I indeed was again victim to this man’s rough cleaning to the point I began to wonder if I somehow offended his unborn children.

The next day we rose at 3:45 AM and drove to the airport where we boarded a flight to Cebu with Pam’s sister Nikki and her four children: Diego, Bea, Kiara, and Siri. Cebu is one of the southern islands of the Philippines known for its beaches. We stayed on a tiny 25-square mile island named Mactan, right off the coast of and connected by two bridges to Cebu. Mactan has the distinction of being the most densely populated island in the Philippines.

That’s right, I bought a whole other airplane seat so dolly could have her own.
Okay, I guess I can see why some people become vegetarians.

The drive from the airport was a parade through an unbroken chain of tiny, rudimentary structures built close to the street. Makeshift motorized tricycles, pedicabs, small jeepneys or converted bus/vans, and people littered the street, causing our journey to be slow. The other thing that littered the area was litter. Not only was it a shame, it seemed an integral part of life here. After passing through the recurring scenes of relative poverty, we made it to the end of the island and a gate that lead into our hotel, Cordova Reef Hotel.

The hotel was an example of a slightly unfinished grand gesture. The raw building blocks of luxury were present but it lacked the organized execution. We soon discovered this 30 to 40 year old resort was built by a crony of former President and Dictator Marcos. The place seemed to reflect the time that this extremely controversial leader reigned and his abrupt departure. Now the new owners seemed barely able to maintain this old, wondrous, half-baked vision that flew too close to the sun.

The bathrobes were worn and tattered. The impressive stone work was cracking at the seams. The plumbing fixtures were old and caked with minerals. An original, built-in hairdryer hung on the wall and seemed to be designed with the intent of drying the hair of Buck Rogers. The sheets were provocatively thin from overuse. That said, our rooms were giant and the grounds peaceful so our stay remained positive.

On the way to dinner in pedicabs. Diego is psyched.

The next day we hired a boat that took us to a couple islands where we enjoyed snorkeling and eating. In the evening we ate at a small Swiss Italian restaurant that surprisingly offered some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had. The owner was a Swiss gent in his 60’s that was full of intelligence and theories that flirted with conspiracy. He claimed Hitler died at 100 in Argentina so perhaps you can decide how conspired his theories are.

At 6:30AM the next day, Pam, Diego, and I embarked on a grueling four-hour drive that took us on, yet again, a never ending trip through Filipino suburban chaos through the main island of Cebu. Our driver exercised equal parts of death wish behavior and fighter pilot control as he passed and dodged through a non-stop, four-hour river filled with every mode of human travel one could conjure.

Our destination was Kawasan Falls where the three of us unnecessarily risked our lives in a canyoneering adventure. After four hours of a near death van ride, jumping off cliffs seemed the logical next step. We met the guide at his house and then went three to a motorcycle on a 20-minute ride that somehow managed to maintain the same frivolous, cavalier view on life that defined things up until now. We slipped and struggled our way up sloppy, muddy mountain roads to the start point of our hike.

Twenty-five minutes later, our hike took us to a beautiful blue river located in a canyon whose cliffs ranged from 10 to 90 feet. The first jump into the river was next to a waterfall and appeared to be about 10 feet. Although not very dangerous, the first jump did still cause the inexperienced to pause. In front of us was a group of what looked like six young professional Filipinos from Manila. The last one of the group was incredibly scared and took a good five minutes at the edge to summon the stuff needed to plunge.

I jumped quickly but not without a tiny moment of hesitation. Although the intent was to build up gradually to higher jump heights, the highest jump happened to be right in this area so the guide beckoned me to do it. We climbed the 60 feet and again he nonchalantly asked me to jump. I politely told him I was not ready to tease gravity so boldly and declined. He then said okay and leapt off the cliff sideways with a scream like a complete lunatic and finally dove into the water with the familiarity one would have when opening a door.

With our life jackets on, we floated and swam downriver, going over natural slides formed by years of flowing water carving and smoothing out the rock. Every few minutes there were opportunities to further test our courage. Thankfully, the jump distances were increasing in a succession we could handle. In feet, the jumps roughly went as follows: 10…15…25…28…35…and finally 50! I’ve never cliff-jumped before so I looked like a nervous malfunctioning young girl with every jump except my last. That’s right, my last jump was performed with the panache and grace of a 13-year old boy that just received a “B” in wood shop.

Some pictures from Kawasan Canyoneering’s website to give you beauties an idea of what we were dealing with:

This is how the guides would jump off the cliffs. Maniacs.

All nonsense aside, it is hard to describe how wonderful it felt to successfully manage my fear. The sense of accomplishment at the end of the day was one that lingers still. If corporations, schools, and other organizations could somehow overcome the looming, potentially devastating degree of liability associated with this dangerous activity, they would find an amazing team-building activity that builds confidence and teaches one how to overcome doubt and fear. I told my recently added nephew of 16 years, Diego, how impressed I was that he made all of these jumps. I’m fairly certain I would not have done so at his experimentally young age, a point further proven by the fact he appeared to be the youngest person on this fairly busy tour. And to the issue of age, Pam and I appeared to be the eldest of all the jumpers at the experimentally sexy ages of 42 and 43.

It should also be noted that I found it hard to visually judge who would jump easily and who would find the process challenging. If you saw some of these brave jumpers walking on the street, you may have thought they would not have jumped off of a milk crate. You would have been fooled by their apparent softness and goofy walk. Or you may have made the opposite miscalculation. Taking part of the canyoneering tour was a very athletic, muscular, tan guy in his 30’s. When not at the cliff’s edge, his demeanor was confident and almost cocky and macho. When he was at the edge of the bigger cliffs, his struggle was clear.

This is one of the problems of being super fit that no one talks about: everyone looks at you and thinks you fear nothing and will attack any physical challenge without hesitation. At one of the 30-foot jumps, we were required to walk into it and jump out so we wouldn’t hit anything on the way down. This made the jump scarier. This poor macho man kept pacing back and forth from the edge and did his best to mask his fear while trying to coach himself into jumping. Finally, he peered over the edge and saw a woman swimming in the pool below. He shouted down to her, “Hey! You! Did you do this jump?!”

“Yes!” she shouted back.

With this he winced as his male pride just took a stab to the heart. I couldn’t tell if he was more upset that a woman made him inadvertently look like a pansy or if it was the simple fact that he asked her. By asking her, his doom was sealed. The only way to recover his manhood was to jump…which he did and he survived but not without allowing me to mock his paper-thin macho.

The final nugget I will leave you with on the canyoneering adventure was the almost macabre setting of the last jump. The final 50-foot plunge was located at Kawasan Falls which was a half mile or less from the main road which meant you had lots of people swimming, eating at rudimentary outdoor restaurants, and viewing the falls. This made Kawasan falls and the large pool around an intersecting point where the softer race I just described clashed with the more gnarly, battle-tested crew that fought and jumped their way through hours of river, jungle, and canyon. Because of this, the final jump had the feel of gladiators risking their lives in front of a privileged decadent class of patricians below who looked on, eagerly hoping that one of us would hit the water sideways with a loud slap.

Back in Los Baños, the Pamper (Pam) and I made every effort to relax after our most energetic sojourn in Cebu. We again took to the ancient but operational little motorbike through the cinematically crowded main street of Lopez Avenue. After dropping off 16 pounds of laundry that was eventually washed, dried, and folded for $4, we bought enough home-cooked food from a nearby restaurant to feed about four or five adults for $6! My American handyman salary continued to make me feel like Gordon Gekko at his most sinister peak.

Later in the day, we enjoyed massages from Minda, a masseuse that frequently visits Andrea’s house. How much does an incredible, hour-long, deep tissue massage from this skilled masseuse cost? Six bleepin’ dollars! Reason enough to visit the Philippines. Last year, Minda got wind (metaphorically) of my temporary inability to “move product” so while she massaged me, she began to rub my chin with three fingers and with a thick Filipino accent and limited English explained “for constipation”.

The following day, Pam, Andrea, and I boarded a boat to visit the historically rich and significant Corregidor Island. It was first named and armed by the Spanish in the 1500’s and served as a vital defense mechanism through WWII. It was captured by the Japanese from the Filipino-American forces in 1942 but was then recovered in 1945. Ten minutes before departure, for no apparent reason, various crew members began dancing in the aisles. Perhaps more impressive was the fact they were smiling during the act.

Once on the island, we boarded a trolley bus where we met our amazingly witty, sharp-tongued guide Armando. I was overjoyed to see how far he was willing to take a joke. At one point, he had us step on to a massive gun one by one. As we did, he pointed out the large counterweights that stabilized the weapon during firing, “You can see the 60 tons of counterweights…” at which point a large chubby gent stepped onto the gun platform, Armando added, “make that 61 tons.”

It’s like a weird casting picture for a lady auditioning to be in the opening credits of a James Bond film that was rejected but should have been accepted.
Get a job.
A large gun on Corregidor Island.
The small craters in this large gun supposedly caused by white phosphorus bombs that burned through metal.

Not all of his anecdotes were sassy though. He did share with us a touching story about how on one of his hikes through the island a few years ago, he found some dog tags of a fallen WWII American soldier. Armando somehow got these tags to the soldier’s last surviving relative, his younger sister who was now in her 80’s. The sister wrote Armando, thanking him, and telling how she was only 15 when her 19-year old brother died in the war. No one knew exactly where he died but now, 70 years later, the sister finally knew he died on Corregidor.

Mile Long Barracks – actually 1520 feet long and bombed to the point only this skeleton remains.
Sonny Crockett has his own battery on Corregidor. I never found Battery Tubbs though.
You’ve been warned.

