Americans Yet To Discover Traditional Philippine Island

By Ron Bernthal

South of Manila, In the Blue Waters Of The Sulu Sea, The Island of Cebu Offers Visitors a Taste Of Philippino Hospitality And An Array of City And Rural Adventures

The Presidential motorcade slices through the Philippine city of Cebu with all the finesse and gentility of the proverbial bull in a china shop.

With sirens, wailing four police motorcycles lead the pack, opening a narrow path between the stalled lines of cars, jeepneys, motorized trikes, and overcrowded buses. Above the traffic a layer of blue diesel smoke hovers in the sweltering heat, creating a blanket of pollution that smothers the downtown streets of Cebu City.

I am sitting in the press van, a few car lengths behind the white Ford Bronco that carries Philippine President Fidel Ramos through the hot dusty streets of his country’s second largest city.

Along the motorcade route, from the new downtown convention center, out through the congested industrial suburb of Mandaue, over the old steel bridge to Lapu-Lapu, and ending at the Shangri-La Beach Resort on Mactan Island, thousands of Filipinos stand and wave at the fast moving Bronco, hoping to catch a glimpse of their President through tinted windows. Small Philippine flags, attached to flexible fender antennas on the Bronco, flap furiously in the fast whoosh of the motorcade.

Outside our air-conditioned van, in the steaming afternoon heat, the Cebuanos wear tightly wrapped kerchiefs or t-shirts around their noses and mouths as protection against particle pollution. For the uninitiated it looks like a city of bank robbers, or a mob scene of violent demonstrators.

In fact, crime is a major problem in the larger cities of the Philippines, and most banks, shops, and nightclubs employ heavily armed guards to patrol the front doors. But, like in most Asian countries, the thick stream of humanity on the streets is more often gentle and generous, offering visitors unexpected kindnesses and gracious hospitality.

I have come to the Philippine island of Cebu, in the southern Visayas island chain, to cover a major tourism conference of industry and political officials from Southeast Asian nations, and to interview President Ramos and other national leaders, but I am most intrigued by the people here,
an intoxicating combination of three distinct cultures—Asian, Spanish, and American.

As a Manila businessman said to me the day I arrived, “The Filipinos have lived 300 years in a Catholic convent, and 100 years in Hollywood,” referring to the country’s early years under Spanish domination, followed by decades of American influence.

Although Cebuano, a distinct Filipino language, is heard on the streets here, almost everyone can converse in English, a common practice on these islands since 1898, when the U.S. and the

Philippines fought together to overthrow the Spanish colonizers, only to have America replace Spain as the foreign interloper.

For more than four hundred years, since Ferdinand Magellan erected a cross on Cebu’s Mactan Island in 1521, the Philippines have been a Christian country, the only one in Asia, always dominated by Western culture. It has only been since 1992, when Fidel Ramos took over the Presidency from Cory Aquino, that the country has begun to establish its own identity.

The closing of the American military bases at Subic Bay and Olongapo was a turning point in Filipino-American relations, and the present government is attempting to make up for that lost revenue by converting the former bases into industrial zones and tourist resorts.

And this year, as part of the country’s centennial celebration of its independence from Spain, President Ramos ordered all Filipinos working in government offices to wear national dress every Monday. Men are to come to the office in dark pants and “barong Tagalog,” a gossamer, long-sleeved shirt, and women are to wear any Filipina costume, which may consist of an ankle-length skirt and a blouse with butterfly sleeves, popularized by former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos.

Still, the attachment to American culture is perhaps stronger in the Philippines than in any other foreign country. Every Filipino I speak to has a relative in the States, and the pervasive signs of American products, from clothing to food to entertainment, are everywhere.

This juxtaposition of Asiatic heritage, lifestyle, climate, and landscape with Western cultural values can be strangely disconcerting and comforting at the same time.

I often ride the jeepneys in Cebu City, inexpensive (2 1/2 pesos, or 6 cents) public transportation, although you get what you pay for. The jeepneys, a name derived from the leftover World War II army jeeps that were converted into taxis, are ubiquitous in Philippine cities. Although they are nothing more than wildly decorated pick-up trucks with two benches in the back, covered with a steel roof, they have become a Filipino institution, and somewhat of an initiation rite for adventurous travelers, much like the subways in New York or the freeways in LA.

