Friday

Motorbike Taxis; The Good, the Bad, and the Grumpy

She was about five years old and chocolate box cute. She tossed back her hair and angled up her chin as she checked out her reflection in the mirror of her dad’s motorbike taxi. He smiled indulgently.

We were on our way to the small market town of Donsol in the Philippines, and had flagged them down as they passed on the road. After agreeing on a modest fare, equivalent to less than an Australian dollar, Phil got on back and I climbed into the cab with the girl. She smiled self-consciously as we set off for town.

“How about we look around town first?” we asked. “No problem” the driver said and we took a loop around the narrow streets and past the local homes. Suddenly the little girl called out loudly, waving excitedly. Is that your house? I asked and was rewarded with another shy smile.

We passed her school and stopped at the shops. “We will wait for you” the driver said.

“Oh no” we protested. “We will be a while.” He seemed disappointed, and for a moment I thought he was going to wait anyhow, but finally he and his cute little girl left.

We wandered around the town, looking and feeling like frogs in a fish pond. This far from Manila, we were the only tourists in town. Phil got a great haircut for the kind of spare change you find down the back of a couch. I bought a drinking coconut complete with straw, and a plastic bag of an unidentified meat dinner. Then we decided to go back to the hotel.

We looked around nervously. For the first twenty minutes we had been accosted by various drivers asking if we wanted a ride somewhere. After refusing many times, and spending so long trying not to catch the eye of any more drivers, we now had to decide who to choose.
Before we could decide, our taxi came back around the corner and stopped to see if we wanted to go home.

Since we knew the fare, we added a small bonus, and gave the girl her own little tip. They smiled appreciatively.

Later that day, we decided to go back to town for dinner. A girl from the hotel offered to call a “taxi” for us, so we went outside, expecting another friendly and colourful local. Instead an unhappy looking young man pulled into the drive on the most beat up old motorbike and battered sidecar, I had ever seen.

Other people's accommodation
The girl from the hotel was sitting behind him and said she was going to be our tour guide. I was confused. We only wanted to go up the road a bit, then into town again.

We drove left along a road I had walked earlier because I wanted to show Phil the lovely old homes there. I knew the road was rough, broken, and steep, but I didn’t expect that the bike would stutter and slide and that we would have to get out and walk to reach the top.

Typical Filipino Roadworks
As we started back to town, I got even more nervous. It was getting dark and we had no lights. I mentioned the lack of lights to Phil.

Suddenly the driver turned on his headlights. I suspect he was saving his battery or something. I wasn’t impressed. I was determined not to use this bike and the grumpy driver on the way back.

When we arrived in town, the girl insisted they would wait for us, and again we said no thanks. The young man looked annoyed. He argued with the girl, but since it was in Tagalog, I could only assume that she had told him we would need him all night and he would get good money. Not our fault if she had.

He looked sullen and grumpy. Eventually we asked what it cost. He still looked like we had stolen his last dollar and then he asked for four times what we had paid the other driver. It was still a small amount, equivalent to a few Australian dollars, so we paid it just to get rid of him.

Motorbikes and motorbike taxis are everywhere here. I have seen up to four adults and a baby on one bike. Often the adults are sitting sideways on the back texting or maybe updating their Facebook status. “Still riding into town. Saw a couple of foreigners walking by.”

Bikes are also good for transporting goods or busloads of people. Once we passed a bike with a huge oxen sitting in the sidecar, looking like Dino in the Flintstone cartoon, about to tip over the whole vehicle if it just twitched too much.


Taxis of all kinds, even one carrying pigs.
Getting around in the Philippines is half the fun. It’s cheap, efficient, and a great way to meet the locals; both the friendly and, unfortunately, the grumpy.

A Storm in a Bamboo boat

Phil and me and clouds closing in.
The dark clouds closed in and rain fell in great sheets making it impossible to see any of the islands around us. It thundered onto the too small roof of the local boat we had sailed out on. It was made of bamboo that seemed to be held together with string and there was not really enough shelter from the rain. 