Later on, we visited the location of the Japanese memorial. The first line of it read “A tribute to the brave Japanese…”. Interestingly enough, an American WWII veteran was on one of Armando’s tours some years ago and went over to the memorial , took out a pen knife, and scratched out the words “brave” and “Japanese”. He then supposedly proceeded to urinate on the memorial. When Armando confronted the man, the man explained he was a POW in a Japanese camp. Every day, he had to bow to a prison guard who then returned the bow with a full force slap in the face. If any prisoner was too weak or sick to work, he was slowly bayoneted to death. The American veteran said he had to helplessly watch several of his close friends be killed in this manner.

Here you can see the words scratched out on top, to the right side.
If you feel like you are about to have an extremely important, historical moment in your life, make sure you’re well-dressed and holding a pipe since they may eternalize that very moment in a statue.
The dock that General MacArthur reluctantly left Corregidor Island from during the Japanese invasion. Shortly after, he uttered his famous words, “I shall return.” Here we have Pam looking for General MacArthur to return. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he returned 72 years ago and the war is over.

The final stop was Malinta Tunnel which actually was a massive complex underground network of large tunnels that could fit up to 8000 men. As the Japanese attacked, American and Filipino forces shuttered themselves inside these tunnels for five months, often without electricity and surviving on limited supplies. When the American Filipino forces fought to retrieve the island three years later, it became the Japanese’s turn to hide in the tunnels. When it became clear they were about to lose the island, 2000 Japanese soldiers committed mass suicide by lighting a mixture of gas and napalm. Surrender was not an option.

Our next dramatic stop in our honeymoon was Taiwan. Even the getting there of it was dramatic due to the revelation at the check-in counter that Pam needed a visa to get into Taiwan! Damn it. Upon reflection, I handle one of our first f@$#-ups as a married couple quite well. Part of me wanted to yell at Pam for not having her needed documentation in hand but perhaps the recent trip to Corregidor forced me to keep this relatively tiny debacle in perspective. The short of it was that Pam had to stay in Manila while I went ahead to Taipei. Once she obtained her recently expired US visa from her house, she was able to gain entry to Taiwan. I know this sounds illogical but it’s the way it is. It felt wrong to leave Pam in Manila but we were trying to minimize the costs of travel changes and we were practically certain Pam would be able to follow me to Taiwan the following morning.

On the way to the airport, we saw this weird scene: a guy hastily strapped to a truck frame, whizzing down the highway. Our driver said this is how a nearby truck manufacturer tested their vehicles before completing them.

Taipei struck me as a reasonably modern, clean, possibly cosmopolitan city. The 25-mile highway from the airport to Taipei was a spectacle in itself. On the ground was a major highway with three to four lanes in either direction that was then flanked by an impressive two-lane skyway that often rose to eight stories above the ground. Also a spectacle was the popular male hairstyle of a near shaved head on either the temples alone or the temples around to the back. In either case, the shaved area was not the least bit tapered into the longer hair on top so the resulting look was a bunch of bald men walking around with shoddy toupees or what I like to call the Taipei Toupee. Maybe that’s how Taipei got its name: combining Taiwan and toupee…Taipei.

Once Pam arrived the next morning, we took a high speed train down to Taichung where we picked up a rental car and drove it to our incredible little boutique hotel, Skylight B&B, on Sun Moon Lake. Sun Moon Lake is home to the Thao aboriginal tribe that has been slowly and effectively marginalized in some ways by the Taiwanese government. It used to be that much of the land around Sun Moon Lake could only be owned by the Thao. The government eventually eroded this policy and now the more progressive Taiwanese have moved in and developed the area. Good to know the natives get screwed no matter where you go.

On the left we have a genuine smile in reaction to a genuine pout on the right.

Everywhere you looked, there seemed to be owls. They were in all the shops. One of the buildings even had an owl-designed top to it. The reason for all the owls is as follows: they’re paying homage to an old legend. The legend tells of a girl who disgraced her family with an unwanted pregnancy. They banished her to the forest where she eventually died. A hunter soon found her body, quickly went to the town, delivered the bad news to the parents, and told them they should retrieve the body so that they could bury it. When they went to the forest, the body was gone. In its place was an owl. From that point forward, every time a woman became pregnant in the village, an owl would appear on the top of the house. It was believed the owl was there to protect and bring good fortune to the expecting mother and her child.

Our incredible room at Skylight B&B with windows on three sides of the bed (kinky).
And our bathroom with Pam waving through a window that looked into the room (also kinky).

The more time we spent in Taiwan, two things continued to become blaringly obvious. The first was that the Taiwanese are generally quite friendly, eager to help, and engaging. Struggling to make sense of a menu in a restaurant void of even a morsel of English, a man immediately sensed our dilemma, came over to us and happily assisted our food order. The Taiwanese came across quite different from the Chinese. Their temperament struck me as more laid back. Although, I only speak two words of Mandarin, I can detect the different treatment the Taiwanese address this complex language with; it’s much softer and often at a lower volume.

The other thing Pam and I noticed is that I am one of very few white people on this jazzy island. My pale skin and red/brown/blonde/gray beard garners many double takes from the population, especially the cute children who have gloriously not yet learned the accepted international limits of staring at a foreigner.

A view from a restaurant where little to no English was spoken.

Pam and I continued our eastward campaign through narrow, twisting, ascending roads that rose so high they would have frightened us for days had we been able to see through the fog. To cap off the experience, we sat in 90 minutes of stand still traffic, or “pee-bottle” traffic as I call it since you are in traffic so long, you must pee in a bottle.

Part of the traffic cause was revealed at the peak. Due to our elevation, there were tiny bits of snow here and there. Obviously a somewhat rare occurrence for the average citizen of Taiwan, cars were pulled over everywhere as children and adults alike did their best to harvest the few precious bits of snow. I’m not sure how the craze began but it became clearly stylish to make small snowmen and place them on the bottom of your windshield or atop your vehicle. Long before we reached the top, many cars passed by us with these little white beasts hitching a ride.

After a top shelf drive through Taroko Gorge, we landed at our guest house, Li Wu Zuo Cun B&B. From there, we went to track down dinner, and for the second time, we were given directions to a couple restaurants that either didn’t exist or were mysteriously closed. We did stumble upon a tiny local place that again allowed us the pleasure of trying to place an order with menus that contained no English or pictures and staff that contained no English or pictures. Through a waitress’ scan and translate app on her phone and me pointing at other patron’s food like a maniac, we were able to get that dinner thing done.

Taroko

Two other things I’ve noticed in Taiwan: 1) I’m the only person drinking beer wherever it may be that I find myself drinking beer and 2) the garbage trucks sound like ice cream trucks; they play loud happy music as they roll down the streets collecting trash.

We ascended high on a mountain and took a picture of our car far below (circled in pink).
Sea cliffs and interracial romance.

When we arrived, Daro the husband seemed a touch agitated. A couple days later, his welcoming, kind wife May informed us that Daro’s ancestors were part of the Taroko aboriginal tribe. This tribe used to celebrate and reward when males would cut off other people’s heads. Perhaps this explains Daro’s agitation. Perhaps he is annoyed that modern lawmakers typically make no legal allowance for head removal. Either way, I was glad this story was channeled to us the day we checked out. And upon reflection, besides his extremely short-lived sour mood, Daro was nothing but civilized and gentile during our stay. Not once did I see a head rolling around on the floor.

After a three-hour standing room only train ride from Hualien to Taipei, we returned to our original hotel, The Bee House, a nifty little hotel outfitted in a well-orchestrated bee theme. Although ultimately undesirable, it would have been clever if their wakeup call was simply releasing a hive of angry bees into your room. Pam and I walked around the city and through a night market hosting innumerable street vendors offering delicious food borne illnesses. Pam and I settled on a Korean restaurant that served food in hot pots that remained too hot to eat from the first bite through the very last.

A quick aside, it appears that old people are allowed to cut lines in Taiwan whenever they wish and no one challenges it. Who knows, maybe old people in Taiwan carry weapons and curses that scare the remaining population into accepting their illegal line cuts.

Wholesome artwork in an elevator.

Our last day in Taiwan started with a visit paid to a park/memorial/museum dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese military and political leader from 1928 through 1975. In addition to fighting Japanese advances, he spent most of his career battling the Communist movement within China and was forced to do so from exile in Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975. We were able to take in the well-rehearsed if not robotic changing of the guard that started with an almost comical, slow procession of three soldiers on a lower floor to an elevator. The same slow, odd procession carried out of the elevator a few floors up to relieve the current guards.

Inside the Chiang Kai-shek memorial.
Changing of the guard.

After getting into a silly fight about shopping that made Pam cry, we acknowledged our over-traveled conditions and continued our walk through the city. Taipei appears to be a never-ending collection of shops that approach the impossible in terms of quantification. I couldn’t help but ponder the average life expectancy of these shops. And I don’t know how exactly you could describe the location of them since getting to many involved hidden alleys, dimension portals, and luck.

Lungshan Temple, Taipei
A wonderful sign on a Taipei subway car.

Back in the Philippines, Pam and I decided to take a day trip to a nearby resort by the name of Hidden Valley Springs. Although it was a mere five to six miles away as the crow flies, the drive there took over an hour due to the garden variety of wild elements that make up any Filipino land travel experience: back roads that feel like private driveways, Jeepneys slowly heading in and out of traffic, motorized tricycles and motorbikes darting in all directions. Per usual, the overcrowded, hectic life just bleeds right into the streets without any distinction.

