Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

24.9 Philippines Redux, 2

Here we are now in the third week of our seventh tour in The Philippines and the observations continue to pile up, some as echoes of 2018, some fresh and offering new perspective.

Checkers and Chess

There are five apos who live at Carmen’s house, most of the time; well four plus one: Andrea, 16 (17 in July); Jasmine, 16; Charles 14; Luis, 11; Rein, 7. I wonder at how much they have changed in five years. (I wonder at how much my own grandchildren have changed in five years; yet, of course, I remain constant.) In my return to Pilipiñas in 2022 I brought two packs of cards and taught the apos how to play a variety of games (Poker, Black Jack, Double Yukon; Euchre was a bit too challenging; Crazy 8s was their preferred game, Fish for the [then] 5-year-old); (you can read about it here.)  Last year I brought a cribbage board to challenge the older apos with honing their arithmetic skills and powers of estimating probabilities. The STEM apo has picked it up quickly, the girls, not so much. The 10/11-year-old had mentioned recently that he was learning chess in school so I dug out a leather case that had long languished in my closet in Ottawa, for decades, containing three board games in one: chess, checkers, and backgammon. After relentlessly clobbering the ten-year old in chess I decided it was time to teach him checkers. I remain undefeated. It is tremendously satisfying to see that long-neglected game set now used more in a week than in the previous 30 years. 

And it keeps the kids off their devices, for a little while at least.

Eating order at dinner

Carmen’s dining table seats six but there are usually 10 plus waiting to eat. Carman’s immediate household now numbers nine: herself and four apos, one of the mothers (more or less), her sister Lita, now relocated to Carmen’s house after the eldest sister died last month, Lita’s granddaughter, who works night shift at a food factory in General Trias, the town next to Trece, and finally the maid, Wing. (Wing wasn’t hired as a maid, she was hired to run Carmen’s hamburger stand but when that went bust along with the rest of the local economy, Carmen couldn’t let her go, but kept her on as a maid until…  Wing works six days a week, sometimes seven, 12 hours a day from 7:00 to 7:00. She hardly sees her family. Carmen pays her 1000 pesos a week, plus three meals a day. (I leave you to ponder that for a while.))

Other family and near-family are here almost daily – they come to enjoy the aircon and they stay for lunch, and dinner. I say dinner as if that word had the same meaning here as it does in Canada. It doesn’t. The main meal of the day is breakfast, mostly fish, and/or chicken nuggets, and /or hotdog, and/or egg, and anything left over from the previous day; and always rice. Breakfast starts at 6:00 (certainly for Carmen and her sister, Lita, since both of them have been up two hours already, and often the shift worker), then various of the outsiders trickle in; the rest of the household make a showing over the next 3 – 5 hours (remember, teenagers). Doug is up at 6:00 and after a second cup of coffee and fill of and the National Post on-line, I’m ready for breakfast by 7:00. I have trouble facing fish at breakfast and instead fall back on more traditional North American breakfasts: granola and yoghurt/ toasted fried egg sandwich/ cornflakes and milk/ or toast and peanut butter; juice and meds. 

Lunch is the main meal of the day. It is pretty much a repeat of breakfast. It starts around 11:00. I tell Carmen I’m not ready for lunch till noon, or later. It’s on the table by 11:20: Ham and cheese sandwich/ Philippine noodles/ creamy fish soup; sometimes ‘Grab’ delivers a chicken sandwich from KFC, or a club sandwich from The Pancake House. I’m amused and flattered by Carmen’s effort to take care of me but I’m also mildly embarrassed for this special treatment.

Filipinos do not live by main meals alone. They also snack. Often. Mostly it is random grazing of Carmen’s stock of junk food in her sari-sari store (she obliges them to pay for their selections); often snack time is a slightly more structured merienda: tea and crackers, pieces of fruit. 

