Monday, 30 March 2009

On To Cebu City

I had an interesting chat with the taxi driver on the way to the domestic terminal. He recognised my accent as being vaguely Scouse, and we got chatting about the Beatles (despite me being more of a Stones man). He'd seen them in a gig at the Rizal Stadium in 1966. The full story is quite amusing, a comedy of errors. I can only imagine how Manila was back then. Anyway, the driver was about to get a tip as I jumped out; until he said "What you tip is up to you..." I counted my change, pocketed it and smiled "Don't eat yellow snow" before closing the door. Didn't say anything about money, did he?

Landing late in Cebu, I was glad of the tip in the Rough Guide which said don't get a cab outseide the airport, but to walk around the corner for a metered one. I duly did, and was treated to the sights of Cebu's edgier quarter. At least in Manila, there are always plenty of people on the streets. Here it just seemed to be roaming packs of youths, beggars and other ne'er-do-wells. Dropped at a cheap guesthouse, I hastily escaped the street.

The reception was bleak but, at 3.50 GBP, I wasn't fussy. I headed up the stairs after paying, and wasn't too happy with the place. Filthy, stained concrete walls and plenty of rubbish about. I looked for 311, and got as far as 310 before hitting a wall. Turning to head the other way around the corridor, I noticed the guy in 310 on his bed; hugging his knees while rocking back and forth, mumbling to himself. Always a reassuring sign of a quality inn, I find. Perturbed that my room was located behind his, I dropped my bags on the bed. The couple in the room opposite were having noisy sex. Lucky bastards. I surveyed the room, and noted that the wall ended a good two feet above the ceiling. I was half expecting Robert Carlisle to pop his head over the top and start rambling on like the lunatic he played in The Beach. I picked up my bags and headed downstairs, no way could I stay here. I didn't even have to badger the guy to get my money back...he held the cash out as I approached without even having to turn around. I thanked him and made my way through the edgy streets to find somewhere else. "Hey...hey mister..." as a few youths crossed the street to me. I sped up, heading for brighter lights, dodging through the traffic to avoid them. You feel very vulnerable walking around with all your gear late at night in Filipino cities.

I reached a reasonable place, got into the room, threw myself on the bed after bolting the door, exhaled...and flicked on the TV. Safe. After a half hour, I needed to eat. On heading back to reception, who did I meet there but the American guy from the Cebu Pacific office in Manila? Which brings me nicely on to my next couple of stories...

A Tough 24 Hours

Life on the road can be lonely at times, although you're never truly alone. I suffered my worst day so far in Manila, which is not the best place: there's enough suffering here without adding mine. Not that mine compares, but it was a pretty bad day.

I'd looked at a few flights with Cebu Pacific. Boracay, Cebu or palawan being the ideal destinations for diving. There are ferries, but they don't get good write-ups, are unreliable, and often sink. They also work out more expensive than flying at times. So I opted to fly to Cebu and head for Malapascua Island. The fare was minimal, around 20 GBP. So far, so good. I stood in line at the airline office, having to listen to an annoying American going on to any lone woman in the queue about how great America was; built on family values; wholesome etc etc. I was dying to get started on their Foreign Policy, but held my tongue.

Having paid for my ticket with the last of my cash, an ATM was the next stop. My cards didn't work. Not a single one. It's happened before, so I just left it an hour and tried again. Nothing. With the sun setting, and the equivalent of 40 pence in my pocket, I felt the onset of mild panic. I headed to my Pensione building, and luckily my card went through and I had a roof over my head. Unable to ring the bank, as my phone was out of credit, I had to make a long-distance call to England. This cost me the best part of 30 GBP and, despite pleading with them, not one of four attempts resulted in success. There was a block on my account, and no-one could tell me why. One unhelpful fool put me through to the security department, where I listened to an answerphone message tell me the business hours ie. they weren't open.

I spent my last cash on water, and was banging my head repeatedly on the hotel reception's desk, when the Manchester woman I'd met when last in Manila walked past. She asked what was wrong, and I told her. She was great, and lent me 200 Pesos to buy an international phone card. Pity the receptionists didn't tell me about that one. I got through to my fifth operator at Nationwide, who said that someone had seen that my card was being used in the Philippines and had stopped me using it, fearing fraud. So they couldn't figure out that I was travelling through Asia, judging by the pattern of use? I can just picture some spotty herbert, stuffing a sandwich in his mouth at lunchtime in Milton Keynes, pressing Block and turning my life upside down. I was fuming. The nice lady assured me that my account would be freed up in the next few hours. Manna From Heaven. So as it was, I only had to survive 24 hours on a bottle of water. Any longer, and I might have resorted to eating one of the street urchins.

As an aside, the woman from Manchester told me a funny tale. When I'd met her and the husband at Erra's, her fella was chatting to a guy at the next table. She hissed to me that he'd been going on all night about being a millionaire, and she said "He's full o' shite, that one" and rolled her eyes. They'd flown to Leyte with him, and at the airport, he said they could stay at his place. She'd been puzzled as they'd been led away from the other passengers heading for the terminal, only to be greeted by the sight of a gleaming helicopter around the corner of a hangar. The old guy popped on a headset, fired it up and whisked them off to his resort. "I were fookin' gobsmacked, like. Stuck fer words" she said. I doubted that...

