How to Experience “Real” Adventure in the Philippines

Driving in Manila is a real adventure

(I stumbled upon this old post that I had not categorized when I created it so I am reposting it)

The Philippines has so many remote islands, jungles, rough roads and so on that the opportunities to experience adventure at its peak are endless.

I’ve had the chance to visit remote parts of the Sierra Madre Mountains where there is not even a trail and where the NPA hide.

Yet, scuba diving, bungee jumping, driving a jeep on a rough road leading to some remote waterfall, hiking in a jungle etc are certainly not the only ways to experience adventure in the Philippines.

You don’t by any means need to go to some remote area to experience adventure: just try driving in Manila during rush hour (that in Manila practically means almost any hour) where cutting in lanes and tailgating is routine or even in the province where buses overtake cars or buses in a curve and you have to resort to your best driving skills to avoid a crash, or try walking alone in some slum area like Tondo or Quiapo (I’ve experienced Quiapo by night) and you will experience “adventure” in the real sense of the word.

But even more adventurous is being married to a Filipina as the various aspects of culture shock that I’ve abundantly touched on in this blog can turn your relationship into a real “adventure” that can cause other kinds of adventures like swimming among the sharks or hiking in a trail infested with cobras or pythons to pale in comparison.

You will find yourself dealing with mainit ang ulo, hinanakit and other highly emotional traits of Filipinos or moving on the razor’s edge of trying to budget your money while sending substantial amounts to relatives in the Philippines (not my situation but it can happen to some) who expect help and those things definitely qualify as “adventure”.

But if you are willing to view the bumps on the road, the challenges and the obstacles as an opportunity to step up emotionally your relationship with a Filipina will definitely offer you an opportunity for an exciting adventure, a ride second to none.

So here is my top five list of adventures one can experience in the Philippines:

  • Tondo by night
  • Quiapo by night
  • E.D.S.A. Avenue at rush hour
  • Your Filipina’s relatives who ask for money
  • Your Filipina’s mood when she is having buwanang dalaw (menstruation)

Have a great time in the Philippines!

Mabuhay!….or mamatay

Funny Filipino T Shirts

Is this a man? Tao ba ito?
Hindi pala tao lang: henyo!!!!!!

If you have the chance to visit the Philippines and one of its huge malls, you will stumble upon one of those stores that sell t shirts with all sorts of (more or less) funny logos and printings in Tagalog.

I saw one that mimicked the Heineken Beer logo that said “Hay naku! Ubos na ang beer” (oh my goodness, we have run out of beer).

Another one had something like the “Tag-heuer” logo and it replaced “Tag-heuer” with tag-hirap since birth” (“poverty since birth”).

And on and on it goes: you can find all kinds of logos, from “tangi kapogian lang ang minana ko mula sa tatay ko” (“beauty is the only thing I inherited from my father” to “Bahala-na Republic”.

I was given the one above that says “tao ba ‘to?”, meaning “is this a man?”.

And the answer on the back gives the answer: “henyo” or “genius”!…..

I actually wanted the one with “Hay naku! Ubos na ang beer” but they didn’t have my size, hay naku! Naku po(gi)!

If you visit the Philippines, and you know a little bit of Tagalog, buy yourself one of these funny t-shirts….

The “Karatula” on a White-sandy Beach

(I am reblogging this one because I have written the Italian version of this old post)

Back in June 2008, during my first trip to the Philippines, I visited the One Hundred Islands National Park in Pangasinan.

That trip was a dream come true.

I had been dreaming of visiting the tropics since I was a child. I remember going every year with my parents to our summer-house in Southern Italy, a place where the water is crystal clear and that, under certain aspects, resembles the tropics, even though corals are almost non-existent there and the sea fauna is not anywhere near what I used to see in documentaries about the tropics.

So, whenever my parents took me there, I pretended that I was in some exotic island and, therefore, I grew up with a burning desire to see the tropics.

But it was not until I married my wife that my dream came true.

The paradox is that my visit to the One Hundred Island was the only day I saw the sea during my first trip to the Philippines (the second time, having learned the lesson, I planned things a lot differently and I spent 10 days by the sea).

During my first visit of the Philippines, in order to get my wife to go to the sea I really had to struggle and wrestle.

