Well, I said this was coming, and I wanted to do this for a long time. I finally get to pound it out!
As I mentioned in my LDR post, I got the fantastic opportunity to travel to the Philippines in January to meet my girlfriend after a year and four months together. I meant to write this way earlier, but at first I was procrastinating due to the long length this would undoubtedly be, and then when my relationship with my girlfriend fell apart, it was obvious to me that writing this then would have prevented the wounds from closing. And then I just kinda forgot about the post some more. I am now, I feel, at the point where I write this and focus on the good and the interesting things – which the trip did have in abundance. Plus I need to write this soon before I start to forget details…
First, some background: Metro Cebu is the Philippines’ second largest metropolitan area behind Metro Manilla, the capital. The Philippines is a newly industrialized country. In Cebu, I saw a downtown city area not at all behind what you might see in a ‘lesser’ large US city, and the slums, a community down by a river whose buildings seemed basically like large pieces of scrap metal, and basically everything in between.
Language in the Philippines is a bit of an odd affair to Americans: because there are many islands, many different languages have taken root in the country. There are two official languages in the Philippines: English and Filipino (a standardized form of Tagalog and it seems like the two terms are used pretty interchangeably). Many parts of the country also have their own regional language – Cebu has Cebuano. My girlfriend’s home had Waray. Most people speak English, but only to a certain extent. In Cebu, Cebuano was preferred. Nearly everyone knows enough English and Tagalog to get by, but they won’t use it if they don’t have to. When my girlfriend was speaking to other people on my behalf, it was never English. Signs, notices, and websites, however, were frequently in English.
The climate is warm year-round. Filipinos have two seasons: dry and wet. For the trip (in January), an 80-90 Fahrenheit high was the norm.
The people of the Philippines are overwhelmingly Christian – 90%! 80% of the total population is Roman Catholic. This was most evident to me reading the local newspaper. This was during the time that Pope Francis was visiting the country, and it seemed to me that every other article in the Cebu newspaper was about the Pope – and he didn’t even visit Cebu!
On January 14th I flew to Cebu, Philippines from Columbus, Ohio (USA) via Atlanta (Georgia, USA) and then Seoul, South Korea. By myself, the first time out of the US. The Atlanta-Seoul leg was particularly taxing, coming in at 14-15 hours. I did not get a wink of sleep going over there – coming back was only marginally more successful (I might have dozed off for a half an hour max). On Korean Air’s flights, we get a blanket, pillow, cheap paper-ish slippers, and a toothbrush/toothpaste. We also had personal entertainment screens with movies, games, and music – all free. And occasional meals and snacks. I remember getting up to go to the bathroom many times – not because I really needed to go, but just because I needed to walk around.
The airport in the Philippines was pretty small. It only had eight gates if I remember correctly. It seemed rather low-tech at times, looking like the inside of a school in places. Some rooms looked like they just had unused furniture tossed in them. And the ebola info was in Comic Sans for some reason…
I got to the Philippines very close to midnight, where my girlfriend and her parents were waiting to pick me up and take me to my hotel. It’s custom to give a gift whenever you are coming from elsewhere – chocolate goes over well usually. So I brought a big box of buckeyes, sort of like the regional specialty over here (the buckeye state, OSU Buckeyes, you get it). Driving through the streets gave me my first impression of Philippines city life: the buildings were packed densely together, and it definitely evoked a different feeling – kind of like being on the edge of something familiar, but at the same time exotic. People were walking outside much more frequently than they would in an American city. Even after midnight, you would see people here and there, if I remembered correctly.
My hotel was rather bare-bones, but my budget pretty much called for that. Nearly everything was wooden, the box TV wasn’t working, the bed was stiff. Think ‘college dorm’ and you’re basically there. Visitors were not allowed in rooms – only in the bakery/restaurant area or the painfully small lobby that could hold only a handful of people at any given time. The hotel had a dedicated security guard, as did a lot of places in the Philippines. There was a guard posted outside every bank. The mall (which I’ll definitely get to later) had an abundance of them.
I was warned not to drink any of the water directly from faucets – to only drink from bottles. I mostly kept to that, except for the first night. I didn’t have any bottled water and I was unwilling to venture out at 1 AM in an area of unknown safety (and I didn’t know where I would go anyway – there were no gas stations or anywhere like that nearby).
I had breakfast each day at the hotel’s bakery/restaurant, which was actually rather nice. They had American breakfasts, bacon/ham/hot dog, eggs, toast, and coffee (ok, so I’ve never heard of people having hot dogs for breakfast in America). All for 100 pesos, the American equivalent being about $2.35. And it was good! Their toast (they made the bread themselves, and it was available for sale by the loaf) had a nice flavor to it. The coffee, however, was instant coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but I keep trying to like it). Food and groceries are usually less than they would be in America – unless, of course, it IS American.
As far as food goes, I was pleasantly surprised. Most food I tried I liked – I am a picky eater, so that MEANS something. A variety of meat, usually. And then rice. Pretty much every meal besides breakfast included rice.
