Friday, May 30, 2008

Meow Meow Meow, Meow Meow Meow Meow

Squirrels are to USA as Cats are to the Philippines. They are EVERYWHERE. That is all.

Look back through old posts... we've added pictures!

Today's Blog Title Changed Four Times

1: The Most Adventurous Day I've Had
2: I Had a Coconut on Top of a Volcano
3: What the Guide Doesn't Tell You
4: The Universe is Balanced

Too much happened today to sum it all up easily. I really had to exercise my courage... no matter how much I thought I stretched myself on Semester at Sea, I think today topped that even more. Needless to say we made it to Lake Taal and the volcano that makes it famous, but getting here was almost more interesting.

1: The Most Adventurous Day I've Had

After securing supplies (water and some snacks) and having a good breakfast, Jim and I set off to follow directions to a small town that were given to us over the phone by the Talisay Green Lake Resort. On our second attempt we found a cab that could take us to the bus station, which entailed careening through little alleyways dodging pedestrians. Upon reaching the bus station, two men who were “being helpful” grabbed our backpacks out of the trunk for us, asked us where we were going, and without a moment's more discussion took off with them and put them up on a bus that we could only guess was headed to Tanauan. (Tan-ow-ahn)

I'm not going to lie, I was really nervous about them just taking our backpacks like that (luckily that's only clothing... all our valuables are in our day bags for that reason). We got even more nervous when it looked like the bus driver wasn't going to let us on, and since we weren't 100% sure that this bus was the one we wanted. Then we got annoyed when, of course, the men wanted a tip for carrying our bags for us (when I would have been much happier keeping them in my possession, thank you very much). But, that's culture for you eh?

Thankfully, the bus attendant was friendly and helpful and assured us that we were going to the right place, and that it would only be 98 pisos (approx. $2.25 US). That's super cheap. We headed on the “highway” south toward Tanauan, getting caught in what I must assume is one of the monsoons we were supposed to hit (it's monsoon season). The leaky windows allowed a few raindrops to come inside. Apparently, it's normal to stop halfway to fuel the bus. 52 pisos to the liter... 42 pisos to the dollar... there's a fun math problem for you! Which is cheaper, gas in the Philippines or gas in Colorado? Don't forget to convert liters to gallons!

When the bus finally stopped in Tanauan (which didn't look much different from any other place along the way... shanties and run-down shops surrounded by enormous amounts of tropical vegetation) we hopped off. We then found a “tricycle”... a motorbike with a side car attached... to take us for the “one hour” trip to the market in the small town of Talisay. It actually ended up being 40 minutes or so. Picture this: Sarah and Jim squished into a seat that's barely big enough for one of them with a giant backpack on their laps and the other riding on the back seat of the motorbike. We were definitely quite the spectacle for the locals! It's a good thing we brought backpacks and not suitcases.

We then transferred tricycles at the market to take us directly to the Green Lake Resort.

Now when I say resort... that's a loose interpretation of the word. I'm not complaining of course, but it's not what you're thinking. Small room, stiff bed, in-window air conditioner, nobody around. Mom, this is probably non-touristy enough for you, anyway.

I think that has to be the craziest transportation I've ever taken. I'm sure it could get even crazier... but I'll stick with this for now.

2: I Had a Coconut on Top of a Volcano

After putting our bags down at the 'resort', we hired a boat out to the island in the middle of the lake (which is the volcano). The boat ride itself was actually spectacular... the views were incredible and the lake was as smooth as glass.

The part they don't tell you is that the "guide" is extra, and they're going to chase you with horses the entire time because they don't think you can hike the thing. They didn't understand the part where I said I was allergic to horses and that we're from the mountains where hiking is a normal activity. Halfway up the volcano the horse guys finally gave up, but our guide was booking it up to the top. Jim and I took this as a personal challenge and kept up as best we could. We didn't see anyone else actually on foot... I think we amazed some people. I will admit it was the steamiest, hottest, sweatiest hike I've EVER taken.

But, when we got to the top, we had some fresh buko (coconut) juice straight out of the shell and it was delicious. The views were spectacular. It was incredibly beautiful! You could actually see steam coming out of the vents and feel the heat coming from the earth. Gorgeous.

3: What the Guide Doesn't Tell You

What the guide doesn't warn you about is all the hidden costs. An extra 500 pisos for the guide. 100 pisos for face masks (which, of course, you don't actually need). 50 pisos to buy a drink for your guide and 100 pisos for drinks for yourselves. 20 pisos to tip the person who helps you out of the boat and a tip for the boat driver. Tips, tips, tips. Oy vey.