Back To Manila

I left Batad the next morning, getting up for the early jeepney back to Banaue, from where I could jump a bus bound for Manila. I wasn't looking forward to the 10 hour ride, especially as the drivers here think they have to give you value for money when you book an air-conditioned bus. Everyone ended up with jacket hoods up, hats on, the lot. Ridiculous, it was like being an extra in Scott Of The Antarctic, shot on location in a tropical bus station.

I wasn't fazed by Manila second time around, even at 4am. Touts and the like are just dispatched with a curt "No, thanks" or a "Fuck off" if they get persistent. Ignoring them's usually best. Fatigue had me jumping down the throat of a cabbie who suggested he'd put the meter on "plus tip?". "I tell you what, mate...it's early and I'm knackered. How about I just grab another taxi and we avoid all this bollocks?" He put the meter on and drove. Then dropped me at an expensive hotel so he'd get commission. You get used to all this shit.

Friendly's Guesthouse wanted a night's rate if I checked in before 12pm. Hardly friendly, I mused. One good thing was that Erra's Cafe on Adriatico was open; I sat down to some prawns and rice with a cold Coke, and watched the city awaken.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Karl The Jolly Good German

Jerries. They're not all sunbed-reserving, sandals-with-socks bumbag-wearers with mullets, you know. Some of them are nice and very amusing. I met one in Batad, and his name is Karl.

I'd been out on a trek with Charlie. Up and down steps across the valley, across perilously narrow rice terrace walls, on the way to the waterfalls. We'd actually passed Ray as we departed, he was with two other tourists. He just stared at me. I wondered which North End match he'd got tickets for as a gave him a reproachful look which said You Shouldn't Have Lied Ray. This Is What Happens.

The waterfalls were nice enough, and I had a nice swim in the freezing water. A French woman joined me in trying to reach the point the torrent hit the pool, as in some silent suicide pact; the current was strong and pulled you under the water if you weren't careful. Her husband waded into his knees, the brave soldier. No wonder they always need our help, eh? Reminds me of the old joke about the reason they have tree-lined boulevards in Paris? The Germans like to march in the shade. I digress. I tried to coax him in with a smiling "You big girl's bra", but he wasn't having any of it. Apparently French tanks only have two gears: Reverse and Fast Reverse. I'm really digressing now, but Xenophobia, real or mock, amuses me. I don't read the Daily Mail or wave little flags when the Queen visits Preston, though. Honestly. OK, I might have waved a little flag last time, but I was about 6 years old...give me a break, eh?

Back to Karl. He was about to go on the same trek as I returned to the guesthouse. We made conversation, and he asked me how it had been. As his guide was stood there, I couldn't really tell him to save his money, as Stevie Wonder could have found his way there. So I just suggested a few beers afterwards.

He came back looking as sweat-drenched as I had been. Though I don't think his guide was as cheeky as Charlie (a tip AND suggesting I buy him a beer?). After he'd changed, we got started on the beers. I'd found a mutually bad influence. We were on our sixth before the Australian family turned up to eat. I'd heard them in the restaurant under my window, playing I Spy all day with the ten year old lad. It had driven me mad. "I Spy, with my massive eye..." every 3 minutes. They started playing again, but it was just background noise until the kid piped up with a line which had me and Karl spraying mouthfuls of beer: "Mozzy? I thought you said Nazi?" We couldn't stop laughing, but the family were mortified, the kid couldn't say Sorry enough. Absolutely brilliant.

So after this, myself and Karl had a right old chuckle about the English German relationship. The Sun newspaper montages in Euro 96. Fawlty Towers. All the classics. We agreed that it's the Germans being the closest to the English in Europe in outlook and psyche (not to mention Beer Culture), being precisely the reason we don't always get on, and have the odd prolonged scrap.

We continued on to another drinking hole, where Karl grabbed a guitar to duet with a local. "I must warn you, my singing is bad" he said. You weren't kidding, mate. Great with the guitar, but the singing was dreadful. They'd love you down the karaoke bars in Manila. At least the odd-looking Slovenian tourists didn't join in; all bad-haircuts and pencilled-in eyebrows, with Juicy Couture gear on, they were an unexpected sight in remote Batad.

Several beers later, we were staggering up the hill to our guesthouse, disturbing dogs and various farmyard animals along the way. Not in a way which would see you end up in court, though. A top night, and a top bloke. See you again, Karl. My round.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Batad

I'd been advised by many other travellers to skip Banaue and go straight to Batad, a remote village at the peak of these Cordilleras mountains. Wandering through the market, I attracted the attention of a local tricycle driver (basically a motorbike and side-car) who offered me a reasonable ride up to the junction. The jeepneys leave later in the afternoon, and you don't get much time to do anything but get to Batad itself.

Off we went, over the worst roads so far. Good job the ribs are fixed, I tell you. It would have been agonising. Ceasar gave me some tips on places to visit in Cebu island, where his missus hailed from. "You been there, Ceasar?" "Not much lately, I hate my mother-in-law" he cackled. Reaching Batad Junction, he dropped me at a small souvenir shop...well, hut. Four men crouched outside in the dirt, large machetes by thier sides. Buy souvenirs, Sir? Why, I was only just thinking on the way up here that I hoped there'd be a souvenir hut. How much for the lot? I bought one small wooden figurine, and nervously walked off. Men with machetes don't usually give money-back guarantees in the event I wasn't happy with my purchase. Won't see you withing 28 days, then. I headed up the steep track as one of them slowly laughed "Enjoy your walk in the sun, Sir..." Thanks.

