Philippine Island Times Adventures of an American expat in the Philippines

September 30, 2008


Filed under: Cebu — Donald @ 11:46 am


My trip to the Lingap Center, a children’s home, began with a long taxi ride to the southern terminal in Cebu during the morning rush. The weather was good, so the next leg of the trip, two hours on a second class bus with no window glass, was very pleasant.


The driver said he knew the Center and would drop me nearby. His friend sitting alongside was getting off at the same spot and would guide me the rest of the way. After walking up a long hill well off of the highway we arrived, not at Lingap, but at his home. He gave tours of the area and would be happy to show me around after he ate. “You wait”, he said, disappearing into the house.

When I got back to the highway I found a tricycle driver who would take me the rest of the way.

“How much?”

Pause… squint… “Nine pesos” (18 cents). The look was bad but the price was about right, so I got in the sidecar. We just sat there.

“When do we go?”

“We wait more passenger. Need three.” Ok, that’s a common practice and fair enough.

A middle aged woman and a young mother with her small child joined us. One sat in the back compartment of the sidecar and the other sat on the seat behind the driver. He still did not take off, which told me what the deal now would be. I’d seen it many times. We would wait until we got as many people onto the tricycle as humanly possible at 9 pesos a head or I would be charged an exorbitant fee for a “special ride.”

“You said three. Let’s go.”

“You pay, we go now. Fifty pesos.”

“No. Nine.”

We waited and eventually another woman with her child arrived. He told her to sit with me. The sidecars in Toledo have by far the smallest seats I have seen in the Philippines. My little compartment was less than two feet wide, two feet deep, and four feet tall.


“You pay for two. Eighteen.”

“Not possible for two here.”

“You pay eighteen.”

“Nine for me and nine for the crocodiles?”

Eventually the woman and child and I all squeezed in together like a circus act. Normally the driver would be laughing his ass off at this point, but the look on my face kept the smile off of his. By the time we arrived at the Center I was not in the right frame of mind to be surrounded by 82 kids. They were still at school, though, and a nice chat with the staff calmed me right down.

Lingap, founded by an American who lives near the place I used to work, takes in street children in the Toledo area of Cebu. Most of them are from families so poor that the children must basically support themselves. Instead of going to school they scavenge for food and things they can sell as scrap. By doing this they earn about 15 pesos (30 cents) per day. Some sleep on the street. Some are orphans. Some eventually drift into worse and more profitable ways of making a living.

Toledo street kids


Most are referred to Lingap by social services. Others are drawn in by an outreach program. Every afternoon staff members go to the plaza and teach the children there as best they can. To entice them they offer snacks when the lessons are complete. The children are encouraged to come and live in the Center and attend school, but many will not, usually because they do not want to give up their income.


Lingap provides the kids who do come a very nice place to live, the attention of great houseparents and social workers, tutoring in the evening, and even private school tuition for those who excel academically.


Our lunch was typical Filipino fare; lots of rice, some adobo (a small piece of very fatty pork cooked in soy sauce and garlic), and a banana.


The kids help to prepare the food, they wash their own dishes and clothes, and they help to keep the center clean. All in all they seem to do well.


After lunch they sang some songs for me.


September 26, 2008

My Side of the Tracks

Filed under: Cebu — Donald @ 7:42 pm

My new neighbor

“Where you going?”, the taxi driver asked.

“Kukuk’s Nest.”

“Why you staying there?” (incredulously).

“It is the cheapest place in Cebu.”

“Yes. It is a cowboy hotel.”

That’s about right, if you switch out the horses for motorcycles. Kukuk’s Nest, in heart of the Philippines’ second-largest city, is the most interesting pension I’ve found since I mistakenly booked a room in a Tijuana brothel a few years back. A Filipina friend was mortified when I told her that guys with tattoos sit around shirtless in the 24 hour outdoor bar, which is often filled with smoke from the neighboring chicken grill.

Kukuk’s tat guy

Kukuks bar

(Next to the grill is a tat parlor. Unlike in the US, where every 12 year old girl has a hissing cobra stamped on her ass, tattoos are still rare in the Philippines.)

The place is decorated with some pretty crazy pieces, a mix of contemporary and cubist and Gauguinesque.

Kukuk’s “fish”

Despite obvious challenges, the resident artist does good stuff.

Kukuk’s Artist

Filipino, Indonesian, and Thai food from the kitchen is tasty, the beer is very cold, and instead of the usual pop treacle they play Neil Young. My fan-only room is in a big old house out back.

