Vigan is a really nice spot; an old and really well preserved colonial town, the architecture a mixture of colonial Spanish and Chinese, with a touch of local Filipino style thrown in. It has cobblestone streets plied by horse drawn carriages, small hotels and cafés in old merchants houses and a Unesco world heritage site status. I am there two weeks before Christmas and the place has been done up a treat, with really unique takes on traditional Christmas decorations. Lots of people are in town to witness the spectacle and everyone is in great form. It feels lovely to be here and be part of it.
Even better, I had treated myself to a couple of nights in a reasonably upmarket, reasonably stylish hotel. My room had nice tasteful period decor, a comfy bed and always my favourite, a table lamp. When you live your life in a world of budget hotel rooms with fluorescent strip lighting, bedside table lamps become items of fantasy. The hotel was crawling with staff; a football teams worth behind reception, a small villages worth behind the bar, hundreds more lurking round every corner. All appeared to have done some formal training in general incompetence. Thus they took half an hour to register me, struggled to open the door of my room, couldn't get the the air con to work or answer any questions I had. A request to bar staff for a bottle of coke resulted in incredulous stares and little else.
After a few hours in town I realised it wasn't the poor hotel at fault, I realised that Vigan is influenced by some malaise whereby people working in the tourist industry become socially inept, intellectually challenged, disinterested and clueless individuals who loose the ability to understand English, only in the presence of English speakers. In every bar, shop and cafe I saw visitors beating their brows in frustration when attempting to do the normal things that tourists do. I had no idea what the hell was going on. For me, a classic experience was going to a beauty parlour to ask for a pedicure. The surly receptionist suggested that instead I might want a deluxe foot massage, a facial and a variety of other treatments. When I reiterated that I wanted a pedicure, pointing to it on the price list, she threw the laminated list on the counter and walked away. I should have chased after her, just for the hell of it. Instead I just walked away.
To the normal people on the street I was a celebrity or a god, sometimes both I think. Responses to me were on a spectrum from huge excitement of the the jumping up and down variety, to the stopping and staring, mouth ajar type response. And that was the adults. Honestly, I know just how Justin Bieber feels now. People ran across the street to greet me, take pictures of me, pull me over to stay hello to their shyer relatives. I know I was 'without companion', white, tall and pointy nosed, but this was something else.
And then my final jaunt in the Philippines; a short journey south to San Fernando, cutting 3 hours off a potentially mammoth ten hour journey to Manila for an evening flight to Bali. I'm slightly nervous about the whole enterprise; much of the coast this close to Manila is the exclusive of beach resorts catering to sex tourism and I have no desire to end up in the middle of that. Furthermore it's Saturday night, a night when many of the better heeled Filipinos head to the beach for a spot of family R nR. When I get there, everywhere seems to be full. I drag my rucksack from hotel to hotel, there is no room at the Inn. Well, that not 100% accurate. There is room at one Inn, its just it's a pay by the hour motel, in other words, a place where people go to have sex.
Reluctantly, I check in. My room fits it's purpose, with a plastic coated mattress and a mirror which runs the full length of the bed. However it's affordable, clean and has both hot water and air con, what a treat. To see my last Filipino sunset I cut across the national highway and down a wee alley way down to the South China sea. As is usual in the Philippines, it is teeming with people, just being together, hanging out. As is usual, the people are so warm and welcoming, so many initiating the greeting to me, despite the fact I'm a well off foreigner walking through their barrio. I am constantly aware of the difference between here and Central America,. I would not be doing this there, If I did I would be in trouble. The Philippines has given me the freedom to roam safely and I am very appreciative of that. I have my final dinner at a beach resort overlooking the sea. The staff are lovely as is my dinner, a perfect last supper. Then it's back to the love hotel where my plan is to keep the air on as high a setting as possible, in order to drown out the sounds of any energetic love making. However by 4am it becomes bitterly cold and I reluctantly have to turn it. Thankfully, apart form a minor disagreement at about 4.30, all is quiet. Sodom and Gomorrah is postponed for another day.
A dose of reality is what I wished for, a dose of reality is what I got.
It's four in the morning and I'm on a night bus, sitting wide awake and bolt upright. The lights are on and a violent DVD is being broadcast at full volume. It is in competition with music blaring from a smartphone in the lap of a guy across the aisle from me. He is fast asleep of course. My fellow passengers and I are dressed as if we are off to the Arctic. There are many regulars on the journey, travelling home for the weekend, each have got the Eskimo look down to a tee. Layer upon layer of sweaters, coats and fluffy blankets. Scarves wound tightly around their heads, desert nomad style, with only a slit for their eyes. I am jealous of them. I knew it was going to be Baltic and thus am wearing almost the entire content of my rucksack; two pairs of trousers, my two tops, my fleece and a raincoat. My beach sarong is tied like a wide belt across my middle region in an attempt to stop cold air sneaking in. But even so, it is a poor defence against the biting cold of the overenthusiastic air conditioning. In desperation I resort to tying a small towel around my legs. It is normally used for wiping off sweat. I hug my daypac to my chest as if my life depended on it. The hood of my fleece and raincoat are both up, over which I place my eye mask. Fluorescent orange ear plugs complete the look. Travel is not a glamorous occupation.
Many years ago, after a succession of similar nightmarish journeys, I made a promise to myself I would never, ever make another night bus journey. I had kept true to that promise for about fifteen years, a decision which created considerable inconvenience and hassle to many of my travel plans. However to get Banaue, my next destination, a night bus was the one and only option. And so I endured a horrible day of extended travel; involving a ferry from Siquijor to Damaguette, a plane from Damaguette to the dreaded Manila and an expensive taxi journey across Manila to a bus terminal which resembled a small refugee camp. This was followed by a tedious five hour wait before the departure hour of 11 pm. Banaue had better be worth it.
When I step off the bus at 7.15 a.m I have to resist a strong urge to jump back on again. It feels like a different country to the one I have just come from. It is wet, cold and utterly miserable, like Ireland on a depressing day in Mid February. The road and pavement resemble a murder scene, splattered with dark reddish brown blotches, I guess it's the spit people produce when they chew beetle nut. People look poorer, leaner, longer haired, mountainy. Many have lips and teeth stained vibrant red by chewing betel nut, something they call momma here From a purely visual perspective, it feels like I could be in India or Nepal, not 'it's more fun in the Philippines'.
At times like this, I have a need to retreat to a warm cosy bed and sleep myself into oblivion. Given this was a day when reality was striking back, the nice places in town were all full and it took me about an hour before I found a place to rest my weary head. A head full of snot I might add; sniffles developed during the bus journey had developed at exponential speed into a full blown head cold. Typical. Although my home for the following few days was quite pretty, it had a strange vibe and a reasonably shitty location beside the chaotic bus station and market area. As It was market day, the busiest day of the week, my attempt to sleep and recover from the horror of the night before was done to the sound of revving engines, drilling, banging, shouting and non stop 1980s soft rock classics. Let me explain. The Filipinos are into karaoke in a very big way. If you are Filipino ( as opposed to Irish or British), you don't need to be drunk, nor does it need to be dark in order for karaoke crooning to take place. It's like putting the kettle on for a cup of tea, it's always the right time, although I think seven thirty in the morning was the earliest my ear drums were assaulted by it. Much to my surprise, I was remarkably accepting of the racket going on around me. I felt it created a tiny bit of balance after three weeks of happy go lucky sunny island life.
When I eventually got up to go explore, Banaue felt really really depressing. Sure it was raining, wet and muddy, strewn with litter and murky red splodges. Sure the town was a miserable collection of half built, raggletaggle buildings a million miles away from photogenic.No problem. But there was something else that got to me, something much less tangible, like a heavy fog of soul destroying negative energy. This feeling was no doubt influenced by the hoards of locals who called themselves 'guides'. Every ten seconds you'd be stopped, " do you want to make a tour?". They were poor and desperate so I'd smile and give them a polite but definite no thank you. One after the other, after the other, after the other. The same happened in the cold and dreary cafés each evening. A constant low level harassment from glassy eyed men, too drunk or stoned to pick up on my 'stay away from me' vibes. It was horrible.
