I kept hearing "The Philippines is a great country! I went there a year ago.", "People in the Philippines are always smiling and friendly. I have been there for a month and I really enjoyed it.", "Great food and wonderful nature. I just came from there." Southeast Asia is now a popular destination and it seems that everyone has already been to the Philippines. Except for me. In 2015, after the cyclone Pam, on the island of Tanna I met several humanitarian workers from the Leyte, Philippines. They came to help us during the aftermath of the cyclone. Two years ago, the super-typhoon Haiyan destroyed their own island, and so their help to us was a very symbolic one. Exactly one year after this meeting, I am sitting in a plane, flying to see them in the "country that almost everyone has already been to".
They say the Philippines is a big country. Whatever. From the very beginning, I have the impression that everything here is tiny. The people, the houses and the vehicles. When traveling here around the city inside all those jeepneys, tricycles and pedicabs, I am all crouched with my almost two meters of height, making a certainly funny spectacle for the locals. They, with their small figures, are sitting with dignity on the small seats and do not bang their heads against the roof, like me. Filipinos have altogether low liking for walking and avoid it with a praiseworthy genius. I have the impression that they could take the imaginary first place in this regard after the people of Wallis island. When I get tired of cramped vehicles, I go to the countryside and ride one of the water buffaloes. There is one real advantage - they have no low roof.
I spend my time mainly in Tacloban. It is a part of Leyte, which speaks Waray-Waray. The few words that I pick up are strikingly reminiscent of the word roots of the Wallisian and the Malagasy. Austronesian languages are so similar. I wish I had more time to study this language better. Maybe next time.
Leyte is not exactly the most touristy part of the Philippines, and so it is more authentic and more real here ... and hotels are more expensive too. However, the authenticity is worth it. And even more if you move to the countryside, like to Hinunagan. With the sea of incredible shades, the jungle, the islands on the horizon and starry skies unspoiled by city lights. Those islands on the horizon - San Pablo and San Pedro – give us a good destination for a day trip. It reminds me of our weekend trips to the islets in the lagoon of Wallis on the other side of the Pacific. Island nations do have some really nice habits. With friends, we share a lunch of freshly caught sea urchins. Raw ones. Another item in the list of bizarre creatures that I have ever tasted. The list is soon extended by balut – a boiled egg with duck embryo. My Filipino friends cannot resist playing this usual prank. It seems that it entertains the local people to watch the white men paralyzed by such a strange snack. I ate the mine with dignity and even liked it. What I did not tell my friends was that I already got a sort of training for it. Half a year earlier on Ambrym, Vanuatu I got to eat similarly well advanced, but twice as large egg of megapode bird.
A visit of some other friends in Cebu City. Urban culture in the Philippines is crazy in many ways. The music, karaoke, videoke, 7-Eleven and my friends laughing at my apparent inability to distinguish among the passersby, apart from men and women, also other more obscure sexes. A strong sensation of cultural strangeness. Perhaps it is not surprising if you realize that local influences mix here with the European, American and Asian ones. Even the Catholicism here went through a tangled route through the influence of both the local and Spanish culture. For a European Catholic it makes a very colorful mix indeed. Many statues of saints in the churches remind of Latin America, or of Spain. Sometimes outside a church, one can meet women selling colored candles. If you buy some, you receive a dance and a few prayers.
Returning back to Tacloban and going a little further inland, to Burauen. A pleasant little town, definitely one that is not included on tourist maps. Around it are spread rice paddies and stunning jungle-covered hills. And on Saturday it is time for cockfighting. I have already seen those in Madagascar, where they have a long tradition. Those here in the Philippines are however much faster and deadlier. Quite a different league. This evening a half of local families will definitely eat chicken soup. And again back to Tacloban. Uncle Alan too keeps some roosters for fighting. According to his words quite a good ones. But he also makes tuba, and definitely not just "quite a good one". And also adobo, and pancit, and tocino and ... It is useless to look for the best local food in expensive restaurants. It is found in local families on the outskirts.
When you will travel to the Philippines, to the "country where everyone has already been to", instead of beaches and tourist attractions try to spend more time with the local people. Maybe with them you will discover a country that nobody told you about yet.