Entry 63 - junglists, junk food and crazy ladies

Nice guys

The Filipinos are probably the nicest, friendliest people in South East Asia. Once shorn of the nutter at Marinduque's port I'd got myself a tricycle driver. We'd agreed a price and then he'd just wandered off (nice does not necessarily mean punctual or urgent). So after about ten minutes or so, I'd wandered off too and found myself an AC van - at a better price and hopped in. No big deal, right? Well not until the first driver reappeared and got a bit upset. I explained the deal and got back into the van - then my new driver went out to mollify the man.

Naturally I'd assumed that they were having a furious argument and that they'd be telling each other to f--k off in pretty short order, this being the way of taxi wars the world over. But no, when I poked my head around the door, driver number two was smoothing feathers and ensuring the fist man's feelings weren't hurt. I was astiounded, but he really cared, not an emotion I've ever associated with taxi drivers, anywhere on the planet before.

Earlier I'd been reading an opinion piece in the Philippine Inquirer suggesting that this 'national softness' was a problem and was why the Filipinos tended to get walked all over by their corrupt leaders and then - a la Imelda Marcos - forgive them almost completely. He had a point, although I suspect the real reason Imelda has been forgiven is that, in reality, she was no better or worse than anyone before or after her. She just liked shoes a lot. Still, the writer was right inasmuch as the citizens of this country really could, if anything, do with being a bit nastier. I mean, by and large you can even trust people on the streets of Manila. I wouldn't say that about many cities, London included.

Handlebar Keeper

Anyway, the nice driver number two delivered me to the Kalata beach resort which had to wake its owner allow me in, at about 9:45pm. Marinduquean night-life isn't up to much and folk get up at 5am, meaning that by 9:30pm, everyone's tucked up in bed.

The next morning I checked out the place I'd checked into. The resort (which over here means pretty much anyplace you can stay) was a nice enough place, probably the best on the island and a snip at a fiver a night. It was run by Josie a no-nonsense woman who I certainly wouldn't cross and her cook who was very, very sweet, which somewhat mitigated her terrible cooking. The only other guests were an Austrian in his fifties with a splendid handlebar moustache and his local girlfriend who was (natch) half his age.

The Austrian (who, of a morning, liked to swim in his near- translucent underpants, an entirely discomfiting sight) was a return guest, Josie told me. Each time he returned, he did so with a different girlfriend. Perhaps because men like this usually get such a rough time from people my age, I resolved to be as friendly to him as possible. My overtures were greeting with some suspicion - and rightly so - I think he guessed that I coveted either his barely legal girlfriend or his magnificent handlebar.

Island Life and Death

Mariduque - with a few exceptions is a lovely little place. It doesn't have white sand beaches, but I am no beach snob so this was not a problem.The swimming was good and green, felty hills rose to about 1200 metres from a wine-dark sea, which felt more Homeric than truly tropical. The capital, Boac, was a tiny place and one of the few agreeable towns I've been to in the country. Along with extensive flowers and charmingly decrepit old wooden houses, it boasted a rather maginificent Spanish catherdral with an attached bishops house. This had the largest concrete Jesus I've seen in my life outside, but I guess that's the law. You get to be bishop, you get the biggest Jesus in town.

There is, of course, nothing to do which is sort of the point of sleepy tropical islands and there were no other tourists (my fellow guest, the sex tourist aside). On the second day, on my way up to Boac, I bumped into an Englishman who'd retired here along with his local wife. He was in his fifties and so was his wife: I was astounded.

They invited me over for dinner - to a house with a remarkably English interior a cutely English garden and an equally English Great Dane the size of a pony. They also cooked me something approximating European food which was pretty exciting. They lived down in the ex-pat region of the island, which contained all of a dozen foreigners, most living as they did, a life of quietly retired relative luxury praying for continued political stability - or just that the communists stayed on the other side of the island. I did however bump into one guy who'd gone a bit too native and looked like an extra from Apocalypse Now.

Over dinner we talked about this and that. Like many people, I find the strange rootlessness of ex-pat life rather fascinating - I did it myself as a child. And, although his wife was local, she was almost as much of an ex-pat as he was as they'd met working in the Emirates.

After a while, I got the impression that life down in Gerald's town, Buena Vista must be one long snooze, although I do not mean this in a judgemental way - coming from the social and mental clutter of London, one long snooze does have its attractions. My inevitable question 'What do you do?' was met with the response that there was plenty of time for reading. Yes, an entire library I'd have guessed. I also got the feeling that the Englishman, a bright guy, rather wanted for intellectual stimulation - all his time was spent in the company of people who spoke English as a second language, and usually pretty badly. The possible exception being Mr Apocalypse Now. Nor, for that matter, did Gerald speak any Tagalog.

As a result he'd developed a curious redundancy of speech. If, for example, he was relating a story about how a man had made a pass at him, he'd then go on to explain that he was queer. It was a shame for it gave his stories a leaden aspect. He did however, tell me one story so good that no about of verbal triplicate could dull it.

Apparently, a year ago a man had drowned in the reservoir above Manila. His corpse had been washed into the municipal water pipes. Officials realized this, but what they didn't know was where it had been caught. It took a week to find the decomposing unfortunate, during which time, the lucky citizens of the city got a glass with a tiny bit of drowned man every time they switched on the tap.

Great Danes, Terrible Food

The next day, I went up into the hills with the Englishman to take his Great Dane for a walk. It was a pleasant enough hike and the Great Dane lolloped amiably along with us. What could be more English? Well OK, it was about 35 degrees and like a steam bath, but there was, nonetheless, a sort of Britishness to it. But the walk did reaffirm my feeling that living all by yourself could get a bit weird.