Dinner is the main meal of the day. I insist that for me dinner is at 6:00. Carmen (or Lita, sometimes son JayR) start preparing at 4:00: chicken adobo, beef merçado, salmon, fried calamaris. And of course, rice. And then wait. Everybody waits, except the shift worker who has already gone to work and the high-schooler who has just got home: they pack a lunch or graze. Usually I give in and repair to the dining table around 5:00, not at all hungry. Sometimes I’m deep into my writing and drive on until 6:00. Everybody waits.

Finally I go to the table and Carmen serves me. She sits with me and has dinner with me – for her, usually more fish. I have canned drinks or bottled water to swallow my meds (Carmen doesn’t trust the local water (or yelo (ice).) Carmen and I leave the table and the table is instantly filled with the second shift, usually the starving teenagers; finished, the third shift arrives – outside family and guests; finally Lita and Wing. It always amazes me that there is enough.

This is the unspoken hierarchy for who eats when. I’ve learned not to be embarrassed to be the one who eats first and has most choice. It is Filipino culture – everything revolves around food and [almost] everyone has experienced hunger. The honoured guest is served first and he would offend if he refused. It’s more embarrassing for the hosts and the other guests to disturb traditional order.

Jasmine’s Graduation

All of Carmen’s apos (at least, the ones who live with her) go to a private [Montessori] school – the public schools are just not up to standard. When I came into their lives a few years ago they quicky discovered I valued academic achievement highly. I had tried to emphasize effort over achievement but they translated that immediately into medals. 

It’s not my fault, really. The school itself pumps out all sorts of recognition and leaves nobody out. Praise and acknowledgement are powerful symbols and motivators, though I worry about excess.

I had wanted to see the eldest apo babae (Andrea) graduate from Junior High last year but the actual date of the ceremonies was perpetually in flux; Carmen was more interested in going to ‘Fiesta’ in her home province and so booked flights to Tacloban for May 5. And as it turned out, May 5 was Graduation Day.

This year I was determined we would witness Jasmine’s graduation from Grade 10.

The ceremonies were held in a movie theatre auditorium in SM Mall. The event was to start at 10:00 and everyone was to be seated buy 9:30. The place was packed with students, staff and parents. Carmen persuaded one of the ushers that as a senior she should be assigned a seat in the front row. We sat in the second row, right behind the VIP row – the owners of the school. The ceremonies started promptly at 10:16. The parade of graduands, award winners and dignitaries trooped across the stage. A recording of a high school band playing the March of the Toreadors played on a continuous loop. I may never be able to listen to that tune again.

Then all the graduates were announced: The kindergartners graduating to Grade 1; the Grade 6-ers graduating to Grade 7 (Junior High); then, with failing hands, the Grade 10s pass the torch to the Grade 9s as they themselves graduate to Senior High.

Two hours later the ordeal was done. Jasmine looked lovely and my goal had been achieved.

By the time all was said and done everybody was squirming and starving. We decided on Max’s Restaurant and deep-fried chicken and found ourselves seated inthe private dining room next ask the owners faculty and staff. I wasn’t allowed iced tea nor halo-halo.

Filipino Wedding

Carmen’s Godson of her best friend (for more than 35 years) Lani, got married last Thursday. Carmen was one of five, (or seven – I lost count) Godparents and naturally was invited to the wedding. Carmen didn’t really want to go – she had an arm-length list of flimsy reasons (you all know how it is!) – but I insisted, out of respect; and Hey, an outing from the claustrophobic Villa Espino is surely welcomed – there are only so many weekly trips to Waltermart that continue to satisfy.

(Waltermart is one of three major grocery store chains. Not sure if Waltermart is actually owned by Sam Walton or whether it’s just a clever Pinoy marketing ploy. (Much American influence in Philippines.) Of course the thousands of small vendors and wet and dry open markets compete on price. It’s amusing to see none of the nonsense over plastic bags and packaging we see in Canada; they also use lots of paper bags too and the groceries are packed up for the customer in recycled boxes. We rattle our way home with our boxes loaded on the roof of the tricycle.)

