Month: April 2014

Passing time with Peter Cetera

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It’s five hours into an 11 hour drive to Manila. Rose and I are packed into a van with seven other travelers who, like us, had their flight cancelled from Legazpi, and in a bid to make it to Manila that night, pooled money to hire a driver to get us there.

Our driver is 5foot5, weighs at least 215 pounds, and, like many other Filipinos I’ve met, has a confident demeanour that seems way too old for his young age – he’s street savvy in a way that, in my view, is borne from hustling for income at the same age that I was pleading my parents for sugary cereal.

He’s probably 28. And, from meeting other guys his age in Legazpi, likely has 3 kids, bets on cockfights for entertainment on the weekend, and, in his case, looks like he’d be the sure bet, if he were to get in a fight.

He’s hurtling us to Manila on a road that, to my driving know-how, has so many hazards, I’d be in a constant state of alarm: small child coming out of a house on the right, stray dog crossing the road, tricycle making a u turn, woman carrying a bag of rice but can’t see behind her, jeepney broken down around the bend, rice drying on the road.

To him, it seems any old day, as he passes through each hazard breezily, each one punctuated by his massive fists pounding on the steering wheel in rhythm to the radio

BANG. BA-DA. BA-DA. BANG. BA-DA. BA-DA.

While the force of his blows are powerful enough to catch anyone’s attention, it’s what comes next that draws me in.

After a flurry of left and right punches on the wheel, his hands come to a stop, he turns his head upwards and belts:

“It’s the GLOORY OF LOVE!”, right on time with the chorus on the radio.

It’s the fifth time a Peter Cetera song has come on the radio. Our driver’s participated on each one. And we’re only halfway to Manila.

There’s no smirk. No “Ohhhh gawd. Do you remember this one? Watch this” ironic rendition. This one in question – Peter Cetera’s Glory of Love is not a thing of the past. It’s here and now, front and centre in the present, and our driver has zero self-consciousness bringing it to life.

While in North America, if you profess genuine love for Peter Cetera, and your friends are into current music, you’ll probably suffer merciless judgment unless you’ve coated it with thick layers of sarcasm, or it’s your go-to karaoke choice.

However, in the Philippines, Peter Cetera is the love that dares speak its name, which also includes: Shania Twain, 80s George Michael, and any song that was ever played on the AM dial.

It’s all out in the open. Rose’s family and I got on a jeepney – a version of local transport that packs people in for a small fee – and a big guy jumped on, turned on his phone to a Shania Twain song, and started singing “Still the One”. (the guy in the middle with the yellow phone. Rose’s grandfather in the foreground, and her sister, next to him)

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No one in the jeepney batted an eye.

While you could argue it was because he was a big guy and would take it out on you if you were to smirk. It happens again and again: a taxi driver belts out Linda Ronsdadt, a hotel concierge sings early Michael Jackson, and boat operators put their fist in the air to emphasize how: “You give love a bad name”.

It’s everywhere and, so it’s really, not altogether, a surprise that Journey’s lead singer was replaced by a Filipino – Arnel Pineda – who was in a Journey cover band and used YouTube to ferry out his resume.

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I think the same could go for any late 70s, or 80s group that’s run out of steam. Need a boost of enthusiasm to get your band up again? Have a lead singer that’s drunk and smoked his vocal cords into sign language? Or did your lead singer die just after everyone in the band signed on for a reunion tour?

Call the Philippines.

And, if you happen to be in the band, Chicago and you’re thinking reunion while Peter’s thinking divorce – I may have found a replacement that could do the job and, considering that he zipped us to Manila in speedy time, as a side gig, might also be able to drive the rest of the band to venues on time.

I won’t charge a finder’s fee. I’ll do it purely for…….the GLORY OF LOVE!.

 

 

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Christapalooza: Blood, Sweat and Fear in the Philippines

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It was Easter weekend. Around the world, millions of Catholics went down on bended knee to thank his exalted beardedness for offering hope, love and, if you’re a guy, a chance to grow long hair without having to justify it.

Every year in San Fernando, a small town in the Philippines, a group of residents do all those things with one, unmistakable, unsubtle addition.

To be sure that people really, really get the message that they believe in Jesus with sugar on top, a small group of Catholics gather a crowd of thousands in their town to broadcast their case.

But rather than go with a persuasive verse and a righteous sermon to drive their point home, these Catholics opt for nails through palms.

Yes, this was a crucifixion (though, if you volunteer to be crucified is it still a crucifixion?) – and while most families might consider a Saturday brunch followed by a trip through a museum or walk in the park as a nice family outing, Rose, her grandparents, mum, sister and I decided that watching people torture themselves would do just fine.

