Balikbayan, pt. 3

One of the things that I miss the most about the Philippines is that everything was interesting. It took me back to a time when looking out the window of the backseat of a car was a viable entertainment option. Wherever we went, be it the crawling pace of the rain covered city or the speeding, winding roads along the tropical hills, everything was interesting. Not pretty, not vibrant, not even infusing any particularly good feelings. It was just always stimulating to thought, giving you, the outsider, something worth examining. The titanic billboard for Coca-Cola has you concocting sociological theories. The rural unfamiliarities have you picking and prying at who you claim to be. The pile of electrical wires, hanging precariously overhead, has you wondering what big ideas are to blame for the shape of things.

Act three of our trip to the Philippines had the most to see. It's a story that starts off with lots of gleaming tourist attractions, funnels down into a complacent sense of family, and ends as all good stories do: A conclusive finale where the characters are changed and exit stage left. Curtains drop.

Bohol & Cebu are two provinces we visited in Visayas, the second of three major regions. Previously, we had spent all our vacation time in the northern one, Luzon, and had no plans to stop by Mindanao. How is it different? Well, how is Connecticut different from Vermont? Having never been to either state, I was hoping you could tell me.

We landed in Cebu and took the boat to Bohol where the in-flight entertainment consisted of painfully dated Enya music videos and an illegal DVD of the film Apocalypto. The latter shouldn't have surprised me. Bohol is a great tourist region. It has many notables: Unique wildlife, the oldest churches, grand nature sights and a dive resort. We saw all of this. The writer in my brain, whom I am trying to get to know a little more every day with varying success, took apart the land and put it into these words:

Bohol is a place where you can see the sky. Manila, Mauban, Angeles City, these were all fairly packed, industrious areas of urban decay and urban growth. The buildings crowd around you, everything that runs on wheels has an old, growling motor and you forget the sky is there. Your peripheral vision is blocked at the left and right. This area, though, it seemed to draw attention upwards by being so flat. The structures had room to breathe, the streets weren't so oversaturated with city things, and the light here fell yellow on everything.

There's an old bronze statue depicting a Boholano Chieftan engaging blood compact with a Spanish explorer. This historically famous act was a sign of trust between the explorer and the chieftan, a peace treaty of sorts. A proof that these men were not here to conquer and plunder, as previous European explorers had.

We all know how that one turned out.

The next few hours were a whirlwind of things just. It begins at the Chocolate Hills, giant, unbelievable bumps in the Earth. A strange geological formation named so because they turn brown during the dry season, resembling little lumps of chocolate. When we went there, it was green and epic, as if prepared by the hands of god. They are huge, maybe 1000 feet high, and as steep as can be. And there are a hundred of them, all next to each other, in this area, laid out like bubble wrap. The tourist spot has you climbing 215 steps to reach the top of one where you can take in the whole area, but I would have also liked to stand at the base of one and break my neck staring up at its monumental nature.

It continued on a hanging bridge, stretched across the Loboc River, Indiana Jones style. The hanging bridge of bamboo slices and steel cable precariously hovers at least 20 feet over the murky depths of the water. My legs wobbles along with the bridge as we tried to cross it with the other tourists in both directions. Seeing the strong, albeit old, steel cables underneath the bamboo holding this thing in place gave me some reassurance. Looking over my shoulder seeing more people stumble onto this thing erased them. My brain offered two questions: How many people is thing supposed to support, and how can I get to the souvenir hut on the other side without falling off like an American Gladiator?

The bridge was a short lived distraction until we got to the restaurant on the river. It's a big raft that serves food, buffet style, as it goes to down the stream and back. Once you get the docking station out of sight, it looks just like something out the Amazonian rainforest. It was like I looked up from my plate and all of a sudden I was in a scene from the Discovery Channel. On either side, you could only see green, the dangerous, edgy, jungle kind. Down the middle, we floated peacefully down the snaking brown water. It's just a shame that the atmosphere was ruined by some of the blaring, live acts on other rafts. Our raft had a cool guy with a strange acoustic guitar playing folk songs, but the other ones passing us had full bands, performing bad 1980s American karaoke hits. So much for ambience.

But then something happened. It started to rain. As we reached the end of the designated path, a sight of mini waterfalls, a firm but gentle warm rain fell. The tip tap of the drops on the leafy thatchings of the raft made for better sounds than any of the floating stage acts that passed us by.

