Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Philippines

Mt Mayon. Known as the world's perfect volcano

“I WILL experience your island”

We planned on 16 days for the Philippines and I was rather sure I would be bored and ready to go home after 10. I had never heard anything good about this island chain, and in fact, I knew 2 people who changed their flights and went home early. When we had only 1 day left I wished we could exchange it for another month. It was that good, and we traveled only Luzon, which is 1 of their 7,000+ islands.


We landed exhausted from a very early flight and a long day of travel. We checked into our squat in Manila for only 1 short night. It was tragically early the next morning, when we again caught a sunrise plane, this time to Legaspi, where we subsidized the other passengers in the minivan by paying for the 5 empty seats so as to get the show on the road NOW. Yep – we were in “weeker mode”. We had only 1 day to see the whale sharks of Donsol, and we did. The video’s a little shaky because I had to swim fast to keep up with the big boy but it’s worth a look:

Here’s how it works – The boat has a spotter who stands on the top pole and scans for the shadows of the whale sharks. They feed in the shallows on the masses of plankton that collect here every spring. When he spots one, he instructs the captain where to motor the boat. Upon hearing the shouts, our snorkel-man decides which side of the boat we should sit on in prep for our plunge.

Once the boat has been placed in the path of the oncoming shark, the snorkel-man yells; “Jump!” We splash down and try not to get clobbered by the outrigger. We swim to the snorkel-man and he tells us when to stick our faces in the murky water – “NOW”, and there, just there, about 5 feet right in front of us is the looming open mouth of the whale shark coming right at us. It’s a heart racer. There’s only time to spit 1 expletive into your snorkel before the shark is half his body length past you, and the time to swim hard is realized. Once it’s past, we climb back in the boat and do it again. It was damn expensive but worth it. We got 4 great viewings and yes, I grabbed the shark. He psychically willed me to. Not my fault. I’m putting this experience down as a shark attack, and we, the humans, did the attacking.

The Cordillera – A.K.A  The Mountain Province

Every name starts with a “B” so it’s difficult to keep the cities straight: Bontoc, Banaue, Batad, Banga-an, Baguio, Bangao, Buscalan, Barlig, and Besao. Bontoc looks like Jerome AZ with rice paddies and banana trees. It has that antique mining town feel with vistas of sweeping bald hills. Bald, except for these gorgeous terraced rice paddies that are 2,000 years old.

The 1st waterfall. Bomod-ok falls
We moved on to Segada; the only town that didn’t start with the letter “B”. It’s a little more western/hippy with good restaurants. The temperature was delightful, the people friendly as can be, the bus drivers let you sit on the top of their vehicles, and the terrorist group didn’t bother us at all.

Looks like Ireland, but the paddies are rice (Get it?)

The New People’s Army (declared a terrorist organization by the EU and the USA), which is difficult to get anyone to talk about, is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. I asked many people about the NPA and they all admitted its existence, but swore they didn’t personally know any members or their mission statement.


My assessment is that some of the people I asked were indeed NPA members themselves, and their agenda is to keep the government from meddling in their land affairs and to stop the destruction of their marijuana crops. They make a point to not let their revolution disrupt the tourist dollars. Smart little commies.

Beautiful weavings that take 3 weeks to make can be bought for $12 a meter

In Banaue we paid a jeepney 300 pesos ($7) to drive us to the mountain pass they call “the saddle” where we would begin our trek to the village of Batad. This place is so remote you have to hike to get there. No roads, only a steep trail, and everything you consume down there, except the rice, is carried in on foot. It was a highlight of the trip, and with only 48 hours we didn’t have enough time to really enjoy all this area had to offer. We decided it was worth going back for, and we never decide to go back.

A Pageantry of Blood

The man in the center is actually hammered into the cross. They took him down and nailed up 12 more after him
 We left the serenity of the mountain region to head south, to the sweltering heat and morass of swarming humanity that is the hell hole of San Fernando. This was Good Friday in the only country of Catholics in all of Asia. In this one town, they reenact the demise of their Lord in the streets every year. Torture becomes a tourist attraction. I witnessed it all for the low price of a blood stained shirt and a stolen camera.

This man beat himself until he passed out. He is in the medical tent
 We actually stayed in Angeles, which is the city that served Clark Air Force Base (It was a US base from 1903 - 1991. The Japanese captured it in early ’42, We took it back 3 years later, after it witnessed the Bataan death march. It served as the major staging area for the Vietnam War. The Philippinos wouldn’t renew our lease so we lowered the Stars and Stripes and left in 1991.) As you can imagine – any city that caters to the military has its share of vices. The only rooms we could find rented by the hour. Yes – we slept in a whore house, complete with strategically placed mirrors, a sex chair, and the worst cockroach and mosquito infestation I have ever seen. It was utterly revolting, but it helped prepare us for what we were to witness the next day.

