Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines (Part One)

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Big Lagoon Entrance, Miniloc Island, El NIdo, Palawan, Philippines Tuderna CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget backpacker travel through 15 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from the Pacific Islands to selected Asian countries including: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan – and the USA.

Source: CIA Factbook

“Hey Joe!” “Hey Boss!” Why does everybody think my name is Joe? A naturally beautiful country with a pleasant Asia-Pacific mix, the Philippines is loaded with friendly, fun-loving and talented people — especially the musicians, who are truly amazing — and most major hotels have a live band. English is widely spoken as well, so it was easy to connect with the people and the place, even if it didn’t feel quite as different or “exotic” as some of the other Asian countries I had visited.

“God Help Us” was emblazoned across the windshield of our overloaded ‘Jeepney’ – and for good reason – as we thundered along Manila’s chaotic, choking streets of the hot, dirty, smelly, crowded madhouse of the capital city. Somehow, these WWII era Jeeps left by the Americans are still kept running after all these years, and serve as public transport throughout the country.

But after 500 years of Spanish rule and a further 100 years under the Americans, the culture seemed hopelessly buried beneath Catholicism and the most annoying aspects of American culture. Despite all this, I soon realized it would be easy to stay for awhile.

After a warm welcome at the YMCA in Manila, which supports youth programs in the city and community development in the countryside, I headed to the Baguio YMCA in the northern part of Luzon province, and then survived a death-defying bus ride – speeding around blind curves along a high, narrow strip of gravel masquerading as a road – certain we would plunge to our deaths at any moment.

Rice terraces near Banaue, Luzon

So, I set off into the cool, rain-washed air in the pine forested mountains of Segada and trekked for three days through beautiful green rain forest, rugged mountains and along 2000-year old hand-carved massive curving rice terraces reaching to the sky in the province of Banaue.

Staying with the indigenous Ifugao people, I was led through a huge cave where we waded across ice-cold cascades and used ropes to guide us through the dark, narrow crawl spaces. As the warm tropical rains subsided, the village women used brooms to swat swarms of mayflies drifting lazily skyward to add to our evening meal.

On Palawan Island, also known as “the last frontier” of the Philippines, roadside stalls sold hand towels (probably my most important purchase of the entire trip!) to wrap around our heads and faces to help ward off the clouds of thick, choking dust as our WWII vintage ‘Jeepney’ set off from the provincial capital Puerto Princessa.

Ifugao Village, Luzon

Barreling wildly along the dusty, rutted tracks, we roared through jungle-clad mountains, past tiny village hamlets and fields of ripe rice skirted by sheer limestone cliffs, then out to wild, deserted white-sandy beaches and finally to the scenic port of El Nido, famous for its extraordinary natural beauty and diverse ecosystem.

Back in the capital, tanks rolled into Makati — Manila’s central business district — for the 1986 “People Power” uprising. Suddenly, shops closed and even the shotgun-wielding bank guards fled the scene — as we did — catching the last flight out of Manila before the airport closed. Traveling with Jessie, a local nursing student, we headed south for a month of island hopping through spectacular coastal mountains and braved wild, stormy crossings in dangerously overloaded ferryboats and broken-down outriggers to pristine island gems throughout the Visayas – the tightly packed scattering of nearly 7000 islands between Luzon to the north and Mindanao in the south.

Traveling by bus and boat to Mindoro Island, we gave Puerto Galera a miss, and continued instead to the much quieter Talipanan Beach, where we enjoyed some hiking in the mountains and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters teeming with colorful reef life.

WWII ‘Jeepneys’ provide cheap public
transport throughout the country

Clinging to the roof of another overloaded ‘Jeepney’ we hurtled through the coastal mountains south of Calapan and then boarded a bus to the sea port of Roxas, where, in the midst of a rising typhoon in the fading late afternoon light, we set off for a hair-raising ride on a grossly overloaded outrigger. Tossed wildly about in the dark, raging seas, the laboring vessel threatened to disappear into each successive ocean swell. But we somehow managed to make it safely to Tablas Island and on to the fantastic tropical island beauty of Boracay.

Yielding to the sea’s calming, surge — warm and gentle, almost therapeutic — and yet a thrilling source of excitement in it’s vast power and mystery. It was wonderful to get strong and healthy again, exchanging friendly smiles and hellos with everybody – indulging in the pleasurable exhaustion from saying hello to everyone in Asia.

Puka Beach, Boracay, Wikimedia.org

But my two-month visa was nearly finished, and I was eager to see my brother Dave who would be meeting me in Hong Kong for more adventures awaiting us there. I also had meetings scheduled at the regional offices of the Asia Alliance of YMCAs, which are located in Hong Kong.

So, after a brief drift at sea in a broken-down outrigger pump-boat, Jessie and I eventually reached Tablas Island and boarded a Jeepney for another spectacular drive through the countryside. A plane brought us back to Manila, where I boarded my flight to Hong Kong — and once again, it was killing me to leave. But it was comforting to know that soon I would be returning to this warm and welcoming tropical island paradise.

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines (Part Two)– coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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