A merciless sun beat me all the way to the top, a good hour's climb. I drank 2 litres of water and didn't need to pee once, I just sweated it out. Almost passing out (it's making me thirsty just writing this) I reached the summit; to be greeted by a girl in a small shop with the terrible words "Halfway to Batad, Sir." I drank a Coke (best one ever, I assure you) and chatted to a Danish couple going the other way. He assured me the walk was easy and downhill. A relief.

Indeed it was, and I made the village in another half hour. The view which greets your eyes as you stand on the edge of the valley is astounding. The hill drops away steeply to the floor, and the terraces cover just about everything you can see. I looked for a good ten minutes, viewing the people gathering rice in the fields, kids running from the local school far below as the bell pealed around the hills, smoke creeping up from small fires being set in thatched homes nestling in the valley's centre. Beautiful. I was distracted by a group of kids milling around me. One, of around 2 years old, and naked from the waist down, farted loudly and we all started laughing. Some jokes don't need words.

Charlie offered to guide me to the waterfalls the next day, and pointed out a good guesthouse below. I wandered down to find a spartan room, but with a nice restaurant and breathtaking view to make up for it. And at 3 quid a night, I wasn't complaining. Settling in, I had a couple of beers and watched the sun go down. The absense of any light pollution ensured it went dark quickly, and I anticipated a good night's sleep.

The "Road" To Banaue

An early start saw me jumping a jeepney to Bontoc, hoping to catch a connecting transport to Banaue, home of the famous rice terraces. These are reputed to have been hewn from the earth 2000 years ago, but the locals estimate it at more like 3000. Like someone kept a record?

Bontoc's nothing to write home about, despite me wasting a few sentences on it. It's little more than a dusty stop on the way to and from the terraces. I managed to book the last bus to Banaue, and walked around looking for something to eat. I bought what was advertised as a Vegetable Curry in a nearby cafe, where 6 staff were lazing around watching a karaoke channel (what else?). I say advertised, because what I actually got was a bowl of cabbage with curry sace drizzled over it, decorated with some diced carrots. The food is that bad in the Philippines that you learn to give up and just eat it. It's barely better than dying, I suppose?

I passed up the offer of one ride in a small minibus before I'd booked my ticket on the larger one. Two likely lads in front, and room for just one tourist? If in doubt, just don't. We actually caught these lads up when we reached a massive landslide which had blocked the mountain pass. Two earth-movers were busy shifting the mass of rubble, and I had a chat to the two lads in the van. One of them offered to be a guide around the terraces, so they were genuine after all. The earth moved, we re-boarded the bus to continue the journey. Myself and three French backpackers insisted on crossing the site of the slide on foot first...we didn't fancy chancing the weight of the bus on the perilous-looking track. Can't be too careful.

Banaue was reached by night. It's a tiny little market town, with not much going for it besides the terraces. Someone had some foresight 3000 years back, or the place wouldn't be here any longer; there's nothing to do besides the treks. I'd been accosted by a local straight off the bus who was trying to get me to go to his establishment for the night. His name was Ray, and he had one of those squiffy eyes which has you looking back and forth from one eye to the other, as if uncomfortably watching a tennis match. And thinking they don't notice. But they do. Anyhow, I told him I had a place in mind and started walking up the hill towards it. He followed, and when a local passed and muttered a few words, Ray went into Blag Overdive.

"My friend says all these places are full, Sir."
"Well I'll take a look, anyway...I have some friends staying here." I lied.
"Sorry. I did not address you properly from the bus, Sir. Good evening Sir, how are you? I trust your journey was good. I can guide you on mountains."
"Well I just need a bed now, Ray...maybe tomorrow."

Needless to say, the hotel wasn't full at all. Ray's just a liar. He asked me again about the tour the next day, but I said I wasn't sure. We then went into a comedy sketch of him asking which room I was booking, and that he would come see me at 7am...me fending him off and trying to hand his mobile phone back to him while he insisted he have my number. Next time Ray calls me, he may well be able to book tickets to watch Preston North End at Deepdale.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Skipper Don Turns 60 & Emma Marries

I shamefully missed an entry from the time in Australia: namely the whole point for breaking my tour of Asia to go there. My sister, Emma, lives in Adelaide; my parents were there for Dad's 60th. He doesn't like a fuss about it, but 60's a big one. So I wasn't going to miss it.

I'm intensely proud of my Dad. He's always worked hard. And everyone loves him, no-one has a bad word to say about him, bar my Nana sometimes (and undeservedly so, eh Dad?). My mates think he's cool (Dil Lalloo had a smoke with him, and still goes on about it), and plenty of people value his advice as he's so level-headed. If I end up being half the man he is, I'll be twice the man of most. I'm going to tell you two stories* which illustrate why.

One of my most vivid memories as a kid of 5 or 6 was being sat in the family car, at a long queue at a traffic junction. We were around ten cars off the main road when Dad suddenly jumped out and jogged to the junction. Impatient drivers behind started honking their horns as the queue moved and our car held them up. They soon stopped, ashamed, when they realised he'd seen a blind man with a dog stood waiting to cross. No-one had bothered to let him pass, and Dad saw him safely across the road. Things like that set me examples.

