Monday, May 11, 2009

The Philippines, Part Two: Legazpi

There is a reason I flew back to Manila from Legazpi City: I took a bus to get there. It was not a an experience to be had more than once.

On the last day of April I checked out of the hotel and headed for the bus station. I had a couple of places in mind... Cabanatuan, Lingayen Gulf, Legazpi... the latter of the three had caught my eye when I read that the most perfectly-formed conical volcano in the world sat several miles north of the small harbor town. The first bus portal I came upon had a big sign that read "Legazpi City." Volcanotime it would be. I paid a 350-Pisos fare, surprised at the low price, and clambered onto the bus.

The driver explained that it'd be about a seven-hour ride into town, southeast along the snaking end of the island of Luzon. Seven hours... no biggie. I relaxed contentedly in the wide seat that I had to myself, updated my travel journal, even pulled out my guitar and whipped up a few casual tunes. It was a nice day outside, the window next to me was wide open, and I was pretty excited to be headed for the largest active volcano in the entirety of the Philippine Islands.

Then came the extra people. An hour into the ride the bus was packed full. I was jammed into a little corner, my legs wedged into the seat in front of me... the bus was obviously not built for tall people. Then came the rain, forcing me to shut my window, which was the only thing keeping fresh air in the bus.

I would later learn that a violent tropical storm had blasted straight through the region during the trip south, killed several people, upending buses, stranding ferries, and, thus, clogging the roads completely. I was unaware of this during the time, and as the trip stretched from seven hours to eight and ten and twelve, the bus jammed to sudden stops, lurched sickeningly into potholes, out of them, and into another one just as quickly. It became nauseating very quickly... I'm not entirely sure how I managed to keep the contents of my stomach down, but I did it.
At around three in the morning a rooster started crowing. On the bus. Somebody had brought a freakin chicken on board. It wouldn't shut up, either. If I'd been a few seats closer I'd have opened the first international Chick-fil-A branch. No such luck; instead I turned my greenish face to the window and concentrated on not heaving.

Thirteen hours into the trip, the driver called out the Legazpi City stop, mercifully ending my punishment. It was after five in the morning. I found a hotel closeby, walked in drenched from the rain, paid for a room and crashed for the next five hours.

Legazpi City was extremely small by most standards. The main section of town was clustered around the innermost portion of the bay, and the national highway ran west, away from it, into the western end of town, much smaller, and back up towards Manila. To the north of the two sections of town was the Legazpi airport, and, perhaps three miles beyond it, the base of the Mayon Volcano. The sight of it startled me when I first noticed it. It was massive, rising up, as volcanos do, imposingly behind everything else. The tip was shrouded in clouds (and smoke) the entire time I was there, which was slightly frustrating, but the enormity of the thing was still awe-inspiring.

Several days into my stay, which would turn out to be nine days total, I headed out for the volcano. I wasn't aware of a way to actually get ON to the thing (and I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to) so I settled for the popular obersvation point north of the airport. I walked for miles, passing village after village... I found the people in Legazpi to be much more friendly than the ones in Manila. I was gawked at everywhere I went, but the stares were quickly followed by huge smiles and calls of "Hey Joe!" (The name, I presume, is a relic of the World War Two days when American troops fought the Japanese in the region and were known, synonymously, as "Joes." The kids all demanded high-fives when I walked by, usually following it up with "wassup man!" Western slang, it seemed, was not without influence in southeast Asia.

After climbing an absurdly-steep switchback trail up a protruding bluff several miles south of the volcano, I downed a bottle of water to rehydrate and then took some pictures. Some of them turned out pretty well, and the panorama feature of my camera delighted me once again. I was bummed that the clouds never seemed to disappear from the tip of the volcano to allow me a full shot, but there was nothing I could do about that.

On the way back down I discovered a tunnel in the bluff, converted by the Japanese into an ammunition dump during the Second World War. It'd been turned into a makeshift museum. The history nerd in me came alive and I took the short tour. Most of it had been bombed to Hades before U.S. forces landed in Legazpi and took over, but two tunnels still existed, and exploring them was fascinating. The styrofoam Japanese soldiers were a bit much, but there were several preserved relics, including a typewriter, some ammunition cans, and cartridges (probably still live.)

The rest of the week passed rather quickly. I did my share of walking around, exploring the area, but my financial situation didn't allow me to do much more. Instead I found a bookstore and re-immersed myself in the world of Jack London, awed by it as much as I had been as an eight-year-old kid. Some things never changed.