It's not even the amount of money... 20 pisos is only about 50 cents. It's that the ATMS only dispense 1000 and 500 piso notes (sometimes you might get some 100 notes if you're lucky), and NOBODY seems to have change. By the time we got back from the volcano, we had zero change left. Just a bunch of large bills that nobody could break. There was no way to pay a tricycle driver to get us back to town to get some dinner. The "restaurant" at the "resort" could not give change either. We were getting pretty worried about being able to get back.

Back at our room, we met the only other guests at the resort... two Belgian fellows who were having similar change problems. They were friendly, but could offer no advice.

4: The Universe is Balanced

Just as we were about to lose hope and had resigned to eating up all the snacks we had packed for dinner, breakfast and lunch the following day... we ran into the resort manager. She didn't have change of course, but she did suggest having a tricycle take us to the gas station to see if they had change.

Sure enough, telling the tricycle driver what we needed and assuring him he'd get paid when and only when we got change did the trick. There was a native restaurant right across the street from the gas station, so we went over to get some dinner.

The place was EMPTY aside from three young waitresses. If I've ever felt like a rock star it was here. Lee Ann spoke really good English, come to find out she is 16 and dreams of going to New York (she has family there). They attended to us so much that it was almost a little uncomfortable! It was nice that Lee Ann chit-chatted with us while we waited for food, but then I just had to laugh as they literally just stared at us while we ate. Lee Ann said they liked to see that we were enjoying our food. That seems to be common here... the waiters and waitresses stand nearby while you look over the menu, eat, and pay the bill. They don't leave your side very much.

We had a whole grilled native fish that starts with M, I forget the name... Makalputi? along with some delicious vegetable fried rice. It was very delicious.

Lee Ann and her cousins as we came to find out really enjoyed having us there. They wrote us a cute note thanking us for coming on a napkin (addressed to maam and sir, as everyone calls us here) and wanted hugs on the way out. They were the epitome of giggle teenage girls... they were cute.

The universe was right again, and Talisay wasn't such a bad place after all... and after all, it was a gorgeous sunset.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wow tired!

We had a fun day today chasing around basic needs, incidentally discovering cool things and knocking off a "must see" item. Our first objective of the day was to acquire a PLDT phone card (local carrier) so as to avoid $2.50/min roaming charges on the loaner phone to book a room near our next destination (Taal). After a literal goose chase, two hours, accidentally discovering the Robinson's Mall and a a really good breakfast, we achieved nirvana and found a little cart selling them. We now have a room and some really Hollywood instructions on how to get there. And yes, they do include such tasks as "get off the bus, hire a tricycle to the market and ask for us". Hehehe... new experiences lurk around each and every corner these days.

As the Lonely Planet guide mentions, while there are seemingly thousands of taxis available while you intend to be on foot, they all seem to disappear when you actually want one. We had the intent of hiring an actual yellow taxi (they're what the security guard recommended outside of the place we're staying), but we finally gave in and nabbed the more common white kind after much hunting. We did not a) get ripped off, b) killed, c) brought to somewhere unexpected, so we used one a second time after spending a great afternoon exploring Intramuros and getting an incredible taste of history. I, not having so many miles under my belt for travel, was astonished to see buildings (or the crumblings of) from the 16th century. More interesting than them was to see the contrast of modern society living in and among them as if they were nothing out of the ordinary.

We did learn a lesson today after hiring a horse carriage and "guide" to bring us around Intramuros. While we're not total noobs at this game and remembered to negotiate a deal up front, we forgot to ask if it would cost us extra as he encouraged us to get out of the carriage about 4 times to check out different locations. 45 minutes later (we had negotiated for 30) and his claim of 1 hour, we were presented with a guilt trip and new negotiations. Must continue to beat into our skulls the virtues of understanding ALL of the fine print as it presents itself. We negotiated a very fair payment in the end, especially considering that those 45 minutes off our feet were valuable, but educational none-the-less.

For the records, I (Jim), did get minorly grumpy today (no doubt Sarah would mention it). The reason for this little bit of grumpiness is quite simple: it's getting a bit overwhelming trying to do such normally simple tasks as crossing the road w/o being killed. Tiring... all is good, but man it's a culture shock for me. While being a foreign tourist here is incredibly simple thanks to the seeming fact that everyone and everything speaks and/or is in English, the constant choking vehicular smog and adrenaline rush of crossing the street can be shorten your patience.