Passengers jump in and out the back whenever the jeepney slows down, and the fare is handed to whomever you sit next to, who then passes it down the row until the coins reach the driver.

Jeepneys are hot and bumpy and, very often, so crowded that you are practically sitting on the lap of your neighbor. But I am always fascinated by my fellow passengers, the brown faces of Cebu City’s working class–the young mothers holding babies on their laps, the older men who climb on board carrying their prize fighting roosters, and the pretty factory workers and shop clerks who fill the jeepneys in the early morning, their long black hair freshly washed, colorful dresses pulled taut over slim bodies.

It is a totally foreign, sensual, and exotic experience, yet the drivers play Mariah Carey on the cassette player, I can converse with anyone in English, and a popular jeepney stop is the American-mall inspired Ayala Shopping Center, where stores such as OshKosh, Athletes Foot, Dockers, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Pizza Hut are packed with Filipino shoppers.

Although Cebu City, with close to 700,000 residents, is second in size to Manila, and shares many of the capital’s worst attributes–crime, pollution, traffic, corruption–to name just a few, it is a distant five-hundred miles south of Manila, a port city on the narrow island of Cebu, in the middle of a spectacularly lush archipelago.

Steep green mountains, dense with bamboo and giant tree ferns, rise up from the northern suburbs of Cebu City, and rolling fields of sugar cane cover the northern third of Cebu Island. Old steel-hull freighters and sleek Super Cat passenger ferries sail in and out of the port, connecting Cebu City with dozens of other Philippine islands.

Along the coastline, where beaches are lined with coconut palms, are small towns, noisy with motorized bicycles with sidecars (trikes). And in fields and private gardens there is an abundance of fruit trees–guava, star apple, mango, jackfruit, pomelo–with a dazzling array of flowers, including galaxies of wild orchids.

The tourism conference is held at the new Cebu International Convention Center, a large modern complex completed just weeks before President Ramos arrives for his opening speech.

 

 

Unfortunately, the air-conditioning in the center is turned up so high that delegates arriving in shirt sleeves shiver in the igloo-like temperature, wrapping their arms around themselves to keep warm.

During the press conferences we ask tourism officials about the currency crisis in Asia, the forest fires in Indonesia, the status of visa regulations in Brunei, and about new hotel developments in Vietnam.

During the evenings, however, my colleagues and I pursue more mundane activities. We crash delegate parties–the Thais hire Miss World, a gorgeous girl from Bangkok, to entertain us with songs as we crowd around a buffet of cold sesame noodles, and the Shangri-La Hotel serves giant prawns and white wine at their seaside restaurant overlooking the azure Camotes Sa.

We discover the Golden Cowrie, a restaurant with a dirt floor, screened-in porch, and rattan furniture. With the peso tumbling daily, a dinner of baked mussels, broiled fish, grilled vegetables, and beer is less than $3.
Near my hotel, in the courtyard of a private house, , I join a basketball game that seems to go on nonstop, day and night. The Filipinos have taken up basketball, introduced by American servicemen, with a fervor, and the teenagers I play with are good. Most have Michael Jordan’s name written somewhere on their clothing.

The unassuming two-story house where we play is, alas, a brothel, and men, local Cebuanos as well as foreign tourists, watch us shoot baskets as they wait to be buzzed in to the red-walled, pink-carpeted reception room.

Shortly after, the brothel owner inside the house shouts “Guest!” and about two dozen young Filipino girls, in robes or shorts or jeans, drift down from upstairs bedrooms, sit on small leather couches, and wait to be chosen.

Within a few minutes one of the girls leaves with a customer, walking past our game and into a waiting taxi. This is “take out” service only, and the going price is $40 for 24 hours, although weekly rates can be negotiated.