One reason is that she had not gone home to see the sea, rather, like most expatriate Filipinos, the purpose of her travel was to be with her family.

Another reason is that, like most Filipinos, my wife’s idea of relaxation is going to the shopping mall, eating out at some fast-food chain, watching TV, partying and so on. I realized just how little most Filipinos care about their coral reefs and white sandy beaches.

The landscape of the country is more about giant karatulas or billboards, shopping malls and fast-food chains than about beaches and the exotic landscapes are somewhere in the background, light years away from the minds and hearts of most Filipinos.

The country is so obsessed with the American culture that for many locals the ocean hardly exists.

The island where the bankero or boatman dropped us and where I had my first opportunity ever to snorkel in tropical waters and admire multi-colored corals and giant clams, is Lopez Island, one of the small coral islets of the One Hundred Islands archipelago

But while getting out of the boat and onto the beach, an unlikely sight took me aback: a huge karatula or billboard advertising a popular Filipino brand of hot dogs was dominating the landscape of that amazing island with an unbelievable white-sandy beach and an incredible underwater world!

To this day I keep staring at the picture I took on that day of June 2008, a picture that is a metaphor of a culture where the pristine beauty of the country arouses so little interest among most Filipinos who, evidently, prefer hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken and window shopping at the shopping mall to the sheer beauty of their country.

If you marry a Filipina you will highly likely bump into one who is not that enthusiastic about corals, dolphins, giant clams and who probably can’t even swim.

The karatula I saw in Lopez Island has become a symbol of what my relationship with my Filipino wife is like and of what the culture shock with a Filipina is like.

For decades I had been dreaming of marrying an exotic woman whom I could bliss out on an exotic island with. Both dreams have come true.

I have married an exotic woman and I have been with her on an exotic island, but while my spirit was more in sync with the underwater world, my wife’s spirit was more attuned with the karatula and what it symbolizes: one of the most beautiful (if not the most beautiful) tropical countries in the world in which the exotic beauty is largely overwhelmed by karatulas, mega malls and fast-food chains.

Is the Philippines Safe for Solo-travel?

What I can say, based on my personal experience, is this: I have criss-crossed the island of Luzon alone and I’ve taken buses, tricycles and jeepneys alone and I’ve never felt, not even once, that my safety was somehow threatened.

I haven’t been to the Visayas or Mindanao, so I don’t know if it is safe or not to travel there.

My solo walks “sa kabukiran”

When I arrived in the Philippines for the first time, I was very eager to explore everything I could possibly explore.

We arrived in Manila at 1 am but, because it was my first experience outside Europe, I almost didn’t sleep at night and woke up very early to walk about in the barangay.

My wife and my mother-in-law didn’t look very happy that I had taken the initiative to go out of the house without a “body guard” and they gave me all sorts of warnings about how dangerous it was for me to walk about in the barangay alone.

I was not too convinced and I actually went much further away than the barangay itself: I spent entire days out in the kabukiran (countryside) and, quite honestly, I saw nothing but smiling faces.

Smiling faces “sa kabukiran”

All roads lead to Cubao

I live in Rome, Italy, and there is a saying about Rome that goes “all roads lead to Rome”.

In the Philippines “all roads lead to Cubao”.

Cubao is a major bus terminal in Quezon City and buses from Cubao go all around Luzon

My Filipino wife, like many Filipinos who work abroad, wants to do nothing but stay home, when she goes home to the Philippines, while I am eager to explore the country.

In order to discourage me from pushing her to go somewhere together she would say that it was just too dangerous for the two of us to go around, let alone for me to go off on my own.

As I said, even the fact that I was walking alone in the countryside was a cause for complaint.

So I decided to overcome my wife’s resistance (which, I must admit with the benefit of hindsight, was a rather selfish move and not very beneficial for my relationship….but I eventually managed to fix a lot of things in my relationship) and make a further leap, and one morning I went to Cubao and took a bus to La Union, where I met up with other Filipinos who live in Italy and who were in the Philippines on vacation.

I used their home as a base for my solo bus, jeepney and tricycle trips to various parts of the Ilocandia

Leaving Cubao

One of the many buses I took alone

Riding a tricycle alone

I spent 10 days away from my wife and her family, partly with my Pinoy friends and partly completely alone, and I didn’t even see the shadow of a dangerous situation during my solo bus or tricycle rides.