We arrived way too early, partly from hearing rumours that it started at 10 in the morning, plus because Rose’s grandmother finds sleep boring.

Already, the early opening acts had begun the show with signs of penitence, as they lay down on the road, got up to move three feet, then lay down again.

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I have to warn you – if you find this odd, and a little concerning – it gets much worse and more graphic. If you have a ripe imagination, you may want to avoid the rest of this post.

After making it to the main site where the crucifixion would take place, three crosses were ready and waiting with the humble addition of fifty vendor tents selling food and paraphernalia, the local police, municipal police, the army, SWAT team and an area for VIPs to sit in comfort under a tarp.

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Quite simply, we were attending a rock concert. More specifically, it reminded me of a version of the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus from Lollapalooza of days gone by.

To confirm our observation, the members of the second opening act began to trickle in to the site.

Seeing them from the front, I didn’t think much of them, though I did find it a bit unsettling that they covered their faces, which, I thought, gave them the uniformity of an army.

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As they walked, they were flagellating themselves with a wooden instrument that looked a little like a wind chime, and could be yours, on site, for a bargain of 200 pesos (Yes. Vendors were selling them, in case you too wanted to beat yourself up).

Now, they turned around, and I immediately remembered why we’d come here – because it seemed unbelievable that people would do this to themselves (WARNING: DON’T LOOK DOWN AT THE PHOTO IF YOU’RE EASILY TURNED OFF).

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Yep, that’s real blood. And, I’m sorry again to get graphic, but I think it’s worth an explanation.

On first glance I thought that all that blood was from multiple beatings to his back, which broke his skin all over, causing him to bleed.

However, the way these guys do it is that someone scores them on the back with small bits of broken glass, that makes scratches in their skin. They then hit those scratches with their wooden sticks, which creates a fountain of blood that drips down their back, giving a dramatic appearance that suggests they have severe wounds all over.

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This may be a small point and I realize I’m splitting hairs for an already brutal scenario. Yes, they are bleeding for real. And yes it’s undoubtedly painful. But when you compare a bloodied back from self-flagellating in a film like: The Passion of the Christ – this version, though awful in its own way, is at least, a lot milder.

As more and more self-flagellators made their way into the site, the sounds of their sticks hitting their backs created a distinct, clacking noise – as if, as a troupe, they were horses coming down the road. So, I dubbed them “clackers”. Inventive, I know. Thanks very much.

However, the clackers weren’t the only unsettling element to the day. The heat was, once again, tyrannical. It’s the kind of heat that seems belittled by a mere temperature reading. Much like the self-imposed suffering around us, it was omnipresent, even finding shade didn’t save you from the convection of heat swirls, which seemed to come at you from every direction.

Here’s a simple anecdote of how hot the sun was. I stepped into an area of shade then after a minute felt like my toe was being dipped in hot wax. I looked down to see what was happening and noticed that I’d inadvertently left my toe in the sun for one minute. Merciless.

Of course, to the clackers and the other penitents, the heat was probably a welcome addition, making their suffering even better.

Though, I did spot one clacker who, walking barefoot along the molten hot asphalt, would lift his feet up and down to offer respite from the heat, which given that he was beating himself bloody, seemed a bit of a funny concession.

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While Rose’s family and I sought shade, we were wilting and one by one began to fall asleep as much from the heat as finally conceding, and getting out of bed, to a duet of a rooster’s cackle and a dog’s incessant barking, at 4am earlier that morning.

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We decided to find our way out of the microwave, which when you add the amount of bloodied backs walking around, had the look of what happens when you put spaghetti sauce on high without putting something on to cover it up.

But we soon realized there was another problem. Actually a few problems.

There was a single road out that was probably the size of a single lane on a North American highway, and coming down it was an army of clackers followed by the cause celebre himself, Jesus, with his cross and entourage.

As we got by a parade of one set of clackers, I looked down and realized my shoes had been splashed with blood droplets. Rose’s sister also noticed a spot on her shirt, as well as Rose’s mum’s husband. Within three feet, on a tiny road, we were easy targets for a blood bombing. Nevertheless, we were committed and had to push ahead.

Two things we had in our favour were umbrellas – which made a good shield, and frequent alleys that came off the main road, which we could slip down if the clackers got too close.

We dodged and weaved our way down through the street fairly successfully, which increasingly resembled scenes from Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now: laughing people, blood flying everywhere, people taking photos, and cans of Coke for sale on the side of the road.

