So Radka was at home and I flew off to the Philippines for two months to spend time with my sister-in-law's family. Here are some of the cool things I noticed whilst there.
The Philippines consists on over 7000 islands divided into three main provinces. Mindano is the southern most and largest island hosting the majority of the Muslim population. Luzon is the second largest and northern province containing the capital, Manila, and the majority of the population. The two are divided by a strip of smaller islands known as the Visayas which are easily accessible by many domestic ferries or cheap flights.
My entire two months were spent on Luzon so I only talk with a view of this island, someday I hope to return and visit the rest :)
Holiday makers mostly visit the Visayas islands of Boracay (known for parties and water sports), Cebu (pretty mountains and beaches), Bohol (nice beaches and home to the chocolate hills and the native Tarsiers, the world’s smallest monkey). The island of Palawan is also very beautiful but not so good for cycle touring as there is no circular ring road, however they do have an underground river which is apparently very impressive. I haven't visited the Visayas myself but my German friends blogged about their time cycling there in 2011, more info can be found on their blog, www.wecycling.blogspot.com. It's in German but Google translates it pretty well.
The Philippines geographical location on the ring-of-fire and exposed out in the Pacific Ocean brings many types of natural disaster. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake with 1026 aftershocks hit the island of Negros in the central Visayas causing devastation and many deaths whilst completely wiping out villages just a few weeks before I was leaving. The fault line was never discovered due to the lack of geologists as many leave for higher paid jobs abroad, as much as 5x what they get paid in the Philippines.
Many tropical storms pass through each year leaving destruction in their aftermath and the Philippines are also home to several active volcanoes.
Their tropical climate also leaves them rich in natural resources with fertile lands, diverse flora and fauna, extensive coastlines, and rich mineral deposits. Their six major produces are rice, corn, sugar cane, coconut, abaca and tobacco.
Most Filipinos originate from the Malay race who travelled from mainland Asia over land bridges before the rise of the sea level during the last ice age. Since then, many nations have influenced their culture beginning mostly with the Spanish occupation lasting over 300 years, bringing with it Christianity, which continues to be their most prominent religion to date.
Revolution, led by the national hero Jose Rizal, caused uprisings again the Spanish which lasted until the Spanish-American war which gave independence when the US purchased the Philippines from the Spanish. US ruled for over 40 years until 1935 when they declared independence with the enforcement of a 10 year transition period. During this time WW2 broke out which led to a Japanese invasion and occupation for 3 years. Filipinos and Americans fought together until the Japanese surrendered in September 1945 leaving the Philippines in a large sum of debt to the US. Much of the capital, Manila, was destroyed during the final months of fighting. An estimated one million Filipinos lost their lives in the war. Full Filipino independence was granted just 6 months after the end of WW2 when the commonwealth of the Independent Republic of the Philippines was declared.
Someone once told me of a saying... ''We were in the convent for 300 years, at Disney Land for 40 years, and ate Sushi for 3 years''.
The American occupation has had a huge impact on society and can be noticed in mostly all walks of life. One day I cycled past a kid who shouted ''Hello Joe! Where are you from?'', when I replied ''England'', he said, ''America?'', to which I confirmed, ''no, England!''. He couldn't believe I wasn't American and started naming the states, ''California?, Florida?, Washington?''... ''Yes, yes, Washington, I said''.
Shopping malls are a big thing all over the country with them ranking 5th on the list of the world’s largest malls. Consumerism is very prominent and it seems like there's not an inch of street in Manila that isn't lined with shops. American outlets and diners are everywhere, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, L'Oreal hairdressers, Apple stores you name it!
Society enforces a lot of pressure to look as western as possible which is quickly noticed as all skin care products, even soap, contains whitener, and every other T.V commercial is about lightening your skin. Everyone loves westerners and you can't step outside without being stared at in amazement. Cosmetic surgery seems quite the rage with many people wanting to look more western. It’s a little shame because they already look great as they are.
It's a diverse culture! They look oriental, have a Spanish-sounding name and speak English with an American accent! In fact, Tagalog may be their first language but you'll be hard pushed to find someone that doesn't speak English with the Philippines being the third most English speaking country on the planet. I once phoned a call-centre and said ‘’Hello, do you speak English?’’, she shockingly replied, ‘’yes, of course!’’.
There's one very funny continuing vocal trend throughout the whole of South East Asia, even in the English speaking Philippines. Loads of people get 'he' and 'she' mixed up which can lead to some pretty funny situations, I’ve never found out why.
