After arriving at the 'Check-Inn Hong-Kong' hostel, I found myself booking a flight to the Philippines; Manila to be exact. With the friendliest locals and the cheapest exotic foods on the market. From tuna jaw, to the dreaded Balut, how could I resist?
08.05.2014 25 °C
After thriving in a hot and humid week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hong-Kong welcomed me with a measly 7 degrees. It was 7pm and reality was biting at my bare skin with the wind, as I scrunched my aching cold hands into my pockets like tissue paper. The weather was shit, there was no doubt about it, and I hadn't left the luggage hall yet, swarms of British expats cawed like seagulls into their blackberries as their Samsonite's trundled hastily behind them. It felt like I was back at Heathrow, I was half expecting my mum and dad to be waiting at the arrivals hall.
Now, living the life I lead at this moment in time gallivanting to every country I wish (should little finances I have cover it), Hong-Kong was just another stop off point, a base if you will; saving money and resources until the time felt right to move on to my next chapter. To travel newbies, it can give an out-of-this-world feel you have never felt before. But I had $50 to my name, alone, with not a soul I knew, and ravaged by a food intolerance I couldn't pronounce. At that moment in time all I wanted to do was hop on the next plane home to sunny England and have a warm cuppa and tell of my stories from the past year. But I wasn't about to go home, not yet, not permanently at least.
As I left the airport and out onto the sidewalk, the building blocks of Hong-Kong's skyline were my welcoming party, and with the Chinese New Year celebrations imminent, the cold black diamonds had been smothered in garlands of colored lights. The city of Hong-kong didn't seem so overwhelming as it had to me exactly 365 days ago when I first left the UK. I snubbed the cab ride to the hostel and voted on walking the small two mile walk, this idea was soon revoked after I followed the windy trail of the harbor; and I lost my blue beanie to the sea. As I watched that warm knitted sack float away, my eyes met an old junk boat across the other side of Hong-Kong island, it's glowing red sails eerily floating between the black tar of the sea and the man made Christmas lights from HK's residential buildings and business offices. Each apartment light added another block of light to the dark canvas. There was nothing but glowing blocks and wreathes of neon, like something from 'The Tron Legacy'.
In the end, I just got a cab, and watched as the tiny Asian man wrestles with the weight of my whole life in that big green suitcase he was trying so hard not to drop, "Sure this is the right place?" I ask, as he nearly takes off my big toe with the green anvil, but he says nothing and smooths his comb over to his bald olive head and climbs back in the red cab. Already I can see why Hong-Kong is renowned for being the most vertical city in the world, here I am expecting some big shop front for the hostel, but I stand at the base of what looks like apartments. I'm at the right address so where the hell is it? A rubix cube of signs in simplified Chinese swings above my head in the breeze but I can't make sense of it, but before I can, a friendly local taps me on the shoulder "you staying at CheckInn?" he says and through chattering lips I say "yeah how the hell do I find it?" "Oh it's just over here see?" the lanky well dressed Asian takes one giant step past me, punches a code into the intercom of a giant grid door and we enter what looks like an elongated bathroom, with a silver door for the elevator at the end, a heaving troll of a security guard fumbles with his walkie talkie behind the desk, at this point I feel like I'm going into the fight club. But there's no brawls or henchmen, just friendly staff, as I walk in the well dressed man puts his briefcase behind the desk and takes off his sports coat, turns out the 20-something Asian was the owner; a man I now know as a good friend Wincent definitely had it right. Being the owner of a hostel was something I would hope to aspire to should the opportunity came.
The best part about Hong-Kong is that it is literally Asia's world city, opportunity lurks under beer mats in conversations at bars, favors can lead to jobs and new friends can mean new opportunities. In my case it was a holiday, having been in the hostel some 15 minutes, I overheard the crowd in my dorm room talking about going for dinner; and so being how I am I hinted if there are any good places for a hungry cheap backpacker; having already eaten I just wanted to meet new people, it's a weird way of mine.
