Wadi Rum and the Falling Bread of Petra, Jordan

siq golf

     Ah yes, here it is, the classic Petra scene of the treasury as seen through the narrow Siq gorge with the traditional golf cart in the foreground. Timeless.

     Petra and Wadi Rum! I don’t need to sell anyone on it, right? There’s already a well-established reason people go there. It’s a world class combo destination. Throw in a dip in the Dead Sea, maybe the Roman ruins of Jerash if you can’t make it out to Palmyra, Syria, then a day in Aqaba by the Red Sea, and that’s a nice trip right there, that is! Just don’t rest your head at this dive below:
aqaba hotel

     The Jordan Flower Hotel in Aqaba by the Red Sea, the cheapest place in town. There is old, worn, and rundown, and then there is Middle East old, worn, and rundown. I think I saw Lawrence of Arabia’s graffiti behind the bed post. The guys running the place had a fastidious way about them that made us all pretend we were in a five-star hotel instead of a place of untold countless suicides.

dead sea

     I was expecting to be more buoyant in the Dead Sea, but I had a big lunch. That hummus really weighs you down.

petra monastery

     The view of the monastery. Both times I was there I just missed guys jumping along the top of it.

petra ceiling

     The ceiling inside a Petra edifice.

     I went into a bakery in Petra and this transfixed me until I looked closer to see what was going on. The bread is coming off a conveyor belt above the guy’s head. Efficient!

     Did you know Petra was named one of the new seven wonders of the world? Any tourist spot worth their salt wanted to win the voting contest, but for travelers it’s always a losing proposition. Petra used to cost 20 Jordanian dinars ($38) to enter. Now? 50JD (US$70). Locals and Arabs pay 1JD. (Some travelers dedicate themselves to getting into Petra without paying since there are no fences around it. I was sent this link.) That is the price only if you have stayed in Jordan for at least a night. If you are a day tripper from Israel or a cruise ship, you pay 90JD (US$125), if I am not mistaken. A good half million people per year visit, so where does the money go?

petra poster

     It’s odd to see such a poster when tourists pay millions of dollars, and there are plenty of kids selling junk, so why is the government so powerless to stop it?

     It’s a complicated question that no one cares about, so the very short answer is that since the king gets much of his support from the southern tribes, he has a very soft hand when it comes to dealing with them, and he allows Petra as their cash cow. You could say his diplomacy is soft and fine like shifting sands. See what I did there? Sands, cause I’m in the desert? Get it? And I blog for free! I really need to put up a paywall.
     A kid sidled up to me with seven euros in coins in his hand (equal to 5.60 dinars) and tried to sell them to me for seven dinars. First they beg for coins, then they beg to sell you them for more than they are worth. Excuse my Yiddish, kid, but that’s chutzpah.
     $70 is a lot to enter Petra, but I might pay $100 if there was an animal-free day. The horses, donkeys, camels and horse carts, not to mention all the selling, ruin the experience. Well, “ruin” is a strong word, but in the afternoon when you are walking back from a great day, you have to hop around the dung and cover your nose from the smell. Is that the lasting experience Petra wants you to have?
kc wadi rum

     I successfully hitchhiked out of here to the main road, and then I paid-hitchhiked to Petra, neither of which explains my exuberance.

kent wadi rum

     So many photos of me in one blog post! I appear to wear the same clothes every day—on the outside. I do change my undergarments, I want you to know. I even change my diaper occasionally.

king shisha

     King Abdullah is a man of the people!

kent amman

     A rare selfie. I had to document the snow when I came back to Amman. Not pictured: my mesh running shoes. Doh!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION (1 Jordanian dinar = US$1.40)
     I stayed at Saba’a Hotel in Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra. I think it was 8JD for a dorm and 14JD for a single room including heat. A cheaper place up the road, Valentine Inn, is 10JD for a room but charges 3JD for the heat. Since it is off-season and low heat, I didn’t wake up early to go into Petra. I left just in time to stop and get some falafel and hummus sandwiches to take with me inside. A normal bus from Wadi Musa to Amman is 7JD. A government-run JETT bus costs 10JD, I believe.
     The Jordan Flower Hotel in Aqaba is 10JD. I should have bargained, but I did get the whole top floor. The girls in the tourist office were squeamish about recommending it. This woman thought it was great.
     If you find yourself with some free time or it’s late at night and you can’t quite go to sleep, you can read what I wrote on my first visit to Jordan a century ago. I surprised myself rereading the last paragraph where I unload on Israeli travelers.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Feasting like a king at Al Hashem in Amman, Jordan

     Hello from Jordan! This is my third time here. My last visit was four years ago when I spent a week here and then a month in Syria just before it all went to hell. Almost nothing in Amman has changed that I can see.

jordan stamp

     40 Jordanian dinars (US$54) for a visa. 120 dinars (US$162) for a multiple entry visa. You wouldn’t believe what it costs to visit Petra. Jordan isn’t serious about developing tourism.