Kukuk’s Nest House

Kukuk’s Double Room

In fact, it is only the second cheapest in town. The smaller one was booked.

September 23, 2008

People of Palawan

Filed under: General — Donald @ 9:16 am

At Aniceto’s Pension

The gracious gentleman who runs Aniceto’s Pension, named after his mother, belongs to one of the oldest families in Puerto Princesa. At the end of my second week here, his little nephew calls me “kapatid” (brother). I am invited to spend Christmas and New Years with his family.

Friends for an afternoon of music

Puerto is growing quickly and many residents are from neighboring regions of the country. This guy, originally from Manila, settled here after riding his guitar around the world. He has a great voice, as does his daughter who recently won a national competition. They run a sari-sari (convenience store) from the front of their house and their side yard is open to guests who buy beer and rum and snacks and sit around talking and singing along with the owner. The place is informal and without a name at the moment. Tell the tricycle driver to take you to Citra Mina, across the street.

Palawan pearl

This young lady sells native items including the famous Palawan pearls. She strung these small ones into some nice jewelry and was kind enough to model for me. Her ready smile despite working 12 hours per day with one day off per month says a lot. Originally from Cebu. I could not resist buying the necklace, bracelet, and earrings set for $6.


Had a nice conversation with the owner of a furniture business one afternoon. Her assistant was busy sanding.

Saint Matthews Episcopal Church Puerto Princesa

I was surprised to find an Episcopal church here. According to the rector, the famous “commandment” of their bishop was, “Thou shalt not set altar against altar,” so Episcopal parishes were only established in regions not fully served by the Catholic church. The result is that the more remote the region, the more likely one is to find Episcopalians. Palawan is remote enough in itself, but this congregation is composed entirely of immigrants from the mountains of northern Luzon. They were very welcoming to me and in fact I spent my last evening in Puerto Princesa with one of the families, but generally speaking, highlanders are more reserved and “hard” than the happy-go-lucky residents of the coast. Millenia in the cold, wet, typhoon-battered northern mountains, warring with neighboring tribes over scarce land and livestock, may help to explain that. The day I first visited St. Matthew’s was very rainy and when the time came to start the service, the rector was a bit embarrassed to note that, besides his own family, I was the only person there. He takes “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also” to mean that a service cannot begin until at least two laypeople show up, so we waited for a while and talked. When another parishioner did arrive, they decided that since half of the lay congregants were American they would hold the service in English. Families who came even later may have been a bit confused, but I suppose the white guy up front explained the situation well enough.

My time in Palawan is up. Off to Cebu.

September 17, 2008

Via Crucis

Filed under: General — Donald @ 5:59 pm

Materials: nails, blood, sweat

Filipinos identify strongly with Christ crucified. When devotees in San Fernando, Pampanga commemorate the Passion on Good Friday, one of the penitents is nailed hands and feet to a cross.


Christianity was brought to the Philippines by Spain, which subjugated the islands for about 300 years. Filipino revolutionaries were jubilant when the Americans drove the Spanish out in 1898, until the American guns turned against them. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, most of them civilians, died in the Filipino-American war. Next the Japanese came, subjecting the population to cruelty that some elders here still cannot forgive. Again the people were grateful when American military power drove out their oppressors, never mind that American bombing destroyed nearly every major structure in Manila in the process. Filipinos officially gained independence in 1946. Power and wealth remain concentrated in the hands of a few dozen families, however, while for the average Filipino each day is a struggle for existence.


Natural disasters accompany the man-made ones; typhoons and the flooding and mudslides that they bring, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions like the enormous one of Mt. Pinatubo that finally drove the American Air Force from their base at Clark in 1991. The following April, in the ash and lahar, the people of San Fernando observed Good Friday in their traditional way.

[Photos from Museo ng Sining, Manila. The cleaning girl is singing very sweetly downstairs as I write this.]

September 14, 2008

And then she said…

Filed under: Palawan — Donald @ 4:43 pm

Puerto girls

“Give me five peso.”

September 13, 2008


Filed under: Palawan — Donald @ 3:41 pm

Aniceto’s Pension rooftop 1

One of the things I like best about Aniceto’s Pension is the view from the rooftop.

Aniceto’s Pension rooftop 2
It also has great places to sit and write.

Aniceto’s Pension 3rd floor lounge

Today I visited the neighborhood near the lighthouse (parola).

Parola girl

There is a little resort where cottages built over the sea can be rented for a day of lounging and swimming.

Parola cottage

Add on a room and the cottage becomes a home.

Parola house

Kids here love to play on bancas.

