Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Welcome to Dumaguete: "Hey, Joe!"

Marilyn and myself at South Seas Resort in DumagueteEvery Caucasian male who visits Dumaguete City will immediately become synonymous with the the historically significant name "Joe". Of course, I was no exception to this rule as a group of Dumagueteño youths reminded me with an enthusiastic, "Hey, Joe!" I didn't quite know the etiquette for such a situation, but I went with the time-honored smile, followed by a wave.

Fair-skinned foreigners might view this traditional Filipino greeting as being disrespectful or even racist. However, I did not see any evidence of such intentions. The culture in the Philippines is vastly different from what we have in America, especially when looking at the social fabric. White or otherwise light-skinned tourists are sources of great curiosity in the Philippines and the locals are not afraid to drape them in attention. This occurrence may be further amplified in smaller towns such as Dumaguete, which are a bit off the beaten path. By contrast, a Filipino visiting America will most likely be ignored. We Americans are one step above robots when it comes to our treatment of strangers, especially those who we deem to be foreigners. So, in this context, an enthusiastic, "Hey, Joe", seems to be quite amiable after all. In fact, I felt like the guest of honor at times in Dumaguete. I sensed no animosity in their greeting.

By the way, my dad's name really is Joe. He'd feel right at home in the Philippines :)

Geckos & Roosters & Dogs, Oh My!

Regardless of where you decide to stay in Dumaguete you can expect to see plenty of geckos, roosters and dogs roaming freely. While dogs are pretty much confined to the more residential areas you should expect your hotel’s grounds to be frequented by roosters and geckos (i.e. lizards). The latter tend to be the most invasive, often taking a stroll around the walls in your room. I was understandably alarmed at first when a few of them decided to share my room at South Seas Resort, but my friend Marilyn assured me they do not bite. Their occasional chirping was unnerving for the first few days, but I later pretended this was simply their way of welcoming me to Dumaguete City. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes and countless other biting insects went with the more direct method of eating me alive.

Dumaguete City Traffic or Amusement Park?

An infamous pedi-cab parked in downtown DumagueteDisney should seriously consider adding a new theme park that is based entirely upon traffic in Dumaguete City. The absence of any speed limits, combined with a very noticeable lack of stop signs at 4-way intersections, provides the perfect conditions for amusement park-like thrills and chills. Add in the lively cast of multi-colored jeepneys, anomalous pedi-cabs and buzzing motorcycles and you could charge admission to this spectacle of sights and sounds (oh, and smelly exhaust, too).

Upon arriving in Dumaguete, Marilyn and I found a nice air-conditioned taxi and rode a few quiet blocks to an affordable restaurant to quell our rebellious stomachs. After lunch, we were literally whisked away to our next destination at speeds that had me closely eyeing the blurred objects zooming by (not to mention closely monitoring the contents of my now-filled stomach). I’m quite sure most of those blurred objects were in fact human beings, all within inches of becoming instant road kill. As time went on I realized this was simply an innate skill on the part of the driver, with the passing distance being inversely proportional to the driver’s dexterity. That is, the closer they were to skinning someone alive or causing a multi-car pileup without actually causing any harm the better their skills as a driver. In this context, ALL of our drivers were unbelievably skilled. However, our bus driver topped them all, as he maneuvered a huge city bus down a relatively narrow highway at 65 mph, all the while dodging vehicles and energetic children playing by the side of the road. Thankfully, everyone respected the hulking, speeding mass of metal by yielding to its terrifying horn that seemed to call out, "move or die!” Even so, the Filipino definition of the word “yield” is approximately thus: “to nonchalantly veer two inches off the path of an approaching vehicle; three inches if said vehicle weighs more than 10 tons.” No doubt, Dumagueteños are fearless when it comes to matters of transportation, whether as drivers, passengers, or pedestrians.

Thankfully, not all conveyances in Dumaguete rely on pure speed and seat-of-your-pants driving. My personal favorite is the pedi-cab, or “tricycle”. It is best described as a motorcycle taxi, complete with a covered seating area that is shoddily attached to the under-powered motorcycle chassis. The pedi-cab is perhaps the noisiest and dirtiest form of transportation in Dumaguete (and the Philippines as a whole), but for an American the novelty of the whole thing makes it quite enjoyable. Also, the 25-30 mph top speed does away with most of the “white knuckle syndrome” so common with other vehicle types, though you can expect to be passed by speedier buses, vans and cars on a nearly continuous basis.

