I interrupt the 31 Days Journal Series to post my entry on my last visit to the Philippines on the 5th – 16th January 2014.
First and foremost, I’d like to say thank you to my mum’s employer because for another time, they paid for our plane fares. They did it last time we went back in 2010 (including that KLM Business return flight when we got stranded when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano shut down most of Western Europe’s airspace) and again this year. That aside, there a tugging sense of guilt these days when I refer to going to the Philippines as a ‘visit’ rather than ‘going home’. 10 days is extremely short for a visit but I did my best to see as many people as I could rather than go on a holiday, as I try my hardest to feel like I still belonged.
Here is a day to day account of my visit with a fair few tid bits of cultural information of where I grew up.
Before anything, the conversion from GBP Pound (£) to PHP Peso (P) is £1 =P70.
We set off from my parents’ flat in London, taking the Heathrow Express from Paddington. This was a unnecessary and a rather expensive mistake. The tickets had gone from what used to be about £18 to £21! Thankfully, my HM Forces Railcard took mine down to £13.80, still not a cheap considering a travelcard was probably £8. Even more annoying, as it turned out, there was no reason to be in such a rush as we were 4 hours early for our flight!!! There wasn’t much to do so as soon as we dropped our bags when we checked in at 1535, we went past security and hit the shops.
I headed over to the Dixons to look out for a compact camera. Lugging around a rather inconspicuous and bulky DSLR in my travels was beginning to be really awkward and impractical. I found that the RX100 II was still a little too expensive for me at about £379 (turned out this was nigh £200 cheaper here than at Amazon! Gutted!), even with supposedly tax free. The Canon S110 for £199 was a lot cheaper but I hadn’t read anything about it so by being really indecisive, I didn’t get one in the end.
After a window shopping, we boarded the plane and we departed about 1855. Our flight was broken into two legs. London Heathrow to Hong Kong was with British Airways; and DragonAir took us from Hong Kong to Manila. Overall the total flying time was nigh 14 hours.
In-flight entertainment has always been my only time to catch up with films, but I only saw RED2 and Behind the Candelabra. I ended up reading short essays from “Do You Think You’re Clever“, playing Bejeweled 2 on the screen and watching the little plane icon move (really slowly) across a (even more and sluggishly slow) panning map. Oh yes, I’m a rockstar.
I then tried to catch some sleep, albeit getting only an hour and a half. Thankfully and unlike many of my previous flights, my ears didn’t have that popping sensation during take offs and landing. Flying now seems much a better experience for that reason alone.
We arrived at Hong Hong at 1540 local time. The first thing I looked for was the noodle place (Tasty Congee and Noodle Wanton Shop) I went to about 4 years ago. I was disappointed thinking they had shut down but they were just at the other side of the HUGE airport terminal. Mum treated herself with a bag and she got me the Sony mp3 player <- that but in 8GB.
06 Jan 2014
Our plane landed in Manila at about 1955 and we were out of the airport by 2030. My previous visits used be around summer sohe outside climate really used to surprise me as soon as I stepped out of the airport doors. Hot, humid and heavily polluted air! Fortunately, January is the coolest month of the year so although there was a discernible difference in temperature from London, it wasn’t such a shock to the system as before… In fact, I was surprised to be cold as I walked down the Arrivals ramp.
We were picked up by our driver Glenn together with my dad and half brother Noling. Kuya was on holiday back from Saudi Arabia so it was a family gathering at the airport. Before going straight back to our house, we quickly stopped at my grandmother’s not too far from the airport to say hello. Then, we finally set off home, arriving in a now thriving city, Dasmariñas, just a smidge past 2330.
I went straight to bed at about 0030, and woke up at about 0315, thinking it was 0930 when I first heard of the first cockerel call. It must be bizarre to some people but every morning, at twilight, the cocks wake up the whole community. Tick-ta-la-ok, they say. Cockle-doodle-doo from English cartoons and nursery rhymes just doesn’t really resemble the noises they make.
One of the best travel tips from Lonely Planet was to see how the place wake up, and 0400 was definitely the right about time to see how this now-bustling city slowly starts its day. One by one, with their hair still wet from having their morning bathe, comb on one hand and work bag on the other, people make their way to work. Farmers make their way to the field and herders start to lead their small flocks of goats and cows to the fields. I walked to the main street and caught up with Kuya Mando*. He’s a tricycle driver waiting in line to ferry people along.
