I walk around the Philippines and often think of ways to express my affection for it on this blog. It is hard to accurately synthesize what makes every day here a lesson in hilarity or, as a friend aptly noted a ‘carnival of lunacy’ in so many ways. With the patience of the unemployed, every day in the Philippines brings me something new to savour, and a new oddity to encounter.
The truth is, there are many reasons why I love the Philippines.
From relearning what air sirens mean, to watching a staunchly catholic country celebrate Miss Ladyboy Philippines 2009 to being swept along in the swirling current of daily life in a small town, this enigmatic country is full of contradictions and they are a pleasure to explore. I often think of my temperament when I was working in NY and — less a factor of my job and more the fact that I was living in a big city where time was money — efficiency was the name of the game. In the Philippines, efficiency can occasionally be a very foreign concept. Whether it is the meticulousness of the Yummy Angel Burger lady as she slowly puts my egg & ham sandwich together or the undeniably rocky transportation routes (direct never, ever means direct), time is relative. However, since I have all the time in the world, I take pleasure in these small but significant departures from my normal.
I thought I’d list out some of these small quirks and funny moments that need to be shared, and that also give a tangible example about why I love the Philippines as much as I do.
1. Motorbike disbelief
I have rented a motorbike on every island I have visited (with the exception of Negros Occidental) and every single time the locals are truly flabbergasted that I am a woman riding by myself. Even if we are in a group of other tourists, the fact that I am on my own bike and not on the back of a man’s bike just blows their minds. Extra shock factor: driving the bike with a guy on the back. Unthinkable.
When renting the motorcycle, the following cycle of awesomeness ensues every single time:
Me: Hi, I’d like to rent a moto for the day, please. (Or, because Tagalog doesn’t actually have words like “the” or “a” built into most sentences – “Moto, me. thank you”).
Them: Hi, where are you from?
Me: Canada. I’d like a moto?
Them (slowly): Ma’am? A moto for you and…….? (trails off confusedly)
Me (with emphasis): Just for me, thanks. I am only one.
Them: And you…know how to ride these (gesturing in panic at his motorbikes)?
Me: Yes, I have ridden many times alone. I do not need lessons. I will be careful.
Them: Ok, but then I now show you how to turn on a motorbike, ok? I will teach you.
Me: Thank you, but I already know how. Let me show you.
(I take the keys, drive around the corner and back and flash a smile)
Them: Ma’am? Why are you so brave?
Add to this infinite loop of dialogue the fact that jaws drop repeatedly when I drive by people at the side of the road, or stop in a town to buy supplies.
I know I went into the whole rooster-mania in my Welcome to the Philippines post, but it merits a mention because I still find humour in the roosterism, despite already being here for several months. Buses, cars, vans, planes, restaurants – you name it, and there is a rooster waiting patiently to crow your ear off. People here are astounded when I have a restless night sleep because of the karaoke bar next door or the dogs barking down the street. Why? Because they all sleep like logs since they grew up surrounded by screaming fowl with messed up circadian rhythms. I keep taking pictures of roosters in public places – the locals find this confusing, since roosters are everywhere – and my mirth shows no signs of abating.
On a cargo ferry to Coron from El Nido, I woke up to one of these beauties on my stomach. On a bus in the Visayas I was asked to “hold for a minute” and a rooster was stuffed into my arms while its owner got down a bag from the hold above his seat.
I can’t stand the cockfighting, but the omnipresence of roosters can definitely make me smile.
3. Underhanded plays on words.
Speaking of roosters, the Philippines is brimming with opportunities for sly vulgarity. Receipts for assorted juices read “ass juice”, and people will order just that (“Hi, 12 ass juices, please”).
One of El Nido’s general merchandise stores is called the F. U. Store, which has spawned a ghastly amount of immaturity from yours truly (Me: What store sells wine again? Them: The FU Store. Me: The what? Them: FU! FU! I will show you FU. Rinse. Repeat.) There is the current polemic surrounding the potential Constitutional Assembly amendment to the constitution – abbreviated, of course, as Con-Ass.
And, in a class unto themselves there are the roosters. While they are “manok” in Tagalog, people generally just call them cocks. So you can imagine that, for a dirty-minded group of Western tourists, it is impossible to ignore the magnitude of possibilities that a country full of roosters would manifest. From the seemingly innocuous (“Wow, that’s huge cock you’ve got there”) to the flattery (“You truly have a great looking cock”) this country provides endless options for those with 14-year old sensibilities. Yes, I happen to be one of those people.
4. Tanduay Rum
I am not a heavy drinker – solo travel as a woman means that I am cautious about how much alcohol I consume, be it in the Philippines or elsewhere. But Tanduay — a Pinoy rum that originated in the sugar cane fields of Panay in and whose name translates into tandugay, meaning ‘low-lying land’ in old Tagalog — is the perfect ice breaker for any situation. A table of strangers quickly becomes a table of friends over a bottle of Tanduay and what was a quiet evening turns into a karaoke sing-off and an onslaught of eager questions about Canada. Occasionally, there will be a request to sing my national anthem.
