Rainbows in the Philippines

I can’t say that my 17 days in the Philippines were in any way what I expected. Before coming, my friends who had been there before asked me why on Earth I would want to stay there by myself for 17 days. People mentioned the discomfort of being surrounded by such poverty, and described it as similar to India. Others mentioned the utter chaos and congestion of major cities like Manila. I half expected to surrounded and taken down by a sea of hungry people the moment I stepped onto the city streets. But on the other hand, I remembered pictures of beautiful beaches and snorkeling, and pictures of the colorful and vibrant streets.

The reality is really neither. Aside from my first day in Cebu, when I mistakenly wandered into the slums, I received a very warm welcome in the Philippines. Though the poverty and the disparity in income was evident, no one seemed resentful. The differences in consumption are vast. I will always recall the woman on the ferry who, sharing a packet of ramen noodles and a scoop of rice with her family for dinner, happily offered me to join them. I guiltily declined, for I had just enjoyed a feast of an entire chicken, rice, and a big box of oreos with my aunt on the upper deck.

Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan hit while I was in the south of the Philippines. Luckily, it did not hit the area where I was staying. The power was out for a few days, and it was rainy, but we were all happy; we could still swim in the ocean, though it was fierce. At night, we sat together in candlelit huts by the ocean. We were a bit sad when the power came back on, because it was kind of a romantic time to get away from all of the noise and electronics. We all thought that the typhoon had magically passed through without any destruction.

I was sickened to see what had really happened, and all of the devastation just to the North of us. All of us at the hostel gathered supplies to send to the typhoon victims, pretty much buying out the entire town of its stock of noodles, canned goods, candles, and water. Then the owner of the hostel took them to Palawan on a rescue plane, but they were intercepted and looted when they got to the island. That was the sickest part of all, to see the way some humans could take advantage of kindness and use it to gain power over others who are suffering. At the time, they weren’t transporting under-qualified volunteers into the area; the cost was too much and they were more focused on getting people off the island. It took me a few days to process all of the destruction and evil nearby, but I had to eventually recall the good things in life and move on before being driven into a bad place.

My aunt came to meet me in the Philippines, and we continued onwards to Dumaguete, a city that was touted to be a beach town. I thought I would be lounging on the beach for the next few days, but I arrived to discover that the entire beach was trashed out with litter and nasty looking seaweed. There was so much pollution that my eyes stung as soon as I stepped outside. There went that dream.

But not far from the city was Apo Island, a snorkeling and diving heaven with the clearest waters I’ve ever seen. You could see down 30 feet. Giant sea turtles were all around the island, and it was amazing to watch them glide up from the depths of the ocean. The area is so unspoiled that the Earth is still releasing methane bubbles, and at one spot, all I could see were tiny bubbles streaming up from among the corals. It looked as if everything was glittering.

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There was one other creature who was purported to live around this island– the sea snake. It’s supposed to be one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, but it’s mouth is so small that it’s hard (but not impossible) for it to bite humans. When I first heard about it, I thought it was insane that the snorkel guides hadn’t even warned about these. Guess there’s no liability here at all. But after calming down, I realized I wanted the chance to see one (from a distance). By the end of the day, I was actively and desperately looking for sea snakes. Unfortunately, no such luck.

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Had an experience with visiting a third world doctor. She basically talked with me for less than 30 seconds and then prescribed several broad spectrum antimicrobials that would effectively wipe out everything in my body. Nooooo thanks, honey bear.

Another third world experience I will never forget is the overnight boat from Siquijor to Cebu. This was a massive shipping vessel that was carrying several trucks, boats, and large cargo bins to the city. On the upper floors, there were tiny beds to serve the mass of people who opted to take this dirt cheap overnight ride. Hundreds of people were crammed into the sleeping spaces of the boat, which had endless rows of bunk beds all out in the open, with babies crying and people blaring mini radios, and all sharing a single toilet that didn’t flush. The boat operated on a continuous schedule with about 20 minute turnaround time between ports, so you can only imagine the condition of cleanliness on those beds. Big signs saying “OBSERVE HYGIENE” were posted all around the boat. Despite the chaos and grime of the boat, it was such an interesting experience that I don’t regret. And it was beautiful to watch the moon on the water over the unadulterated wilderness we passed through, and to be lulled to sleep by the rocking of the boat.