In this post, you would soon notice that we prefix people with titles, which typically translates to family member titles like father, mother, older brother..etc. Interestingly, we don’t have titles for younger siblings. Giving titles is quite similar with other Asian cultures. The Japanese affectionally call their family members: oka-san, nee/nii-chan, oji-san, oba chan, etc. My Singaporean friend in London tells her daughter to call me Koko # 2. Filipinos usually use these titles as a sign of courtesy and respect.
*As such, Kuya Mando is not my brother by blood. But he is older than me and treated me like a younger brother back when I was growing up.
At about 0545, the magpapandesal (pandesal vendor on his little bicycle cart) rode by. I bought 20 pieces of these small, soft and delucious buns for P2 each, and this was our breakfast. I would as far as to say is THE staple Filipino light breakfast. It has even inspired a popular Filipino saying:
“Walang matigas na (tinapay) pandesal, sa mainit na kape” which translates to “there is not a stale (bread) pandesal [when dunked] in a hot coffee”.
At about 0730, Tita (aunt) Elsa and Tata (father) Lito arrived and they prepared breakfast. Tita and Tata were my surrogate parents when I was growing up as my mum was away in London and dad did his business often away from home. Now, while we’re not in the Philippines, they look after our house and properties. As they prepared breakfast of sinangag (fried rice) and hotdogs, they filled me in with the recent happenings of the neighbourhood like who now does what, who’s married, who’s had a child this and that; and sombrely, who passed away.
Another thing that I absolutely missed living in the UK is the ‘taho’. There’s a guy that goes around the town selling this extremely delicious soy drink with caramel and sago. So imagine my delight when this guy went passed our house. I instantly grabbed two mugs (one for me and another for my mum) and hailed the guy to stop. For P20 each (it used to be P5 for a mugful), this was a nice nostalgic childhood snack that I got to have once again. I told the magtataho to come back everyday until we left back to the UK. That’s how much I love this thing. I practically had this every morning.
All the while this was happening, my sister-in-law, Ate (“ah-teh“, sister) Tess, (Kuya Noling’s wife) came to visit to say hello before her work to welcome us. It was a bit awkward because Kuya Noling and her were not exactly in the best of terms.
We then all departed to visit my Lola in San Jose, a town in the city, about 5 miles away. Mum and Dad went ahead while I went with Ate Tess on her way to work to have some serious chat about what’s happening with her and Kuya to understand exactly why things were upsetting and causing their family a massive amount of stress!
I then went on a search for cash machines.
I tried several cash machines at Walter Mart (big grocery place) but my card was declined in all of them. I later found out when I called the card services that Natwest had to cancel my card after apparently an attempt was made to fraudulently use my card on a foreign website. Ugh, dodgy cash macines! All was well and good but that meant I didn’t have any means to acquire cash!!! Natwest then assured me that I can use my Natwest credit card to withdraw and they will refund me the charges later on.
With money in my pocket, I then braved the public transport to see my Lola, my grandmother.
The grandmother I knew was the lady who signed as witness to my parents wedding. Traditionally to us, witnesses to weddings and baptismals are referred to as ‘godparents’, and thus, she became my [god]grandmother. She and her daughters (who I all call Nanay – mother) took care of me and raised me in San Jose, til I was about 3, when we then moved to our own place in Pasong Bayog in Burol Main.
I took a jeepney (jeep) to Bayan (town centre) then squeezed on the back of a tricycle with the driver and another passenger. There were 6 of us altogether (three on the side car attached). Not really the most comfortable mode of transport but it does the job very cheaply.
So much has changed in the space of 4 years! Dasmariñas became a city not too long ago, (2000~2002). Thriving industrial centres (computer parts factories and assembling plants) were built on the outskirts and these attracted people from all over the region. Plenty of low cost housing developments erupted everywhere in the form of subdivisions and cramped apartments were built on small plots of land. Massive population explosion in total numbers and density, became inevitable.