     I had a funny experience with the police. As you can see above, I am supposed to contact the nearest police station within one month, which I dutifully did because I’m a role model for kids. The guys at the front desk didn’t understand why, so I was sent upstairs to someone superior.
     There was no one around upstairs so I walked around until I saw a meeting and poked my head in, interrupting a group of seven or eight policemen in high spirits about something. They broke up and gathered around to see what I wanted. An officer who spoke English set his glass of tea on the ground to look at my passport. He didn’t understand why I was obliged to stop by either. He asked if I was going to stay in Jordan longer than a month. I said no, and he insisted it wasn’t anything to worry about.
     Someone asked where I was from and I said “America,” and then there was another question, and I realized it wasn’t another policeman in the group talking to me, it was a guy behind them who was locked up in a cell who somehow spoke the best English. I answered his questions, but was consumed by how medieval the cell looked, just a thick sheet of metal with very small holes, the cell not much bigger than he was.
     I asked an officer who the guy was and he said he was in for being drunk. Another officer motioned that I could join him in the cell, which everyone thought was funny. They were all in a good mood, the prisoner included. I asked the officer if he was sure that the drunk guy wasn’t Daesh (the name the Muslim world gives to the Islamic State/ISIS.) which amused them. “No! No! A little much to drink,” the officer assured me. Good times all around.
     All visits to police stations and prisons are memorable, and if you can get a holding cell inside a police station, even better. I remember Moldova in this way.
al hashem sign

     An emotional return to Al Hashem Restaurant, one of my favorites in this cruel and harsh world. It’s a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian place with a small, simple menu.

al hashem meal

     Now this is good eatin’! Three dinars for what amounts to the entire menu: hummus, falafel, fuul, bread, tomatoes and tea, which is US$4.20.

al hashem hummus

     Some Al Hashem hummus. I do have one criticism: they could use less oil and a finer quality oil.

king at hashem

     A 2006 newspaper picture of King Abdullah demonstrating that he is a man of the people by eating at Al Hashem outside next to the street, something unthinkable now that Daesh is after him.

     The other major food in Jordan is shawarma, and on my first visit I saw the biggest shawarma I had ever seen, so ginormous that men on full-size ladders were putting more and more meat on it until it was the size of me. When I returned years later, I made a pilgrimage to it, but times had changed.

     I had forgotten about another of my favorite experiences in Amman, the tiny shop near Al-Hashem selling this sweet called kunafeh. According to wikipedia, it’s also spelled kanafeh, kenafeh, knafeh, kunafeh, knafeh, or kunafah. Thanks wikipedia, thanks for the clarification. It always looks like a methadone clinic on a Monday morning after a long weekend. I’ve never passed by when there weren’t at least a dozen people huddling by the entrance, waiting for their fix. Just under a dollar for a small portion.


     It’s my fault. I did ask for the cheapest cough syrup. Nocuf (get it?) has a taste that is indescribable, the opposite of kunafeh/kanafeh/kenafah…

     From the airport it would appear to be a good strategy to try and go south right away since the highway is nearby and on the southern side of town, but there is zero public transportation heading south and the government-run JETT buses won’t stop. As it is, you are stuck with the 3.25 dinar bus to town, and then if you put your bag underneath, they won’t let you out until you get to distant Tabarbour station. Try and bring your bag on the bus. Reason #54,773 to travel light.
     In Amman I again stayed at Farah Hotel near Al-Hashem. (Al-Hashem really is an institution. Every bus and service taxi driver knows it, helpful in a maze of a town with nary a straight or flat street.) These days it is 10 dinars a night, but now they have heating in the rooms and Naim, who I remembered from my last visit four years ago, gave me my own room. It includes a breakfast I couldn’t get out of. I never pay for breakfast if I can avoid it; 95% of the time it’s overpriced and low quality. That’s a pro tip right there, that is!
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Is Dubai the Singapore of the Middle East?

     Let’s start with a bad photo taken through glass, bad photos being my specialty nowadays:

ski dubai

     My third time in Dubai! The first time I met a Slovenian ski instructor who worked here at Ski Dubai in Mall of the Emirates.

     I was in line at the metro to buy a ticket. A Kenyan girl in the booth was telling off two guys in front of me, “Why are you Pakistanis always trying to cheat?” They appeared to be trying to use a false stored value card. The way she said it made me laugh, and both guys quickly turned to me. It was tense for a second, but the moment passed as they took her haranguing in stride and sauntered off.
     I knew the girl was Kenyan from her sweet, lilting accent and relaxed confidence as she leaned back in her chair to berate the Pakistanis—and because I asked. I ask everyone where they are from. I’m meeting Syrians, Indians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and so on. No Emiratis. I’m fascinated by a prosperous place where only 14% of the population is local, and in this case, well-hidden. The only Emiratis I interacted with in the United Arab Emirates are the ones who stamped my passport in and out, and I wouldn’t call that quality time.
     Lots of Filipinos here. Someone needs to make a documentary, if there isn’t already one, about Filipinos working abroad and all they experience. Is it naive or ignorant to think that Dubai must be one of the best places to live based on the flimsy fact that dress codes aren’t strict and girls can walk around by themselves?
eat and drink

     Dozens of brainstorming sessions went into this restaurant name.

     I flew to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways. Last year I also flew to Abu Dhabi on Etihad and I got chicken pox. This time I thought I’d be more proactive to ward off illness and I went around the cabin spitting in everyone’s face. Um, actually, I spent time talking with a flight attendant who let me hang out in the back cabin. I mentioned that I tried to convince the airport staff to let me have an empty seat next to me because it was my birthday, but to no avail. Later, he had this cake below brought to me by a Hungarian(!) chef.
etihad cake
     We were talking about how international Etihad’s staff is and he mentioned that since Etihad bought Air Serbia, there has been an influx of Serbians. He went on to say that Romanians used to be the most beautiful flight attendants, but now the title has gone to the Serbians. “They’re taller than me,” he started, but his voice trailed off as maybe a public area wasn’t the place for this conversation, so he merely shook his head in amazement.
fuul variety

     It’s great to be back in the Middle East. I didn’t know there were so many varieties of foul/fuul/ful (mashed fava beans with spices.)

