Sunday, August 29, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Day 2

Monday, the second day in the Philippines, was about  as near a perfect day as there can be in this world. That day, we decided to hit Pagsangan Falls. It was a three hour bus ride to get there, and and then another fifteen minutes or so on tricycle. The bus ride was incredible, because it was like a getting little snapshots of the island as we sped through it. Everything from ramshackle shanties of rotting cloth and rusting tin that people lived in, to georgous mountain vistas and fields of rice and banana plantations stretching up into those mountains. Palm trees, curling streams, and towering mountains were everywhere. I was amazed at the poverty of the people living in the midst of such a stunning wealth of beauty. People stared up at me from the streets as I looked out the bus window. That’s something that was both flattering and really disconcerting; I get stared at everywhere there. By everyone. Openly, and unabashedly. I guess I am nothing like them.  At least on the outside. At least in our backgrounds and language and lives and stories. But somehow we're the same. Our smiles mean the same thing.

There was one town that we passed, where there was a group of women sitting at an old picnic table outside, next to their drying laundry strung from lines in the trees. One of them saw me through the window of the bus, and started whispering to another, pointing towards me. Pretty soon, the whole group was casting furtive looks in my direciton. I grinned and waved at them, and they suddenly all burst into smiles and started waving wildly at me. In that moment I felt so connected to them, though I knew nothing about them, not even a name.

Finally, we arrived at Santa Cruz, and took a tricycle to an old hotel that ran the boating service up to Pagsanjan Falls. The river was wide and beautiful, and all along it were small huts and homes, simple, bare dwellings for the fishing folk who made the river their home. We got in a canoe, and, paddled by two Filipinos who knew those waters natively and intimately, we started upriver. The fishermen stopped and watched us, unmoving, as we paddled past, probably quite used to the little wood canoes moving up and down the river. As we moved upriver, and started fighting against the rapids, the two boatmen became like little frogmen, jumping to and fro—out of the boat and back in, a leap over the bow of the boat to the other side, bouncing their bare feet in and out of the water, and pushing off rocks, guiding us perfectly up the stream, against the current, and avoiding the hundreds of rocky traps in our path. It was incredible! We would have capsized and wrapped that boat around a rock fifty times if we had been the ones guiding it.

The view was stunning as we started heading into the canyon. Stretching up on both sides was jungle and rocky cliffs—banana trees, plams, and thousands of other kinds of tropical vegetation. We could hear chattering monkeys, but they stayed out of sight. Apparently they only come out in the morning. I had never seen that kind of beauty before. The vines hanging down were dripping with water; the whole jungle was heaving with water that came down in streams and rivulets, along the trees and down the rock. The first fall we came to was tall and beautiful, and flowed well. This is the rainy season, and the river is high and the falls are strong. Sometimes during this season, they cannot take people past this first set of falls because the river becomes too flooded and dangerous. The day we went was, coincidentally, the first day of the season that the water had been low enough to take people all the way to the main falls.

Pagsanjan Falls is huge and heavy. It is not terribly high, at least visibly. The rock hides much of it. But it comes down as a mighty torrent of water, and shakes the river, creating huge waves the rock out from the place where the falls hits the surface of the river. Behind the waterfall is a black cavern called Devil’s Gate. When we got to the falls, we got out of our canoe and transferred onto a bamboo raft, paddled by more shirtless Filipinos. We headed straight into the waterfall. They say that the falls pounding on your body as you are directly beneath it is the best full-body massage you can get in all of the Philippines. We didn’t get to actually find out, because the falls were so heavy that going directly beneath them would have snapped our bones. We rode under off to the side, still getting a decently heavy downpour over us, but missing the real strength. Once inside the cave, they stopped the raft, and we looked out at the falls from the other side.

Jon and I took the guide’s invitation to swim with him, and jumped off the raft into the water inside the cavern. It was a great swim, an amazing ride, and as we pulled the raft back out and headed to the bank, I looked back and saw a perfect rainbow falling over the falls and into the water.