Cars, tricycles, trucks carrying beverages (Coke, San Miguel, etc) and people all crowded the streets and it felt really chaotic. By design, the roads are only fit for 1 lane each way but there’s vehicles criss-crossing into several lanes in addition to the ones already parked on what really ought to have been the pavement (sidewalk, in this Americanised society) while people and tricycles wove in, out and across traffic to get to their destinations. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any (much?) accidents around here as people tend to just get along well … despite the occasional aggressive honkings and swearing.
Dazed by the chaos and wonder of seeing the place where I grew up almost become unfamiliar, I had gone past my Lola’s. I had only realised when I got to ‘Welcome to Sabang’ arch, so I got off, paid P10, and back tracked about 200m on foot.
And lo and behold! The place I call home was just right there all along.
My Ninang (godmother, also my Lola’s daughter) Etchie, Nanay Pin, heavily pregnant Ate Cindy, Elgin (my godbrother, Ninang’s son), Mae (Nanay Pin’s daughter-in-law ), her son, Ninang’s granddaughter and of course, Lola were all there and greeted me! I was definitely home!
I was duly introduced to the new faces and soon went to the kubo (hut made of nippa and bamboo) at back of the house. My parents had already arrived much earlier so they were there too. Nanay Loida, Tatay (father) Mario (Lola’s son), Nanay Eway (Tatay Mario’s wife) and Jude, their grandson were all there preparing lunch and catching up. Not long after, Nanay Rosi with her grandson and Tatay Lando (Nanay Loida’s husband, Lola’s son) also joined us.
Surrounded by nesting cocks, trees and grandchildren making all sorts coos and noises, our lunch was the much needed catching up, grilled fish, Sinigang na Baboy (Pork in Tamarind Soup) and rice. The sun was shining and there was the cool January breeze blowing and everyone was happy!
Not long after, my parents and I said farewell and we went home. I stopped at Starbucks opposite the hospital where I was born to get on the free wifi internet they had. It was shit. Slow and stupid. Thankfully still, I managed to get in touch with my best friend Tel and arrange our meet tomorrow.
Afterwards, I decided to walk back home to see the changes in my neighbourhood. Stark is probably the best way to describe it. People everywhere!
At the corner of our street, I recognised Ate Eva (Tita Elsa’s sister) and said hi and did a quick catch up with her and her relatives.
When I finally got back to our house, Tita Estrella (my mum’s sister), Tito (uncle) Boy, Rowel (their son) and Elaine (their granddaughter) had just arrived to visit. Not long after, Luz, also one of my closest friends also came to visit. Ate Tess, also arrived to pick my brother up. With Tita Elsa and Tata Lito, our driver and everyone else, chez Vilacarlos was full aboard!
We all had dinner together and caught up with each others lives and eventually parted ways. With such a busy day catching up, I earned a well deserved sleep.
Awoken by the neighbour’s crying cockereles and a wailing baby at 0310, I was still too tired to get up, so i desperately tried to sleep some more. Not long after, mum and dad turned on the tv loud but somehow, I managed to ignore it and i thankfuly drifted back to sleep.
Then magpapandesal arrived and vigourously honked us all into waking up at about 0530. Mum bought P50 (pesos) worth and Joel, our tricycle driver bought some eggs and hotdogs, which mum then cooked for breakfast.
I got ready to head over to see Tel and Martee at Alabang Town Centre, a shopping mall not too far in Manila. I paid P40 for a van that was cramped and very uncomfortable. The only good thing about it was it was air-conditioned.
More catching up was done over lunch at John and Yoko, a japanese restaurant. I really missed these two. Of all my schoolmates and childhood friends, they have been the closests to me even when they moved to Los Baños for university.
We then had pudding at a cupcake place, picked up a box of Dunkin Donuts (now our tradition every time I come to visit) and met up Tel’s daughter Mafi from an art class. They then drove me back to Dasma but my parents had gone out so I was locked out. Hurryingly, I caught up with Tel and asked for her to drop me off at SM Dasma (another shopping mall) so I can go and leech some more wifi.
I was told that Burger King had a steady wifi connection and this was proven to be true. This was a good chance to check emails and I had to call work, in a panic, to sort some admin out. The connection was so good I even got to call my friend Dave via skype. Pleased!
It was about 2000 when I got home and I got a message from another childhood friend, Bei. I ended up meeting her at Starbucks opposite the hospital and we caught up over tea, cafe mocha and a frappucino with her cousin, Anne. We stayed there until we got kicked out at about midnight. Together, we reminisced the old times!
