7,107 islands. 100 million people. 75 ethnic groups. 171 languages. Overwhelmingly catholic. A two hour flight east from Vietnam takes me to the Philippines where I spend 2 week holiday just scratching the surface of this vast group-of-islands nation. It’s not a country I’d ever thought I’d see but an old friend, Patsy, who hails from the same wee country road as myself, meets me in Saigon the day before getting a flight to Zamboanga in the south of the country. Currently living in Western Australia, he has a friend Seanie in Zamboanga whose family we stay with before going off with her and her sister to see Manila and the the island of Palawan in the West.
Zamboanga, known as Asia’s Latin City, feels like what I imagine parts of Central America are like. The language here is Chavacano, a Mexican-Spanish based Creole and the distinctly ‘latin’ feel to the city makes it hard to believe you’re still in Asia. The Spanish ruled the Philippines for over 300 years (for much of that time it was administered from Mexico) until the Philippine Revolution in the 1890s. War between the Spanish and Filipino forces ended in a stalemate and when the Spanish lost the American-Spanish war of the same decade, the USA ‘bought’ the country for $20 million, crushing its newly independent Republic (killing over 200,000 in the process) and and ruling it as its own colony till 1946.
The British Foreign Office currently “advices against all travel” to South-West Mindanao, where Zamboanga is located, because of the “high level of terrorism including kidnapping”. There has been a long running insurgency against the government waged by various Islamic militant groups in the area. Last September, a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front took over large swathes of the city resulting in a 3-week siege which killed over 200 people and temporarily displaced 100,000. As you’d expect, there are a lot of guns everywhere. Luckily Seanie’s brother-in-law is a policeman who accompanies us on little motorbike trips around the city. He’s obviously armed and one day he takes us to a firing range to try out his handgun. I say ‘firing range’ but it’s really just a few tin targets set up on waste-ground. It’s the first time I’ve shot a handgun (the previous week was the first time I’d shot a gun; a rifle at Ch Chi tunnels firing range near Saigon). I don’t like guns but I’m interested to know what it feels like to fire one and the ease at which I fire off the shots is a surprise. Without ear-protection (yes, stupid), my ears are ringing for hours afterwards though and I’m glad I don’t have to live in a place where one of these things is a necessity.
Apart from being a bit tense, there’s nothing unusual about Zamboanga on the surface…just a busy city with ordinary people trying to get on with their lives. Seanie and her lovely family treat us and make us feel at home, feeding us massive meals of fresh, locally-sourced food and it’s a nice start to our trip.
Manila, the most densely populated city on the planet (with an average of over 40,000 per sq/km), is our next stop and I’m relieved we’re only there for a couple of nights. Polluted, overcrowded and a huge climate-change catastrophe waiting to happen, the metropolis is not a pleasant place to explore, especially in the heat of pre-monsoon season. It’s here I realise how utterly Americanised the Philippines are…the fast food, obesity, shopping malls, clothes, the sport, the inequality, the constant being addressed as ‘Sir’ in an overly upbeat American accent (“HIIIIIII SIIIIIIIIIRRRRRR!!!!!”). It’s a shame as the Filipino people are genuinely nice but they seem to have adopted the worst of USAmerican culture. I also don’t enjoy being mistaken for an American. Coincidently, Barak Obama arrives in Manila for a 3-day visit the day after we leave for Palawan. It’s the first time I’ve crossed paths with the American president on my trip and his noxious presence is most noticeably felt through the fawning media coverage of his visit. In a Manila Bulletin article by a former Filipino president, Obama is described as a “champion of the oppressed and disadvantaged….[someone with] humility, perseverance, honesty, industry, and a sense of teamwork”. Such unadulterated baloney doesn’t bode well for the Philippines and neither does the military agreement Obama has just signed. In the new cold war between the US and China in Asia, the Philippines has chosen to cosy up with the US and will yet again be prey to their predatory interests.
The island of Palawan is a world away from the traffic-jammed streets of Manila. The pace of life is slower and the people look healthier. We stay 5 days in the capital town, Puerto Princesa, while taking a couple of small trips to other parts of the island (One day, we go on a tour to the biggest underground river in the world, one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the world’). The natural beauty of the place makes me wish I was living somewhere like this…tropical and unspoiled, with abundant plant and animal life. For now, I feel estranged from the culture though, knowing I’m just really passing through and I am grateful to be returning to the more familiar surroundings of Vietnam which I’ve actually began to feel a fondness for. I’ll never come to the Philippines again but I’m lucky to’ve had the opportunity to witness life in another unique part of Asia.