The second story is not lighthearted, and I'm just glad I didn't witness it. Mum and Dad were on a beach in Wales when a young man got into trouble offshore, and began waving for help. Everyone stood by as my Dad went running into the breakers. The lad kept bobbing under the water, and he went down for the final time with Dad only a few metres away. Despite him diving down again and again, the current had taken the swimmer.

I know he still feels guilty as he's a very sensitive soul, and it affects him to this day. The parents of the man keep in touch, and Dad's been back on the anniversary of the death to place flowers in the sea with the victim's mother. Despite the tragic outcome, he'd done all he could at risk to his own life. I'd like to think I'd be brave enough to do the same, Dad.

On a much happier note, my sister married her Aussie (Jesus...) man, Grant. I was under pressure to get the photos right, and was even more nervous than the two of them. It was the nicest wedding I've been to, a low-key beach affair; I'm pleased to say I got all the shots I wanted, bar one or two.

Emma was radiant, I've honestly never seen her happier. She's been through tough times in her life, some of them self-inflicted. As her big brother, I've had to give her some harsh home truths when she's gone off the rails. She never liked it, but I call a spade a spade...and one particularly brutal letter I wrote in her teens was screwed up, binned and then unscrewed and re-read several times. She still has it, and said she thought at the time "I'll show him" before storing it. She did show me; she went back to college and is now a sucessful and popular midwife. I've yet to see the letter again...I'd probably be mortified. But it did the trick. I can honestly say no-one deserves happiness more.

I'm intensely proud of you too, Em.

* OK, there was one occasion Dad let me down. At the tender age of nine, I learned what it was to see your idol falter and leave you crestfallen. We'd gone to Derby Baths, a huge Olympic-sized Victorian pool in Blackpool (spits) complete with water slides et al. They had the old fashioned diving boards back then (everything was still in Black & White) and the top one was a good twenty metres high. Myself and my younger brother Scott watched Dad climb the steps past the other boards, right to the summit. Slack-jawed kids looked to the sky as he confidently approached the top. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. "That's my Dad" I smugly crowed to the other kids, tilting my head to witness the expected graceful swallow-dive from the heady heights. To my utter, life-enduring horror, Dad froze; uncertainly peering over the edge of the board into the unknown. He thought the better of it...and started climbing down.

"That's your Dad, that..." grinned some fat-faced kid. I can still picture his stupid face.

It was only once though, Dad. And the story was worth telling.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Learnt Lessons & Travelling Lighter

Well, I'd spent 70 quid storing the diving gear at Bangkok Airport and lugged it all the way to Australia. I left it in Adelaide, and Dad's just told me it's cost another 204 quid to take it back on the plane. Not bad considering I dived 6 times with it, eh? Painful, but I couldn't face carrying it around South America, even if I'm planning to work my way up from Colombia through Latin America employed as a Divemaster. A lesson to be learned...only take dive equipment if it's a dive holiday.

I'd bought a smaller (45-50 litre) pack in Adelaide, ditched some clothes and books. It's working a lot better. You can move quicker, run for buses and jeepneys; not possible with another 16kg of plastic, rubber and neoprene dragging you down.

This site is very useful. I followed a lot of the advice, but should have listened about the smaller bag. Basically I'm down to a tracky top, 5 tee-shirts, two shorts, two swim-shorts, five pairs of socks and undercrackers, one pair of trainers and flip-flops, and that is it. I'll be staying dusty and grubby-looking on the road in South America, too. Look like you've got nothing, and you'll avoid any hassle.

As regards guidebooks, next time I'd just buy one for the country I'm starting in, as it's so easy to buy one for the next country. The Rough Guide To Southeast Asia rivals War And Peace for weight. I've been ripping out countries as I leave them. And carrying 5 novels as I was previously? Insane. Read one and swap it when you bump into other Westerners, it's always good for starting a conversation in a bus terminal, for starters.

SLRs are a no-no unless you're serious about photography. Compacts these days have enough depth of field, and my IXUS is performing well. The weight of my SLR is ridiculous, and wandering around a third world country with the equivalent of a year's wages swinging around your neck is too much of a temptation for my liking. The less attention you draw to yourself, the better.

Here endeth the lesson. I hope...

Sagada, Mountain Province

I boarded a bus bound for higher climes, swapping seats with a local who offered me the one at the front of the bus, jammed in the corner. I realised why he kindly offered; the legroom was paltry, and another passenger at the first stop asked me how I was enjoying the view from the Suicide Seat? I liked it just fine, thanks. The driver skirted the hazards with the dexterity of a mountain goat. Ascending higher and higher, the views were the most incredible of my trip so far. Peaks as far as the eye could see, clad in verdant forest.

We reached the highest point in the province, and started descending through low cloud to start the road to Sagada. When I say road, it was more a rubble-strewn track in places, the likes of which you'd find in a working quarry. It felt like a journey to the edge of the earth at times. Looking out at drops of four hundred feet into valleys below made your stomach flip as the bus bumped over rocks.

Traversing the valleys as we neared, I was disappointed the sun was going down. It was pitch-black as we finally entered the one-road village. To call this place quiet was an understatement. I quickly headed for a place the Rough Guide recommended: when will I ever learn? Basic was not the word, and it was 800 pesos; I'd heard it was cheap. I bumped into two Aussie sex tourists who'd been on the bus who'd found rooms for 200, so I negotiated getting my cash back, minus 50 pesos for the trouble, from the place I'd just moved into. Northern Charm, eh? I was just praying I wouldn't be next door to the Aussies, as it could mean a sleepless night.

