Backpacking

Buddha & Butterflies

 

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Laos is often referred to as the “Land of a million elephants”, because the majority of Laotians are obese.

I’m kidding. The complete opposite is true.

Laos is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, and many Laotian children suffer from malnutrition. Excess calories and XXXL clothing remain our North American privilege.

However, in non-metaphoric terms, Laos wins out.

Elephants in Laos were abundant in the 11th Century, and were often bedecked with gold decorated saddles and used as modes of transport by the Royal family.

While there are tourist packages available to see and ride them today, their numbers are not what they were, largely a cause of human encroachment or industry (slight as it is) and while not cited as a direct cause, I can’t help but think that 2 million tons of dropped bombs had an effect on their habitat.

So, given their declining numbers, I thought of tweaking Laos national motto to reflect a view, albeit limited from two cities: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, of the most common sights we saw: “Land of a million Buddhas and Butterflies”.

Both are ubiquitous. The majority of Laotians are Buddhist (60%) and it’s expected by many young men to spend time in a monastery before they enter the world or decide to stay on with the order.

The result is that on the streets of Vientiane (and in Luang Prabang – which I’ll get into in a later post), we passed tons and tons of monks, wearing their orange robes, who, after staring at them in awe, wondering what mystical journeys they were on, we later found out, were just on their way to school, the dentist or any other errand that you and I have. Even the path to enlightenment crosses banal street.

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Regardless, this didn’t dampen Rose’s love affair. Whenever we passed any of the many Wats (temples) in the city where there were crowds of the orange robed savants, Rose would almost squeal with excitement staring at them while extending her hand out to me, able only to say one word: “Camera. Camera. Camera” or “Look. Did you get it.” asking me to take a picture:

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Some of the most popular Wats were a couple near the national emblem; a stupa named: Pha That Luang – which also included a museum where we sweat in silence, next to a series of Buddhist statues, big, small and doll-size:

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Then, outside the stupa, a huge Buddha, sitting how Rose and I wished we could, given the heat and our diminished electrolytes:

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Still unsure what the dominant religion was? Hey, what’s on your left:

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Now, your right:

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Confused, still? Even this cat was happy to give us a big hint:

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Through the course of a day here, it felt like living inside a Buddhist kaleidoscope. Wherever you look, there he is:

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Now, that brings us to the other side of the new motto: butterflies. Also, along with Buddha, they are a majority, as it seemed, any vista or view of the middle distance contained a fleet of the erratic bunch of flyers in all colours: monarchs, white ones, brown ones.

While, I did look closely, I didn’t spot anyone painting butterflies with a hammer and sickle. They appear to fly naturally, free of outdated propaganda.

The effect of Buddhas and butterflies everywhere, kind of created this blissful worldview, where I wandered around in a semi-dream state, half-expecting to see a unicorn gallop across the road.

Unfortunately, it turns out, we came across something much different.

On our trip, I’ve learned that I have a talent to use my imagination to sabotage any peaceful scene: (i.e. while enjoying a quiet day in a cafe in Laos listening to birds chirp I said to Rose: “Ya know in the Vietnam War this would be the kind of cafe in Saigon where a guerilla fighter would run in and drop a few grenades”).

So, I was having one of these peace busting moments, walking down a stretch of road, and I thought to myself: “Ya know. In Borneo, there were vipers in trees. There must be snakes here”.

That moment, I heard a big clang across the road, turned and saw a guy throwing a rock at the wall.

At first, I thought he was a local nut, but then I looked, and in an insane coincidence, saw he was throwing the stone for a reason, (though a very unBuddhist-like reason) to kill a snake:

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Apparently, it had fallen out of a tree above, and the guy thought it better to kill than let it go free. After employing another burgeoning talent, miming, I asked him through hand gestures and acting if the snake was dangerous, and he nodded vigorously.

Okay. Shit. There’s snakes:

And, as Rose will agree, that pretty much set the tone afterward every time we sought shade under a tree, went to a public bathroom, or, in my paranoid case, got into bed in our hotel room.

Thankfully, this was the only appearance of a snake in the flesh, though versions of serpents appear all over Buddhist temples:

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I still preferred butterflies.

Next stop: Luang Prabang where Rose continues her crush on Buddhist monks, and we drift away the days between the cities two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Khan, and good coffee and croissants.

Talk soon

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On and On in Palawan

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Palawan is a series of islands on the far West of the Philippines on the South China Sea.  They’re known for extensive coral reefs, atolls, WW2 wrecks and views that, I’m sure,  have been translated to wallpaper on more than a few tablets and phones around the world.

It’s a big island with a few destinations for travellers, each one offering something specific: the capital Puerto Princesa a UNESCO world heritage site, El Nido – a dive spot, Coron – a place to snorkel, go island hopping and for scuba, wreck diving.

We chose Coron as our spot, and every second day, embarked on one of these trusty bankas with a crew who took us around the various spots to snorkel and swim.

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We went to some incredible spots for coral with tons of colourful fish (including Finding Nemo – the clownfish), sea snakes, nudibranch, starfish, clams, big brain coral plus a couple of Japanese WW2 wrecks.

And yet, I have no shots of any of it to show you, because I haven’t got an underwater camera. However, in lieu of that, we do have a shot of the whale shark which we saw in Donsol previous to Palawan, as the family we were traveling with on the banka had an underwater camera and had my email address.

So, while not in Palawan, here is an underwater shot of the whale shark we spotted, alone, with 99 other people:

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Ok, back to Palawan. While we didn’t spot whale sharks there, we stopped in a ton of spots, that were also nice to look at, like:

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And, from a higher vantage point:

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On one of the island hopping jaunts we also snorkelled into a thermal lake, which alternated from hot to cold temperatures, and created this strange effect underwater, where your line of sight went from clear (cold water) one second to hazy and blurry (hot water) the next.

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So, I’d spot something cool I wanted to point out to Rose, who was a few feet behind me, but by the time I’d shown her, the water had gone hot, creating the haze, and distorting the view. Really bizarre effect, but awesome to see.

The town of Coron also had a market (straight ahead on the right)

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It was filled with plenty of fish, which Rose’s mum got really excited about and would do all the bargaining in Tagalog, to avoid any chance of getting inflated prices, if I, an obvious foreigner, were to insert myself into the negotiating.

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Fine with me – instead I followed a bunch of the roving cats around the fish market who were waiting for a fish to slip through the hands of a vendor, or in the case of this guy, hang around long enough for someone to offer you a charitable poisson:

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We also roamed around the town, hopping between shade and shadows, to avoid the sun’s laser beam heat, and jumped into a Filipino dessert specialty, Halo-Halo (shaved ice, coconut, condensed milk, and other colorful candy stuff) which pairs well with 35degreesCelsius:

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After a week, shlubbing around Coron, we headed back to Manila briefly before moving on to see more of Rose’s family forest (it’s more than a tree) in Vigan – a UNESCO heritage town, north of Manila.

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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!.