Monday, 21 December 2009

Inilog, Biya and Christo.

Farewell Philippines and hello Japan, but before we go, thanks for the memories. Oh, and the culture shock too. Herewith a brief guide to cock fighting.

1: Ok if animal welfare is your thing then look away because things here are going to get ugly. We're starting off with cock fighting. Nope, that is not two men you dislike settling their differences over a match of fisticuffs. No siree, this here is one of the national obsessions. First up, you're gonna need a cock. Ignore the obvious pun, it gets tiresome. Next up you will need to put your your erm, rooster, on a diet of vitamins and top grade feed and then exercise him regularly. That will include sparring sessions, with a leather glove and then later, with your other cockerels if you have any. This routine will go on for about a year. You will then take your fattened bird to the cock ring pit one Sunday and pit him against another. Your cockerel will be a thing of great beauty by the time it makes it into the ring; it's plumage proud and pristine. And to be fair this bird will be like a cherished pet to you. After all, you have fed it, exercised it, invested in it and groomed it for a year or so. But then again, it might just win the battle you are about to pitch it into. And if it wins, then you're gonna have a whole lot of cash in your pocket. And if it loses, well then the winner takes all. Including your dead bird which will go on the grill quicker than you can say "Bon appetite."

2: So we're in the ring now. Next up you'll need to strap a curved blade onto the left leg of your cockerel. The blade is about two inches (or 50mm if you prefer) long, and it will be sharp enough to carve to a chicken. Literally. Once you get your bird into the ring you and the other breeder will hold your roosters at chest height and get them to go at each other for a bit. Rile them up. Make 'em angry. And vicious. This is done to create a bit of blood lust and crowd will go wild. They'll be betting like crazy. And the roosters will spit feathers. The anticipation of the fight will grow with every feather that comes away on each peck. All the while the Christo (so called because of the way he stands with his arms outstretched in either direction whilst he registers the bets) will be taking wagers from every direction. And the amazing thing is that none of these bets will be written down, they will all be remembered. Every bet, every denomination, every punter's face lest he try and shuffle out the back door if things are going badly. The bets will be placed on either Inilog or Biya. For reference, Biya is the favourite (easy to remember: Beer is Best) and attracts odds of 1:1. Inilog pays a bit better, but not that much better.

3: After the bets are in it is time for a fight. It is a bit like watching The Highlander really. You know that "There can be only one," and you also know that there will be a whole lot of blades and blood. It is brutal. It is cruel. Throw some money in and it is addictive too. The best seats in the stadium are reserved for high rollers. Sometimes they will wager a million piso or more. That's more than GBP10 000.00. Admittedly that is not an every match occurrence by any means. But it can happen. It is big business.

4: But back to the business in the ring. The average match will last about two or three minutes. Sometimes they are quicker, sometimes longer. It is usually not long at all before one of the birds gets the upper hand though. There is a referee present (Coyme's Decision is Final reads the sign, I thought it would be more appropriate to change the "Coyme" to "Death's" myself) and when it looks like the end is nigh for one of the birds the ref will lift both birds up and get them to attack each other again. Invariably the losing bird will be slowly pecked to a bloodied mess before making its way to the kitchen. At the end of the match a final and discrete stab to the heart will be administered to the losing bird with the blade attached to it's leg. We watched the cock fighting in Dumaguete. In the three hours or so were there there must have been about thirty matches or so. We arrived late and left early. According to one local we spoke to, each Sunday there will about 100 matches in that one arena, and every town has one. That is a whole lot of chicken.

