Entry 62 - junglists, junk food and crazy ladies

Slow Coach

With no volcano to climb and with the beauty contest but a lingering memory, there wasn't much to do in Legazpi. So I left in the most leisurely fashion possible. That is, I decided to get the train. Apart from Manila's metros, the Philippines has exactly one train line, a single narrow gauge track which extends about 400km south from Manila to Legaspi (you can spell it both ways, OK?). To say that this railway is slow is an understatement: every day one train runs each way sometimes they reach the terrifying speed of 30 kilometres per hour.

I took the train to the next big town up the line, Naga. My carriage was about an eighth full and took about four hours, twice what a bus would. The only compelling reason to take it, as the woman opposite me said, is 'to count the coconut palms.' For some reason, people tend to get all misty eyed about rail and kick up an awful fuss when governments close lines, but the only people I can see mourning this one are a few dedicated rail nuts who also like to count palms. It will doubtless soon be a piece of history - and the sooner the better.

I'd gone to Naga because it had a volcano which, unlike Mayon (see last entry) was in a state of quiescence and therefore climbable. But first I had to find a hotel. Actually the room I found - and there were not many - was recommended to me by the guide I was going to take up a volcano. It cost slightly less than two pounds and, I suppose represented some sort of value for money. But if I could have found somewhere that cost ten or even 20 times as much, believe me, I would have stayed there. The only thing my hotel had going for it was a front desk that was unhelpful to the point of being faintly amusing. Indeed, while I climbed the volcano, the woman there helpfully sent my laundry on a 48-hour grand tour of the Bicol peninsula. (I would later locate my smalls by dialing a number on a free biro that I'd been given entirely unconnected.)

Junglists

The next day, rather before the crack of dawn, my guide Toping arrived at my jail of a hotel. We set out in a Jeepney and, presently we arrived at a village in the middle of nowhere, hard by a rather nice jungle-clad volcano, Mt Isarog. Most of the mountains here create their own weather systems; with so much moisture in the air anything about 1200 wears a nice little sombrero of cloud from about 9am onwards. For the casual hiker this means that you will trek for three hours in blistering heat, then two in a climate rather like a cold rainy English April.

Anyhow, volcano climbing in the Philippines is a bit like a five-hour work in a Turkish bath full of saw grass and leeches. Every couple of years I feel obliged to go into the jungle and remind myself that, much as I approve of conserved tropical forests in principle, in practice, I don't want to play. It really makes you appreciate the fortitude (or cussed stupidity) of the Japanese soldiers here, who, not realizing World War II was over, hid out in Philippine jungles until most of them were logged in the 1980s (ironically, I suppose, to satisfy the Japanese appetite for hardwood).

Despite being something of an SAS survival course, at the top it was rather pleasant. At a mere 20-25C (rather than the 35C at the bottom), it was cool, limpid and very wet. Indeed, the air was so damp that moss and plants grew everywhere - on tree trunks, on vines and so on - making the area look a bit like something out of Lord of the Rings. I fancied that if I stayed up there for long, they'd probably start taking roots in my damper crevices. Toping and I shot the soggy breeze for a while up there. I liked him. He was funny, his English was pretty good, he wasn't particularly religious and he was 26 and had no kids. His first love appeared to be his mobile phone and he sent upwards of 100 texts per day. The Philippines needs a more people like him.

Getting down was about as much fun as getting up. The mountain was so wet and steep it was a bit like a mudslide except that these are not normally full of boulders the size of dogs. Having got to the top scratched to hell, I got to the bottom also bruised to hell, from falling over on average once every hundred vertical metres. Anyone who thinks that jungles are great obviously doesn't spend much time in then. Just to keep things interesting we then went swimming in the sea, where I added jellyfish stings to my woes. Despite this, I actually enjoyed myself - it's true I really did. It did occur to me on the way back that perhaps I like suffering and there's something a bit weird about me.

Eating Out (of necessity)

Back in Naga and smelling like a rugby player's jockstrap, I asked Toping where he'd recommend I eat. He said that a joint called Chilli Peppers was the best for the local cuisine - which is legendary for its fieriness. Toping was right -Chilli Peppers was indeed the best local restaurant. But this is a bit like saying someone is the best high-jumping midget.