The crew simply settled into their seats and smoked, relaxed, or made another bowl of rice and meat over the gas stove perched on the front of the boat. We had no choice but to sit back and rely on our crew to know what to do, and hope the rain would let up soon so we would know which way to go home.

Detail from the boat
Phil had just completed a deep sea dive onto a coral shelf, complete with schools of exotic fish and large manta rays. I decided not to attempt scuba this trip and had stayed by the boat floating crazily in the swell, holding tightly to a boat line and peering into the gloom through my mask, not really seeing anything but having fun and probably causing the crew some amusement.

Earlier I had snorkeled near a tiny island where Phil and the others were diving, I decided to walk across to the other side, just because I could. I thought the remaining crew were busy ignoring me until I heard loud shouts as they called me back in Filipino and broken English.


Love the blue of the water here.
They sounded serious, but I never found out whether I had walked on private land, or offended some tribal law, or maybe been in danger from wild tigers. They went back to ignoring me when I went back on board. I think it was how they coped because their English was so limited.

When the torrential rain started, we were as far from land as we could be. There were islands all around us, but I couldn't see any of them.

Since we didn't speak Filipino and the crew had limited English, we spent the time talking to a young English back packer who was the only other tourist on the dive trip. The crew fed us some of the meat and rice they had cooked on board. Within an hour, the clouds lifted, the rain stopped completely as if it had never been, and now that we could see land, we set off home.

Our boat and crew
The breeze of the moving boat over our wet bodies chilled me, but who could complain as we sailed back over the now sparkling waters to a picture perfect tropical beach. 

And the adventure wasn't over. That night we had a date with thousands of fireflies.

It was fully dark and the slope down to the river was slippery. The tiny torch one of the men carried was not helping much. The best view of the fireflies was from the river so we prepared to board another home-made Filipino boat. One I could hardly see.

Entrance to a home
I clambered over the bow as instructed, carefully holding the poles for reference and stepping awkwardly over what I knew was a narrow bamboo floor. My son once fell through a bamboo floor in a Filipino home, so I was terrified I was going to break through the boat deck and sink the boat. It took me some time to find the strongest bamboo beams to sit and walk on, especially since I had to feel my way around. It was so dark, I still don't know how many others were on the boat with us.

We skimmed along the river for a while, listening to the gentle thrub of the engines, and the quiet voice of the guide. I began to relax, and enjoy the cool scents of the evening. Then the guide pointed out a group of trees. 

To my surprise, each was outlined by thousands of specks of pulsing light, like the scattered sparks of fireworks in an ink black sky.

The pilot told us about the families living in the area, many of whom did not have electricity or TV. He had other interesting stories about the area, but the best part was when we all sat quietly and listened to the light slap of the water against the boat and a small hum coming from the insects above us.

He moved in closer and, reaching out to the trees, he gave us one each to hold. Mine was as inconsequential as a piece of sand. A tiny and weightless speck of light in my hand and gone too soon. Phil's continued to crawl around on his shirt for most of the trip.

It was another incredible experience in the Philippines, and well worth the fourteen hour drive from Manila.

We went to Donsol to see the whale sharks it is famous for, but we went in the wrong season. The only shark we saw was the statue outside our hotel. But there is more to do here than whale sharks. 

More even than diving and fireflies. In my next blog I will introduce you to the tiny village of Donsol and some of its interesting people. See you there.

P.s. Check out the sample of my new book Junk Mail Princess, due out soon. 

Thursday

Security guards, guns, and human road blocks.

Our Donsol Resort Hotel
The hotel guard had a shotgun and dark pants tucked into his socks. He looked serious but it didn’t seem like a dangerous place. It was hard to tell since we had arrived at almost 2am in the morning. Driving to Donsol in the Philippines in a rental car had proved quite a challenge.

Phil had driven the whole way slowly and carefully. By the time it got dark, the traffic had thinned out but he still had to negotiate the odd pedestrian, dog, or slowly moving roadblock that turned out to be an unlit motorbike with a sidecar. Then we came across road works.

