Island Hopping: A Philippine Dream
It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for nearly a week. The first couple of days in Manila seemed like an unmemorable haze where we adjusted to the shock of a jet lag I have not known before. The haze dissipated under the vibrant energy of Sunday night’s reggae party at the B-side, an open-roofed bar and concert hall where a dreadlocked DJ mixed tunes out of the back of an old ice cream truck.
Angie had raved about these “Irie Sundays” and the many times she had grooved with her girl L.A., a bubbly stream of positive energy who met us there where we enjoyed a few too many Red Horse cervezas. We were pleasantly surprised by the grooves of the nationally renowned Tuesday Vargas and Todo Pasa featuring the Flippin’ Soul Stompers. They blew the roof off with their dazzling horn section and Tuesday’s sassy swagger.
As the night grew on, we made our way out to the seedy streets of the red-light district where we faced our fears stomaching the infamous balut, that texturally challenging shelled duck embryo, ours which was sixteen days old. And as if that wasn’t enough exoticism, we dipped into the nearest little person boxing bar, put bets on undeniably rigged bouts, and bought drinks for a doll-faced prostitute whose so-called “boyfriend” ostensibly understood why she had to do what she had to do.
Balut is a fertilized duck embryo ranging from between 14 and 21 days old. It is a popular street food in many parts of southeast Asia
The smog-filled skies and soiled waters of the Pusig river were the first sites to break through the humid dawn from the vantage of our 56th story apartment at the Grammercy in Makati, one the many satellite cities of metro Manila. We felt privileged to stay in the tallest building in the Philippines, but the feeling was even more pronounced when we stepped onto one of the many forms of public transportation, most notably the ubiquitous jeepnies. The jeepney is a cacophonous jeep-bus reformed from military jeeps that were used in World War II. Angie wanted me to experience the Philippines the way she did over the fifteen years that she lived here – as close to a local as possible. Using public transportation and experiencing the helter-skelter way of life that people have no choice but to endure every day is a great way to do just that.
Perhaps the most notable quality of this part of Southeast Asia is the sheer density of people that live here. The metro Manila area has over 24 million people living in it and per capita, Manila is the most densely populated city in the world with over 46,000 people per square mile. This is more than twice that of New York City! There is a fend-for-yourself kind of feeling in Manila, with motorbikes, taxis, trucks, pedicabs, jeepneys, and pedestrians all cutting one another off trying to reduce their commute time. The traffic is unlike anything I have ever seen. This can certainly speak for that thick brown slick of smog painted across the city skyline.
However, there is also something invigorating and animated about this city. The lush tropical vegetation that lines the streets, outdoor markets and malls like the Greenbelt seem to smile a grin of tropical luxuriousness and exotic cuisine from diniguan (pork blood soup) to pancit (an extremely thin pasta stirfry) waft their aromas across the humid air making the environment novel and likable.
We walked through Bonaffacio Global City, a clean and green neighborhood teeming with high rises. Many of these buildings harbored call centers and IT companies that buzzed with energy all hours of the night tending to clients on the other side of the world. I vividly remember our meal at a hole in the wall restaurant where we ate garlic-peppered rice with our hands. Angie’s brother Macky showed me how to push the rice into my mouth with my thumb. We doused the rice with diniguan, stuffed shrimp, gizzards, and Indonesian barbeque. So delicious – Masarap!
We took a day and left for the Manila suburb of Cavite, where Angie’s Auntie Alma lives. Along the highway, while waiting in traffic, I recognized botanical beauts I’ve come to know in Panama: Towering Roystonea palms, Ixora shrubs with their tiny red flowers, Moringa trees and their drooping drumstick bean pods, the vibrant flowers of African Tulip, and Cassia fistula trees lined the roads around us. Benjamin figs had been pruned into many different shapes along the highway medians and turning into the housing development I could not ignore the brilliant purples and reds of the blazing Bougainvilleas.