At one point, a guy was rotating all of his tires on a part of the road that was perhaps initially intended to be another driving lane but has since been usurped by all imaginable activities except driving. Absent from the man or any of the passerby’s was a concern over the inconvenience that may have resulted from this roadside activity. Further down the road, a man stood in the potential travel lane, facing the oncoming motorists, holding a puppy with one hand high in the air, offering it either to the passing cars or the traffic gods. The moment was like some twisted, backward version of when Simba was lifted high in the air in Lion King.

Hidden Valley Springs was for the wealthy Filipinos, Chinese, and Korean tourists. It cost about $50 to simply spend the day (to spend the night, it cost $300 or the cost of 50 massages). This allowed you to swim in their naturally sourced pools located in the jungle and to swim in their generous buffet lunch. One thing I found amusing was a sign located at all of the pools that said “No Spitting On The Pool”. I later found out that this sign was directed mainly at Chinese tourists who apparently like to fill their free time with spitting on/in pools.

A couple days later, Pam and I enjoyed a fantastic party held in the honor of our recent award-winning marriage at her aunt’s charming function facility. I put together a slide show containing pictures from our small wedding and from various points in our lives. For good measure, I included a picture of myself dressed as my Barry Tattle character. Thinking it would garner a lively reaction from the crowd, people digested the image  in quite an average, serene manner as if to say, “Oh, it’s world famous Barry Tattle. I guess it makes sense to have his picture in a marriage-themed slide show.”

This picture is to remind myself I now have Asian in-laws too! Great! Kiara’s turn to be psyched.
Come on Pam.

It was also at this party that one of Pam’s cousins taught me some unbelievably offensive words and phrases in the language of Tagalog. He had me repeat them to a large group of Pam’s Filipino relatives ranging in age from 20 to 80 and each one nearly crippled themselves with laughter as I nonchalantly stumbled my way through this foreign-tongued filth.

Two gents that are simultaneously smoking cigars and smoking hot.
Hear no fella, see no lady.

The next day Pam and I drove south to the touristy lake area of Tagatay. Her friends were kind enough to get us a room for a night at a nice boutique hotel that offered powerful views of Taal Lake far below. As part of our stay at the Theodore Hotel, we also had a couple’s Swedish massage. We were both thoroughly scandalized by two ladies whose hands were equal parts busy and strong. As Pam said, a massage was needed after this massage. These ladies were out for blood and my butt apparently (gurl helped herself to more handfuls than anyone I’ve ever dated).

The next day we drove down to the lake. As we turned down the road, a man ran over to our car trying to sell us some sort of tourist service. We said no thank you and after 25 minutes of descending and winding roads, we reached the shore road that wrapped around Taal Lake. The very moment we turned onto this road and drove along the shore, men morphed out of nowhere like agents from The Matrix from both sides of the road, screaming out “BOAT RIDE!”, trying sell us boat rides through the lake. I had not experienced such an aggressive tourist gauntlet like this in the Philippines. One guy that drove towards us on a tricycle holding a sign that said “Boat Ride” shouted those words as we passed him. He then turned his tricycle around and began chasing us!

Later, when we parked our car at an incredibly dumpy and ill-maintained park, more of these tourism hawks attacked the instant we opened the car door trying to sell us a multitude of tourism services. Everywhere I went, I felt like someone stapled a raw steak to my face and threw me out into a pack of hungry dogs.

Nothing to see here…just a couple of modern lovers in Tagatay.

The next day I left the Philippines and began a door-to-door trip home that took 30 hours, 22 hours of which was in an airplane. Sadly, I had to leave my lady behind as we frustratingly continue the battle of gaining an H1B visa that will allow her to live in the US and work for Boston University. Although Trump may have thrown us a nasty curve ball into the H1B visa process by suspending the expedited H1B visa that Pam is pursuing, my take on the immigration process is that it stinks no matter who is in office and the more you play by the rules, the more you get punished.

There were no tears when we parted at the curb outside the airport but when we spoke on the phone right before I boarded the plane, she cried to the point I began to wonder how she hadn’t short-circuited her cell phone. It was the second time I made her cry on the trip but for very different reasons. Later she texted and reassured me that her condition had vastly improved.

As I told her she should, she soon immersed herself in a sea of positive distractions back in the Philippines. Activities like preparing a mini science course for her mother’s Montessori students, Tai Chi, visiting her sister’s family in Manila, meeting with friends, Zumba, and others have kept my lady in good form. We continue to remain in touch and look forward to the day we get to exercise our God-given rights as a married couple.

Philippines and Japan 2016

One moment I find myself waiting for a train in the dark with snow falling and only 18 degrees to keep me company and another moment, I find myself with a surplus of sun and 87 degrees, waking up from a nap to the sounds of 25 five-year olds singing songs in Tagalog while a man accompanies on guitar.

I’m in a bedroom above a nursery school and the children are in a small covered courtyard of a Montessori pre-school that serves 100 children. The school is owned by Pam’s (my Filipina lady) mother. We’re in Los Baños which is a town located about an hour southeast of Manila in the Philippines. The school and residence are down a small street off a busy street that, in Southeast Asian fashion, is more densely saturated with shops than the busiest of malls. You will literally miss one of these shops if you blink as you walk by, even at a sad man’s pace.

Down Pam’s street, the one she moved to when she was 16, the utility wires above look like an angry pile of black spaghetti running from pole to pole, with a stray noodle hanging down to the ground here and there. Everywhere you look, there are people who are busy merely existing. I look at many of these ambling citizens and have no idea what they do and it thrills me. America is full of people that love to put on a coat of purpose before they leave their house but not here. Folks here have clearly mastered the art of chilling. But like agents of The Matrix that morph into a random person from out of nowhere to complete a task, a random person that appears to be part of the generic field of citizenry will come to life as if taken control by an invisible agent, grab a wheel barrow, shovel some earthly matter into it and carry it away to a place that hopefully has use for it.

So this is what I love about travel in the modern age, quickly being transported from one environment to a very different one.

But this does not stop me from detesting the whole travel process…

The babies. A human very early in its development seated nine rows away cries for 10 of the 17 hours on the plane bound for Hong Kong (but crying that is spread out over the entire journey so the little turd may have as well cried inside my brain for the rest of my life).

The jetlag. Ironically, I was watching the new James Bond film Spectre and was reminded of the most ludicrous element of spy films. No one ever gets jetlag. I adore the way a character will be in a chase in St. Petersburg, crash into a cop car, climb out of a flaming auto wreck, lay out a couple local police chumps with some karate chops, sneak onto an airplane through the landing gear as it’s taking off, manage to get a seat in first class, fly to Hawaii, and then trot off the plane like they spent a weekend in the most exclusive European spa.

The airplane farts. Even if you or anyone in the three-seat radius of you did not have any of their own (unlikely), you always end up smelling like a barrel of airplane farts by the journey’s end.

This trip was unique due to having a “lady in tow” or more accurately expressed, “a special lady in tow”. Either way, it was great to do my yearly long sojourn with Pam, to share in her excitement as we headed to the Philippines for two weeks so we could spend time with her mother and sister (and eventually her extended family at a reunion). At the end of the two weeks, Pam would return to Boston and I would carry onto Japan for 11 days and then back to the Philippines for nine more days where I would visit a remote group of islands called Batanes.

For now I was slowly acclimating myself to my new sultry surroundings and time zone which was all greatly glorified by the casual but effective hospitality of Pam’s mother and housekeeper, Susan, whose cooking awoke parts of me I knew not existed.

On the second day, Pam and I took an odd-looking vehicle called a “jeepney” that looked like a bus to the base of the nearby modest mountain named Mount Makiling. Makiling is located on the campus of University of Philippines Los Baños, Pam’s alma mater just a 15-minute walk from her house.

Mount Makiling’s Mud Spring never knew it would play a part in the most vicious picture ever taken…
…or most tender.

These jeepneys I mentioned are everywhere. They look like American jeeps but are extended with bench seating and are boarded in the rear. They are often shiny and colorful with entertaining lights and designs. The sides are open, allowing passengers to inhale generous amounts of diesel fumes and other pollution lingering about. When you take your seat, you pass your money down the line until it reaches the driver who sits in a cockpit riddled with more blind spots than an advanced Glaucoma patient. He (that’s right, I only saw male drivers – ladies are too smart to do this job) then counts your change and hands it back to you while driving.

The grill on this jeepney is precious.

That afternoon, Pam’s mother drove us to a hot spring called Laguna Springs. The spring itself was at one corner of a large pool surrounded by a covered eating area and hotel. One great feature of the spring and pool was that it was filled with small tilapia that, if you remained still, would come up to you and nibble at your legs and feet. I believe they were feeding on dead skin cells which makes me want to never eat tilapia again unless it was guaranteed that the tilapias were feeding on legs as sexy as mine (unlikely).

The other bold component of Laguna Springs was that at the other end, where the spring water exited into a massive lake, there was an area where two contradictory things happened: 1) you could receive a massage and body wash, and 2) children swam. Now, when I agreed to a massage, I thought it would be performed by a lady in a room and not involving a wash but instead, I got placed on a ledge next to the water, seven feet from playing and swimming children. Looking for my masseuse, I turned my attention to the lifeguard chair where a young man was exiting his station and walking over to me. Good Lord. He came over and proceeded to not only massage me in front of children but wash me as if I were an impudent toddler.

Things got real hectic when he laid me down on my stomach, pulled my shorts down to the point that I looked like a veteran plumber and washed my upper ass. What kind of lifeguard is this?! He was supposed to guarding my life and up until now, he only brought danger into my life. And what were these poor Filipino children thinking…“Damn white people, stop coming to our country and showing us your butts!”