Within an hour I had exchanged contacts with French, Swiss, Finnish, American, Canadian and of course; British. There were teachers, web designers, writers, volunteers; and all of them wanted to do one thing; travel. So we dined, partied and spent what money we didn't have and I was slapped in the face with the realization of how skint I was and how expensive HK is, this is where I met my good friend Zekee. Zekee was a happy go lucky American with no shadow of a doubt, always living for the moment kinda thing. We all sat and had our dinner in the neon jungle of Hong-Kong, Wan Chai, where prostitutes prey on rich expats, but the food was cheap and the beers cold. Zekee's next destination was to his family in the Philippines, and he kindly offered for any of us who wanted to, to go with him and live with his family in Manila; having known one another for just a day this was pretty generous, and without a shadow of a doubt I agreed out of everyone. I shook his hand as a surprisingly strong prostitute tries to drag me into one of the tacky dark venues. I figured that after having to wait for my working holiday visa, which could take up to two weeks, I would rather head to the cheaper continent and save money, an excuse to get away for a while despite being in HK for only a day. So I scraped together my assets, some petty funds in my Aussie bank account, packed my backpack and we headed straight to the Philippines two days later.
To think I thought the Malaysians the friendliest people I had met, the Filipinos quickly snatched the title after I landed at Clarke Airport, two hours drive from central Manila. We were to be greeted and taken home by Zekee's cousin Gia. A Crowd of international sim card sellers jumps at us as we leave the luggage terminal, but I have never been so happy to be verbally molested by such friendly people. I lose Zekee and I can just make out him and Gia exchanging pleasantries as I begin to get smothered. "No thanks I'm happy with my provider" "okay la, here my friend I open your car door for you instead". Before I even knew it, I was swooped from the humidity and the bustle into the cold white leather seat of a Mitsubishi Pajero, (fun fact: my better Latina half, as well as other South Americans, informed me that the name "Pajero" is slang for 'He who fiddles with himself for sexual gratification' ultimately leading to the ban of the car in the majority of South America) the worker escorts me in and disappears. A stocky balding Asian man sits in the drivers seat, he leans in to give me a long stare, and I look at Zekee for comfort but he wears the same look of confusion. "Hey man! I'm Rico, Gia's partner, you like mangoes?". We all exchange pleasantries and go buy a bag of mangoes, and I immediately fall in love with the chaos of the Filipino high streets. 'Jeepney's' a metallic hybrid of a jeep and a limo, dominate the brown dusty roads with it's passengers filling the car until limbs begin to stick out of the barred windows and doors. Some roll past with giant gorillas on the roof, lights, signs and speakers, billboards, non look safe. Rico tells me they're an innovation brought by the Americans, as the town is the former site of an American Military base, or at least it was until the resident volcano at Mt. Pinatubo erupted back in the day.
Rico takes to the track with elite precision, dodging through the traffic. A battered silver model brushes past my side of the car, the innards packed to the roof with fresh vegetables, marrows and carrots fly out onto the sidewalk. A chubby woman pushes her back against the precious organic cargo with both feet either side of the open back door, as though she was waiting for the confirmation to disembark. She turns to me and my camera and in all the hecticness of everything, gives a big wave and a grin. After this we soon find out that playing with the traffic was a great pastime, I throw a bag of sweets to a van full of workers and they start to wrestle for the sweets laughing and waving.
After making it half way to our home for the week, our generous hosts stop of at the service station and we have a feast of Beef Cartadile, fried pig intestines and sticky rice wrapped in Banana leaves, the Filipinos share the same Asian concept of making the use of every part of an animal. The intestines are sweet and salty like a chewy pork scratchings, then we finish with some sizzling tuna jaw bone. Soon we are back on the road, and our surreal concoction of commuters continues, five kids share one scooter with nothing between them and the road other than a tattered singlet, and a young couple ride a run-down scooter, their baby nestled snugly between their bike leathers. We laugh at the badly designed billboards, a famous Filipino model poses nude with 'the best tuna in the land'. I think it gives out the wrong message.
We cross into the nicer less hectic district of Manila, in Merville. Each street named after a major city, and we pull into Hamburg. But we don't hang around in Hamburg, we unpack our bags and head out straight away for a taste of the Philippines fine dining districts by the harbor in a place called Dampa, right next to the 11th biggest mall in the world.