The irony was that I did indeed need to make a tour. The reason I and many other tourists come to godforsaken Banaue is to travel out to the famous rice terraces of Batad. I hold out for two days, hoping for the rain to clear, but on the morning of day 3 I give up and find myself a driver. He is nice; straightforward and not stoned. I am happy. But the road is in a terrible state and the muddy conditions mean the tricycle regularly gets stuck in the quagmire. I have to get out to push on various occasions.I am not happy. It takes a bone rattling hour to make it to what is called the saddle and I then dismount and am directed to a set of stone steps which are to to lead me steeply downward to the tiny village of Batad.
The rain has turned to mizzle which means I am less wet than expected, but I can't really see anything. The descent is steep and quite precarious; it's wet, muddy and slippy and there is nothing to hold on to. I continue my mantra of cursing myself for choosing to come up here to Northern Luzon, such a waste of my time and energy. Forty five minutes later I turn a corner and suddenly there they are, the rice terraces of Batad. Woweeee, and I don't say that very often. I am really really impressed and that doesn't happen very often either. I immediately regret not coming here to stay here for a few days, or even for the night. In reminds me of the time I went trekking in Nepal, carrying my own stuff and sleeping at night in little ' tea houses' , places of rest where the word basic took on a whole new meaning. However the overall experience was pure magic. I just can't get over the beauty of Batad, but alas I don't have long to soak it up as a long and sweaty climb back up to the saddle awaits me.
The next morning I am jumping out of my skin with excitement. I am leaving town. As each mile passes the heavy greyness eases just a little bit more and by the time I reached Bontoc, only two hours away, the sky is brilliant blue and it's scorching. I make a quick detour to the museum to learn about burial practices in the region, knowledge I'm keen to learn before I get to my next destination. I learn a lot more than I was expecting; these people I am with now, here in the Cordilleras are the Igorots; people of the mountains, fiercely independent, fanatical headhunters and resistors of assimilation into the Spanish Empire for three centuries. The area is one of the few places in the Philippines which has preserved its indigenous culture with little Spanish influence. Respect is due.
In Bontoc I crawl onboard a cramped jeepney which will take me to Sagada. Everyone under the age of thirty are sitting on the roof. In the main body of the truck its me, some mums with young children and a shed load of old men and women. I find many of the old women extremely beautiful, stunning in fact, never mind a tad stylish. We are in the middle of the mountains, in the back of beyond, what is going on?The road twists and turns, higher and higher; startling blue skies above, lush vegetation to the left and right, sculptured rice terraces scattered hither and tither. The conditions are so cramped on the jeepney that pins and needles in my feet spread up my entire legs and lower body. When we eventually stop, my lower body is no longer under my control. Much to the amusement of the older contingent, I make a complete fool of myself trying to descend from the truck, dragging my dead legs behind me. I brace myself for another onslaught of aggressive guides, but instead I descend into a scene of calm.
Sagada is gorgeous. It is on an elevated position high in the mountains, but looking down and through other valleys, speckled with small agricultural villages. The light is that bright, vibrant, clear light that you get at high altitude, the air similarity clear and invigorating. The town itself is incredibly pretty and surprisingly orderly; lots of little neat and tidy tin houses with coloured roofs, surrounded by family vegetable plot and rice paddies, backed up by lush vegetation. For some reason it reminds me of Monteverde in Costa Rica. I later learn that the town benefitted hugely from the dedication of the Reverend John Staunton, a 20th century American engineer/priest/ missionary who applied American frontier town zeal to Sagada, building sawmills, kilns and mines, developing state of the art (at the time) infrastructure such as roads, dams and an electricity network. The town remains staunchly Anglican, the only such place in Catholic Crazy Philippines.
My home for the next few days is the Sagada home-stay, a wooden type chalet of the Swiss Alps variety. It is spotlessly clean and cosy and at 300 pesos (a fiver) a night, is the best bargain in the Philippines. It has a little balcony which looks out over the valley and I sit there contently for many hours, sipping away at a bottle of the local syrupy fruit wine, enjoying the cool mountainy air. There is a little fire pit below, used by visiting Filipinos and a bunch of lively backpackers, game for a round of bawdy drinking games. It is soooooooooooo good to not be sweating.
I make some trips with local guides, accessed through the town's two tourist cooperatives. We come across loads of coffins on our travels, some piled up on top of each other inside caves, others actually hanging at a great height outside the cave. The coffins are short as the dead are placed in foetus position for their journey to the next world. As one might say, going out as you came in. At the museum on the previous day I had also learnt about a traditional death rite that was remarkably similar to the Irish wake. In Ireland the body of the recently deceased is returned to the family home for a few days in an open coffin. Everyone comes to pay their last respects, offer their support the the family and most importantly, consume enough tea and sandwiches to sink a small boat. The Filipinos are one step ahead. Or they were. In the 'olden days' the body was placed upright in a chair, often bound with ropes to keep them from falling over and placed in the middle of the house, enabling the deceased to have their final participation in family life, whilst family and friends came to say their goodbyes. I like it. I think!
Sagada is a limestone area and the countryside is littered with cave systems, many of them connected underground for miles and miles. For the adrenaline junkie there are many opportunities to spend hours underground; crawling on their bellies through tiny passages and holes, asphyxiation only tantalising moments away. Nora is a cowardly custard, sorry, is proud to be a cowardly custard and thus chose the least challenging of all the caving opportunities in the area, the Sumaguing caves. Nonetheless she is petrified.
To get a feel for the scene I want you to imagine one of those horrific shows on Tv, the ones where very obese people, in a desperate bid to loose weight, sign up to be publicly humiliated in various ways. One of the regular activities in these sadistic shows seems to the outdoor assault course, in which people with very large undercarriages are asked to crawl through small tunnels on all fours, scale sheer vertical planes on bits of rope, swing through trees, you get the idea. Well, my experience at the Sumaguing caves was a bit like that, except that it was underground. Thus except for the guide's oil lamp, it was done in the pitch dark. And there was no movement of air at all. And I was doing it (as directed) in a pair of flip flops. Flip flops which wouldn't stay put on my muddy feet, flip flops which sent me slipping and sliding on wet, slimy muddy rocks. I spent two hours clambering up rock faces, holding on for dear life, descending down again, praying to St Jude and swearing at the same time. Nine times out of ten I couldn't see where my foot was going next. Crawling through low tunnels commando style, lowering myself through tiny holes and descending into chest high water. My nerves were in tatters. Ropes were used to help me get up really really sheer rock faces, at maybe an 80 degree angle. It was utterly nightmarish and I was completely and utterly petrified. My guide was a gem; while he hardly spoke, he knew to be slow paced and patient with me. We stopped every few minutes in order to me to get my breath back and for my shaking to subside. Occasionally I had the strength to look up and take in the amazing rock formations all around. But not as often as I would have liked. They were something else. If anyone is reading this is planning to visit, don't let me put you off. For many, especially the young and fit, the trip is probably a dawdle. But for me, middle aged Nora, Nora with her poor balance, non existent upper body strength, a moderate fear of heights and lack of fitness, this was a tough call. The best bit being was returning to the surface, alive and in one piece. I was ecstatic; shaking, struggling for breath, soaked in sweat which stunk of fear, but ecstatic. I'd done it, faced another fear. I met a rather poo faced French man on the way back to town. He asked me how I felt. Glad to be alive I replied. He thought I was referring to a general Joie de vive. I meant it literally, happy to be alive, as opposed to dead.
On the way back into town I stop at a gorgeous little cafe, overlooking some nice rice terraces. I am a very happy bunny and am content to sit and ponder life over a huge pot of ginger tea and two obligatory slices of lemon meringue pie. The waitress is 16; glowing with life and curiosity as well a liberal sprinkling of Filipino naughtiness. We get into a mammoth conversation which leads, as it always does in Asia, to my status as a single woman. They say it nicely in the Philippines, " Only one? But where is your companion mam?". When I tell them I don't have one, they assume he is at home. When I say there is no one at home, no husband, no children, a look of torture comes over their faces. My waitress is besides herself with worry, "but who will take care of you when you are old?". I've heard that one many times before and have no answer to reassure her. She takes off into the kitchen and relays the whole story to her cousin, she is about 25 and has just had her first baby. The two of them come out and sit with me at the table. The younger one takes my hand and starts to stroke it. "We are so sad for you mam, so very very sad". I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Probably both would be appropriate.