It took me about 9 days before I shook off my conservative views on Dumaguete City traffic (i.e. my intense fear) and consented to riding with Marilyn on her motorcycle. I tell you…nothing compares to the thrill of riding along on a motorcycle at 40 mph while crossing the center-line to pass a slow moving pedi-cab while being passed by a city bus going 55 mph as oncoming traffic is bearing down in unmitigated fashion…all without a helmet! Apparently, I had great trust in Marilyn’s abilities for I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it (my parents are cringing at the thought). Yielding to her responsibility for my safety, though, Marilyn brushed off my repeated requests to “give it more juice”. Sadly, back-seat driving is likely the only driving I’ll ever do in Dumaguete. Indeed, the complicated mix of obscure rules and sheer chaos is best left for the locals who have a lifetime of learning this unique system. The rest of us can just sit back, relax, and hold on for dear life.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Zamboanguita....Glad to Meet Ya!

Beautiful beach house in Zamboanguita, PhilippinesMy native friend Marilyn and I spent half a day in Zamboanguita, which is about 15 or so miles south of Dumaguete along the national highway. My prior experience had told me that every town in the Philippines is crowded, no matter how small it is. I was quite sure that Zamboanguita was rather miniscule, but I'll be darned if the downtown area wasn't crowded. We proceeded to the home of Marilyn's cousin, who had invited us to spend some time at her beach house. I was rather impressed with this beach "compound" that was situated on at least a few hundred feet of shore down the road. Apparently, Marilyn's cousin and her family own a pig farm. This can be a very lucrative industry as I understand. Yeah, I'd say so. They could have hosted a party for all of Zamboanguita on their property.

Shortly after we had made the short trip down the road to the beach house Marilyn's uncle asked if I was a beer drinker. Deciding it might be rude to reject what sounded like an invitation, I went along and said yes (in reality, I average about 2 beers per year). He then asked if I'd like to travel into town with him to pick up a few bottles of San Miguel, even offering to pay for them. Of course I agreed. We then set out on the short jaunt via a motorcycle, which is always interesting without a helmet. Thankfully, we only had a mile of ground to cover. When we arrived at the store I quickly noticed how primitive it was, even by Philippines standards. Once inside, I was greeted with a few curious stares from locals who were watching some sort of TV program. When it came time to purchase the beer the financial responsibility actually fell on me, despite the earlier offer by Marilyn's uncle to purchase it. I did not even flinch, but reached into my pocket to retrieve the 100 pesos (i.e. less than $2). Filipinos are masters of hospitality if you are a guest in their home, but in a neutral environment such as a store or restaurant the "rich" foreigner is expected to cover expenses.

Part of the beach 'compound' in Zamoanguita that belongs to Marilyn's cousinBefore leaving Zamboanguita I accompanied Marilyn to some sort of Catholic funeral ritual (Marilyn is Protestant, by the way) that was being held in memory of a distant relative. I don't know exactly what was going on, but a group of 4 ladies appeared to be singing verses over and over again and were facing an altar that contained a photo and a few flower arrangements. Marilyn waited outside the door for a good 30 minutes, entered for about 30 seconds, and then we left. I still don't know what it was all about.

By now it was starting to get dark and we still had to get back to Dumaguete. We waited by the side of the road as every conceivable form of transportation passed by. Finally, we flagged down a small van of sorts that looked like it was already filled to capacity. Would you believe there were two spots still available in the very back row? We sat down and began our relatively long (by Filipino standards) 15-mile journey back to Dumaguete. The driver appeared to be a younger gentleman, so you can imagine my shock when the van's audio system started pumping out vintage songs from Kenny Rogers! Of course, my disbelief had more to do with the fact that I was hearing American oldies in this packed little van in Zamboanguita, Philippines. At the same time, though, the familiarity of home was very much with me in those moments. I used to hear those songs on the radio as a kid in Michigan. The world suddenly became very small.

Oh, and do you want to guess the total price tag for that 15-mile trip down memory lane with Kenny Rogers? Sixty pesos for Marilyn and myself combined...or about 55 cents each!

Mango Shakes at South Seas Resort

South Seas Resort in Dumaguete City...looking toward the open-air restaurantI was quite enchanted with the seaside resort north of Dumaguete known as South Seas. While it was very convenient to the downtown area it was nestled away behind a maze of residential streets that gave it a sort of cozy, reclusive feel. The only major drawback to this resort is that it has no real beachfront. Then again, I was trying to minimize my exposure to the brutal Filipino sun, so I wasn't terribly upset. Besides, the lush, green setting of this quaint little accommodation was more than sufficient to meet my rest and relaxation requirements. And at USD $30 per night it was an incredible value.

Oh, and the mango shakes served at the open-air restaurant were easily the best in the entire world. Keep in mind that I have nothing to compare them to, but if you ever make it to Dumaguete be sure to stop by South Seas and order a few.

