Random Thoughts while traveling thru this beautiful Archipelago
04.02.2008 - 29.02.2008 35 °C
7,107 give or take a few hundreds, is the number of islands that compose the Philippines archipelago. At high tide. I’m of the firm opinion that airlines should have a protocol amongst themselves whenever the destination is an island nation. They should agree to fly in low with the early afternoon sun shining in a cloudless sky. Passengers are then able to appreciate what lies beneath even before they land. Fortunately in the case of the flight from Bangkok to Manila this rings true and if you have a window seat you can see some of the powdery beaches and the coral reefs in the South China Sea before the urban sprawl of Metro Manila slides into view.
In India it would go by the term jugaad. However, in the Philippines, it has been turned into a form of popular that I find extremely fascinating and eye-catching. I’m talking about the Jeepney – the ubiquitous form of transport in this island nation. A first timer simply cannot help noticing them within minutes of arriving and it takes no explanation, especially to Indians, to deduce what they are for. These improvised contraptions that are basically ‘stretch jeeps’ are the most popular form of public transport and they have their origins in the tens of thousands of JEEPS that the Americans left behind after World War II. Back in 1953 or so Leonardo Sarao, a horse drawn carriage driver, started to convert them. He put a roof on the top and lengthened the back to take more passengers on each side. They proved so popular he opened a factory south of Manila, and Sarao became the first name amongst jeepneys. Although the original vehicles have long since been dumped, they continue to be put together in numerous workshops across the country in the same tradition. Nowadays the chassis, engine and running gear all come from Japanese light trucks. It's all "surplus", i.e. second hand. The bodywork and interior are from sheet steel, and just about any bits of metal that happen to be about. Once the basic structure is complete I guess the owner lets his imagination run riot while decorating it, resulting in a unique, psychedelic form of transport that defines public transport in this archipelago. Consequently no two jeepneys are alike.
Lack of direct flights from India is probably the reason why the Philippines is not a very popular holiday destination. Otherwise the fact that everybody speaks English, the American culture so blatantly visible in all the larger cities and the plethora of amazing beaches make it an ideal place to spend a week or two. Although the southern provinces of Mindanao and Sulu are Muslim majority and have an endemic insurgency that has been going on for many decades, there are plenty of other beach resorts to choose from for a holiday that can include scuba diving, snorkeling, sun-bathing or doing nothing and simply enjoying the warm hospitality of the Filipinos. The island of Cebu, an hour’s flight from Manila is so popular with Japanese and Korean tourists that restaurants catering to their food abound and there are direct flights from Hong Kong and Seoul. An hour’s fast-ferry ride from Cebu is the island of Bohol that is home to the tarsier believed to be about 45 million years old, and perhaps one of the oldest land species to continuously live in the Philippines. The Batangas province is only a couple of hours drive from Manila and home to some amazing diving and snorkeling spots as well. On the way is the hill-resort of Tagaytay from where you can take a boat and horse ride to an active volcanic crater in the middle of a huge lake. For the traveler with different preferences, the main island of Luzon also has trips to the mountainous regions to the north with the rice terraces of the Cordilleras, a world heritage site.
Being an archipelago the main mode of transport are the numerous ferries that ply between the main islands. The larger ferries have ‘roll-on roll-off’ facilities that permit vehicles. Fast ‘super ferries’ cater to the normal passengers, run smoothly, efficiently and can be accessed via clean jetties with very good passenger facilities. Due to the latent fear of terrorism security is as tight as at any airport without being bothersome. This is not to say that air connectivity is poor. A brand new domestic airport caters to the air traveler and connects Manila with all the major cities. Low cost airlines like Cebu-Pacific and internet access with e-ticketing also mean that the shoe-string budget traveler is not discouraged.
Tagalog, the most popular of Filipino dialect is full of iterative words. Halo-halo is a popular dessert that is a mixture of shaved ice and milk to which are added various boiled sweet beans and fruits, and served cold in a tall glass or bowl. Lapu-Lapu is a popular grouper fish delicacy, is generally fried and served with rice. Ilo-Ilo and Tawi-Tawi are names of places, the former being a popular domestic tourist destination while the latter is a no-go area for tourists being the happy hunting grounds of the Islamist Abu Sayaf Group.
Filipino street food is not for the faint hearted. One of the most popular delicacies is balut - a fertilized duck egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell. Popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac and considered a high-protein, hearty snack, balut are mostly sold by street vendors at night and often served with beer. For the not so adventurous foodie, head to Sea Food Wharf overlooking the Manila Bay. There is an enormous variety of live sea-food that you can pick and choose and have it cooked your way. I was pleasantly surprised to see ‘bibinka’ on the dessert menu and realized that it must have come here via the same route that it came to Goa – the Spanish/Portuguese connection. Although it’s much lighter in colour and not as rich as our Goan variety, it’s a great way to finish a delicious meal.
Intramuros, located along the southern bank of the Pasig River, was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century and is the oldest district of the city of Manila. Its name, taken from the Latin, intra muros, literally "Within the walls", meaning within the wall enclosure of the city/fortress, also describes its structure as it is surrounded by thick, high walls and moats. Golfers must play a round at the Intramuros Golf Club. It’s a tight course with plenty of water built around the ramparts of the fort. A bad round can always be blamed on the fact that one is not used to petite female caddies!