Not road works lit up with mobile street lights, two trucks with ten foot high neon signs, and a well lit up police car like we were used to in Australia, but a long dark hole taking up half of the road and bordered by a row of small rocks.

My husband drove carefully through the narrow space left on the road, praying no one would come the other way and almost ran into small children with torches and large begging cups with long handles.

Roadworks are tricky enough to negotiate in the light of day
We inched past with our windows up, trying to ignore them, unwilling to encourage them to approach cars.
The third time we drove through a town with road works and more children, we wondered if they were road works or road blocks. 

Then a man started running our way shouting passionately. We kept moving and spent the next ten minutes reassuring each other that he was not a police man. I could see us hunted down and locked up for the rest of our holiday if we were wrong. We had only been in the Philippines for a few days and had no idea what the rules were.

The trip had taken us much longer than expected. It was about eleven o’clock at night and we estimated that we still had about three hours to go. We considered stopping somewhere for the night, but we had no idea where. There were no obvious hotels and after being accosted by families in the villages, we had no idea if it was safe to even stop.

I called the hotel we had booked and they assured us they would have a security guard waiting for us. We decided to keep driving.

Two long hours later, as we drove into a small Filipino town, Phil felt a sudden loss of traction in the rental car. He pulled over under a single street light next to a small hall and got out to find we had a flat tyre.
He to get the spare tyre from the boot, while I got out and stared nervously around.

Just then, a large group of young people came out of the hall and began to walk towards us. I moved closer to Phil, but they all got into nearby cars and left. It looks like they had just finished a meeting as we arrived, so I relaxed.

Phil began the process of jacking up the car and I looked up to see two men on a motorbike drive past pointing and waving. The motorbike did a u-turn and pulled up next to the car.

The older of the two men was clearly drunk, but he insisted on trying to help as Phil struggled to work the cheap and badly designed jack which skittered and dropped the car several times. The older man continually offered useless suggestions and offered do it for us.
I stood aside holding the tyre iron firmly and trying to look tough as I kept an eye on the younger man who was checking the other side of the car. He looked to me as if he was planning to open the door and run off with anything worth having.

Despite inadequate tools, poor light, a barely functional spare tyre, and a very vocal and bossy audience, Phil finally replaced the tyre.

Then the fun began.

“You have some money mister?”

“No, we have no local money” we said only half lying.

“You have a bottle mister?”

“No, sorry, I don’t drink.”

“Just one bottle’”

Phil knew all along what was going on, but it only clicked for me then that the men had stopped to try to get something out of us.

We left as quickly as we could get away without being rude, and we left them empty-handed. They contributed nothing but distraction to the job, and we felt safer with our wallets tucked away in the car.

Another hour later, we rounded a tight uphill corner and came across three people asleep in our lane. Phil braked and changed lanes quickly as they didn’t seem inclined to move. It was the day of the dead and many people were sleeping at the cemetery but these guys were close to sleeping in one for good.

Our Hotel at Sunset
At last we arrived in Donsol, our destination, but I couldn’t find the hotel which looked so easy to find on the google map. It was almost two in the morning but we spotted a couple of young women out walking with a baby (yes, a baby at 2am) and asked them for help.

Ten minutes later, we pulled up to the gate and were met by the security guard with a rifle hanging from his belt. We fell out of the car exhausted and followed him through the dark compound to our room, wondering what was so dangerous that he needed a gun in a small town tourist resort.

The room was damp as if it had not been used for months, but I was impressed to see the welcoming sight of towels made into a swan on the bed. Then a large cockroach scuttled across the wall startled by the light. After a bit of cockroach bashing, we stumbled into a cool shower and a warm bed, and finally fell asleep, looking forward to a few days of swimming on the shores of an uninhabited island and floating down a river under dark trees festooned with fireflies.

But that is a story for my next post. See you here. 

