Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Goodbye Philippines!

The past couple days in the Philippines have been good and rough. A couple days ago I split away from the group for the afternoon and headed down to see the Hanging Coffins, a burial site where the locals hang their coffins from the cliffside instead of burying them. From there I descended a muddy trail into the valley and way soon trekking my way through the jungle. It was a pretty wild trek, at one point I had to lose the shoes to cross a river, climb a giant, slipper boulder, then climb up a mud chute with the aid of a plastic pvc pipe that had been tied off to a tree at the top of the chute. Unfortunately I couldn't complete the underground river trail because I didn't have a flashlight, but I still made my way up the valley back to town. Then Matt and I indulged in the cheapest lemon meringue pie I've every had, at roughly $.55 a slice. Then we ate some dog with the locals. I didn't like it.

The bus ride back was along the same route, only this time it was dry and clear outside, giving the bus driver the green light to do mach one along the perilous mountain roads, nearly hitting a couple cars on the way. Matt even tried to point out a dead bus that has gone off the road into the rice terraces below some time ago, but I was too late to see it as we rounded a bend. After filling our faces with McDonald's at Bagio, Matt and I jumped on a night bus for Manila, and rolled in around 5 am, myself only managing a couple hours of sleep. Today after Skyping some family we headed out to do some last minute shopping for gear, each picking up a tent and sleeping pad.

I'm sad to be leaving a country as amazing as the Philippines, but I can look forward with a smile, straight at the adventures that await us in Papua New Guinea, only hours away from us. Hopefully I'll be able to maintain the frequency of my posts, but in a country that is one of the most primitive in the world, I can promise nothing.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sea > Sky

That's right, the battle inside Kyle's head as to whether the sea is greater than the sky has been answered. The sea, in fact, IS greater than the sky. Not only because I dug the shit out of that boat ride last week, but because I just had the hairiest plane ride of my life a couple days ago. We took off from Puerto Princesa an hour late and had a smooth ride for the first hour. The next half hour+ was a different story. We hit turbulence about ten minutes before our approach, then were delayed when the Manila tower closed the runways due to poor visibility. After about a twenty minute holding pattern in a thunderstorm (the sudden bright flashes of light informed me of that), we were cleared to make a landing. What ensued was one hell of a rough approach, followed by an abortion of the landing and the plane pulling out of it at maximum thrust. This marked the first time I've ever been on a plane that aborted a landing. Then we got to circle another ten minutes through massive turbulence to make another attempt at it, this one just as rough. By then there were hardly any non-worried faces, only smiles on those of the crazy. I was a little happy to see us break through the clouds on the approach, but that happiness was dashed when I was able to determine, relative to the ground, how fucking much the plane was being thrown around by the wind. All we needed was John McLain on the runway with a couple of flaming sticks and the scenario would have been complete. Thankfully though, we hit the runway and the cabin was in an uproar of applause.

Then we got to get soaked by the torrential downpour on the way to the bus terminal to catch our night bus to Sagata. Some friends that Matt made (a famous Philippino band) told us not to do our original planned route due to the fact that the area around that bus terminal would be flooded and we would never get out of there. Instead we decided to take another route: a bus to Bagio then catch another one from there to Sagata. We got to the station, warfed back a couple of hot dogs with off-brand ketchup and jumped on the bus. At first it was ok that the air conditioning was on, we needed to cool off a bit form the humidity. Then two hours into it and fifteen degrees colder, we were wishing we had brought more clothes on board. Thankfully a rest stop was only twenty minutes away, where we were able to grab more layers out of our backpacks beneath the bus. After fitful bus-like sleep we arrived in Bagio and jumped on another bus. The road to Sagata turned out to be a steep, narrow, winding mountain road with a hundred and something foot drop an inch away from our wheel. And due to the fact that it had and has been raining for quite a while, there were a few landslides we had to negotiate. I chose to sleep instead of looking out the window, so much so that apparently I kept on resting my head on the poor old Philippino man sitting next to me.