The main thoroughfare from Manila to Cavite is lined for miles and miles with utility poles and chaotic tangles of electric wires. Tawdry signage and advertisements hang outside roadside businesses, likely covering the black mold accumulating on the cinder block facades. But moving away from the chaos of the highway and into the narrow streets of the barangay, a quieter small-town charm prevailed. Children sat on the curbsides and chased after pedicabs as they languidly passed along. The houses, all of identical two-story stature, stood so close together that someone could reach over and pick the peppers from their neighbor’s garden.
Angie taught me how to ask how much something costs at the local convenience store or sari-sari. It was easy, you just say Makano and then add the word of whatever you are asking about. I was craving my newfound favorite snack called “Ding Dongs – a mix of corn, peanuts, and wasabi peas – so I just said Makano Ding Dongs? They were one peso a piece.
That afternoon we enjoyed time with the family eating lumpia and menudo, drinking Red Horse and San Mig Light while singing Karaoke in the front patio. We attended the graduation of Angie’s nephew, Sean, at the tiny schoolhouse across the street and continued the celebration back at the house. The sultry, lazy afternoon spent in Cavite reminded me of many things, particularly time spent doing nothing else than enjoying the company of family and friends, something that I’ve always thought was undervalued and little practiced in the United States. I truly enjoyed getting to know Angie’s family this way, so much in fact that it had been the highlight of the trip thus far.
Despite being back in the United States for close to ten years now, Angie has stayed close with her brother Macky. Knowing the economic struggle he has endured, she decided to treat him to a trip to the island of Cebu for his birthday, followed by a venture to the paradisiacal beaches of Panglao and then to the island of Samar to visit their mother. Before leaving on our flight to Cebu, we enjoyed our last evening swimming in Gramercy’s 56th floor infinity pool and watching the sun go down between the skyscrapers of Manila.
Cebu is the Philippines second largest city and it shares the same name as the island it is found on. Cebu city is the capital of the eastern Visayas region – the central islands of the Philippines. Crossing the bridge from the airport into downtown Cebu City, it was obvious that this metropolis was built by industry. Cranes, boats, barges, container ships, and Navy ships were scattered across the harbor. I wondered where it was exactly that my Granddad served when he was on deployment for the Navy in the Philippines. It turns out that it was right here in Cebu!
We checked into our hotel and then made our way downtown to an outdoor mall for lunch. The mall was quite pleasant, lined with giant Albizia saman trees and different kinds of palms. This is where I first noticed the abundance of Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) and Asian glossy starlings (Aplonis panayensis). We also saw our first brown shrike (Lanius cristatus) as we enjoyed some Thai-Vietnamese food on a sunny patio.
Angie vocalized her discontent with the Philippine president Duterte in front of her Duterte-supporting brother. It turns out, most of her family (and the Philippines) supports Duterte, but Angie seems to think that the Philippine people have been victimized by an authoritarian government, brainwashing them each step of the way. I admittedly don’t know much about the administration, but it seems to me that punishing drug users with the death penalty is an outright human rights violation. Apparently, the government has used the widespread drug problem as an excuse for vigilante killings that have been pardoned by the government, allowing them to occur with impunity.
Macky just shook his head and bit his tongue. I could tell he did not want to talk about politics with his big sister. Angie realized this too, and she steered the conversation in a different direction.
Late afternoon, we hailed a cab to the outskirts of the city where we visited an ornately decorated Taoist temple. Sitting regally on top of a hill, the temple overlooks the city and the ocean beyond. We wandered around the temple and its majestic gardens, sat in meditation for a short while and watched Pacific swallows (Hirundo tahitica) glide on the thermals above. Giant dragon heads towered over columns and beams, all glimmering in the afternoon sunshine. Candles flickered in dark meditation chambers and a cool breeze lifted the sweat off my brow as the afternoon aged.
This Taoist temple was built by Cebu's substantial Chinese population in 1972
The next morning Angie and I went for a jog in IT park, which was more of a busy city-center than a park. Even at 6 am, the streets were teeming with human life, including many call center and casino employees leaving their graveyard shift jobs to return home to sleep. At each intersection we were halted by the many pedicabs and tricycles buzzing around the streets. There was no shortage of jeepneys here either.