On Dampa street we head through a lively night market, the iron jeepney's and car park attendants circulate the busy sea of tourists. The scene is colorful and hectic as ever, along the left are dozens of colored tanks filled with an array of marine life from lobsters to snappers, crayfish to starfish; black legs hang out of one tank and seem to wave as we walk by. I couldn't tell what the hell was in half of these tanks, one looks like a sea cucumber hanging from a conch shell, I ask the man and point to it and he says 'dear penis'. I would have preferred the latter. The great but not-so-great thing about Asians is they will utilize every part of an animal they possibly can, from the stomach lining of a cow to the penis of a pig, it's all in there.
On the opposite side to these tanks are three different restaurants, and how it works is that you pick what you like from the tanks, and the unfortunate marine critters are chopped, fried and boiled by the time you are shown to a table and sat down. We're told to hurry before the drunks leave the bars and the tanks begin to empty fast. I drop a sad looking rainbow trout into the bucket, giving my sincerest apologies, along with a crab grinding its claws towards my Adams apple; the shoe sized crab finally gives up and submits to the bucket. Before I can bid farwell to the crab, we are reunited in a tasty reunion; but one of us is now soaked in a ginger and black bean sauce, garlic mussels and sweet and sour snapper fillet.
The claws are so dense, the claw breaking tool breaks in two. For a plate of mussels, two cat-sized crabs, a dozen claws and a few beers each; the whole lot comes to about $10 usd. We then head to the harbor for a couple more rounds, a bucket of San Miguel comes to $5. European prime ministers need to get their heads together and start taking notes.
But obviously this whole journey cannot revolve around cheap and tasty Filipino foods. Before getting high on beer and seafood, we had booked a tour to climb the local volcano Mt. Pinatubo the following day; but the meeting time at a local petrol station is at 2am that night/morning and we were still sat at almost 10pm drinking beers, time to head home.
We're picked up at 3am at a shell station in central Manila by a grumpy 80-something man, and greeted by a bunch of sheepish European backpackers. Despite the hour, the hostile stream of bikers and Jeepney's is no less hectic than midday. I try to get some rest but I'm soon withdrawn again as a gang of Filipino woman clamber onto the bus chattering Spanglish Tagalog the local dialect, laughing away the night the night tehy had just had, what would make you want to trek a volcano after a night out is beyond me. One of them passes out and falls asleep on my right shoulder and the frantic driving forces my head against the window repeatedly, no sleep for this guy.
We soon pass through a military checkpoint and reach the base of the Mt Pinatubo at 6am and into a small dusty town. The morning sun is slowly creeping up on the left; the crimsons and yellow define silhouettes of the bunting hanging overhead, and either side of the road is filled with jeeps, some brand new and some battered to near extinction. This small strip of town caters entirely for the tourists arriving in the taxis and minibuses, offering hand crafted walking sticks are 7 year old kids, there were also cheese flavored ice creams, and cold showers being sold. Me and Zekee are still half asleep at this point but manage to make our way into the meeting hall before the tour, a giant straw hut.
Looking around I notice a couple of strange things, cockerels in cages on the lawn waiting for their fight, and local devouring barbecued pig intestines for their breakfast, ill stick to the oatmeal. Our safety talk from Sonia, the tour guide; seems more like one big disclaimer; but the rules are simple enough, stay away from the ash and don't swim in the lake.
Ronald our tour guide; takes us to one of the more battered jeeps , we load up and waste no time heading to Mt.Pinatubo. Six of us including the driver, squeeze into the rusted white shell of the Jeep and Ronald clutches onto the roof with only his right foot in the drivers well for stability. But like all the other tour guides, Ronald knows these roads like the back of his hand. I feel in good hands with the two locals, even when our van breaks down in one of the first streams. But it doesn't fill me with confidence when I see the fuel tank, a plastic oil drum with a pipe fed through the lid. The chalky grey land begins to wake and the morning sun seems to be chasing us through the valley; the layers of ash make crater formations and spires of the powder tumble and fall as we pass in our convoy of jeeps. I start to feel like I'm on the moon in a buggy rather than in a beaten up jeep in the Philippines. That is until I spot a local, trekking through the dust clouds behind our jeep, and after a 30 minute drive at 5am from the base this must mean he would have been trekking for hours on end. He wears a balaclava to shield himself from the clouds of ash being kicked up from our jeep, and I shelter my camera in my jacket as ash gathers in the ridge of my £600 17-40mm lens. We pass more and more locals as the sun ascends over the hills, and with them comes a gang of horned cattle, grazing on what shrubbery is left among the barren ash wastelands.