The Passion

These men are soaked with their own blood from slicing themselves with razors and then whipping their own backs
The whole reason we were there was to witness what I can only call the insanity of religion. It was vulgarity on a level that made last night’s room seem wholesome. Enjoy these pix if you can. The best ones were stolen along with my camera by some slippery fingered old women who stood at a uniform height of 4’ 8”.


It was midnight in Vigan before I washed the blood off my legs from the mayhem that occurred 200 miles south. We felt as if we had escaped the whores and the horrors of Angeles and San Fernando.

These long night bus rides are a literal pain in the neck, but Vigan was a visually pleasing town of well preserved architecture from the Spanish colonial period. However – there was no reason to budget 4 days up there. An afternoon, in lowlight is all it deserves.

These "windows" are actually capiz shells. They let enough light in and are cheaper than glass
If you dig a little deeper you’ll find that the architectural style, though reported to be Spanish, is really more Mexican. It might be splitting hairs, but it’s interesting to note that the Galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco (1565 – 1815. That’s 250 years!) continued for so long that the Spaniards actually imported a hybrid of their culture after filtering it through their Mexican colonial landholdings.

What’s it like?

The Philippines: parts of it feel like America. After all, we had a strong presence here for almost 90 years. The roads feel like home; they drive on the right side, the signage is identical, the big 6 lanes of the highways remind me of our own, but the public transportation looks like it came from Panama. Interesting side note: The colorful buses used in Panama are actually old US school buses, and the buses used in the Philippines, which are called jeepneys, are obviously modeled after the US Jeeps . The world loves our vehicles; they just won’t buy them anymore.

The 2nd waterfall in Batad
Their level of English is higher than other countries in Asia, the malls look just like ours, and their approach to the service industry reminds me of home. 2 people can actually be served food at the same time – imagine that! Added bonus: the wall outlets are USA all the way.

A Really Big Knife, Customs, and a Missed Flight

My $134 knife
I bought a huge knife in Banaue. They call it a “hanggap” in their local language. We packed it in Megan’s bag because we only paid for a checked bag on her ticket. When we landed in Singapore we had very little time to make our connection. Megan made the decision; “You run to the other terminal and try to make them wait for me. I’ll wait here for the bag.” She missed the flight. We met a few hours later at the Bali airport. Turns out the customs officers saw the huge knife on the x-ray and she was questioned about it. That knife originally cost me $13. After the missed flight: $134.

A Final Note

Cheap and good
Go to the Philippines. We rank it very high amongst the Asian countries in terms of a vacation. The prices are affordable and the Americans bestowed upon them an elevated level of English and infrastructure that reduce the travel hassles. Just remember to bring your own inflatable/portable toilet seat because they’re hard to find.

Your man on point,

Capt Bobby

Sunday, April 10, 2011

American Pride – The Hamburger

We contribute
We built the Panama Canal, we cured polio, we not only saved the world from the Germans but also from the Japanese (at the same time), and we put a man on the moon. Then we invented the personal computer, the internet, and Facebook (just so you’d have somewhere to complain about us), but I think the one creation that will have the most impact in the next century is our invention of a thing called “the shopping mall”. I’m not proud of that.

As for artistic offerings; we invented Jazz & Rock n Roll and Abstract Expressionism. However, in terms of culinary contributions I’m willing to admit that we have contributed little, except for the almighty hamburger. This simple concoction that has swept the globe might be one of our few original offerings but deserves the adoration it receives. We built it right the first time back in the 1800’s (yes – what was originally called a “Hamburger” hailed from Germany, but it was nothing close to what we call a “Hamburger” today) and though it has been co-opted by everyone, I don’t agree that it has been improved. I’ll even admit that avocado, and mushroom sauce are insults as well, so even my beloved Californians share in the guilt.

The following, are crimes against the burger that I have witnessed in other countries:
Korea – Broccoli (unbelievable – you should lose all foreign aid for that one), Australia – Pineapple, New Zealand – Beetroot and an egg. If Bush had found out we would be fighting 3 more wars.

Sometimes, when I get homesick, I grab my dill pickles and good old American mustard (no wine or horseradish), walk up to the restaurant and instruct the locals on how to build the perfect burger. Almost as good as being at home. . . And it reminds me of some fantastic burgers I ate at Musket Cove with my dear friends on Creola - Bill & Linda

This isn’t my usual dispatch. I mainly wrote it to cheer up a friend who is quite sick. Bill – I’m holding warm thoughts for you. Please get better.

Captain Lucky

Post Script: Bill McKeever lost his valiant fight against cancer. He was one of the good guys. I miss you Bill.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


One Gripe Only
There are those languages which are crafted from the tongues of the gods. In my opinion, that would include Italian, Swedish and 3 of the 1,134 different versions of English. Thai can’t even stand in the same room with the runner up. In fact, it should be outlawed above a whisper. That’s my only negative. I want to be very clear about this – that is my only complaint; everything else about Thailand was over the top wonderful.