5: It is pretty strange witnessing all this at first. The adrenaline the air, the Christo taking bets, the money being exchanged and the gore of the fights. And then there is the fate of the roosters. The term "Nice guys finish last" takes on a whole new meaning. If they are lucky they may die quickly. If they are unlucky they might win and then die from their wounds later, or be blinded in the fight, or indeed even live to fight another day. One cab driver told us he had a rooster that had won four fights, he was grooming it for it's fifth. As for the losing trainer, he accepts his fate dutifully. There is no acrimony or animosity. The cadaver of the losing chicken goes to the winning trainer. Outside on the street the smell of a barbecue wafts gently into the arena. Did we bet? Of course. How much? So little that no one wanted to take our bets, hey, we're travelling. Is it addictive? Kind of yes. But personally the cruelty factor overrides it all for me. I like chickens. Mostly with chilli and a bit of lime, but preferably without the excess adrenaline.

El Nido, Manila

In a whirl and a flash our time in the Philippines has been and gone. Contrary to all the warnings received we did not get mugged, kidnapped, murdered, drowned in a typhoon or incinerated by a volcano. As a friend remarked by email: “You can’t say that the Philippines is boring, that’s for sure.” Instead of certain death, what we did we discover was unparalleled hospitality and landscapes of dazzling natural beauty. Indeed the regrets we share about our time in the Philippines merely stem to the limited time that we had there, one month was clearly not enough. There were so many places that we did not make it to that we would like to have visited, Sagada and Vigan spring to mind a little higher than the others, alas they will need to wait until next time... On reflection it is obvious that Philippines was not the easiest country to backpack, it undoubtedly required a bit more effort and planning than other places we have been; but maybe this is what made it so special. There was a sense of reward in arriving somewhere new, and nowhere could this have been truer than in El Nido.

El Nido sits at the northern tip of the island of Palawan. It is accessed either directly by it’s small airport (soon to be a big airport) which, for now at least, is the more expensive way of getting there. Alternatively you can make your way to Peuto Princessa which is about halfway down the island, and from there your choices are to catch an early morning local bus or an “air conditioned” mini van. Either way a drive of about six hours on dodgy roads awaits. The bus is rickety and the mini vans not much better, so there is not much to choose between the two really. We took the latter of the options due to our arrival time in Palawan, having set out from Cebu airport earlier in the day. It was an eventful day from the outset. The taxi drivers in the Philippines are generally extremely affable and full of good humour.

The drive to Cebu Airport had been no exception and our cabbie, Julian, was an absolute hoot. Julian started off the conversation by asking where we from and then boasting of his dual citizenship. He was, he said, a citizen of the Philippines and a Senior citizen. In twenty garrulous minutes the conversation took in food, politics (there are elections here next year), Filipino family planning (or the lack thereof) and inevitably cock fighting. Whilst cock fighting seems to occupy the status of a national religion here, karaoke seems to be much like the national sport. So it did not seem too unusual when once we were on our flight a Christmas carol competition was announced. Within minutes three contestants had lined up in the aisle of the aircraft to sing a carol of choice to their somewhat bemused fellow passengers. The winner in our books was a little old lady who beamed at the passengers whilst singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in short sharp bursts before hollering “Happy Christmas Everyone” and scuttling back to her seat. It beat the pants off the serious efforts of her rivals.

We arrived in Peuto Princessa at about ten thirty with the daunting and dusty six hour drive ahead of us. We made our way to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town, crammed ourselves into a van and then set off through the undulating verdant hills that surround the town. After about half an hour the air conditioning gave up the ghost and it became apparent that the AC actually took the form of open windows. This was nothing new it would appear. In spite of this the drive was pleasant; soon the landscape changed and gave way to a coastal road that offered views of deserted beaches and a sun speckled, crystal blue sea. The road for the first couple of hours was pretty good really, and then, after a lunch of chicken and rice at a road side stall the tar abruptly gave way to dirt.

All in all we seemed to be making fairly good time, and then, on a bumpy stretch of dust and pebbles, the van gave the kind of sound that defiantly says: “I am going no further.” You could almost hear it wave two fingers at us. We piled out the vehicle and made our way to the rear left hand wheel to discover that one of the springs in the suspension had snapped. And so started the long process of trying to fix the suspension system with nothing more than lengths of rope and a small hydraulic jack. Around us, as far as the eye could see, were goats and sheep and the occasional smiling villager. There was no mobile network available. The van was jacked up, then propped on rocks whilst the jack was then used to force the broken spring back up and into it‘s usual position. The errant springs were then lashed together with rope, MacGyver would have beamed with appreciation. He would have sighed contentedly and cracker open a beer. It was torturously slow progress and two hours later, as the sun set for the day, we were back on our way.