Hungry, naughty tilapia feasting on my legs (circled in yellow).

The next day, Pam, her mother, and I were driven to Caliraya by Pam’s mother’s driver/employee, Marlon. The first order of business was eating an epic meal at a restaurant named Halo Halo. We all sampled their signature dessert drink which combined coconut, ice cream, beans, and various fruits that were previously fried in sugar. It was complex but memorable.

A weird clock I saw in Caliraya. I’ve never seen a clock created with the purpose of promoting one show.

From there we drove up a small mountain to a man-made lake and hired a boat with a driver for an hour. At the other end of the lake was an odd, gaudy, decaying compound that could have been a beauty but instead came off as the grounds of a drug lord with mediocre taste that was imprisoned four years ago and lost all of his friends and family. I was told the property was private and owned by an old general. That said, it came as a neat surprise when we were allowed to land our boat on their dock and walk around since the general was elsewhere.

Please take note of the tasteful, plastic, naked ladies.
The REAL tasteful ladies (not made of plastic either).

On our way back, Pam and I were dropped off at a railroad crossing for a rail line that was narrow and so decrepit looking I assumed it was abandoned. Apparently, trains still ran a couple times a day here. While the trains were not running, young men pushed very simple trolleys that were essentially a wooden bench on wheels along the tracks with a few passengers on them for small money. Pam and I boarded one and were pushed along for about a mile.

Boarding the train trolley bound for Tender Town.

As we glided along, we were flanked by tiny hovels populated by happy squatters that would smile and wave at us. When a trolley came the other way, the trolley with fewer passengers would stop and the driver would lift the trolley off the tracks so the other could pass. At one point, the trolley paused over a very narrow bridge that took us over a 30-foot deep gorge giving us a wonderful Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom mine cart sensation.

I still couldn’t get over the fact a real train traveled on this line and sincerely hoped our trolley driver had mastered the current train schedule as we would have fared poorly in a collision. I was also amazed by the proximity of the smiling squatters.

 

A quick aside, being in the Philippines reminded me of a phenomenon that seems to exist in the world. The more “worlds” your country has, the more barking dogs it seems to have.  So a Third World country has more dogs than a First World country. I’m not sure how many worlds the Philippines has but if you were to base its world status on barking dogs alone, it would have to be classified as a Sixth World country. If the Philippines is truly a Second World country, then perhaps we are witnessing a potent anomaly.

Correction: it should read “hundreds of thousands” in the parentheses.

That night, Pam’s sister Nikki came to the house with her three daughters Bea, Kiara, and Siri. Also in their group was their driver Jun and nanny Belle. The next morning we all boarded Nikki’s small box truck that had been divinely converted into a sort of camper/travel van and headed to a family reunion. We first made a stop at the recent burial site of Pam’s father. He passed away shortly after the first date Pam and I had. Pam spent three weeks with her father towards and after the end. Although we had only one date, Pam continued to text me during that time, searching for some comical, witty banter that would help take her mind off her sorrows. There was a second date after she returned so my banter must have been useful.

Nikki’s ride or the “Filipino Mystery Machine”.

The remainder of the trip made me understand why so many people in the Philippines hired drivers. The traffic we drove through was not only thicker than Burt Reynold’s mustache, it was wilder than Friedrich Nietzsche’s mustache. Every vehicle you can imagine that has wheels was dodging in and out with prehistoric disorganization. Driving here requires nerves of steel-coated diamonds, a stern rejection of fatigue, and the patience of an inner city mother.

Burt Reynold’s beauty.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s wild glory.

Once we were at the reunion, we ate like spoiled conquerors and I met a myriad of uncles, aunts, and cousins. When the eating finished, the ladies literally did a Zumba class (please savor the video proof).

 

That night we drove back in our Autobot leisure vehicle to Nikki’s house. Again we tasted legendary traffic. It was so bad, my bladder near burst in response to all the water and beer I consumed earlier. Nikki actually gave me their emergency plastic pee bottle “For Men” but when I looked around and saw Pam, Nikki, Nikki’s daughters, I just couldn’t pull the proverbial pee trigger. We eventually pulled into a gas station and I soon experienced a euphoria that is better than eating dark chocolate while receiving a promotion.

With the manners of a groomed British gentleman and the haircut of an Asian warrior, Nikki’s husband Jake made his introduction to me to me at his home. Nikki, Jake, the three little ladies, and their 15-year old son Diego lived in a recently built cozy affair located above their acupuncture office. A couple hours later, I was sharing a snug bedroom with Diego, Pam’s mother, and Pam. Because life is often perfect, I found myself falling asleep to the sounds of Diego practicing his card tricks four feet away and late into the night.

In the morning, we boarded the Mystery Machine and were dropped at the airport. An hour later, we touched down in the island of Palawan. A short van ride brought us to our hotel for the next three nights: Acacia Tree. In search of a beach, Pam, Diego, and I took the first of many “tricycle” rides to “Pristine Beach”. Tricycles are flimsy, often rusting metal carriages attached to the side of a motorcycle. They’re tiny, uncomfortable and full of an undeniable and inexpensive Third World flavor. And by the way, Pristine Beach, was a name void of accuracy. The beach offered little more than smoking, Speedo-clad European filth.

The back of a racy tricycle. And yes, I’m unbelievably white.

That evening, all of us toured through some mangrove forest in small paddle boats to view fireflies. Due to the surroundings, breezes, darkness, and horny insects, Pam and I did our very best to sneak in a few cuddles. Not even our smart-ass tour guide picked up on our hidden arts of G-rated affection.

The next morning we started in on a three-island tour that involved snorkeling, swimming, and diving off those really fun, high, bouncy diving boards that seem to not exist anymore in the US due to our country’s desire to suck the life out of life. As great as the fish watching was, I was more awed by the solitary, tall, pickled, smoking, slightly over-sunned, drastically over-partied white guy in a Speedo that was often seen moving through each island with a subtle lack of purpose and decency. If yesterday’s “Pristine Beach” ever decided to print up its own marketing literature, this beast would have been on every page. Usually such creatures travel in groups since at some point, one of them will need to bum a light off the other. You can imagine my excitement when I spotted this lone wolf.

In your mind, try to envision that nasty Speedo guy stumbling around the palm trees.

The other highlight of the trip was little 2 ½ year-old Siri’s fondness of me. She was told to call me “Tito Chris” (Uncle Chris) but all she could get out was “‘to ‘tiss”. Every time I came within a 20-foot radius of this splendid little squirrel, all I would here is “’to ‘ tiss!! ‘to ‘tiss!!”

“What can I tell you?” Jake said. “Siri likes white boys. She has a real colonial mentality.”

Little Siri…complete with Neil Diamond’s early 80′s hairdo.

The next day’s tour brought us to an underground river that was full of darkness and dropping bat shit. The other activity we enjoyed was zip lining off a high point in the jungle over a stunning bay. It ended with an absolutely unwarned, abrupt, spine-crushing stop.

A fraction of a moment before spine damage.
Entrance to the Underwater River.

After everyone went to sleep, Jake and I enjoyed a beer in the open-aired lobby/bar area. Thirty minutes later, a tall, thinner, kind of handsome, more arrogant version of Thor arrived with two ladies in a tricycle. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the driver it was okay to pay in Taiwanese currency, he asked us for change in a demanding tone. We turned Thor down, forcing him to collect the fare from his drunken broads. To save face, he picked up the black feral hotel cat and cuddled and kissed it while he smoked a cigarette under a leftover Valentine’s Day decoration that simply said “LOVE” in giant letters. After squeezing out every last drop of love from kitty and probably contracting gonorrhea of the face, he walked over to the pool, removed all of his clothes and skinny-dipped like a 70’s tennis club pro.

Sadly I don’t have a picture of Thor but hopefully this shot of Palawan locals riding on top of a bus will ease your pain.

A couple days later, back in Los Baños, Pam and I decided to climb Mount Makiling with her cousin Chris. The 1100-meter peak stood watch over the town and was as much a part of the local scenery as the traffic. We met our guide Henry who was to lead us on our eight-kilometer campaign of pleasure to the peak.  The initial part of our ascent was on road that was slowly being redone. It was interesting to note the techniques being employed by the workers since they had far less money and resources than a comparable American construction crew. For example, the tar that was used to seal the concrete joints was heated over a small wood fire and then gently poured by hand from a bucket into the joints that were cleaned with a small broom made from some sort of plant stalks.  In the US, I’m sure there’s some machine that cleans the surface and then accurately applies hot tar that was heated within the machine itself, all in a ¼ of the time.

A little further on, we came upon some extremely rudimentary shops and a village. Henry told me that the children here had to wake up at 2AM so they could make the long walk to school in time. Incredible.

Henry was one of seven rangers that watched over Makiling and its protected lands. One of their duties was to report illegal logging which, at first, I thought this would be petty, disorganized crime. Then I thought of the countless roadside furniture dealers selling impressive wooden pieces and realized this activity may be larger in scale. I listened as Henry described how the loggers, armed with guns, would have someone on lookout further down the mountain while they cut down trees.

What really chilled me was the story he shared of his close forest ranger friend who was about to testify against some illegal loggers but was shot to death before he had the opportunity. It was sad and strange when Henry even knew the caliber gun (a .45) that killed his friend. This illegal logging was something that clearly involved powerful people.

We made it to the top in three hours and 45 minutes but not before dodging poisonous, rash-inducing plants and skanky leeches. I removed three or four from my shoes but the guide found at least 15 on his body. As Henry went first on the trail, he inadvertently gathered the lion’s share of these little bastards on himself. For this fact alone he earned his pay.

