Saturday, November 17, 2012


From right to left: Marissa, Ely, Ming, Eve, background jokester Felix,
little Zyrel, Dani, Marilyn, Sarah, and me, the sore thumb sticking out
Yes, I'm still vegan, and no I didn't eat any, lechon is traditional party food
In the morning, I met Cris's girlfriend and business partner, Andrea, more of his friends, and got to know the dogs better. Rolly owns a building basically containing three townhouses, and one was temporarily vacant, so there was plenty of space for me to stay. I cooked several dishes for them, including real Italian spaghetti at Rolly's request, complete with carrots, eggplant, and brewed coffee in the sauce. That night, Rolly brought me to meet my uncle Vic, a very talented and well-known professional guitarist and singer. Vic has eleven gorgeous guitars and a gorgeous apartment. Together, the three of us went bar-hopping until 2:00am, tasting the music at several different venues. I even got to hear Vic sit in with a couple friends at a '70s-hippie folk bar with the word moustache in the name.

The next morning, I borrowed my uncle's bicycle and enjoyed biking through Manila (a maze, just look at google maps and you'll have 1/10th of an idea just how much of a maze it is) to get to the office of Haribon Foundation for my appointment. I met with the project director and the talented young man who I'd been corresponding with via email. Haribon and I were equally thrilled with the work, philosophies, and experience we had to offer each other. I will likely be able to get them to pay for a sort of work visa for while I'm on call to work for them (indefinitely in my mind). As of now, I have plans to do a week-long survey to confirm a Philippine Eagle sighting in Aurora Province, which is also a major outpost of the potentially dangerous New People's Army. More on that when I return...

I then took care of some personal logistics while I was in the city, cooked dinner, and caught the bus north to Baguio together with Jo-jo and Rolly. Rolly's brother, Dani (obviously also my uncle), is a well-respected doctor in the Philippines for revolutionary approaches to medicine and education, creativity, and sheer passion and excellence for everything in his life. He has an amazing house up in the Cordillera Mountains in Baguio that hints at Wabi-sabi, a Japanese style that he described as meaning incomplete, asymmetric, and never-ending. He has a wonderful taste for organic art full of art. He has many artist and musician friends, and he could boast of a seriously rare and broad reputation, except that he's absolutely not one to boast. His family is just as interesting and in the process of spreading their own roots of influence. He is currently retired but runs a pulmonary practice in Baguio without compensation.

BENCAB Museum fun

I spent the next day, Saturday relaxing and experimenting in the kitchen as usual. The expanded capability of multiple burners and a much broader variety of ingredients made the resulting dishes much more interesting than most of the cooking I'd done thus far here. Preparations for the following day, conversation and music led to sleep. The occasion for the weekend was the birthday of Dani's granddaughter's first birthday. About 170 adults and kids were expected. This party was all out. The decorations were tasteful and hand-made by family and helpers, as was the cake, and all of the food. My cousin, Dani's son Jong, is a culinary school graduate and in charge of planning the menu. I took on a couple of dishes to lighten the load, as did tons of other people including Rolly and Jo-jo, other family members, and helpers who seemed almost too used to the scale of this gathering. Three kitchens were running all day long, and I was thinking I don't know where I'd start trying to plan a feast so big. There was enough food for 250 people, though only about 70 showed up. Still, they packed away the food in their stomachs and tupperware containers, and the vast amount of left-overs were eaten by hungry poor in town. I was in the kitchen from sun-up to sun-down, and got to know everyone there very well. Midway through the day, my "Very best" Auntie Marilyn and Uncle Ely, the only two relatives of mine in the Philippines I'd already gotten to know in North America, arrived and found me in the kitchen. It was fantastic to catch up with them.

After I was done in the kitchen, I set up the family keyboard, attempted to remember how to play the piano for thirty minutes, then piled into the car with Ely and Marilyn and headed to Aringay, the hometown of my grandfather and most of my family. The two of them retired this year and their house on the beach is in its final stages of completion (albeit dangerously towing the line between late and too late). It's a massive 4-story structure perched almost apartment-close to Dani's home here on the property they all own together. Between the two beautiful homes, there will be space here for the vast extended family to come and go.

The next day, I tried to learn how to surf using a wind surf board that I repaired by roping its two pieces together. The board held up but either it or I didn't do the trick and I never did get up. Who'd have thought there was a Californian like me who's never tried to surf before. Well, I did grow up in the high desert 2-3 hours away from the beach. Not that that stopped most of the kids I grew up with. Anyways, that was fun, but I'll try again in better conditions so that at least it's only my incompetence in the way. I also got to go to the market, where there was a store called "JMCacanindin Store", which sells cell phone stuff. Naturally I inquired as to the family connection, which happened to be my great grandfather and theirs. They even knew my grandfather by name, perhaps because he married a French-Canadien. Ironically, I became the middle-man between some relatives from Canada who happened to be visiting at the same time as me. Eve, Marissa, and Sarah arrived in Aringay the next day after a 7-hour long ordeal for them on the bus.

Can't believe these are really roots
The next day we had fun eating, swimming, and getting to know each other. Together, we all visited the market and several places where my close relatives grew up. It seems that each hour that goes by, I find the many similarities between all of my family, things we never knew we had in common. There are so many good musicians in my family that I feel like just another out of the herd, lucky enough to receive training. The connections and similarities with each individual are too long and intricate to explain here, but suffice it to say that even the friends of my relatives like Jo-jo and Felix seem interconnected by some invisible web of community likeness. I've never really experienced anything like it. It's ineffably fascinating and special. Somehow the news of this blog had preceeded me and almost everyone had already read it. I guess that's why the visit count on the right has gone up so much! The day ended with karaoke, and we all marvelled at Sarah's gifted and fine-tuned voice. This is the first time she has traveled anywhere in the world and almost anywhere in North America for something that isn't related to choir or singing. She currently sings in a professional traveling choir based out of her hometown of Vancouver.

My Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather

The girls left the following day, which I spent doing research on my plans for after the weekend, when we were planning to celebrate Dani's birthday somewhat more subtly than we did for his grandson. My research led me to follow Dani and Tita Ming back to their home in Baguio, where I biked in the rain to the Immigration Office. Jong showed me some of the art venues in the charming and beautiful city of Baguio, where indigenous and postmodern converge. Now I'm back in Aringay about to prepare some food for the evening birthday feast. It's hard to believe I'm here, the goal of my travels overseas to the Philippines, the place of origin of the Filipino blood running through my veins. I have learned so much about myself, my family, and my roots up to now, and expect to learn much more. There is a seriously big family reunion planned around the Christmas and New Year's holidays, including the blessing of Ely and Marilyn's new home as well as a wedding. Tons of family are coming from around the Philippines and North America, and I'm lucky I came to visit for this year. Regardless of the fun, the difficulties, the risks and adventures awaiting in the future, I feel I have surpassed some sort of benchmark in life. I am thrilled I decided to come here, and I am excited for whatever the future holds.