I have a huge journey to make the next day, 12 hours minimum if the 4 different buses link up. Half way through I have a two hour break in Cervantes, a place where I don't think they see many tall white people with pointy noses. I am treated like a celebrity, with lots of staring, pointing and waving. I partake of Halo Halo, a bizarre Filipino concoction of shaved ice, condensed milk, pasta, beans, bits of jelly and coconut milk. It sounds oh so wrong, but tastes oh so right, except for the pasta. The lady at the stall looks incredulous as I eat, I wait for her to ask for my autograph. A few of the school children who have surrounded the stall give me a little cheer. I could take to celebrity-dom.
The next part of the journey takes me up through numerous mountain passes, verdant with tropical vegetation despite their altitude and then, eventually back down to the coast. I am struck by many of the villages en route; neat and tidy, free of litter and thoughtfully beautified by painted roadside decorations, potted plants and little shrines. Quite a number of them had set up really lovely, creative Christmas displays, often made with the local vegetation. I was impressed. There must be a strong sense of pride in their villages, as well as a community willing to contribute. At Tagudin, I leave the last eight hours of twisty turney mountain roads behind. This is where I connect with the National Highway, where I flag down one of the modern coaches which speed the 250 miles between Manila and Vigan. I'm famished and stop for a quick bite to eat. Three local men pounce on me, " Only one? but where is your companion mam?". Their replies to my "I don't have one" are totally pragmatic, such a contrast to the emotional responses from the day before. Two of the men suggest I take their phone number, which makes me laugh. The other asks my age and then suggests I am no longer marriage material, given my limited mileage for producing babies. Cheeky beggar.
I escape to a plush bus with leather seats and joy of joys, air con. The journey north is beautiful; to the left the South China Sea, to the right a broad plain of rice paddies hemmed in by long narrow brooding mountains. Northern Luzon has been astoundingly beautiful. I'm glad I came after all.
On the flight to Cebu I meet two friendly and well to do women who are keen to offer me a lift downtown when we arrive. They have a lot of warnings about the city and drop me at a central place, close to hotels and safe enough for me to walk around on my own. I am also directed to the Elegant Circle Economy Hotel, a palace of concrete and plastic, no windows and totally artificial in every respect. But it has 24 hour electricity, air con, wifi that works and best of all, hot water. After the basic-ness of life on Palawan, I love it, I love it, I love it. To celebrate having a hot shower and being in the city I put on my nice frock and head out. There are lots of people living on the street including many children. One little boy, about six years old is fast asleep in the middle of the pavement, obviously off his face on something. No one seems to be watching out for him. I have a sick feeling in my stomach. A few beggar children tug at me, I try to protect myself but not be horrible to them. Then some older girls surround me and start tugging at my hair. I wonder what they are doing and realise they are trying to yank off my silver necklace. I think I am most shocked at the fact they are doing this when I am in a busy shopping street and surrounded by people. But I realise they are bored and looking for entertainment, if they really wanted the necklace they would have got it, in fact they would have taken my bag too. They were bored and I was the target for a bit of merriment. I understand this but am still a bit shaken. I try to find somewhere to eat, but the options look like Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds and I'm not willing to venture further afield after what has just happened. I end up in McDonalds, a McDonalds where the air con isn't working and a very old guy is being taken care of by a young Filipino man in a way, with a dynamic that is familiar to me from previous travel in South East Asia, it's Sex tourism. I feel sick and flee, cheese burger in hand, to the safety of my sterilised room. I double lock the door and make a plan to escape the city first thing in the morning.
I screw up with the ferry timetable and miss the one daily sailing to Siquijor. So my options are to wait to the next day or try a contorted route to Siquijor through a variety of other places. It takes me less than a second to decide. At the bus station everyone seems to be staring at me and I don't know why, but it certainly makes me feel uncomfortable. I board a rundown local bus and head out of town, following the coast south. I know that at some point in the journey there is a ferry to the island of Negros, so I hope to jump off there. After five dusty hours we pull up outside a shed and I descend unconfidently. Sure enough a small ferry is waiting and within thirty minutes I have arrived in Dumaguete, or so I think. But apparently it's not Dumaguete and I have no clue where I am. With the help of friendly locals I am loaded and unloaded onto various forms of clapped out tricycles, minivans and trucks and within the hour I am home and dry, having totally enjoyed the adventure of the day.
I check into the Bethel Hotel, a Christian hotel where smoking and drinking are not allowed. Fornication is not mentioned on the 'please refrain from..' signs, so I remain unsure where the management stood on that. I have a single suite; spotlessly clean with all the works, I even have cable tv and sanitised flip flops to wear around my room. What more could a girl ask for?
Given its a Filipino city, Dumaguete is do- able. In fact if it wasn't for the overwhelming heat and humidity I might even say I liked it. Busy streets, a Central square with church and belfry. The market is interesting and is full of little cheapo beauty parlours in which hair dyeing seems to be the whole rage, there ain't a manicure parlour in sight.
The waterfront promenade is full of western restaurants and expats. There are lots and lots of white men in their sixties, with Filipino women. It is a thousand times less shocking than what I've seen before in Thailand and Cambodia; the men aren't quite as old, as ugly, as scary. The women aren't as young, aren't as bought looking. In fact lots of them are probably in longterm relationships, even married. I know sex tourism and mail order brides have been an accepted part of the Filipino economy for a very long time, but that doesn't make it right. And I'm not judging the Philippines. Until the recent-ish past, marriage in Ireland was often a primarily economic transaction. Many young girls were married off to old men with big farms or healthy bank balances. That's the way it was. But knowing that doesn't help. My head starts to get a bit mangled. I notice that I when I look at a white man on his own and over forty, I assume he is here for sex. I might be right, I might be wrong. When the women look at me, I don't know how to read it. Is it just a confident woman looking at another woman? As straightforward as that. Or is it a woman looking to me for approval, for acceptance, I am one of you now? Or is she saying, I know what I am doing, so don't judge me? I have no idea. I would love to talk to the Filipinos about this, get their angle on it, but I don't know anyone well enough to bring up the conversation. I mention it fleetingly, after a few beers, to a tricycle driver. He suggests I go out and get myself a Filipino man.
A few days later I take the ferry to Siquijor. I have a vague plan for when I arrive, a plan which is thrown into total disarray by the strident advice of a German woman I meet on the ferry. Thus I end up on the opposite side of the island to what I had planned, in a little 'resort', down a dirt road. It has four rooms, some chairs and a beach. The beach is rather scrappy but at low ride I am delighted by thousands of sand coloured starfish, camouflaged on the shore. Their movement is sensual, sensuous, rather than rigid and uptight. The water is extremely shallow and warmer than tepid, but swimming is off the agenda because the water is littered with sea urchins. When the heat dies down in the afternoons I stroll along the beach, gentle wind in face, singing along to my iPod and reminding myself of my mother Eileen. There is absolutely nothing to do and I find it hard to stay awake past 8 o clock, one beer and some food and I'm knocked out. Generally I spend my evenings sitting on a deck chair, getting eaten alive by unnamed insects. The electricity cuts out on the second and third nights ( they call it a brown out) and I notice the fireflies around the mangrove tree, an unexpected little piece of magic. It's lovely but I have a constant feeling that I am not making the most of being in the Philippines, that all this lounging around is not where it's at.