Plus, Gerald drew so many unfavourable comparisons with the UK that I had to wonder who he was trying to convince that life in the Philippines was better, me or him. Again though, this is part of the ex-pat package. Perhaps it's simply impossible to be truly objective about where you live. After lunch I headed back tomy resort with its single sex tourist and his astonishing handlebar moustache. I'd enjoyed my time with the Englishman - it was far more interesting see than goofing around on a moped or eating lunch with the other resident of my resort. And besides, you don't expect to meet a purebred great Dane in the obscure middle of an Asian archipelago.

That evening, I ate up in the capital, Boca, one of the most spectacularly poor meals I've ever eaten. It was like English service station food from the 1970s, a pizza which was effectively a cracker with a thin smear of ketchup on it and topped with cubist veg and a desultory sprinkling of cheese. It was the kind of thing food writers would probably describe as inedible, but of course it was no such thing. Spending any length of time in the Philippines quickly makes you realise that there are few things that you actually cannot eat, just plenty of very bland food. Indeed, the only memorable thing about the meal was that it was served by an unsmiling transsexual. You didn't get many of them at English service stations in the 1970s.

Tiger TV

Later that night, I shared some beers with the sex tourist, his sex tour guide, the hotel owner and the cook while we watched a documentary about people who keep tigers. This is a subject that bears some scrutiny. For who among us has not nursed strange fantasies about having a pet tiger? And then watched these fantasies evaporate the second they start going out with girls. But for some people - most of them American, apparently - these dreams never go away. And, eventually they go on to own their own tiger.

I'm not quite sure what the lesson from all this is. Perhaps it's that America is the land where dreams come true. A more accurate reading of this would be that America is also the land where complete cretins can see their really stupid dreams come true. Certainly watching people proudly show off the scars, where Rambo tore out their spleen while 'playing' would suggest that some dreams are better off fulfilled. At the end of the docu, I opined that those who owned tigers deserved to get eaten, but the sex tourist gave a nonchalant shrug of his handlebar. I think he was considering scoring himself a tiger.

The next day, I decided to do the grand tour of Marinduque, starting with the sulphur springs which, the night before, had been roundly dissed by Herr Handlebar. And while it is true that they weren't exactly Bath Spa, they were authentically fartily sulphurous and clearly good for your skin as they made you smell like an off egg for days.

From there, I headed across a range of mountains, where, apparently the NPA (local commies) are still active. This was done in on a tricycle, which really didn't enjoy the experience much. We bounced over a felty range, about the height of the Scottish highlands and down into a nothingy little town with a nice beach. But that was it, so I headed on, having decided that the local restaurants were too revolting for even my stomach. Next up was Santa Cruz, the islandÕs second town. There I scored a borderline edible meal for 57 pence. Before picking up another Jeepeney to take me to the island's famous caves.

Snakes, Bats and Golden Showers

I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere and told to head towards a biggish shack. The place had a kind of tropical Steven king vibe about it, but when I got there a man was cooking scrambled eggs, which, in a novel twist, he was scrambling with pig fat. I declined his eggy offer. Was I here to see the caves he asked? Yes I said. Another man appeared: he would be my guide. That was that.

We set off through steamy jungle, first to the bones cave. This was no great shakes. It was - duh - a cave full of human bones, most in an advanced state of decay. I have to say the only thing that impressed me was that one of the guide's dogs had a gnaw on a human femur. Sort of gross, but the bone was a couple of centuries old and, really, if you've seen a dog eat a human foot (see early India entries) it's really no big deal.

Next up was the python cave. Now, this was a bit more like it. After climibing through down a load of slippery, muddy rocks into a dank, jungly hole, a pretty descent that had me on my arse several times, I landed on a dry sandy floor. The cave was pretty much a standard issue cavern, with the odd bat flying out. And then I saw them. There were half a dozen alcoves in the cave wall and each held a fat, supine python. Indeed to enter the cave, you had to make sure the alpha python who occupied the largest inclusion, over the entrance was asleep. Inside was more of the same, but the best thing was when we exited. By then the python had woken, roused, perhaps by the stream of bats which were now exiting the cave. Then it drooped down and casually, lazily plucked a bat out of the air. Just like that. And no I didn't get a photo.

The python was a pretty hard act to follow and although the final cave, the bat cave didn't surpass it, it equalled it in a curiously memorable kind of way. Bats may be thought of as kind of cute in certain circles, evil and spooky in others, and even rather tasty (see Indonesia). But I just think of them as smelly. If you've ever gone into a bat cave, you'll notice that the whole place absolutely honks of bat poo-poo, or, more properly guano. But in fact, guano is not the real problem.

'Make sure you have a hat on' said my guide as we entered the cave. I I ignore home - why the hell would I want to wear a hat in a cave? As I entered, I marvelled at what was undeniably a marvellous sight. Within the bat cave was a flock or swarm or whatever it is bats come in, swirling around the ceiling. Very spehulchral. There were probably a couple of thousand, all making squeaky little bat shrieks. And then I got the answer to my question. I could feel dozens of small drops of moisture on my face and head. What could it be? Condensation from the cave roof? A hidden water source? Then I caught a whiff of it - curiously ammoniated. Oh dear, one of life's lessons. You should always wear a hat in a bat cave because otherwise you'll receive a golden shower of truly epic proportions.

June 12, 2004