Getting to Manila

My camera wasn't working and I still don't have it back as I write this. I'm hoping it will be fixed in Manila somehow. I looked for a new camera when I got there but couldn't find a good deal, so I'm making do with giving my memory card to people to take a photo or borrowing a camera from family. Anyways...

The boat to Manila was supposed to leave Romblon at noon. It didn't leave till 3pm. I went back into town in the morning looking for bits of food to supplement the food I made the night before for the boat. I found bananas, peanuts, and pastries. Typical snacks for me here. I found this one pastry in Romblon that was amazing. Ube is a purple potato also called Taro that usually goes into desserts. I found an ube cake with coconut flakes on the edges. Five pesos each, I bought two, and added them to the pastry bag. I didn't realize how special this particular pastry was or I would have bought ten of them. The coconut on the outside is mixed with a sweetened syrup making the edges slightly moister than the already fluffy, moist, purple inside. They are made fresh every couple of hours, and I noticed the locals flock to whatever pastry shop had them. I will pay more attention to that kind of movement in the future, let me tell you. This thing was amazing. I savored them as best I could on the boat later.

The rest of the time I waited in the terminal alternating between watching whatever action movie was on the TV and talking to other travelers, something that I'm beginning to find really fun. The movies were terrible as usual, and I got to see Children of the Night for the first time... More memorable was one particular traveler I won't soon forget. He is a backpacker similar to me, but 67 years old and very experienced. He has been to almost every single country in the world between work and travels. Before he retired, he had worked for most of his life as a scientist. I asked him what kind and he said he was a vulcanologist. He studies volcanoes, not Vulcans or mind-melds. As he explained his work, "Have you seen those guys on National Geographic, the ones who get helicoptered to the crater of a volcano flowing with lava wearing a shiny heat suit? That was me. When locals start to worry about their volcano, they call an expert like me, I get flown into take samples and I predict whether a volcano will erupt usually within two weeks of accuracy." I make him sound arrogant, but he was the most humble guy simply enjoying his current life and describing his past life. We only chatted for fifteen minutes, but we learned quite a lot about each other in that time.

By the time I thought my boat was getting closer to ready to leave, the space for vehicles filling up and fewer passengers boarding, I joined the queue. Turned out to be another two hours before it left. I paid the student fare (I'm still brandishing an old student ID) of P778 for the economy space. The cheapest possible fare gave me an assigned bed with clean gymnastics-mat covered foam pad higher at one end for a pillow. There was a CR (bathroom) and even a cool shower with a shower head. It was more luxury than I'd had since Cebu City! I smoked a little roll-your-own tobacco from the US (American Spirit, a once every two weeks treat) out of a small pipe gifted to me by a clay worker in Bacolod. A group of teenage boys on some sort of school trip was certain I was smoking weed, which I gathered from their mixed Tagalog and English. I slept the entire 17-hour trip waking only to eat or use the restroom. We arrived at the port in Batangas, Luzon just as the sun was rising. I wound my way through an unusual maze to find a jeepney to the central market, where I was expecting to find some good knives and things.

The central market was a let down, Batangas was dirty, gray, and crowded, and there were no knives to be found at the market, so I found the jeep towards Tagaytay. Along the road were shops proudly brandishing the balisong (butterfly knives illegal in most countries) for which Batangas is famous, and connected to a bus north to Tagaytay. All of the fares were more expensive than in the Visayas, the bustle and crowding of people, and the cheaper food and clothes signaled that I had arrived in Luzon.

Tagaytay is a 20km-long town on the ridge of a large dormant volcano, with beautiful views of the lake in the middle and the smaller active volcano peeking up in the middle of the lake. It's one of the Philippines' most famous attractions, and it was appropriately touristy. The neighborhoods are poor copies of American upper-middle class neighborhoods, complete with names like LuxurE Estates and Californian architecture, both of which simply do not function here. There were many beautiful banzai trees lining the rim road, though. After arriving in town proper and admiring the view from between bars of a railing, I found out about this place called People's Park in the Sky. It is a popular picnic spot for locals, and it sits appealingly high and out of town proper. It was originally one of many summer homes of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. On the way there, I picked up a buko (young coconut) pie at the most famous pie-ery of the area, Colette's. Once at the picnic spot, I ate an ENTIRE pie by myself. I was hungry and it was damn good straight out of the oven. Thoroughly satisfied, I perched myself on a rock and strummed Josephine for more than an hour, with a small crowd gathering. I even sang a screaming baby to sleep and continued playing at the behest of the parents who had never seen the likes of it. It was before noon, and I was expecting not to arrive in Manila until the next day, so I let my uncle in Manila know I was coming a day early, and headed to Calamba.

Calamba was supposed to be a 1.5-2 hour jeepney ride from Tagaytay. It took more than 6 hours. Traffic was atrocious the entire way and with no clear reason. I finally made it to the birth house of Philippine legendary hero, Jose Rizal twenty minutes before 5pm when it was supposed to close. They now close at 4pm. I talked the security guard and museum director to let me in anyways and was pleasantly surprised by their flexibility as well as the simplicity and power of seeing where and how Rizal grew up. He's an inspiring person. He lived in the latter half of the 1800s, spoke 22 languages fluently, and was essential to the Philippines' break from Spanish rule, work which led to his execution by firing squad at the hands of the Spaniards in 1896. Activists like me stand in awe at people like Rizal.

Not wanting to make my uncle in Manila worry, I almost decided to try to find a police station to sleep at in Calamba, but decided just to push on. It took 3 hours to arrive at the terminal in Manila, where I took one jeep to meet him at 8 pm just half a block from his house. I'd never met him before, but my uncle Rolly and I understood each other completely in less than an hour of conversation. He's a quirky and interesting fellow who loves company. His friends and his family who live with him reflect his personality. He lives in an area of Manila called Quezon City, which was a key point of landing and departure for much of my family in the last century. We found a vegan curry at a Thai restaurant (on the first try too), then went back home to drink a couple beers, talk, and play music with his son Cris and his friends, and Rolly's friend Jo-jo. It had been a long day but I was simply happy that I hadn't caused my uncle any inconvenience or worry.

Sibuyan and Romblon

I woke up at sunrise on the bangka because they use loud music to get the crew up and going. We were supposed to leave around 8am, but didn't push off until almost noon. While we were waiting, passengers slowly filled the small crawl space where I had spent the night. The night before I was told there was an American couple that would be boarding in the morning. Morning came around, and the bright white couple in their 40s turned out to be two Belgian airline operators on vacation. They were on their fifth day of dizzying travel coming from Belgium and had to spend an entire day getting to Sibuyan. They'd been all over the world over the years and the Philippines is the only place they return to again and again. They'd spent one week at a time visiting the highly advertised Borocay beach, and were ready for a different experience. This time they were headed to Sibuyan for a month. Sibuyan is one of the most remote and least travelled places in the Philippines. I hope they had a good time.