Next morning I stagger up to the main road where a man with a machine awaits me. One of the draws of Siqujor is that it has a decent paved road around the entire island and very little traffic. I'd met a few people who had rented a motorbike and loved the experience, so my intention had been to do likewise and enjoy the freedom. I'd never riden a moped before and the owner of the shop is openly pessimistic about my prospects. He stands shaking his head, huffing and puffing, he doesn't think I'll be able. His wife is in the background, full of encouragement, it took her a while to learn so why shouldn't I. I ask to be given a lesson and when this is done, jump onboard full of anxiety. I can't regulate the throttle at all and I'm either unable to get the bike to move or taking off at 100 miles an hour down the dirt track. I can't get the bloody thing to balance properly either, nor can I manage to turn it around on the lane. Husband and wife are nervously chasing after me, I can tell he is gritting his teeth and she is willing me on, for the sake of the sisterhood. I am drenched in sweat, even by ten o clock the heat is unbearable and my nervous system is pumping at overload. I suggest I sit in the shade for a while; drink some water, cool down, calm my nerves and then have another go. But when I do, I as am as disastrously bad as before and I know that if I rent the moped I will end up killing myself or someone else. So I admit defeat, offer the guy a few pesos for his time and lurch off, feeling about seven years old and wanting to cry my eyes out. I'm in a fury now and stomp back to pack my bags and get the hell out of there.
A gallon of sweat later I'm in an open top pick up truck and on my way to the town of Laurena. When I get there I buy a bottle of rum for 50p and hop in another truck for a ride to Siquijor town. Two more gallons of sweat later I arrive and find my way to the shared tricycle depot. Tricycles are totally amazing contraptions; basically a motorbike with a metal chassis for passengers over the top. They offer an ear splitting and bone-shaking ride and ladies, a strong support bra is highly recommended. I'd been on them loads of times, but never in a shared one. So now was my chance. The driver is on the bike, with two people sitting behind him. In the side cab is myself, three other adults and a child. My large bag and everyone else's shopping is on the roof. Initially the ride is exciting, then it gets uncomfortable, then it is nightmarish. Half an hour later I have to be pulled out of the cab. The place I want to stay is full and I end up in a run down motel which I fear is a knocking shop, but it will have to do. The room is bright and has a mirror and I am very frightened at the creature looking back at me. Despite December being one of the coolest months of the year, I am in constant struggle with the heat and humidity. I am permanently shinny, looking like I am doused in turkey fat and my hair has turned into a construction which resembles a collection of used Brillo pads. Sweat stained clothes and a constant pong just add to the overall effect. I make the decision to avoid looking in mirrors, it's the only thing for it really.
The next few days are great. I check into a room at another 'resort' run by an entertaining Filipino woman, her German husband and a gaggle of female staff in their early twenties. The girls are fun; bright and sassy, confident, lively and always laughing. They can stand up for themselves too. I like that about Filipino women, they don't take anything too seriously and have a fantastic sense of humour, but they pull no punches when they need to.
A few minutes walk away is a really posh hotel, replete with its own marine reserve, open to non residents for diving and snorkelling. At reception I am allocated to a female member of staff dressed in the hotel uniform, a foxy long black dress and hand bag. We walk through the beautiful grounds to the snorkel hire place, laughing all the way. Initially it isn't promising, I can't see anything but sea grass, but when it clears, once again my breath is taken away. Fish, lots of fish, canary yellow ones, cobalt blue ones, orange, red, black, even completely clear ones. Some are enormous, about the size of my torso, which scares me a bit. A school of fish casually swim past, no colour except for a very large black dot on their flank. Relaxed fish, in no rush to get anywhere, God it's such a privilege. My favourite cobalt blue starfishes are plentiful here; each must have their own personality or mood because some are rigid, standing to attention in typical starfish pose, others are lounging against rocks in a more sensual fashion. They are often near groups of ginormous sea urchins, with spikes maybe fifty centimetres long. They remind me of unexplored World War Two bombs, lying in wait.
Every night I walk fifteen minutes along the main road to a restaurant that serves good food. I love the walk. It is lined with people's houses, the odd little grill place and a few sari sari shops. People are lounging around; texting, chatting, combing their hair, listening to the radio. I am constantly amazed at all the greetings I receive; the waves, the "good evening mam", the big smiles. However I am not the main initiator of these greetings, sure I smile at the usual suspects like kids out playing, but in the main I want to leave people in peace, to let them get on with their quiet evening. I am so charmed at this natural friendliness. So charmed by the starry sky as I walk there and back. I feel almost completely safe; a woman on her own, walking down a dark road at night, in the Philippines. A challenge to many peoples perceptions I would guess. I think about Central American and the need for danger assessment at every corner, that low lying fear being always in my belly. Cebu and Manila were rough, but that's been it. Occasionally I see men or woman who look a bit scary, it's mainly men and it's mainly because they are poor and look malnourished and unkempt. My response it to flash them a big smile. Immediately they are like puppy dogs, big eyes, big smiles and if they had tails, they would be wagging. All credit to the Philippines and it's people.
One day I hire a tricycle and driver to take me round the island. We head up to Mount Bandilan, the highest point in the island, I spend an hour swimming at the lovely Cambughay falls and then sit under the island's famous Bayan tree, while fish in the stream beside it nibble at my feet. I have these places all to myself, there is not another tourists in sight. Yet it is supposed to be peak tourist season and these are the main attractions on the island. Everywhere seems so quiet, so empty. When I speak to the locals they say it's business as usual and deny that Typhoon Yolanda or the recent earthquake on nearby Bohol has had any impact on tourist numbers. At my request we drive to a butterfly breeding/conservation place that I have read about on the Internet. It's really tiny and there are only a limited of species, but they are beautiful. The owner is an intelligent and thoughtful character and he tells me there have only been two other visitors this past week. This has been the trend since the Bohol earthquake. The entrance fee is his only income and he tells he may have to close if the situation doesn't change. Whom to believe?
On my final day in Siquijor I take a tour, run by the posh hotel, to Apo Island. The boat trip is lovely and when we get to the island, we don our snorkels and are told to follow a local guide we have been allocated. After a while there is a bit of a commotion and in the blurry distance I see what is supposed to be a turtle swim past. I don't take much notice. I've been told we will see turtles, but I take that with a pinch of salt. I swim off and a minute or so later I am two arms length away from a huge turtle, it's head is bigger than mine, it's body really huge. I really can't believe this is happening. Soon there are a lot of us all hoovering around it and I feel like we are caging him in, so I swim off, ecstatic to have had my moment and content to enjoy even more beautiful coral and amazing fish. As I'm pottering, all on my lonesome, a big turtle swims past me, just like that. I let him pass me by and when I turn around to look back there are two more of them, merrily going their way, off to do their shopping or something. I am such a lucky girl. The final snorkel is after lunch, in a really deep part of the sea. The coral here is probably the most spectacular that I've seen and the whole experience is enriched by our guides. My favourite, dressed in an outfit of trousers, t shirts and flip flops, takes off like a seal, diving down really deep, flip flops now in his hands, occasionally, naughtily, balancing on his tippy toes on a coral tree. Part fish, part old man really and a total joy to behold. Half way through the trip back to Siquijor the staff are at the front of the boy, singing and madly clapping. They are a great bunch, lively and fun and irreverent, but I wonder what all the commotion is about. Then I know. Suddenly we are surrounded by a school of dolphins, not five or ten like I have seen before, but forty to fifty. They are swimming on all sides, close to the boat and far away, jumping up into the air, twirling their tails, showing off. It goes on for an age, it is really beautiful and I am almost in tears. Like I said many times before, I am a lucky girl.
So yes, my three weeks in the Phillipines had offered me many an idyllic moment. Yet, at the very back of my head I was still unsatisfied with my experience there. I think I needed a dose of Filipino reality, a sense of Filipino life not involving beaches, glorious sunsets and mango juice. Sometimes I need to more careful about what I wish for.
I arrive into Manila at ten in the evening and despite the protection of an upmarket metered taxi, am immediately scared witless. A 4k drive from airport to hotel takes about an hour and we pass by scenes in which feral type people crawl out of the darkness. I am often impressed by the dignity of people who live in poverty; despite their living conditions and lack of resources they somehow manage to have gleaming white shirts for their children to wear to school, freshly washed hair in the morning, bright curtains in the window of their shack. I have absolute admiration for them. But this was different; utter squalor, utter poverty, utter degradation.