In the interim we had met Antonio and Carlos, locals who were going to check out El Nido in advance of a joint family holiday. In typical Filipino style they were not remotely fazed by the break down. They continued to smile, laugh, joke and whistle whilst the van was fixed. They had a carefree stoicism that is typical in the Philippines. “When things go badly, we smile,“ they told me proudly. “After all, there is not much point in getting stressed out, is there?” Back in the van we had travelled about 500 metres when there was another groan from the suspension and it was time to stop again. The knot had slipped, but it had only been a matter of time. The sun had by now completely disappeared. Antonio and Carlos smiled like happy Buddha's. The whistled. The rest of us fumed. The inevitable “If this was Europe… “ was muttered. It began to look very much like that we may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere. A villager approached from a roadside settlement and then offered us accommodation for the night in his small out housing building. We accepted. He then offered to make us rice and bought us drinking water whilst Antonio and I went off to the local Sari Sari store and bought every can of corned beef and sardines that they had. Predictably Antonio refused to accept any money from me, “You are in Philippines, maybe when we see you in London you will help us.” I did not set him straight about Londoners, it seemed that now might not be the time. Rather I argued futilely for a few minutes and then graciously accepted that this was the way it would be. Back at the shack that was to be our home rice was served, the sardines were turned into a curry and I tucked into a local bottle of rum. I had it bought it to share out with the other passengers but they were not much fun sensible, so it fell to me to dispose of the wicked stuff. Later that evening the very same bottle combined with sleep deprivation sent me stumbling into an open drain, but that will be another story for another day. Above us was a star filled night, the kind of stars that you can only see in the absolute middle of nowhere, in places where electricity has not reached. That includes Harare most of the time by the way. But the whole time my prevailing thought was the generosity of the people around us. The villagers housing us for the night were relatively poor country folk. We gave them a bit of cash, but really, even if we had had no money they would still have helped. True, Antonio and Carlos were well heeled Filipinos, but then again I do not know many people who would feed a mini van full of strangers and expect no recompense or reciprocation for it whatsoever.

Behind the scenes the driver of the van had proved that he was a veritable thaumaturge and somehow managed to order a spare part for the vehicle. Where this came from I have no idea, but he and his faithful conductor had been working like Trojans to mend the suspension and at around 11 pm they achieved the impossible. We piled back into the van and continued on our way. In some ways it was a crazy decision, it was pitch black with bad roads and every likelihood of stray animals on the road. Nonetheless we went on with the journey and reached El Nido at an eye rubbing 3.00 am. We found accommodation in guesthouse close to the beach and then went to sleep. The next morning when we went out to the verandah, the full beauty of El Nido became apparent. We spent the day snorkelling at a nearby island, watched the sunset behind dramatic limestone karsts dropped haphazardly into an ocean of multifarious blues and returned to El Nido for an evening by the sea. I spent the next three days diving, including a tunnel dive and a swim with thousands of yellow snappers. The islands and lagoons around El Nido are spectacular, as were diving I did not have my camera with me and felt like my opposing thumbs had been taken away from me. By night we ate on the beach, drank happy hour beers and met up with friends that had made in Malaysia. Before long we were on the road back to Peuto Princessa, this time by bus. The journey was dusty and hot, but the bus infinitely more reliable than the van.