The week passed quickly, I got sick, and then, mostly unsick, then boarded a plane for Manila, and here I am now, even less sick, and ready to come home. Today is my one hundredth day of traveling, which is an astonishing number... the time has absolutely flown by (and, paradoxically, it also feels like I left a full century ago.)

Tomorrow I will get on a plane, fly to Taipei, then to Los Angeles, then to Philadelphia, then to Raleigh, and then, finally, Greensboro. And home.

See ya there.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Philippines, Part One: Manila

Manila is listed by many travel guidebooks as among the top three of the "Dirtiest Cities in the World." An ignominious reputation, to be sure, but it didn't dispell any of my excitement as my flight dipped over the Luzon shoreline. Absurdly bookish during my childhood and adolescence, I'd pored over countless books about the conflicts of the Second World War and the significance of the Philippine Islands as a stronghold in the Japanese-held Pacific realm. Never once, in my unquenchable intake of the stories then, or during my education as a history major at UNC-Greensboro years later did I imagine I'd ever actually be there. To most travelers, Manila was the third-dirtiest city in the world. To me it was a storied land. My plane was landing in Oz.

Aesthetics is a funny subject, often difficult to articulate... oftentimes it's beyond specific description, only identifiable when it's fully realized. Walking along Manila Bay was one such moment. Through the eyes of reality, it was an atrocious walk. Descriptions of conditions were not exaggerated; the way was lined with the poorest of sights, families living on the rocky, trash-strewn shores, children splashing naked in putrid waters we at home wouldn't deign worthy of spitting in. And yet it was, to me, enormously significant, for while Manila Bay proper was never the subject of any noteworthy significance, it was always there, mentioned offhandedly with other very significant events. And so Manila Bay became offhandedly associated with Corregidor and MacArthur and Bataan and the events surrounding the Japanese siege in 1941-42 and the subsequent promised return of the Allied forces in 1944-45.

Thus to me, my mile-long walk was as aesthetically pleasing as anything possibly could be. The nerd within was well pleased.

Aside from those moments, my experience in Manila was rather mundane. And truthfully, I planned it that way. As I mentioned in my last column of the semester in the Carolinian, I often try to capture the essence of a city - as much as can be captured in a short ammount of time - by skipping out on the touristy stuff and observing everyday life. And for a week that's exactly what I did. I stayed in a run-down, flea-infested traveler's inn on Roxas Avenue, roaming the filthy streets for miles everyday.

Photography, I found to my surprise, was nearly impossible. What I was observing was everyday life; while foreign to me, and thus worthy of photographing, I felt strangely odd in doing so. Pictures should have subjects, noteworthy subjects, and somehow capturing the images before me seemed petty and foolish, like driving down Wendover Avenue in Greensboro to take a picture of the inside of Walmart. For the most part, Manila is committed to the memory of my mind where, I feel, it remains more properly remembered. A photograph can capture an image, but that is all. It cannot capture sound and smell - it cannot capture being, or essence. And Roxas Avenue had an essence all its own.

Much like human trafficking statistics or news of Darfur genocides, it is particularly hard to make a true connection with reality at home and that reality abroad. It may well be impossible... there's simply a disconnect between what's familiar and what's ground into cliche and familiar newspaper stories. Sure, goes the thought, I feel bad about because that's a really big number, a lot of poverty/death/pain, but since it doesn't directly affect me and I've never seen it firsthand, I can't connect with it. I don't think it is possible to understand it without actually experiencing it firsthand. Thus, my understanding of things was about to change.

Roxas Avenue, running north-south from the Paranaque district of southern Manila, up along Manila Bay and into the Ermita business district and beyond, was to be my first experience with true poverty. Of course I'd seen beggars and shacks and poor living conditions in Thailand and Vietnam and especially southern Burma, but nothing compared to this. The street was lined with the most destitute of society. Filthy children splashed murky puddles, their parents nearby, equally as dirty and threadbare, plying their trade - usually selling various objects from stalls. Along the crumbling sidewalks permanent homes were constructed of whatever objects could be found. A rancid canal ran for miles along the street, clogged with trash and human excrement, an absolutely vile fluid that served as a life source for the Roxas inhabitants. Children actually swam in it, adults fished from it, pulling small flopping creatures that somehow lived in it. The smell was so bad I could barely stand to walk along it.

It was a unique experience, I daresay, and may well take me some time to fully digest and particularize. I passed a week on Roxas, spending my days reading James Clavell's Shogun (a fantastic novel, by the way) and walking the streets inbetween meals at various restaraunts. My memory of Manila will not be of shopping at malls and visiting spas and staying in nice hotels. I will remember the real Manila. There's a pretty big difference.