Hiking Makiling…
…more Makiling…
…I swear this is the last one.
Oh boy.

The next day Pam’s sister Nikki arrived in Los Baños. Nikki, Pam, cousin Chris, and I drove an hour to the town of Pagsanjan with the desire of “shooting the rapids”. This involved being paddled up the Pagsanjan River in two boats that were each manned by two guides. The guides paddled, dragged, and pushed the boat up river which often turned into mild rapids and finished at a laguna where a large waterfall thundered into the water. Here we boarded a bamboo raft that was slowly guided through the falls where we were pounded like Rocky in his first fight with Clubber Lang.

Shooting those darn rapids.

On the way up and down, the guides would swing a leg out of the boat to the right or left and somehow push off an irregularly-shaped rock that passed by with admirable timing and athleticism. The other performance they gave was one in acting. I was warned beforehand that they might put on a show of fatigue and desperation in hopes of earning more tips. Sure enough, the guide in the back moaned like an unsuccessful whore which is ironic since at one point he exclaimed, in Tagalog and to no one in particular, “Your mother is a whore!”

To the left of my head (which is not nearly as bald as it looks in this damn picture) is the waterfal we got pounded under.

For lunch, we stopped at the same restaurant from last week, Halo-Halo. Eating here reminded me of how this trip contained a constant effort of trying to find a way of offsetting the unbelievable amounts of not just meat but fatty, fried meats. So whenever a group of us ordered multiple plates to share, I became the one who, in efforts to bring balance to the food force, ordered a vegetable dish. In the US, if you order a dish under the heading of “Vegetable”, you can expect to have vegetables and only vegetables in that dish. However, no matter what vegetable dish you order in the Philippines, they love to sneak in pork. The Philippines loves pork. They love it so much they will eat every part of it. I have eaten a pig’s intestines, feet, and face in the past week alone. And they will not tell you that there is pork in the “vegetable” dish; it’s up to you to assume its presence. The only place I have not found pork here is inside coconuts but I’m sure the nearby agricultural institute is working hard to resolve this alarming trend.

And oh, during the drive home, we stopped to pose for pictures with wooden sculptures of Iron Man and Thor (the real Thor…not the crappy, feral cat-kissing Thor from Palawan).

And we also rode the Los Baños Express again!

 

Another truth of this wonderful country that finally became clear to me was the Philippines is one of the best countries in the world for English-speaking Westerners to visit. It has all the vibrance that strikes a westerner as a continuous bombardment of oddities on the senses but it also has a population that speak better English than any other non-English-speaking country I have ever been to. The US and the Philippines also have two religions in common: that of Catholicism and that of basketball. Basketball is all over the television. It has more time on TV than repeat episodes of Friends. I found myself in the remotest of villages and still I would find a basketball court.

That night, Marlon drove Pam, Pam’s mother, cousin Chris, and I to Aunt Odette’s home in the posh neighborhood of West Grove. Once again, I was surrounded by Pam’s extended family. At one point, Pam’s aunt Angela challenged me to eat the mind-blowing delicacy known as “balut”. Balut is simply a duck embryo you eat in a style of your choosing. Some like to suck the yolk out and then eat the duck embryo afterwards but either way, I was going to stand firm on my balut refusal. Still, Angela held a balut in her hand and taunted me, “If you love Pam, you’ll eat the balut!” The entire gang roared in excitement and laughter at this challenge but still I carried on with my balut strike.

Irony is often impatient and wishes to party promptly.

I’ve never played poker in my life. When all of Pam’s extended family decided to play, I chose to watch the game. After 90 minutes of watching them play, they asked me if I wanted to join. I warned them I would need to play with a cheat sheet and they were happy to accommodate my novice ways. As I began playing, I quickly realized that half of poker was understanding the psychology of your opponents. After carefully watching these players (many of whom were very experienced), I had a decent measure of each person’s personality and how they might behave under certain circumstances.

So now I was swimming in a shark tank full of carnivorous Filipino poker veterans. At some point shortly after midnight, I miraculously managed to win the entire game. I was the surprise victor of a whopping 1100 Filipino pesos or $21. As luck would have it, this was the exact amount needed to pay for Pam’s delayed Valentine’s Day gift, a Zumba instructor for her Zumba party. And I would be lying if I said that part of these earnings did not also help to secure beer and laxatives.

The other thing perhaps better than winning the money was watching the faces of these experienced poker players as they were beaten by a guy using a poker cheat sheet. And like that, I was avenged for my previous balut grilling.

Poker Dominator surrounded by his lovely opponents, his earnings, and of course, his lady.

 

A couple days later, Pam and I made our way to Tagatay where we viewed the large lake from the very high point that was President Marcos’ unfinished mansion. Marcos was a dictator that decided to hold onto his elected office for 20 years. He instituted martial law but possibly worse is the fact that his wife owned 3000 pairs of shoes. The greatest opponent of Marcos was Ninoy Aquino who upon returning from exile was shot to death. Through peaceful protests, Marcos was eventually removed and the wife of Aquino, who was a housewife up until this point, was encouraged and ultimately elected as the next president. Today, Aquino’s son is the President of the Philippines and to top it off, Manila’s international airport is named after Ninoy Aquino which sounds cool until you melt with frustration in your car as you drive one mile in one hour to get from one terminal to the next in Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Our driver then took us 20 minutes to Jake’s family’s pig breeding farm in Alfonso. When we entered the gate, our vehicle was greeted by a car wash to control incoming contaminants (I think) and a man with a shotgun that smiled a lot. Once inside, I reconnected with Diego, Bea, Kiara, and Siri (the little magical lady that referred to me as “’to ‘tiss”). Naturally, my next move was to ride a small horse. This was followed by an informal but informative tour of the grounds by Diego. I was amazed by the lack of odor. Diego told me that all of the pig’s aftermarket products were stored in an enclosed area that created biogas which powered parts of the farm. As we walked through all of the pens, I could hear soft rock playing over a stereo system which was to soothe the pigs. Pig farms…where all soft rock goes to die.

Gurl getting rowdy on her horse.

This horse looks like Tina Turner.

The day Pam and I left, it hit me. Susan would no longer be there to cook incredible meals and provide a clothes washing service better than the finest overpriced European washing machines (she scrubbed them by hand). I felt doomed and sad. Part of me wished to move to the Philippines since most home service staff was priced so low, it was easy to feel like a Victorian business tycoon.

Our driver Orlando dropped Pam at her terminal first where we offered each other a goodbye that was equals parts tender and genuine. I got back in the car and became quickly ecstatic that my flight didn’t leave for another four and half hours as the mile we had to travel to my terminal took us about 35 minutes.

I’m glad I’m not a utility worker in the Philippines.

Later that evening, my plane landed in Osaka, Japan. From there I took a train up to Kyoto and a cab to my hotel for the next seven nights, Eco and Tek Hotel. On this and all other train rides I experienced, every single conductor was dressed with the regality and precision of a naval Admiral and when they left a train car, they would turn to face the passengers and respectfully bow.

My room was small but very clean and comfortable and tucked away in a charming residential neighborhood. In line with most others in Japan, my toilet was more advanced than a PET scan machine. There were all kinds of buttons with Japanese instructions that did God knows what. I do know that my toilet seat was unnaturally warm and if I was feeling frisky, I could press a button that would pressure-wash that which offends most.

The next day I spent seven hours simply walking around the city, visiting Chion-in Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Shijo dori Street, the old downtown area including Nishiki Market and Ponto-cho. Nishiki Market is a 500-meter barrage of vendors assaulting you with incredible, fresh, and sometimes bold answers to hunger. One of the boldest options was tiny octopi whose heads were stuffed with a quail egg. I nearly boarded a plane home when I saw this but later, when I saw a television program about the overweight cats of overweight sumo wrestlers, I decided Japan was for me.

From a restaurant in Kyoto: the oddest product description I have seen on a towelette wrapper.

In the entrance of the long, narrow neighborhood of Ponto-cho, a sign in English discussed its unique past. According to the sign, in the 1700’s, it became a “gay community”. Believe it or not, some person or persons tried to rub off the word “gay”! I haven’t consulted MIT or NASA on this but I’m fairly certain gayness is here to stay, even if we try to rub the word off signs. Or maybe I’m interpreting this wrong; maybe so many people have lovingly touched the word “gay” over the years that it has started to wear off.

The other thing that struck me was just how different Japan was from the Philippines. In the Philippines, the pollution of every kind (noise, air, litter) was not able to be ignored. Every time a jeepney lurched forward, an inefficient belch roared from the engine and a blast of dark smoke fled from the tailpipe. Trash seems to be found more often on the ground than in the trash cans. Stray barking dogs seem moments away from performing a violent, successful coup of human society but in the meantime seem content with crapping everywhere. The driving styles are erratic at best and just ten seconds behind the wheel would give a westerner an ulcer. Many of the homes are thrown together with whatever used materials are lying about, giving it the feel of the movie set of Mad Max. People walk out into traffic, illegally, trying to cross through a steady stream of unpredictable drivers but who can blame these vigilante pedestrians when they receive virtually no respect from drivers when legally trying to pass through a crosswalk.

A construction site in the Philippines is typically a haphazard and sloppy affair that may be worked on one day but abandoned for a week. The air in the Philippines seems to be constantly filled with the sounds of shouting people, dogs, chickens, loud engines, and too many other things to name. The toilets in the Philippines are often, in a word, grim. A respectable house or business will be fine in this regard but the instant you find yourself relying on the public domain for the servicing of your movements, I will weep for you.