Morning broke, and I was out for a wander. Sagada really is a nice little place, and it's so quiet that the restaurant I chose asked me to order my dinner in advance, as they cannot afford waste. Bizarre. There's plenty of trekking around the area, and I took off for Echo Valley, a great walk to see the hanging coffins. The locals used to suspend their dead here, after displaying them outside their houses in the "dead chair". This gives their spirit chance to escape into the ether before burial. It is still occasionally practiced, but I didn't see any corpses propped up outside houses. Probably a good thing, as I'd likely have committed a massive faux-pas and gone up to ask directions.

The place went even further up in my estimation when I was offered hash on the street. At 75p a gram, I wasn't even going to haggle. It's legal to smoke here, just illegal to take it away with you. Who said anything about leaving? There's a bohemian vibe here. Artists and political ne'er-do-wells escaped the regime up here in the 70s and 80s, and it's not changed much. The Army imposed a 9pm curfew which still exists today, but there are local bars you can drink in, if you run home before the Police grab you.

I'd highly recommend a visit. Pun intended.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Robbery Avoidance III

I really need to start hiding the watch and chain. I'd headed to see the parade with the foreign foursome, and we stood on the hill amongst the crowds to see the parade. It was a little dull, not really my scene; so I waited it out and got something to eat.

On returning to the slope, I was looking around when two men passed me. One took a look at the watch, and said something to his mate who then looked over his shoulder at my wrist. They were hanging around with a few others who were a bit rough-looking to say the least. I looked at my companions in comparison: this wasn't looking good. The gang positioned themselves around us one by one, and I watched them out of the corner of my eye. A few girls behind me, being smaller, had leaned on my shoulder to stand on tiptoe and get a better view of the parade. One of the gang stood next to me, leaned a hand on my shoulder likewise, when he was tall enough to render this unnecessary. Preparing to hold me, perhaps? I looked at him and he smiled "Is very beautiful, yes?" as he looked past me at one of his mates. "Errr...yep..." Time to make a move. Now. I spotted a gap and made for it, weaving my way up through the crowd back to the road. I felt bad about leaving the rest of them, but they were local and weren't wearing anything valuable. Besides, self-preservation counts first. I made the road and headed for the house, paranoia wrapping icy fingers around my chest. They hadn't followed; there were police on the main road.

Marvin was at the house. I shakily told him what had happened, and he made us a cuppa. "You must hide your things in this country. Especially in places like this...no-one will help you. Show nothing of value, and always watch your back." Wise words, I think. No point tempting people. I was already packed to go, and decided to head to Sagada sooner rather than later, as the buses would fill up rapidly after the afternoon's partying. Expensive watched strapped around ankle, iPod and chain in the other sock, I was ready to go.

I think travelling in just a pair of dirty underpants may be the way forward..?

The Kindness Of Strangers

I arrived in Baguio, the City Of Flowers at 7pm that evening. I'd known that there was a large local festival on, but didn't expect the half million which swelled the city and absorbed all the hotel rooms. Everywhere was full, and the onwards buses had finished. I experienced a mild panic. Five hotels in, and the phone battery started dying. Laivan and Toon (the Belgians) would meet me in town for dinner. I needed a charge to reply, and wandered into a beauticians below the last hotel I enquired at. They kindly charged my phone and asked where I was staying. I laughed and told them "In a bush with the dogs". One offered to ring around a few hotels, but to no avail. Another lady wandered in from the back, and asked who I was and where I was staying. She said one of her clients lived behind, and ran a transient guesthouse. Turns out she was full, but on meeting me, said her son was doing a night-shift at the hospital, and that I could stay with them. Relieved is not the word. The girls at the salon let me take a shower while I waited for them to prep the room. Talk about a lucky break...if the phone hadn't been dying, I'd never have walked in there. And one of the girls in there, Jenny, was absolutely stunning. If I'm back in Baguio, I'll have to marry her. Olive skin and dimples? Turns my knees to jelly.

I had a good chat with Marvin, the landlady's son. He'd just finished college, and had been approached about a job in Manchester. I told him he should jump at the chance, and extolled the virtues of the city. If he ever goes, there'll be plenty of new mates I can introduce him to.

Showered and changed, I went off to meet the Belgians; only having a couple as I didn't want to take liberties with the landlady and turn up pissed at 1am. Who said I don't have manners? The evening was quiet, and I arranged to meet the lads and two Swedish girls they were completing a medical internship with, the next morning for the procession.

Mount Pinatubo

A 5 year old boy waved at me today, while taking a shit on a hillside. But more of that later...

I hardly slept last night. Partially due to the noise from the bar, partially excitement. 5am, and I'm up, showered and dressed in ten minutes. Edwin and his 18 year old son, Jens, were waiting for me in a 4x4. Would have been a cheaper trip had The Colonel and Jocky been in tow. But I've always said it's better to regret what you've done than what you haven't. So I shelled out the 90 quid.