Sagata is a really laid back mountain town. The feel here is pretty cool and I wish we had more time to spend here, but our flight to PNG is coming back fast. We did get to mingle with the locals a little today though. A guy, James, we were connected with through the band Matt met at the airport invited us to his farm today where we got to sit and drink gin with him, and sample some of his own rice wine, which is almost like fermented berry porridge (I didn't know wine could be a solid) with a very sweet taste. Sitting and talking with James gave us a very cool feel of rural life in the Philippines. They still maintain a very strong community; everyone is very social and productive with one another. Just when we were there the mans sister was getting married. Over one thousand people attended, one cow, one goat and twelve pigs were slaughtered to feed everyone. Quite a village undertaking, I was impressed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Friendliest Place on Earth

That's my impression of the Philippines. Every day spent here makes me feel more and more welcome here to the point I'm starting to feel endeared to it. The people here are so warm and open that a person cannot help feeling a great connection. Literally within a couple minutes of meeting someone you'll be treated like a long term friend and welcomed with open arms. Many people over the past few days have asked us to come back and visit them soon, and it feels genuine, not just some formality to be polite. I do hope I come back, for I'm sure there are some amazing friendships awaiting me here.

Traveling with Matt the past couple weeks has marked a turning point in my trip as well. I've found I'm back in the mode I was in in Nepal and India, ready and open to experience as much of the country as I can. I feel I lost a lot of that in SE Asia, instead I chased the party around and wasted a lot of my time. While I did have fun there, I feel I could have got much more out of my time there, and from now on I'm going to leave the party and tourist scene behind and opt for something more real.

As for the past few days, we arrived in Puerto Princesa on Tuesday and immediately found a nice, quiet guest house across the street from a group of kids we befriended and shot some hoops with. The next day we headed on a tour to and underground river a couple hours away from the city. Honestly it really wasn't worth what we paid for it, but was a good day nonetheless. Except for the giant spider that was in the bathroom stall with me, of course. Yesterday was a great day as well. We walked around the slum of Puerto Princesa, basically a shanty town above the shore. It was amazing in that how poor and dodgy the place looked, we were greeted with smiles and hellos. One old man there pointed us in the right direction to see a cock fight, which we jumped all over. Cock fighting is a big deal in the Philippines, many people own and enter their roosters in fights, and it's even a televised event. The atmosphere at the arena is incredible, people there are so passionate about betting on the fight. Literally the whole arena erupts at the time of betting, arms flying and bets being shout out to the bookies creates quite a chaotic yet harmonious feeling. The sport itself is obviously brutal and usually end up in the death of one bird, the instrument a razor blade attached to the back of the leg. Matt and I partook in the betting, and both came out ahead around twenty dollars each. The way people bet there is mindblowing. I'm sure many of them don't have much disposable income, but many in the crowd were throwing out bets of five thousands Pesos on each fight, some of them ending up tens of thousands in the hole. I wouldn't like to see this sport back home, and I'm sure I won't have to worry about that, but all in all it was a cool experience.

Today will be a hard traveling day, with a flight back to Manila to catch an overnight bus to the north to see some rice terraces that are supposed to be incredible.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Heart Philippines

Again the Philippines fails to disappoint. Even with the typhoon still battering away the sun even from the other side of the country, we had an absolutely great day. We were just chilling out on the porch of our bungalows, reading books and whatnot when a big festival started right outside the fence. Apparently a local Catholic church branch was celebrating their ten year anniversary of establishing their church on El Nido. About two hundred people showed up, and good times ensued. We were out there in the waves throwing the football around with all the Philippino kids, on our shoulders, hanging from our arms, you name it. They had a great spread of food that they invited us to indulge in, including some great grilled fish and amazing tasting beef cutlets. Unfortunately I was out in the sea when they carved up the roasted pig, but I'm still happy. There were all kinds of games and activities for the locals, including trying to climb up up a greased up bamboo pole, a tug-of-war, and an egg toss.

It's absolutely amazing how friendly the locals are here, there's always a smile returned, no matter how hard the face. These people are absolutely great. I really hope the unwanted (drunk, belligerent, sex tourist, etc.) kind of tourists don't poison these people's view of foreigners. For now, it seems like they're confined to Manila and Boracay, which makes me happy.