In Japan, all is clean, when a car drives, it is barely heard and no visual effects are detected. Litter is scarce and the urban waterways seem to be sourced from God’s water fountain. As of yet, I’ve seen only two dogs and they were both the size of large cats, on leashes, silent as monks, and wearing perfectly fitting T-shirts. The driving is logical and organized and there appears to be a purveying air of respect on the road. All structures seem well-constructed and immaculately maintained like the set of Truman Show or the picture of a completed structure on a Lego box. Most everyone strictly observes the pedestrian signals (including the drivers!). The construction sites here have the look and feel of an expensive manicure; it’s contained and flanked with flaggers holding lit rods and wearing vests with blinking lights. There is an economy of noise in the air. No one shouts. It is a great place to sleep. And as I mentioned before, the toilet experience here is filled with so much wonder and dimension, they deserve their own cable TV station to properly represent and explore this profound facet of Japanese culture (and that goes for the public toilets which are never in short supply).

But if you were to ask me which place I like better, I would not know how to respond. Japan’s culture is something that rightfully demands your admiration. It is like a perfectly engineered clock that never falters. The citizens are well-mannered, respectful, and polite. The pursuit of perfection is seen everywhere and once being here, it is plain as day why they are a powerful nation given their limited resources.

With the Filipinos, everything is easy. As cousin Chris’ American fiancée noted, if the original plan fails, Filipinos rarely get upset. They quickly and nonchalantly change gears and do something else. Part of this, I believe, is due to their realization that as long as they are engaged in some activity that involves a group of people that they like being around, the actual activity itself is a peripheral concern. Filipinos are incredibly family-oriented and I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a society that is so genuinely at ease among their other family members (or friends).

The Filipinos handle adversity very well. With all the bad driving and traffic conditions similar to a grocery store parking lot on Christmas Eve, I saw almost no road rage. In America, if someone turns onto a road, causing another driver to brake for a fraction of a second, that other driver will have a toddler’s tantrum.

Filipinos are infinitely happier with infinitely less. Filipinos smile. Even the police smile!

If there was a party to be had, I would want the Japanese to organize it but I would want to party with the Filipinos.

The following day I rented a bicycle and rode south along the Kamo River and then over to the Fushimi Inari Temple with its small mountain covered in forests and shrines. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to hit Kyoto during some epic, city-wide costume party but this was the second day I saw at least 100 people (especially young adults) dressed in beautiful traditional garb. Of course, each person in said outfit was contrasted nicely by a smart phone in hand. Or in the case of a young lady, her contrasting outfit combined a stunning, perfectly worn kimono with a pair of Chuck Taylors on her feet.

It was like a Wednesday or something during the day and people are in Halloween outfits.

I then road north to the temple of Kiyomizu-dera and then, more importantly, road further north to Musashi Sushi where I encountered my first sushi train. You sit down at a counter and simply grab whatever small sushi dish looks to be a winner as it moves by on a conveyor belt. Once you’re done, a waitress counts your plates and bills you accordingly. This allows you to have a great sushi meal very quickly and cheaply.

Kiyomizu-dera
More Kiyomizu-dera
Another Kiyomizu-dera shot…I’m assuming they used this building as their discotheque and casino.
Sushi train, y’all.

The next day I took a 45-minute bullet train ride west to Himeji Castle. The castle dates back to the 1400’s although its current form was not achieved until the early 1600’s. While much of the area just outside the castle was devastated by bombing in World War II, the castle miraculously survived which is even more amazing when you realize it was considered a military site during the war and was actually bombed in the main tower (incredibly, the bomb did not go off).

Himeji
Himeji…impervious to bird droppings.

One of the castles most important historical figures was a samurai by the name of Kuroda Kanbei. He was also a very good political strategist and Christian convert. Becoming a samurai, involving yourself in political intrigue, living in an awe-inspiring castle…if ever there was a Christian that followed the “What would Jesus do?” creed better than this, I have yet to hear about it.

Progressive interracial tree romance.

Here is a good place to discuss some observations I have made of Japan:

1) Lots of Japanese have a quick, short stride that involves foot-dragging, sort of like the way a lady in slippers might run for a ringing phone. I assume shoes are not free here so this walking style must get pricey.

2) Even outside, you’re only allowed to smoke in designated areas that have the feel and often the look of a penalty box.

3) Japan often looks like an ER with so many of its citizens wearing face masks. At first, this was supposedly done to keep your illness from spreading. Now it often has more to do with people trying to prevent acquiring an illness. There’s also a fair amount of people that wear masks so no one will bother them since others see your mask and think that you’re sick, making them less likely to talk to you. Wearing these masks also makes it far more difficult for others to read your facial expressions.

4) There is a s#*t-ton of old people here. Unless each one of these older dears is a Benjamin Button, Japan may want to look into this.

5) There is a s#*t-ton of beautiful, stunning women here and the feeling I get from every single one of them is that they don’t have the slightest desire to go to the prom with me. But it’s all good; I got me a Filipina lady that not only wants to go to the prom with me but likes to wear my varsity letter jacket to sleep every night.

6) Trust seems vital to the Japanese. To demonstrate this, I took a picture of a jobsite closed down for the day on Saturday at 5:30PM. Pay close attention to the expensive power tools simply chilling in plain view. Never in a million years would an American contractor (including myself) leave his or her tools out in the open after leaving a site. I also love how clean and orderly everything is.

In the US, these unwatched tools would be promptly stolen (the outhouse too).

7) Here is the strangest, hands down, Christmas decoration I have ever seen that is hanging on the wall of my hotel.

???

8) You’ll be walking down a normal city street and without warning; it will turn into a mall.

Not a hat I was expecting to see being sold in Japan.
Yah bro.

Today I rode a bicycle six miles west to Togetsu-kyo Bridge. After crossing over the bridge, I went south into a park area where I stumbled upon what appeared to be a kite-flying contest. I’ve always felt that a fantastic indicator of an evolved society is its ability to conduct a successful kite-flying contest. While each contestant ran out with their kite, a guy would dramatically beat a drum. Under self-induced pressure to top this cultural gift, I decided to hike 20 minutes up a hill to the Arashiyama Monkey Park where monkeys are allowed to run free.

All of this just for kites.
Chillin’ with monkeys.

Ride in Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest (I’m pretty sure that kid in the chariot thing is a brat).

 

Most people like to take pictures of the cherry blossoms while I prefer to take pictures of the people that take pictures of the cherry blossoms.
And then gurl was like, “F*#k it…I’m gonna use a teddy bear head for a purse.”

For dinner, things got very special. Someone had told me about an odd unique place by the name of Okariba. Walking by it, nothing would alert you to its presence. It occupies a small space on the first floor of what appears to be a boring-five story concrete apartment building. When you step inside, you feel like you’re inside a hunting lodge. Everything is wood and hanging on the walls are all sorts of hunting paraphernalia and other random things. In fact, when I took my seat in the back corner in what was the last available seat shared with restaurant supplies, I leaned back into a hanging belt of what I prayed was an inactive Remington shotgun shell belt. I looked around and saw what seemed to be mainly locals huddled into this small space. The air was being dominated by the smoke of some type of cooking meat. The owner returned and in a rough but comparatively good English, asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Sure”, I said. He nodded, walked away, never gave me a menu, and returned 15 minutes later with a heaping pile of delicious wild boar.

While I was disciplining my meal, a Japanese couple in their 60’s sat to the right of me in a space that, up until now, was occupied by one of the owner’s hunting buddies whose picture was on the wall near my head. The couple lived nearby and appeared to be good friends of the owner. The woman’s name was Shigeno and she trained people how to use kimonos and hakamas.

As the night progressed, things only got better. As the place thinned out, the owner and his employee spent more and more time with us and kept bringing out food for me to try, the most exotic including locusts and bee larvae. Soon he was pouring me sake and eventually went to the refrigerator in efforts to furnish me with some of his high-grade sake. He told me where he hunted and that all the food was captured by him. He then held up a pretend rifle and said, “All food here is organic!”

Shigeno even shared some of her food with me and was kind enough to supply me with two bookmarks made with fine Japanese cloth. She pointed at both and said, “one for your girlfriend”. So the lesson of love learned here is that if I ever find myself single, I will still tell everyone I have a girlfriend so people give me two of everything.

Inside Okariba.
A bowl of fried locusts that, for some reason, I ate.
The owner of Okariba and I.

The next morning I took a train or two down to the nearby city of Nara to view the Todai-ji temple which is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and houses a 50-foot bronze Buddha statue.

Cool.

Don’t get me wrong, this is intense and superb but there’s a chance I was more awed by the fact that not just in the massive park grounds around the temple but even into the city are wild deer walking around! It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. These deer chill among us like domesticated robots. My experiences with deer at home are fleeting at best; once a deer detects me, it runs away from like a vegetarian runs away from a pile of steaks. In Nara, the deer will actually approach you like a confident, weathered prostitute. You also have the option of buying some crackers for $1.50 and feeding them, thereby increasing the probability of a filthy deer advance.

Cooler.

But, there were signs warning people to be careful around the deer. The following sign displays the four favorite wrestling moves deer like to perform on unsuspecting tourists.

I’ve tried to pick a favorite drawing in this sign and failed every time.

The next day I boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) and travelled east to Odawara and then on to the resort town of Hakone, known for its many “onsen” or hot baths. When I checked in, the man at the reception desk informed me of all the splendors of the hotel and that I was expected to wear my yukata (traditional robe) to breakfast.

Fuji as seen from the Shinkansen.

