PHILIPPINES' MULTIPLE ATTRACTIONS

A chaotic Southeast Asian haven

by Russell Working

CEBU, Philippines — Denis is a purple-nosed ex-con with yellow teeth, asterisk eyes receded deep in their sockets and tattoos covering his arms and knuckles.

A Briton who spends three months a year in the Philippines, he drives a Jeep with no doors and can recommend the finest flophouses in Manila. When he said booking the ferry from Cebu City to Manila was a terrible mistake, I believed him.

“Hang onto your bags from the time you get onboard until you’re out of the harbor,” he said. “These Filipino thieves, they’ll steal your bag, toss it overboard and then dive in after it. Did you prepay for your meals? Oh, God, I did that, and the food in the cafeteria is inedible, isn’t it? I ended up going up to the first class restaurant and eating there.”

So after all the dire warnings, the trip on a WG&A Superferry felt like a small victory. Notwithstanding Denis’ dismal passage in a tourist-class room filled with scores of bunk beds, three of us traveled in a “stateroom” (more like a small motel room) equipped with a private bath and a television for a total of $120 — less than our airfare to Manila would have been. The price included three good meals in the first class dining room, and there was a live band at night and a small pool to splash in by day. Best of all, we got a 24-hour tropical cruise instead of the Mobs Fleeing the Fall of Saigon scene you will find at Philippine airports’ domestic terminals around holiday season.

Somehow it seemed appropriate. My girlfriend Nonna and I were visiting the Philippines primarily as journalists, and we brought along her son for the ride. As a reporter, you find yourself (minus the kid) seeking out some of the darkest corners of a given country — in this case, Muslim extremists, squatters living in shantytowns and illegal gunmakers who supply Japanese gangsters. Yet the Philippines kept happily surprising us, with its coral reefs, smoky-tasting miniature bananas, ubiquitous English-speakers and bargain beachside hotels that post signs reading, “Watch for falling coconuts.”

Some cautions are in order. Mindanao, the southernmost island in this multilingual archipelago, is the home of a rebel separatist movement that has been known to kidnap foreigners; stay away. While we were in the country, five simultaneous bombings hit Manila, killing 22 and wounding about 100. Visitors are urged to consult the State Department’s travel advisories. And like any developing country, the Philippines has its share of squalor. Those who have trouble confronting the moral questions raised by beggar children may wish to pursue a tidier tropical adventure in Maui or Key West.

But for those who love the color, chaos and grittiness of traveling beyond the developed world’s monotony will find themselves enchanted by the Philippines.

Stations of the Cross line a rural path outside Danao, Philippines

It’s a fascinating jumble. Predominantly Roman Catholic, its people are known as the Latins of Asia. Yet there is a sizable Muslim minority in the south and the capital city, Manila. Filipinos outlasted centuries of Spanish and American colonizers — “350 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood,” as the guidebooks put it. English is widely understood; even the Philippine Senate conducts its business in English rather than choose among the nation’s numerous dialects.

The streets are crowded with “Jeepneys” — a bus-like vehicle built like a dented olive oil can on wheels and covered with slogans such as “Hail Mary” and “D’ Rough Rider Express.” Ferryboats and resorts have chapels with statues of the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary. On holidays, brass bands and drummers lead processions of pilgrims carrying candles and floats of the Holy Family.

Though work kept us in Manila for seven days, we spent the better part of our three weeks on the island of Cebu in the Estaca Bay Gardens Conference Resort, near the small town of Compostela, 23 km north of Cebu City, where Magellan was killed in 1521 (the city boasts monuments both to Magellan and to Lapu-Lapu, the chieftain who killed him). The hotel was beautiful. For $20 a night, we got a pleasant room in a thatch-roofed wing along a palm-lined beach, with a breakfast of scrambled eggs and grilled fish. The staff welcomed us by hacking open a water coconut and pouring drinks. There was a large swimming pool alongside the sea. The room was air conditioned, but since we live in Russia, we opened the windows and sat there happily sweating like British colonels in colonial India.

I found the hotel on the Internet, and the Philippines are computer literate enough that a short time on the Web will turn up scores of others. Southern Cebu is said to have beautiful coral reefs, and people kept telling us to try out Santa Fe and Medellin just north of the island. It is possible to find a hut on the beach for as little as $7 a night. Those seeking a grander style can stay in places such as Shangri-La, a five-star Oahu-style resort on Macatan Island, just off of Cebu, where we dined one evening in a beautiful Italian restaurant with a Tuscan chef and walls open to the sea breezes. The point is, there are options.

A girl washes her legs at a pump dedicated to former President Aquino

We visited the shrine to Magellan in Cebu, and the small Spanish fortress wowed Nonna’s kid. We caught a ride up to the garish 1970s-era Taoist temple in the Beverly Hills neighborhood overlooking the city, which is worth the trip if only for the chance to see how wealthy Filipinos live (i.e., like middle class Americans).

I’m a weak-tummied Western visitor, but I didn’t die sampling grilled fish dipped in soy sauce, coconut vinegar and chili peppers at the seaside shacks in Danao. We even bought roast chickens from street vendors in the nearby village of Lilo-an. Hot off the spit, the chickens looked safe, though we had to stop the vendor from chopping them up on a cutting board that seemed like a breeding ground for salmonella.

That said, it is best to take normal precautions. Before arriving, I considered booking in a more urban location, namely the Centerpoint Hotel in Cebu City. While in town, I had a taste of everything we had missed when we were invited to a party that the mayor threw for local journalists. The feast at the hotel’s 11th-floor poolside restaurant included blackened fish, Chinese egg rolls, fried chicken and, naturally, a roast pig. But Mayor Alvin Garcia — fittingly, perhaps — expressed his feelings for the media by hosting his party at a hotel where rats scurried through the bushes and one scuttled across the dance floor of the disco.

Accommodation for tourists in a dive resort on Nalusuan Island

Toward the end of our time in Cebu, we visited Nalusuan Island Resort and Marine Sanctuary, run by the same family that owned our Estaca hotel. The tiny island was surrounded by gorgeous coral reefs and strange blue starfish, and boatloads of Japanese and Korean day visitors showed up to snorkel there. The rooms sat on pilings over the water, and the restaurant was little more than an expensive snack bar. The electricity shuts off during daylight hours — quaint, if you are there to snorkel and drink rum; bothersome, if you live in Russia and are well acquainted with 16-hour-a-day blackouts. Nevertheless, the experience was beautiful, balmy and happy. Back at home, in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, we miss it.

The Philippines was a haven from its own troubles.