Today was a much less hectic day. We went to the bank after brreakfast to restore my Filipino account, which had gone ‘dormant’ in 2011. It still had some money in it but I left my card in the UK so I couldn’t access the account without declaring the card lost first. As money was not an issue, I just left it.
Charisma and I planned to meet at Starbucks at lunch time but I waited over an hour to finally declare that I’ve been stood up. Not a biggie…
 I had completely forgot that our meet was for Friday, not Thursday!
I was so tired that when I got home at about 1500, I crashed into bed and didn’t wake up until about 0430 the next day.
We commuted to the nearby city: Tagaytay to get a driving licence straight after breakfast. My dad had just bought a small 110cc motorbike the day before to make into a tricycle and apparently this needed to be broken in before they can attach the sidecar to it, so that’s the one we used to get to Tagaytay… Some 30km away!
I didn’t have any bike protection, in fact, I was just wearing shorts and a t-shirt… Oh and a token flip-up helmet. We love to live life dangerously.
The journey was a lot less scary than It sounds. Granted, there were big coaches doing cross-province trips, leagues of other equally as small motorcyclists and oh yeah, cars and trucks and all manners of road users… But it was fine as a whole. One thing though, I hated the smoke belching out of the exhaust of buses and cars, not to mention the occasional grit in the air.
We got to the Land Transportation Office in Tagaytay in the end safe and in one piece at about 0915. Instead of going in to do the normal paperwork application, we approached a lady outside the office, working in a Insurance stand and apparently, she was to make my application a lot easier. She took my UK Provisional Licence and my UK Passport and disappeared past the crowds.
Eventually, to my relief, she came back with some forms to fill in. I was booked to sit the theory test at 1pm. We didn’t really envisaged staying there past that time and Tata mentioned I was only in the Philippines for 10 days. Upon hearing this, she yelped that I was allowed to drive even with my current UK papers for 60 days! Oh goodie! I don’t intend to stay in the Philippines for more than 60 days in my future visits so I was happy not to get a Filipino driving licence. We headed home instead and had lunch at about 1215.
After lunch, Tata and Tita went. My mum left early to celebrate her birthday with her folks in Manila, while my dad went to search for sidecars for his new motorbike. No one else was home so I took the bike and braved the roads on my own and visited my Lola again.
She told me Ate Cindy had given birth and I wanted to see her so I set off to a hospital in Gen. Trias. I rode for another 20km and after getting lost past rice fields, I eventually found it.
The newly born baby was cute and thankfully, Ate Cindy was fine after giving birth. Nanay Pin and Ate Cindy’s husband were there helping her out. All’s cute and well. After dropping off a box of Dunkin Donuts, I then made my way back home.
Soon after arriving, I got a message from Ate Tess (my sister-in-law) that they were making their way to SM, an hour early, so I set off too.
I found her and my 2 nieces (Sarah and Leah) and my nephew (LJ) in a shop then we set off to have dinner at Maxx. Leah was unwell with a mild fever but the two were otherwise fine. More catching up was served over dinner and afterwards, I took the kids to buy some school supplies as a small token of help to their already struggling, now, single parent mum.
We then later all went home at ours. LJ stayed and the three girls went to their other relative to spend the weekend. I somehow got really tired and my head pounded so I crashed to bed as soon as we got home. Another bout of cluster headache! I hadn’t even realised the three girls had left.
11 Jan Cebu City
I was still feeling rather poorly with my head still pounding and my appetite severely dimished. I must have caught a bug from Leah. I took some meds over lunch and before we headed off to the Domestic Airport to catch a flight to Cebu.
My mum is really awkward with flying. She insists on getting to the airport at least 4 hours before we fly so again, we hurried up and waited even just to check in. With my rather sore head, this was even more irritating than usual.
✈ TigerAir Manila Domestic Airport to Mactan International Airport, Cebu
2000 – 2130
The flight took about an hour and a half. It was surprisingly on time for a Filipino flight. Kuya Noel, my Auntie Bebeth and my mum’s other relatives picked us up at the airport arrivals on a very multi-coloured jeepney.