The hotel I have booked is grim and when I ask where I can buy some beer, one of the staff suggests she accompanies when I leave the compound. When I eventually get to bed I can't figure out how to turn the air con down and I end up spending the night freezing my balls off, wearing all my clothes and wrapped in the hotel towels. Next morning the hotel fail to provide me with their minibus back to the airport (one of the reasons I booked them) and the cab I hail a cab tries to rip me off big time. Not a good start.
Back at the airport, I take a one hour flight to Palawan, one of the Philippines 7000 islands and the most Westerly in the Philippine archipelago. I fly with Zest air, a branch of the budget airline Air Asia, with whom I will fly with on probably another ten occasions before I return home. The stewardesses are something else, dressed in skimpy red outfits clinging to every curve. Zest Air are proud of these outfits; in the inflight magazine they rave about the technical qualities of the fabric they are made of, apparently at altitude it allows the body to expand and contract at ease, as well as allowing the skin to breathe more easily. Me arse. The girls were pinned into them; the mini skirts just about covering their posteriors, their knicker lines fully on show. The top was held together by a single white zip running straight from the boob line to just below the navel, teasingly ready to pop at any moment. The headline of the current Philippine tourism campaign is ' Its more fun in the Philippines', well based on those outfits, I couldn't really disagree. I'm surprised Michael Ryan didn't beat them to it. Watch this space eh.
I like Puerto Princessa airport; it's small, provincial, friendly. I have booked myself into a nice hotel for a few days and they are there waiting for me. Oh I do enjoy travelling in style. I am driven through town in a huge jeepney, by an almost as huge man who gives me the low down on what I need to know. I immediately notice there is absolutely no litter on the streets, something which is repeated in many towns through the islands, something I was not expecting. I have a lovely room; my own room, air con, a fridge, tv, bottled water, but after I recline on the comfy bed for an hour or two I realise i don't quite know what to do with myself. On the tv I am faced with wall to wall coverage of Typhoon Yolanda, which hit only a week ago. Although Yolanda passed very close to Palawan, only 12 kilometres off its north coast, it was not affected. Other than a box outside the airport collecting donations for disaster relief, there are no obvious signs that anything untoward has happened. Indeed if it hadn't been for the occasional TV in my room and concerned messages from home, I would have been oblivious to the fact that the Philippines was in the midst of a natural disaster.
Puerto Princessa is hot, hectic, noisy and poor. It feels very familiar to me, the trappings of daily life in a hot poor country are the same the world over. There is a huge trade in used clothing, the more decent stuff is slung on hangers but most are in piles on the floor, 10 pence for a pair of trousers, that sort of thing. There are little shack like shops every few metres, selling very little except sachets of shampoo, toothpaste, washing powder and single cigarettes. everything is sold in a small enough size to be affordable, everything just a few pesos. They are identical to those in Central America, except they are not behind a metal grill for protection. Everything is constantly mended and repaired, nothing is discarded. So many shoe menders, alterations seamstresses and a huge industry connected to keeping decrepit old vehicles on the road and moving. My part of town is crammed with garages and mechanics, part shops, tyre centres and something new to me, vulcanisers. What ever a vulcaniser is or does, business seems to be good. Although there are a fair few smoke belching jeepneys on the road, most people are in tricycles ( which I shall explain later, tricycles being my latest obsession) or on motorbikes. For those of you unfamiliar with Asia I should explain that the humble moped or scooter is fit to carry a family of five without difficulty. Dad will be driving, with the toddler standing on the footrest in the front. Then maybe the seven year old behind, with mum at the rear with the baby on her lap. All un helmeted of course.
I find the heat incredible and am drenched in sweat within seconds. The moment it is wiped away it condenses again and I notice that I begin to reek of a strong odour after a very short time outside. Yuk. So the next morning I try to head out early before the heat kicks in. Although three days here was supposed to be about chilling out after my mad dash through Japan, I realise I am bored and just filling in the the time really. What shall i do? I had my legs waxed yesterday, so why not a pedicure today?
The Main Street has plenty of run down saloons to chose from, all offering the same services at the same prices. All appear to be empty, so I take pot luck. The lucky saloon which get my pesos is staffed by a variety of lady boys, all with differing degrees of 'ladyness'. The jewel in the crown is as thin as a whippet, wearing painted on red jeans and killer orange stilettos with a diamanté ankle piece. She is wearing hair extensions but as yet no makeup. This allows her to spend most of her time plucking away at chin hair with a pair of tweezers. The others could be described as reasonably unfortunate looking creatures, even if they had remained being male. One is wearing make up, but with a mans hair do. The other has no make up but spends her time, straightening irons in hand, peering and pouting at herself in the mirror. There is a straight guy, watching sport on tv and a dowdy straight woman who is manicuring my feet. I am the only customer in the saloon, but they all ignore me asides from Bet Lynch. With a toss of her hair extensions she asks me where I am from, but goes back to plucking her chin before I can answer. By the time I leave two of them are asleep. I pay my 150 pesos, less than two pounds and depart. Sure it was half the price of a cup of coffee in Japan, but it was no fun at all.
I eventually escape to Sabang, basically a small square with a basketball court, a rocky foreshore and a stunning beach. The colours are so strong, so bright, so intense, it really is startling. And the wind is wild. I drink it in, God, it is soooo good to be out of the city. I check into a place with a few rooms and a balcony overlooking the basketball court and the ocean. Downtown you might say. The beach to the right is a beautiful crescent of white sand, lined with palm trees, there are two posh hotels, a few budget resorts and lots of massage tents, open to the elements. The locals live to the left. It's all so sparse, so low key, so relaxed. In Central America you had almost to show your bank balance to get within a mile of a golden beach, so this seems sooo good. How come no one is there? I sit on the quay front for dusk; the sea is on three sides, the mountains on the fourth. The local guys are playing basketball. It all seems very easeful, very gentle. This is what I learn to love about the Philippines, gentleness and ease.
I am woken by golden sunlight and gentle human stirrings at six the next morning.I walk along the beach and into into forest, I have a date with a canoe at 8. My canoe tour of the mangrove swamps is lovely. I am charmed by my slightly greying guide and paddler. I learn about mangroves sure, but it is the gentle movement through the landscape that does it for me. I wander back along the beach, have breakfast and watch swarms of minivans arrive, bearing tourists for the departure point for their tour of the famous Underground River.
The underground river is one of the Philippines biggest tourist destinations. Apparently it has just been named as one of the eight great 'natural wonders' of the world. From Sabang you take a very choppy bangka ride to the entrance of the cave, where you then transfer to a canoe for your paddle through it. Sadly my entire experience was ruined by two spoilt, surly young Americans which whom I had the misfortune to share my boat. They slouched around, rolling their eyes in a superior fashion and muttering anti Filipino sentiments, not quite under their breath. The younger one sat in a constant state of recline, open legged, whilst rolling a toothpick around his mouth like he was a goddam character out of Deliverance. In summary, Total assholes. What can I say about the underground river? It was big, deep, cavernous, sulphuric smelling. That's it. For something I had been really looking forward to, it's a shame. A shame that I let myself be influenced by their horribleness. That night I notice I am covered in bites. Next morning I count. About fifty. Raw and raging. Whether they are from the beach, the mangrove swam or my room, I have no idea. Buts it's not good.
The next morning I pay a lot of money to take a bangka to Port Barton. Bangka is the Tagalog word for boat and they come in one variety in this part of the world, a type of outrigger canoe that looks like an insect. Given the rough sea conditions they seem very flimsy, but with my history of sailing disasters, who am I to have an opinion. However I assume that for this much longer journey we will be travelling in a bigger, more substantial bangka than yesterday. Nope. Waves crash over the side and we are wet before he journey even begins. Thank god it is only two and a half hours. With each passing few minutes the sea gets rougher, the waves bigger, the amount of water entering the boat, greater and greater. The English couple at the front are drenched. Eventually a tarpaulin is placed over our rucksacks but the water runs off it and onto the floor, the floor in which the bags are sitting. It's tough going; rocky, wet, blasted by water and sun and the noise of the engine is deafening. The two malnourished looking boatmen keep having to fill the engine with kerosene they keep in a glass bottle, at times they do this with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. I have to look away.
