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The Edge of Paradise

March 15, 2010
by Glen Martin
a large bovine animal in a field

The beauty of the Philippines is apparent to the tourist, but some of its greatest pleasures are reserved for the traveler.

It is another day at the community swimming pool, an Olympic-sized facility dug into the living rock and filled by the partial diversion of a mountain stream. All around us is the jungle—mahogany and narra, palms of many species, lianas and orchids. Birds with brilliant plumage flit through the canopy. Thirty minutes ago it was hot and unbearably humid, and we lolled in the water like manatees. But then the sky fills with lowering clouds, a peal of thunder cracks against the cliffs, and the rain pours down on us. We retreat to some thatched shelters, but in 15 minutes the storm has blown through and the land now steams in the sun.

I look up the canyon and tell my wife I’m going to take a hike. She turns to one of her brothers and bites out a few words in her native Bicol. It is a hot-blooded language, and to my ear, people speaking it always sound on the verge of violence or physical passion. Her brother rouses from a bamboo bench to accompany me.

We walk for maybe a kilometer, following the stream. The birds are bolder here, and some of them shadow us through the foliage. We come upon a small waterfall, arcing into a perfectly circular pool of greenish water. We swim, then hike for another ten minutes. My brother-in-law stops and points up the gorge, so choked now with trees and undergrowth that it looks like a Rousseau mural.

“No more,” he says, and points again, this time with a gentle smile. “NPA.”

NPA is New People’s Army, the communist insurgency that holds much of the countryside in this part of Luzon, the main island of the Republic of the Philippines. Every local in and around my wife’s village of Sipocot knows the invisible boundaries of NPA territory. If you stay away, there is no trouble. We stay away.

After working our way back to the swimming pool, we drink cold beer and eat a meal of rice, adobo, and pancit bihon—thin glass noodles with vegetables and sweet, tiny shrimp. Everything we eat is produced locally. The rice was grown in paddies not 5 kilometers from where we sit; the pork in the adobo was raised in a neighbor’s sty; the shrimp were seined from the waters of the Ragay Gulf about 40 minutes to the south.

We take trikes—small motorcycles with sidecars welded to their frames, the Philippine analog of taxis—back to the village, and walk to our house down a lane shaded by coconut palms and mango trees. We watch our step because it is the beginning of the rainy season and the cobras are moving around. The sun is falling abruptly, as it always does in the tropics; the snakes come out at dusk and hunt along the roads.

Later that night, we turn on the entrance light and watch all the marvelous creatures drawn to the illuminated wall of the house. There are dusky moths the size of salad plates, huge rhinoceros beetles, jumbo lime-green mantises, giant walking stick and walking leaf insects. My wife places a massive scarab on her palm, strokes it, and laughs as it makes a soft, purring sound. Inside the house, extremely large gray spiders roam the walls—scary as hell to look at, but benign as guinea pigs. Along with the geckos, the spiders winnow out the flies and other house bugs.

This is the Philippines I know and love, a land of 7,000 islands, both exquisite and troubled, a country that deeply rewards the traveler but not, perhaps, the tourist. The inconveniences—indeed, the very real dangers—of this country cannot be denied. As noted, the New People’s Army controls large portions of the countryside. If NPA cadres find you in their territory, you may not survive the encounter. Moslem insurgencies are likewise a part of province life, particularly in the southern islands. Feuds between wealthy and powerful clans are also a threat, as evidenced by the recent massacre in Mindanao instigated by a local political strongman that left more than 50 dead, including many journalists. Provincial and municipal police are notoriously corrupt. In the cities, the threat of robbery, rape, and murder is omnipresent. My wife refuses to walk around Manila without a phalanx of her brothers—tough, implacable men inured to violence—surrounding her.

The hurricane season here is no mere inconvenience; people are still going hungry in Luzon because the four major typhoons that pounded the island last year destroyed much of the rice and copra crops. Volcanoes and earthquakes are simple facts of life. As I write this, evacuations are underway in the path of eruptions from Mount Mayon, an utterly beautiful and deeply dangerous volcano about 60 miles from my wife’s village.

In short, you need to make a commitment to understand and appreciate the Philippines. My father made his by fighting the Japanese on Luzon, escaping from the Bataan Death March and taking a small boat to Corregidor to fight on for another month before recapture and a three-year sojourn in a prison camp. I took a less strenuous route and married a Filipina.

