The Travelogue: Bearland

The Travelogue: Bearland

‘Don’t drink the water’ is a common  piece of advice given when traveling to developing countries, and I know from personal experience it applies to the Philippines. During my last visit six years ago, my Tita mixed up my water bottle of clean drinking water with one of tap water. The results weren’t pleasant. After emptying my guts in the Mall of Asia bathroom, we went straight home and I did my best not to do the same in the back seat of the taxi.

I would never have expected to be doing the same thing at a ‘luxury’ beach resort near Iloilo city six years later.

After a merry morning of swimming, courtesy of Jen who paid the entry fee for our party of twelve (most of Jen’s family, plus me), we sat in the shade to eat the food she had ordered. I hadn’t been swimming in years, and had forgotten just how much energy it requires, so I was famished. We dug into pizza, fried squid, fries, and chicken. It was the latter, a little red close to the bone, that we think caused some rumblings in our stomachs, and Jen and I back and forth from the pool to the bathroom.
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Other than that, it was a pleasant day. It was my first time visiting a resort and seeing a white-sand beach in the Philippines. During previous trips, mainly been in busy cities, the filthy water of Manila bay being sight of the sea. Bearland seemed appealing enough, though the name puzzled me. At the entrance, a young couple took pictures of themselves in front of a statue of a Polar Bear and two cubs.

The resort comprises a water sports center, tennis & volleyball court, cottages and rooms for overnight stays, a modern-looking conference centre, and two pools, which is what we were chiefly interested in.

After Jen had paid our entrances, we made camp at a table in the shade and rushed to the  water, sweet relief on a sweltering day. Jen had brought the GoPro, and her family enjoyed taking underwater videos and selfies. Even the babies got in, their parents placing them in rubber rings and long-sleeved swimwear to protect from the midday sun. Jen’s tubby nephew beamed as he floated along, splashing the water with his hands. With his pudgy legs, arms, and belly, he almost looked as if he too had been filled with air.

Jen and I went for a wander. The unrelenting sun had baked the stone paths around the pool; going walking barefoot was not an option. A few clouds hung white and weak in the sky, powerless to stop the sunshine. It was too hot to be out in the sun for long, so we darted from one shelter to another. I had been applying sunscreen regularly, but by 1pm, my neck and shoulders were starting to sizzle. Beyond the wall of the resort, a couple of stray dogs walked along the coast, nosing through litter than had washed to shore, calm waves washing their paws. Fishing boats moored on the sand sat roasting in the sun. In front of us, local children dived into the sea from small pier. Further down, outside their coastal homes, a larger group swam to sea and played on a boat, their excited shouts and laughter carried to our ears by a gentle sea breeze.

Behind us, the pool, had emptied somewhat. Jen’s family took cover in the shade, a few women sat at the bar.
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By 2pm, I was feeling fatigued. I hadn’t  been swimming in years, and had forgotten what a physical toll it takes on your body. The heat hadn’t helped, and I was tempted to join the babies and Jen’s Tito in taking a siesta.

By the time we left, at around 4pm, I was shattered. The seven of us – plus three babies – packed into the minivan and head back to the city, Jen’s sister and her boyfriend following along on his motorcycle. We stopped to grab a bite in a small pizza place in a market. Outside it, crates and crates of glass soft-drink bottles, straws poking out their tops, stood waiting for collection. I was still feeling a little queasy, but I hoped the pizza would help to settle my stomach until I got back to the house. It seemed to.

When we did get back, Jen and I trudged up to our humid room and flopped onto the bed. We had left our strength behind; in the chill swimming pool, in the humid air, and in the Bearland bathrooms.
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Iloilo: Out the Window

Iloilo: Out the Window

 

 

 

We drove with the windows down. Jen’s Kuya’s car didn’t have working air-conditioning, so we had to make do with blasts of barely-cool air as we sped down the highways and narrow streets of Iloilo and its provinces.

While Jen spoke to her relatives in a language I didn’t understand, I gazed out of the window, and passed the time taking snapshots…
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The Travelogue: Perfect Mangoes, ‘Mixed Vegetables’, and Chicken Intestines

The Travelogue: Perfect Mangoes, ‘Mixed Vegetables’, and Chicken Intestines

One thing I will always miss about the Philippines are the mangoes. The saccharine flesh is so golden, it’s as if you are eating sunshine itself. As your spoon glides gently through, you can’t help spill its juice onto your fingers and clothes, so succulent are they. Ah, matamis! After all the greasy, fried food I’d been eating at breakfast the past week, I was ecstatic to find them at the breakfast table; Guimaras mangoes, no less, which Jen assured me were the best. Eating them, I felt I was able to detox from the hotdogs, toccino, omelette, and fried rice that had preceded it.