If I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine, I would be the luckiest person in the galaxy to have the room I was in. But since I am not a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine and am on dry land, I am left only to define myself as a guy staying in a converted janitor’s closet. The whopping 140 square feet affair is well-equipped but suffers from the fact it’s only 140 square feet and has one window measuring one square foot in size. Ultimately, I feel like I stabbed an inmate and was put in the hole for 30 days.

After exiting my rabbit hole, I headed over to the nude-bathing onsen where I got to hang out with a lot of old Japanese junk. In line again with the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, I had to follow a strict set of rules before and during my bathing experience. One of the rules was thoroughly scrubbing yourself down at a seated shower station beforehand (and you had to remain seated). Another rule dictated I could not bring a bathing suit or towel into the onsen. And what’s more, you’re not allowed to enter the baths if you have any tattoos! This is clearly an attempt to keep American rock stars and confused college ladies out of the onsen.

When I awoke the next morning, I proudly put on my yukata with the help of an instruction sheet in my room. Due to the limited range of leg movement while wearing my robe, I shuffled my way to the restaurant wearing slippers on my feet, looking like I was trying to build up an electric shock in my body that I would childishly shock someone with. When I entered the large dining area, filled with over 100 Japanese folk, I soon realized I was perhaps one of eight people wearing a yukata to breakfast, making me look like one of those Caucasian putzs who was ineffectively trying to assimilate to Japanese culture. It got worse when I got on the elevator and two Japanese ladies looked at me with slight surprise and one said to me as if trying to be nice and supportive to a five-year old that tied his shoes for the first time in his life, “Ohhh, it looks good! Very comfortable!”

Sorry Tom Cruise, looks like you weren’t the last Samurai after all. I’ve got my Samurai papers to prove it (in my right hand).

After touring around the Hakone area in a train, a funicular, a bus, a cable car, and a boat, I decided to hike over a small mountain and back down towards my hotel. I saw a wild boar at one point but he/she darted away before I got a good look. Later on in the hike, I paused for a moment, standing perfectly still in a heavily wooded valley. Soon after, a family of boar started walking above me, towards where I came from. Although they did not see me, the leader, who I believe was the mother, stopped and began to take the air in with her enormous nose in brief, powerful inhalations. The family members behind her stopped and awaited her cue. As she was close to my current position and where I had just been, I assumed she smelled my appetizing presence. She continued to analyze my aroma until finally she turned and hastily ran in the direction she came with the family following suit. I felt embarrassed and insulted. I didn’t think I smelled that bad. I guess next time I’ll wear some Drakkar Noir before initiating a hike.

After Hakone, I took a train north to Tokyo. Once there I felt like I was in the most intricate Lego set of all time. I marveled how, with even the volume of all things imaginable, Tokyo managed to remain orderly and clean for the most part. During my 48 hours, I did the following:

1) Check into my hotel next to Nippori Station, a modest hotel that probably looked great 20 years ago but now was tired and smelled like the polyester shirt of a dead chain smoker.

2) Visit the “Skytree” tower upon my hotel’s recommendation but promptly requested the structure to “eat it” when it asked me for $20 to visit the observation deck.

Eat it, Skytree.

3) Visit the Shibamata neighborhood, known for its old preserved street that was from the Showa Era, and due to my fatigue, lounged on a park bench with the authority of a welfare legend.

4) Ate dinner at what soon became an annoyingly chipper, cheery sushi restaurant by the name of Shushizanami in the Ueno neighborhood, a neighborhood packed with little shops and restaurants, bright lights, and more importantly, offers to have filthy things done to your body.

5) Return to Ueno to visit Ueno Park and saw its beehive-like shopping district sans scandal.

6) Walk around the overly stimulating “Electric Town” in the Akihabra district where ladies dressed as provocative young maids coaxed you into their cafes and then walked through eight floors of department and electronics madness in the Yodabashi Camera store (and was gifted with Journey being played on their stereo demo station). I should also add that Japan is weirdly infatuated with massage chairs, witnessed by an amazing diverse display of them on the same floor as the stereos or what I now refer to as the “Journey Floor”.

 

7) Walk around half of the three-mile moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace.

8) Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where I was able to visit the Observation Deck on the 45th floor for free! (Eat that and preferably develop an intestinal malady Sky Tree!)

Tokyo on the house.

9) Discover a great little neighborhood in Nippori on the other side of the train station that gave me a great friendly dining experience at the family-run Ariya and a very fortuitous encounter at a very underground jazz bar.

The last item was the perfect way to end the Japan leg of my trip. I walked by an open door leading upstairs and could hear only the good kind of jazz descending down to me. I ascended up to its source and was confronted with a tiny bar with stacks of vinyl records on the walls and four older gents loving life at the bar. The sound system projecting the all-vinyl sounds was old but its sound was perfect. The patrons were all Japanese and took turns talking to me. One refused to give me his real name and when I did ask, he said his name was “Mystery”. When Mystery and I completed our talk, a slightly older man by the name of Shinichiro walked over and introduced himself. Shinichiro grew up in the Nippori area but has spent the past 35 years in Okinawa doing underwater research. He was back in Tokyo on a visit and said I was very lucky to have stumbled upon this tiny little place that offered a rare jazz experience in Tokyo. This space has been opened for more than 50 years. But due to tight or nonexistent profit margins (which explains my $9 beer), was only open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The man behind the bar was actually a dentist and had a more charitable, hobby-like yet passionate approach to his role as bar keep. As I looked around, I laughed to myself and realized how glad my lady back home probably was that I liked jazz. Any risk of an illicit affair or casual STD-contraction was a distance away from me that could not be measured.

Jazz bar or “place to avoid ladies”.
This is what a man named “Mystery” looks like (this could actually be said about either one of us).

As I left Tokyo, I soaked in the last bits of neatness and order offered me. The air was that of a pleasant spring day. When I came out of the airport in Manila, the glorious disarray and heat hit me like an impersonal bully. When some sort of taxi dispatcher guy came up to me, I told him my hotel was less than 2 miles away. He told me the fare would be P1000, the same rate I paid to travel 30 miles to the airport, two weeks previously. I told him I would walk. Other cab drivers came over and offered lower fares but it was too late; my stubbornness had set in.

My walk led me through a museum known as “A Place That Could Not Be More Opposite of Japan”. Just outside of the airport, the sun was setting and I saw little fires, in a public or abandoned grassy area and heard the voices of families around them. Sloppy engines roared by me and I could feel the filthy air on my tongue and in my eyeballs. I took a left down Airport Road and the surroundings condensed into a throbbing neighborhood that had the personality of a 13-year old whose parents left him alone for the weekend. Out of one bar, I could hear two or three men doing a horrible rendition of Steve Perry’s Foolish Heart. Feral cats thinner than supermodels scavenged for anything they could find. More little fires glowed in alleys. A very used woman sitting in a chair on the narrow sidewalk offered me a fortune consultation. Motorized tricycles and trucks and cars beeped and aggressively gobbled up any free space they could find on the road. Outside of a small convenience store, I (and hundreds of other passerby’s) had to literally step over a shirtless man that was sleeping, unconscious or dead. The entire scene was ripe and reminiscent of one from a Mad Max movie. But oddly, not once did I fear for my safety. No one looked at me or motioned toward me in a menacing way.

I fell asleep in my hotel a couple hours later and woke up at 4AM the next morning to go back to the airport. I caught a 6AM flight on one of those Indiana Jones propeller planes to Batanes where I would be for eight days. Part of the Philippines, Batanes are a small collection of islands located about 100 miles north of the main island Luzon, Philippines and 120 miles south of Taiwan. The airport in the capital town of Basco looked like a small state highway rest stop but it’s enough to handle the one or two small passenger flights a day.

Basco Airport.

The island reminded me of a warmer Ireland. The greenness mixed with a rocky/hilly topography made one think of Western Ireland or Scotland. The weather was similar in one way: very unpredictable. When I walked the 100 meters to my guest house, it was sunny although misting. Par for the Philippines, there were various little construction projects everywhere that were being worked on so slowly or so sporadically, they looked abandoned. In fact, next to my guest house was a building that looked like it suffered the wrong end of a bomb. But at the same time, rough scaffolding constructed of random lumber and tree limbs had been assembled throughout the structure.

When I walked by the open, half-built or half-destroyed (I couldn’t tell) structure, I saw a simple table set up on the dirt floor with clothes hanging everywhere. Inside, four or five amiable and seated chaps greeted me. They were either workers living or citizens squatting in this humble living space (again, I couldn’t tell). Either way, my hopes were that these gentlemen were Basco’s version of “Mack and the boys” that live in the Palace Flophouse in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (the friendly homeless guys that live in a semi-abandoned warehouse in Monterrey).

Speaking of characters of Cannery Row, I met another man that easily could have been in this brilliant novel. When I say “met”, I should really say “observed” since this man of an indistinguishable age was lying on his back in the middle of the street. At first I thought he was dead but then I noticed his stomach was moving. His eyes were wide open but perceived nothing. I asked a woman standing over him if we should call the nearby hospital and she said, “No. He’s just drunk.”

Boulder Beach
Santo Domingo Cathedral

Here I am in a lighthouse. If it was the duty of the lighthouse keeper to look for ladies instead of ships, I would be a lighthouse keeper.

The day I arrived and the next two days I toured the main island and another nearby named Sabtang with BISUMI Tours. The landscape was inspiring. On the second day, when our boat landed at Sabtang , we waited to register with some officials in an area between a church and a school. Our timing could not have been better; all the students were on the front lawn singing and shortly after, performing dance routines. This took place every morning before classes started. These poor little creatures had to do this routine in front of a pile of gawking tourists with cameras a few times a week. It was enough to make a child run away.