After almost two weeks in the Philippines, my aunt and I were getting desperate for vegetables. Everything in the Philippines is rice, noodles, meat, and bread. It’s possible to look all day without finding a dish with a healthy vegetable content. Don’t get me wrong– it’s all flavored well, with lots or garlic and ginger. But it’s all meat and bread. I stopped at a local market one day and saw some carrots. I asked how much it would be for a tiny, 3 inch carrot, and I was quoted at one dollar. Well, no wonder no one eats vegetables. Even I, a veggie freak, would not pay for that. Okay, actually I did because I needed some freaking produce.

From a very young age, Filipinos are taught how to survive and how to produce. One of the cooks at the hostel I stayed at mentioned that Filipino children learn to cook when they’re very young, so that if they lose their parents they won’t starve. In the Philippines, everyone is a mini entrepreneur. If you ride a motorcycle around one of the islands, you can stop along the roads at people’s houses and they often have a little something for sale inside. Often it’s “ice candy”, a frozen treat made with mangoes, sugar, and milk. I ate more than my share of these, taking my chances on getting a horrible waterborne disease.

Filipinos are extremely hard workers. They do a great job and are thankful for the chance to earn a little money. The global community is beginning to take notice of this; a lot of freelance jobs online are beginning to say “Filipino only”, alluding to the fact that Filipinos will produce the highest quality work at the lowest rates of pay. Every one is extremely polite, and the word they say more than any other is “ma’am”. And their level of English is incredible, owing to good English education and the fact that almost all signs in the country are in English. I found them to be incredibly smart, knowledgeable about the world, and quick thinking. Despite all of their talents, their daily income is around $5 for a full day’s work.

The thing that struck me the most about the Filipinos was their good nature. Almost no one seemed to resent their poverty or any of the problems they dealt with on a daily basis, including frequent natural disasters, parasitic waters, disease, crime, corruption, pollution, congestion… the list goes on. They are the quickest people to smile and say hello out of any that I’ve met around the world. They never stop being kind, even when we as tourists inadvertently act like asshats, forgetting all of our privileges. I saw a lot of rain the the Philippines, but I’ve never seen as many rainbows before in my life.

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Goodbye Taiwan!

I am writing to you from my beach hut in the Philippines!

Now that I am out of the country, I feel that I can speak more candidly about what happened with my school. I mentioned before that they refused to give me my visa even after they promised it. That, coupled with many other rights violations and poor treatment, made me decide to hand in my notice on the next pay day. But I ended up getting fired before then, on the spot, one day at lunchtime. Their reason was that parents complained that I let kids fight in my class and didn’t pay enough attention to them.

Were either of these things true? Nope. Were they true of the other teacher who taught the same grade as me? Oh, you mean the one who had 2 students sent to the hospital on 2 different occasions after fighting? The one who’s lesson plan each day was to show a movie or hand out a worksheet while she texted or worked on her side projects? Yes, they were. Unfortunately, this teacher also is very good friends with the principal and the head of English department; they regular go out for dinner and drinks together with their spouses.

The real reason I was fired was because I was vocal about some of the shady things that were going on there. An example was when I wrote a concerned email because that same teacher repeatedly showed up to work drunk and became belligerent. The principle didn’t act on it, but actually showed it to her, so that she could be even more evil to me than before. She was made head teacher the next day.

That’s only a small part of what was going on here, but it serves to illustrate the crap that I was putting up with on a daily basis here at this school. I believe that that rotten teacher and that rotten school deserve one another.

Anyhow, I am glad to have moved on. I have some great things ahead of me. I have been working for a long time now as a writer, and I’ve got enough clients now to start doing it full time… meaning that I can go anywhere! My life is an open book, ready to be written. I have already booked my itinerary up until the end of January; you can expect updates from the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia!

My time in Taiwan was challenging. It was a lot of work, both in terms of actual work, and in terms of finding meaning and spiritual sustenance during my time there. It paid a lot, but it wasn’t worth it! All I can say is that I have enough savings now to act as a buffer, allowing me to travel at leisure and make the money up whenever I have a free moment. I could not be more stoked about what lies ahead.

Oyster Omelet

The best night market in Taiwan is said to be the Miaokou night market in nearby Keelung city. Being the food lover that I am, I had to make it there at least once during my stay in Taiwan.

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I have to say, these were some of the strangest foods I’ve ever tried!

