Cebu Pacific Air – Get the party started…
I knew it actually was going to be more fun in the Philippines when I heard Levels by Aviici playing over the tannoy as I boarded my midnight flight to Manila. This was the same airline that sprung to YouTube fame because its cabin crew sometimes perform their pre-flight safety demonstrations to Lady Gaga.
Once we were airborne it was time for the Fun Game. A member of the cabin crew called out a common item carried on the person and the first passenger to raise it above their head won a kitsch gift. By my third Cebu Pacific flight I learned to remove my belt, shoes, passport, wallet etc. in anticipation of the Fun Game but I was never as fast as the Filipinos.
Filipinos are more fun on the ground too and they’re well known for their unconventional names, e.g. Ding Dong, Jazz and Apple. Most people also have a contracted double-barrel name used by their family which may or may not bear some resemblance to their official name, e.g. June June for Rob (?) or Cric Cric for Christian.
Palawan – The last frontier
The Philippines most westerly island chain is firmly on the map for those chasing untouched tropical paradise and it was listed as one of National Geographic’s hot destinations for 2011. However, after visiting Goa and the Andamans I was was a bit jaded with beaches, so I spent more time eating mangoes than sunbathing.
Filipino food is quite simple, similar to Thai food but without coconut milk or oyster sauce. Like everywhere else I’ve been in Eastern Asia, barbecued meat seems to be a staple! The economy must have been liberalised long ago because the Philippines is astonishingly well penetrated by chain restaurant and donut outlets, some home-grown and some international. They are all distinctly Filipino though; you can have rice instead of chips in McDonalds and many restaurants serve ‘Combo Meals’ where you can have a piece of fried chicken, a slice of pizza and some Spaghetti Bolognese rather than choose just one.
The metropolitan area of Manila comprises 17 boroughs, some of which look like Manhattan and some of which typified my concrete jungle stereotype of a developing world city, replete with flyovers and gridlock. Swanning around Manila’s chic shopping complexes was my first sip from the potentially poisoned chalice of Western ex-pat life. I feel quite optimistic about the future for the Philippines, the gradient of living standards didn’t seem nearly as steep as in India and its people seem to make a conscious choice to enjoy life.
Luzon – Following in the colonial footsteps…
From Manila I took an overnight coach to the charming town of Vigan, the best-preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture in the Philippines. Much more of the country looked like this up until WW2, when it was heavily bombed by the Japanese due to its links with the USA.
The Philippines was a Spanish colony up until 1898, when the territory passed into American hands for almost fifty years. My last destination was Baguio, a leafy hilltop town that was developed as a summer retreat for American military personnel. Today it’s a prosperous university town thronged by fashionable students. I arrived wearing shorts and flip flops but I noticed so many incredulous glances that I quickly changed into trousers and a jumper. This wasn’t the first time I’d received disapproving looks – one trendy Filipino in Manila had looked me up and down and commented that I mustn’t care about fashion.
Discomfitingly, my ethnicity seemed to be my only redeeming feature, with several people commenting on my eye and hair colour. I’ve been really surprised by how much the legacy of colonialism pervades contemporary Asian societies. In India it taints the rhetoric of the state and in the Philippines I noticed its contribution to the construction of personal identity and aesthetics.
It wasn’t long before I boarded my final Cebu Pacific flight, this time to Osaka in Japan. Still no luck with the Fun Game though…