 

Shortly after, a woman I sat next to on the plane the day before rushed over and greeted me enthusiastically. She then told her older lady friends how she sat next to me on the plane and soon I found myself in a picture-taking ceremony with a large group of 60-something Filipina ladies I did not know. When I wrapped up with my new ladies, I was then asked to be in some more pictures with the local police officers (one of which was a police lady…yum). I kid you not when I tell you that they tried to set me up with the single police lady. It’s great when fantasies land in your lap but it sucks when you can’t do anything about them.

I reflected on this extra attention I received and as much as I wanted to attribute it to nice looks, nice hair, and even nicer breath, it was not so. It was probably due to the fact that of the 150 or more tourists, I was one of two white people.

Sabtang
Good luck figuring this one out.

The following morning at breakfast, I chatted with Emil, the husband of Evelyn the maid. It turned out he served as a chef on an oil tanker for 22 years. I asked him if he liked it and he returned, “Not really. I only did it for my kids. I had to pay for their education.” Emil told me he would be out at sea for anywhere between four to six months.  His typical rotation would be six months on and three months off (although once he was on board for 11 months since they could not find a replacement for him). And just when Emil seemed like the greatest gent of our times, he outdid himself by letting me use one of his motorbikes for the remainder of my trip.

At one stop on our tour, we visited an old church in Mahatao. Next to the church was a room that was filled with hundreds of blank books that allowed people to come in and either read entries of past visitors or write their own. As luck would have it, I pick up a book, start thumbing through it, and find an entry from Bermuda’s most famous performer, Barry Tattle! And according to the date, he was there on the same day! This is a picture of his entry.
Trying to outdo this natural drama is a fool’s errand.

After the tour ended that day, I walked towards my dinner destination, Octagon Restarant. I spotted a tricycle parked on the side of the road so I went over to a group of fellas chilling outside nearby. One man stood up and tried to fetch the tricycle driver but his lady appeared and informed us he could not drive me since he had been drinking. Then the first man I spoke to offered to give me a ride himself on his motorbike. When we arrived, I thanked him and offered him some money but he refused. I told him my name, shook his hand and asked his. He replied, “The Principal of Uganda.”

As I took my seat, I spotted three ladies from my tour: Charmaine, Marian, and Gina. We decided it best for the world that we eat together. As I ate with them, I started to realize that most if not all Filipina ladies are extremely humble. My Filipina lady is extremely (perhaps dangerously) educated and quite accomplished in her career experiences but you wouldn’t know it when you speak with her. My lady dining companions were also quite understated about their achievements. The other thing that was reinforced is that any time you get some Filipina ladies together, please expect abundant and equal measures of chatting, smiling, and laughing.

The ladies I dined with. Funny thing about this picture is that is was actually taken a day or two before I met these dear ladies. I happened to be eating next to them at the same restaurant when they asked their waitress to take this picture, thereby catching my visual energy in the background. But the funniest thing about this picture is that just after it, I moved my chair slightly back, causing one of the chair legs to slide off the edge of the concrete floor which caused the chair and I to fall over (which the ladies kindly remembered when I met them).

The following day I drove the motorbike to the small fishing village of Diura. After parking my bike, I walked a little under a mile down a rough dirt road that went along the sea. I eventually ended up at what the locals refer to as “The Fountain of Youth”. Locals channeled a small stream into a manmade pool out in the middle of nowhere. The pool sat on the edge of a beach with no one in site. I took a dive into its healing waters, hoping to at least grow a few hairs back on my head.

Fountain of Youth

As I drove around, people would often stop what they were doing and watch me pass by. It was a somewhat rare thing to see a whitey on their island but seeing one drive by on a Mountain Dew-colored motorbike was more bizarre than seeing an Eskimo parasailing in Iowa. Everywhere I went I was looked at and smiled at. As I entered a little canteen, I passed by some young boys and said “Hello gentlemen!”. They giggled and ran off. After I finished my meal, I took a quick dip in a small lagoon. When I went back to my bike, there were three goats trying to steal my bike. Punks.

Goats caught in the act of trying to steal my wheels.

For dinner, I was invited to dine with three other Filipina ladies at their exquisite guest house called Fundacion Pacita which was perched high on green hills right at the water’s edge. There was Susan, a gracious lady in her 70’s who ran an accomplished ballet studio and her two sensationally pleasant nieces, Trixie and Mia. As it turned out, Susan was the mother of one of the Philippines most famous ballet dancers, Lisa Macuja, who became the first Filipina prima ballerina and first foreign soloist to ever join the Kirov Ballet in Russia. Lisa is now in her early 50’s and still dances occasionally.

Susan took a liking to me partially because I’m dating one of her country-ladies and mostly because my manners are noteworthy. And…Susan-In-Her-Seventies promised to Facebook me! (Further proof that gurl still got it.)

The next day I hired a guide to hike up the top of nearby Mount Iraya. Once an active volcano, Iraya stands just over 1000 meters. Ferand, my guide, met me at 6AM and we proceeded to our start point. The hike was a tad brutal, due in large part to the fact that the trail went straight up with no hint of a switchback path. The further up you went, the less maintained the trail was. We were battling through dense vegetation making us feel like we were making our way through a 1970’s NBA All-Star afro.

Mt. Iraya

Ferand did this nasty, wet, muddy hike in a worn pair of Air Jordans. When I asked him if he had another pair of shoes to change into afterwards, he answered no. But this is how it is in the Philippines and even more so in Batanes. People here are like cartoon characters in the sense they seem to do all their activities in the same outfit. Workers doing heavy construction work will look like they just walked off a basketball court (and will often be wearing flip flops).

Due to the grueling nature of the hike, we talked little. However we did manage to have short conversations whenever we took short breaks. I learned that Ferand was 22 and leaving Batanes for the first time in his life the following week. He was headed for Manila with some sort of Christian group. I really do wish I could have been there to watch his face as he flew in a plane and walked through a major, polluted, noisy city for the very first time in his life.

View from high up Iraya (airport is off to the right).

Later on I toured a little on the motorbike and decided to stop by the lighthouse just north of town. Once again, the locals looked at me in wonder. When I parked my bike near the lighthouse, a group of people were getting into a pickup truck and onto their motorbikes. A woman around 60 asked me if I had a companion with me. I told her no and that I was a lone wolf on this journey. She pointed at her younger lady friend and said, “How about her? She’s single!” I was simply falling in love with the fact that Batanes was trying to set me up with their single sisters.

And guess what? It happened again the next day! I ran into some nice folks at the Honesty Coffee Shop which is a completely unstaffed shop where you go in, take what you want and pay for it by simply putting your money into a wooden box. The daughter of the lady that started the shop 20 years ago mentioned herself as a potential candidate as the target of my affections. She then offered her visiting friend from Manila as another option. This island was like one big dating game show.

Hot jeepney.

As fantastic as this was, it may have been surpassed by an experience I had later that day. Every day around 3:30PM, the town opens up the airport runway to the public so they can do whatever their heart desires (except skinny-dipping). I decided to light the strip up with my 100cc motorbike. Please soak in the video of my stunt.

 

Looking out my bedroom window, I mean, view from the end of the runway.

My last full day in the Philippines ended up being an unexpected gift. I spent the day with Pam’s sister Nikki and her family. I got picked up by their driver Jun in the Mystery Machine and was driven to their home in Quezon City in Manila. When I entered their home, I was greeted instantly by the lovely and little Siri. She said “’to ‘tiss” and then proceeded to hug my leg for a length of time that would have been awkward if she had been an adult.

After lunch, Nikki, Diego, Bea, Kiara, and I engaged in an activity I was not expecting: ice skating. The mall culture in the Philippines is a potent one. In their enormous malls will be everything one could dream up, in this case, an ice skating rink on the fifth floor overlooking Manila. The rental skates were duller than a spoon and the ice was less smooth than the face of a 90-year old sea captain but we managed to have a great time. I took a devilish pride in simultaneously scaring and impressing Bea and Kiara as I built up a lot of speed and then sprayed them with snow as I executed a long dramatic hockey stop right next to them. Kiara took her revenge by forcing me to skate backwards while holding her hands for over an hour so she could have something to steady herself on.

Someone had to be the token white guy skating in shorts on the 5th floor of a mall in Manila. (L to R: Diego, me, Kiara, Bea)
Gurl enacts her revenge.

The only logical thing to do after that was to experience my first ever acupuncture session by the hands of master healer and Asian-Warrior-Haircut-Fella Jake (Nikki’s husband). It was fantastic although I did not realize the after effects of “cupping”. Cupping is when the practitioner creates a powerful suction with, in this case, glass cups on the skin in efforts to bring about the benefits of a massage but in reverse (and to remove any lingering skank in your body). When I looked at my back later that night, it looked like a massive octopus had given me hickies all over my back. Would I “cup” again given the chance? Damn right I would.

This was followed by yet another logical choice of activities: Qigong (chi kung). Qigong is an activity designed to make you look like a Caucasian left wing radical that sweats incense and gathers with others in the more hidden parts of a large city park with the purpose of chanting and moving their body in ways that make Republicans nervous. That said, I did enjoy this more mellow form of Tai Chi and coupled with the acupuncture, I observed elevated levels of energy.

We all then ate with Jake’s family nearby which was glorious…the perfect last supper in my five-week pursuit of pleasure and profound culture. We discussed the family’s impressive pig breeding business, politics, my scandalous career as a comedian, and so many other things that stimulate the intellect.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Manila’s increasing heat and humidity and spent several hours flying back to Boston where I was forced to explain to my lady why I had large circular hickies all over my back.