     I only stayed 48 hours in Dubai, and I didn’t get out much in my jet-lagged fog, but I am returning in a couple of weeks. Dubai seems to get a bad rap among travelers, but I am of the mind that Dubai is like Singapore, the best first place to visit in a region. Like Singapore, if it’s your first time, it’s exotic, a rush for the senses, vaguely familiar (but deceptively so) and you only realize how expensive it is when you visit nearby countries. Plus, they both have an (undeserved?) reputation for being fake and soulless.
excess baggage

     If you are down on your luck in Dubai, just go by the airport and take all the stuff that people abandon.

dubai departures

     Now THIS is a departure board. I will feel like a world traveler when A) I have visited half these places (only been to six) and B) I know where all these places are. (I was stumped by Lar and Gassim.) Graydon, what are your numbers?

check in screen

     A check-in kiosk showing how the dregs of world aviation are clustered together at Terminal 2. This is a very formidable quintet of airlines.

saudi circles

     Flying over Saudi Arabia, I noticed these circles. What are they? Something to do with drilling oil?

     flydubai is the discount airline of Dubai—I saw Dubai-Zanzibar $264 round trip in two weeks; I am thinking about it—and uses forgotten Terminal 2. The cheapest way to get there is take the green metro to Abu Hail and then bus 43, but it only goes every 20-30 minutes. You could walk from the metro to Terminal 2 if isn’t too hot.
     Don’t stand in line at immigration if you I flew into Abu Dhabi, a different Emirate, and out of Dubai. There is a side office you have to go where they will stamp you.
     The Dubai metro doesn’t open on Fridays until 1pm. I discovered this the hard way, but a friendly Indian guy guarding the station gave me a ride closer to town, a very nice re-introduction to Dubai.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A pictorial of Filipino homemade basketball baskets and streetlights

     Filipinos are masters of improvisation. Here is the proof basketball-wise:
     Every time I see ingenuity like these streetlights below I think of how many millions are given for international aid for necessities like this when it can be done so cheaply with homegrown ideas. I don’t know how these fare in rainy season, but there has to be a lesson in here somewhere.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

In praise of the Philippines (despite the food)

     The amazing thing about traveling is how much of a full life has been compressed into my one little month away. The engine fire feels like ages ago. It does feel like living in the grandest sense.
     I left the Philippines on the 30th day of my 30-day visa. Why is Philippines only offering 30-day visas? Do they want tourists or not? It’s a simple question. You have this vast archipelago with iffy transport and tourists only see a thin slice of it before they are forced to pack up and leave or buy an expensive-ish extension.
     Nobody comes to the Philippines anyway. Why is it a poor cousin to Thailand? On Thailand travel forums everyone is obsessed with finding the best, uncrowded beach, but that was last century; Thailand is saturated. It’s all been discovered. It’s over. There are great beaches, but you don’t go for your Robinson Crusoe experience. The Philippines, however, has endless little islands to explore with enough coves and beaches to satisfy anyone, and it will for a long time.
     I extol the virtues of the Philippines to everyone, but if someone comes and they get eaten by mosquitoes, freak out at seatless toilets, witness the poverty, and take too much time to become numb over bothersome things, then I can see why my excitement isn’t matched. And that’s before they try the food.

weight control

     Weight control? We need to talk.

nutrition for kids

     Nutrition?! No, really, we must discuss this.

     I was going to write a whole blog post about the food. I can’t let it go. I love the Philippines, but the food, let’s say, disappoints. It wouldn’t be fair of me to let it go unmentioned and therefore the country become idealized. I can sum it up in one sentence: nearly everything is overly fatty or overly sweet, even things that aren’t meant to be, such as spaghetti. Homemade food, when you can get it, is the best, and I am still discovering regional dishes such as tinumkan in Panay, which is mashed shrimp with coconut wrapped in a small leaf, but these are the exceptions.
     The Philippines is still a Top 10 country. Why would I come five times if I didn’t like it? (Wait, scratch that. I’ve been to India five times and it still makes me crazy.) The people are absolutely wonderful. I just wish I didn’t dread meals which is the opposite feeling I have for every other country in the region. It’s advantageous that I have a high tolerance for eating the same food every day, because there are only a few sure things to gravitate to such as fish and roast chicken. (Is this a bad time to mention that this is the only country where I have knowingly and willingly eaten dog? It is? Sorry. Let’s move on.)
     I guess the inconvenient truth is that the Philippines is a mirror image of America in many ways: the junk food, the sweets, the soft drinks at meals, the obsession with dubious supplements as waistlines expand, and a good time is shuffling around at a mall.
     We interrupt this rant to show actual jobs that Filipinos are applying for overseas:
no short butchers

     No short butchers!

tea boys job

     Really? We need to bring people a quarter of the way around the world to be tea boys?

couple job

     Has to be one of the easiest job descriptions to fill.

bakery job

     Two years experience making juice. You can be a married assistant cook, but no married waiters!

tips and toes

     Who knew Oman has so many needs?

tennis coach job

     You really should pass the exam and interview. Hey, wait a minute, I want to be a tennis coach assistant in Oman! What’s with the age discrimination? What 23-year-old is going to have six years experience?

     In the Philippines I am going to miss going into the street markets and having someone shout, “What are you looking for?”
     I would quickly say, “Love”, and then there would be a small commotion as they come up with women to matchmake for me.
manila dirty river

     My brain might be going to seed, but Manila seems a little more tolerable this time around. I kind of miss seeing garbage-swollen rivers and armed guards at donut shops. I already miss the people.

lady bedspacer

     A bedspacer is someone sharing a dorm room. That’s cheap. I pay 400 pesos for one night. I wonder what it looks like.

usps box

     Thought about making a citizen’s arrest to reclaim this in the name of Barack Obama. Decided not to.

