16. Going Underground

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

The Philippines boasts the longest Christmas season in the world, so the holiday season has been upon us for some time now. I thought it an exaggeration when told — repeatedly — that it starts in September. But sure enough, every supermarket, mall, department store, sari-sari, turo-turo, open house, restaurant, bar, jeepney, bus and police station starts blaring Christmas carols the moment August ends. Leroy Andersen’s Sleigh Ride (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDRFmn_KqfA) is peculiarly popular given the environs’ complete lack of sleighs or snow or giddy-ups or a-jing-jing-a-lings.  There’s barely a person around who has ever seen snow, yet everyone dreams of a white Christmas. Even after twenty years in Australia, this cynic is moved by such absurdities.

img_4259The decorative crescendo is more gradual. This close to the equator, the sun never sets very late, helping justify huge investments in extravagant Christmas displays. Tree lighting ceremonies at shopping malls and public spaces attract thousands to celebrate peace on Earth by detonating fireworks to throbbing Christmas tunes.

I will say this for the Filipinos: they can sing. I see this as a by-product of a karaoke culture that encourages participation while effectively prohibiting criticism or mockery. I have struggled to hold my tongue through some painful renditions, but it has proven worthwhile, as the awful performances are relatively few, and the good ones plentiful. Rogue gangs of carolers roam residential streets demanding what you care to give in exchange for impressive intonation.

Last night I attended the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Generally, I am not a big fan of choruses bellowing things while an orchestra makes music. On this occasion, though, the MSO’s performance was, forgive me, lackluster – until the choir piped in. Two hundred Filipino voices lifted the roof off the place. These people can sing!

They also can shop. The closer Christmas comes, the more I avoid shopping malls. Even so, my brief and infrequent visits to malls have left regrettably indelible impressions. To look at them, the shopping malls are nothing unusual by American standards. They tend to be huge, some are upmarket and flashy, some are down-market leftovers from the seventies.

img_20161217_134836To experience them, however, is a full-on sensory assault the likes of which I have experienced nowhere else. They are incredibly loud places — incessantly loud, a continual roar of blaring music, conversation, screaming children, hawkers, announcements, and contests. Even inside the malls, a variety of vehicular traffic roars by: security guards and janitors presumably dashing to emergencies in beeping golf carts, the disabled, pregnant and the elderly being carted in slow motion to wallet-emptying establishments, and kiddy rides to distract the little monsters. Many merchants set their storefront loudspeakers to 11, convinced that decibel volume attracts customers. They may be right, as sometimes preservation of eardrums requires one to enter the store if only to get behind the loudspeakers.

I’ve written much about the poor here in the Philippines, but there is also a massive middle class, and a good number of rich folks. All told, there’s over a hundred million of us sharing a land mass roughly the size of Nevada. The moneyed spend their free time, and I do mean spend, crammed in malls. They appear to have perfected the art of frenetic lingering, dashing from place to place, achieving only the desire to dash to another.

It seems like there are more restaurants in malls here than in malls in other countries – a food court on every floor, overall about half the space is devoted to foodservice. I commented earlier on the numerous American fast food chains here, and since I have come to realize that virtually every restaurant is a chain. The most unassuming hole-in-the-wall dive is likely to have a dozen clones. Sometimes there are just two or three in a chain, but more often there are numerous, and most of them can be found in the mall. These establishments offer no respite from high decibel levels, blasting easy-listening music that fails to drown out the conversational clamber echoing off the hard, acoustically assaultive surfaces within.