I have a love-hate relationship with Filipino food. Half of it I love, half of it I hate, and most of the dishes I love, I love in moderation. When in England, I sometimes pine for it. My mother didn’t learn how to cook properly until after she emigrated to England, so Filipino food was a rarity growing up, but for a few simple dishes, and was mostly experienced at Pinoy gatherings or parties. One Tita in particular served such lavish spreads I didn’t know where to begin. Much of it looked strange to me: sauces of every colour, thin noodles, thick noodles, sweet meat, rice in deserts. It baffled me, but liked most of what I tried. That being said, many Filipino dishes are awfully greasy, and after months of healthy eating before the trip I could almost hear my stomach crying out after being bombarded with fried food.

Jen had also cleaned up her diet, and her efforts in the gym had started to show real results. This all went out the window now she was back home, and she despaired at the weight she was gaining, but couldn’t resist her native favourites.

“Fuck it, I’m on holiday,” she’d decided.
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Most of the day was spent running errands, so all in all, it was uneventful.

For lunch, we stopped in a local restaurant. Jen ordered sisig, a sizzling meat dish, usually made from pork, and dinuguan, a stew of offal and blood, like a liquid black pudding.  I ordered a dish labelled ‘mixed vegetables’ to go with my rice, but found that it also had meat in – vegetarian options are almost non-existent in many restaurants in the Philippines, and when they are available they tend to be sub-par and over-priced.

We had head into the city so Jen could change money, and so her brother and sister-in-law could go grocery shopping. We trawled around the supermarket, Jen’s tubby nephew sat in the kid-seat of the shopping cart, pushed by his parents. In the snack aisle, he grabbed a tub of chocolate with dipping sticks and wouldn’t let go, his crying equal parts annoying and cute. His parents eventually succumbed, and allowed him to open it, paying for an empty carton at the check out, at which point the babies chubby cheeks and fingers were smeared in chocolate.
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Back at the house, Jen and I were sent on an errand to pick up some isaw (barbecued chicken intestine), a popular street food, from a vendor in the neighbourhood. I wouldn’t be partaking, but was happy to go on an evening walk. It was golden hour; the village tranquil, but for the odd dog barking from behind its metal gate. One, possibly a stray, stood stock still in the street, eyed us suspiciously as we passed. We gave it a wide berth.

Few people were around. A couple of Kuyas wheeled a pedicab across a wooden bridge. The last remnants of a bonfire weakly wheezed smoke to the cloudless sky, serenaded quietly by the shrill cries of small insects. I hadn’t seen a cloud in days. I wondered if they still existed.

The lights of the local fitness centre shone through square windows; heads bobbed in and out of sight as people pounded along on the treadmills. I hoped the place had AC, for their sake.

It felt like a summer evening back home: golden, green, and peaceful.

We found the food stall. A husband and wife stood under the low-hanging cloth roof, the latter braising the meat while the former fanned the flames of the grill. Jen ordered her favourites.

As we walked back, the sauce and grease of the isaw seeped through the paper bag.
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In the evening, we sat in front of the television, attempting to keep cool on another muggy summer night (maiinit!). An episode of Kapuso mo, Jessica Soho happened to focus on Iloilo, showcasing popular tourist spots (mainly churches), and some less frequented cafes and restaurants, including the birthplace of La Paz Batchoy, a noodle dish I had never tried before.  It gave Jen and I ideas for when we were once again free to adventure on our own. But that was still a few days away…
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The Travelogue: Baggage, Lolas, and the Province.

The Travelogue: Baggage, Lolas, and the Province.

It was in the van and away we go, though again, I didn’t know where. Jen was doing an uncharacteristically bad job of keeping me up to date with plans, presumably preoccupied with her family, which I could understand. I knew she was nervous – “I haven’t shown a partner this part of my life” – though she seemed calmer when I reassured her that I was genuinely interested. Still, as not many of her family would, or could, talk to me, due to my inability to speak Hiligaynon and lack of Tagalog, I couldn’t help but feel like an extra piece of baggage, silently tucked into the corner, transported from one location to the next.

