Saturday, March 03, 2012

Leaving Luzon

From Luzon (the main island of the Philippine archipelago) I took the boat to Coron, at the northern tip of the Palawan group of islands in the western Philippines. The island group ignores the prevailing directions of the rest of the archipelago (towards the southeast) and juts out at a right angle towards Borneo, like its own, personal sword of Damocles. Palwan is a region apart from the rest of the Philippines, with a small population and little development, and so getting there by boat is not straightforward. My guidebook mentions several companies that do the trip, but unfortunately it was published in 2006. Since then budget airlines have eaten into the market for ferry passengers and as I contacted the ferry companies one by one I discovered that their Coron services had long ago ceased to run. Luckily I found a single company that still plies the route twice a week. I rushed to buy myself a ticket and, with it safely in my pocket, proceeded to find things to do for the next few days as I waited for the departure.

A view from a boat. Whilst lazing on our ferry before it left Manila I had plenty of time to contemplate the city's uninspiring skyline (as well as the nearby slums).


Across the bay from Manila lies the Bataan Peninsula. It was here that the Americans made their last stand when the Japanese invaded in 1941. There is a memorial and museum and as it's relatively close to Manila I thought it perfect for a couple of days' exploration. Although Bataan is close, it used to be closer. Ferries used to cross the bay in an hour, but for some reason they were discontinued last year and now you have to get a bus taking three times as long. My grumbling didn't last long as there was nothing I could do about it. I arrived in Balanga, the main town in the peninsula, in the afternoon and decided to have a wander. A pretty nondescript town, with a central plaza, small shopping mall and church in the city centre. It's only distinguishing feature being the dizzying number of pawn shops that throng the main shopping district. I have no idea why or how they all manage to make a living, but obviously people need cash quickly in Balanga. There was a commotion in the central plaza, complete with bandstand and music. As I approached I saw that the local council had decided to save money and combined two events for the price of one: the World Wetland Day, along with the first Bataan Gay Olympics. I'm not sure what thought processes went into splicing the two together, but at least it made for an entertaining spectacle. Troupes of local gays and transvestites, both camp and butch, from surrounding barangays were performing dance routines in front of a cheering crowd. Contrary to what one might think for a developing country, attitudes to homosexuals are surprisingly liberal and positive in the Philippines whilst campness is not an uncommon trait. The performances were far from professional, graceful, or even in time with the music, nevertheless they made up for their lack of skills with plenty of enthusiasm.

Bataan's first Gay Olympics [sic]. Here one of the better troupes show off their acrobatic skills.


The next day I set off for My Samat where the memorial to the American-Filipino last stand took place. There's an informative museum that serves as a reminder, especially for us Europeans, that the theatre of WW II spread far beyond our shores, and a giant cross that you can climb with commanding views across the bay to Manila, where I duly returned to catch my ferry to Coron. Along the way I picked up a travelling companion, J-B, a young Frenchman who had been staying with my previous host in Manila. He was also planning to go to Palawan and I somehow persuaded him to take the boat with me as an interesting, and cheaper, alternative to flying. So we set off for the pier and boarded the boat in plenty of time for the 6pm stated departure time. There was still a good deal of loading going on and no-one looked as if they were in much of a hurry. We were billeted to the upper deck where there were rows of simple, steel-framed bunks and basic mattresses. We were the only foreigners on board, although none of our fellow passengers batted an eyelid at us. We stowed our bags, took a few photos of the sun setting behind the dockside slums, had our dinner and, after a little reading, went to sleep, unable to stay awake for the imminent departure.

The backside of our boat (the April Rose) did not look particularly reassuring. Nevertheless it got us to our destination safe and sound (if not quite on time).


We awoke the next morning to find that we were still moored to the quayside. From what we were able to gather the loading had taken longer than planned and we had missed the high tide. And since the quay was on the river, rather than directly on the seafront, we had to wait a further 12 hours until the next window of opportunity. Astonishingly this seemed to worry the Filipino passengers not one jot as they set in for the long wait, lazing on their bunks, chatting away or playing cards. Luckily I had come prepared and had bought a copy of the Philippine Star, one of the two English language papers in the Philippines. It took me a good hour and a half to work my way through to the two pages of international news. I always find it interesting to watch local television and read local newspapers in a country as it gives an idea of the likes, dislikes and preoccupations of its people. From the pages of the Star, which is supposedly the top broadsheet of the Philippines, I could surmise that Filipinos are very much interested in celebrities, scandals, political corruption (of which there is a lot) and the various dynasties that run the country.

Kids from the local shanty town came paddling over to beg some coins from the passengers on our boat.


The paper didn't just disappoint on its lack of international coverage, but also it's fawning tone, which seemed subservient and deferential to me. Journalists are supposed to speak truth to power, but rarely here. Though I suppose I don't blame them as the Philippines is a dangerous place to be an investigative reporter. It has been the second-deadliest country for journalists over the past 20 years (behind Iraq, which at least had a bloody war as an excuse), with almost 8% of worldwide fatalities and a conviction rate of 0. Add to that the number of articles that were little more than thinly veiled advertisements and I wasn't too impressed. At least I had also had the foresight to invest in a 700-page novel as well (thankfully English-language books are cheap and abundant here).

My fellow Filipino passengers taking the 20 hour delay of the boat to Coron in their stride by doing what they do best.


Twenty hours after our scheduled departure we finally untied the mooring lines from the dock and set off for the open seas. The provision of simple but tasty onboard meals helped keep me pacified - if I'm well-fed then I can endure pretty much anything. The boat itself looked rather decrepit and worse for wear, but proved seaworthy enough and got us to Coron in time to catch the sunrise the next morning and get ready to explore what are universally touted as the Philippines' most beautiful island landscapes.

Finally leaving Manila. Here the slums of the dock area contrast with the modern skyscrapers of Pasay.

1 comment:

Luke Holland said...

Hi there Erik!
My name is Luke Holland. I am a researcher with the Center for Economic and Social Rights (www.cesr.org). We're a human rights research and advocacy organisation based in New York. I'm getting in touch as I'm hoping it would be OK for us to use one of your photos (of the skyscrapers by the slums) on a new pubication we're bringing out about the human rights issues at stake in fiscal policy. We would credit you for the photo, of course, but I'm afraid we don't have the resources to pay for it. Would it be alright for us to use it? Many thanks. I hope all is well with you.

Yours sincerely,
Luke Holland