     My heel had been hurting so I participated in some medical tourism at a clinic in Makati I found on the internet. Only supermodels seemed to be allowed to work the reception, which is an interesting business model. I saw Dr. Manuel Pecson for an 856-peso consultation fee. A Pinay friend thought that was high, but compared to USA, that’s crazy-cheap, and isn’t it worth a few pesos to observe the professionalism of the staff while you wait to see the good doctor?
     I should have brought a stopwatch as I think it took 23.2 seconds for the doctor to say I had plantar fasciitis. I’m a tad skeptical, but I will do the exercises he suggests and then come back for many more visits to the office for checkups.
     In Manila I stayed at the place I always end up, Pension Natividad. The only reason it isn’t more popular is that you can’t book online. 400 pesos for a dorm bed, the most I have spent in the country, but they have…ready for this? A HOT SHOWER! Hurray! I went a solid month without a hot shower. I went days without seeing myself in a mirror, which isn’t a pretty sight in the best of times.
     The Manila airport terminal fee is finally included in the price of an international airline ticket if it was bought after Feb 1. If you bought your ticket before then, you still need to pay 550 pesos after check in.
manila sunset

     Pretty Manila sunset. Take that, Boracay!

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

White men can’t jump in White Beach, Puerto Galera

     I hoped to get through a month in the Philippines without a ferry horror story, but that was irrational thinking. The boat ride from hell turned out to be Odiangan, Tablas to Roxas, Mindoro. A three-hour trip became five in rough seas. What can you do on a flailing boat? You can’t read, it’s too loud to listen to anything, there’s no one to talk to, so you are captive with your thoughts as the horizon disappears and reappears, the boat crashes down, water sprays/leaks/rushes in, and you just wait and wait, powerless.

roxas bicycle taxi

     Once in Roxas I just wanted to walk on terra firma, but I came up with a better idea. When a bicycle taxi guy approached, I asked how much to town and he said 15 pesos. I proposed 10 pesos, but I would be the one pedaling, which he quickly agreed to, and everyone in town did a double-take when they saw us. I swear this guy was smiling before and after the photo.

     Roxas is yet another of these nondescript Filipino towns that has nothing to offer, but by virtue of its friendly people, has everything to offer, and just hanging out and talking to Deep-Fried Squid Ball Guy, Mango Woman, and Pawn Shop Security Dude was fun. Nonetheless, my visa days were numbered so the next morning, against my better judgement, I took a packed van from Roxas to Calipan City on my way to Puerto Galera on the north side of Mindoro island. At one point nineteen people were crammed in the van, including the rarely seen, passenger-sitting-on-the-left-side-of-the-driver-in-a-left-hand-drive-vehicle maneuver. Then some inbred had his cellphone constantly going off, his message tone was of a child sneezing. What the hell? Who wants to hear that once, much less over and over, loudly?
     Fed up with life after that grueling journey, I was determined to hitchhike from Calipan City to Puerto Galera and it was easy. A Belgian/Filipina couple with their child picked me up after a short wait, and I zoomed straight there in high comfort.
puerto galera ugly beach

     Not exactly the poster for “Welcome to Puerto Galera!” Puerto Galera is the main town. To the northeast is Sabang, an enclave famous among travelers for scuba diving and whoring. To the west is White Beach, popular with Filipinos. It’s probably the closest nice place to Manila, meaning weekends are crowded.

white beach overview

     There, that’s better. A view of White Beach from above.

sabang beach

     I can’t remember if this is Sabang Beach or one of the Lagunas next to it, but I was impressed by the cleanliness of the water.

white beach sunset

     White beach sunset

white beach ladyboy

     He/she is smiling now, but moments before I had been hectored, “You picture me! You picture me!”

     There is a very weird scene in the evening on White Beach where scores of ladyboys come out of the woodwork to sing, lip-synch and dance. Little makeshift stages are erected and there are at least five different shows going simultaneously, all blasting music to compete with each other for small weekday audiences such as this bit of the song, “Domino“.

singer doctor
     The photo above I took years ago; I think of this billboard every time I am in the Philippines as it encapsulates the relationship between Filipinos and music. The “singer/doctor” in the bottom left corner says it all, the idea that “singer” is more important than “doctor”.This is the country where prisoners—a lot of prisoners—danced en masse to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This is the country where the boxer Manny Pacquiao goes on American TV and sings a sappy 1970s love song.
     In Philippines what often happens is that in a shop somewhere you’ll be surprised to hear a semi-obscure American love ballad from the 1970s and then shocked that someone in the shop knows it well enough to sing along, but it happens all the time. In the Carabao tourist office I made a joke about singing an Air Supply song and I started, “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you…” and I stopped because that’s all I knew, but all four women continued in unison.
     I’ve been in poor Filipino homes with dirt floors but with a karaoke machine as tall as they are. Priorities! My favorite memory from the month I once spent on the island of Siquijor was walking home every night in the near-darkness and hearing in the far-off distance someone singing “Love Hurts” or “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”

puerto galera license plate

     This epitomizes the problem with Filipino politics: those in power love to plaster their name on everything. Do you really need your ugly mug on the license plates? When you get voted out, will the next mayor be happy with your face on the plates? No, so they will need to issue new plates with their photo…

white beach basketball

     In White Beach I stayed in the annex of Manalo’s Lodge a fair walk back from the beach. The owner is a big basketball fan and when I showed interest I was summoned to play with him on a hidden court nearby. He was giddy about my size. They played for 20 pesos a game, he said, and he could smell victory. “We’re gonna drink rum tonight!” he exclaimed. But I was awful again, super slow, can’t jump, an embarrassment to the sport. After the debacle the owner kept saying it was OK, but I must have disappointed him. I disappointed myself.

