Frolicking in the Philippines

If I were to judge the Philippines by my first or last impression, I'd spit back in its face. Don't accuse me of being harsh on a country that woos tourists with rice terraces, treks through highlands, and colorful coral reefs. All that stuff is dandy and great, but it doesn't compensate for prostitution and greed.

Maybe I'm lingering too bitterly over Clark, a city an hour north of Manila and home of the former US Air Force base. Bart and I landed in Clark from Borneo after climbing Kinabalu. What a contrast. The city's chaos was immediately stifling; Dau Highway is clogged with trikes weaving through traffic, jeepneys honking at vehicles cutting them off or at people waiting roadside for a ride, and motorcycles that have three people and a chicken crate. There are no traffic lights and everyone simply makes up their own driving rules: pass on the left, pass on the right, honk at nothing, and speed up to beat the pedestrians crossing the highway.

After only five minutes walking about town, it became obvious what type of tourists Clark attracts. The only non-Filipinos in all of Clark are older white dudes with beer guts, Tevas, yellow fever, and very likely an ex-wife (or 2) and an STD (or 2). Walking around the city made me cringe. Titty bars and clubs outnumbered travel agencies, motor shops, karaoke bars, and markets combined. 20- and 30-something-year-old Filipino women in high heels, too-tight tanks that displayed full Wonderbra cleavage, and too-mini miniskirts loitered on the sidewalks. Hotels crudely advertised "Room for rent by hour." The worst part? The slimeballs that kept this industry thriving: 50- and 60-year-old retired Americans, Aussies, and Brits who go on nightly prowls for sexual satisfaction.

Even writing about it makes my nose scrunch as if prostitution has a distinct stench. I'll just move on to what non-sex-tourists like Bart and myself had come to the Philippines for.

Although the Philippines is relatively hard to navigate given the unreliable bus schedule and diverse terrain, if you choose your ports well, you won't be disappointed. A too-short 6 days meant no rice terraces and no Camarines Sur, but I got what I wanted: volcanoes, beaches, and seafood.

A bumpy 3-hour ride and a short trek from Clark landed us at a gorgeous volcanic crater lake in Mt. Pinatubo (with very sore butts). Although options of what to do at the lake were limited to swimming and jumping off a craggly volcanic rock, that turquoise lake was something I'd only seen in National Geographic two-page foldouts.

Two days in the Hundred Islands National park left me with sunburned shoulders, but the sleepy town of Lucap was paradise compared to Clark's decaying entropy and Red Light District. The best meal in my three weeks of traveling through SE Asia was at our seaside hotel in Lucap. A starter of perfectly-battered calamari, chicken curry that left a dripping trail of curry sauce on the white tablecloth, and the crab. The crab!!! (pause to wipe saliva from the keyboard). Bart and I picked our crab from a basket - well, it was more of an apathetic nod at our waiter's extremely strong and persuasive suggestion that the crab with red undertones on its belly would be the most flavorful. What do I know about picking out crabs? They all look the same to me: beady-eyed, sloth-like, and intimidating.
The crab was served with some amazingly addictive vermicelli glass noodles swimming in a thick and gingery curry. It was the type of meal that leaves you smiling with every bite, and ends with you thankful for elastic-banded shorts.

From the Hundred Islands, we moved on to Busuanga and Coron Islands in northern Palawan. Although strictly regulated and sometimes a pain for tourists not on a let's-all-carry-umbrellas-and-wear-yellow-hats Chinese tour group, Coron Town has the best coral reefs I've seen. The islands are bordered by pure limestone cliffs that taunt with their invincibility. The freshwater lakes on the island are so clear that I could see down to 50 meters. Miniature stretches of white sand afforded isolation only interrupted by a "caretaker" who requested that we sign the logbook. He waited patiently on the island each day with his dog, monkey, and cat to welcome any visitors. Our names were the first in that logbook, so I'm guessing that his 3 pets were pretty good company. Before we kayaked off to our next destination, we gave the caretaker a couple pieces of fruit, as much a thank-you for not charging us to enjoy his island as a way to get rid of the extra fruit that we'd brought. As we paddled away, his monkey happily munched on the banana while his dog barked madly at us for not bringing Kibble 'n Bits.

Off of the eastern coast of Coron Island, we kayaked to an islet that had a dead dog floating in its waters just 50 meters from shore. Our visit to this tiny, 10-house village was met with yellow-toothed smiles, dirty barefoot kids, a machete-wielding baby, a hut of village women playing BINGO, and a man with gay mannerisms and spotty English.

Our request to see a lake (we'd convinced ourselves that we would stumble on a gorgeous lake in the middle of limestone cliffs and be the first Westerners to cliff-dive into its waters) led us on a trail through swamp, prickly aloe vera plants, and coconut trees. We followed the only English-speaking villager while kids trailed all around us, our own entourage. The "lake" turned out to be a smelly, stagnant swamp - you could barely see the water because a blanket of moss and algae had laid a film over the surface. Guess we wouldn't be swimming in an untouched lake.

The trek to the volcanic lake and visits to the Hundred Islands National Park and Coron and Busuanga Islands were the Philippines' redemption for the vile atmosphere of Clark. Despite Clark's rampant prostitution and our peso-ravenous taxi drivers, the Philippines was worth the venture east. The freshwater lakes on Coron Island, kayaking to an isolated village with coconut-tree-scrambling kids wielding machetes, island-hopping on a banca, and the crab, curry, and calamari meal in Lucap were highlights to a Filipino adventure.

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