Carmen’s friend lives in Tagaytay now and I thought, swell, we could relive our ill-fated sojourn of 2019/20. Well, it turned out that the wedding was not in Tagaytay, nor was the reception, only in the vicinity. This is typical of Filipinos, they tend to generalize, picking the well-known landmark location rather than try to explain the dozens of other towns and villages in the area.

The wedding was to be a municipal affair, rather than a holy matrimony ceremony. I was going to miss the pomp and circumstance of a mass in an ancient Filipino Church but nevermind, I was sure the civilian service would have its own charm; and besides, we’d soon be off to the party.

The wedding was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. at the Indang Municipal Building, only a 30-minute drive from Carmen’s place in Trece Martires. We left at 9:25 and arrived at city hall around 10:05, but I knew from experience this wouldn’t really mean we were late. I was surprised though that there seemed to be no other supplicants congregated. Meilyn, Carmen’s daughter-in-law, inquired at the front desk. The receptionist gave her a blank look and I began to think we were in the wrong place. She checked her book. Oh yes, there is a wedding, but not until 11:00. By 11:05 family members began to collect in the lobby and a little while later we trekked upstairs and down a hall to an open-air balcony (covered) with bush and birds in the background, a lovely breeze blowing through the place on what otherwise would have been another insufferable 35o day. The guests milled about until finally the officiant of the service beckoned the bride and groom to meet him at the front table and to the guests to be seated. I whistled the famous Mendelssohn tune quietly to myself but the gesture was lost on everyone else.

The service was largely conversational, the official obviously at ease with an audience; and so he should be, being the mayor after all. The mayor’s theme was MAHAL KITA (love you), making a Taglish anagram of the words: Marriage, Affection (everyday), Honesty, Always, Life-long, Kissing, Interesting (keep interested by keeping it interesting, evidently echoing the ancient wisdom that loves dies not from infidelity but from neglect)), Trust, and Araw-araw (every day)? The five Godparents each made a little speech offering the newlyweds advice, then each signed the register. Carmen spoke about Honesty. It’s a good thing she came to the wedding.

The reception was at a very rural resort 30 minutes away in Silang; 40 minutes later we arrived and enjoyed a lovely feast and observed the usual wedding rituals: Bride and groom first dance, the dance of the money envelops, the trivia contest, the cutting of the cake – you know the drill. By 3:00 we made our exit – the party was going to shift into a pool party and Carmen and I were not dressed for it. Our driver got us back home safely an hour so later – I’m not certain of the time, I’ve become Filipino na

Montezuma’s Revenge

You’d think I’d learn. But familiarity breeds misguided invincibility. This is my seventh tour of The Philippines, and despite two previous encounters (explained!) I have convinced myself my gut has acclimated itself to Philippines flora and fauna. And those previous encounters with Montezuma happened five years ago. One was surely caused by a McDonalds quarter pounder under the heating lamp too long, and the other episode may not have been Montezuma at all but an escapee from Wuhan Labs. 

(Why, you might ask, is Montezuma lurking in Philippines? – you thought he was an Aztec? True enough, but there is a 350-year link between Spanish Mexico and Spanish Philippines in trans-Pacific commerce.)

The two previous times I was sick frightened Carmen, and who’s to blame her – it is very distressing to see your loved one in an intimate encounter with a toilet bowl. Carmen does her best to protect me: she won’t let me drink water in restaurants (or any other beverage made from water) or allow ice cubes in my glass, or halo-halo desserts (made with jello!); she won’t even let me drink the filtered water delivered weekly in large cannisters to the house (the family doesn’t trust the municipal tap water, and for good reason) – only bottled and canned drinks for me; she washes all fruits and vegetables in filtered water before she serves me; somehow though she trusts salads delivered by chain restaurants.  

But she doesn’t think of every contingency, nor does she fully realize how willfully self-confident her 17-year-old asawa can be. I brush my teeth at the bathroom sink, unsupervised, I rinse my toothbrush under the tap, I rinse my mouth with a splash of tap water in my hand. Two weeks went by without incident. I am vindicated for my risk-taking. 