A litre of Tanduay has been cheaper than a litre of water, so to say that the Philippines is awash in tawny rum wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
5. Adorable kids
And by that I mean the sheer magnitude of children screaming after at you when you walk/drive/bike by. Not only do they all clamour at the side of the road, screaming hello or “hello friend!”, they won’t stop screaming until you answer them. Responding means the cycle continues, with them chasing your bike/car/you down the street and giggling the whole way. The kids here are both plentiful and painfully cute, so it is impossible not to walk around with a big smile on your face when confronted with such disarming friendliness.
In El Nido, there is no dearth of toddlers about and now that they know me (and my name) I have a pied-piperesque trail of smiles and hellos wherever I go. Of course, the fact that I often buy them cookies at the bakery certainly adds to their desire to shadow my every move about town.
6. Sample sizes of everything
I happen to love the travel size aisle at the pharmacy, and I happen to know I am not alone in my affection for tiny toiletries (I am talking to you, Cheryl). Imagine my joy, then, upon visiting a Pinoy supermarket for the first time: everything is in a small size. Everything. My brother doesn’t need to resort to imagining my happiness, since he was with me in Tagbilaran, calling after me in alarm as I bolted from aisle to aisle exclaiming “ALL small sizes! ALL!” and giggling like an idiot.
From shampoos, to baby powders, to soaps, to cigarettes (sold in twos or fours), this entire country is built to stock up on travel essentials if you are backpacking around. It is important to note that these sample sizes exist due to the unfortunate reality that most Filipinos cannot afford the full container, let alone the jumbo/family sizes you would encounter in North America. In El Nido, sample sizes of everything hang from the rafters in each of the corner stores and supermarkets.
7. Power Ballads
This country? Obsessed with 80s power ballads and those particularly slow, terrifyingly sad songs of the 90s. Songs I have heard more times than I can count: Total Eclipse of the Heart, Everything I Do, I Do it for You, Hello, Memories (from Cats), Bed of Roses, Hero and — straddling the 70s and 80s — anything by Air Supply.
These are blasted, at full volume, on jeepneys, public buses, in the tricycles, on the street. While you want to cut your ears off for the first month, eventually the sheer persistence of these ballads works through the hard, stubborn core of your resistance and you find yourself shamefully singing along, every single time.
Family karaoke involves hooking a microphone up to a TV, inputting a disc full of these classics, and singing like your heart is breaking.
8. “It’s ok.”
It’s hard to believe that two simple words can cause such a rash of confusion.
“It’s ok” here means everything from “yes” to “no” to “don’t even think about it” – with absolutely no way of knowing which one is intended in a particular situation. From asking someone if they want something (response:”It’s ok!”) to asking if you can go somewhere (“It’s ok!”) to asking whether anyone was hurt when the tricycle bashed into the pile of mangoes across the way (“It’s ok!”) you would think that you’d be able to discern the appropriate sentiment given the context – but you absolutely cannot.
To make matters more fun, most people don’t just say “It’s ok” once, they repeat it 3 or 4 times (“it’sokit’sokit’sok”), often enough that even the myna birds have learned to mimic the expression perfectly. After almost 4 months in the Philippines, I’ve been saying “it’s ok” myself at least a few times a day.
Or, more precisely, the fact that no one here knows how to whisper. At night, on boats or buses, in hotels or restaurants – regardless of where you are or how tired you might be, no one cares. In fact, they will speak at the top of their voices and then remain entirely confused when you stumble out of your room and groggily ask them to keep it down. “Keep it….down?” is the usual answer. Yes, down. Your voice. QUIET. But it’s all to no avail. As I’ve said above, in a culture that grows up with roosters crowing at all hours of the night and dogs fighting outside the window, the concept of peace and quiet is entirely foreign. Everything becomes white noise to the Filipinos, and such a talent for muting out the sharp noises of the night is hard to come by in most tourists. It’s not that I love the loudness, it’s that I am very jealous of the ability to drown out noise and sleep without a thought.
10. Eden Cheese
Sold by Kraft (of course) and wrapped in foil and a bright blue rectangular package that resembles cream cheese bricks back home, Eden Cheese is made of enough synthetics and random preservatives that it is practically indestructible. You can leave it out in the sun for hours, try and melt it for a sandwich, shred it in the hopes that it won’t taste like processed cardboard – but it is totally futile.
Unrefrigerated, infrangible, unbelievable: Eden cheese is like the Rasputin of Pinoy foods, and deserves its own paragraph because in many islands and towns it is the only cheese you can buy. El Nido is one such town, and at 42 pesos (under $1) per block, it’s omnipresent. I’ve learnt to appreciate Eden Cheese’s total and blatant unwillingness to be like other cheeses, but I can’t say I enjoy the taste of soggy, sticky plastic.
And a bonus: it’s beautiful.
My time in the Philippines has been entertaining, raucous, and exactly what I would have wanted.