Ronald tells me the curly haired locals are named the 'Itah's', the indigenous of the Philippines, as he explains we hit a river mouth and he tumbles across the roof, only to pause and carry on. The only time the tribe had ever left the mountain was during the eruption of the volcano back in 1991 so they were pretty stubborn, but friendly and excited to see us tourists. We stop off at a photogenic facade of ash for some photographs, the Itah children jump in giving peace signs and middle fingers, and I jump in too. I pat their bushy heads and they give us a clap as we carry on our ascend in the rusty, old jeep.
She drops down 5ft slopes with ease and the driver barely lifts a finger or bats an eyelid, the jeep sounds like it's about to fall apart at any second, but she relentlessly charges through the water without fail. To the point where the caustic sulfuric water begins to seep in, as the open back levels with the water. I clutch onto my camera kit as another cloud of ash engulfs the inside of the cabin, my head crashes against the bare metal bar inside the cabin and I nearly fall out the back. The journey isn't for the faint hearted, yet Ronald rides on the roof like it's a daily bus to the town center. But he was far from the most adventurous, jeeps in front throw clouds of dust in their wake with their tour guides standing on the roof, pointing out landmarks to tourists. It feels like we're in a war zone as I turn around and see an arrowed formation of jeeps, raising thick clouds of dust into the rays of light oozing over the peaks as it hits the ground in a sickly shade of orange. Our driver comes close to a yellow jeep to our right and it's clear they both want to race, we are about 15 minutes away from the starting point of the on foot hike, when he starts maneuvering around the yellow car, and almost stacks ours in the stream. The other passengers, a German and a Finnish man stretch the necks of their shirts over their noses as respirators, all the while me and Zekee cheer and heckle the driver on in a mix of Spanglish. The driver is adamant to show his friends shiny yellow jeep that theres still life in his old girl. The German cries "Scheiße Haus!"(shit house) as we hit a crater an he cascades into the roof. A western couple sit on the back of the yellow jeep, horrified, gripping their fanny packs and sun screen as they are thrown in the air after each bump. The race soon ends after a heart racing stretch through the cobbled river bed. Victorious, I get caught in the moment and hang from the spare tyre on the back, pounding my fists on the roof. We all pat the driver on the back, mostly as a thanks for not killing us.
After our joyride, we start the two hour hike up Mt.Pinatubo, and already the local Itah clan have spotted us, cheering and waving to us. Their camouflage huts are entirely crafted from their surroundings, with roofs made from giant leaves, hoisted up by bamboo. The tribes are protected well by the looks of things, the local military use the volcano for expeditions, transporting supplied and goods to the Itah tribe, hours away from any local village. As we pass each tribe I notice one thick stick of bamboo spurting water out from the mountain freely, mothers fill their buckets and was their young.
This to me is one of the most beautiful things about indigenous culture in any country, call it naive but it's sometimes comforting looking at civilization without technology and the pure human interaction, emotion and love. Then I notice something extraordinary, the children use their surroundings as one giant playground, just as it should be. Their names etched into the walls of layered ash, with drawings and creative portraits to match. Some slide down dunes as we pass the halfway mark to the picturesque lake reserve of Mt.Pinatubo.
The terrain begins to emerge as tropical, the streams shrink beneath the shadows of the Nara trees, the national plant of the Philippines. I'm told they are so dense and large they are used to craft tables and doors by the Itah's, we draw closer to the crater of Mount Pinatubo.