The cinemas complete the mall-as-lifestyle equation. Every mall has its megaplex, usually about eight or ten theatres seating about five hundred each. The movies are cheap – about US$5 for a first-run Hollywood blockbuster – and the theatres are nearly empty for the most part. With little English TV programming, and the unreliable internet, we’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately. In keeping with the theme, the theatres crank the volume to ear-splitting levels, and reduce the temperature to arctic levels.  After each film, with ringing ears and running noses, Frank and I recite the same script:

Kodiak: “[sniff] Did you like that? [sniff]”

Frank: “[sniff] Did you like that? [sniff]”

Kodiak: “[sniff] What? [sniff]”

Frank: “[sniff] What? [sniff]”


Speaking of long seasons, the wet season appears to have finally ended. The wet season lasts from May to December, give or take, and is predicted to get longer, if the climate change prognosticators are right. You in America call this the “Hurricane Season”. That particular meteorological phenomenon is referred to as a typhoon here, but the nature, concern and impact are the same. The Philippines usually gets walloped by about twenty-five such storms annually. The most recent major disaster was 2013’s “Super Typhoon” Yolanda which left over 10,000 dead in its wake. In fact, it was Yolanda that made me first consider the Philippines as a place to volunteer.

It seems we got off easy this year. Only two relatively minor typhoons skirted Metro Manila, both yielding more clouds than rain or wind. I know I shouldn’t be, but part of me is a bit disappointed. I like a little meteorological drama, as long as it stays a little drama.

Now, things are drying out. Oddly enough, they are also cooling off as we head into the “hot” season. For a month now, the highs have usually been below 30°C (instead of the mid-thirties), the lows as low as 22°C (instead of the mid-twenties). Best of all, the humidity has plunged to 85% or so. It is actually quite pleasant, a welcome change. I’m told this will last through January, eventually followed by the “hot hot” season, which, by all accounts, is HOT.

We were very happy to have a visit from our Aussie friends Barbara and Julia. To minimize the time spent in traffic getting to and from the airport, their first night in we pampered them (and ourselves) with a night at the five-star, waterfront Manila Sofitel.

Top-end hotels often amaze me with their nickel-and-diming practices. After charging $300 a night for a room and warning its guests against drinking their tap water, you might think the Sofitel would provide an adequate supply of drinking water.  Instead, they assume their guests can survive a day on the “courtesy” 350 ml bottle of water left in the room. Alternatively, guests can pay US$7 for another 500 ml, or travel over a kilometer to the nearest store of any description. I suggested that if I collapsed from dehydration they could expect to hear from my lawyer. This tactic succeeded in getting a liter of water delivered to my room for the price of the tip.

The Sofitel boasts several eating establishments, all outrageously priced, all apparently served by a central kitchen in another time zone. Whatever was ordered came stone cold: burgers, fries, eggs, steaks, pasta, everything. Repeatedly I informed the waiter with an eager grin “In America, we serve this warm!”

Otherwise, the Sofitel was very pleasant indeed. Yet, the prices of such places always leave me wanting.

We showed Barbara and Julia around Manila’s historic Intramuros before the four of us took a late-afternoon hour-long flight to the island of Palawan, the Philippines’ most remote and least developed tourist destination (see my 2014 write-up of a previous Palawan visit on https://smilingkodiak.com/10-paradise-last). There we enjoyed a three night stay at the Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort in Sabang, Palawan.img_4056

The resort van picked us up at the Puerta Princesa airport for the two-hour drive. We knew the resort was quite remote, so we asked the driver, Bobby, to stop at the supermarket before we left town; he obliged. Each of us dashed off into the mall in different directions, each returning twenty minutes later laden with snacks and wine and beer. And wine. And more wine. We had so much wine that the beer was used almost exclusively for tipping purposes, which we did generously.

The ride out to the resort was your standard fare transfer to a remote Pacific island resort: swervy, unlit roads scaling and descending moutainsides, throwing the passengers about. It is fun for about twenty minutes, but then gets rather tedious.thumb_img_4135_1024Generally, the roads were reasonably well-paved with concrete, and Bobby knew the route like the back of his hand, having traversed it two or three time a day for thirteen years. If I had been driving, I suspect they’d still be searching for our bodies in a ravine somewhere.

