A Month In Paradise

An Unpleasant Arrival

We left for the airport with remarkably little luggage. I suppose one of the benefits of living on a narrowboat is that you get used to needing very little and have few aspirations to “live it large” if you ever go away. All we had with us was a sports bag sized holdall and a carry on bag each. Sally’s carry on bag had all of the usual things you need when you’re travelling from one climate to another; thick fleece and hat for the UK, sun tan lotion and shades for Manilla, and a book for Sally plus a Kindle for me (loaded with half a dozen recently acquired books and guides on the Philippines).

The journey was everything I expected it to be; tiring, uncomfortable, cramped and boring, but the planes were on time and the stopover at Hong Hong brief and without incident. We lost eight hours somewhere along the route so after a journey mostly spent trying to get some sleep, we arrived in Manilla just before bed time.

I don’t like Manila. It’s everything I love being away from on the boat.

Manila is incredibly crowded and it’s very, very noisy. Every car driver and every motor cycle and scooter owner know where their horn is and they know how to use it, The blare of horns would be annoying enough, but you can’t really hear them over the vehicle and people noise.

The streets swarm with public transport. Traditional taxis are everywhere but they compete with privately owned jeepneys and tricycles. The jeepneys are modelled on second world war long wheelbase jeeps. They’re often hand decorated, old and battered and have an open entrance at the rear and a bench seat either side backing on to glassless windows. The tricycles are bicycles or motorbikes with covered side cars displaying hand written decorations. All of the vehicles for hire weave erratically from lane to lane with little regard for each other or for pedestrians.

In addition to being noisy, Manila is also both scruffy and dirty. Toothless crones and stick thin men walk along lines of traffic-stopped cars offering wares which no one wants. I saw several invalid beggars lurch towards waiting cars at traffic lights extending twisted hands, hoping fruitlessly for a peso or two. No one paid them any attention.

At night homeless children sleep on dirty blankets spread on the filthy pavements beside dropped litter and discarded food. Tricycle owners sleep in their side cars. Bare, dirt encrusted feet poke out of the glassless windows of the owners’ tiny shelters.

Manila doesn’t give a very good first impression of the mostly beautiful Philippines.

Sally had booked the Rothman hotel for the night. She always stays a night in Manila when she returns home. It’s a chance to recover from the tiring flight from the UK. On this occasion she booked a hotel for two nights so she could show me the sights.

After a couple of post flight San Miguels in the hotel café and a catch up on my emails courtesy of the café’s free WiFi, we had an early night to compensate for two hour’s sleep during the overnight flight.

In the morning I enjoyed my first Filippino breakfast. The breakfast included two fried eggs. The eggs were the only link to any other breakfast I’ve ever had. The other components were garlic rice, sweet and lightly spiced sausages and thin strips of beef in a garlic, chilli and ginger marinade. It was delicious but normally something I would expect to eat at the end of the day.

After breakfast we spent the day at the Mall Of Asia. It’s the nineteenth largest shopping mall in the world and was just half an hour’s taxi ride from our hotel in central Manilla.

The highlight for me was the SM superstore. I don’t generally enjoy clothes shopping but the SM store was enormous and full of brightly coloured and very well made clothing. Everything was ridiculously cheap. I bought five very high quality shirts for just forty five pounds. They would have cost at least three times as much in the UK.

The following morning we flew forty five minutes from Manila’s domestic airport to Bacolod on the island of Negros

We traveled back from the airport with Sally’s sister Corizon and her husband Gill (pronounced “Hill” in the Spanish fashion) and Soy who drove the jeep which Corizon had hired for the day.

What a difference from Manilla. The airport is surrounded by sugar cane fields and very little else. In fact, much of the traffic we passed as we drove away from the terminal was trucks overloaded with freshly cut cane.

The same rules of the road apply on Negros as they do in Manila; you drive on the right… most of the time and use your horn to indicate to traffic around you what you are doing. A quick toot of the horn means that you’re about to overtake a slowly moving heavily laden truck in the face of oncoming traffic on a bend while going uphill. A long blast of the horn means that both you and the oncoming vehicle realise you aren’t going to make it and that you need to take immediate evasive action.