 

First of all, I had to try an oyster omelet. This is a favorite Taiwan snack. Honestly, I can’t see it. The concept of oysters and green vegetables in an omelet is great. But it’s the goo that gets me. The base of the omelet is not egg, but rather a goop made out of potato starch. This layer is put in before an egg is cracked on top of the omelet. The texture is really tough to describe, but it’s kind of like a chewy, flavorless jello. Not something you want to find in an omelet.

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The second delight of the evening was squid balls. These were made from a cream (kind of like creamed corn) with squid in it, fried, topped with a stinky fermented sauce and mayo. The kicker were the “fish flakes”, which are a very thinly sliced fish product. The heat of the squid balls below makes them dance around as if they are alive. I had a hard time believing they weren’t somehow alive, since even when I held one up in the air to examine it, it continued to dance.

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After those two, I was hesitant to try more! I went ahead and ate some ramen noodles when I got home.

After dark

There’s a restaurant on the corner of my street that is really scary. No matter what hour, even at 1 am, there are always a million people in there, and at least 5 workers rushing around trying to take everyone’s orders. I had been meaning to go in, but I was too intimidated. It’s so busy and I didn’t know what to order. And who are all those people, are they ghosts? The place is shrouded in such mystery, and it doesn’t help that they have mist coming out of nozzles around the edges of the restaurant, so there is a curtain of mist instead of doors. It’s eerie to see at night.

I finally got the guts to go in. I just stood there for a while and watched what everyone else was ordering. When I saw something I liked, I went up to order. It was a soup with pieces of fried donut, shrimp, carrots, chives, and hot soy milk as the broth. A food as mysterious as the restaurant itself. At the wee hours of the morning, when I was still writing, and my brain was barely working anymore, I began to come in and drink of the magical broth from the corner restaurant.

Youbike

A really cool initiative here is the youbike system. This is part of Taiwan’s push for an eco friendly city. You can rent bikes here using your easy card– meaning that you just have to swipe and go. The first half hour is free! I have been riding them everywhere.

 

The system seems to have gained enormous popularity. The bikes are usually all gone from the stations and there is a line of people waiting. Don’t take the youbike if you need to be somewhere in a short amount of time. Sometimes there are douches who will clock in at the station and take the bike right back out, so that they can get several successive free “first 30 minutes”, even when people are waiting. That’s one thing to fix, but the rest is golden! I hope they put in more bike stations soon and continue to build on their success!

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At the Top

Just got back from a day in Pingxi, and boy, was that a trip! This town is famous for its intense latern festival celebrations. Heck, they’re so stoked about the lantern festival that they can’t even wait until February. Here goes a lantern now:

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The place that I came to see was a lone pillar in the middle of dense jungle that lies right outside of the town. But would I make it to the top?

 

Not if the wilderness had anything to say about it. As soon as I got to the path that would turn off onto the right trail, a pack of insane wild dogs started chasing me down a dirt road in the opposite direction. I ran for my life. They ended up chasing me up this random trail before losing interest and turning back. But I couldn’t go back in the correct direction, because they were still hanging out over by the correct path. So I made the decision, for whatever reason, to take this side trail and hope that it would end up in the same spot.

 

I bushwacked my way up that entire mountain on what I now believe was not meant to be a trail. At some points it seemed intentional, at another point I had to do a pull-up to get to the next step because the ones in between had crumbled away. An hour in, I was just praying to find some kind of civilized trail area and not be lost until after sundown.

 

Finally, I managed to find a trail. Things were looking up for me. I could see the ladder that you use to climb to the top of the peak! Who should appear, but the same pack of wild dogs that started chasing me again, and again in the opposite direction from where I was supposed to go. They chased me up into a temple carved into a mountain. I began to panic, and I threw some rocks down in their direction to scare them away. They ran off. By the time I got to the actual ladder and was ready to climb to the top, my muscles were spazzing everywhere and it was hard for me to hold on to the rope along the climb. Was not comforting, given that if I let go of the rope and fell off of the tiny footholds, I was going to take a joyous flight through 100 feet of jungle. That thought only made my terrified muscles spaz out even more.

 

When I finally made it to the top, I could kind of say that it was all worth it. It was a beautiful view and a rare moment of solitude on this congested island.

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When it came time to leave, I booked it all the way back down the hill to town. I saw the nice, paved trail that I could have taken up the mountain, had those dogs not chased me. And I went and bought a whole box of oreos for my troubles and ate the whole thing, without remorse.