I have now eaten Filippino grub everywhere from high end restaurants to village huts. I have snacked at street stalls, fed at fast food joints and been to the best of local restaurants; I have explored almost every culinary dead-end this country has to offer. It is all crap. My guidebook says that the Philippines has "a rich and varied cuisine." Which cretin wrote this twaddle? Someone who has lived on nothing but Mother's Pride and cherryade all their lives? A typical menu involves a lot of deep fried stuff, a lot of bits of pig, very few of them very nice and a few long-stewed, short flavoured veggie dishes. Even the fish is nearly all deep fried in palm oil, thus obviating any taste and nutritional value it might have. There was also a dark, almost black dish which I am too gutless to try. Perhaps I lacked the guts because the dish almost certainly didn't

Anyway Toping was right. At Chilli's I scored a plate of fish that had been cooked in an tolerable semi-sweet sauce, and with served rice, some of that frozen dolly mixture veg and, weirdly, a single scoop of instant mashed potato. It was one of the better dishes I've eaten. I remember a while back reading a Paul Theroux book where he opined that he really couldn't care less about foreign food. At the time I'd found this rather disappointing, even a bit Philistine. But he was travelling in sub-saharan Africa which is not noted for its cusisine either. Now I totally understand - eating has actually become a chore.

Any port in a storm

After Naga, I got a sweaty bus through lush and steamy mountains for six hours and was eventually dumped in Lucena, a port city from which I hoped to get the ferry to the island of Marinduque. Time was tight, the last boat was leaving soon and the owner of a Jeepney (a sort of bus-cum jeep, which seats around twenty) said that I wouldn't make it - unless I hired his entire bus. So I did: my own bus for a half-hour journey for two quid. Transport in this country is, for some reason, far cheaper than anything else. And, by local standards, this man was taking me for a ride.

Just as we were about to pull out a woman jumped on board. She said needed do go to the port too: could she come along? Of course, I replied. We chatted a bit, her English was reasonable; she was called Bebe (pronounced 'Baby' and not an uncommon name) and plump with a lot of missing teeth. She also had a letter from a religious organization stating that transport companies should allow her to travel for free as she had some sort of problem, though it didn't specify what it was. I was about to find out.

The jeepney ride was too noisy to hear that much of what she was saying, although I did notice that she laughed a lot. As we got off at a dusty bustling port, she asked me where I was going. 'Marinduque,' I replied. 'Me too,' she said. This was the first point at which I thought 'Uh-oh...' But then I went to buy my ticket thinking that her curious letter would never get her on.

Well, it did. Just as I was spreading and relaxing out for the four hour journey I heard 'Hello Rhymer!!! I'm coming with you.' At this point I twigged that she was perhaps a little mad. Her fair command of English and occasionally perceptive questions had made me think that she was weird, though not totally barking. But I soon realised it's entirely possible to be crazy and bi-lingual. Running around the boat pretending to be an airplane is a kind of universal shorthand for being crackers if you're over ten years old.

I spent the rest of the journey wearily listening to a stream of constant questions, some lucid, some bonkers, letting her read my copy of Vanity Fair, then use it as a hat, a mask, a bird, etc... A local army guy asked me several hundred times where I found my girlfriend (each time wetting himself laughing; he was as bad as she was) then, rather memorably she asked me what the freckles on my arm were before trying to pick them off one by one. There is no polite way of telling someone to 'leave my f--king pigment alone. I don't have much' As the boat moored in Marinduque's harbour she stood on the bench and loudly told anyone who'd listen 'We're going to Boac [the island's capital] together.'

As you can imagine, by this stage, any charitable thoughts I might have had were long gone - I couldn't care less in the community. Rather I was scoping hard for the boat's exits and even considering swimming for it. The ferry lowered its off- ramp and I was poised, coiled like a sprinter on his starting blocks. I gained the dock and then... 'Hello Rhymer...' Oh Christ, I thought, she's never going to go... And then she said 'I am going this way now. Bye bye.' With that she zoomed off, this time more like a helicopter, into the crowd that had gathered to meet the boat and was gone. I guess that's the good thing about nutters: you never know what they're going to do next.

June 12, 2004