We first checked in our bags at some rather dodgy looking hotel called Tourist Inn and then went to grab dinner. We went to Larsian BBQ, which is a food court with many stalls selling barbequed meat on a stick and rice wrapped in coconut leaves affectionately called ‘puso’, which translates to ‘heart’. The place looked rather dodgy by anyone’s standards but it was fine in the end. In fact, the food was very delicious.
I took some Advil for my headache after the meal and then we all headed to Kuya Noel’s where they were having a funeral. My mum’s nephew had died and as is customary in the Philippines, the body in a coffin is mourned at home for a number of days before sending it off to be buried. Outside the house was tables and tables of gambling mourners, neighbours and passers by.
My mum caught up with her relatives while my dad gambled. I gave Auntie Bebeth the iPad that she wanted and we were served various amount of other foods including ‘pospas’ (rice congee), wafer thin coconut biscuits and ‘bulaklak’ (literally flower – deep fried crunchy intestines. It’s not as disgusting as it sounds!).
They also had wifi so I took the opportunity to check some apps and, boy the town’s awake and messages were rife! Also, I got the email from work that I’ll be on a driving course after skiing!!! Woohoo!!!
It was about 0400 when mum decided that she was tired so we took a taxi back to the hotel and slept.
Oversleeping past 1100, we were picked up by my Aunt back to Kuya Noel’s for the burial of his brother. It started to pour as soon as we had checked out and it rained even more as we took the coffin to a nearby church for the final mass for the dead. There was a procession of mourners from the house of the deceased, to the church and the cemetry some kilometres away… in the rain.
One thing I noticed is:
While the priest was giving the dead the final blessing before they sealed the tomb, my brother and I nipped away to the nearby bakery and bought some hopia (mung and yam filled pastry, one of my Filipino favourites), a char siu bao (we call them siopao), and some softdrinks. We then followed the rest as they finished the rather long Filipino burial ritual… for more siopao and a juice drink in a Cappri-Sun like packaging – Zesto (my childhood snack drink).
Shortly afterwards, we left the cemetry and headed out for lunch at Kuya Noel’s then we grabbed our stuffs and made our way to Borbon, my dad’s birth place.
It took just about over 2 hours by jeep (my dad’s) to reach Pongdol, a little town settlement in Borbon, the northern island of Cebu. On the way, we stopped at Liloan Market to get buy some fresh fish and a sack of rice.I remember that it used to be 3 hours when we used to take public transport on the rugged unconcreted road.
I actually slept the whole journey and it was 2140 when we reached my dad’s place. They bought a whole grilled chicken and there was already cooked rice so we had a quick late dinner before going to bed.
There was no magpapandesal that woke us up but as if by auto-alarm, with a slight help from a very distant morning cock call, I was awake by 0630. My aunt was snoring beside me and Kuya Noel and my dad’s nephew: Kuya Panyong were still asleep in the living room. There was no way of getting back to sleep. I just turned on the iPad and there wasn’t anything interesting on it so I ended reading portions of Geoeconomics, a book I downloaded from bookboon.com, about 2 years ago, that somehow got put on my iPad from iCloud. Oh, that lifesaver…
More and more cocks called and soon, my aunt and the whole household got up and started with their various activities.
My dad and his cronies started fiddling with his HiFi system from years ago with Kenny Rogers blasting crackled and buzzing through the clearly defective speakers. My mum started cleaning the kitchen and my aunt was skipping back forth helping her and preparing brunch.
After a meal of Native Chicken soup with sinangag and grilled fish, Kuya Noling came back with me to Cebu City on a bus. The journey took about 3 hours in a cramp and uncomfortable make shift bus, but I guess the consolation was the view of the sea and the countryside was as I remember, still very pleasant. Noticeably perhaps worryingly for the people who live by it, the sea had eroded huge portion of the Western Cebu coast!
We stopped at SM Cebu to get more pasalubong and then Kuya Noling dropped me at Mactan Airport some many miles away and I made my way back to Cavite. Thankfully, Kuya Glenn and Tata in our van, were already at Manila Airport when I landed so I didn’t have to take public transport back to ours.
14 Jan Los Baños, Laguna
When my bestfriends move to Los Baños (LB) for university, it has become customary for me visit this remote province whenever I’m in the Philippines.