The system seems to work. At least it did for us on this particular journey but I understand that many, many Filippino drivers aren’t quite so lucky.

We passed mango orchids with trees bowed down under the weight of ripe yellow fruit, weathered and skeletal farm workers staggering under the weight of impossibly large loads of sugar cane, banana and coconut trees by the thousand, rambutan and papaya and a grove of trees with odd looking fruit like elongated pears which I couldn’t identify.

We had been traveling for about an hour when we were stopped by a policeman who, as usual, was equipped for war with both a pistol and a pump action shotgun.

He told us that the road ahead was closed and that we would need to follow a diversion. He pointed down an unmade track just large enough for our jeep and not quite large enough for the coach in front of us.

With some pretty nifty manoeuvring by the driver, and some equally nifty footwork by the street’s residents whose corrugated iron shacks were inches from the coach’s wheels, the coach inched along the lane until it came to the low hanging power lines crossing the road.

Naturally, I expected chaos as the bus driver realised the danger of trying to move any further forward. Normal rules don’t apply here though so the conductor simply climbed onto the roof, lifted the cables above the coach roof with a branch he’d found at the side of the road and stamped his foot to indicate that the way was clear!

Shortly afterwards we stopped for something to eat at a roadside café. Filippinos have rice with everything so we had chicken and pork kebabs with a dollop of boiled rice and a glass of iced tea.

I was just getting over the surprise of seeing most of our party eating dinner, including the rice,  with their fingers, when I noticed one of the young café workers heading our way with a mop bucket cradled protectively under his arm. Nothing wrong with keeping the place clean I thought to myself… just before he reached into the mop bucket with his glove covered hand, had a quick fiddle, and plopped a nicely rounded ball of still steaming rice on my plate.

We continued to La Carlota through a beautiful landscape of low hills and fields full of rice and sugar, regularly passing corrugated roadside stalls offering fresh fruit for sale, stalls which doubled as homes for the vendors.

We stopped of at La Carlota to buy some food for the next few days, and to stock up on rice. Buying rice is a bit more of an ordeal in the Philippines than it is in the UK. Whenever I’ve bought rice in the past, it’s been a pack of Uncle Ben’s boil in the bag sachets and I can honestly say that getting it home hasn’t really taxed me physically.

I couldn’t understand what was being said in the jeep because everyone was speaking Tagalog but I knew something was afoot when Gill kept glancing in my direction and giggling. Sally translated for me. She said that Gill wanted to know if I could carry the rice to the jeep for him. Of course, I agreed. What I didn’t know was that their bags of rice are a little bigger than ours.

The bag of rice weighed 50kg, 110lbs or eight stone. No problem I thought, the rice sack was only a couple of feet from the jeep boot so lifting it wouldn’t be too painful. I bent down to pick it up but Gill stopped me. The man mountain shop owner picked it up instead and slung it in the back of the vehicle.

Gill was still winding me up on the rest of the journey to the house. He pointed out that lifting the rice was no problem for him because he spent all day, every day lifting huge and weighty bundles of sugar cane. My manly pride was taking a battering so I offered to carry the rice in to the house for him. He laughed even louder and agreed.

Now I have to admit at this stage I had probably made a schoolboy error. I hadn’t actually been to the house before. I assumed that we’d pull into a driveway which would be a couple of feet from wherever the jumbo sack of rice needed taking.

The car stopped next to an alley. Corazon pointed down the alley indicating that the house was there somewhere so, with all the occupants of the car and a handful of local residents watching, I hoisted the dead weight onto my shoulder and tried not to stagger as I negotiated the alley’s mud and rock floor.

I walked down the alley, round a corner and round another to where the alley opened up and became a steep, muddy and very slippery track.

The house was actually 300m away from the road. By the time I was within sight of the house, my face was bright red, I was panting like a steam train and my legs were shaking so badly I thought they were going to give way.

Gill’s son came to the rescue. He’s fourteen and built like a whippet. He casually took the sack from me with one arm and skipped the rest of the way to the house without raising a sweat. These little Filippino fellas are stronger than they look. It’ll be a while before I underestimate one again.