The passenger compartment, exhaust pipe on the left
While we were waiting I practiced "Sore in the Morning" and composed the frame of a song about clock-time vs nature-time, and about dreams, in which I am usually flying. It matches the pace of rocking waves, but the time signature is mostly 5/8 and the melody overlays a 4-beat pulse over the time signature, serving as an active challenge to regimented "time" in all its forms. It lands nicely into a calm waltz the way an airplane feels when it has landed and the wings have stopped lurching and the air brakes are returned to their respective homes. Still working on the lyrics though... Waiting for a good 4-hour block to commit to it. People ate breakfast while they waited, and almost every single passenger through plastic bags, wrappers, and styrofoam containers over the side. At first I fished them out, stored them in my own trash bag, and then frustratedly scolded them for contributing to the Pacific Garbage Patches. But when I realized every person on the boat was doing the same I gave up.

The boat trip was 7 hours long (3hrs longer than it was supposed to take). The engine of this particular bangka sits right underneath the main passenger compartment with the exhaust pipe acting as the support awkwardly penetrating up from the floor and through the ceiling in the very center of the compartment. The engine was so loud I couldn't understand the person next to me even when they shouted. It got hot in that space, and the pipe leaked exhaust so that when the tarps were pulled down to protect people from rogue waves they were simultaneously fumigated with exhaust. I couldn't stand the sound so I went aloft to the roof where I spent the ride napping, practicing guitar, and munching on pomelo. I didn't realize until later that I was sitting over the bridge of the bangka, and the man I was sitting next to had his legs in the hole below us because he was steering. I thought I had seen all of the things Filipinos do with their toes (that's the only Filipino genetic trait I seem to have inherited myself) but steering a passenger boat wasn't the list I had formulated in my mind.

Once we arrived, I haggled till I found a cheap tricycle driver to take me and a few other people to Cajidiocan. I found the port, hid my things in the dark, and found some food. The produce was comparatively very expensive because most of it was imported from other Islands. The people are so nice though. Good English because many moved there from other islands, and very welcoming. After I found the fruits I was looking for, I returned to my thingsat the port, which was secluded and completely deserted except for two officers who I knew were sleeping in the office but who wouldn't answer my calls at the door. So I laid out my pad on a bench and went to sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was woken by a group of men also looking for a dark place. I heard their conversation change when they saw me, I didn't move, and they moved along. Thirty minutes later one person returned, and I saw as they used their phone to see what I was. Moments later, I heard them rustling with the handle of my guitar. I sat up quickly and they took off running. Pissed and only a little unsettled, I moved closer to the front door of the office in a harder to see place, went back to sleep confident enough in my ability to wake up if I heard footsteps. I decided then and there that I was going to make sure to sleep inside Barangay captain offices, inside ports with other people, or in the home of a local from then on.

There are only three jeeps on the entire island of Sibuyan, and they leave from Cajidiocan at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 in the morning. I caught the middle one after I had picked up some local vegetables and was dropped off at the dirt road to Mt Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, where I walked 1km to the Visitor's Center. I was warmly and slowly welcomed by the caretaker and friends, and arranged a guide to climb the mountain in the morning. Then I spent the rest of the day relaxing. One 15-year-old boy took to me and wanted to take me to a swimming hole when I mentioned swimming. Fifteen minutes' walk later, we arrived at the confluence of three streams, and a pool that was so beautiful it could only have been crafted by nature. It was the perfect depth and temperature, and it was so clean I was drinking as I swam.

In the morning, I received more and more contrasting information about the hike up the mountain. Some say one day up and down is possible, others say 3 days minimum, some say easy, others say hard. My guide arrived late. Electricity is so sparse on the island of Sibuyan that most everyone lives by the sun, and almost no one has heard or particularly likes much music. The superintendent met me in the morning, and after only fifteen minutes' conversation, liked me enough to charge the local price for guide and entrance fee (easily one-third of the price for foreigners).

My guide was 20 years old, had only climbed the mountain 3 times before, and was grossly unprepared. But he was nice and eager to prove himself. He wore sinelas (flip-flops), had a shoulder bag with cooked rice, three cans of fish, and a rain jacket. Twice on the way up he went up the wrong path, came down and decided we should go up the other path. It was a 5-hour trek up to the top of Mayo's Peak. As the hike went on, I realized that Mayo's Peak was the gateway to Guiting-Guiting, possibly the hardest climb in the Philippines. It takes only 5 hours to reach the top and the last camp spot on the mountain. It's 7 hours' hike from there to the summit of Guiting-Guiting, a very difficult trail that begins by following a ridge 6' wide or less, hopping boulders with sheer cliffs on either side. Then it's a full day back down. If I had proper information and one more day to spare I would have done it, but I didn't have enough food (expecting only one day up to the top and back down, two at the most). I was on a time table because I had a scheduled meeting in Manila with Haribon Foundation on Friday, and there are only two ferries a week from the Romblon Islands (of which Sibuyan is one). I had to catch the next one or forfeit my meeting in Manila. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful hike with plenty of steep sections, and the view from the top was stunning. It usually takes people eleven or twelve hours to go up and come back down, if they make it in one day. It took me eight hours total, with a half-hour break at the top to admire the view.

Trail along the ridge to the summit of Guiting-Guiting
I got back, led my guide to the swimming hole from the day before, and packed up for the next day. Then I was invited to dinner (laced with fish), after which there was drinking of gin and tons of tunes from Josephine. My friends tried their luck at catching crawfish in the creeks surrounding the property (easier at night because their eyes reflect flashlights). I slept long and deep and woke up in time to catch the morning jeep to the port in Ambulon. I took the 4-hour ferry to the town of Romblon on the island of Romblon to catch the ferry north to Luzon the next day.

Romblon is an island sitting on a huge slab of marble. Marble carvings, and uncarved slabs of marble are constantly shipped to other locations in the Philippines. There are old forts and churches in the area. I was tired when I arrived in the afternoon, so I took a nap in the fourth-floor window of a belltower of the centuries-old church. Unfortunately, my camera completely stopped working by the time I arrived in Romblon. It was getting worse and worse at holding a charge until it stopped all together. It's at the repair shop in Manila now. I randomly ran into another white face, a guy named Graham Keanz living in the town with his Filipina wife and two kids. He's someone who had tons of mental breakdowns in a family with a poor sense of what it means to have family, so he feels much happier in a place with such deep family values. He let me store my things in his kitchen so I could roam around town unburdened. Needing a place to cook dinner and wanting to thank him for watching my things, I cooked dinner for him and his family. A heart-warming spicy vegetable soup. There was more than enough left over for the long boat ride the next day. We pulled out our guitars and serenaded the streets of Romblon until late into the night. I stopped by the local gaming stop with cheap internet, and met my uncle Rolly online (a highly unlikely event for both of us). We got to know each other briefly and arranged for me to meet him in Manila when I arrived. I slept in the air-conditioned port and waited for the ferry the next day.

To Sibuyan Island!