Lastly, Tarsiers. Tarsiers are the world's smallest primate, as the ads are sure to let you know. They are bug-eyed and fuzzy and bony and placid. They'll eat grasshoppers from sticks you hold out and usually die in captivity. That last fact was only revealed to me after some online research, so there were no bad feelings about holding these little buggers in their caged habitat at the time. I would see these animals often from this point on, except as keychains or magnets made of cotton and plastic.

All of this within a few hours. It was topped off by a 2 day stay at Balicasag, a dive resort. Dive resort, meaning, this is not a fun place to go surfing or swimming. It is a small island of rocky, beautiful beaches. Great for scuba diving and snorkeling, but terrible for plain old swimming. The pool was unclean and the showers were cold, but who am I to complain? It was a fuckin' resort. It was a hallmark of the trip just for the snorkeling alone.

The snorkeling took place at a fish sanctuary just off the shore. We were boated there, given all the proper equipment, and then unceremoniously dropped into the ocean with the guides. From the boat, it must have looked boring. A handful of orange life vests bobbing up and down in the same spot for over an hour. To be down there, though, was a testament to the entirely alien world down there.

With a stunning clarity, we floated five feet off of a mountain of coral reef that was rendered in a pastel template by the sun coming through the blue water. An Aurora Borealis of fish, eager to eat the bread from our hands, cycled around the edge of the mountain. You can't take pictures of this without a water proof camera, so my mind reached for the next best thing and tried to formulate a metaphor that best captured the moment. Holy shit. This must be what it's like when Superman flies over the Earth. If seeing the poverty made me realize how lucky I am to live in America, the ocean made me realize how lucky I am to have eyes to see and a brain to comprehend. To be fucking living.

But enough of the earnest, existentialist, infinite-reaches-of-the-universe-oh-god-im-so-small stuff. There were more things to see afterwards, particularly the oldest churches in the Philippines. Old churches were becoming a recurring theme. The two we saw, which included Baclayon church, were very similar to each other, but entirely different from the first two we saw in Luzon. It felt like an entirely different era. San Agustin in Manila was ancient and grand. Baclayon church was like if they had tried to build a mansion in the stone age. It's just all decrepit rock and strange, uneven architecture everywhere. It wasn't highly decorated. The doors were not highly articulate patterned surfaces. It was gigantic, functional, rock and wood that expelled a musty smell of age. Modest in modern sensibilities, but grand for its time. I pondered on the beginnings of Catholicism seeping its way into the culture, way back when.

The last week or so were about family. We had a family reunion as best we could in a big house the family rented in Tagaytay. It had a big pool next to a balcony that gave us a view of the ocean from high, high above. Surrounded by dozens of family members, including the Lola & Lola, the roots from which this odd, spectacular, brilliant family tree came from. It is rare you get this kind of perspective, to see decades of legacy, concentrated in one place, one room in some instances. My Lola is a youthful spirit with a sense of humor and a sharp personality that reminds me of a giddy child. My Lolo is a philosophical mind with a talent for music and the powerful urge to express the big ideas. These are two interesting, amazing people who got together despite the family feud and societel norms that didn't think a rich, notable guy should marry a lower class, unknown female.

And they had children. Their children had children. And in some cases, these children had children.

And we were all there, in one room, singing karaoke, eating food, and telling stories.

You don't get this kind of perspective on legacy often. The scope of this all, I mean, it's goddamn huge. It's the size of the coral reef mountains in the pacific ocean, or the brush covered hills in Bohol, or the sky breaking towers in Manila. It is awesome in the biblical sense, with exactly the kind of legacy that I like to revel in. There is a history and complexity to my family that reminded me that although it can be difficult, conflicting and confusing to resolve my Filipino American identity, it will never hard to reconcile my family identity.

That family reunion was the last Saturday of our trip. I cleaned up in a game of Poker and engaged in some last ditch attempts at bonding with my cousins. For the most part, it worked. I think for my sister more than I, since it is a predominantly female group, but it felt right to leave knowing that I still have an anchor there. Call it reason to go back some day.

On August 9, it was off to the van to load the bags. It was off to the airport to get on the plane. It was off the islands and back to America. My uncle picked us up, and we drove away from the airport, down the 110 freeway towards home. I watched the world at night from the backseat, speeding past me at 70 miles an hour.