Back in 2010, I took the public transport which involved making my way to Pala Pala by jeep to catch a van opposite Robinson’s Mall headed for Calamba, Laguna (60-75mins), then from there catch another jeep (45-60mins) for University of the Philippines LB (UPLB). Quite a daunting experience for someone that looks so foreign…an easy target for pickpocketers and ‘holdapers’. So this time, after my luNch, I asked Kuya Glenn to drive me there! It was much more comfortable and it was definitely a lot safer way to get there.
When we got to UPLB, we picked up Martee from his faculty office then Kuya Glenn dropped us off at Tel’s place… For a long overdue reunion! Ah my best friends!
We watched some children’s tv while we waited for Tel to have a shower and then we set off fo pick up Aloboy (Tel’s husband) at his work place then proceeded to have dinner at Max’s in Solenad, Sta. Rosa.
Martee and I stayed over at Tel’s and just before bed, we had some McDo(nald’s) snacks of apple pie, which we all agreed on was in fact made of ‘sayote’ instead of real apples. Martee and I agreed on letting me teach his HTML lecture the next day… For shits and gigs. Ah the fun times!
Tel didn’t get ready for 8 as we had agreed on last night, but Martee and I anticipated this. We eventually managed to leave the house at about 9 to grab breakfast at Jollibee’s, my favourite fastfood chain in the world!
We ordered spaghetti (with that distinct Filipino sweet and slightly spicy banana ketchup twist) with crispy fried chicken and a yum burger for me, corned beef with fried rice and egg for Martee, whilst Tel had boring pancakes.
After the meal, we dispersed so that Martee can do his work admin, Tel have some rest and me to have a gander around the campus.
We then met up again for lunch at about 2 hours later at an Italian hotel restaurant in campus. Amusingly, this Italian restaurant also served Filipino food. Not really fancying Italian, we ended up ordering pork in sauted shrimp sauce (binagoongan) and rice. Tel and martee handed me a box of anime goodies (a couple of naruto figurine keychains and a cat decorating tape as a leaving present, which apparently they tried to send to me as a parcel sometime in the past. It came back to them saying address could not be found.
After some more lols after the meal, we then headed to UPLB Computer Science Lecture theatre, where I delivered Martee’s Introduction to HTML to a class of about 100 students. My dorkiness knows no bounds!
After our class, we had tea break at the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) cafe and soon after that, we said goodbye! Time really flies when you’re having fun. Martee took me to Calamba where I then took a van to Pala Pala for P60. Tata picked me up on the other end and at home, Ate Abbie (Tata’s daughter) with her daughter greeted me. I soon had to head back to SM Pala Pala to meet more childhood friends for a leaving dinner. Cha (who I affectionally call Jelli Jelli) arrived first ahd almost an hour and a half late, Bei and Anne arrived together with Bei’s boyfriend. We drove to Dencio’s in Tagaytay and had lots of reminiscing of the old times, laughter and delicious Filipino food.
It wasn’t until about 2330 when I got home and there my neighbour friends (Doro, Bato, Eric, Banjo and his wife Elaine) were waiting! So, we all had drinks of Red Horse in front of our house. Drinks quickly run out shated among six of us so we headed out to a small club in ‘Kanto’, where we partied and had more Red Horse! Ah the good times!
16 Jan Last day in the Philippines for a while
With a slight hangover, woozy and still light headed from last night, Tata woke me up at about 0700 because I needed to sign a Power Of Attorney from a guy from Meralco (electricity company). I went straight back to bed. I finally got up when Ate Tess dropped by to say bye over a brunch of Tinolang Manok with rice.
Quickly after that, I rushed back to SM to get some last minute pasalubongs and then made way to say farewell to Lola. She handed me my childhood favourite snack – kalamay – as a parting present!
Before heading back home to pick up my luggage, we made one last stop to see Tita Mavic (Lola’s daughter) but she wasn’t home.
It had just gone past midday when I got back to ours. I had some more of the leftover brunch and then set off for the airport at about 1530 to check in for my 1900 flight back to Hong Kong and eventually, London.
There ends my trip to the Philippines.
Overall, I had a very pleasant time spent with relatives and friends. I am relieved to know that despite the stark changes everywhere, it is still a home I recognise where I can feel welcomed and loved.
Next time I visit, as much as I love spending time with everyone, I would love to see more of the Philippines. Perhaps, island hop. That would be good. Stay tuned.