From Bulabog Puti-an, I caught the afternoon bus north to Roxas City. It was November 1st, which was All Souls' Day. November 2nd is All Saints' Day and during both of these days, Filipinos flood to the cemeteries near their hometowns visit their relatives that have passed on. The bus was full to begin with, with people standing in the aisles, their groins and butts oozing into the faces of those sitting in aisle seats. As we travelled, I saw my first monkey walking comfortably balancing on a small bamboo rail used for hanging items for sale. We passed so fast I hardly saw what kind of monkey it was. As the sun was setting, I saw a trio of monkeys in the distance near some rice paddies, this time to far to see their size or faces, but they were definitely monkeys. As the bus traveled, the bus would lose passengers at major towns only to be filled up even fuller before it was able to take off again. The ticket-counter, usually a young man with a grumpy demeanor, was one of the most capable, calm, warm, and patient boys I've ever met. He was 20 years old, and he had a spark in his eye that was the quintessence of goodness. It's hard to describe him, but in our short exchanges of words and meeting of eyes, he made a lasting impression on me. We were all lucky he was there to spread the calm during such chaos, discomfort and stress.

As the sun went down, the bus somehow got fuller and fuller. It has maybe 30 seats on the bus, but it was filled with easily more than 60 people all of them seeming to be going to or returning from their hometown visits. As I looked out the window, the cemeteries terraced along hills and tucked into valleys were stunning, each gravestone glowing from a dozen or more candles placed lovingly around it. The discomfort of the bus couldn't overwhelm the dazzling serenity of it all. Most people couldn't help but laugh at the impossibility of the chaos that surrounded the bus as crowds chased after whenever the bus stopped, some of the men using burly arms to block old ladies from climbing the steps or shoving children out of the way. The ticket boy could only watch with wonder and patience for people to sort things out on their own, sometimes barely squeezing on himself as the driver peeled away from the clamouring crowd. We passed children scaring each other with masks, laughter from one house giving way to somber tears in the next. It was quite the ride. 

I arrived in Roxas City on the northern coast of Panay around 8pm. Jeepneys are illegal in this town, so there was no choice but to pay P100 (more expensive than my fare on the bus) to travel 10km east to the port. My tricycle driver already had a passenger, a nice woman with superb English who helped me figure out where I needed to go. We passed children trying to scare us with masks, and when we arrived at her destination (after some searching for the right street) I left her with one of the two pomelos left over from Bulabog. I arrived at the port, paid my fare, and walked over to the bangka (outrigger boat) that would be leaving in the morning for Sibuyan Island. I convinced the somewhat bewildered captain to let me sleep with his crew on the boat overnight, laid out my thin foam pad, and slept long and well until sunrise.

Bulabog Puti-an

View from the cave floor through a hole 60' above

In the morning, I met with the Bulabog Puti-an National Park Superintendent, a very humble man you'd never guess was in the face of loggers and miners and all sorts of people with interests more important than environmental protection. He showed me where I could cook food enough to last through the long next day's long boat ride. For a very small guide fee, he took me around the area for half a day. We visited tons of caves along easy trails. We hit it off immediately. He's a jovial, warm, interesting character with a love for nature and good enough English to delve into some deeper topics. We joked back and forth all the way through. In the beginning, we saw several large spiders similar to the black and yellow one I saw at the Twin Lakes, but a little bit smaller and with smaller webs than the behemoth that stopped me in my tracks. We also passed several trees more than 100 years old, with roots that emanated out from the tree like the Northern Lights in swirls and waves high above the ground.

The rocks along the entire trail and around the entire area seem like coral, rough limestone full of holes and crevasses that seem more like they were grown rather than carved by carbonic acid and water. Most anyone who has ever seen a cave could guess that the hillsides must be littered with caves. The first cave we visited was a hiding place for guerrilla soldiers during World War II, where they were able to outlast the Japanese forces wandering the jungle in search for the illusive caves. Mining destroyed much of what they had left, but there were still many inscriptions and things left behind. The  amphitheaters at the mouth of some of these caves are powerful and awe-inspiring. Impossible to capture in a photograph because of their panoramic nature. Maybe Picasso could have translated the many aspects to perception of these panoramic alcoves sunken into pocked limestone. Moss, small flowers and banzai-like trees grow out from the holes, vines hang from above, ideal habitat for vine snakes and even pythons.

These small red tarantulas were tricky to see because they sense the vibration of our steps so well

One of the caves was full of wildlife. Many chambers reach down into the earth, every one of them echoing with the screams and squeaks of flying rodents. Insect bats, nectar bats, and fruit bats make their home in this particular cave rather than all of the others. The old ladders and steps are worn away by time, so we climbed down using a vine as a repel rope down 20 feet or so. The mud on the floor is actually ankle-deep guano (droppings) that could suck your shoe off if you aren't careful to avoid areas saturated with moisture. All of the life of the cave thrives because of the bats. There were "spider scorpions" (really just big spiders with claw-like front legs), these small 2"-5" red tarantulas, rodents, snakes, and a host of other creatures and bugs I've never seen that even the guide didn't know the names of. Some look like something out of a science fiction movie and they are quick to move out of your way. Midway through, my guide explained that it's really his job to keep me out of harm's way in the cave. We moved slowly using cell phone flashlights and one headlamp that was really too heavy to keep on your head, trying to avoid startling wildlife. At one point he caught a nectar bat (I would have told him not to had I known in advance) but I snapped a photo since he already had it in his hand.

My hand was just in front of the snake from this angle
At one point there was a bamboo bridge over an old rock slide. My guide was carefully scanning the rocks on the right saying, "this is a snake wonderland." After he had crossed confident that there were no snakes to disturb, I made my crossing eyeing the wobbly bridge under my feet. I used the rail on the left just in case the bridge failed under my weight. I placed my steps, and then I shined the light where I had just put my hand, and watched as a huge "Mainina" snake head recoiled from my hand as I put it just 2 inches in front of its face. Rather than pull my hand quickly, I slowly move it away and let my heart resume beating at a faster tempo. I recognized this snake as one that had been pointed out to me on other hikes as a very aggressive and very venomous (though usually not deadly) snake. This was by far the larges I had seen. It was more than a meter in length, and I'm lucky it was either sleepy in the cool dark or recognized I wasn't a threat, otherwise my trip in Panay would have been littered with time spent in the hospital wondering how many weeks it would be before I could get antidote or be able to play the guitar again. After I pointed out the snake to my guide, "You missed one!" I told him how close of a call it was, and he replied chuckling, "Oops, I didn't see that one. I guess I'm not a very good guide." I tip-toed my way along the edge of the bridge farthest away from the snake but still fully within its striking range, and turned around to admire it from a distance once I'd reached the other side. Such a beautiful creature, with an obviously drowsy look in its eye. On the way out of that cave, there was a bright green vine snake slowly flowing down a vertical rock face that should have been impossible to cling to for a snake. This snake is even more venomous and deadly than the Mainina. When it had reached the ground and hid around a rock, my guide touched the tail and didn't even see when the snake whipped its head around the other side of the rock and nearly nabbed him in the finger. I said, exaggerating, "How did you not see that, you were one centimeter away from forcing me to carry you out of here!"