Now, a week later, I'm four hundred miles away in Legazpi City, several miles from the most perfectly formed conical volcano in the world. Getting here was an adventure.

But that's another story.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Final Carolinian Column

My last column for the UNC Greensboro newspaper, The Carolinian, will run on Tuesday. Normally I just convert one of my regular blog posts with a little bit of editing and run it, but for the last article I wanted a little bit of a different feel. Here it is:


It's been quite an adventure.

With two weeks to go before my return to good ol' Greensboro - I'm amazed by how much I miss it - I'm exploring the Philippine Islands... wandering the streets of Manila, trekking southern Luzon volcano regions, relaxing on black-sand beaches. It's only two weeks, but I'll make the most of them.

This'll be the last issue of The Carolinian you'll read until August; exam-time is in its death throes (or putting you through yours) and the freedom of summer awaits... three beautiful, beautiful months. Thinking about doing some traveling? If you're headed abroad, I'd like to advise you of several priceless things I've learned during my overseas adventures, things I wish I'd been told.

1) Don't Lose Your Credit Card. Especially if you're travelling by yourself. Trust me, you don't know how reliant you are on it. To safeguard against theft, make sure you use lockboxes provided at hotels, guard your pockets against pickpockets if you're headed to areas where that's a problem, and make sure you get your credit card back after you use the ATM. This is not something you want to experiment with. (To safeguard, you may wish to open a separate bank account and get a debit card for emergencies, storing it in a separate place... it'll keep you from starvation and rooflessness while you get a new card sent to you. Or you could:

2) Bring A Guitar. Besides being a lifesaver if you lose your card and you're broke (if you didn't read about it, I got stranded in northern Thailand and played on street corners to earn enough money to survive) music is a priceless commodity during travels. I've pulled mine out in airport terminals, inside a bus, on a train, on the beach, next to the pool (this is not recommended if people are jumping in) and in hotel rooms. Boredom is never a factor if you've got a guitar... and its ability to bring groups together is priceless. Perfect strangers of different nationalities who might otherwise never be friends suddenly hear Wonderwall playing and start singing along, chatting, and then everyone's best friends. It's like a magical force. And for an awesome travel momento, buy a sharpie, and when you meet people, have 'em sign their name or a brief message on it. It's something you'll treasure forever.

3) Forget About Hotels. Unless you're into the ritzy spa-and-massage type of getaway, or into spending way too much money (given you're college students, you'll probably not fall into those categories) hostels are the way to go. Known as youth hostels or backpacker's hotels, they're basically dorm rooms fitting bunk beds, anywhere from four in smaller to sixteen in the larger ones, for prices far less than standard hotels. You surrendur privacy, but the social aspects are beyond price. Get a hostel for the night, mix in a touch of friendliness, and you've got instant conversations and new friends.

4) Don't Just See The Sights. See some of them, but not all of them. If you have time on your hands, spend a week on a nondescript section of town, walk the streets, and see daily life as it exists outside of all the touristy locations. You'll get a much clearer view of everyday life in the place you're visiting... walking down the slum-lined canals of Roxas Avenue in Manila is a much different experience than staying in the shopping district and lounging on the beach. Tourist attractions can be fun, but they seldom leave you with the proper feel for where you're staying.

5) Go With The Flow. I can't count how many times I've learned and re-learned this lesson. If you're restricted to certain dates of travel - that is, you've got your return ticket already purchased - you're naturally going to be limited in your ability to wander at your heart's whim. But don't make my mistake: before departure, I spent hours planning every detail of my trip. Google Earth, Google maps, Lonely Planet, Frommer's guides... I filled out calendars with itineraries, browsed travel forums, and determined exactly where I would be, when I would go, and what I'd do there.

Virtually none of it happened. And with a bit of hindsight I see just how much better off I am for it... the entire trip has been packed with surprises and whimiscal ventures, irreplacable in my memory. Be spontaneous. Be smart and make sure you've got a backup plan - but be spontaneous. You won't regret it in the end.

So there you have it... five things I wish I'd known before my own departure. If you're headed out, be safe, be smart, be free... and have fun. I know I did.


Having the opportunity to write the column was an absolute joy, and it lent more of a sense of purpose to my journey.

...but, that said (or typed, as the case may be) the journey is not yet over. I'm still in the Philippines, in a tiny town called Legazpi. I'm two miles from the most perfect conical volcano in the world... and it's far from dormant. I have ten days left, and I'll make the most of them. I still have stories to tell.