Five hours later we have not arrived, but soon afterwards we pull into a settlement. The boat drivers don't look as if they know what they are doing. Someone in another boat waves an arm and we pull out again and round to the other side of the port. I start to get anxious about what is going on. Then with another wave of an arm we are pulling out of port. The English gut points out a sign on land. It's says San Vincente. Scanning my guide book I note it is 15km north of where we are supposed to be. What? It explains the five hour journey, but how can a boatman not have realised they have missed the mark, for a full 15 km. I have no confidence in the boat men now, no confidence that they can find the right place. I worry about the fuel, the boatmen are poor and will have brought enough diesel to get them there and no more. Will they have the diesel to get us to where we are supposed to be? We head back in the direction we came. All of us are anxious, most of us bursting for a wee. We crawl along the coast, every little cluster of house we scrutinise for a. Port Barton sign. An hour later I spot a telecommunications mast and what looks like a posh villa. Surely that must be Port Barton? The men don't seem to be paying any attention and I am despairing. Then just as we are about to pass the boat seems to hardly move. One of the boat men dives in and comes up with the propellor in his hand. It has broken. I utter deep sighs and begin my prayers to the deities. Half an hour later, six hours late, we pull into an utterly perfect crescent of golden sand. I see a sign saying Jambalaya. I scan my guidebook, it's Port Barton.
The Port Barton beach is something else, a crescent of golden sand, tepid water and a lack of strong currents which makes it very swim able. It's also dead quiet, I'd say twenty of so foreigners and that's it. I bag a Nippa Hut for 700 pesos, it's a bed with a mosquito net and that's it. You can see through the bamboo floor and onto the ground below, which freaked me slightly in relation to the possibility of furry visitors during the night. But I'm getting used to conditions on Palawan, cold water showers and electricity from 6pm to midnight only, I can cope. But I feel terrible tonight, shaky, and nauseous. I wonder if I've got malaria, heatstroke or some toxic reaction to all those bites.Then I begin to worry about how I will get to a decent hospitable for treatment. I go to bed at eight and ponder death in a foreign land. I sleep blissfully for 12 hours sleep; next morning my period has arrived and I realise that last nights nausea was motion sickness. I'm not going to die after all! So I celebrate by spend the day doing vey little and enjoy it all immensely.
Next day I do an island hoping boat trip. It's just myself and a lovely Spanish couple. The sea is calm and we move between tiny islands, blobs of white sand with the odd palm tree thrown in for good measure. But we are mainly here because of the coral and the snorkelling opportunities. The water is gorgeously tepid and while there aren't many fish, there is coral like I've never seen before. It like a magic kingdom under the water, like a forest of sedum plants, cauliflowers or human brains of all shapes, varieties and colours. It amazes me that I can see so much when the back of my head is still out of the water. Its amazing how perception totally changes under water; depth, distance, colour, temperature are totally different and then, one tilt of your head, face out of the water, and you are back in above water perception. At another stop we are treated to an abundance of tropical fish; lots of yellow and black ones with stripes, blues, canary yellows. I see my first ever cobalt blue star fish, what a thrill. We stop off on a couple of tiny Palm fringed islands, it's beautiful and the company is soft and gentle. I speak with the boatman, he is in his late twenties, trained to be a teacher, but gave it up for a simpler life. What a beautiful day.
Next morning I take my first proper jeepney ride. To me, jeepneys are quintessentially Filipino. Structurally they are army jeeps, left behind by the Americans at the end of the Second World War. They were stripped down and reconverted to meet local needs; metal roofs were added for shade, the back seats were reconfigured into two long parallel benches to create more space and of course they were decorated with vibrant colours and chrome plated ornaments for extra pazzaz. Definitely a cousin of the Central American chicken bus, they seemed a bit tougher, a bit less forgiving.
Thankfully my journey is only a few hours and not as uncomfortable as I was expecting. The only issue is that it is raining heavily and the red dirt track is soon a red mud track. The driver and his assistants have to dig us with shovels on two occasions, but it doesn't take long. Within minutes of arriving at Roxas, a minivan heading to my next destination, El Nido arrives. On the bus is Annie, recently arrived from Ubud in Bali, a place where I hope to spend a few weeks resting and relaxing next month. She gives me the name of a great place to stay for next to nothing, as well as a driver to pick me up at the airport. What a gift.
El Nido is as lively as it gets in Palawan, fully Filipino, but with a subtle accent of backpacker. Over the few days I am there I grow to like it. I'm staying at a place recommended to me, on a beach about fifteen minutes out of the town. It's a bugger to be away from the action and the beach is completely shitty, a thin strip of non descript rubble, but it is redeemed by views like this at sunset.
Next day I'm on another island hopping/ snorkelling trip. It's three times the price of the Port Barton one, there are at least thirty of us onboard and the atmosphere reeks of rip off. So many enticingly named places await us; Paradise Island, Secret Beach, Hidden Cove, but the reality is that where ever we go, there are at least another three to four boats also packed to the gills with tourists. Take for example Secret beach. You jump off the boat and swim to a small hole at the bottom of a huge outcrop of rock. Treading water you wait till it's your turn to swim through, being careful not to cut yourself on the sides. What awaits you is a sandy beach in a sheltered lagoon and maybe seventy other tourists paddling about. It was not my cup of tea at all. But the landscape was beautiful, craggy grey limestone islands jutting out of startlingly turquoise sea. During a big rainstorm in which we all got drenched (but in a good, exciting sort of way) the intense greyness of the clouds really deepened the intensity of the blue green sea. Sadly my camera is not talented enough to really capture this. And another thrill was had, I spotted my first Clown Fish ( of Saving Nemo fame) feeding off a bit of coral. What a kick.
My time in Palawan is up and I'm next heading to a really large group of islands called the Visayas. It had originally been by intention to travel by slow boat, but the extensive network of ferries in the Philippines is on its very last legs. Poor safety records, the risk of piracy and competition from budget airlines means that hardly anyone wants to use them anymore. So I was booked on a flight instead, flying to Cebu City on Cebu island where I would attempt to make my way by ferry to a small island called Siquijor.
The ferry to Shikoku is very pleasant; the views of the inland sea are beautiful and I feel very calm and content, like I am really getting into the groove of travelling in Japan. After arriving I get the train to downtown Matsuyama. It has a tram system which I can't figure out, so I decide to walk through the lengthy covered shopping arcade, so typical of Japan, to get me to a stop that I know will take me to the suburb of Dogo. Maybe it's my imagination, but in the space of a ten minute jaunt through the arcade, the people seem friendlier. I stop to buy some locally grown oranges from a old but spritely man who has a little fruit and vegetable stall. He initiates a huge smile and offers an enthusiastic hello. I nearly topple over.
I enjoy the dander through the arcade and board a lovely old wooden tram to my destination, Dogo Onsen. When I end up back at the train station I realise I have taken it in the wrong direction. This is not a problem for the ever so polite conductor, no need for another ticket, I am to remain on the tram and head back in the right direction.
I love Dogo immediately, I wander up through an arcade selling touristy nicnaks, a left turn past a fantastic supermarket, a right turn up a residential street and I'm at Sen guesthouse, my favourite accommodation in Japan. The place is run by a young couple, he American, she Japanese. It is full of cool furnishings and decor collected from their travels and is flooded with light. They have an amazing kitchen which I load up with fresh fruit, yoghurt, cheese and other western goodies from the supermarket, goodies which I consume with relish every morning during marathon breakfast sessions. Even better, my bed has a memory foam mattress and pillow, it's own little power point to charge electronic equipment and a curtain to give privacy. And I get the dorm to myself. Result.