“Where are we?”, I asked, as we pulled over to the side of a wide main road.
“We’re visiting my Lola.” The Lola on her father’s side.

We darted across the dusty main road and into a narrow alley of old, (mostly) single-story concrete buildings,with corrugated tin roofs, shaded from the harsh afternoon sun by verdant trees. A group of elderly women stood in a semi-circle, hands together, mouths praying, eyes gazing up at a two-foot tall statue of Christ on a pedestal. We slipped through their group, their chanting undisturbed. ‘Holy week’ was less than a week away.

Neighbourhood kids who were playing outside their houses stared at our group as we passed through, Jen’s blue hair seemingly catching their attention. At the end of the lane, a couple of Jen’s relatives stood outside the house waiting to greet us, some of whom I recognised from the night we arrived. We walked in single file down a narrow alley and into the house, dim in the shade of the tightly packed houses. Jen’s Lola sat on a seat near the door; her metal walking stick stood beside her. Jen sat next to her, and I sat next to Jen who briefly introduced me to her Lola, and I observed proper politeness by ‘blessing’ her – raising the back of her hand to my forehead. Outside, the chanting of the worshippers began to grow closer.

Jen’s Lola made a comment in Hiligaynon about her hair. “What? It’s blue!”, Jen exclaimed through a wide smile. This was about all of the conversation I understood. The family sat in a circle talking excitedly, Jen the centre of attention; I sat to her side, smiling politely and occasionally making awkward eye contact with people I didn’t yet know the names of. In many ways I related to the babies in the room. They didn’t understand what what was being said, either, and were dependent on someone for comfort.

I listened outside. The chanted prayers sounded like they were right outside, then they came to a halt. Moments later, Jen’s cousin brought one of the statues of Christ into the house.

After fifteen minutes of listening to merry chatter, we decided to sit outside. Jen’s Lola needed assistance walking. She was frail, having suffered a stroke, and Jen helped her along while I opened  the doors. Once outside, the three of us sat on a wooden bench, Jen in the middle.

Many of her relatives were gathered one house down, outside her Tita’s sari sari store. The babies ran around, minded by Jen’s brother; her tubby one year old nephew a constant source of noise and energy, his slightly elder cousin more contemplative. Her sister and sister-in-law looked at pirated DVDs in a sari sari across the lane. The local kids up the lane seemed to be having a disagreement, the boys and girls separated, staring and pouting at each other from across the way. I sat next to Jen as she caught up with her Lola, the shade and slight breeze a relief, chilling the sweat on my skin.

Jen’s cousin offered me a piece of Maja Blanca, which I accepted, and she returned from the sari sari with a piece on a paper plate with a plastic fork. It was warm, but still good.

Ten minutes later, a caucasian man in his late forties or early fifties appeared and parked a blue Honda motorcycle a few doors down. The local kids gathered around him, jumping and shouting, their feud seemingly forgotten. He smiled down, and humoured them, before heading inside. I was surprised: a white man living in the provinces is a rare sight. It seemed that he was surprised to see us, too, as when he noticed us upon exiting his house he stood about eight feet away and watched us talking on the bench for a solid minute. Seems like, in some places, whether it’s Filipino or foreigner, I can’t avoid being stared at. I pretended to be listening to Jen and her Lola speak.

Dusk descended; the golden highlights on the verdant trees disappeared, their leaves grew dull. A group of Tita’s came down the lane, laughing loudly together. Jen’s tubby nephew looked tired from running and jumping around. Everyone went inside. We helped her Lola back inside, so we could eat a simple dinner together. She looked happy, but I saw melancholy behind Jen’s eyes, worrying for her Lola’s health and feeling a little guilty that this short visit would be the first and last time in years she’d seen her. “I love spending time with my family,” she had often told me on this trip. And I could see it, though I couldn’t entirely empathise. I can’t remember the last time my sisters and I did something together with our parents, though it’s not something I’d complain about. I did my best to discard my feelings of loneliness, of feeling left out, for her sake. I was happy for her. And even though she was nervous, and a little peeved at some relatives always asking for things, she was enjoying being back, and they enjoyed her.
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The Travelogue: Billiards in Iloilo

The Travelogue: Billiards in Iloilo

Jen’s Tito owns a pool hall. I did not know that. Jen hadn’t told me much of anything, and that first full day in Iloilo was full of surprises.