Heading out of town, I got chatting to Jens; a likely lad, he's studying avionics. Once you get him going, it was difficult to stop him. Being a film buff, I thought we'd have a lot to talk about...but he had a typical youngster's taste in films. "Have you seen American Pie? Have you seen Scream 3? Have you seen Love Actually? Have you seen...?" I groaned inwardly. "You look like Hugh Grant." I asked him if we all looked the same to him, and he laughed. We talked about a lot of other things, though...and his history knowledge was quite good; we talked about everything from the Vietnam War to 9/11.

Pinatubo is an active volcano, and last erupted in 1991. A volcanic lake sits in its crater. The drive up there sets the scene for you, roads of grey ash and deep streams need to be traversed to get to the jump-off point. I was trying to take it all in, but Jens was beginning to get on my tits. "Have you seen Wimbledon? Have you seen Bend It Like Beckham? Have you seen...?" Is this a wind-up, I asked myself?

Luckily for my ears, and sanity, we reached the point we had to walk from. Willy was to be our guide, a local who spoke minimal English. Off we went, at a right old pace which led me to nickname our guide "Steamboat". Any request or question was just met with a smile and a Yes, so I didn't find out much info about the volcano we were climbing. Good old Wikipedia, eh?

"So when did this last erupt, Willy?"
"Yes"
"That recently?"
"Yes"
But there's no chance we'll all die here today?"
"Yes Sir"
"Willy, we're going a bit fast...are you trying to make me hate you?"
"Yes..."
And so it went on, me gleaning bits of info by guesswork as we went.

Halfway up, and Jens starts playing tinny music on his phone.

"Mate...can you turn that off, please?" I asked, wincing.
"I'm tired...it keeps me awake..."
"So all this amazing nature and climbing doesn't?"
"No..."
"Well I've been on too many buses in Hackney, so can you turn it off?"
Unbelievable.

The summit is incredible, worth the climb and the money (just). We were the second group there, and I was first in the cobalt blue, cloudy sulfurous waters. Lovely...just what you need after a hot trek. I managed to get Jens and some other Filipinos in, and was howling with laughter at their faces. Not cold for us European types, but they thought it was freezing.

I met two Belgian lads who were heading for Baguio that afternoon, so I got Edwin to rush me back to check out of the hotel...saving me a night in Clark. The summit would have been a great place for a picnic, but the list of films Jens asked me about was tempting me to drown him. Driving back down the ash roads, we passed a village where a little kid was happily sitting, pants round his ankles, having an al fresco dump. He gave me a big wave with a (thankfully) clean hand. I laughed and waved back.

We headed back to town, and passed the scene of an accident we'd seen the aftermath of this morning. In the darkness we'd only seen a smashed-up scooter in the highway; on the return trip, we saw a smear of blood around 20' long. Didn't bode well for the rider. These Filipino roads are very dangerous indeed; lots of people ride home drunk, and many don't even use their headlights.

So don't miss Pinatubo if you go North. Just make sure you can get a group together.

Ashamed To Be White

Hell exists on Earth. It goes by the name of Clark, Angeles. I'd headed North from Manila, relieved to be seeing some countryside. The view flew by, and I started to relax. Arriving at Dau, I jumped off the bus and into a waiting tricycle for the short hop to Clark. The place used to be a USAF base, and it seems a lot of the servicemen are still here.

I walked down the main street, accosted by go-go girls at the entrance to bars and brothels. Men negotiated services and charges by the door. Elderly white men sat entertained by young Filipina beauties, playing with their hair and hands, looking at them like they were in love. I was sick to my stomach. I don't blame the girls, they have to make a living. And it's a Catch-22 situation, as without this money coming in, what would happen to the area? The people are as poor here, and beggars line the streets waiting for whatever change the men leaving the bars have left. It's a pitiful sight I can't get used to, nor do I want to.

The grimmest sight I witnessed was a fat old man, around 60, riding down the street in a pair of skimpy shorts and a vest...with a girl of around 20 behind him. I'd liked to have punched his smug face.

Heading out of town, I found somewhere to stay, and the helpful fella on the front desk gave me a number for a volcano guide. Not cheap at almost 90 quid, and half of me wanted to just get the next bus out of Clark, but it's what I came here to see. I'd have liked a tee-shirt with "Volcano Tourist, Not Sex Tourist" on it, to be honest. The people here, hookers and all, look at all of us the same....with dead eyes. Hearing the sound of pool balls as I signed in the guesthouse, I decided to go take a look. I walked into a scene which summed the town up; a room full of old men with young girls. The owner is an ex-pilot, and still wears his uniform. Those days are gone, pal...get over it. I felt a lot better when he miscued and hit one of his patrons with the ball. I sank my beer rapidly and left, choosing to stay in my room the rest of the evening; socialising with them was not an option.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

A Thriller In Manila

I arrived late afternoon in the seething cauldron of humanity that is Manila. Travelling extremely light, courtesy of the idiots at Malaysian Airlines; they'd forgotten to stick my bag on the plane, and it was still in Melbourne. How hard is it to stick a bright red bag on a plane? I wasn't surprised, I'd had a right palava at the airport, as I didn't have an onward ticket out of the Philippines. They don't half try and make travel difficult. I had to buy a refundable one.Out of the airport in a cab, into the unknown again. The traffic and pollution here is horrendous. While stopped in traffic, a few youths approached the car, and the driver urged me to lock the door quickly. "Dangerous?" I asked. I received a cackle in reply "Welcome to Manila, my friend." Why thankyou.