After a quick continental breakfast at our hotel, we made our way downtown to the site of Magellan’s cross. This cross was planted by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in April of 1521 after Ferdinand Magellan was able to “Christianize” the people on the island of Cebu. However, Lapulapu, the Chieftain on the nearby island of Mactan resisted conversion. In order to further gain the trust of the people of Cebu, Magellan sailed to Mactan where he was killed by the local Lapulapu and his troops. Magellan’s men continued on to the Malay Archipelago where they completed the first circumnavigation of the world in what was called “greatest sea voyage in the age of discovery.” Magellan’s cross still stands in this chapel in downtown Cebu City. The original cross has been covered in Tindalo (Afzelia rhomboidea) wood to protect it from people chipping away at the structure to take home souvenirs.
The cross planted on the island of Cebu by Ferdinand Magellan on April 21st, 1521
Panglao and Bohol
Later that morning, we jumped a ferry to the city of Tagbilaran on the island of Bohol.
From there, we took a shuttle from the docks of Tagbilaran across a bridge to the island of Panglao. Alona beach was our paradise for the next few days, where we reunited with L.A., Alex (her boyfriend at the time), and her son Lukas. Here, we spent time sipping drinks on the beach and playing in the crystal-clear waters.
Spoiling ourselves in paradise
Angie strolling along Alona Beach, Panglao island
One morning, Angie and I woke up early and went birding on the farms behind our hotel. We found Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier) and Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius shach) to be quite common, but we also found Pied Triller (Lalage nigra), Red-keeled Flowerpecker (Dicaeum australe) and Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis). We added four new species to our overall list that morning: Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata), Grey-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta), and the endemic Bohol Sunbird (Aethopyga decorosa). I've added our final list of birds at the end of this post.
We took a tour up into the highlands of Bohol where we were stopped at a historic church, surrounded ourselves with the sweeping vistas of the Chocolate Hills and spent some time in a mountain forest where we saw our first Philippine Tarsier (Carlito syrichta).
Baclayon Church is a historic church founded by Jesuit priests in 1596. It was severely damaged in the tsunami of 2013 and reconstruction was finished in 2017
We stopped in an area that had been reforested to protect the rapidly disappearing habitat of the Philippine Tarsier (Carlito strichta)
In central Bohol, there is a series of incongruous hillocks that dot the landscape and transform into a chocolate brown color during the dry season. The Chocolate Hills were thought to be formed by the uplift of coral deposits that have been eroded over time by rain and wind. The local belief is that they are the tears of a heartbroken giant
Little Lukas looks like he's having a great time!
The Philippine Tarsier (Carlito syrichta) is a near-threatened primate endemic to the islands of Bohol, Samar, and Leyte. They are one of the smallest primates in the world and are considered to be the mammal with the biggest eyes in proportion to its body size. They are nocturnal and shy but can be easily seen at the Philippine Tarsier sanctuary near Corella on the island of Bohol
After our adventurous excursion on Panglao and Bohol, we returned to Cebu City and flew to Tacloban on the island of Leyte. Tacloban is the city where Angie attended both high school and college. The city was brutally ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 and still has not yet fully recovered. The storm was responsible for over 10,000 deaths and the damages suffered still linger to this day.
At the airport, we were greeted by two of Angie’s cousins who packed our bags in the shelf of their tricycle and putted off slowly into the night with the three of us in tow. The tricycle likely never surpassed 25 mph and we swerved in and out of giant potholes scattered across the road.
Along the way, Angie pointed out the many sites of her past: on the right was the plain, nondescript hospital where she performed her Practicals as an RN, on the left we passed a four-story hotel where there was a billiard hall on the second floor; this is where Angie used to get drinks and play pool with her friends. Out in the distance was the waterfront where people sold fish at the market and thousands of squatters built their ramshackle shanties on the hillside.
The locals, including Angie's mother Perla, regular use a banca, or pumpboat, to cross the San Juanico straight from San Antonio to Tacloban
Tacloban reminded me of other dismal tropical cities I have seen in my travels throughout Latin America: a sprawl of unplanned streets, stray dogs sitting on their thrones in the middle of dirt roads, cement building after cement building with moldy facades covered in tarpaulins advertising something no one really needs, and of course, the tangled mats of utility wires strung up for miles along these seemingly forever-neglected barangays.