A Filipino friend tells me of a little village called Santa Fe, on the small island of Bantayan, a place where crime, traffic, pollution, jeepneys, even cars, do not exist. A speck of a place in the warm Visayan Sea where, Teodoro says, “you will find the quiet Filipino island lifestyle.”

The 5 a.m. bus to Hagnaya Port leaves on time, in the cool pre-dawn darkness, as the city begins to awaken. A teenage “driver’s assistant” collects the fare, 40 pesos (about one dollar), as we head north along the coast for the three hour journey.

Just after sunrise we veer inland at the village of Sogod, cutting across sugar cane fields and high plateaus. Lovely school children, with smiles, starched uniforms, and friendly waves, walk along the side of the road on their way to rural school houses. The countryside sparkles under the new sun, the long grass and palms glistening with dew, the breezes turning soft and tropical.

In the northern city of Bogo the bus halts at a small food stand and I follow the other male passengers as we walk behind the shop and relieve ourselves into a beautiful garden of plumeria.

Apparently this is the ad hoc men’s room for our rest stop.

We snack on kinilaw (small pieces of raw fish) or tapa (baked dried beef), buy packages of peanuts or dried mango, and continue on our way, to the sun-baked, down-at-the-heels harbor town of Hagnaya.

The few bus passengers who are continuing to Santa Fe walk down to the water’s edge and board a narrow outrigger which, as we balance ourselves precariously on wooden slats, motors out to a small ferry waiting for us in deeper waters.

It is another hour across the open sea to Bantayan Island and to the tiny fishing village of Santa Fe, where, for $12 per night, I find a pleasant, simple cottage, directly on the beach, at a place called the Santa Fe Beach Resort. There is no pool, tennis, or water sports at this “resort,”
and my room is bereft of “Holiday Inn” amenities, but the open-air dining room serves fresh fish and the beach is a wonderful place to watch the daily rhythms of the Filipinos.

Old women sift through the sand with strainers, looking for tiny shells, which are strung into necklaces. Fishermen repair their nets or paint their outriggers, and kids scamper through the surf trying to catch blue crabs, delicious appetizers they sell to the small local restaurants. Around twilight each day I pedal my rented bicycle into the village, about a mile away, feeling a bit like I’ve landed in this wonderful Philippine-version of Fire Island, but without all the angst of vacationing New Yorkers.

Teodoro was right, there are no cars here, just bicycles, some with metal seats in the front that are used as taxis. The village is small—an outdoor fish market, a grocer, a tiny shop selling shell necklaces (no doubt about their origin), and a few cafes where families, and the occasional tourist, linger over tea or coffee.

In a cleared patch of dirt behind the shops a cock fight takes place, the men forming a circle around the birds, betting pesos and spewing Cebuano obscenities as the cocks try to kill each other with little razors tied to their legs. Charcoal grills are set up on the perimeter, the aroma of chicken kebabs drifting up with the smoke, and women hawk cigarettes and beer from small wood tables under a grove of palm trees.

I ride back to my cottage after dark, small gas lanterns lighting the way, the only sound coming from the tinny ring-ring-ring of bicycles I pass along the narrow lanes.

Most people on the island earn a living by fishing or growing corn and cassava. Others sell eggs and hogs to passing freighters on their way to Cebu or other islands. A few European tourists, mostly young backpackers from Switzerland or Germany, or Filipino families from Manila, come for a few days to relax at the two or three beachside resorts.

When it is my turn to depart I rise early and walk down the beach to the pier, boarding the ferry at half past five. As the boat lumbers through the dark sea I stand at the back, watching the dim, yellow lights of Santa Fe recede into the horizon.

In the rose-colored Philippine sky a perfect circle of white light is suspended above the village, a full moon so starkly beautiful that I make a silent vow to return here one day.

For armchair travelers, the Philippines can be enjoyed through two excellent photography books. The Philippines: A Journey Through the Archipelago (Charles Tuttle Co.) and Filipino Style (Periplus Editions), are large-format books filled with incredible color photos of the most unique architecture, design, and scenery in the country.

For further information on visiting Cebu, or other islands in the Philippines, you can go online to the Philippine Tourist Office Web site at
http://www.tourism.gov.ph

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