Sally’s Place – 1st Impressions

When the stars before my eyes finally receded I was able to see the place which will be home for the next two and a half weeks.

Week 1.1
It’s beautiful. It’s odd. I love it.

For a start the house is painted vivid orange but it really suits the semi tropical location. The main part of the house is just two bedrooms and a lounge area, beautifully tiled and spotlessly clean. Twenty feet from the house is the kitchen, the “dirty kitchen” as it’s known.

It’s timber and bamboo construction with a corrugated steel roof. There’s a large dining area with an adjoining kitchen. Cooking is done with traditional pots and pans but the heat is provided by a real wood fire. Fuel for the fire is collected from the forest which borders the property.

Week 1.2The property has a plentiful supply of crystal clear ice cold mountain water, but no hot water. Hot water for washing people and dishes is provided courtesy of a cauldron heated over the fire for at least half an hour.

Corazon, Gill and their three teenage sons don’t bother with hot water for washing. They aren’t as soft as European me and Europe softened Sally. They bathe in ice cold water all year round.

There isn’t actually a bathroom in the property. Behind and below the kitchen is a corrugated shed which is fed by the cold water supply which comes into the property in the kitchen. When the family want water in the kitchen, they pull the pipe apart which runs from the kitchen to the bathroom, which allows water to flow continuously into the kitchen sink. When they want water in the bathroom, they rejoin the pipe which allows water to flow into the bathroom but cuts off the kitchen.

The bathroom has a conventional toilet but the cistern needs to be filled with a jug from a plastic dustbin which is kept topped up by the cold water pipe running from the kitchen.

In order for Sally and I to have a hot “shower” the dustbin is half emptied then topped up with scalding water from the cauldron. The shower is achieved by using the same jug which is used to top up the toilet but rather than topping up the cistern with cold water, it’s dipped into the now nearly hot water in the bin and poured over your head.

Night time toilet visits are a bit of a challenge because they involve negotiating an unfamiliar house in total darkness (and I do mean total darkness) to find the front door, then negotiate  an uneven and steeply sloping mud and stone pathway thirty feet to the bathroom.

I love it.

After an early evening meal of chicken and rice and a solitary bottle of San Miguel for me, no one else drinks so I couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to drink any more, we had another early night.

I lay in bed listening to the unfamiliar night time noises; the ever present barking of numerous semi domestic dogs nearby, cocks continuously crowing, rushing water through the stream at the bottom of the garden and the unusual sound of a Filippino frog.

Ever since I met Sally nearly three years ago she’s been telling me that frogs in the Philippines speak differently from those in the UK. Rather than Rib-Bip, Rib-Bip, they say Cock-Cuck, Cock-Cuck. I’m afraid to admit that I didn’t believe her… until last night.

She’s absolutely right and what a wonderful sound it is. If Gill and Corazon have their way though, they won’t be making that noise for much longer.

They want me to try the local frogs. They’re a delicacy. They regularly catch, kill and cook the local  frogs which are about ten times the size of the UK variety. I’m going down to the stream this evening when no one’s looking to scare them all away.

On Wednesday morning we had breakfast, the leftovers from the night before plus another couple of mounds of fresh fluffy rice, before planning to go out for the day.

Sally and I planned to hire a tricycle to take us into La Carlota so I could use an internet cafe and Sally could do some shopping with her sister. Before we left though Sally and I needed to have our morning constitutional, which presented us with a bit of a problem.

The family are poor, so they don’t waste money on things they don’t really need. One of the things they don’t need is toilet paper. I haven’t yet got to the bottom of their solution (excuse the pun) to cleaning up afterwards, but I can’t imagine it’s something either Sally or I want to embrace while we’re here.

Sally sent a grinning teenager to go out in search of some toilet paper for us. He returned twenty minutes later with a single roll. He had been to three of the local shops. Two didn’t stock it at all. The single roll was the entire stock from the third shop.

All the family crowded round to examine the toilet paper and marvel at the westerners who were prepared to squander money so readily.

A Communal Shopping Trip

I needed to go into La Carlota to spend a couple of hours in an internet café. Sally wanted to come with me so she could enjoy some low cost pampering having her nails done. As her sister doesn’t have a car, we had to rely on public transport. The only public transportation available from the village are tricycles. They’re plentiful, reliable, extremely cheap and an unrivalled opportunity to get very close to a cross section of other villagers.