The must-do in the area was the Underground River, hyped by the local tourist council as “the new eighth natural wonder of the world”. They limit the number of tourist to 1,200 per day, ostensibly to protect the site, which it may or may not do. What it certainly does is add a layer of bureaucracy to the process, a common syndrome in the Philippines. So here’s how to get to the Underground River:

  • show up early in the morning to get some of the day’s 1,200 licenses, which entails a line to pay for the license, a line to pay for the mandatory headphone tour, a line to get the license, and a line to get the mandatory headphone tour;
  • come back an hour later when the outrigger desk opens;
  • register your licenses with an assigned outrigger boat;
  • wait another hour for your assigned turn on your assigned outrigger;
  • img_4084bounce along on an incredibly noisy but otherwise pleasant 20-minute outrigger ride to the beach near the mouth of the Underground River;
  • take a ten-minute tromp through the jungle to the tour boat boarding queue;
  • wait another hour in queue for the tour boat (which are recycled lifeboats from the Titanic with the amenities removed, I think)img_4139;
  • board the tour boat with a dozen others with whose knees and elbows you will become uncomfortably intimate;
  • enjoy the new eighth natural wonder of the world!

As we entered the caves, I recalled that am not a big fan of spelunking. While I do not get claustrophic, I do have a fear of getting claustrophobic, so I tend to avoid caves and the like. The guide reminded us to keep our mouths shut, not only because talking would frighten some of the bizarre species that lurked in the caves, but also because if you talk you may end up swallowing bat shit, which can have any number of bat shit crazy results.

20161127_132315After all that complaining I could not blame you for expecting me to express disappointment with the Underground River. Astonishingly, I was not disappointed. The boats take you well over a kilometer into the cavernous caves, exposing one spectacular chamber after another, a few as expansive as any cathedral in the world. We spent much time with our mouths agape even though we were not talking. It was that spectacular. I will go so far as to say it was worth the trouble, and a considerable amount of trouble it was.

img_4060The rest of our Palawan visit was just that: a rest. Frank and I reveled in being out of Metro Manila, a breath of fresh air, literally. Much time was spent drinking our oversupply of wine, but even that didn’t stop many cocktails of colors not found in nature being consumed in the pool’s swim-up bar. The beach was a good one even by lofty Australian standards – clean, decent surf, refreshing yet comfortably warm water. A strong undertow made the resort staff rather paranoid that we’d all be swept out to sea, but I guess that’s better than not caring. Other than breakfast, we took most of our meals in the local village, cheap and cheerful.

Julia was headed back to Australia after our Palawan visit, but Barbara wanted to stay with us in Quezon City for a few days. We had tried to convince Barbara “There’s really no reason to stay in Manila or Quezon City for four days – we should go somewhere else. The Philippines is full of wonderful places, but Metro Manila is not one of them.”

“No,” she assured had us, “I just want to hang out with you guys at home.”

After just one day in Manila – she hadn’t even seen the poor cousin, Quezon City – Barbara had an apparent change of heart. Lounging by the pool, she looked up from her iPhone, peering over her sunglasses. “Hey, I can get all three of us to Bohol on Wednesday and back on Friday for three hundred dollars, and here’s some ocean-view rooms for sixty bucks a night.  That leaves Friday night and all day Saturday to see Quezon City. Is that enough?”

Frank and I exchanged relieved glances.

“Plenty.” Frank responded. “Book it.”

“Now!” I clarified.


Our last night on Palawan, Julia begged off dinner early, not feeling well. She deteriorated quickly.  In the morning it was clear she was quite ill. This led to the inevitable finger-pointing at “likely” causes: the bat shit? The coconut milk drunk straight from the coconut? The local restaurants? Brushing the teeth with tap water? The salad at breakfast? Of course, there is no way to know, it could have been any of million things. It is an irritating ritual, but impossible to avoid in such circumstances.

Julia was a trooper, though. She slept in places I wouldn’t have thought it possible to sleep: the bumpy ride back to the airport, and then in the airport lounge seats which are designed, I think, to prevent people from sleeping in them. We had been feeding her the usual anti-dehydration medications, but It gradually dawned on us that she was sicker than run-of-the-mill traveler’s belly. We were headed back to the Sofitel, so I called ahead to have a doctor meet her. This is the kind of circumstance where an expensive hotel can deliver where a cheaper one might leave you in the lurch.