Ronald hops down the steps with our lunchboxes, no matter how much we protested for him to let us carry them he refuses. I watch my tired feet tumble down the steps without paying attention, then I look up to see this pristine crater. Clouds whisper through the white tipped mountains, and turquoise clear waters toil in the valley below, reflected in it is the navy blue sky. It's worth the 2 hour trek, and even more so when we see the bittersweet sight of an 8 year old girl selling beers from an ice cream cooler. My photographers eye takes hold, and I fall into a trance with nature and my lens, snapping more pictures than the paparazzi on Kim Kardashian.
We skim stones and loiter around the valley , eating rice that Ronald had kindly cooked for us all. Soon skimming becomes a major appeal and I start teaching crowds of Asians how to skim. We wanted to swim but allegedly a person suffered a heart attack just months before, after dipping into the warm water, better not this time eh?
I get so carried away skimming stones that I end up on the ground, kindly aided by three Asian kids ( my students), we begin to notice tourists pouring into the valley like the lava itself and decide its time to leave. But we take some shots with Ronald and the people we met on our ascent and head back to our banged up jeep with a huge grin on my face that the crater had left there.
On our drive down I notice more and more Itah children emerging from the land. As we go around the last ashy barren corner, I spot kids playing in the stream, our jeep thrashes through the water mere meters away from the children and they barely flinch. Children's laughter echoes through the valley and they look as happy as ever, content with a sulfur soaked stream and some piles of ash; like I said, the west need to take notes. As we pass the kids grab for our hands and wave, as we leave the surreal trappings of mount Pinatubo.
It had been a long day trekking up volcanoes, so we thought it was only right we brought our small trip to an end with some comforts and culture. The comforts being Red Horse, a strong Filipino lager probably capable of putting down a horse, and the culture being a delicacy that we in the west have only seen the likes of on shows like 'Fear Factor'. The delicacy is Balut, and I would always remember it's name. For those ill informed of Filipino foods, Balut is in short terms; an aborted duck embryo. Yes I know, a little harsh but Rico urged that we weren't crowned Filipino's until we had tried the traditional Filipino snack. We are led by Rico to a shop front, a woman sits with a basket covered by a blue knitted blanket; the two chatter in Tagalog and she hands over three eggs from the wicker basket. We gag at the thought, after much contemplation even. And I contemplate just how long it will be until I see it again after I've eaten it. I roll the warm egg around my hands and feel the weight of the chick. "Taste man taste, crack it like this and drink juice, then eat". B*llocks, I thought.
So I cracked open the egg, and sip the warm salty soup inside, then I shed the shell from the egg and just throw it in. I try hard not to bite down and I feel the embryo slide down my throat, I chew the soft yellow yolk to keep down the chick. Rico laughs at our green stained faces and pats us on the back. But after all of it, it was surprisingly good, so I order three more and we head back home. Crowned as local Filipinos. A disgustingly funny ending to another great chapter and story of my life. Thank-you for reading and sharing this with me, I hope your stomach wasn't churned up too much by the end. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did writing and recounting it! It's back to Hong-Kong for now but Thailand has been giving me itchy feet... Thankyou to Zekee, Gia, Martina and Rico for this amazing adventure and a window to the Philipenes!
If you want to check out the personal photography of my adventures, you can here!
https://www.flickr.com/photos/115189787@N03/ or https://www.facebook.com/BrightersidePhotography?fref=ts
P.S But our journey didn't end there, on our last day before the flight, we decided to drink up some history instead of the duck eggs. So we headed to the American Cemetery in Bonifacio, ventral Manila. The cemetery is 152 acres wide, with over 17,206. As much as I hate to say it, the landscape of the place was perfectly symmetrical, leaving no room for imperfection. The area was a dedication to those lost in the war of the Philippines in world war two. The area was so well kept by the locals in a bid of respect and gratification to the men lost. Tumbling greens hills were covered in gravestones, the stones lapped around old oak trees like crop circles, it was the saddest collaboration of art and devastation I had ever seen. Placards with nicknames of soldiers ran on marbles walls in a giant Colosseum in the center, with medals of honor averaging about 1 in 500. In fact, president Barrack Obama was there only a month ago on the 29th of April, should have gone a month later...