The tricycles are 100-150cc motor bikes with glorified side cars. When Sally initially suggested using one, knowing that Sally’s sister wanted to come with us, I asked her how we would be able to fit three of us in addition to the driver on a small motor bike. She just grinned and said that she thought we’d all fit in.

What an experience!

For a start, the driver can never be described as being in a hurry. Ten minutes after we had climbed on board he was still honking his horn looking for more customers. There was certainly no shortage of them and he didn’t turn any away. Before we left the village there were actually ten of us crammed on and around him. It’s an opportunity to get closer to strangers than you’ll ever get on the London tube, even at rush hour.

Petrol isn’t cheap so the drivers do what they can to save money. The most obvious saving for them when starting a journey from the top of a steep hill is to keep the engine turned off and let gravity do the hard work. Unfortunately that means that they then only have a couple of worn out brakes to help keep ten passengers and their bike on a winding and rutted road.

Fortunately we didn’t have to free wheel all the way down the hill. We broke down. A number of excited pedestrians pointed out to the driver with great enthusiasm that we had a flat tyre. The driver pulled over to the side of the road. He tried to rectify the problem with a couple of kicks but it didn’t work.

We flagged down an empty passing tricycle, paid the driver two pesos for the two or three miles he had carried us and climbed on to our new transport. The full fifteen mile journey cost twenty pesos each (about 25p).

It was a was a wonderful journey through a rural landscape of low hills, a volcano mostly obscured by mist, mango orchards and acres and acres of sugar cane,

The sugar cane harvest was in full flow. High sided trucks were parked next to fields full of mummy wrapped men hacking at cane with machetes and piling jagged bundles into open backed carts pulled by water bison ridden horse like by their drivers.

Wednesday Evening

We had visitors on Wednesday evening. Sally’s sister Cora arrived with her husband Morito. They had come to see Sally for the first time in four years.

In the Filipinno tradition the ladies huddled in one corner after the evening meal and left the men to talk man stuff. The men on this particular occasion were fifty year old Morito and two of our host Corazon’s sons, twenty eight year old Syrel and nineteen year old Hilson.

Nearly all Filipinnos can speak some English. Most speak it very well. They tend to be quite shy though. These three were no exception. Even though I had been around Hilson for a couple of days he hadn’t spoken a word to me. I had been in the company of the other two for a couple of hours without a word spoken.

Before Sally left to join the other women she tried to encourage them to try out their English on me. The most confident of the three was Syrel. Sally harangued him in Tagalog and then after a long pause he launched into his opening attempt with a perfect “Do you smoke?”.

I didn’t help keep the conversation flowing with a conversation stopping “No!”

Sally gave us up as a lost cause and went to join the other ladies for more stimulating conversation. I tried a different approach and went with the universal aid to communication by pulling four bottles of ice cold San Miguel from the fridge.

The conversation improved in direct proportion to the number of bottle tops I removed. By the time round number six had been distributed we were getting along famously. Hilson brought a puzzle out for me to solve. It was a wooden knob on a flat base decorated with interlinked rope loops. The puzzle involved removing one of the loops whilst leaving the others in place.

After much hilarity over my futile attempts to remove it, Hilson showed me how to do it and then, pointing to the large wooden knob, confided that a friend of his had purchased something similar as a joke for his girlfriend. Hilson searched for the word in English. Syrel, sensing that he was struggling, helped him out. “It’s called A Penis,”. “Ah, that’s right,” said Hilson triumphantly, “Happiness!”.

I suppose there are many who would agree with him.

A Walk In The Woods

Thursday was picnic day. Sally told me that we were going to swim in a mountain pool a short walk away from the house. Ten of us set off in flip flops, swimming shorts, old T shirts and not much else.

The half hour walk turned out to be two hours, all of it uphill, initially on a rough potholed road and then on a mountain track. We passed a substantial banana plantation mainly devoid of bananas but there were enough about to warrant a couple of guys loading a shipment onto the back of a truck. Sally managed to persuade them to give us a couple of bunches. They were slightly smaller than the ones we usually see in the UK with a rich yellow and very sweet flesh. They were very welcome towards the end of a long walk uphill on a hot day.