     Manalo’s Lodge Annex (tel 0917-6096072, 6674077) is only 400 pesos, cheap for White Beach. Discount possible if you play pesky defense, hit corner threes and can run the pick and roll on the weak side high post. White Beach is another of those places that it is impossible to get information about cheap accommodation on Google, but walk inland from the beachside resorts and you can find something.
     Hitchhiking isn’t for everybody, but taking the bus or jeep isn’t so fun in the Philippines, especially for someone my size. Then the bus brakes too hard and too often and the jeep stops at every tree, both with annoying air horns. I think I am getting old.
we love kent

     Graffiti found in Talipanan Beach just west of White Beach. Presented without comment.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Happily Stuck in San Augustin and Odiongan, Tablas

     Snooze alert! This blog post will be super boring. It is minutia from my travels in places few people will ever go, but I want a record for myself. You can ignore it. No hard feelings.

child friendly school

     Show me the child-unfriendly school, please.

guard dogs sign

     Yes and yes

     In hindsight, the thing to do is stay far away from Manila and swoop in at the last minute, then fly out. I did the wrong thing, which was take small boats on high seas, suffer through cancellations and rely on sporadic transport. However, that’s also the problem with the right away in that boats can be cancelled and you don’t want to get stuck somewhere in this country that is desperate for tourism but only gives 30-day visas.
     In the afternoon I took the boat back from Romblon to San Agustin on Tablas island and doddered around town looking for food, not realizing that if you don’t jump on the jeepney waiting by the pier, that’s the last one out for the day. I tried to hitchhike. I stood in the shade above a colorful cemetery overlooking the sea, but in 90 minutes maybe six or seven cars passed. It wasn’t meant to be. I gave up, walked back into town and stayed the night.
pinoy nicknames

     Can’t be a true Pinoy if you don’t have a nickname.

     It wasn’t the end of the world; I’m taking a liking to these small towns. The only problem in San Agustin is that the town closes early; you only have a few dinner options on the street and when they sell out, they’re done for the day. Otherwise, small towns can be fun, and at a minimum there are new people to play basketball with. I was gabbing with a couple of policeman and was invited to play with them in the main square.
     We played for 50 pesos. 50 pesos is “only” US$1.10, but that’s not a trifling amount here. 50 pesos buys you a solid lunch. In Romblon, where we played for 20 pesos, my team lost the first game, but I hit the game-winning shot in the second. In San Agustin I was plain awful. I embarrassed myself. I felt like Shawn Bradley on defense, always a step too slow. (I hate that link and the culture of not trying to block a dunk or else you might be “posterized.” For a better profile of Shawn Bradley, there is this 30 for 30 documentary.)
     This being the Philippines, there was the surreal element of karaoke blaring from across a field while I imploded. It’s hard to get used to a new court and an unfamiliar ball while having to hear some poor guy taking a stab at “Lady” by Kenny Rogers and then, without shame, launching into “All by Myself” by Eric Carmen.
     I wasn’t get-on-the-first-jeepney-out-of town bad, but there wasn’t the bonhomie I usually get after playing; no one asked to friend me on Facebook.
san agustin basketball

     One of my courts of shame, San Agustin, Tablas, with a big ferry in the background. Most ferries in Romblon province are small outriggers.

     Whenever I play basketball or tennis, guys always half-joke about me bringing shoes back for them next time I return. It’s always shoes, never anything else. (Well, shoes and USA visas.) There are little second hand shops all over the country called ukay-ukay that mainly sell clothes and any time there are shoes, they are always crazy expensive. I am a size 12 (do you hear that, Ladies? Size 12) and it is impossible to find something that big at any price, but for Filipinos, it’s not even worth looking. I don’t understand the economics of why it is so.
     A while ago there was a shoe company that, with every purchase, offered to donate shoes to someone in an impoverished country. There was a big outcry because the argument goes that (in addition to enabling reliance on handouts and why they can’t just donate shoes without being prodded) that you are killing the local shoe industry by doing that, but in the Philippines the choice is either expensive shoes or no shoes. Plus, I see so many shoe repair guys all over the country, I bet they can work magic with anything given to them. I don’t see it as the worst thing to mail a balikbayan box full of garage sale shoes to the Philippines.
fabric from europe

     An ukay-ukay find. Fabric from Europe. Oooooooo!

tablas jeep

     The next day I took this beast to Odiongan (a hard name to pronounce correctly) on the other side of Tablas island. I have had a scab on my head for a month now from hitting it so many times on low ceilings and being scrunched into these. Again I missed the only transport for the day, the boat to Mindoro island, but, also again, no big deal.

carabao recruit

     I never get over seeing these recruitment signs in the tiniest of Filipino villages. It’s sad, really.