This lady tortured me and I loved it

The alphabet looks like Sanskrit, Hebrew and the Zodiac Killer’s cipher thrown into a blender, and because it’s tonal you’ll never be able to pronounce it correctly. Use my time tested technique; repeat the same thing in English in ever increasing decibels. 1 of 2 things will happen; you’ll be understood, or given a free drink to leave the bar of your own accord. Either way, you’re a winner.

The Weekers
Mostly, I’m a dirty sailor, but every now and then I trade in my Mexican standoff with the sea for a backpack. Then, I become what I like to refer to as a “weeker”. Always spelled with a lower case “w” because I have no respect for the breed, though it is a sweet respite from the vulnerability I feel on the big salty. What’s a “weeker”? YOU are probably a “weeker”. You have 2 weeks, you fly somewhere, and you think you slipped right into the culture and learned something as an insider. As in “Oh yea, we did Cambodia. It was awesome!”

Megan and I did Thailand. It was awesome!

Street vendors. What? You don't want to put someone else's used dentures in your mouth?
The backpacker uniform hasn’t changed in 20 + years. It’s essentially hippy chic with silly facial hair. You get extra credit now days for having dreadlocks, but they’re usually teased into existence instead of earned the disgusting way. Thank god for that, and for the disappearance of Patchouli. I hated that Woodstock stink. Birkenstocks have given way to Crocs and a shaved head is now as cool as a ponytail, maybe more so. Piercings and tattoos have grown in popularity and are as equally dumb as they used to be. Manu Chao replaced The Grateful Dead, and the Dutch are now challenging the Swedes for best looking humans.

I lived out of a backpack 20 years ago. I did Europe, twice, both times with my buddy Jimmy Robinson. He’s all grown up now. He’s a paralegal in LA. He hasn’t aged a bit except for his hands. He’s got his Preferred Citizens Badge. I love that guy. That’s what travel does to travel partners; it welds you together. And the younger you are when you travel, the stronger the weld.

Tuk-Tuks come in all styles
 A wise man once warned; “all the feral backpackers have kennel cough.” In Thailand, lodging is so cheap, you’d be crazy to sleep in a dorm. Hot water and A/C cost a bit more, but not as much as Dengue Fever. Pay for the A/C, it keeps the skeeters out.


Lunch bag

We started our trip in Bangkok. Grazing at the street vendor carts was a highlight. A sunset drink overlooking the river and Wat Arun was runner up. The main reason we were there was to get a new Indo social visa. The Indos waste one of my pages every 30 days. My passport has now had 2 additional reams of paper added to it and it’s as fat as a rich man’s wallet.

Essentially we took the “Capital Tour”. The current day capital is Bangkok, and then in receding chronological order the capitals were; Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, and pushing further back into history; Chiang Mai.


The Bridge on the River Kwai

First we made a side trip to Kanchanaburi. This is the spot made famous by the movie, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” As with most historical movies, it’s an amalgam of many anecdotes from history but the bridge is there and the Japanese did enslave and work to death over 100,000 locals and Allied prisoners on the construction of the notorious Burma Railway. You won’t see any Japanese tourists there. It’s tough to walk the museum (the Aussies have done a fantastic job), and not hate.


Ayutthaya is a collage of temples built on an inland island. Sounds impossible, but the rivers that surround the city create a “moat” and isolate it from the rest of the landmass. We sampled endless delicious food and walked temple after temple.

We arrived in Sukhothai after a long bus ride. You can get everything in the form of a shake: smoothies, lassies (a smoothie with yogurt), or any type of healthy fruit whip. They have perfected the art of blending and it heals everything, including long bus trips. Sukhothai is a park filled with ancient temples whereas Ayutthaya was more of an urban setting of temples. I love zipping around on a fast scooter while Megan holds on for dear life. After years on a sailboat, sometimes you just NEED to go fast. It was a fantastic place. We loved it and then we went to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai was the best of Thailand (until we went to Pai). I can imagine that Ubud must have been this good before it became overrun with yoga gurus, healers, artists and Balinese wannabes (relax, you blissed out zombies, I still love Ubud).

Remember – we are moving back in time so the ruins in Chiang Mai are a little shorter, a little less preserved and in same cases, not much more than a wall around a city that though ancient, holds lots of future promise.

Saved The Best For Last

Pai – We needed jackets when we went out at night and asked for an extra blanket on the bed. I love being cold in the tropics. The rumors are true. Pai is fantastic.

Thailand vs. Indonesia

No contest. Indonesia isn’t even a contender. It would be a knockout in the first minute of the first round. All one can really do is compare Thailand to Bali.

Thailand – No blaring calls to prayer, Better roads and buses, better food, better temp in the north, no one selling sarongs, less litter, better vibe, less haggling, kind to strays, drinkable local booze.

Bali - Hinduism is a prettier religion than Buddhism, there’s surf in Bali, and the Indo Language is easier, but that’s it.

We’ll be sailing Seacomber toThailand in October!!

Your man on Point, Captain Bob