Cockpits, residential palaces and Baroque churches

Cockfighting sounds pretty barbaric. Every town and village seems to have at least one breeding centre. Certainly at five in the morning, where ever you are in this country, a chorus of crowing birds greets the dawn and it sounds like that is a complete underestimate. Hundreds of roosters all sound off at each other, a bit like boxers at the weigh-in trying to outdo each other.

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These roosters are magnificent birds, full and plump and powerful. They gleam with strength and colour. They have their own shelter of slab tiles where they are tethered in the shade,  lined up in a yard with fifty or so tilted homes. They are fed up, food ways I mean but I am sure the other way as well, and watered. They peck about and strut and scream out to assert their position in the pecking order. See how I did that? Anyway, as the big day approaches I am told they are starved until they are desperate for food, razor blades are tied to the backs of their legs and they are thrown into the pit to battle it out to the death; feathers and blood and gore. It’s rowdy and raucous with men yelling their bets and encouragement.

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Every town has a cockfighting pit. These are not small structures. They are more like stadium with room for hundreds of spectators. This is the one in Manila which is named after King Slasher, king of the ring, a champion of the razor kick.

Today is a leisurely drive down the coast to the heritage city of  Vegan. On the way a pop into Marcos’s northern palace is in order and also this wonderful church built of brick and stone.

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The cornerstone was laid in 1704 by the Augustinian friars who had arrived in the 16th century. When in danger of falling down, 12 buttresses were built on each side, constructed from stone and smoothed coral. That didn’t help the protection of the local reefs.

A comfort break and a refuge from the heat and the dust of travelling is required. Sitio Remedios is just that, reinvigorating the spirit in particular. A true oasis of calm and peace on the edge of the ocean.

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I could have stayed for ever in the hammock, in the shade, listening to the silence and losing myself in the monotony and perpetual motion of surf on sand out there in the blazing sun.

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Exploring the coast north of Lauag

The Republic of the Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands in the Pacific Ocean the largest of which is Luzon. It is a short flight from Manila up to Laoag in the north of the island. Today is spent exploring the most northern part of Luzon. And it’s beach day!

But first of all a stop in Batac. This is a small town whose main claim to fame is the centre of support for the famous, or is it infamous, President Marcos. Here is his mausoleum and a museum dedicated to his life. It is a small town with lovely people going about their business. These lovely ladies were preparing the local delicacy of empanadas.

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and these lovely ladies were ready to take orders in their air conditioned Makky D’s.

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Then it’s up the coast road. The jungle is far behind us. Now it’s dry arid scrubland with the occasional settlement of low scruffy one storey dwellings surrounded by simple fishing outriggers nesting on the flat coastline. There are no golden beaches yet. Volcanic clinker is the main element of this coastline. Up here the main source of income is the manufacture and selling of salt and the sale of small onions and garlic.

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The lighthouse was built in 1892 and is still in use.20160211035910_IMG_4133

The ride up on the space shuttle bikes is cool. I was a bit suspicious of my driver as he did not seem to know the rules of the road. Would you trust him?

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A quick stop off at the market to buy lunch. Now careful. Traditional dishes are poki poki, fried vegetables mixed with shrimp paste (very strong), or fried aubergine. Neither of which are to my taste so maybe I’ll order pulled pork from the menu. The Filipinos do like their pork, pulled or otherwise. Oh, you need to be careful. Poki in Chinese means vagina.

And then the beach at last. 🙌 🙌 🙌. The landscape has changed over the past few miles as the highlands rear up inland. It is more luxuriant, back amongst the palms and jungle foliage and rice paddies. Then following a sign to Ivory Sands it is through Veronica’s restaurant and there is this long, palm fringed crescent of soft, inviting, silver sand around a turquoise loop with darker patches of fronds of gently lapping seaweed cruising around flattened coral. Sorry guys but I have to put this image up. Yes, the water was as glorious as it looks.

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Swiming in the South China Sea before a cool beer and, I decided on, a plate of fried calimari, was just heaven.

Village life in the land of volcanoes

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I know a few things about jeepnies now. The base unit is the military Willis jeep, left by the US after the war with two bench seats, each designed for three personnel.They were surplus to requirements when the Americans left and some in factory condition. Local Filipino mechanics would use their inventiveness to extend the chassis and bodywork to fit up to 20 passengers. To power this beast they would whip out the original engine and put in a Mitsubishi truck engine. And there you have it – the jeepny. That was interesting wasn’t it?

Anyway, this is volcano land. I stayed in Tagaytay on the edge of a large fresh water lake which must have formed part of a volcano at some point in the past. So, after clambering aboard an outrigger and a short hop over the lake to Taal Crater Island which so looks like a proper volcanic come.

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Then I have a choice. I either hike up to to the top of crater rim or I wander around the village at the bottom. Hmmmm. Quite easy really as I have seen quite a few volcanoes in my time and that incline is quite steep enough.

Firstly I explore the small centre where the locals hire out their skinny nags to take tourists up the volcano.