Parola banca

Maybe that’s why they can scamper around them so well in rough seas when they grow up. Hard to imagine just how well unless you’ve seen it.

September 12, 2008

In the Penal Colony

Filed under: Palawan — Donald @ 6:49 pm

Iwahig Penal Colony

My tricycle driver seemed not to have been inside the Iwahig Penal Colony before; not a bad thing, but temporarily inconvenient. After I signed us in he followed the pitted and rocky road past rice paddies and outbuildings, past inmates offering fruit–some with a razor glance that made it difficult to stop and difficult just to pass by–until finally we came to the central square near the barracks. We had not seen anyone clearly “in charge” since leaving the main gate and neither of us had any idea who we should approach. A very old man with a positively beaming toothless smile noticed our confusion and directed us to the nearby home of the colony Supervisor. I greeted him with my own best smile and the customary “Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon. What is your business here?” No smile, and very, very serious.

“I am a psychologist from the United States and I have read about Iwahig. I would like to talk with someone about it.”

The Supervisor invited me up to the second floor veranda of his simple but pleasant wooden home and for the next two hours we talked about the colony. About 3000 prisoners and a couple of hundred staff live there. Though many of the inmates have been found guilty of murder and other serious offenses and they serve an average of about fifteen years, because of good behavior at other institutions–and to relieve the serious overcrowding there–all have been deemed suited to minimum or medium security and reassigned to Iwahig. Only a minority are locked in. The remainder live in an open agricultural village that appears fairly normal except for the scarcity of stores and women and children. There are even a few of those around, not only because staff live at Iwahig, but because after serving one fifth of their sentence with good behavior, prisoners can apply to have their families live with them, and a couple of dozen do so.

“We teach them how to work in the fields, to plant, to harvest, to use machinery. We restore their self-confidence.” The colony is not self-sufficient, as some reports suggest, but by working several hundred hectares of rice and corn and vegetables, it meets most of its own needs and generates income. By all accounts, prisoners are treated with decency and respect. Few attempt escape into the malarial jungle, and some do not want to leave after their sentences are complete.

I asked the rate of recidivism. “We call those balikbayans.” That gave me my first hard laugh of the afternoon. It is a term one often hears, usually referring to Filipinos who are returning home after having gone in search of a better life abroad. The Supervisor, who had been at Iwahig for more than 30 years, estimated that of 1000 prisoners who are released, perhaps 10 commit further offenses and are sent back.

Most Filipinos regard the United States with open admiration. Even a security guard at the Manila airport once said to me “USA number one!” as he searched my luggage. The average American has about thirteen times the purchasing power of the average Filipino, even after adjusting for the much higher American prices. Yet incarceration rates in the United States are five times higher—the highest in the world, in fact—and criminal recidivism is over 50%.

My day at Iwahig did not make me homesick.

September 7, 2008


Filed under: Palawan — Donald @ 6:50 pm

Aniceto Pensione

They call Palawan “the last frontier” in the Philippines. Not many people and most of the country’s remaining old trees live here. I’m in the capital, Puerto Princesa. It is only 75 minutes from Manila by air, but a different world. The mayor is a serious man, and when he decided to clean the place up a few years ago, he had a trash can placed every few meters, sent crews to sweep the streets on a daily basis, and started throwing litterbugs in jail. Puerto is the cleanest city of its size (pop. 100,000 or so) that I have seen anywhere in the world. My plan was to snap a couple of decent pics of it this morning to post here, but since there has been rain all day–it’s that time of year–I only have this shot of my room at the Aniceto Pensione. Not very big (in fairness, there is a tiny desk out of shot and a bathroom just across the hall), but it’s clean as a tack, everything works, and I like it a lot. I’ll include a pic of the best thing about this place next time around when the rain lets up. The Aniceto provides very good free wifi, so my posts here should be more regular now. The normal rate for my room is about five bucks, but I’m getting a long term discount of 10%, which is pretty normal.

The food in Puerto Princesa is the best I’ve had in the Philippines. Palawan is an island chain stretching southwestward right down to Maylasia, it has a significant Muslim population, and it took in lots of Vietnamese refugees a few years back. All these cultures and others from southeast Asia clearly influence the cuisine, which makes good use of things like lemon grass, Thai basil, and chiles (even one with the earthy richness of a poblano; when I came across it I almost cried). Palawan is also the primary fishery for the country, so seafood is spectacular and cheap.

I just got hungry so that’s it for now. The sunset call to prayer is sounding through my window against the background of the rain, ending today’s Ramadan fast. Now everyone here can eat, if they can afford it.

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