No Halo-Halo or Balut For Me

When I arrived in Dumaguete I figured it would be appropriate to at least sample some of the native foods and take in an extra bit of culture. Admittedly, I am a food wimp and am easily scared off by food that has a face or in any way resembles the intact, living animal from which it was derived. In the same way, I tend to also steer clear of foods which, oh, I don't know, try to combine corn and gelatin and ice chips and beans. This is precisely the sort of concoction you'll find in halo-halo, which is a very popular cold dessert in the Philippines. Honestly, when I saw my first bowl of halo-halo I thought it was an art exhibit of some kind. Of course, if I was forced to choose between eating balut or halo-halo I'd certainly choose the latter. For those who don't know, balut is a fertilized duck egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell. This most certainly falls into the first category of foods that I avoid (i.e. intact animals). Suddenly, beans and ice chips don't sound so bad :) Of course, if I had my choice I would just stick with the mango shakes at South Seas resort in Dumaguete.

Eaten Alive, But Malaria Free

I can honestly say with a good amount of confidence that the threat of malaria is extremely low in Dumaguete—or else I was just very lucky. Even with the aid of OFF bug deterrent I endured at least a few dozen bites from a variety of insects over the course of two weeks. Some of the resultant red welts were not only insanely itchy, but much larger than I had ever experienced in the U.S. I honestly believe I was bitten by more than just "macho" Dumagueteño mosquitoes, though I shudder to think what kinds of winged and/or crawling creatures feasted on my type-A blood. When I consulted with my doctor before leaving the U.S. it was suggested that I invest in some anti-malarial pills. Because they are intended as a preventative measure the regimen must be started 1-2 weeks before exposure to the potential pathogens, maintained throughout exposure, and continued 2 weeks after the exposure has ended. In my case it was going to require about 5-6 weeks worth of disciplined pill-taking. Needless to say, I stopped about 4 days after arriving in Dumaguete and didn't think much of it until I left the country. At that point the anxiety started to settle in as I itched all the way home to the U.S. Could one of these bites be infectious? Could I possibly develop malaria because I was too lazy to take a few pills? Admittedly, I monitored my health quite closely over the next few weeks. The only problem I encountered was a terrible sore throat that began on the plane and lasted for two days after I got home. At the very least I'll remember to drink more water next time I'm on a 13-hour plane ride. However, unless I'm planning a trip to the Sulu archipelago (which is really the only malaria zone in the Philippines), I will likely forego any sort of anti-malarial drugs next time.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Paradox of Dumaguete

Bacong is a town just north of DumagueteI knew that Dumaguete City had a population of around 100,000, and I had heard it described as a "sleepy college town", owing to the large number of colleges and universities within the city limits. Such a description brought to mind images of a tranquil, seaside town, which made it all the more shocking to see street after street literally packed with hustling and bustling Filipinos and loud, pollution-producing pedi-cabs (one of which we were riding). As we approached the center of downtown Dumaguete it looked as if the number of Filipinos and vehicles per square foot was increasing exponentially. I was anxious about departing from the rather secure confines of the pedi-cab and entering into the sea of activity. However, we were on our way to make a few purchases at the Lee Super Plaza, which is a large multi-level department store and apparently a very important social center as well for Dumagueteños (i.e residents of Dumaguete). As my Filipina companion and I made our way through the ever-present crowd toward the entrance of the store I was approached by a young child who quickly assumed a begging position. This was not something I was expecting, even though I had read about the prolific nature of such children in Manila. I was taken off guard and gently shook my head. As my friend and I made our way through the security checkpoint outside of Lee Super Plaza I asked her about the incident. Apparently, there is a city ordinance in Dumaguete against this particular activity. She then told me that some of these kids are actually "hired" by adults to be professional beggars. Regardless, it was hard to walk away from a child who was reaching out, especially if he really did need money for food.

Again, my assumptions about Dumaguete had been challenged. Perhaps I wanted to believe that this place would be unaffected by the rampant poverty and economic decay so prevalent in the rest of the country. After all, Dumaguete is a popular retirement destination for many Americans and Europeans and boasts one of the most technologically-advanced infrastructures in the region. However, while I did see examples of relative affluence, it was quite obvious that the typical Dumagueteño must rail against the same social, political and economic cancers that envelop the rest of the country. Amazingly, but perhaps not so surprisingly, there were very few signs that these people were depressed or otherwise hopeless. I even experienced some incredible expressions of generosity and hospitality that the richest American is likely not capable of showing. And it was all done without the slightest hint of an ulterior motive. Sure, there are swindlers and con-artists in Dumaguete, but I sensed an overriding humility that is notably lacking in the American culture....drowned out ages ago by a tidal wave of self-righteousness. We have much to learn, or re-learn, as the case may be.

The people of this great little college town in the central Philippines do not possess much of value, but in so many ways they are more wealthy than us.