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Having had a rather disgusting cup of Nescafe and take the very difficult decision to walk left along the beach rather than right. Soon I am amongst the village houses and livestock and families. Such a joy.

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The camera opens up smiling faces and roars of laughter and shy grins.20160210025642_IMG_3987 20160210023903_IMG_3956 20160210031907_IMG_4011

What a lovely, warm, friendly people with no axe too grind and no agenda other than to make a crust by tapping up the tourists or managing their offshore fish farms. Life is pretty basic and simple but a smile comes to their faces quick enough and they seem content with very little. Maybe we could learn a thing or two.

I love these two images. They seem to sum the whole thing up.

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Bamboo rafting on Pandin Lake

After the day spent at carnival the peace and shade of the oldtown within the walls is a welcome respite from the clangs and drums of the Dragon performance. Two churches survive the devastation of the war. The church of St Agustin is built of volcanic stone and is the oldest church in the Philippines built by the Spanish friars around 450 years ago. There is a conveyor belt of wedding parties waiting for their slot to tie the knot. Even though Catholic, there must be something auspicious about being wed on the first day off the year of the monkey.

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Manila cathedral takes up the slack with the faithful, providing space and opportunity for prayer and reflection.

Today brings the real Manila to life. The streets fill with school children filling like ants to their places of learning. It seems that so many Filipinos work abroad that the young are left to build their country’s future. Traffic builds amongst the growing pedestrians walking the old streets within the wall. From above the tricycles skittle their way around and through the gates in the wall like mini robotic toys on mini tracks on endless journeys to locality nowhere. The main roads fill with traffic a thousand of commuters put into town. Every other vehicle is a jeepny with its cargo crouching down to get some air into its squashed confines. The occasional bigger coach, Toyota taxis,shiny private cars compete for space amongst the gridlock of the main routes into the commercial centre of bright lights, posh shops, tight uniformed security guards, retail outlets, western coffee houses and stretching Hightower apartments and offices.

Travelling by bus I am squeezed out onto the skyway heading for the provinces and the open spaces to the south of Manila. Outside the capital the jeepny is no longer king. Here the motorised tricycle tuktuk has taken over as the main form of public transport. These are the shiny silver cockpits of space modules attached to the side of a motorbike and will take two passengers in a rather intimate space plus one on the pillion.

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Pandin Lake, outside San Pablo City, is enclosed by a jungle of palms and bananas and coconuts. The rains come for a while as the path to lakeside passes the corrugated iron security fence of a cock fighting breeding farm emitting the perpetual crowing of hundreds of birds. Cock fighting is the national sport of the Philippines along with boxing and basketball. Bamboo rafts, propelled by locals, men and women, pulling hard at a rope strung across to the far side, plough a lazy channel over to the far side and back again. Quite why I am not sure. Maybe just an attraction to get the tourists in. On the return leg the sun comes out making the scenery so much more attractive and enhancing the whole experience. These are some of the guys working the rope.

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Happy New Year from the Philippines

Welcome to the year of the monkey.  I am told that I have struck lucky. I fly into Manila, the capital of the Philippines, at Chinese New Year and the place is so quiet. Well that’s what the locals say. The trip from the airport to the hotel only takes 25 minutes and the next day is a bank holiday so I can explore the city without getting gridlocked with the added bonus of the excitement of street celebrations.

A quick bit of context. The Philippines has 100 million people and 17 million of them live in Manila.80% are Catholics and 5% are Chinese. The islands were colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century who were looking for spices and converts. The Brits invaded for a couple of years and then the US took over as part of a deal at the end of their war with Spain in the 19th century. During WWII Manila was smashed by the Japanese in their occupation and then by Americans as they took back the islands and the capital. The country finally became independent in 1947. The people speak English because of the American context and operate the world’s call centres.  There’s a surprise.

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Ok into downtown Chinatown. Public transport is completely different to other Asian cities. First are the jeepnies. These are a. cross between a bus and a taxi. and are brightly coloured converted jeeps that the Americans left at the end of the war that have been extended to seat up to 14 passengers. They bang along their designated routes belching out smoke and gently sounding horns. Passengers flag them down, pay their 7 pesos (10p) and bang on the roof when they want to get off. Then comes the modern Toyota taxi with its air con-the Prince of the road. At the bottom of the heap are hundreds of mostly pedal powered tricycles where every journey costs 3 pesos..

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So down into the chaos of Chinatown. The noise of cymbals and drums and canned music compete with cries of sellers and screaming kids and music boxes and street bands. Snaking dragons and fluorescentmoths rear up at clusters of brightly coloured Mickey Mouse balloons or knock on the door of banks or shops.The most inventive are the street kids banging out a funky rhythm with two bits of wood on an olive oil can or a large water container while their mates do the moves holding a plastic veg tray on their head covered with a dirty sheet. Brilliant. There is definitely a place for the Horns and if a band of Manila’s ladyboys can get a samba groove together there is certainly a place for Larkrise.

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Its quite nice to get into the old town and visit a few churches. The pace drops, the temperature drops and everything gets calmer. What a great first day.