We visited a few other caves that were hardly as exciting but still different than the bat cave. Then we took the long way through the forest back around to the main office. We passed under chico fruit trees, unripe bananas and papayas and coconut palms. Then we passed under a pomelo tree full of ripe pomelos. A pomelo is a fruit that has the texture of a grapefruit with a flavor halfway between grapefruit and apple. It has the skin of a grapefruit, but add at least an inch thick of the white pulp between the rind and the fruit itself, and you have a pomelo. We threw rocks at the fruits high up in the tree and dislodged 6 of them. When we stopped later to eat one each, we had just passed through as section of palm trees that dropped these fruits that are hard, baseball-sized, inedible fruits. As they fall from the tall tops of the trees, you hear a pit-patter as it hits leaves going faster and faster as it falls, and then a resounding pop that sounds almost like gunfire or firecrackers when it hits the soil or limestone rocks of the forest floor. They drop every minute or two and are surprisingly startling. It was a thrill just sitting there munching on a juicy pomelo and wondering if you'd be the next victim of one of the fruits. 

Once we'd reached the Visitor's Center, I packed up my things, bid farewell to my guide, his caretaker, and the puppy that was devastated I had to leave, and headed back to the main road. A short tricycle ride later, I was in Dingle. I jumped on a jeep to the bus depot 15km up the highway, which turned out to be simply standing at a random place in the road with ten other people. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sore in the Morning

When I arrived in Dingle after more than an hour crammed into a vastly over-packed jeepney, I felt like I was shat out into a toilet already flushing, the crowds bustling lazily around the plaza and central market for the Barangay festival. Dingle is not pronounced "deen-guhl", it's "deen-gleh", but the town has more htan enough quirky-ness and cheese going on to be pronounced "deen-guhl". The play ground at the plaza was goofy. The random locations and styles of different signs, arches, walls, and buildings made me feel like I was in Steven Spielberg's version of a Dr. Seuss book. I know... weird. The parade floats were still on display, all of them brilliant dioramas of nature or local landmarks such as the dam. The floats were made from entirely local plant materials and foods, except things like welded metals or real concrete for the dam. These things were seriously lifelike versions of their full-scale depictions.

My short walk around the plaza and palengke (market) left me somewhat other-worldly and I was ready to move on to a more natural environment. I found the nest for tricycles anxious to fly to not-so-distant locations, tied Zeal securely on the roof, wore Josephine on my back, and watched a game of pool waiting for the tricycle to fill up so I could leave. After one lady and her bag of market goodies filled up the front seat, a guy I knew wasn't the driver of this particular tricycle started to peel away around the corner with Zeal on the roof. Rather than risk losing EVERYTHING I OWN, I embarrassingly ditched the pool house to give chase and told the driver, "I don't know where you going with my pack, but I go where she goes." Turns out the lady just needed to pick up a case of Coke in glass 1L bottles two blocks away. Then we went back and resumed the wait for departure. Twenty minutes later, three more passengers joined Coke lady and me and we took off. The REAL driver was kind and considerate, but he still had to drop me only at the turn off to the road to the park.

A half-kilometer walk later and I arrive at the Visitor's Center. There are a half-dozen random dogs barking their heads off but no one comes to hush them. The light is on, but there's no one anywhere on the property. It is Halloween night after all. One of the dogs is a young puppy that stops its half-ferocious bark midway through to lick you to death instead. The nicest buildings are these two half-destroyed nipa huts and it's clear that you're expected to pay for them. So, I set up my new hammock instead. I went through several different tying possibilities only to realize that I need less stretchy (dynamic) rope. Settled on a tensionless anchor for a traverse with the hammock ring acting as the carabiner tied to the tail ends of the rope by a bowline knot. I was just finishing at sundown when a motor comes up the driveway. It's the caretaker of the property, an old guy with poor English. I do my best to make my presence known without scaring him but I think he still lost four shades of skin town when I said hello. I had to walk him to my hammock up the hill to prove I didn't want to stay in the nipa huts even he admitted needed repair. Then he showed me into the main office and gave a basic introduction to the park. I sat on the bench and asked if I could stay while he enjoyed the Halloween celebrations.

It was there, with large rats skittering between my legs once and a while that I wrote the following song in about 3 hours. I was inspired to write "Sore in the Morning" after that terribly difficult day scrambling in the jungle around the Twin Lakes on Negros Island. I had been adding different characters I met or remembered, and what they do in life that makes them sore for their efforts. Then I actually turned them into something. True to folk music, there are 16 stanzas for 16 people, with a goofy-sounding chorus to break up the potential for monotony. It's a medium-tempo blues waltz. Only two of the people are me. Can you pick them out?

Two months' work on the harvest
One more to cut wood for winter in Maine
Spring thawed the hammer, the shovel and the plow
My poor back's gonna be sore in the morning

I woke up at 5 to start work before sunrise
Makin' three bucks a day sewing rich ladies' jeans
Last year I was twelve, I played by myself
Now my neck will be sore in the morning

Day 9, hour 12 selling remedies and ruses
Giving drugs left and right, shooting X-Rays into bruises
Should've stayed in New Orleans, sucking back bile
This smile's gonna be sore in the morning

What are you gonna be sore for?
Each day you wake up and choose.
If fulfillment's your goal ask your soul for it.
When you're gone from this world, what's your story?

Stress makes you rough and the tips aren't enough
To make dancing for these pigs feel taste less sour
I'll stand behind this bar for bottomless hours
Callous feet gonna be sore in the morning

Nursing addictions worth more than my life
I cherish the chaos I've found here
On the cusp of the void, my expression is stoic
Throat will be sore in the morning

I carried 60 lbs up the face of a mountain
At the summit my worries fell off
Priorities irrevocably shifted
But my shoulders will feel sore in the morning

Nose in the books, and eyes on the screen
Who knows what time it is now?
Just two hours to go to tickle teacher's ego
My mind will be sore in the morning

What are you gonna be sore for?
Each day you wake up and you choose.
Your life's in your hands and nobody else's
Existence is risk, haven't you felt it?

Third night in a row without sleep
Hauling Cavendish bananas de El Salvador
My truck is my life, it knows me better than my wife
My eyes will be sore in the morning

Confused soldier cowering in a bunker
Bombs finding everything but you
You slaughtered and terrorized for someone else's war
Ears and conscience feel sore in the morning

Burnt to a crisp by a day in the sun
"Smash the state, greed breeds hate" echoes in my ears
So I drown it out with heavy metal screams
And my voice will be sore in the morning

In one day I cleared 3 mountain passes
Chasing time on this bicycle, burning rubber of the past
Push myself to the limit, survive to be wiser
My thighs are gonna be sore in the morning

What are you gonna be sore fore?
Each day you wake up and choose.
Learn to listen, don't muzzle those instincts of yours.
Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes, knees and toes

Scrambled around in the jungle
Searching for the soul that was lost
Spiders, snakes, vines, ants, skeeters and thorns
Everything will be sore in the morning

Torn between love and strict family values
How could God force this daughter to choose?
I left the woman of my dreams for a boy with no seams
My heart will feel sore in the morning

Sitting in a chair on a porch in Sinclair
Sleeping off a typical breakfast
Of bacon, coffee, biscuits and gravy, eggs, corned beef, pork chops, and a side of hash browns.... washed down with three ice cold beers
My colon's gonna feel sore in the morning

I sat lakeside sculpting tunes on guitar
Till ghost-white shimmers turned orange
Till wolf howls gave way to birds trumpeting the day
My fingers feel sore this morning

What are you gonna be sore for?
Each day you wake up and choose.
Death could be just around the corner.
But this morning you woke up so choose what you want to be sore for.