But Montezuma lurks, waiting his moment to strike back at arrogant gringos. Good thing I keep Imodium in my travel kit.

Mayon Vulcan

You’d think after my experience at Tagaytay in 2020 with the Lake Taal Volcano eruption I’d would have had enough, but on subsequent trips to Philippines I yearned to see more of the islands than just Manila and Samar. Mayon volcano in southern Luzon, a well-known tourist attraction, seemed just the thing: A drivable destination, no known terrorists, revolutionaries, insurrectionists or mere criminals habitated the region. Mount Mayon is often mentioned as a perfect example of a symmetrical conical shape volcano. Let’s go. 

Hmmm, driving in Philippines is never a quick undertaking. It’s only about 480 kilometers from Trece Martires to Legazpi but [it’s claimed] a twelve-hour journey. I wasn’t prepared for a 12-hour drive so I proposed a mid-way stopping point. My entreaties were largely ignored, but we finally settled on Naga City as our final destination day one: Only eight hours drive. On to Legazpi and Mayon the next day.

I wanted to take this tour in 2022 when I returned to Philippines after the long lockdown, but the country had just reawakened and the tourist centres were not prepared for visitors yet.

I wanted to go in 2023 but there had been serious threat of an eruption and a recent typhoon left the roads risky. We didn‘t go, much to the relief of the family. (In fact the opposite was true – Meilyn wanted to evacuate her family who live in the area (Goa) to Trece.)

Now in 2024, we’re going (though that idea was nearly aborted due to my flirtation with Montezuma (see above.)

So, loading up on Gravol we packed the van and headed out. Sunday morning, 3:30 a.m., to avoid the traffic, don’t you know. 

The eight hours drive to Naga City took more than 12 hours, but nobody seemed distressed about this discrepancy. 

Why should a drive that would take 4 – 5 hours on the 401 in Canada take 12 hours in The Pilipiñas? The usual answer is ‘heavy traffic’ but in this case it’s not the traffic, it’s the roads. 

I was prepared for this from my previous tours of The Philippines, but like labour, I guess, you forget the pain and try again.

The National Highway is nominally four lanes, two centre lanes, and two paved shoulders, take your pick. You never see much of the countryside until you get into the hills and even then the road is closely encroached by the habitual roadside abodes and tindahans. The concrete paved shoulders are generally smoother than the bitumen covered center lanes but watch for dogs, tricycles, traffic barriers and disappearing lanes surrendering right of way to untouchable tress or left-over utility poles. The centre lanes are largely broken down by overuse, heavy trucks (of which there are many), plate shifts and years of typhoon flooding, and likely slipshod construction (and possibly engineering). They easily match Canadian roads in springtime. It’s mountainous country, with frequent twists and turns; the ubiquitous tricycles (motorcycles with sidecars) insist on traveling on the main lanes at their top speed of about 20 kph. Dashed passing lanes everywhere defy the logic of Canadian roads; solid lines are treated as optional. Passing trucks could be on either side. I mean, trucks passing you. They could come at you on either side. The expression, an inch is as good as a mile has special drama here.

Our times are exacerbated by the soft suspension of our late model Toyota van. Instead of gliding over the heaves and potholes like the heavy duty transports and intercity buses, we brake every 30 – 40 meters. Instead of averaging perhaps 60-80 kms/hr, we’re lucky to make it over 40 very often. Despite this, I never saw an accident, nor dead dogs, cats or chickens at the side of the road. Lets see, 480 divided by 40kph equals, there you have it, 12 hours.

All in all, I resolve next time to see another part of The Philippines, by air. 

Space does not permit me recounting the experience with our hotel in Naga City; suffice it to say that Sunday was Mothers’ Day.

Despite all that, Mount Mayon was worth the trip. It is huge, awe-inspiring, and thrilling, as it should be: it is still active. The whole time around the area I thought often of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so here is one: it’s said if a couple stands before a cloudless Mayon, the affair is forever. You can be the judge:

and to save you those words I invite you to my Facebook pages for a few more views:

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Trece Martires, Philippines

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing

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