Tricycle, the famous, Leyte
Tricycle, the famous, Leyte

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 was there for a month and I really enjoyed it.”, “Great food and beautiful nature. I just came from there.” Southeast Asia is now a popular travel destination and it seems that everyone has been to the Philippines. Except me. In 2015, after Cyclone Pam, I met some humanitarian workers from Leyte, Philippines on the island of Tanna. They came to help us in the aftermath of the cyclone. Two years earlier, Super Typhoon Haiyan had destroyed their own island, so their help was very symbolic. Exactly one year after that meeting, I am on a plane flying to see them in the “country where almost everyone has been” except me.

They say the Philippines is a big country. Whatever. From the beginning, I have the impression that everything here is tiny. The people, the houses, the vehicles. When I ride through the city in all these jeepneys, tricycles and pedicabs, I am crouched down with my height of almost two meters, which is surely a funny spectacle for the locals. They, with their slight stature, sit with dignity on the small seats and do not bang their heads on the roof like I do. Filipinos do not like to walk under their tropical sun and avoid it with praiseworthy genius. I have the impression that they are second only to the people of Wallis in this respect. When I get tired of the cramped vehicles, I go out into the country and ride one of the water buffaloes. There is a real advantage - they do not have a low roof.

I spend most of my time in Tacloban. It is a part of Leyte that speaks Waray-Waray. The few words I pick up are strikingly similar to the word roots of Walisian and Malagasy. The Austronesian languages are so similar. I wish I had more time to learn more about this language. Maybe next time.

Leyte is not the most touristy part of the Philippines, so it is more authentic and real… and the hotels are more expensive. But the authenticity is worth it. Even more so if you go to the countryside, like Hinunagan. With the sea of incredible shades, the jungle, the islands on the horizon and the starry sky 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 have some really nice habits. With friends we share a lunch of freshly caught sea urchins. Raw ones. Another item on the list of bizarre creatures I have ever tasted. The list is soon expanded to include balut - a boiled egg with a duck embryo. My Filipino friends cannot resist this common joke. It seems to entertain the locals to see the white men paralyzed by such a strange snack. I ate the mine with dignity and even enjoyed it. What I did not tell my friends was that I had already received a kind of training for it. Half a year earlier on Ambrym, Vanuatu, my local friends had served me - and I could not refuse out of respect - a similarly well-developed, but twice as large egg of a megapode bird.

Visiting some other friends in Cebu City. The urban culture in the Philippines is crazy in many ways. The music, the karaoke, the Videoke, the 7-Eleven, and my friends laughing at my apparent inability to distinguish between men and women and other more obscure genders among the passersby. A strong sense of cultural alienation. Perhaps this is not surprising when you realize that local influences mix with European, American and Asian ones. Even Catholicism has taken a convoluted path here, influenced by both local and Spanish culture. For a European Catholic, it is a very colorful mix. Many statues of saints in the churches are reminiscent of Latin America or Spain. Sometimes you can find women selling colored candles in front of a church. If you buy some, you get a dance and some prayers.

Back to Tacloban and a little further inland to Burauen. A nice little town, definitely not on the tourist maps. It is surrounded by rice fields and beautiful jungle covered hills. And Saturday is cockfighting time. I have seen them in Madagascar, where they have a long tradition. But the ones here in the Philippines are much faster and deadlier. Totally different league. Tonight, half of the local families will definitely be eating chicken soup. And back to Tacloban. Uncle Alan also keeps some roosters for fighting. Quite good ones, according to him. But he also makes tuba, and definitely not just “quite good”. And also adobo, and pancit, and tocino, and … It is useless to look for the best local food in expensive restaurants. It is to be found in the homes of local families in the suburbs.

When you travel to the Philippines, the “country where everyone has been,” try to spend more time with the local people instead of beaches and tourist attractions. You may discover a country with them that no one has told you about.