We spent a night in Peuto Princessa and then flew back to Manila, ran around the historical old town city of Intramuros and then met our friends in the city for one last night out. We drank until the early morning in a trendy bar in Malate and then said our farewells. Before we could depart farewell gifts were thrust into our hands which was immensely touching and came as a complete surprise, but then not that surprising when we think back to the continual generosity we were shown throughout our time in the Philippines. At the beginning of our journey through this country Anthony had confidently predicted, “You will not regret coming here.” And how right he was.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


This is Balut. A chicken and an egg, all in one. Well, actually a duck if you must really be pedantic about it. In most of the towns we have been in whilst staying in Philippines, the lyrical cry of "Baluuuut" has punctuated the quiet of the early evening. I tried one a couple of weeks back. It was not too my delectation, but to be fair this was a mental thing really. Once I got my teeth into it, the taste was not that different from that of a boiled egg. I have to admit that this balut was bought purely for photographic purposes and then ferreted into the bin whilst no one was looking, in much the same way we used to hide brussel sprouts on the ledge beneath our dining room table as kids. Eat up, before it gets cold.

Shoot the Locals

A couple of evenings ago I was down at the promenade in Dumaguete looking for things to shoot. After weeks of beaches that stretch as far you can see and more palm trees than sand, I really needed some new subject matter and a bit of inspiration. I started off by taking a few pictures of an ice cream vendor having a chat with his mate as the sun went down using really long exposures. A couple of curious kids came over and wanted to see the images on the back of my camera. These were children without much in the material sense of the phrase, they help subsidise their parents meagre income by selling peanuts and pork scratchings after school and on the weekends. Materially, they come from impoverished backgrounds. They sprawled out around me in a horseshoe, one of them laying his chin on the wrist that was supporting my camera as I flicked through the images. Their enjoyment at looking at the pictures, droll as they were, was contagious. As they giggled and elbowed each other for room a couple of adults came along to join them. Within a few minutes I had a dozen local Dumaguete denizens all identifying locations that I had been to that day. In turn this lead to a conversation with one of the children’s fathers. I asked him if he would like me to take a couple of images of his family. He was pretty eager for me to do so, then and there, but by this time the natural light was long gone so we agreed that I would come back the next evening at 5 o’clock.

It’s been a while since I did any portrait work so by about three o'clock I was beginning to get a bit nervous and rue the day I made my
agreement. Dutifully though, at the allotted time Nipun and I went down to the promenade armed with a shoot through umbrella, a couple of flashes and a light stand. Over the next hour I shot about forty images of three families. It was frenetic, the kids wanted to be in all the pictures, even if it was not their parents or siblings I was shooting. Their excitement was fantastic, this was a real adventure for them. When we reviewed the images on the back of the camera they were so animated that I spent more time watching them than looking at what I had been shooting. Nipun and I developed the pictures the next day and had the pleasure of handing out a few early Christmas presents in the evening. We did two prints of each image, which at the time seemed a bit over the top. When we were giving out the photos it transpired that one of the lady’s was ecstatic that we had done this. Her husband works in Manila and seldom manages to see his wife and his daughter. And this is a common theme - that’s where the work is. The gratitude we were shown was truly humbling. One of the ladies earns about 100 pesos per day, or about £1.30 to put it in perspective. She cut straight to the point, “For us, we wouldn’t be able to afford pictures like this. It is the small things that make all the difference here.” In total the whole shoot and post processing in Lightroom took up maybe a couple of hours in total. It cost us less than a tenner in printing. And for that we managed to give out three sets of family photos. The feel good factor involved outweighs all of that a hundred times over. And to boot we met three lovely families and I got to shoot something other than more sunsets with palm trees. More images here.