Saturday

Philippines - Manila to Donsol

There was a goat on the road, and people sleeping in our lane. There were cross-country buses going eighty miles an hour on the wrong side of the road and motorbikes with side cars going ten miles an hour in the middle of the street.

My husband and I were driving from Manila to Donsol on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, and he needed a whole new set of skills not taught in Australian driving schools. He had to learn to negotiate pedestrians and even parades walking down the centre of the road, pass overloaded motorbikes without knocking off any protruding limbs, creep through intersections filled with cars going in all directions, and overtake any sort of vehicle with limited line of sight and often no idea what was coming the other way.

It was only our second day in the Philippines, and our first day driving the rental car. Google maps said our trip was about five hundred kilometres and would take eight hours. It took us fourteen.

The main highway out of Manila was wide and clear and lulled us into a false sense of relaxed expectation. We set a cracking pace. Even the toll booths were a minor annoyance, and the hardest part was choosing which coins to hand over in an unfamiliar currency.

When I found out what sort of road was waiting for us, I would gladly have handed over all my money in loose change for another highway.

After the first hour, the road was like being on a moving obstacle course.

First there were the other vehicles. My husband was still getting used to driving on the right side of the road (not our usual practice) when he would find cars, jeeps, and even buses coming at him on his side.

Everybody overtook with great confidence no matter how small the gap and size dictated who had right of way. Buses roared past in the wrong lane, confident in the knowledge that all other vehicles would move aside. Motorbikes often had to leave the road to avoid a head on collision.

It didn’t take us long to realise that there was a reason for all the overtaking. We would come up behind a motorbike with a side car and sometimes people hanging off the back and legs everywhere and be stuck at funeral speed unless we found a way to get past.

Note; Truck and car overtaking
Sometimes there simply was no way to get past. We took this epic journey on the Day of Souls when it seemed the whole country was out on the road on their way to pay respects to the dead. Driving through town often meant driving through crowds of people ambling along the road in no particular hurry or taking a detour down a long narrow back alley along with hundreds of other vehicles.


It also meant every single motorbike and pushbike, with or without sidecars had been pressed into service and was busy delivering people to the cemeteries.

People took what they could get, even if it meant hanging off the luggage carrier or sitting on the roof of a sidecar. We were often slowed to pushbike speed, and Phil soon learned to pass in the smallest window of opportunity. To add to the degree of difficulty, most of the only road was narrow and winding, with buildings, dogs, chickens, or even toddlers, often right up against the edge of the driving lane.

After ten gruelling hours, night fell and my long-suffering husband had a new challenge. He would peer through the dark and slow for a dark shape that turned out to be five people on a motorbike without lights, or a pedal bike with a cow in the side car.

It was hard work driving under those conditions but it got worse.

First we were accosted by children begging for money, and then we blew a tyre.

More on that next time.



Tuesday

Philippines Day Two – Looking for the “Bideo” Store

The road we walked down was narrow, dark, and dirty and most of the paving was broken or missing. We limped along as best we could, trying to avoid the traffic by using what path there was and walking single file. Passing under a crumbling archway, the stench of raw sewage hit us, intensified by the warm and damp air.

It was our first night in the Philippines and my husband and I had arrived at our hostel without enough cash and they didn’t take cards. We were now on a mission to walk back to the cash machine we had visited on the way in.

At my earlier visit to the cash machine, I had planned to withdraw ten thousand Pesos but each time I had entered the amount, I got scared I would have to re-mortgage the house to pay for it. I cancelled the transaction and withdrew just one thousand Pesos and came away with the equivalent of twenty five Australian dollars. 

Now we had to go back to the ATM even though it was after ten o’clock at night so we could pay for the hostel we had already moved into.

A Colourful Filipino Jeepney
Strange speeding vehicles passed within inches or weaved confidently around us. Most were the local buses (or Jeepneys) with their pretentious names and ostentatious paint jobs or brightly decorated motorbikes with sidecars that the locals use as taxis. Either would have cost us less than a dollar to hire but we decided to save ourselves the embarrassment of fumbling with unfamiliar currency in the dark and kept walking.