Another unintended, but fun "check-off-the-list" item was our dinner at Jollibee (the local fast food joint of Manila) in Intramuros. The Yum Burger was, well, Yum and the fries were incredibly like McDonald's. It was quite refreshing having a pineapple juice in place of the standard optional lemonade. Also fun to note, every place you go that is a "nicer" store, like a Jollibee or 7-11 or bank or even a hotel, has its very own security guard. This security guard opens the door for you and greets you "Good evening, sir, maam..." What service.

I think Sarah has put it the most elegantly when she said something along the lines of, "at least the children in India would say 'please ma'am' as they chased after you." While I received a taste of this phenomenon in South Africa, Manila is really my first experience with persistent child-pleading for charity. I must admit that I'm almost feeling like a bad person when I say, it's really tiring, but it really is. I really wish I could help everyone out that asks, but I can't. And when everything that approaches you knows only one phrase, "GIVE me money", I quite frankly feel a little dead inside. I wish, at least, people here would ask and not splash muddy water at us as we walked by and did not give. I guess it's more culture shock that I need to work out in my head as the trip progresses.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

It's a Good Kind of Pain

We're safe in the Philippines. You know you were worried. (Kidding!)

We're very very tired jetlagged pups. After 3 hours on the plane to San Francisco, a day on the town, a 14 hour flight to Hong Kong, and a 1.5 hour flight to Manila, we decided to walk all over the capital city. We're in pain, but it's a good kind of pain... the kind where you know you're going to sleep well.

Manila is about 14 hours ahead of Colorado, so here we are wrapping up our Wednesday evening when in Colorado Wednesday has just begun. (We never did have a Tuesday due to the International Date Line.)

First impressions: Manila reminds me a lot more of India and Vietnam than I expected. I expected the friendly people (of which there are many) but I wasn't expecting to see here the begging children in the streets that I've seen so many other places. I don't know why I didn't expect it, you would think I would... but I didn't. So there's that. There are also many more people living in rusted corrugated tin shelters than I expected. The traffic is just as absurd as both places. However, we had a great time and met a few very nice people in the process today.

Benjamin, for example, reminded me of a few of the reasons that I became a teacher. He put me to shame today with his knowledge of world history. You see, Benjamin works on a cruise ship that visits the United States, but regardless he was having a great time informing us of the history of the Philippines as well as the United States and everything related inbetween. Don't get me wrong, it's very important to learn U.S. history, but I feel that as a U.S. citizen I learned very little history other than that of my own country and state until college. We need to fix that. (And we are...) It's just sad that I knew very little about the Philippines until college when I took a course on Southeast Asia, and yet I still learned quite a bit from the “history” chapter in my Lonely Planet book.

Jim and I have decided that we like to slow down a bit. We did nothing but walk the city today until our feet hurt so badly we had to surrender. We discovered so much that we would have just passed by otherwise... my favorite was watching the families flying kites in the park, but stumbling upon the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy was a highlight as well. A police officer helped a child string his kite... that's just not something I really see at home. We walked through Rizal Park full of monuments and gardens, then quite the opposite as we played Frogger in the Jeepney traffic and strolled by shanty after shanty in the alleyway.

Our hotel, the Malate Pensionne, is quite modest. We are on a very tight budget (teacher's salary, you know). However, I'm rather enjoying it here for now. We only have one night booked so far but I have the impression that we can extend the stay if we wish. We have to do a bit of research now and figure out what we want to do. We have 5 nights in the Philippines (this is night 1) so we might go to see Lake Taal and its volcano or perhaps to a beach... we really have no idea. No matter what though, we will be fine... if all else fails, we'll just stay here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Heading to Asia

It's been too long since we've gone anywhere of note! (Together, that is...) Jim and I are off to Asia. We'll be in the Philippines from May 28-June 2 and in Hong Kong from June 2-June 11. We're flying in and out of San Francisco because it's so much cheaper and we get to see friends, so we leave Colorado May 26th and return June 13th very very very late. (On the way out we lose a day due to the international date line.)

What are we doing when we get there? Good question. We have backpacks and Lonely Planet guides and some ideas of what would be cool, but other than one night's hotel booked in Manila... we're off to see where the wind takes us. I've always wanted to do a trip this way.

Stay tuned, we leave bright and early tomorrow morning!

Sarah and Jim