     Kamilla Lodge in San Agustin (they have a generator, handy for when the town’s power goes off) and Shellborne Hotel in Odiongan (go for room 312) were both 200-300 pesos, I can’t remember exactly. The point is that you can always find a cheap, decent pension in these under-the-radar towns that won’t show up on any google search. Don’t worry about it.
     This is a map of the area. Few people find that Tablas is on their way to anywhere else.
den of vice

     Den of vice

     End of snooze alert! I suggested not to read this since it is for myself, but it reads like any other blog post of mine, doesn’t it? I may have to rethink my blog.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Snackless and Frustrated in Romblon, Philippines

     Not many people know this, and I’m not sure I should be sharing this with you, but we at the CIA (plenty of people suspect that all this traveling I do is just a front for my job at the CIA, so I might as well come out now. I do work for the CIA—as a janitor, but still) are in advanced development for an effective alternative to waterboarding, which has been too controversial for the namby pamby public. The new plan is to have detainees ask for directions from Filipinos. Early studies have conclusively shown that it is the same level of torture.
     It’s true. We are going to lock them in a room with a Filipino and then ask a few basic questions until they pull all their hair out or blood comes out of their ears. Very effective.

carabao sunrise

     Leaving Carabao Island at sunrise for Tablas, then Romblon.

     It is nothing less than sheer agony to try and get directions from a Filipino. A root of this is the school of thought that wrong directions are better than no directions as it is a way of “saving face” by not having to admit you don’t know something, which drives me insane. It is by no means strictly a Filipino phenomenon, but it is an epidemic here.
     The woman in the Romblon tourist office was dumbstruck when I asked her about places to stay in town. (I asked if I was really the first person to ask this question, and another woman gave a fantastic answer, saying that usually only couples come in.) When she finally came up with something, she pointed to a street and said it was on the left side. Fifteen minutes later I come back red-faced, telling her there is nothing on the left. She then said to go left, then right, then when I got to the market, ask someone. (I felt a little bad later when someone told me that her job wasn’t “supported” by the city, adding that “she doesn’t even get a snack.” Well, OK then, I give poor directions when I am snackless, too.)
     At least she tried. Usually Filipinos start looking nervously left and right and say to take a taxi. Taking a taxi is the answer to everything.
     I made small talk with a girl in a shop in tiny San Agustin, Tablas and when I asked where the Sharapova Internet Cafe(!) was, she started to formulate an answer in her head but then burst into anxiety-ridden laughter at being unable to do anything but freeze up. She could have pointed, she could have said to go one street that way and one street that way, but she was unable to communicate anything, and she spoke English fine. I don’t get it.
waitress and boy

     “Hi, I’m here to apply for the boy position. I have experience.”

     For a country that purports to speak English, I have a lot of communication problems. I can’t put my finger on why. English on a basic level is spoken, yes, but either I am not expressing myself the right way or my accent/mumbling throws them or my word choice isn’t right or I don’t know what the problem is, but it’s a problem.
     My frustration is misguided. I know I am the one in the wrong. I am the one making the demand that we communicate in a language that isn’t their first. English isn’t the lingua franca here, Tagalog is. Still, this is a common exchange:
     Me: What time is the next jeep?
     Filipino: 2pm.
     Me: There isn’t one earlier?
     Filipino: Yes, 10am.
marble starbucks

     Romblon is famous for marble production. I wonder how much a handmade marble Starbucks mug goes for on ebay?

romblon view far

     This is the view from the cell phone tower above town. It was a little hazy, but not this hazy. Why do my photos have that foggy, washed out, Barbara Walters soft focus to them?

romblon view near

     Romblon town is not a big place, but its dense with three and four-story buildings as it sits ensconced among hills on three sides. When Typhoon Yolanda crushed the country last year, devastating large swathes of the Philippines, a guy told me they played basketball on the covered court during the storm as it was passing over. No damage.

     I was in a foul mood by the time I got to Romblon. A boat from Carabao to Santa Fe, Tablas (one hour, 100 pesos), then an excruciatingly slow jeep where I couldn’t sit straight, another uncomfortable boat ride from San Agustin (I think another one hour and 100 pesos) and then the snack-less tourist office lady.
     I might have been imagining things, but the people on Romblon island seemed a little reticent towards me. After you talk with someone, it is like anywhere else in the Philippines and you are fast friends, but at first contact people seem a tad aloof. I was wondering if it was related to the other foreigners I saw. I met one traveling couple, but otherwise, it looked to be only long-term residents (i.e. the old, the fat, and the haggard.)
     In the course of doing research about this island and the one next door, Sibuyan, I came across this guy’s story about a German living there. Westerners might not be held in the highest regard, though it could be a skewed perspective or it all could be in my head.
     Foreigners aren’t allowed to own land so they either marry a local or go through an intermediary. One foreigner told me the trick was to get a dim local as the front man and he/she is happy if they are paid a small stipend every month. That sounds like a risky strategy, as I can’t believe someone isn’t whispering into their ear that they are the true owner and can take over. It’s a shame to hear people talk like that about Filipinos, too, as it perpetuates the idea that the land and the people are ripe for exploiting.
bicycle roast chicken

     A bicycle roast chicken business. I would have killed to have one of these in college.

tiamban beach

     I went to nearby Tiamban, but they had an entrance fee for access to the (public) beach, which I can’t abide, so I walked back to Bonbon Beach and then through Tiamban. I wish I could have gotten away with a picture of a couple I walked past, a classic scene of a very old western man making grunting noises while reading the paper as his young, vibrant-looking Filipina wife was painting a beach scene but with her back to the beach.

romblon high school

     Spacious Romblon High School. It initially feels a little weird to trespass on to a big high school campus, everyone staring at the outsider, but I went slowly toward the court, made some small talk, and was invited to play with a bunch of students and their basketball teacher. I set the good example, passing a lot, playing defense, taking one shot in half an hour, and afterward, the teacher was so thrilled that when I saw him in town later he wanted me to take his motorbike the next day to tour around the island.