I wrote this song and then I went to bed and slept soundly until morning. I woke up and the puppy that was first to greet me when I arrived was sleeping right underneath me. That puppy stuck with me from the moment it smelled me until the next day and I was halfway back down the road from which I had come.

Monday, November 5, 2012


View from the church opposite is a website where people who have a couch or an extra bed/room/sleeping situation are connected with travelers who need a place to stay. I'd tried to make use of it in the U.S. several times, but there was always some obstacle that kept it from happening. I met my friend Alex from Bohol through Couchsurfer, but this is my first time actually sleeping at someone's place. My hosts, Bambi and her family, are awesome. She lives with her parents at 35 (extremely common here), along with her two younger brothers, a helper (housemaid with two children of her own in nearby Guimaras) and her two dogs. The youngest is Quip, 26, and an artists famous and talented enough to get his paintings and other art into any museum in the U.S., especially if marketed under modern folk art. He could draw full, muscled human figures before he was 2 years old, and his paintings highlight local tales and social issues, family history and life, and take on a combination of Folk, Postmodern, and slightly Surrealist styles. A mediocre artist and connoisseur myself, I almost never say this, but he's an artistic genius. He portrays exactly what I would hope to say in the same way I would hope to say it. He's also very active at getting the art community of Iloilo and Southern Panay off the ground. His older brother and sister are wonderful and talented in their own rights in computers and dance/food.

View from the belfry opposite
Bambi is the host I met on, and she told me she started hosting in March of this year and has hosted more than 40 travelers since then. Her entire family looks at the profile of each surf request and gives or denies the traveler's entrance into their home. They love eating food from different places and hearing the backgrounds and stories of each traveler. I've cooked three vegetable meals to complement their meat dishes and they've loved each one. If you don't know, I learned to cook by cooking a different meal every time I cook. I've only repeated a very small handful of dishes and by request only, meaning I've cooked a different meal almost every day for about 7 years. No flops in these experiments so far.

Irony like this is hard to come by. Shrine to female Greek Goddesses with a building used by the Spanish to conquer the Philippines right next to it. Aphrodite is the one you can see clearest. The contradiction is priceless.
The first day, I arrived after dark and was welcomed into their home. There was actually another surfer here, Laiza from Mindanao, so I spent the first night in a very comfortable fold-out woven bed. I spent the next three nights above Bambi and her mother in a sort of loft. The first full day Bambi and I walked all around Iloilo to the museum and the main buildings and plazas, and tasted the nightlife in an area called Smallville. I saw an old church and a very old Bell Tower. I climbed the last leg up into the Bell Tower on a rickety ladder up to where the majority of the bats perched and fluttered, and met Michael, a vibrant young finance professional who finds his "serenity" up at the top of the Bell Tower. I can see why. It had a beautiful view, and I have a feeling his spirit animal is a bat.

Mango orchard on Guimaras Island
The second day I went to Gimaras where I had planned to rent a mountain bike and ride around (something advertised well in the Lonely Planet book), but even the resorts the tourist office mentions having bikes had no idea where to rent one. So I jeeped and hitched around the island for a day. I climbed an old rusted-out bell tower, visited several port towns, an old monastery, and the National Mango Research Institute, which maintains the health of the nation's mango trees. Guimaras is famous for having the sweetest mangos. I felt they were just as sweet as all the others here... VERY. I was leaving the Trappist Monastery when I felt the sudden urge to stick my thumb out and the first car I saw picked me up. It was a French couple in a shining silver SUV headed to their home of 2 years, a resort and restaurant on a white sand beach. The woman actually grew up in the Philippines and had too complicated a history to remember. The man didn't speak any English. Their two young daughters speak very good French, Spanish, Tagalog, and English. Apparently, when they pass through town centers in Guimaras and they pass a lone white traveler, they stop to pick them up. From a distance, before I had even stuck my thumb out, the man had apparently said a phrase in French to his wife that means, "Now there's a white one..."

Somehow this rusty lighthouse in Guimaras is still strong enough to withstand its many visitors...

The third day I traveled the Southern Coast of Panay stopping at all of the towns to visit their ancient Catholic Churches. Before I even left Iloilo, Bambi and I walked to a church near her house in a neighborhood called Villa. I also visited the old home of a family of weavers weaving fine pineapple strand and silk fabrics for barongs, table cloths, and women's leisure clothing. Amazingly, I found and played the very first passable piano I've found here. It's a Yamaha upright that was in tune and everything, and I even went back to play it the next day. From there I headed to my farthest destination of the day, San Joaquin, where I found the neighborhood and met a famous sculptor who uses rudimentary tools to carve sandstone figures. He even took me down to the river where he works on bigger projects and showed me his method. He sells many pieces for a pretty penny, but it mostly goes to his seven young boys. He's a poor, overworked, still young man with a beautiful soul and a beautiful baritone voice. San Joaquin has a gorgeous church and plaza, but it was nothing compared to the UNESCO World Heritage church in the next town of Miagao. Built in 1797, it was Spanish-commissioned and Filipino-built, of course. Walked around until I found my way back to the highway, more jeeps, more towns, and more old churches. In Oton, I was looking for something specific. Quip had told me of an artist community called Pugad near Oton, I went and visited with the owner/founder/teacher of this small coop of tree houses in the orchard he planted. Mangoes, figs, vegetables, rice, and other crops and trees grow there because he planted them, and he has spent the last year teaching the children of the community how to do all sorts of arts for free for ten years. He makes a meager living in architectural design for his family, and the proceeds of his own fantastic art goes to the arts community. Even the students land commissions and are able to earn and learn at the same time. His place is the manifestation of two separate dreams I've had of building a musician/artists coop and a self-sustainable farm/homestead near enough to a city to market the arts, but far enough away to find solitude, nature, and peace.

UNESCO World Heritage Church built 1797
I swear it didn't look like ketchup in real life...
The fourth day was spent preparing for Halloween Festivities. I was something dead like a zombie - Bambi did an amazing job in the makeup in just a few minutes - but the photos make it look like I just haven't learned how to eat a hot dog smothered in ketchup yet. According to Bambi, the 30th was the night the parties really happened because people travel to their hometowns on the 31st to prepare for All Saints' and All Souls' Days (Nov 1 and 2). Turned out we were the only ones in town in costumes. Awesome night though. Bambi and her best friend Shaun are excellent people and both Couch Surfer hosts (really a blessing to travelers like me).

