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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 18, June 25, 2002
Fear of Flying,The Philippines, Wetting Myself
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White power

A couple more observations about Sulawesi that don’t fit anywhere else. First – and I may have mentioned this before - the place gives you a nice insight into what it would be like to be famous. Half the people in the street will greet you ‘Hello Mister!’( yelled with ear-splitting enthusiasm if they’re kids). Then they all ask you the same set of questions: ‘Where you come from? What’s your name, etc.’ Most of them want nothing more than to have a brief chat with you, but it quickly becomes unbelievably tedious. It also explains why most of the people who really, really want to be famous (Geri Haliwell, Big Brother contestants etc.) are complete morons.

The second thing is, dermatologically, Sulawesi is the polar opposite of Essex - that is to say, it’s full of dark people who desperately want to be white. Indeed, it must be the world’s biggest market for skin whitening cream, which, in its own way, looks just as bad as the orange slap that Basildon tarts plaster themselves with. I suppose it’s no more stupid and unnatural than bad fake tan. But is pretty funny seeing people touch Jane’s arm and say: ‘So beautiful’ before following with the clincher, ‘So pale, so white.’

Death air

We needed to renew our visas, so decided to head north to Davao in the southern Philippines, another of South East Asia’s must-see trouble spots with it’s own health warning, this time the FO devoted an entire page to why you shouldn’t go there. Even the Lonely Planet, which is normally fairly cavalier about these matters, began its entry with ‘It would be extremely foolish to...’ But we were meeting my old mate, Stuart Green who lives in these parts. And he was both unfoolish and probably more up to date than either the FO or the LP.

But before we could risk our lives in Davao we had to risk our lives getting there. And the cheapest way was Bouraq Air, an outfit I have never used before and hope never to use again. For the ‘bargain’ price of US $85 (return) Bouraq would fly us from Manado into kickin’ Davao. So, without further ado we made our way to Manado International, northern Sulawesi’s shockingly swanky airport. It’s swanky in the way that massive foreign aid funded infrastructure projects tend to be in the third world. How about adequate water and sanitation? No, but you can have an airport that can land 12 jumbos at once as long as our construction companies get the contracts.

Anyhow, shortly before boarding, there was no sign of Bouraq and Jane was getting a little jumpy. She scanned the runway for a Bouraq jet but all we could see was an antiquated looking twin-prop with ‘Bali Air emblazoned on the side in lurid pink. ‘I hope that isn’t our plane’ she whimpered. ‘Of course, not,’ I replied carelessly, ‘no way we’re flying on that piece of shit.’ But of course that piece of shit was our plane. Why even I felt a little nervous as we boarded a rather tatty looking craft whose elegant, classic lines recalled the golden age of aviation.

Still, to their credit, Bouraq didn’t kill us and even managed a passable breakfast. And, at Davao we were greeted by the frighteningly friendly airport police with some incredulity. ‘Are you missionaries?’ one well armed man asked. No. ‘Well do you work for an NGO?’ No. ‘Well what are you then?’ Err, dumb tourists. Once over his shock, he roused the chap at the tourist desk from his six-month slumber. After rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he was happy to recommend a hotel and even find us an honest taxi driver.

Terrorists, sex tourists and football

But back to Davao’s problems. The southern island of Mindanao should be one of the Philippines’s biggest tourist draws. It has the country’s highest volcano, the glowering mount Apo; it has miles of unspoilt coastline; and it has innumerable idyllic offshore islands. But it also has the Abu Sayaff terrorist group, a sort of SE Asian Al Quaeda wannabe, which would like a separate Muslim state in Mindanao. Not quite as ambitious as its Afghan counterpart, the group usually contents itself with kidnapping tourists (usually Americans from resorts); more recently, they’d also beheaded an American missionary. I guess if you’re an Islamic fundamentalist, a yank who is also a proseltytising Christian makes a pretty irresistible target). Anyway, the Americans had recently gone after Abu Sayatt (the leader) and, like Osama, he’d had a lot of superior
firepower aimed in his direction. Now, also like Osama, they were pleased to report, he was either dead or he wasn’t.

For all this Davao is hardly a city under siege. In fact the only visible signs of its current danger-zone status are rather a lot of security guards and cheap hotel rooms. For somewhere that is supposed to be a hotbed of fundamentalist unrest, Davao looks…well it looks like America would do if it was a third world country. Public squalor and private splendour, shopping malls and slums. There is no culture to speak of and the whole
place is busily engaged in the kind of vapid and desperate consumerism that only works if you’re very rich. (which is why Aspen is cute and Davao is not). After a couple of days there, I was beginning to think that old Abu just might have a point.

Disappointingly, during our time there we didn’t see anyone who looked remotely suspicious: clearly the dead/ not dead Abu had bigger fish to fry. So we met with Stuart and headed up to Cebu City. Surprisingly, by the standards of third world cities, this is a pretty nice, if very westernised place. Still all this consumerism has it’s upsides – you can, for example, get good coffee almost everywhere. As well as its downsides: western and local tastes have combined to give the world the Durian cappuccino. Anyone who ever smelled a Durian will know that this is not a good thing.

Still, there was enough calorific western fare in the Philippines to have brief stab at reversing the effects of the Indonesian diet; I currently weigh in at about 9st and have the physique of a 17 year old. We also availed ourselves of fantastic diving and a fine Filipino massage. Our co-massagees were a group of Japanese businessmen who defied all stereotypes by trying to touch up their masseurs in mid session. Speaking of grotty, predatory foreigners, the Philippines is probably the sex tourist capital of he world and the number of 75 year olds/ angry misfits with cute young Filipinos on their arms is quite shocking. There’s not really that much to be said about these repulsive letches, except that if you can’t get laid in your own country, you really shouldn’t be doing it in someone else’s.

Being in the Philippines made it a real bugger catching the World Cup. Unlike every other nation in SE Asia, the Filipinos don't give a toss about footie. No, their national sport is basketball, a fact that is all the more remarkable in a country where the average man in 5' 5". Still, after missing most of the first half we found the only English pub in Cebu city, the Windsor Castle (where else?) and settled down with half a dozen ex-pats who supported England and about 100 locals who all loved brazil (3rd world solidarity, I guess). A sad day indeed.

Pissing in the wind

And then it was back to Davao (Still not so much as a ‘boo’ from Abu) and from there to Sulawesi. This time we took Philippine air (motto ‘Fly high Filipino!’) which is a surprisingly pukka outfit. Towards the end of an utterly uneventful flight, I chose to go to the loo, and while I was in mid-stream, our aircraft chose to run into an authentically terrifying patch of turbulence. The plane dropped several hundred meters and bounced around like a ship in a storm, the stewardess was hammering on the door, and a scream of terror from the cabin identified Jane. As for me, well, I was rather like one of those cartoon characters who loses control of a hosepipe. Presently the plane righted itself and I regained my Johnson, but by this time, I’d already given the toilet – and myself – a good hosing. I spent the remaining 20 minutes of the flight in damp ignominy. Wetting yourself, aged 30, even if you have a good excuse, is about as undignified as it gets.