In other news we have managed to find a way off the island. Our initial plan was to travel all the way around Negros and then to Iloilo before getting a ferry back to Manila. Time is running low and our options were running lower a couple of days ago. At the 11th hour Nipun managed to find flights to Palawan, and so we’ll be flying out from Cebu on Wednesday and making our way to El Nido at the north of the island. And then on to Japan, the planning for which is currently underway. There is, however, so much to see on Negros where are at the moment. The island is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to. In the last couple of days we have been to Dauin where we had hoped to organise a diving trip to Apo Island. Sadly this did not work out so today we headed further down the coast to Malapatan and then walked down the beach for about four kilometres to Zamboanguita. For the duration of the walk we hardly saw another soul. There was the occasional rural village and a fisherman or two, but for the most part it was us, palm trees and sand for as far as the eye could see. In front of us was Apo island, behind a mountain that pierced the clouds. We found our way back on to the road with the assistance of a local Filipino who insisted on bundling both of us on to the back of his motorbike and then continued further south to Siaton. Back in Dumaguete I keep on remembering bits and pieces from the local bus rides we have made recently: the “Fasten (your) seatbelt” signs in the absence of any seat belts, a neon light that flashed “Jesus Save Us” every time the driver used his brakes and blocks of plywood that serve as windows when the evening grows too cold, erm about 25 degrees in these parts! On the dashboard are effigies of Jesus and Mary, which makes a change from the Buddha’s that we have become so accustomed to over the last eight months.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Malapascua to Bohol

"Billy Jean is not my mama..."

After the discombobulating (nice word, eh!) frenzy of Manila we decided it was time to pack our bags again and head for an island retreat. This in itself represented a bit of a challenge, after all, the Philippines has over 7100 to choose from and the largest area of coastline in the world. We decided to start in the Visayas, the archipelago that sits due south of Manila. With our boat scheduled to leave at 4 a.m. we stayed up late and then joined the long line of people queuing to go to Cebu City. Security is a massive concern in the Philippines and as we waited in line our bags were opened, put through a scanner and finally given the once over by a sniffer dog, an cuddly and docile Alsatian in magnificent condition. Having negotiated the check in process we found our accommodation for the journey, in the form of a shared dormitory with about 100 other travellers on neatly stacked bunk beds. The ferry itself consisted of several of these dorms and two restaurants, both with karaoke. Of course. “When you build a new house in the Philippines you make sure that the karaoke machine is installed before you put the roof on. It’s bad luck otherwise,” joked someone we met on one of the islands. The karaoke was on at 9 a.m. when we went for a cup of coffee and still going at 4pm that afternoon when I went to find a bit of fresh air. The same women, horribly tone deaf, was still hollering out Celine Dion. I was previously of the opinion that the theme track to Titanic could not get much get worse than the original. I was wrong.

We arrived in Cebu at about 10 a.m. a day and a half later. From the upper decks of the ferry, passengers threw coins and fruit into the waters below. Here women, children and men waited to catch the plummeting treasure, patrolling the water in small boats. Their dexterity was amazing: a coin would go hurtling through the air and beneath, a woman with two poles and a piece of fabric woven between, would deftly catch it and tip it back it into the boat. In the event that the throw was poor and the coin could not be caught, someone would roll off one of the boats and swiftly swim after the sinking booty before returning to the surface, usually triumphant. We were so caught up in the excitement that we nearly forgot to get off the ferry, which was continuing on to other islands further south.

Once we were off the boat and in Cebu City we made our way to the Northern bus terminal and then caught the local bus through to Maya, an hour and a bit north. The journey was great, passing through small towns, a thunder storm, a funeral procession and sugar cane plantations that stretched away as far as the eye could see. After about two days of travel we finally found ourselves on a banca (an old outrigger), making the 8km crossing between Maya and Malapascua island. Malapascua is a wonderful place to visit. It is still fairly undeveloped, for example there is no ATM and the electricity is only on in the evenings (which is of course more than you can say about Zimbabwe most of the time). There are a handful of resorts and bungalows along the beach, only two of which offer wi-fi, for which they charge the earth. As you walk through the village you see basket ball hoops fastened to the trunks of coconut trees, whilst the speed humps in the road are fashioned from dissected palm trees. Along the white sands of the beach, volley ball nets are strung up between more coconut trees and blithe children skinny dip in the 28 degree, turquoise sea. We found a diving school and did three dives whilst we were there, including a night dive where we saw the elusive mandarin fish do their mating dance and a deep dive on which we saw thresher sharks.