giant squid

     A couple of giant squid sold at the market.

kid posing
     I stayed at Fel-Mar Pension House in Romblon town, also known as Marble Pension because it’s made of said stone. 300 pesos, as I recall. It’s just on the left. Shared comfort room (shower and toilet) but TV with cable that shows NBA games live. I believe it is the only cheap place in town, though I saw a sign for a lodging room by the port that looked from the outside too sad to even consider.
     Romblon, by the way, is the name of the province that incorporates Carabao, Tablas, and Sibuyan islands, and then Romblon is also an island in Romblon province.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Escaping the Hell of Boracay in Carabao

     Everything wrong about Boracay can be summed up by the fact there are no basketball courts, which is because there is no central plaza, no community, no planning. There might be one tucked away from my eyes; I could only handle a day in hell. The crowds were overwhelming. It was amazing. Tons of Koreans. Tons. TONS! I weighed them all, and it was tons, and that was just one nationality. I have haven’t seen more than a dozen travelers in three weeks, and now I see thousands.

boracay crowds

     A small, small sample size

     7107 islands in the Philippines, and Boracay is the most famous. Why are people all over the world coming to this over-developed little island, this speck on the map with two McDonald’s, a Starbucks and a mall coming soon?
     Boracay’s selling points are its sandy beach and fantastic sunsets, but the beach is very narrow in parts with no space to enjoy it since it is crowded like Coney Island on the Fourth of July. I saw a guy trying to run on the beach but it was hopeless, like negotiating an obstacle course. The water was clear but chilly, this being the coldest time of year. The only reasons to come to Boracay are wind/kitesurfing or to party with lots and lots of people. Then you are in heaven. Nothing else can be defended.
     Wait, let me wipe the foam from my mouth. OK, I’m good now.
boracay sunset1

     No, I’m telling you, Boracay is really, really bad.

boracay sunset2

     Seriously, you won’t enjoy yourself!

boracay sunset3

     Anyohaseyo! Pass the kimchi!

     The real question is how Carabao (also called Hambil), the next island to the north, can remain unaffected while its neighbor is bursting at the seams. It’s startling how calm and peaceful it is in comparison. Same sunset, same white sand (but on the sunrise side,) but a low-illuminated village means a night sky filled with stars.
boracay sea urchins

     Saw innumerable sea urchins and starfish in the shallow waters leaving Boracay. Sea urchins freak me out since my “minor operation” in Vietnam when I had to take a dozen needles out of my feet.

boracay boatman

     My boatman from Boracay. You will need to bargain. I paid 100 pesos. I actually paid 150 pesos because I liked him and he had ten kids. I asked why ten and he said some were “unexpected.” Philippines is a country that might be better served with 20 million people rather than approaching 100 million. There is zero family planning, but that’s a rant for another time.

carabao girl balloon

     This was my boatman’s niece, I think he said. I made an animal balloon for her in a cynical ploy to be short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.

carabao sign

     Notice the pawn shop in the background. There’s always the pawn shop.

     Carabao means water buffalo. Consensus appears to be that it once was populated by them but the tourist office claims the island is in the shape of one from a certain angle, which, if this were a Rorschach Test, would be deeply unsettling.
     The boatman left me off near San Jose, the only real village. I meandered on the sandy path and barely noticed a faint sign for a tourist information office in a building on the beach with a Jetsons round spaceship design. I went upstairs and gabbed with the three girls (Three! For a place with almost zero tourism!) demanding to know where the Jollibee was. I noticed a bed in one of the adjoining small rooms and they said they rent it out to make some extra money. That’s a great idea. I stayed just for that reason as well as its great location: I love falling asleep to waves gently lapping on the shore below, though less thrilled by the 5am wake-up call of roosters, barking dogs, and people kibbutzing around.
san jose beach

     The tourist information office by the beach, aka my home for two nights.

     There is no real road outside of San Jose. I saw only two vehicles during my stay. Instead, there is a two meter wide concrete strip around the perimeter of the island so everyone uses motorbikes.
     I hitchhiked to the grungier west coast for the sunset in Lanas and Tinapan Beach and then paid a guy too small for his motorcycle 50 pesos to come back. Sitting behind him, he reeked of rum. He said his uncle was the ex-mayor who owns the only place open at night and where the few people here come to hang out by the beach, Five Thirteen. (The gossip is that he was the ex-mayor because he paid the government employees only half their salary.)
     I played basketball one afternoon with the present mayor’s son. The basketball court, like in most small towns, is the center of the town, often more than the Catholic Church. It sits next to a police station. I asked him why Carabao has a police station since there can’t be any crime, and with perfect timing two officers were escorting a man in handcuffs across the basketball court. Public drunkenness.

     There’s a transgender person named Michael by day and Ella by night who rents a room upstairs from his/her eatery for 150 pesos a night. At night there are only two or three places to eat if you don’t want to be in a resort, and Ella’s is the only restaurant, but even then you should order earlier. That is a drawback of Carabao.

carabao bed view

          Staying in the tourist information office costs 300 pesos but there is no shower; they bring you well water and you ladle it on you. I guess it isn’t for everyone, but it’s cool to have the whole little building to yourself, and this is your view.