Changes

The other day, I was feeling restless in my room, so I decided to go to the Maokong Gondola which is supposed to have awesome views of the city at night. After checking the closing time and trekking all the way down to the last stop of the MRT, I arrived to find that the website hours were incorrect. I had a bit of a breakdown at that point– I was feeling overwhelmed by the many things that have not been working out lately.

 

I wandered over to a park fountain, so that I could at least spend a half hour outside before going all the way back home. Out of nowhere, Beethoven’s 3rd began to play and a massive water and light show erupted from the pond in front of me. It felt like the universe was trying to cheer me up and remind me that even though some things will go wrong, there are always new surprises awaiting you everywhere. You just have to go along with the ride.

 

I guess this a good of a time as any to announce that my school has refused to supply me with a permanent residence permit or work permit. They wanted me to work illegally and go back and forth across the border every few months to keep my tourist visa active. This was after I signed a contract with them where they promised to give me all of my papers. I’ve elected not to live a life of daily deportation risk, so I need to be out of the country before November 10. Oh well. I’m sure it was clear to those who have been following the blog that I was not thrilled with this school, anyway.

 

I am going to figure out my next moves shortly. I’ve got some pretty good ideas, and I think this blog is going to get even more exciting pretty soon!

 

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North coast

I just got back from a full day of sightseeing. My first stop was Jiufen, which is a really cool place because it displays some of the old architecture of Taiwan. The town is also well-known for being the place that inspired the town in the movie “Spirited Away”. While I don’t quite remember the movie town, I do know that this town is really quaint and attractive. (For movie comparisons, you can check HERE: http://en.rocketnews24.com/2012/12/18/%E3%80%90photos%E3%80%91-taiwans-jiufen-the-real-world-inspiration-for-studio-ghiblis-spirited-away/).

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Next, I went to Bitou Cape, a beautiful point on the Northern coast. The landscape reminded me of Cape Town, with its dark, cloudy mountains cutting through views of the ultrablue ocean. The path along the top of the mountains also looks somewhat like a small Great Wall of China, in my opinion. A really cool place:

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One funny thing about this place was that there is an elementary school on the way up to the summit, and on weekends, it opens its doors to tourists who need to use the bathroom or just want to hang out for a while. There were even some street vendors in there. I thought it was a random and funny, but charitable act on the part of the school!

 

Libel laws

Here is some information about censorship and penalties for “slander” and libel in Taiwan. These articles sum it up better than I can, and there’s some good information here.

 

People who posted a “rumor” on facebook that there was an H7N9 breakout and suggested people wear surgical masks to stay healthy, now facing up to a $17,000 fine:

http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20130420000110&cid=1103

 

A food blogger who reviewed a restaurant and said its noodles were “too salty” is now being fined $7,000 for libel:

http://boingboing.net/2011/06/23/taiwan-blogger-fined.html

 

Lastly, if a blogger posts a criticism of China online, and the post receives over 5000 views or 500 retweets, the person could go to jail for 3 years:

http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/809723.shtml#.Uk2SK1Mzd3U

 

These are scary. I hope this blog never gets famous, so that I don’t get more than 5000 views on any of my posts. I wouldn’t like to be thrown in a Chinese prison for slander… but as they say, if you love me, follow my blog. If you hate me, follow my blog, too… and make sure you retweet it 500 times.

Aboriginal Culture in Wulai

Definitely the coolest place I’ve been so far in Taiwan is Wulai. It’s a little town in the mountains that boasts aboriginal culture, hot springs, and a massive jungle waterfall.

When you first pull up to Wulai on the bus, it’s like you’ve entered a different world. The water is an unreal color, with pieces of different shades of blue.

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 A tangled mess of electrical wires hangs over the lake and supply a makeshift power source to the town.

 

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 As you walk along the main street, you come across old-style buildings and food stalls sell snacks that have been eaten for a hundred years.

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Aboriginal food is really far out. Some of the main ingredients are millet, spicebush, and ox. I tried a chicken, green papaya, and spicebush soup, which was ok but bland. Then I had some millet wine. It was white and milky, so I assumed it the “wine” part was just a name. But it sure packed a little punch!

They also offered fried bees on the menu. I didn’t try them, because they were $15 and I’m not that adventurous either.

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The best part of the town was the waterfall. I walked along a winding cliff on a road whose edge dropped off onto a gorge. On the other side, an intimidating wall of jungle towered a hundred feet into the sky.  In the end, I was rewarded with this waterfall:

 

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What a great little town!