Filipino Taxi

It was less than five minutes to the shopping centre, but as we reached it, security guards closed the doors for the night, effectively blocking off access to the ATM.
So there we were, standing on a street corner in an unfamiliar city in the dark, with no money and no idea where to get some.

With the attitude that if you need help ask a policeman, we headed over to ask an armed security guard at the nearby brightly lit Seven Eleven for some help. The store didn’t give out cash but the guard pointed to a shop further down the road and said there was a machine at the “bideo” store.

We could see the neon sign of a video shop and so we headed for it. Inside I asked for the ATM and the confused shop owner said that they only hired videos and only for a week as if that explained the absence of an ATM. I looked around and could see why he thought we were crazy. It was a tiny room packed with grey boxed shelves and was clearly just a video store.

We headed back to the Seven Eleven, dodging an obstacle course of vehicles parked willy-nilly across the intersection at a red light.

Back at the Seven Eleven, the guard pointed at the “bideo” store again. Confused I asked if it was the yellow one we could see. He said it was white. We decided it must be further up and headed out a second time to try to find the other store.

The buildings here were old with grey imposing facades as if we were on the site of a badly filmed western. Pieces of the buildings were broken or missing and the shops were not much more than dark shanties. If this was a movie, it would be the scene of a gang fight or a hold-up. We wondered if we were wise to walk around an unfamiliar city this late at night, especially since the Seven Eleven guard obviously felt he needed the guns he was carrying.

We had almost given up when we spotted a bank with an outside ATM. We were confused until we read the name of the bank out loud. It was called BDO. Not bideo  and certainly not video. So much for our listening skills.

We were pleased (and surprised?) to get our money without being beaten, robbed, or otherwise molested and started back.

Suddenly my husband pulled my hand. Tripping lightly across the cracked and dirty footpath and sashaying into a dimly lit digital copy store was a very happy looking rat. He was totally unconcerned by our presence and looked quite at home among the litter at street level. We just shook our heads in wonder.

When we finally made it back to the hostel I think the staff were as relieved as we were.

Dodging the rats, and the rubble, and the traffic had been quite an adventure, but it was just the start. The next day we had to join the crazy mix of vehicles on the road.

I will write about it in my next post.


Until then Paalam na


To learn more about house sitting, along with fun house sitting stories and tales of my adventures around Australia, go to www.nikkiiahwong.com or visit any good online store including Amazon.com.

Wednesday

Happy Little Coconuts - Our first night in the Philippines

It was dark when our driver stopped the car alongside a tall wooden fence with a small sign saying “Happy Coconuts Insurance.” 

Traffic swerved around us on the narrow road so he put on the hazard lights and then began to walk away.

I began to panic.

It was our first night in the Philippines and I had booked us a rental car and a room at the Happy Coconuts hostel. The rental car had turned up an hour late, and now the driver was going to leave us in front of an insurance building in a dark but busy alley.

The words of a security guard at the airport came back to me with a thud. He had said, “Manila can be dangerous. Get the number of the driver and take photos of the rental car before you drive off. Also don’t leave your window open when driving or someone might lean in and steal something when the car stops.”

It had made me exceedingly nervous and now I had even more to worry about, like what happened to the hostel I booked?

The driver kindly returned, and walking along the fence he found a small almost hidden door and a button which he pressed. In response a young man peered cautiously out. When he saw us he quickly invited us in.

Behind the dark unwelcoming looking fence was a tiny courtyard and what appeared to be the most security conscious hostel I had ever seen.

The Gates to the Hidden Hostel

The entry room was all old wood and linoleum floors with a few Asian items on display. The bedroom had double locks and was also wood and linoleum. It was not luxurious but it seemed clean, and although the beds were unusually firm they had clean sheets

In the corner was a door leading into a small cupboard-sized room containing a toilet and a shower fitting behind the sink.