After taking my first tabo bath in six years, and eating breakfast, our party of twelve – eight adults, 4 babies – piled into Jen’s Kuya’s minivan to round-up the rest of her relatives. There was no AC, so we opened all the windows, the wind blasting my face as we sped down the main road, under the blistering midday sun. Out of the window, the countryside of Oton whizzed by. The greenery was a welcome remedy to the largely grey and dull concrete jungle of Metro Manila. I saw cows, karabaw, and chickens in a field, who each had a little wooden shelter, like miniature versions of Eeyore’s house, for shade. I’m a country boy at heart, and seeing provincial life on this island warmed me as much as the tropical sun.

When we got into town, it was all narrow streets lined by sari-sari stores and food stalls, colourful banner ads strung high on their facades. Construction slowed us to a crawl, as parts of the road was being repaired.

We made it to the coast. At gaps in the trees and houses I could see children and families frolicking in the surf. The car made a right turn down a sandy lane just wide enough for our vehicle to inch through, finally arriving at the house of one of Jen’s relatives – her uncle, she informed me, after we had alighted. After I was introduced, I stood around awkwardly as everyone spoke energetically to Jen, then five minutes later we piled back into the car and head to the next destination, which ended up being the pool hall.

I was glad to be indoors; the sun unable to penetrate far into the pool hall, it’s unglazed windows allowing what little breeze there was to slink through. With 8 people in the car, the open windows had barely quelled the tropical heat; my leg was slick with sweat where it had been leant against Jen’s. I also felt more relaxed in the hall. Though I stood out, people were too occupied to give me the stares I usually got when out on the street. Plus, I was with the owner’s niece. I didn’t need to feel so self-conscious.

Around us, many young adults in white naval uniforms, apparently from a nearby college, were playing pool. Others were sat at the computers in the corner. One guy with no shirt was watching anime. Another pair played NBA 2K on the Xbox.

Jen’s Tito handed me a glass bottle of Sprite and a pool cue, and set up the table. A boy of about seven took up a cue and proceeded to break. Apparently I was playing against this kid, and the kid was good. He was pocketing balls left and right, sometimes using only one hand when he couldn’t lean over the table. I hadn’t played pool in years, but I couldn’t help feel a little sad about being destroyed by a small child.

“Who is this kid?”, I wondered aloud.

“That’s my cousin”, Jen informed me.

So he was the owner’s son. No wonder he was so good. We played a few more frames and by the end he was giving me handicaps and coaching me on where to strike the ball, my performance clearly warranting sympathy.
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Lunch was served, just as I was starting to feel the hunger pangs one gets after an hour of sucking at pool. We sat down with Jen’s grandparents, who were preparing oysters fresh from the ocean to eat with rice, and though it was my first time trying them I savoured the brine-soaked slime balls as I hadn’t eaten in hours.

Jen and I were bored with Pool, so we took her super tubby, super energetic nephew to get ice cream, then sat down by the fan when we returned. Her young cousin/my new pool coach appeared to be interested me, asking copious questions:

“Where did you get your shoes? Your hat? Your glasses? Your phone?”

He didn’t seem to care about the answers; he just wanted to talk. He also took a photo of me, for which I posed with an awkward smile, my posture slightly hunched, not sure how to handle all the attention. A few days later, Jen showed me that he’d uploaded it to his Facebook.
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For the last half hour, we were tasked with babysitting – mainly making sure that the two babies, Jen’s cousin and nephew – her younger sister’s second child – stayed sound asleep. Jen was ready to pass out too, laying on a mattress on the floor, her right arm raised to shield her eyes from the light, as my pool coach and I sat with our phones, making use of the wi-fi.

Jen and I joked that this was a snapshot of what her life might have been like had she never moved to England: a young mother of two before she was truly ready, depleted of energy, possibly married to a cheating bastard.

We were both glad this hadn’t ended up being her fate.
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The Travelogue: Balikbayan pt. 2

The Travelogue: Balikbayan pt. 2

The more I fought sleep, the harder it became to remain awake. I’d raise my head in my seat, only for my head to be bobbing by my shoulder five minutes later. At least my sporadic naps made the flight pass faster.