Rich and poor mingle in this city. People wander past families sleeping in doorways, while a few steps away there are others spending a fortune on a meal. I've not seen anywhere like it. After the cocoon that is Australia, it was Culture Shock time again. Wandering the streets of Malate, light fading, and everywhere seemingly full, certainly sharpened the senses. Need to get streetwise again, before the street gets wise to me. The sight of armed guards outside most shops and every bank did little to calm the nerves, and with some relief, I found a place to stay. The room was 14 quid a night, and the cockroaches were included. The staff are always looking for tips...the security guard insisted on carrying my small 25 litre rucksack to my room, despite my attempts to wrestle it off him; he had a shiny gun. And did he think he was going to tip him for it? Not unless you want to stick that shooter up my nose, sunshine? He probably did as I closed the door on his blank face.

I got my head together and went for a wander, stashing anything worth nicking in the hotel safe. The hassle starts as soon as you step outside. I don't want a watch. Or a book. Or sunglasses. And certainly not a hooker. It's incessant. As for the ladyboys, they stalk the area and follow you. One girl (suspected) followed me into the mall. "Hey, I saw you earlier" she said. You and a million others, love. I tried shaking her off, going in allsorts of shit shops where the staff eyed me like she was actually with me, me being some sort of Sex Tourist. I lost patience and moved a bit quicker, almost breaking into a run. "Hey, wait for meeeee" she cried, tottering along on her heels. I died with embarrassment when she actually fell over. being the gentleman I am, I had to go back and help her up. Suitably embarrasssed herself, she took the hint and disappeared.

There's a great little place on Adriatico Street, Erra's, where the food is good and you can watch the seedy goings-on with a 40p beer. Hookers are everywhere, any girl on the street is hustling. One kept smiling at me and pulling faces. I laughed back, and she wandered over. "I see you. You are always smiling." I told her I was a pretty happy person. I knew what she was after, but made conversation...it can be boring on your own. I bought her a Coke. After making sure I finished my beer before going to the bathroom, I came back and ordered another. She had half-filled her glass and offered me the rest from the bottle. I was suspicious after her persistent questioning of me, where am I staying and the like. Smiling, I tipped the rest of the Coke into her glass "That's OK...you drink it, eh?" She didn't touch it. Trying to drug and rob me, are you love?

I had a futher, more sinister experience in Intramuros, the old walled city built by the Spanish. Taking photos, I was approaced by three well-dressed characters. Two women, one bespectacled man. They asked the usual questions: Are you alone?; Where are you from?; Where do you stay? I fended them off with brief (untruthful) answers. They walked alongside me, back in the direction they'd been. Insisted on showing me the church and said I should see the wall. They told me that they were doctors and a schoolteacher. Trustworthy professions, naturally. Alarm bells had been ringing already. They said they were on holiday, and lived in Manila. I wondered why anyone would spend a day's holiday in such a crappy tourist spot. I played along. The next suggestion was seeing Chinatown, but I declined. Not interested. We walked along the wall, and they offered to take a photo of me. I said I'd rather have one of them, if they wouldn't mind? Wait til I upload it, I nearly wet myself laughing...they looked very uncomfortable. I suspected the Police would be interested in seeing it. One of them stepped out of shot as I took it. They'd offered to take me to Banaue with them, as the coach journey would be long and uncomfortable; I asked for one of the womens' numbers and said I'd call in the morning, pointing out that it was a fine coincidence they were going to the same place the very next day. The other two had wandered off without saying Goodbye; certainly not as friendly as before, I thought. Heart pounding at the sheer audacity of these people, I made my way from them as quickly as possible. The thoughts of what happens to people who fall for these ruses...a drugged drink followed by a headache and a realisation you've been cleaned out...made me quite angry. I dialled the number she'd given me, the dead tone confirming my suspicions.

I spoke to a couple of American sailors from a research ship that evening, and they said I'd been wise to escape from those people. Apparently the area is known for it. The fuckers will have to be up a bit earlier in the morning to catch an ex-Hackney resident out. I'm just using the Philippines as a warm-up for the hazards of South America.

Further mortification the same night. I'd had a few in Erra's and wandered off to escape the attentions of a disgusting-looking ladyboy. He couldn't have looked more masculine if you'd put him in a steel helmet and covered him in coal dust. So Butch follows me to this next bar. I groaned as it sat beside me at the bar. "You are handsome. I like you." I had my head in my hands by now, politeness fast on its way out of the window. The barmaids giggled. "Look, mate...I'm not interested." He would not relent, so I downed my beer, winked at the barmaid, and fucked off. I set off at a fast pace down the street, and he ran after me "Hey, heeeyyyy...HEY YOU. I SUCK YOUR COCK FOR FREE." Oh my fucking Christ...have these people no shame?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Jocky's Cousin Colin and Up Yer Bum, Too

You have to humiliate yourself once in a while. Who's ever gone abroad and NOT made a tit of themselves? No, didn't think so.

Jocky has a cousin from Jockland, Colin, who has lived in Australia for 40 years (they'd never met before), yet not lost his accent or Scottish sense of style or class (ahem). Before I'd met him, Jocky had painted a picture of a Celtic wildman with lots of bizarre tattoos (he'd just had a Redback spider done on his thigh before we arrived). And Colin is hilarious. I hit it off with him straight away, but think maybe Jocky had been a wee bit nervous about his cousin and his antics, as it seemed he'd been trying to prepare us before we met him. No need. He'd told me that Col had been born in England, then realised his mistake as he saw the glint in my eye.