All in all, a great day. Hopefully tomorrow the weather will clear so we can explore the beautiful outlying islands.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Yo Ho Ho A Pirate's Life for Me!

Here is the story of how Kyle came to love cruising the sea. He jumped on an early morning ferry (it was a little too far to swim) with his friends, bound for El Nido. The day was beautiful, the trip was a go. After a one hour delay by the coast guard for protocols, which included putting on life jackets for ten minutes just to appease the coast guard. The ferry left the pier with scores of people waving and saying their goodbyes, sad to see Kyle leave the island.

Instead of sitting in the benches among the other tourists, Kyle and his friends opted for sitting on the nose of the boat, by far the best seats on the vessel. The cruise through the straights, made better with a little recreational drug use, was calm and serene, the bow of the boat cutting gracefully through the sea. This was when, at some point, we all fell asleep on the shady bow. Kyle woke up about an hour later to find the sun higher in the sky and his legs quite sunburnt, which forced him to think he should get his lazy ass inside the boat and out of the sun, with the rest of the steerage.

This turned out to be quite an intelligent decision, for about fifteen minutes later the gods of the sea decided our calm ride was over, and decided to stir the pot a little. The bow heaved up and down in the waves, sending our stomachs on a vertical rampage. Kyle’s stomach might not be the greatest on buses, but it was trained and hardened for the sea by many, many years spent on the flat prairies of Alberta. While a number of Chinese tourists beside him were preparing their plastic bags to blow chunks into, Kyle sat with a shit eating grin on his face and his headphones in his ears, listening to a random score which included Steve Miller Band, Counting Crows, Black Sabbath, and Gil Scott-Heron. It was at this point Kyle proclaimed to his friend Matt (for the hundredth time that trip): I love the Philippines. Little did he know, Kyle’s humour was about to be increased at the sight of his friend Lou being completely overtaken by a wave that swept the bow, soaking her and another poor guy on the deck.

After another four hours of this, Kyle concluded that his iron stomach and love of the rough seas should be properly utilized into learning how to sail, something he will definitely do at some point in this trip. This story was written from the beautiful island of El Nido, on the porch of a kick ass bungalow on a beautiful beach that hardly cost anything for rent, while a distant typhoon turns the weather to shit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Right Detour

I was a little bummed out when I realized I couldn't get a flight from Indonesia to PNG to get a visa on arrival, thus having to cut out Indonesia and opt for the Philippines instead. I am no longer regretting that whatsoever, instead I'm congratulating myself for it. The Philippines is nothing short of great. It's almost so good that I want to tell people it sucks so they won't come here and turn it into a Thailand.

We arrived in Coron after a short flight from Manila on Monday. We met up with another Argentinian couple (Lew and Gaston) and had a few beers and some food, then climbed up to a mountain top overlooking Coron City. There we enjoyed the amazing sunset. Coron itself is a pretty quaint island. There isn't much development here, which gives it it's charm. Later that night we played pool with some Philippino shack while the rain came down.

The next day was kind of a bust due to the heavy rain that poured in, but we did manage to head out to some amazing hot springs just outside of town. Probably the best I've ever been to, with large tiered hot pools on the edge of the ocean. The best highlight so far was today. We hired a boat and the six of us took off to five locations around the bay, which included a couple hidden lakes, a couple amazing snorkeling sites (one was a WWII shipwreck), and a lagoon. I sunburned the shit out of my back AGAIN! Nothing I do can stop the Philippine sun from scorching me. The snorkeling here was amazing, the best I've done so far. The water is crystal clear and warm as bath water, filled with tons of different coral and fish. And the lakes have large fresh water shrimp that get in yo face.

Tomorrow, Palawan on an eight hour boat journey!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

First Verdict: Philippines

It's awesome. So far, so good. I flew in here on Thursday and thought to myself this place looks a lot like Mexico and India put together. It's tropical and has a lot of Spanish influence, but still has a very interesting atmosphere to it. I met up with my friend, Matt (who I know from back home), and another couple (Jason and Lilly) he was traveling with. That in itself is a funny story: they had been traveling together in Thailand and Matt had been filling their ear about the Philippines. They were literally in a taxi heading for the bus station to go to Cambodia, turned the cab around to the airport and jumped on a flight to the Philippines, running into Matt on the streets of Manila. We've all been traveling together the past few days.