Week 1.4

We passed quite a few areas next to the road where hundreds of cockerels were tethered, each had their own territory and a shaded perch. They were all game farms breeding aggressive birds for cock fighting. Sally told me this just as we came to a section of the trail which passed perilously close to some of the tethered birds. We were treated to a chorus of cock-a-doodle-doos but otherwise they kept themselves to themselves.

Week 1.5

The scenery was stunning; forested mountain sides, waterfalls tumbling hundreds of metres down glass smooth rocks, flowers of every shape, size and hue and a thousand shades of vivid, healthy green.

I’ve not done a huge amount of travelling in my life but I’ve always associated consistently hot countries with brown rather than green. I’ve been used to searing sun and parched dead looking grass, trees and shrubs. Everything on this island looks so very healthy.

In addition to the banana plantation, we passed mango, coconut, papaya, durian and jackfruit. Coffee beans fringed the road where they had been spread to dry in the sun.

Week 1.6

When we arrived at the two pools of ice cold mountain water, there was no ceremony. All the party, men, women and children dived in fully clothed. Everyone apart from Sally and I was wearing normal day to day clothes rather than swimwear. We had picked up two more guests for the picnic as we walked to the pools, two elderly ladies sidetracked from a trip to the shops. They too waded neck deep in the cold water still wearing their long dresses.

We stayed at the pools for an hour, enjoyed a quick lunch of bottled coke and sweet bread rolls purchased from roadside stalls on the walk there, then headed further into the mountains to where we could view some spectacular falls.

Week 1.7
The return 7km journey downhill was completed in about an hour and a half with just a brief stop to collect Kim. Kim is Gill’s one year old mongrel. There are a huge number of dogs here but they aren’t treated as loved pets as they are in the UK. I don’t really know why they keep dogs at all. They aren’t showed any affection, or even recognition, but they are everywhere, loosely attached to families and spending much of their time on or beside roads looking for food or laying in the sun.

When we first arrived at Gill’s house, Sally warned me to stay away from Kim. She said that it was wise to be wary of the Filippino dogs as they aren’t generally very friendly. I was cautious but I like dogs so I tried to get to know him.

Kim is just like most dogs I’ve encountered in the past. He responded nervously but enthusiastically to affection. Within a couple of days he was acting like any normal friendly pet dog in the UK. So much so that, instead of laying in the shade ignoring the people activity around him when we left the walk he, unknown to us, followed our group a mile up the hill before we spotted him.

Of course we didn’t have a dog lead with us. The family don’t even own one. Kim had never been for a walk before so he didn’t know how to conduct himself, didn’t know that he needed to stay away from the occasional vehicle roaring past and definitely didn’t know how to deal with the packs of stray dogs we came across. None of them paid any attention to people walking past, but as soon as they spotted a strange dog, there was a collective snarl as they closed in on terrified Kim.

We tried carrying him but the stray dogs still tried to get at him. As we were passing a relative’s house at the time, we decided to leave him there and collect him on the way back.

Kim was relaxed and happy to see us after his three hour rest in the shade of of a mango tree. The final leg of the journey was uneventful if a little surreal. The banana plantation on either side of the road was bordered by a high and neatly trimmed privet hedge.

The Daily Commute

Gill’s main source of income is from the care of a five acre plot of sugar cane. He supplements that income by driving a truck with collects sugar cane then takes it to the refinery. He usually has to wait for a day while the cane is cut by hand, then transported by water buffalo drawn cart to the road side where it is manually loaded. At the refinery the load is weighed and he is paid for the weight of the load transported. The truck owner receives 80% of the income. Gill gets the rest.

Tens of thousands of acres in the area are owned by a Chinese businessman. Because much of his land is sugar cane he can afford to use a harvester to cut the cane. The harvester can load a truck in minutes rather than the full day taken by manual workers. Naturally, transportation of this sugar cane is very popular with lorry drivers when they are paid by the load. Because transportation of harvester loaded sugar cane is so lucrative there’s fierce competition. Gill has to take every opportunity he can when the harvester is working.