Suffice to say that after some tests, Julia ended up on an IV drip overnight, and swallowed a pharmacy of prescription drugs. In the morning she felt worse than ever, but boarded the plane back to Australia alone, determined. This made everybody very uncomfortable – but if you know Julia, you also know there’s no stopping her. She made it home okay. I’m thinking she won’t be coming back soon, though.

Meanwhile, we flew off to Bohol. This part of the trip was considerably less luxurious, which for me was considerably more enjoyable. Unlimited drinking water. Free movies. A poolside bar with good, hot food, decent wine, and horribly wonderful cocktail concoctions, all on the cheap.  Best yet, a month later the bill hasn’t shown up on my credit card. (Shhhhh!)

I would have been happy never to leave the hotel, but Barbara and Frank had other ideas. Barbara engaged a private tour guide to drive us around the local tourist attractions.  In retrospect, this was a good thing, because otherwise I might be tempted to go back to Bohol to see them. Now, I see no such urge arising.

It was a lot of fun, though. I got to see Tarsiers, which may be the strangest creature I’ve ever laid eyes on. Coming from an Australian, that says something!img_4222These tiny alien-eyed critters are highly territorial, demanding about a hundred acres to themselves – so they are dying out pretty quick, the world running out of acres, as it is. Tarsiers alone are a good reason to visit Bohol. Try not to kill one.

img_4320img_4267We also took a lunch river cruise with every other tourist on the island – big business. The food was reasonable, and we were seated far from the amp-distorted indigenous minstrels howling Barry Manilow and Christmas carols, so no harm done.

img_4240The highlight of any trip to Bohol is the Chocolate Hills, a landscape of perfectly rounded hills as far as the eye can see. In the dry season, they turn a rich dark brown, allegedly resembling a box of chocolates.  I’m guessing this was not a name thought up by the natives a millennium ago. In any case we were there towards the end of the wet season, so the hills were more mint chocolate chip.

img_4179The most interesting part of the day was the trip back to the hotel. We were a bit ahead of schedule so our driver, Raoul, added “a bonus attraction”. This turned out to be a private zoo of sorts, specializing mostly in pythons and other huge snakes, but not so discriminating as to be above keeping numerous other sad looking animals in tiny cages.

img_4358The moment we walked in the gate we knew it was a mistake. A group tour had just started in front of us, so the ticket-taker ordered us to join the crowd.  A lady-boy guide riffed tired, unfunny jokes, demeaning herself to self-deprecating sideshow freak.

Monkeys in individual cages of less than a cubic meter masturbated and ejaculated to the appreciative roar of children and adults alike. The star attraction was dead — the largest snake ever stuffed, to hear them tell it. After about five minutes of this, we walked ahead of the group and left.img_4360

Perhaps our driver sensed we were appalled. It may have been us all saying “That was appalling!” that tipped him off. Whatever the cause, Raoul morphed into an unsettlingly extroverted tourist hack misogynist with a touch of homophobia.

“You see this river? I bring all my girlfriends here for sunset, and I say ‘I love you’ and they say ‘I love you too!’ — and then they do! Heeheehee.”

“You see this church? I am Catholic, I have three Catholic children by my three Catholic wives! Heeheehee!”

“You see those boys [on a motor scooter, exiting a cemetery]? They are on a date, I think! Heeheehee!”

We got back to the hotel in time for drinks by the setting sun, with a fair bit of head-shaking.

img_4382Barbara did spend Friday night and Saturday with us in Quezon City. She got to meet some of our volunteer friends, see the historic sight, wallow in the squalor, enjoy our favorite hang-outs, and sleep on the most uncomfortable coach in the world (the one in our furnished flat). We were sad to see her go.

Back at work, we discovered that in our week’s absence, everything had gone backwards two months.

I love volunteer work.