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Then, for more weird, this guy showed up:

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We’d hit the epicenter. Jesus. The man himself was carrying the cross a few feet away, while pretending to be beaten down by men wearing Roman centurion costumes that didn’t fit them.

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While everyone watched, the roads got more and more congested. Soon after there was a bottleneck as people like us were trying to move past, along with the bloodied clackers who now found themselves wedged in to the crowd. We all sucked in our stomach as they passed us within a few inches, and held our breath from the smell of their dried blood.

Now worried we would be smeared with clackers blood as they pushed by, I spotted an alley next to us as I saw more bloodied bodies moving our way, and we shoved ourselves into the alley safely, umbrellas out in case their was a chance of a blood shower.

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Luckily we picked a good alley. We found a store selling cold drinks, so kicked back, watched the show go by – then piled four onto a tricycle and zoomed our way around the stragglers behind the procession, including a few clackers, before finding solace and air conditioning in San Fernando’s town square.

Although we missed his nailing, by day’s end – JESUS CHRIST! – I think we all felt his pain.

 

 

 

 

 

Where are the whale sharks?

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We kicked off our raison d’ĂȘtre for being in Donsol, first thing in the morning (really. Things get so dark here that we were asleep at 9 and up at 5am every morning, sometimes beating the rooster’s cackle by 30 mins).

On first entrance, the tourist operation for watching whale sharks seems well run: each visitor is required to watch an instructional video on how to interact with them (I.e Don’t. Watch from a distance and keep your hands to yourself) and how the town of Donsol, with the oversight of the World Wildlife Federation, is working to conserve their unique natural resource.

We got on board a banka – a type of fishing boat used in the South Pacific, where passengers were kept to a strict maximum of six – another condition of Donsol’s ecotourism mandate.

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So, the search began for the Butanding:

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One of the crew told us to get our snorkelling gear on so we could go overboard quickly. We waited in anticipation:

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After an hour, the search continued:

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Then two hours:

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And, to the end, no sign of a whale shark.

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Understandably, it’s a wild animal and there’s no guarantee of seeing one, and we were told the same by the tourist outfit.

However, after doing research, we understood that in the 2000’s at the same time of year, Donsol was teeming with whale sharks. Apparently it wasn’t a question whether you’d see a whale shark, but how many. All the attention earned Donsol the marketing rubrique of “Best Asian Encouter” in 2004, for whatever that’s worth. But, nevertheless, it suggested a degree of good health.

We asked around, wondering if maybe we just had really, really bad luck. After chatting with a few locals and others we heard the same thing: whale shark numbers were down during this time of year, and, as a consequence, so was tourism.

Regardless, we came here to see a whale shark in the wild, so signed up for round two the following day.

The good news: We got in the water with a 4m shark (about the size in the very top photo above) and each had a good amount of time swimming next to it by ourselves. We even got this to prove it:

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The bad news: So did 100 other tourists. 100! All circling the same whale shark – splashing, screaming, waving at it, moving on top of it, and essentially doing everything opposite of what everyone was told in the instructional video.

It was disturbing, and sad, because while I get the enthusiasm and pent up demand for seeing a shark, there obviously is not enough whale sharks around, at least this time of year anyway.

So, at the end, while Rose and I were both happy to have had a moment with one. It was bittersweet, because we also felt we weren’t really helping out the conservation of the whale shark, by being another number in the water, regardless that we followed the guidelines.

We spoke to the manager at our hotel who expressed the same thing, saying the numbers are down for this time of year and the tourist association has hired marine biologists to figure out why.

Popping online to do our own research, early evidence suggests climate change may be the ultimate culprit, heating up the oceans and not creating the same plankton blooms for the whale sharks to feast on. This could mean that the animals’ feeding season starts a couple of months earlier and finishes sooner as they seek out slightly cooler waters.

Unfortunately, the problem can also compound itself. As whale shark numbers diminish, the ones left trawling the bay are subjected to way too much stress from eager hands, and so may be moving on to less chaotic waters, to mange in peace.

Obviously it’s a sensitive issue. After spotting our whale shark, I asked our main crew member if there were any other sightings that day, and he replied:

“Seeing 1 is better than 0”, which was repeated by other tour operators who tried to put a positive spin on it.

Of course, it was an amazing experience to see a wild whale shark. I only hope that the Donsol tourist association can get a clear picture of the whale shark fluctuations from marine biologists and other research and help plan for any changes, which may affect the lives of Donsol residents who work in service of whale sharks.

Overall, we both had a relaxing time in Donsol:

 

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Next stop: Pampanga a town North of Manila to see Rose’s family and people crucify themselves for Holy Week. A nice combination.

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