Travel in the Philippines is not easy and invariably involves decrepit buses on poor roads and ferries that are often nothing more than pump boats—cramped, narrow craft fitted with bamboo outriggers and underpowered inboard engines. But you end up in places where you can sit on the beach at twilight drinking cold San Miguel beers, watching the fruit bats fly from their roosts for a night of foraging. Where you find a small restaurant of palm thatch and coconut timbers by the water and eat charcoal-grilled slabs of king mackerel, prawns the size of small lobsters, and mud crabs stir-fried in ginger, hot basil, peppers, lime juice, and oil. Where a farmer will knock down green coconuts on a torrid afternoon and revive you with the sweet-tart juice and buko—jelly from a young coconut. Where at dawn, street vendors hawk fresh taho—a kind of soft, warm tofu served with a dollop of cane syrup and tapioca—and at dusk peddle balut, freshly boiled duck embryos in the shell.

You find yourself at cockfights, karaoke competitions, amateur boxing matches, fiestas for local saints where everyone is drunk and dancing, jungle treks, beauty pageants that include separate categories for young women, gay men, toddlers, and babies. You participate in hog killings—or at least, drink beer while other people slaughter and butcher—and a few hours later help consume the entire animal, its constituent parts prepared in a variety of ways.

This is a small country, but its myriad islands are mountainous and support little infrastructure; the deep channels and wide gulfs of blue water that separate them make each its own nation. More than 60 languages are spoken here. The government is far away (unless you live in metro Manila), and its influence is widely distrusted. Family and clan are first, then barangay, or district. Take a trike for just ten miles, and you may find yourself in a foreign land where people speak a strange dialect and do things differently. For someone who lives in the United States, a nation 3,000 miles wide with towns that all support the same big-box stores and franchise restaurants, this is a tonic.

I now live a bifurcated life, shuttling between a house in the States and a small farm in the islands. Not that I do much farming: My wife’s family would hardly appreciate my insights on rice and copra culture. But I like lending a hand when some grunt work is called for, and I pony up when cash—always a scant commodity in the provinces—is needed.

Farms are small here. Twenty acres is considered sizable, and mechanized methods are rare. Carabao (water buffalo) remain the primary means of cultivation and transport. They are cheaper and far more reliable than tractors, their manure is valuable fertilizer, and when they are old and infirm they are turned into adobos and soups. A Filipino farm is essentially a large garden. Every square meter of ground is worked by hand or animal, and planted in complex and complementary rotations: peanuts following corn following vegetables in the uplands, rice paddies in the low areas, permanent plantings of coconut, mangoes, coffee and cacao, and, tucked here and there, small plots of bananas, plantains, and various tropical fruit trees utterly alien to westerners.

Carabao, cattle, and goats are penned and fed hand-cut forage or grazed in common areas. You always have a couple of hogs and numerous chickens, and maybe a small pond for raising tilapia and freshwater prawns. You consume what you grow, and meals are approached reverentially. Everyone eats together.

And, as in most of Asia, people can’t afford to be wasteful. During a visit to the islands about a year ago, my wife was tending her family’s small store when she heard the aggressive hissing that means only one thing: cobra. The snake, a particularly large one, had ensconced itself in a pile of sacked charcoal. My wife called in a cadre of neighborhood boys who chivvied the snake from its lair, beat it to death with bamboo staves, then carried it triumphantly to one of their homes, where it was simmered into a succulent adobo. Rice paddy rats—as opposed to town rats, which eat an unwholesome diet—also are consumed. And so are canines that are too vicious to serve as pets, too timid to function as guard dogs, or simply conveniently at hand on a day when fish, chicken, or pork is unavailable. Gentle sentiments are reserved for children.

I will not belabor the deficiencies of the Philippines—they exist, they are typical for a developing country, and I don’t really notice them anymore except for those rare moments when they intrude on daily life. It is unfair, perhaps, that the “problems” of the country have come to define it. There is minimal tourism here. But most locals seem to prefer it that way, evincing little enthusiasm for the mega-resorts that now characterize “destination” travel. Indeed, rural Filipinos tend to actively resent large developments and express their dissatisfaction in a number of ways, some of them quite alarming. There are resorts along the beaches, of course, but with few exceptions these are small, homey, sometimes a little shabby, and completely appropriate to the landscape. This is unlikely to change, and I find that deeply reassuring.

After my wife and I have been back in the States for several months, we start missing the islands immensely. We think of the season’s first coffee, freshly roasted from beans we had seen drying on tarps in a farmer’s yard a week before; the way the sky burns purple and gold behind Grande Island during a Subic Bay sunset; the screaming, sweating crowds betting fistfuls of pesos at our village’s cockfighting arena; the sense that the air is thickening before a typhoon; snorkeling in the coral gardens at Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island; eating a perfect sinigang na isda—a fish soup made from tamarind, pineapple vinegar, and hot peppers—at a White Beach restaurant on Boracay Island.

It isn’t paradise. It’s much more interesting than that.

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