It was my first trip to Iloilo – my first trip away from Luzon – but for Jen, it was her first visit ‘home’ in over three years. A lot had changed in the interim: she had left behind a toxic relationship, left her family’s home in Kent to live on her own in Bristol, found a full-time job, and of course, met me. Now she was returning with a new boyfriend, nervous about meeting new nephews, about being a Tita, and whether I would have a good time. On the latter, we were both a little anxious.

After over two years of being together, I still hadn’t (and still haven’t, at the time of writing) met Jen’s parents in person. And yet, as we exited Iloilo airport, here was what seemed like the rest of her family in it’s entirety, there to greet us. She may have been nervous before the journey, but I knew all of Jen’s smiles, and she wore her happiest as fifteen others beamed back at her, the homecoming queen, before holding her in an embrace. I stood in the background while she took it all in, a stranger in their midst. Jen introduced me, and curiosity and awkwardness simultaneously entered the group’s eyes. I exchanged quick hellos with her Kuya and his wife, and Jen’s grandparents, before we were shepherded into the mini van, eight of us and three babies, the other half of the group getting into Jen’s Tito’s car.

Half an hour later we entered the city proper, my first taste of Iloilo. The sign at the city border declares it the ‘most liveable city in the Philippines’, and on first look I saw nothing that would disagree with that claim. The streets were wide and largely quiet, the traffic of Manila a distant nightmare. It seemed less busy and less polluted, and being there reminded me of being in Legazpi, another small but lovely city.

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Who knew Jollibee closed so early? The one we tried when we’d reached the city told us they didn’t have any food left. Strange.

We ended up in a small entertainment district called Smallville. As we walked, I stuck near Jenny, who was carrying one of her nephews whilst talking to her sister. It felt a little lonely at the back of the pack, but Jen’s Lolo walked next to me, and did his best to communicate in English, which surprised me, but also reassured me that I wasn’t completely segregated by language.

Our tribe packed into a restaurant; three tables were pushed together to accommodate us. Jen sat at the head of the table, with me on her right, her uncle on her shoulder pointing at items on the menu. Everything was on her tonight: everyone expected a treat from the one from the West, and though she knew her wallet would take a heavy dent, she seemed happy to oblige.

I was famished, and when the food came I didn’t need to be told twice to dig in. Food and energetic words were passed up and down the table. I accepted the food readily, but the words went over my head. Since Hiligaynon is the primary language of the region, it’s nearly impossible for me to understand the banter between Jen’s family members. In Manila, even with my limited knowledge of Tagalog, I’m able to get the gist of a conversation. Here though, I truly felt alien.

Jen was in her element. Her smile beamed between mouthfuls; I could see the delight she enjoyed by being back, and the delight she brought her family. At times she went to the other end of the table to hold crying babies, performing her ‘Tita’ duties like she’d been doing it for years, and though I saw her smile falter slightly when presented with the bill (nearly 4000 pesos/£60), she refused my offers to help and dutifully paid for the table.
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It was nearly 11pm when we reached Jen’s family home in Oton province. Her mother had been reluctant for us to stay there for too long, telling Jen she was embarrassed by the state it was in, with the toilets flush being broken, though on arrival I saw no reason why she should be. That evening, Jen’s Lola also made a comment, which Jen translated for me, about how it was good for me to ‘see how they live’.

“You know how it is, because you’re half-white and live in the West, Filipinos think you live some kind of lavish lifestyle”, Jen told me in private, later that night.

Westernised as I am, I’m not unfamiliar with an old house with a less than reliable toilet, since I live in one. Nor am I unfamiliar with provincial Filipino homes; no stranger to using the tabo for bathing or flushing, or having to collect water from the rain or a well, and drinking water from shops. I had experienced this at my Lola’s in the Bicol provinces, and would experience it again later in the trip. There was no surprise for me, in how the family ‘lived’, and I have always found these facets of Filipino life nostalgic and charming, in their own way. To me, the tabo is a symbol of the little time I spent in the Philippines as a child, the memories that may be genuine or dreamt; too much time has passed to accurately tell. Either way, holding those little plastic pans make me feel more connected to my Filipino heritage.

It was nearly midnight before we head to bed. We were both worn out; our suitcases lay on the floor, unopened. We lay in our underwear in the second floor bedroom under a blanket of night-time humidity, falling asleep almost instantly.

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