The ride back was fun, as we shot with the current over the 14 sets of rapids along the river. The sun was getting low, and kids were out along the river, washing clothes with rocks or pulling in the day’s haul of fish. We even saw some Cebu feeding along the river, obviously tamed by the folk who lived in the huts there. As we pulled past the rapids, the sun started getting low, and the river smooth out to glass that we glided along, seemingly effortlessly.

After a quick shower at the boat rental shop, we hopped the bus back to Paranaque, where we gave most of our coconut pie and twenty pesos or so to a few small, starving children, and hopped a jeepney back to Happy Coconuts, the look of a little girl’s stunned, joyful face, and her words, “Oh, thank you!” completely egraven in my eyes and ears. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Day 1

We woke up the first morning in the Philippines to pouring rain. And I mean, torrential rain. The tropical storm that started a week or so before had not let up much, and when it rains, it rains hard. The streets were literally rivers, the water completely burying car tires in some places. It looked like cars were just being washed down a river. But no, they were driving, and somehow managing to get from A to B as if swimming in their vehicle was a normal part of their routine.

We decided to try to find church that morning, and set out, hopping on our first jeepney. Jeepneys are the major form of public transportation here. It looks like a jeep, except stretched out. Like a stretch limo would look if it were made of silver and rust. Apparently, they originate from World War II. Each jeepney has its own special name in curling letters across the front—the Christine, the Jennifer, the Workaholic. And in the window are little signs denoting roads and stops that are on that jeepney’s route. They cram people in; up to twenty people can fit on the vinyl benches if you get cozy and half sit on the guy’s lap next to you. But, they’re cheap. For a flat rate of 7 pesos, sometimes 10, you can get to any point on the jeepney’s route. Matted stuffed animals hang from the dashboard, and the plastic tarp they put over the open sides blows up in the wind, letting the rain in. But I love them. They are a brilliantly fun way to get around.

As long as you know where to get off.

We did. We were going to transfer from jeepney to the National Rail, which would take us to within a few blocks of the chapel. Unfortunately, when we got to the rail, we found that that particular piece of the rail had not been built yet. Thus began two hours of jeepney rides in what we hoped was the right direction, and then finally a crammed train ride into the area of town we were headed.

As we were standing in line, waiting for the train to come, I decided to put my camera away, back into Jon’s backpack. A man off to the side of Jon, who had been watching us, noticed what I was putting away. He slowly maneuvered from the side of to directly behind us. Jon put his arm around me and pulled me to his side so that when he talked to me, he had to crane his neck sideways, giving him an excellent corner-of-the-eye view of the would-be robber. I took a more direct approach. I looked over my shoulder and stared at the man—direcly, and unblinkingly, until he moved away.

The train ride was packed and sweaty, but not too bad. However, having come a different way than planned, we no longer knew where we were, or how to find the chapel, although we knew that it was close.

This section of the day is already a little muddled for me—so much happened. There were the beggars—the man with no legs that I didn’t see, but that Jon stopped for and gave all our change to. Then, there was the man, huddled and unmoving on a low brick outcropping, one large T-shirt on his body, and that was all. Not even any pants. There was some kind of see-through scrap of cloth wrapped around his lower body, and he was wet and shivering. He was badly diseased, and yellowed bandages covered about half of his face. He was barely moving, and I knew that the small stack of change we left on the wall next to him was not going to save him.

There was a feeling that came over me then, of a pain like I have not felt before. I’ve seen beggars, but I’ve never seen a beggar who was more than a beggar, who was so sick and poor and tattered that life was actually hell. I have never seen a beggar that I knew would die. It is haunting, and I felt so helpless, standing there, knowing that I could not change anything for him, shaking to realize that life is fragile and that, though we often think we are gods with our gadgets and medicines and shuttles to the stars, we ultimately have little power over life, and even less over death.