I'm in Dogo because it's an onsen resort. To simplify the concept hugely, I'd say an onsen is another form of naked communal, scrubbing, cleaning and steeping in hot spring water, albeit a posher experience than visiting the neighbour sento. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen, which are now big business in the Japanese domestic tourism market. Couples, families and company groups flock to them, seeking relaxation and an escape from hectic city life. There are many onsen in the Dogo area, hence why it's called a resort and people seem to be here for a few days, sampling the delights of a number of places. I am very amused to see gaggles of them, wading around town in their yukatas (a causal cotton kimono-esque dressing gown) white, two toed socks and geta (wooden clogs). I feel like I have walked into a movie set, a comedy one. Sadly my limited funds mean I can only visit one, so I choose the Dogo Onsen Honkan, the oldest hot spring in Japan.
After my sento experience in Tokyo I feel like an old hand, as I confidently lock my shoes away and buy my ticket. I opt for one step up from the pauper experience, buying a ticket which asides from the soak, includes the loan of a yukata and permission to recline in the second floor saloon. Apparently I will also be served green tea and rice crackers. The changing area is hectic, crowded with people coming and going, the scrubbing area is larger and a bit more upmarket than the sento and the soaking is done in one large, ornate mosaic pool. There are probably forty or fifty women there at any one point, a mixture of classes but definitely a wealthier bunch than in Tokyo, I guess mostly tourists like me. Now that I am more at ease with the right way to do things I can relax and take it all in; not just the heat and humidity, the sense of being properly steam cleaned, but all those lovely non saggy, pert breasted, cellulite free bodies. A few days ago I was describing this experience to a Japanese woman who was curious as to my experience of onsens. She was dumbfounded at my positive take on the Japanese female body. She told me that Japanese women hate their small boobs and lack of curves, how they desire a 'western' body, long and lean but replete with luscious bums and boobs. Ahhh I thought, the 'Barbie' bodies you see in the media. So I told her about cellulite and love handles and what a muffin belly looked like and invited her to come stay with me in Ireland and have a proper look.
The next day I venture further out of town, where there are a number of lovely walks and temples to visit. Near the end, I am huffing and puffing my way up a steep set of stone steps to a temple, just as a party of school children, aged about ten, are trickling down. They are all stoney faced. My brain is doing its usual; marvelling at the lack of apparent curiosity, or their ability to mask it, when out of the line steps a very brave boy. He addresses me in English, "Good morning, what is your name? Where are you from?" I see his teacher and the other children stop, jaws dropped, not quite believing what has just transpired. I reply and ask him the same questions back, to which he is replies in excellent English, beaming away and confident as you like. My inner drama queen, developed through twenty years of working with children, kicks in. I pull an exaggerated face, holler a very loud wow, clap my hands, the works. The other kids start cheering for him, everyone including the teachers are clapping. Mark my words, that boy will go far.
I think that experience was a turning point in my time in Japan. I felt the country warmed to me and I warmed to the country, warmed to the extent that I could now say, officially, I like Japan!. Wheyhey!
A train ride up the west coast of Shikoku took me to the city of Takamatsu. At the tourist information desk, a lively inhabitant proudly told me of the city's Saint Patricks day parade last year, their first ever. Whilst I remained unclear as to why the city needed a Saint Patricks day parade, I was amused at her clarity about the size of the Irish population there. Three. Two men and a woman. Such was her enthusiasm that I felt guilty, almost apologetic about just using the city to get to another place. At times I am a terrible softy.
My destination that day was the small island of Naoshima, home to a few hundred people, a couple of general stores, three superb contemporary art museums and an interior landscape scattered with many large scale art installations! Like many other small islands in Japan, depopulation had meant that Naoshima was slowly ebbing out of existence. But in stepped a forward thinking regional revitalisation program, backed by a wealthy art corporation, now a major force in revitalising island communities. With time, this really really unique island experience took shape.
I arrive into Miyanoura port just as dusk is descending. It appears to be the seafront and a couple of lanes running back from it. It is deadly quiet and there doesn't seem to be anyone anywhere. I can't quite get my head around what might be in store. When I check into my accommodation I find a Japanese tv crew in the foyer, they are desperate to talk to foreigners about their experience of the island. I reluctantly agree. What follows is a comedic thirty minutes of mutual misunderstanding. Most of their questions relate to how I have experienced the island. I keep trying to tell then that I have just arrived and haven't seen the bloody island, but their English is not sufficient to get what I am saying. I keep laughing, necessitating numerous breaks in filming and when the owner arrives, who speaks English, I can't stop rolling my eyes and pulling faces at the whole shambles. When the debacle is over they ask if they join me on my trip around the island the next day. Oh how I start to laugh. By the way, I was not flattered by this request, viewing it as some reflection of my charismatic personality or on screen beauty. It's called pure desperation.
They are there next morning at breakfast, waiting for some fresh victims. I almost feel sorry for them. But it's time to jump on a bike and go find out what this place is all about. I cycle on the main road, almost devoid of traffic, through countryside, clusters of houses, small farms; normal, everyday, slow paced rural life. Thirty minutes later I arrive in the small fishing village of Honmura where several old houses, a temple and a shrine, all scattered amongst normal neighbourhood housing, have been turned into art installations. I have visited a lot of art installations in my time, especially in my twenties, desperately trying to be interesting and cool. I'm a bit cynical about the majority of them now. What I saw in Honmura was enjoyable, interesting, a great way to spend a few hours and a brilliant brilliant way to get income generating tourists to visit the island for the day. I have a snack and jump back on the bike for another gentle enough cycle to the Benesse House Museum; a stunning piece of contemporary architecture and home to some really nice art. I walk through it slowly, this is the second ten pound entrance fee I have paid today and I have more to come. The islands icon, the Pumpkin is there, swarming with people trying to get the perfect picture. And the camera crew and two young, sensible looking Europeans.
Back on the bike and it's a steep drive uphill. I have to get off and push and push and push. I'm quite high up in the mountains and am certain that I've gone the wrong way, surely they wouldn't build anything in a place that's as inaccessible as this. But lo and behold another beautiful building comes into view. It's the Lee Ufan Museum, in the most glorious position in the middle of nowhere. It's twenty quid to get in, no way Jose, so I peddle off, feeling stingy. The road curves round and down and with relief I realise I'm heading back to Miyanoura, just in time for the sun setting. Before dinner I head to the island's sento. As expected it is off beat, arty farty and funky, although I still manage to get told off by the custodian for some footwear violation. I had a brilliant day; a chance to experience quiet island life, a chance to be out in nature, a chance to experience art you might find in a top class museum in a major city, a chance to exercise, all rolled into one. Like I have said many times before, the Japanese do things well. That night I slept in a four bed dorm, housed, I kid you not, within a shipping crate. It was quite comfy, but cold and I thanked God I had no dorm mates. I would loved to have stayed a few days, to just hang out, but my time in Japan was running out.
Over the past few pages I have been very kind and generous to Japan. But now I need to share some of my irritations and frustrations. Let me begin by saying the word slippers. Six months ago Slippers was just another word in my footwear vocabulary. Post Japan, mention the word slippers and I can become overcome with emotion ranging from minor irritation to anger and rage! Let me begin to explain.
When you enter a home, your hostel, sometimes a museum, sometimes a shop, it is the correct etiquette to remove your shoes. Rather than walk bare footed, it is also the correct etiquette to wear a pair of hideous slippers, which are provided for you. If that was it, I could cope. But it's not. Say that after ten second seconds you get to the living space or perhaps your bedroom, basically any area that has tatami mats flooring, then you have to remove your slippers. Deep breath Nora. Then Lo and behold you realise you need to pee, so you leave your room, put on your slippers and walk to the loo, hoping to not come across any tatami flooring during the journey. By the loo door you will find a pair of toilet slippers. To me these look identical to the other slippers, but somehow they are not. So, off comes the normal slippers, on go the loo slippers, sit on the pot, wee, flush chain, remove loo slippers, put on normal slippers, walk ten metres, remove slippers. Jesus H. Christ. What is wrong with these people?
