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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.