The first full day, me and my girlfriend and her parents went to SM City Cebu – the 24th largest mall in the WORLD (their website said the 11th, which probably was true at one point in time). And the 4th largest in the Philippines alone. It is larger than every mall in the US. Which really surprised me – you don’t really think Philippines when you think of the world’s largest malls. Not that I am a frequent mall-goer. Anyway, up to four floors in places, a full supermarket, a bowling alley, a movie theater, and 700+ shops. Wow. This is the type of place that you can get lost in, and not just the first time. I was there probably at least 4 times during the trip and parts of the layout still seemed confusing to me. Several fast food restaurants there would be familiar to Americans: McDonalds (which can serve rice as a side instead of fries), Krispy Kreme, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin Donuts. As well as other stores like Forever 21. There was also a store devoted to anime/manga merch, which I thought was pretty cool. You don’t see stuff like that over here.
Going to the supermarket was a weird experience. Things in the international aisle, for the first time ever, were quite familiar to me – I picked up a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a jar of peanut butter from there. I also saw Pringles and good ol’ spam as well in that aisle. Milk was not sold fresh like we expect over here – instead, they are sold unrefrigerated, good for six months (unless opened). HOWEVER, there was a ‘premium milk’ section elsewhere in the market that I didn’t get to look at, so maybe that was it…
We had lechon for lunch, one of Cebu’s best dishes – basically a pig roasted over the fire for several hours on a skewer. Yum.
Me and my girlfriend and her friend (very rarely was it just me and my girlfriend – with just two or three exceptions, she was accompanied by her parents or her friend. I believe this is a bit more common in the Philippines in the early stages of a relationship) saw Seventh Son in the theater the next day – a full two weeks before release in the US! This seems to be fairly commonplace – Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out in the Philippines in April. Here, it’ll be in May.
Going back to the language thing, my girlfriend and her friend talked to each other exclusively in Cebuano and/or Filipino when I was right there with them! They both spoke English well enough, despite not being masters at it.
January 18th was the date of the Sinulog Grand Parade. Sinulog was a month-long festival in Cebu celebrating the Filipinos coming to Christianity. I’ve heard it described as Mardi Gras, but more religious, and that’s the description I’ve always used since. The grand parade featured a long line of elaborately costumed people, floats, and dancers. Some celebrities too. The parade supposedly goes from morning until night – we only stayed until about 3 PM or so.
And man, was that place PACKED. The parade went on for miles, and to get anywhere, you often need to push your way through crowds. Filipinos, I gather, are more okay with that then we are – if you just waited for a spot in the line, you probably would not get one. Groups held on to each other as they moved through the crowds. That part of the city was probably where most people were that day.
There was a Filipino pizza restaurant near my hotel, which me and my girlfriend went to. The pizza was… well, definitely not one of the better ones I’ve had. It was pretty crunchy, and not too flavorful. And just as expensive as a meal in America would be. My girlfriend liked it, though, so yeah…
In shops, attendants sometimes make a point of following you to assist you. In the US, much less so – they generally leave you to your own business but will ask you if you need help if they pass you or you look like you need it.
My girlfriend, trying to keep me safe, forbid me from leaving the hotel if she wasn’t with me. I spent the better part of a few days in the hotel while she had classes. On the last such day I got tired of being shut in by myself and went to SM City Cebu (the mall) by myself. I had done it a couple times with her by now, so I felt okay for the most part doing it by myself. The only snag was coming back – the taxi driver did not understand me! The person manning the taxi stand had to explain to him where I was going. When we approached, I had to guide the guy by pointing left and right. Eventually we made it, and the fare wasn’t much worse than it would have been otherwise (only 20 pesos more, or ~$0.45, on top of the usual 120 pesos).
Jeepneys are open-ended buses that are basically cheap buses – each one has a set route from what I understood. My girlfriend took those to get to me, then we took taxis (I never took one of these myself). These Jeepneys are each decorated differently. One of the more memorable ones featured some art from the game Sonic Riders, as well as Capcom and Gamespot on it. I don’t know.
We visited Plaza Independencia, a park, and Santo Niño Chapel, a nearby… chapel. The chapel was nice. It contained an area where you could freely light candles for prayers. Magellan’s Cross was also in this area.
We visited Tops, an observation garden located on top of a mountain. Incredible views here! Although, unfortunately, it was cloudy that day, and the view of the city below wasn’t particularly clear. The highlight of the trip for me came after: we rode down on motorcycles through a village that was celebrating a festival with a parade and fireworks. Both going on while we were going down. I was scared for my life without a helmet at first, but I gradually loosened up during the ride. It was an absolutely beautiful ride. Probably why the person who gave it felt justified in ripping us off at the end, but none of us felt like arguing. Can’t win them all.
Arcades in the Philippines frequently have rooms for karaoke and Kinect setups with Just Dance – both are popular. PC tables for MMO gaming are also more popular than here in the US.
Before I knew it, it was time for me to go back to the US… it was pretty sad having to leave my girlfriend and go back to all the wonderful stuff that the US offered like work and a routine. All in all, besides the parts where I was confined to the hotel, I had a blast. It was definitely an experience I wouldn’t have otherwise had. And I definitely thank my ex-girlfriend for being a good tour guide for me, despite our hiccups during the trip, and making it very fun.