And then there were the children. As we were wandering around, lost, I saw a jeepney named “Jesus is the Lord,” turning off of the street in front of us. I decided it was a sign, and we should turn down that street. It led us right to them. Three boys, possibly brothers, none of them wearing anthing more than a pair of shorts, their bodies glistening with the rain and the murky water from the street. They were calling out to give rides on “tricycles,” another form of transportation here that is either a motorcycle or a bicycle with a sidecar fitting two people attatched to it. They ride or pedal you around for a fee. The place where the boys were was a section of road that had been badly flooded and was a couple of feet deep in water. They saw us dressed in our now soggy Sunday clothes, and tried to get us to hop in one of the waiting tricycles. They were probably working as recruiters for the drivers. When we told them no, they followed us, finally asking for some money. Unfortunately we had run out of change. We looked, but had nothing. We finally had to tell them we didn’t have any coins to give them. Then one of them said, “Please, I’m really hungry.”

I never ever want to hear those words from a child’s mouth again.

Jon and I looked at them, and Jon said, “I believe you,” as the other boys echoed the first. “Can you get us some food?” they finally asked. We walked to the corner drugstore.

The boys pointed us in the right direction for the church, and we walked into the last ten minutes of the meeting, just in time to hear the end of a mixed English and Tagalog talk and to sing a closing hymn. While we were there, we learned that there was a ward that met not ten minutes from our hostel, though we had traveled two hours to try to find a congregation.

But I was different after that day in the city.
And I don't believe in coincidences.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Part One

Most people when they come to the Philippines, come and find a beach, buy some beer, and don’t move more than a one kilometer radius for the next six days. And they miss so much. They play tourist, and miss the heartbeat of the place they’re visiting.

We arrived in Manila Saturday night, and ended up taking a very expensive taxi ride from the airport to the Happy Coconuts Hostel where we had booked a stay for the next two nights. It was a good twenty minute ride into Paranaque, the next town south, with mellow English music playing in the cab. The taxi driver had been a taxi driver since he first learned to drive—basically his whole life. He pointed out the different things we saw as we passed them, and told us what prices to expect on jeepneys, and how to get from here to there.

It was one of those life-defining moments as I looked out of the taxi at a world so different from home, and so different even from the home I have found in Korea. Everywhere, tattered buildings looked like they were pieced together with rusty screws and spit, and then had the ocean waves beat on them for days on end.  Signs were mostly in English, mixed with some Tagalog, and here and there a word of Spanish.
The people themselves were sprawled out in the heavy, humid heat. Guys hung around at broken picnic tables and outside fruit stands, barefoot, shirtless, their teeth white and shining in the darkness. Kids ran around, played in the gutters, searched through garbage. I saw one skinny, dirty child begging on a street corner, not an adult in sight. Elsewhere, men were peeing on the side of the road, girls in shorts laughed and jangled in huddled groups, and toothless men and young boys picked through the refuse left by others.

One dog, skinny and hungry, slithered by, sniffing at an empty wrapper.

Between all the buildings rose palm trees and green vegetation, crawling up walls and around bends and curling around the spaces between things. The whole scene was heart-wrenching and heart-capturing, and I think I fell in love with the Philippines on that first taxi ride.

Well, the hostel proved a bit tricky to find. We knew that it had a bamboo gate and was across the street from a fruit stand, but the taxi driver, I think, wanted to fatten up his fare a bit, and we drove past it, and then for a long ways, going very slowly. We did eventually arrive, and found the hostel to be basically the nicest building I had yet seen. Real beds. Polished wood floors. Air conditioning. Wood cabinet dressers and large mirrors. Lavish for what I had seen thus far of the island.

A little ways down the road from the hostel is a river that flows through and tunnels under the road. It has tangled vegetation on both sides, but it flows strong and fast, and looks like a roaring snake curling through the jungle. It smells badly, and is littered with trash, but from a distance, is quite beautiful.

Beautiful. Even in the middle of a city, the palm trees wave, and there is salt in the air, and you can tell that it is an island. Filipino people look South American in every way, except that they have Asian eyes. The islands feel South American too. Even in the city, out away from the beaches and coconuts and fire dancers, you can tell that these are island people, and that, even if they're living in a cement box with a tin roof, they are people of the sea and the sky and the trees that wave in the air curling in from their salty shores.