We had read several reviews of the hostel from previous guests so alongside our toothbrushes and paste, my thoughtful husband had packed toilet paper and soap. We needed both. There was a bucket of water and a scoop in the corner for use instead of toilet paper, but we couldn't bring ourselves to use it, even if we knew how.

What I didn't expect was the almost complete lack of floor space for the shower and the towels so thin I could see through them.

I had chosen this particular hostel partly for its proximity to the airport and partly because it advertised that it was in a safe part of town. I wondered why they needed the elaborate hoax at the gate.

We were soon to find out.

We had arrived without enough cash to pay the hostel and we had to go for a walk to get some.

The young woman at the desk suggested we would be perfectly safe, but the young man was quite adamant that we should not go walking at night.

We decided to see for ourselves. In my next blog I will tell you how it went. 

Expect some surprises.

See you then.

At the Edge of the Philippines Typhoon – Landslides and Road Work

Rain lashed our windscreen and ran in swift rivulets down the edges of the concrete road. My husband and I looked at each other in concern. We had not seen a car for over half an hour. Perhaps the road was closed further up..

It was the last day of our visit to the Philippines and we were headed back on the same day as the biggest typhoon in recorded history was due to hit the Philippines.

We were incredibly lucky. We were north of the worst of it and only experiencing strong winds and heavy rain. Further south, thousands were killed by falling buildings or flooding and many more were left homeless.

Now that I am back home in Brisbane, Australia, I sit here amazed at how lucky I was. I still have a home, I have food, and I have my loved ones. The Philippines tragedy is a stark reminder that not everyone has it as good.

I almost feel guilty for getting back without incident. From what I saw, many people there have never had the things I take for granted. While there are wealthy families, many people still live in homes with dirt floors and a rusty corrugated tin roof. For some even that has been taken away. As I watch the terrible devastation, in the Central Philippines I hope they can rebuild their lives.

For my husband and I, the storm was an adventure, just part of a wonderful magic trip to a country bursting with life and colour. In the next few posts I will write about some of our other incredible experiences in the Philippines but today I want to tell you how it was for us at the edge of the typhoon.

We headed north from Manila the day before the storm and it was clear something big was expected. All the advertising signs had been rolled up for safety, leaving hundreds of giant scaffolds looking skeleton bare.




Within a few miles of Manila we had to stop several times to pay tolls and while I normally loathe the idea of paying a toll, this time I didn’t mind. After driving for days at pushbike speed on roads where we fought for space with motorbikes, Jeepneys, pedestrians, dogs, chickens, and even the odd cow or pig, it was nice to drive in our own dedicated lane for a while, even if we had to pay for it.

All too soon the highway ran out and we were back on provincial roads. Provincial roads in the Philippines can be hazardous, even without the slow traffic and kamikaze livestock.


Some sections were being repaired but these could be more hazardous than an unrepaired road. In Australia there would be flashing warning signs for miles ahead, a police car nearby, and hundreds of neon orange road cones to warn and divert drivers. In the Philippines there might be one hand drawn sign and a row of rocks. In some cases there was just a row of rocks.

Occasionally we saw a sign saying “Men at Work” and several times we saw the crew working. Road workers had no safety gear and were breaking up old concrete roads, building concrete walls, and repairing the road edges with hand tools.


So the roads were already variable and tricky to negotiate, but on the day of the storm we had heavy rain and wild winds that threatened to blow cars off the twisty road we were on. Most people stayed home and we saw no traffic for miles.  

There were several landslides and lots of rocks on the road. We began to wonder if the road was even open where we were.

We were very relieved when we saw a bus coming out way. We knew from previous experience that Philippino bus drives don't let much get in their way, but even they could not negotiate a blocked road.


At one point I got out of the car to clear off a few rocks too large to drive over and I looked up to see rocks still sliding down the hill. I got back into the car really fast.

It was the most adventurous trip of my life and the storm was just one small part of it. I look forward to sharing some of the highlights from our trip to the Philippines in coming posts. 


Do come back. In my next post I will explain what a Jeepney is.