The past few days have been great. On Friday and with time to kill between our flight to Coron on Monday, we decided to head up to see Mt. Pinatubo, a big volcano that erupted about twenty years ago, one of the biggest in recent history. It was a grueling day to get to the town we wanted to base out of (I can't remember the name because we didn't even make it there), filled with multiple bus rides. The first stop was Angeles, where while waiting for a bus had a crazy old Philippino lady telling us we "should go have some nice Philippino girls over there", that "Alec Baldwin had been to her house" and that she "didn't have Herpes". All the while the other Philippino's on the street are killing themselves laughing.

We arrived in the town of Tarac, a tiny crossroads town with a mobile McDonald's truck, and found a hotel that was able to set us up with a 4x4 to Mt. Pinatubo the next day. We got an early 6am start to the mountain, arriving at the trail head around 10:00, after registering and paying for the tour. From there we hiked for a couple hours up a wide ravine that would have been better suited for flip flops instead of hiking shoes. Needless to say the way up and down left my feet swimming. The crater itself is beautiful. It's hard to tell it's actually a volcano, it looks more like a picturesque mountain lake that anything. We had a quick swim and laughed at Lily for wearing Thai fishing pants that were see through when wet, making the Philippino viewed exit from the water hilarious. The only bad part of the day was the fact that I sunburned the shit out of my head. Note to self: sunscreen on a bald head is essential.

Now we're back in Manila, heading to Coron in the morning. I'm pumped to go out to the islands and hit the beach. Hopefully the people there are as nice as they have been so far. I've been pleased with that, Philippino people are incredibly friendly, polite, and English savvy, a stark contrast to the hard society of China.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Another Wonder

Ok now that I finally figured out a way to get into my email account, I can send a post and stop keeping you all in suspense.

I arrived into Beijing on Thursday on an overnight train from Xi'an. I took the soft sleeper this time (I couldn't get anything else), and actually found myself preferring the hard sleeper. The soft sleeper has a little more amenities on it: the beds are a little wider, there's only four people to a compartment instead of six, the compartment has a door, and the conductor will bring you an overpriced coffee in the morning. Overall I didn't really think it was worth it for the extra hundred Yuan I had to pay. The beds aren't that much comfier, it's less social, and there aren't even any tables outside the compartment for a person to eat at! I rolled into Beijing West Train Station at 8:17am, and proceeded to wait in the taxi cue for an hour! I don't know what the deal was there, but there sure was a shortage of taxi's. That's about the eventfulness of the day, I arrived at the hostel and veg'd out for the rest of the day.

On Friday I ventured out to see the Forbidden City. The coolest thing about it is the sheer size! I walked around for a good three hours and saw maybe half of it. At this point I've soon so many temples and whatnot that paying for the extra sections of the City didn't really interest me. As if three hours of temples isn't enough for one day! The City has some huge courtyards that offered some amazing sweeping pictures with my wide angle lens, and the clouds looked pretty amazing that day. That night I met up with my friend Yuyao, who I traveled with in Yunan for a week. He brought some of his friends out and we went to a few bars around my hostel, one of them being a vampire themed bar where everything was decorated like a tomb and the women worse fake vampire teeth and drank blood-like cocktails. Asians are such nerds. After the bar we went out to eat at a bbq stall where we sat outside. It was pretty comical, a friend of a friend showed up and we compared belly sizes (you will see a lot of Chinese men standing around with their shirts rolled up, exposing their bellies). He won, my belly is pretty nonexistent these days. Another funny thing was when an old man in his pyjamas strolled up and just stood there watching us. When Yuyao asked him what was up he just said he couldn't sleep and just went out to take a walk. Then just as he left another old man strolled up and assumed the same position! We deduced they were Chinese zombies.