The next day I took a jeep up to Dingle for an excursion into Bulabog Puti-an National Park.

Silay and Patag

Lemme at it!!! Pleeeeeeeze!
Vestiges of a rich person's home
The ferries were cancelled when I arrived at the terminals early in the afternoon that last day, I slept at the terminal overnight, and they were cancelled all the next day too. Josephine kept the ghost of clock-time away and some teenage college kids/musicians enjoyed listening and playing their own songs. I was stranded because both Bacolod, my city of origin, and Iloilo, my destination, had received typhoon warnings that were still in effect. Rather than wait at the station yet another day, I decided to head north of Bacolod to an area I'd learned about after I'd planned out the timing to get to Manila. See, I decided to budget my time because I'd corresponded with Haribon Foundation, an organization that protects the Philippine Eagle in the jungles east of Quezon City (Manila area), and I have to be there on November 9th. So, I decided to spend my second day stranded in Silay and Patag. Silay won this year's award for best tourist-oriented location in the Philippines, and Patag is a lesser-visited but very special national park in Northern Negros, just 20km east of Silay.

The streets of Silay, only about 500m wide and 1km long, are laced with very old homes and buildings left from the sugar boom in the area in the 1800s and early 1900s. Some are extremely well preserved. I visited a well-known bakery for some pastries and pie (I've stopped trying to explain what butter, milk, and eggs are and have resorted to simply using my own visual judgement and hoping I was right). There was a gorgeous home made of wood that seems like it's only aged ten years. It was the house of musicians (lessons paid for by the father's sugar profits) and it even has a gorgeously preserved grand piano in the main room. The top floor is exactly how I would want it if I housed my extended family in the Philippines. Very open normally and easily closed down for bad weather, and made almost entirely of local materials.

Then I headed east to Patag by jeep (which leave only a couple times in the morning and a couple times in the afternoon). I was the only foreign guest (there was a group of high school kids noisily camped in the concrete gymnasium), and I had an 8-bed dorm room to myself for 80 pisos. I cooked dinner in the guard house giving the instrument-starved musician/farmer named Marlon who helped me around the resort a chance to give Josephine a strum. The next day, I hired a guide for 150 pisos and hiked to WWII Japanese caves, old growth Almaciga Pine Forests, and two waterfalls. All very cool. I called the Ferry Service one last time to confirm that ferries were running that day, and got to packing back up. Marlon held a jeep for me for ten minutes while I finished packing and paying for my night's stay, and I headed back down to Silay, and then Bacolod. I caught a fastcraft ferry to Iloilo and didn't text my Couch Surfer friend in Iloilo, Bambi until the boat I had boarded had actually started moving. It had been a harrowing 3-day ordeal trying to get out of Bacolod, and she was expecting me all the while, keeping tabs by text message.

A typical irrigation/drinking water canal 
In the end, no typhoon passed through Bacolod, but it did somehow bring some rain to Iloilo. When I first arrived in Manila, I landed just a day or two after some major flooding had subsided from 15 straight days of heavy rain. Since I've been here, I've been present for three typhoons that have come through the Philippines. I haven't seen a drop of that rain. I've felt a few 30 min showers and that's it. It seems I bring the hot sunshine with me wherever I go in the world, not just in the US.

Masskara Festival, Bacolod City

The Assua!
So, the morning after I came down the mountain and stayed up late with chatting it up with my hosts, I was served chicken soup. Really just vegetable greens with a small amount of chicken to flavor the broth. I accepted the soup knowing I was going to eat whatever was served because these people are very poor and generous to offer whatever they had. The local chicken meat here is essentially wild-organic, and after what I had put my body through, this simple, perfectly salted, wild game and greens soup was exactly what my body was craving. It tasted so damn good. That was the beginning of what I didn't know was going to be a week of food compromise.

Jen's first time seeing Masskara live!
Jen and I took the bus from the barrio next door down to the big city of Bacolod. We arrive just in time for an early lunch of seafood, bittermelon, and carrots. In case it's not clear, every single meal here is served with rice. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon snack, always served with white rice cooked perfectly every time. Already aware I was coming to stay with them, the leader and owner of the house welcomed me in the most warm and down-to-Earth manner that one could ever manage. Everyone else did the same on their own accord, excited for the change and interested in this white foreigner to walk into their world. We ate, settled in and rested. I had trouble sleeping because, like most Filipinos, the people of the house have an addiction for terrible action movies that they watch the way a chain smoker smokes. Four hours later, rested but still somewhat deliriously tired from the last few days, dinner is served. My short conversations revealed my choice of food and my hosts had actually prepared a Vegan dish to accommodate for me. Still a little homesick, the combination of the warm welcome and the successful effort to take care of me were so meaningful I held back a tear or two to avoid getting kicked out in case these guys (and gal) turned out to be the stereotypical military types.

Finally, rested enough to pay a little better attention to conversation and interaction, I was thrilled to learn how different from my expectations these people really were. The safehouse is a pre-WWII home of a well-to-do family that somehow fell into the hands of the family of owner/leader of the group, Buyat. The safehouse doesn't house police. They are active and reserve military that are hired for VIP security, trained to protect a bank one day and wage war the next. I expected a little rowdiness, too much testosterone, stiffness or aggression, and a little more money than they maybe should have. What I discovered was sensitivity, caution, a love for nature, a very meager living (just look at the bathroom), relaxation, a love for history, genuine interest in me, my opinions, and my background, and a not-overbearing or neglectful sense of hospitality. After first impressions hashed out in less than 5 minutes with any new (to me) member of the group, I was just another guy coming in or going out. Random people stayed, came or went, maybe 5% of the number of military present at the Festival. Pretty much the only thing that I had expected that came true was that every single person there openly thought of their rifle as their wife (even those who had human wives). For all of them, this was just a convenient way to be with good company and have a more consistent (though minimal) sense of financial security. That's it. What was true for so many other military or police forces I've come in contact with here, stand-offishness, money, and delusions of grandeur, simply wasn't there with these wonderful people. Missing them already.

Unassuming head of the house, Buyat
I connected well with Jen, of course, whose English was better than most, who was my portal into this newfound home, and who I simply connected with on many levels. I also connected well with the leader/owner, Buyat, a 50-something man with a small potbelly, a huge smile, and a love for music. I did get to pull out Josephine a handful of times and even made a depressingly poor audio recording of my cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Songs". Then there was also Joseph, a fellow backpacker in his 30s who was the most warm, kind-hearted, and Earthly of the bunch. Spent some good nights hanging out with the slightly insecure, marshmallowy, fun-loving friend Rodolfo as well. Most everyone spends the night working at the festival from 7pm to 2am or so, sleeping in and waking for lunch at the latest. In different groups they toured me around town, came with me to watch different performances and shows that were part of the Masskara Festival, and then I would wander the area on my own for the night, starting and ending at the coffee-fueled Army Outpost to see if anyone I knew well was there.