Sadly there are some elements on the island which seemed a little less idyllic. We met a young child who, aged ten, no longer went to school for lack of funds. One version of the story was that his parents had deserted him and run away to Manila where the streets are allegedly paved with gold. The other conflicting tale was that his ma and pa were alive and well, living on the island, but blind drunk for most of their waking hours. So, either way you look at it, he is without family. Nipun befriended him, schooled him for an afternoon and bought him some new clothes. The next day he was back with a friend who also wanted some food and clothes. Where do you draw
the line? Especially knowing the ephemeral difference that you will make. It is very sad, especially when contrasted against the back drop of a paradise where the rich come to dive and eat fresh Adobo and fish. A couple of days later the young child was then verbally abused and physically bullied off the property we were staying at by a foul, insane looking American dive school owner who claimed that the child was a known thief. The American was a crazed bully with a mullet that would have made even the most decadent of eighties pop stars blush. Thief or not, it seemed completely reprehensible the way the kid was treated. It made me very glad we did not do any dives with his company. The negatives are easy to dwell on but most of my memories of the island are good ones, and most of the children we saw were happy. The image of a boy of aged about four dancing through the street singing “Billy Jean is not my mama..” returns to me. He bounced along the road with his friends, making up the words as he went along. In some ways it reminded me of how I grew up in Zimbabwe, the freedom that you had as a child, which seems like an alien concept in the UK. From Malapascua we took the boat back to Maya, the sly looking boat owner telling us not to tell the other passengers that we had only paid 50 peso as he had charged them double. We only got the correct rate without argument as we had been befriended by one of the local touts who took a liking to us. He changed my almost universal dislike of touts, he was affable, helpful and not at all pushy. He had worked in Indonesia, was a carpenter by trade and had returned to Malapascua whilst the recession kicked in. I really regret not having gone on a fishing trip with him, he would have been an interesting person to chat with. Back in Cebu we found the immigration department and extended our visas. Then we left for Bohol for more diving, this time with massive shoals of jack fish forming slowly revolving towers above us and turtles. There are many things that I will miss when we get back from this journey, swimming with the fishes is one of them.

Our time in Bohol was predominantly spent on Alona Beach, Panglao island. The beach faces due south and boasts dazzling sunsets and sunrises. I got up at 5.30 one morning to shoot dawn and was astounded by the number of local people who were already up and about. By 5.45 I had already been asked twice if I wanted to charter a boat for the day. We met up with Anthony from Manila and some of his friends one night and drank far too much Red Horse, ate belut (yup, the egg with the chicken in it) and learnt the Filipino word for whatever - Umshigi. It became a catchphrase for the evening, and is used with the same mocking sarcasm that is reserved for “Whatever” in English. The inspiration came from a street kid that used to visit one of the groups (Raymond’s) work. One day the Raymond’s boss gave the child some money and gently told him that he was becoming a little to regular in his visits. “Here’s some money, but please don’t come back for a while.” The kid pocketed the money, then looked at him, smiled, and said “Umshigi!” The phrase stuck. From Panglao we went back to the port of Taglibaran, visited the famous chocolate hills and went to the cathedral. Taglibaran has a nice feel to it in spite of what the travel guide said, we ended up spending a couple of days there. I also ate more McDonalds there than anywhere else, ever. Why? They have free wi
-fi. At time of writing we are in Dumaguete, it is really hot here. I spent yesterday afternoon following a school leaving festival which was really, really good. The amount of effort that had gone into creating the costumes, the dances and the parade was astounding. And this was just a minor event in terms of Filipino carnivals, not even on the calendar. This nation knows how to party. The food is also getting better and better. Last night we had a whole chicken, barbecued on a rotisserie with a chilli sauce that was so lethal that even Nipun and I were feeling the heat. I really, really like it here. I just need those lotto numbers to come in now. Please?