     The island has electricity from 4-6am and 1-10pm. There is wifi at Five Thirteen. The password is “republic”.
     From Caticlan on the northwest tip of Panay island to Boracay it’s 25 pesos for the boat, 75 pesos for a completely bogus environmental fee and 100 pesos for a completely bogus terminal fee. I’m completely cynical about these fees. Of course, the pier in Boracay is a shambles; the fee money is lining someone’s pockets.
     There are two boats a day from Caticlan to San Jose, Carabao, bypassing Boracay at 9am and 3pm, but the port is is actually in Tabon a few km away, and almost no one in Caticlan knows about it, especially the brain-dead people at tourist information.
     From Boracay to Carabao there is no scheduled boat, but several people told me that half the island comes over to work in Boracay–—a nice commute!—–so that means early morning and late afternoon there is plenty of traffic. I went on the eastern side, Bulabog, on the northern end, but I heard it would be better to find a boat on the western side, White Beach, by Station One.
     Hurry up and go to Carabao; they’re building an airport.
carabao sunset

     See? Carabao has spectacular sunsets, too! Take that, Boracay!

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Couchsurfing in Philippines at the Ati Atihan Festival

girls 19

     Aren’t these girls pretty? They invited me to dance with them and then they started joking about who was single in the group. One girl pointed out another and told me to go for her. They all looked quite young. I asked, “How old is she?”
     “19,” she said, and then added, “Is it enough?”

     I wouldn’t have visited Kalibo during the Ati Atihan Festival if I hadn’t a place to stay. It’s arguably the biggest event in the Philippines with all the accompanying hassle, then there’s either there’s no place to stay or prices are tripled. I was confused about which week Ati Atihan was when I sent a Couchsurfing request to the most active member in the community, a girl named Jamaica who lives in a suburb 10km down the coast called New Washington.
     She said she would “save a piece of floor” for me. It meant a mattress on the ground, which was fine. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes ravaged me and the street noise made it hard to sleep, but you know me, I’m a fighter, an adrenalin junkie, I fly on burning planes, so I persevered.
mosquito bites wrist

     A small sample

     Jamaica wasn’t turning anyone down, it seemed. I think she had 13 or 14 people the last night I was there. (My Couchsurfing host in Recife, Brazil, another give-you-the-shirt-off-her-back type, told me she had 37 guests during Carnival.) I met a gentle Bulgarian couple, an Italian girl working in Burma, several Filipinos, along with this bunch:
ati atihan costume

     Jamaica in the middle, a British couple on the left, and a Canadian and German on the right. I don’t know if I am allowed to use their names. In town I walked five meters behind the two girls on the right and saw the ruckus they caused: people calling out, wanting endless photos or everyone merely smiling in appreciation. The Pope in Manila got less attention.

     I know that most people have a Couchsurfing visit and it doesn’t stick with them, but I had another of those moments where I realized that traveling by yourself for too long makes you dumb. You need to interact with your peers, even if my peers are half my age and look at me funny that I imagine myself as their equal.
     I remember reading about a guy who walked around America for years and he said the important thing was to be around people once in a while so he could recalibrate himself. I would take that further and say that you need to be around others to see how they do things and learn what their perspective is. Traveling alone for too long is to be in a vacuum, a bubble, and you become distant without it becoming apparent. (I am so DEEP—and I blog for free! It’s just not right.)
ati atihan sign

     One night Jamaica invited her visitors to go to her college reunion party. (Who does that? I aspire to be that kind of Couchsurfing host if I ever live somewhere.) It’s almost redundant to say that her classmates were very friendly and welcoming and we marched/danced with them during a part of the festival the next day. They let me hold their sign.

ati atihan band

     Notice the sponsor: Onin’s Party Needs. All kinds of big and small businesses were sponsors: Cebu Pacific Air, Manpower, Dunkin Donuts, a local stationery store, a group called The Snakeman Family, etc.

ati atihan green
     The main difference between the Ati Atihan Festival and the other wannabes, I was told, is audience participation. All the other festivals are mostly watching a parade go by. In Kalibo you are allowed and expected to join and everyone mixes in and dances around with slowly marching bands. My photos don’t do the festival justice and my internet connection won’t let me upload any video, which I might add here later.
ati atihan avatar
     Every band had two and only two instruments: a hand-held xylophone thing that I am sure has a name, and a drum, many variations of drums, all pulsating, all still in my head days later as I type this. There didn’t seem to be many variations of songs, I heard “Top of the world” by the Carpenters(!) over and over, but after a while they all gelled into one long, almost hypnotic trance.
     Bands would disappear down side streets, loop around, reappear in the main square and when they passed each other, sometimes one band would stop playing just long enough to get in sync and then they’d play the same song, the crowd roaring in approval.
girl in colors
     I was struck by how many girls young enough to need two hands to hold a big bottle of beer being passed around were dancing with abandon, no one hassling them, free as can be. Even boys in their early teens dancing together weren’t uncool. Everyone was just having an unself-conscious good time.
     Lots of bottles of alcohol were proffered. Each bottle probably had 500 lips on it by the time it was offered to us, and the more hardcore ones imbibed. I’m not hardcore.
     It was noticeable how little trouble there was despite the huge numbers of people which is testament to the good nature of Filipinos. Some nationalities, when they start drinking, they want to fight. When Filipinos drink, they want to sing and dance. I did see one guy running through the crowd with a lot of blood on the back of his neck and two guys hotly pursuing him. He might have been knifed, so maybe there was one potential stabbing and a genocide or two, but that’s it!
     The police have really nothing to do. A Canadian guy who joined us told me he asked to use the police station’s bathroom and he was invited in, offered part of their buffet, they wanted photos, etc. They, like everyone else, would smile or give a thumbs up or shout to be heard over the music, “Are you enjoy!”
ati atihan drinking
ati atihan ticket

     A ticket for using the toilet, the photo you were dying to see. I am so in tune with my readers.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

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