The Philippines is the most populated country I've ever seen! Shops open at 4am and close late (if they even close at all), and necessarily so as there's always tons of people on the street, no matter what time of day! 24hr burger and bread shops keep everyone well fed.
Traffic in Manila is bonkers! My brother had already told me how congested it gets but I thought nothing of it after being in New Delhi and Bangkok. I was wrong! It was probably worse due to the Christmas period but even on the outskirts of Manila it took us 30 minutes to travel, by car, just 10km, that's the same speed as on my bicycle! The main roads are normally three-lane but jam packed with jeepneys, trikes, mini buses, scooters, bicycles, vendor carts, cars and jeeps, with transport options to suit all different classes of society.
The entire stretch of Luzon is busy with traffic so not many cycle tourers choose this island. By the time I left I'd travelled the whole length of Luzon from South-North, the traffic only eased slightly when getting out into the Northern mountains.
Most tourists are drawn by the white sands of the Visayas but there are several attractions on Luzon. Many volcanoes, some scary active ones, stretch along the island including the famous Taal volcano... a lake in a volcano, in a lake, on an island, in the ocean (hard to imagine right!), it's a must see! We also visited the gorgeous Puerto Galera beach on Mindoro island, accessed by catamaran. Here we saw such a huge and pretty waterfall and chilled on a wicked white sand beach, the highlight burying Miguel!! Northern Luzon hosts a long mountain range providing a much cooler respite with some impressive caves and the 2000 yr old rice terraces at Cordillera. Spotting marine life is also possible with whale watching on the south eastern shores.
On Luzon violence is a little worrying but unsurprisingly in a country with a close mix of poverty and wealth, one side of the street could be expensive apartments and the other a slum.
There are many places where foreigners can visit and receive a warm welcome and be very safe. However, there is one island where no foreigner should go, Mindanao. This is the most southern, and largest, island of the Philippines with a reputation for Muslim activist terrorism. A few days after I arrived an American was kidnapped and beheaded over a dispute with the locals in the town where he was living. Everyone you meet warns you to steer well clear from the South! One positive is that it does seem pretty well contained but I think, unfortunately, that the rest of the islands get a bad reputation due to these localised troubles.
It was pretty strange to be in an English speaking country after so long in India, Malaysia and Thailand. Customer hospitality is crazily high and you can't enter a shop without someone greeting you with ''Hi, how are you today sir. Can I help you sir?''. It takes a bit of getting used to. Another funny phrase is ''scuzse'' short for ''excuse me''. We say that in Liverpool, I wonder how it got to the Philippines?? Consumers are a little rude to their cashiers. In places such as restaurants and shops they don't say hello back to the assistants or thank you, they just take what they want. It's just the way I guess but it's a little hard to witness.
In typical South-East Asian style it's a very loud nation and they loooooove Karaoke!! I'd never sang a single song in Karaoke before but I was soon tempted and must have sang over 100 songs by the time I left! I probably should have ended my repertoire when I sang ''it's raining men'' right next to a transvestite. Can you guess their main cuisine? … Seafood!! Mostly all meals come from the sea and they are really fresh and tasty. Lots of their food is fried, like all other Asian countries, but one of the most tasty dishes is baked Aubergine with fried egg, yummy!
Their style of cooking and food has evolved over several centuries from their Austronesian origins to a mixed cuisine with many Hispanic, Chinese, American, and other Asian influences adapted to indigenous ingredients and the local palate.
Their most famous and proud dish is Balut, a one day old boiled duck foetus. I'm told it's very nice but I couldn't dare to try! Slurping the runny yolk and the veiny shell was enough to put me right off. Instead I stuck with fried rice, tuna and egg, flippin lovely, and my favourite tuna hotdogs!! A common breakfast is boiled rice with fried egg, also yummy. Milk fish, Talapia and tuna steaks are quite popular fish dishes. Lechon (whole roasted pig) is common for festivities and I once even saw someone eat some skin from the pigs face! Aparrently it's tasty....
Strangely the nicest cake I had was called 'Ube' and made from purple yam! Their bread is typically Asian and they have many small 24/7 bakeries selling pandesal, a freshly baked sweet bread.
Beer lovers will be happy to know that it’s cheap at around 30p a bottle, and the strength is capable of challenging even the strongest of Belgian beers!
It's easy to get the impression that all South-East Asian countries are the same, but they're so not, and Philippines hold so many beautifully unique qualities.