"Don't say anything...he might get violent" he begged.
"As if?" I smiled.
We arrived at Col's boat and were welcomed aboard.
"Pleased to meet you Colin. What's this I hear about you being English?"
Col howled with laughter...he definitely appreciated a fellow wind-up merchant.

Col's vessel is called Upyerbum II. This caused consternation among some sniffy mariners where he's moored. One woman stopped him and said "Colin, I find the name of your boat offensive?"

"Upyerbum?" he said, pronouncing it as a foreign word.
"I'm sorry?"
"It's Gaelic for 'Good Health'"
"Is it? Oh..." she wandered off, bemused.

Now Colin plays a trick with new people. Jocky had told me about it, but I'd forgotten the punchline. It involves two people taking it in turns to whack each other over the head with a spoon held between the teeth (these Scottish types, eh? Easily amused). Pissed, I agreed to play, vauguely remembering Jocky telling me the punchline of sorts. Col's mate went first (we'll call him Sloth, from the Goonies, as I forget his name). Didn't hurt a bit, so I was puzzled when I landed a blow on him and he cried out. We carried on. And on. Everyone was asking why the blows on my head didn't hurt? Wasn't particularly painful, I said. Everyone was in stitches. Especially when Colin, who'd been standing behind me all the while and cracking me with a wooden spoon as Sloth took his shot, actually snapped it over my head. Jocky was most amused, said it had made his trip. Twat. But silly me for forgetting the rest of the game wen he'd told me about it the first time, eh?

Col insisted on spending $100 dollars on pizzas for us all. We'd drunk every drop of booze on board too, and headed home after what was a fantastic afternoon on his boat. He's a very funny and generous bloke, and great company. Up Yer Bum indeed, Col.

Melbourne

I expected to like Melbourne, having been told it's a more cultural and arty city than any other in Australia. But I surprised myself in how much I liked it. I'd had a good feeling as I'd come in on the Sky bus. Not from a fellow passenger, of course.

My old mate Travis met me at the station. I'd worked with him at GT in London, and had got to know him and his missus, Kate, fairly well over a few drunken nights out. They'd been semi-regulars on our sofa at Cosy Towers in London Fields; they were returning the favour and letting me doss at their new flat in Fitzroy, East Melbourne.

Fitzroy's a lovely area, and they live right on the corner of the Gardens, through which you can walk into the city. First night out, we headed for Brunswick Street, the equivalent of Shoreditch. Nice funky little bars, friendly people and plenty of arty types about. It's got a great feel to it. By day, it's cafes and restaurants ensure your palate would never tire. There are plenty of second hand thrift shops and designer boutiques here, too.

The city seems better laid-out than Sydney. The architecture is easier on the eye, too. Drinking and eating in the centre is best done around the Laneways, a series of alleyways between the meain thoroughfares, full of small shops and tiny eateries. My favourite was Centre Way, where you could almost imagine you were in Spain or France. There's a positive attitude to graffiti, too. I saw a lot of good stuff, and had to laugh when I overheard a middle-aged woman telling her friend in one shop of a young man she knew who'd been arrested for it. She said "That's a real shame, I like his pictures...really nice colours."

The Yarra River flows through Melbourne, and you can while away a pleasant afternoon wandering along it; Anzac Memorial to the Botanical Gardens to the Docklands is a good walk. You also have the National Gallery of Victoria there. Plenty to see. At the Marina lies the Skydeck building, the tallest building in Australia. From here you get an amazing view of the city and it's suburbs. I called Jocky, who was waiting for me at the Riverside Bar (very good, near Federation Square) with Adele. Using one of the telescopes, I watched them and got them to wave at me. Very amusing.

Trav took me to see an Aussie Rules game at the Telstra Dome. I wasn't impressed. No chanting, no atmosphere, no fighting...what's that all about? Very dull. SorryMate...

Bruce came over to see me before I left, and Mum and Dad had headed over from Adelaide for a break away. So the four of us sat at Riverside and had several pints in quick succession. Folks off to the hotel to rest, myself and Bruce carried on. His mates turned up, and by the last count we ended up having 12 pints, and a couple of Pernods. The excellent Loop Bar was the last stop before I decided to meander home through the park. I ended up sitting on the grass playing with possums, little marsupials. Several of them came up, one with a baby on its back...a couple even grabbed my finger in their tiny claws and had an exploratory nibble. Kate was mortified the next day, said I could have lost a finger. I was very, very drunk...

Other things to do in Melbourne besides let rodents chew your fingers at night? The Australian Centre for the Moving Image is very good and worth a visit. And St Kilda is worth looking at, though the beach isn't up to much. Smith St and Brunswick St are essential, and Northcote has a very good pub (I'll ask Trav the name) where I had the best fish dish in a long while. Definitely worth a visit is the Rooftop Cinema, the view is great, and they show some off-beat indie flicks there. The Little Creatures beer isn't bad, either. Just don't have 12 pints of it and round it off with a couple of Pernods...you could lose a finger.

I'd certainly reccommend Melbourne. Kate and Trav want me to move there. I just might.