Elementary school kids preparing to perform
It's difficult to describe the Masskara Performances. The final weekend of the Festivities revolves around the street dances during the day and Electric Masskara at night. It helps to preface with the knowledge that Filipinos are the seamstresses and tailors, the construction workers, the artists of the world, with ingenuity running through their blood and a seldom-spoken pride that the quality of their work far surpasses pretty much all of Asia. Combine that with the facts that Filipinos live for drama, fiestas and community, and are very poor. Add the incentive of big cash prizes, judges, corporate sponsorship, and a huge stage, and you get a hell of a Festival. I saw from afar the 7-11 year old children perform first. The intricacy of their costumes, the difficulty and precision of the dance performances, and the sheer drama of the whole thing far surpassed any marching band or dance troop I'd ever seen in North America. Every single Barangay (neighborhood) presents a group of children, high schoolers, and 14+ people to dance in their elaborate costumes.

You'd think it was the first Masskara ever the way that chaos was only finally starting to be controlled somewhat by the very last hour of the last day. The first day I saw people standing packed on the risers 3 deep on each step. The last day, there was even a small section dedicated to foreigners. Not as many people in the trees as I expected, and I was pretty tempted to take a perch up there myself if I weren't with company. The last day of the street dances was...  intense. Jen and I were finally getting to hang out just the two of us, and we had found the perfect spot hidden from view of others by bushes but in clear view of the performance arena. After waiting 15 mins for it to start, the first group was filing into the square when she said, "This will be my first time seeing Masskara in real life, not on TV." Seconds later, a security policeman took everyone down from that spot even though we were allowed to stay by the Masskara officials behind which we were standing. Two hours later and motivated to fulfill her wish to see Masskara live, we had maneuvered ourselves through the suffocating mob near the front gate to the area that we'd heard was for foreigners. I did some smooth talking and picked the right timing to ask the right people enabling us to slip in and sit on the floor next to the Red Cross volunteers in front of the other foreigners. Finally we were able to see some performances in their entirety, and from the front row!

A float
After a few performances (another 2 hours or so), Jen had to go back and get ready for work. Reluctant to give up my sweet view, I stayed and watched, eventually getting invited to replace someone who had been sitting in the risers. Turned out that the Red Cross gets a lot of action at these things. You see, the masks are so heavy (especially the ones from Barangays with enough money to be over-ornamented and lavish), they have to be tied on tight, making it near impossible for the dancers to breathe. The song was the same for every single group, and it's really long, maybe 10 minutes or more. Red Cross was constantly making rushes to rescue someone who had passed out or who was having a serious panic attack because they couldn't breathe. The chaos after each performance was finished was terrifying and exciting at the same time. After the performance of the seriously over-dramatic Barangay that took more than 20 minutes to get their props and sets arranged, almost every dancer was on the floor gasping for air. There weren't enough scissors to go around. When I realized it, I jumped up wielding a small pocket knife that I never got to use because each dancer was so swarmed by people desperately trying to untie the masks. There was a First Aid Station right behind the stage, and many a dancer were hauled off on a stretcher or carried by people. No one but the dancers seemed phased though, like it was a regular expectation that you're not dancing hard enough unless you dance to within  your last breath. Kinda twisted, I felt.

Drums behind a float
Electric Masskara was a float competition held at night with no traffic or crowd control on the main boulevard of the city. Hard to capture them on camera, but essentially, there's a lot of neon, and the drum troops ride the bed of a truck behind each float and try to play louder than the troops in front and in back of them. Some of the floats were extremely intricate and beautiful, one of them portraying a local monster legend of a tall hairy creature with a huge cigar in its mouth and red eyes. The music on this main drag as well as several of the minor Festival Strips and the two central locations, the plaza and the Lagoon Park, were bombarded with loud pop music shot through groups of 20-30 concert speakers aimed straight at the souls of innocent passersby. The song of choice was the record-shattering Gangnam Style. If you haven't heard the song in the hearts of Asia and most of the rest of the world right now, check it out here: Passersby, by the way, come from all over Negros and Panay, a short trip across the water from Bacolod. Without mentioning the few foreigners scattered here and there, the streets were still packed wall-to-wall with people. Each day leading up to the last I thought there couldn't possibly be more people the next day. It was like trying to scramble through the jungle, but hotter and more stuffy. It was easier to hang out near the Army Outpost and relax on the last day.

Three rows per... row?
Masskara was amazing, impressive, and intoxicating. I was there to see the city slip slowly back into gray dullness on the day after the end, and I was surprised at how the city had transformed for the Festival. I had been there for 5 days, and was ready to move on. Not after I picked up something special though. Shortly after I had arrived in Bacolod, Joseph brought me to this place where they make custom outdoors gear, mostly packs. I was getting really sick of the weight and size of my over-garnished pack, and realizing that I couldn't find a shop like this one anywhere else in Asia if I tried. Expert tailors too remember? So I decided to make a switch to a much lighter set-up. !!!Gear geek alert!!!: I designed a pack that came out to weigh about 1 pound (the other one was 5.5lbs), frameless, the only pads being the shoulder straps, with a detachable top pouch with a strap and buckle for day trips, loops on the sides and bottom rather than compression straps, a handle between the daisy chains on the front, only one main compartment, and holding up to ~45-50L with a 5L extension of the main compartment. She's a deep blue-teal ripstop nylon and black nylon weave, and on the day after I first picked her up, her name became Zeal. Mailed the extra stuff to Roselynne in Cebu. Now instead of a tent I'm doing the pad, tarp, and hammock set up, I keep the boots tied to the bottom, and I carry Josephine myself, which is much easier than strapping her to the pack. !!!Gear Geed alert rescinded!!! Thank you Joseph, she's awesome! Maybe someone who fits you will get to use you one day, Ozwald (the old bulky pack)! I figure that after Zeal gets worn to bits, the rest of my packs will all be sewn by me. Hopefully I'll have enough practice and a seam-sewing machine before that happens.

Pranksters Rodolfo and Joseph trying to act serious...
By the end of my 6 days at the safehouse in downtown Bacolod, the meals had slowly transitioned from Vegan to plain carnivorous. I did cook twice in between, but I'd had mostly rice and fruit in the last two days of my stay. I did end up trying a bunch of different Filipino meat dishes. I showed my appreciation by not being too picky about the food, but I couldn't touch the local green stalk-and-spam dish. Yuck. At the moment I am resolved to make my diet known when I arrive at the hometown of my grandfather for Christmas, but eat at least some of whatever is put in front of me. I figure that my food choice is half personal health, half activism, both of which require extended diligence to make any sort of difference. A total of maybe four weeks of meat-based meals scattered here and there in the Philippines for the more pressing sake of hospitality and social expectation is hardly going to make a difference in the bigger scheme of things. At least that's how I feel at the moment.

I left the safehouse sad to leave another home but excited for the less stressful, less burdensome, and less tiresome change of equipment, and headed to the ferry where I had full expectations of arriving in Iloilo, Panay that evening. Didn't turn out that way...