Of course rules are there to be broken and I merrily wore the wrong footwear on many an occasion, but only when I thought I wouldn't be caught. Being caught would not be pleasant. During a four week stay I witnessed only four 'showings' of strong emotion from the Japenese. All four were linked to my breaking of the footwear code; all involved me accidentally standing on wooden floors while still in my shoes and all involved a distressed person coming running towards me looking as if they had lost their only child. Hhhhmmmnn.
Before Kyoto, my final destination, I make a quick detour to Koya San, one of Japan's holiest mountains. The journey offers quite a build up, a rickety train climbing higher and higher into the mountains, followed by a dramatic cable car to the top. My head is full of romantic images of the hundred or so monasteries, perched on the edge of steep cliffs and swathed in mist. The reality is that the weather is pretty gloomy and by the time I get to the top, heavy rain has kicked in. It's also freezing. I have to then get a bus to my lodgings and am completely dispirited by the big main road being lined with tourists shops. However I am rewarded by the lovely Koyasan guest house. On the outside it looks like a small tin cow shed, on the inside is a cool and funky contemporary space. I climb into my my own pod, with the most luxurious comfy mattress and duvet I have ever had the pleasure to get intimate with. I could lie there till Check out time the next day but I have a date with some chanting monks at dawn the next morning.
At four thirty a.m I am scuttling through the Okunion, the ancient cemetery of the mountain and home to over 200000 graves. All on my lonesome, I wonder who I should be frightened of the most, the living or the dead. Obviously it's pitch dark, but the path is lit by lanterns and after thirty nervy minutes and jumping out of my skin on only four occasions, I find myself at the ceremonial hall of the monastery. It's time for dawn prayers. It's all very simple, ten chanting monks, two devotees, myself and ten thousand oil lamps. Yip, ten thousand. The lamps are donated by the faithful and like those on the path, are kept constantly alight, they say two of them having been burning since the 11th century. Their glow is golden but muted and I find it all impossibly magical
When the service is over the darkness has lifted and I spend time wandering through the cemetery, scattered with 200000 stone stupas of all shapes and sizes, intermingled with ancient cedar and pine trees trees. It's like a huge jungle of mossy stone and wood. I don't see another soul (living or dead) in the two hours that I spend there. As you may guess from the pictures, I am very drawn to the stone deities draped in brightly coloured bibs. Their colours are such a treat for the eyes, amongst all the muted greys, greens and browns. I later learn that the bibs are placed there by those who have lost children, with the prayer that Ojizo-San, who I assume is some form of deity or spirit, will watch over them as a surrogate parent.
After breakfast and a very quick nap I head out to explore some of the other religious sites. There are some lovely colours to be seen, but I find everything energy draining and the weather is miserable, like a proper depressing Irish November day. Before I depart I head back to the cemetery for another fix. The place is crawling with large tour groups, at least about twenty of them. The tour leaders don't have megaphones like they do in China, but they shout so loudly they don't seem to need them. Get me out of here.
I descend back down the mountain, take the slow train to Osaka and then my final bullet train of the journey to Kyoto. Japan and it's railways are something else.
I am greeted in Kyoto station by piercing cold and a tiny little old man on an escalator, who swears he was a Professor of Linguistics and Syntax at Trinity College, Dublin. I don't know whether to believe him or not, but when I eventually shake him and his enthusiasm off, I notice he is following behind me at a distance. I am chuckling away to myself when I enter the tourist information centre, heaving with tourists and much to my amazement, find Karen, an old colleague Karen, who is there on holiday with her family. I haven't seen her for nearly ten years. Professor Hito emerges from the crowds, seizes his opportunity and pounces on each and every one of them, taking over the show entirely. We have to escape to a nearby restaurant for a catch up and it's nearly ten at night before I get to my accommodation for the night, a capsule hotel! I am very excited.
The staff of 'First Cabin' capsule hotel are dressed as air stewards and stewardesses, of the old pre RyanAir times, when air travel was still glamorous. They speak perfect English and check me if for my first class cabin experience (as opposed to business class). I am given an electronic key to wear round my neck and am directed to the women's floor. Much to my surprise my capsule is far from a coffin like pod into which I need to climb. It's a decent sized room with almost a double bed, crisp white sheets, a locker, tv and even my own pyjamas to lounge in. The thing that makes it a capsule rather than room is that it is a plastic pod and has a curtain rather than a door to go in and out of. The communal bathrooms are huge, spotless and space age ish, with free Sheisedo products with which to beautify yourself. I have a fantastic shower, slather myself in expensive body lotion and don my pyjamas to go buy a beer in the vending machine and use the wifi. I bloody love it and it's just a few quid more than my dormitories have been costing, What a great way to be leaving Japan.
I'm staying in modern Downtown Kyoto; large, broad, heaving, modern shopping streets interlaced with an intricate network of small lanes and roads full of all sorts of shops, services and cafés. I like this about Japan. Big and small together. Modern and old together. Kyoto has the added delight of being peppered with little shrines and temples, tiny things crammed into tiny spaces. They seem more colourful than elsewhere; more lanterns, more lucky charms, more quirks, more character. A visit to the Nishiki koji food market is lovely, so so much food for sale and as always in Japan, everything is exquisitely presented. But asides from the green tea there are no strong smells. That's what makes it different to all other countries in Asia; yes the same obsession with food exists, but minus the noxious odours that knock you for six. Maybe it's a good metaphor for Japan, nothing too strong, obnoxious, offensive. On the surface that is, I have no clue as to what might lie beneath. I have lunch in my favourite type of eatery; 1970s Formica furniture, pictures of the food on the walls, customers from every walk of life and a mean feed for less than a fiver. After the initial thril of being in sopping heaven, I find moving through all the consumerism quite soul destroying, especially because I can't afford anything. Nonetheless the next day I return to a classic local store to buy a yukata I'd fallen in love with. Although reduced by 70 % it's still 10000 yen, nearly seventy quid. I like it a lot and imagine walking round my house looking elegant, sophisticated and terribly exotic. I hope my postman will appreciate it.
The vast amount of culture and history in Kyoto is mind boggling. It is crammed to the gills with ancient Buddhist temples, majestic places, gardens of every size and description, art, architecture, tradition. Never mind the Geishas. I hardly knew where to begin and to be honest, found it quite overwhelming to know what to do with my last few days there.
One of my favourite times was lurching around the North Eastern end of the city, late in the evening. It's dark and I don't really know where I am, but then I stumble across a temple which I figure out is Kiyomizu- dera temple, a pretty famous one. The moon is up high in the sky and the views across the city are beautiful. The streets surrounding it are lined with souvenir shops selling beautifully packaged boxes of sweets, purses handkerchiefs, the usual stuff. There are so many people there, but rather than detract from the atmosphere, it adds to it creating a sense of fun and occasion, of celebration. The golden lights from the shops creates a really lovely atmosphere. Everything seems so tasteful, so nice, so atmospheric. I could sit on the street and drink it in for hours but I know it's late and I have no idea how to get back to where I am staying. So I continue wandering in a vague direction, every few minutes tripping up on more temples, pagoda's, shrines, gorgeousness. Eventually I tumble out of the magic and onto one of the neon shopping streets, still going strong at 930 in the evening. I'm not resentful of the neon, like I said before, it's the mixture of old and new, big and small, brash and subdued that makes Japan special.
Fushimi inari temple, a simple ten minute train journey north of downtown was also special. I am immediately mesmerised by the reds, oranges and vermilion's and by the shape and arrangements of the torii gates everywhere. It really is a feast for my eyes and spectacularly photogenic, everyone, including myself, is camera crazy. You climb to the top, through ten thousand, more red tori gates, before descending. It's tough, but glorious.
Like I said before, there was so much to see and so in Kyoto that I often found it overwhelming. I also made some bad decisions about what I visited and what I left out. But I did get many glimpses of magic and I guess it made me want to come back. I felt that I only got to see the tip of the iceberg in Japan, I'll definitely be back at some point in my life, hopefully with a bit more money and some company. But it was time to head off to the Philippines, the poor Philippines, devastated by typhoon Haiyan only the week before.