Samar and San Antonio
As night fell we made our way out across the longest bridge in the Philippines. The San Juanico bridge, supported by its many trusses, brought us to the island of Samar. We were headed to the little village of San Antonio, the home of Angie’s mother, Perla. San Antonio is located directly across the San Juanico strait from Tacloban and it is the diametric opposite from the neighboring city.
We crossed the San Juanico Bridge to go from the island of Leyte to the island of Samar. This is the longest bridge in the Philippines
Perla greeted us warmly in the street and showed us the way through the rickety wooden house to our bedroom upstairs. It was late for San Antonio and it was time for bed. When we woke in the morning, the oppressive heat and humidity immediately slapped us in the face. Perla greeted us with a heartwarming smile and served us a heaping plate of fish, squid, and coconut rice. At the table, I met Angie’s Lola, her grandmother Josephina. She spoke very little English, so our communication was mostly non-verbal. I uttered the few words I knew in Tagalog.
“Magandang araw po. Kumusta po kayo.” I said. “Good morning. How are you?”
Sunset from the roof of Perla's house in San Antonio, Samar island
After breakfast, we all walked down to the water together. We had given Perla some money to pay a fisherman to gather some fresh seafood from the bay. On our walk, we were greeted by many friendly villagers who smiled and acknowledged our presence. Dozens of birds fluttered into overhanging coconut palms, but we needed to watch our step: the road was littered with copious piles of dog and chicken shit.
Perla sent her friends to catch us some fish. We enjoyed the fruits of their labors for the remainder of our stay
We were approached by a man on a tricycle selling salted dorado. Salted fish was a favorite of the locals. I didn’t particularly care for it. Angie held it up in front of her. It was gigantic.
After Perla arranged for someone to go out and catch some squid and fish, we followed her up onto the hill behind the village. Her farm was one of many, but nonetheless abundant in its offerings. Bananas, green beans, rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), lanzones (Lansium parasiticum), eggplant, and peanuts were just a few of the crops growing on the farm.
Perla's farm outside of San Antonio
Perla grew concerned about my fair skin in the hot sun and lent me her Asian rice hat. After enjoying the view across the expansive countryside at the top of the farm, we were pleasantly surprised by great views of collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) - by far the most beautiful kingfisher I have ever seen - and a secretive cuckoo known as the Philippine coucal (Centropus viridus) on our way back down to town.
This trip was particularly special because I met Angie's birth mother Perla and her grandmother Josephina for the very first time
There is nothing quite like coconut water to quench the thirst on a sunny, humid, tropical afternoon
As clouds billowed on the horizon, Angie and I went up to Perla’s roof to sit and watch the changing weather. As we talked about our shared passion to own land together someday, we watched olive-backed sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis) and purple-throated sunbirds (Leptocoma sperata) fly to the fruiting papaya trees overhead...the hummingbirds of southeast Asia, I thought to myself.
That night we joined Perla and Angie’s cousin’s Kuya Jun Jun, Darwin and Imboy on their patio out back drinking tuba, a coconut wine that is readily cherished among the locals. Tuba is sap that is harvested from the trunk of the coconut tree with added bark to slow the fermentation process. It was a bit of an acquired taste, so I chased each shot back with coca cola and a handful of ding dongs, the preferred sumsuman, or finger food.
Enjoying tuba (coconut wine), and sumsuman (finger food) late into the evening hours
Our stay in San Antonio ended all too quickly. Before we knew it, we were enduring the long, bumpy road back across the San Juanico bridge and through the streets of Tacloban. Getting on the plane and transferring to Manila, it felt as if we were jumping between different periods in time: the agrarian era to the industrial revolution. It would be a few years before we would return, but I knew we would return as soon as we could.
Leaving that archipelago of 7,640 islands, I thought about all of the amazing things we had done. But I also wondered about the things we didn’t see and all of the things we didn’t learn. I was thirsty for much more and excited to return.
Red Turtle Dove
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Asian Glossy Starling
Oriental Magpie Robin