For the last few days Gill has stayed with the truck night and day. Both Gill and his son eat, sleep and work from the small truck cab. They take a small sack of rice with them and cook it over a fire by the side of the field as they wait in line for the truck to be loaded. There are no facilities of any kind nearby so they have to take all the water they need with them for cooking, drinking and washing.

On a good day, they can transport three loads if they start at 6am and finish at midnight. Three loads over an eighteen hour day will earn Gill what a McDonald’s worker on minimum wage can earn in an hour in the UK for flipping burgers and looking gormless.

Three loads is a good day. The usual is one load and one load wouldn’t pay for the Starbuck’s coffee  which many stressed UK workers buy on the way into the office because they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to make and consume one before they leave home in the morning.

Gill’s wife looks after the home. It’s a task which takes far more effort in the Philippines than it does in the UK when everything needs to be done by hand. She also helps manage five acres of sugar cane.

On Friday, Sally and I went with Corizon and her sister Cora to inspect the cane. If you find commuting to work in the UK a bit of a chore, please think about Corizon next time the journey gets you down.

The first step was a 20km trip on an overcrowded tricycle into La Carlota. The tricycle dropped us off at the town’s bus station where we waited half an hour for a bus.

The bus journey took us an hour. There are no passenger number restrictions on the buses in the Philippines. If you can force your way on to the vehicle, it will take you wherever it’s going. The seats and the isle are usually packed. The seats are much smaller than they are on UK buses. In the same space you would expect two seats in the UK, there are three on the buses here. The seat sizes suit the usually much smaller frames of the Filippino passengers. Usually, but not always.

Sod’s law dictated that I had the pleasure of getting very close to two of the very few fat Filippinos I’ve encountered. Both were women and both had body parts normally reserved for much more intimate activities thrust against me for most of the journey.

So many people in such a small space generate a great deal of heat. It’s no so much a problem with the normally wide open windows but during heavy showers, which aren’t uncommon, the windows are closed and the heat becomes unbearable.

The bus deposited us in central Magallon. The journey was far from over. We then climbed into another tricycle for the last leg of the journey to the field. Picking the right tricycle driver for the final part of the journey is a bit of a lottery. The last few miles are along increasingly rough tracks. At some stage the tricycle driver will refuse to go any further so the rest of the journey has to be on foot.

Our tricycle driver dropped us off when the side car wheel disappeared in a deep truck rut and nearly overturned the vehicle. We then walked for forty five minutes along deeply rutted tracks. The only traffic was an occasional water buffalo drawn cart.

Week 1.8
We passed a calf drinking from a stream. I asked Sally if it was a water buffalo. She didn’t know so she asked Cora. Cora told us that it wasn’t. I asked if she knew what it was as I hadn’t seen any bovine other than water buffalo since I arrived. I loved the answer. “It’s not a water buffalo yet but it will be when it grows up!”

The only sounds were the ever present cockerels crowing, the swishing of the wind in the sugar cane and, at complete odds with the surroundings, blaring rap music from a half derelict hillside shack.

Just before we reached the field, we passed four immaculately dressed schoolgirls walking from their remote homes to the nearest school three miles away. No school bus for them but they seemed happy enough, walking in the sunshine, talking girl talk and giggling at the odd looking European as he passed.

We reached the field hot and tired after a two and a half hour journey. A journey which the family have to make before they can start a day’s work. Of course they can’t spend five hours travelling every day and hope to complete a full day’s brutal work in the field so they often don’t go home.

Week 1.9
They stay in the field for days at a time. They have built a sturdy raised bamboo shelter at the edge of the field. It’s a simple ten feet square room with shelves around the edges which allow both seating and sleeping.

In this small space both Cora and Corazon will live and sleep alongside four other labourers for four days at a time. All of the water for cooking, drinking and washing has to carried in, first by tricycle and then by foot. They cook on an open fire outside the shelter using wood collected locally. The field is their toilet.

In the photograph below, Sally and her two sisters are looking out over the rice field owned by a neighbour to the sugar cane they tend.

It’s a hard life.

Week 1.91

Continued in part two