Saturday was a bargaining day. I endured the gauntlet of the Silk Market to do some shopping before I ship some packages home and to Australia. You have to bargain like a champ here, the Chinese shop owners would knock their mother over to get a chance to rip off a foreigner. For instance, I was bargaining for a pair of knock-off Nike shoes, and the woman gave me a first price of one thousand Yuan! That's like a hundred and fifty dollars! I got her down to ninety. You have to be prepared to walk off about six times and have them call you back to finally get a decent price. For dinner I went out with a couple girls from my hostel and had hot pot, my first experience with it. It was pretty good but there are other dishes I enjoy more. Then I met up with Yuyao at his place and went out for bbq again, and drank beer, again.

And yesterday was one of the best days I've had in China. I joined up with a couple American girls and headed out to the Great Wall for the day. It was a good move that saved me a lot of money compared to doing the tour, and that I had some fun people to take some great pictures with on the wall. We went to Mutianyu, which is nearly three hours away from Beijing and significantly less crowded than the closer locations. The wall here was restored from the original, BUT we managed to find a way around that. At one of the towers a junction in the wall split off another section up a mountain, and it was completely unrestored and overgrown, and beckoning us to walk on it. So of course I'm going to do it. We might not have been allowed to, but whatever. It turned out to be seriously kick-assage. We got to see the wall as mother nature wants it to be, and there was absolutely no other people with us on that section. It climbed up a steep mountainside up to a guard tower that gave us amazing views of the valleys and mountains beyond. And if that wasn't a good enough way to spend the day, we got to take a sled down the mountain! It's basically a steel bobsled track and you ride a sled down it. Tons of fun.

These are my last two days in Beijing. I'm going to spend them getting ready for my flight to the Philippines, which will include unloading half of my truck of a backpack into boxes to be shipped to Canada and Australia. From here on it's light travel, no more hauling around a fucking suit.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

One More Stop Until the Beach!

I'm typing this from Xi'An, waiting in my hostel to catch my train to Beijing tonight, the last stop before heading to the amazing beaches of the Philippine Islands! Not even I have any idea of how stoked I am about that, but I have the feeling it's somewhere around the majorly stoked level. I had a funny discovery today: entering a monthly photography contest on Flickr I had a funny feeling I was missing some pictures, so upon looking through my computer I found a whole bunch from Kathmandu that were sitting there, ready to upload. I guess I must have forgot about them, so if my photostream looks like I jumped back in time eight months, you know why. Eight months, Jesus that sounds crazy when I say it.

Yesterday I arrived in Xi'An on an overnight train from Nanjing. The train ride wasn't too bad. I find I can't sleep too well if I know I have an early morning arrival; some paranoid function in my mind keeps me waking up and checking the time so I don't miss my stop, even though the conductor wakes you up before the station. I'm going to do my best to sleep well on the train tonight, and I'd better since I had to fork out big money for a soft sleeper car (the nicest one you can get) since there was nothing else available. I also had to reflect on the way train travel is in China. For the locals (and a little for me) it's a very social affair. You're stuck in a berth with five other people for twelve hours plus, so it's only natural that you'll socialize with them. I wonder how many people there actually stay in contact with people they meet on the trains. It occurred to me that we really don't have anything like that in Canada. You might socialize with people on flights, but they aren't that long and it's too expensive to do often. I guess some people use the Greyhound, but the times I've been on it it hasn't seemed too social.

Anyways, on to Xi'An. I ended up grouping up with a pair of German girls (Steph and Daniella) who were headed to the Terracotta Warriors. One of them spoke Mandarin and was incredibly helpful in saving me nearly a hundred Yuan for not having to do the organized tour. The Warriors themselves were ok. I found they were a lot like the Taj Mahal, they look cool, but they're just there. There's no exciting cultural interaction with them. It was a little bit of a ripoff, too. You go there expecting to see thousands of them, which the hype leads you to believe are there. They are there, except over half of them haven't been excavated yet! Or maybe they're not there, who knows. You just have to take people's word for it here, because there's no other way of knowing. The best part of the day was walking along the Xi'An city wall with Steph, beers in hand. It was great to finally hang with somebody who knows a thing or two about photography, and we were able to get some great pictures of each other (like me above), something I've been lacking lately. I would have like to stay another day or two in Xi'An. The hostel here is very social and the city seems like a chill place, but unfortunately I'm running out of time and have a lot of things to see and do in Beijing before I fly out on the 9th.