Again, maybe the reason is that I speak Tagalog and I know how to build rapport with Filipinos, I don’t know.

Perhaps if someone else does what I did he will be attacked so I disclaim responsibility for what I am writing.

Maybe you shouldn’t try Quiapo by night alone but, by and large, I think that travelling in the Philippines isn’t a problem for most foreigners.

I’ve actually met Western couples who had rented cars and who were doing road trips without any “body guards”.

Europe is more dangerous than the Philippines

In my life I have only experienced a couple of incidents in which I run the risk of being robbed: one took place in Paris, France and another in Brussels, Belgium. Nothing happened to me in the Philippines.

I was in Quiapo (a part of Manila that is considered dangerous) at night with my family and I have the feeling that, because I know how to deal with Filipinos, I could have walked alone there, or in Tondo (an even more “dangerous” area of Manila), without any problems.

Quiapo and Tondo are actually peanuts compared to parts of Naples in Southern Italy: if you walk alone in Quiapo or Tondo you might be robbed. If you walk alone in certain parts of Naples you will be robbed….

Naples Italy, the Tondo of Italy: beware of pickpockets!

A slum in Naples, Italy: try walking alone here at night….

My Filipino mother-in-law was held up in Rome!

I’ve never been held up in the Philippines but my Filipino mother in law (the very one who got very angry at me because I wanted to explore the Philippines alone) was held up in Rome few weeks after she moved to Italy!

Few months later burglars broke into the apartment of a Filipino family whom I known.

I have heard stories of Filipinos being robbed or even killed in my country, while no one of the Europeans whom I know (and I know many), who have been to the Philippines, has ever been injured by criminals in the Philippines.

This is, of course, simply my own experience and limited perspective.

Quiapo by Night: the Ultimate Philippine Adventure

Maybe, as I said, you shouldn’t try Divisoria, Quiapo or Tondo by night (unless you are fluent in Tagalog like me…..) or, maybe, parts of Mindanao but, by and large, as far as I am concerned, travelling in the Philippines has proved to be much safer than the warnings full of doom and gloom that I had heard before I made my first trip to the country.

So, take your precautions and enjoy the Philippines!

Is the Philippines an Asian Country?

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The first time I set foot in the Philippines, I didn’t quite have the feeling that I was in Asia.

People there look more similar to Polinesians than to those who live on the Asian mainland and the landscape also resembles that of the Pacific Islands because, from a strictly geographical point of view, the Philippines is situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and actually lies between the Asian mainland and Micronesia.

When I think of Asia the very first mental picture I have is the far East, namely places like China, Japan or Korea. Then I broaden the picture and what also comes to mind is places like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, of course, the Middle East.

The Philippines is none of these things but at the same time it includes some elements of other Asian countries.

There is an expression that encapsulates rather nicely what the Philippines looks like and the expressions is: Filipinos are Malay in family, Chinese in business, Spanish in love and American in ambition.

Another expression, pointing to the Western colonization of the country is:

Filipinos lived 300 years in a convent (under Spanish domination) and 50 years in Hollywood (under American domination).

Filipinos are Malay in family

The ancestors of the population of the Philippines, at least the vast majority of it, came from Malaysia and, under this aspect, Filipinos are much more akin to Pacific Islanders than they are to Asians.

That’s why Filipinos look closer to Hawaiians, Maori etc., since they came from the same Malay-polynesian group.
Many smaller groups of indigenous peoples and immigrants constitute the remainder of the Philippines’ population.

They are Austronesian

Tagalog is an Austronesian language like the languages spoken in the Pacific Islands.

Me dressed like an indigenous Filipino (Igorot)
A Catholic church in Bulacan
Malay looking Filipino
Tagalog is an Austronesian language
Polinesian vibes

Chinese in business

This expression reveals that Filipinos have had a lot of connections with the Asian Mainland, and particularly with China, while Pacific Islanders are, by and large, culturally and socio-economically cut off from Asia.

Not only are Filipinos Chinese in business, in the sense that Chinese business people are very active in the Philippines, they have also been strongly influenced by China in such areas as cooking (Filipinos eat noodles and spring rolls) and family relationships (such Tagalog expressions like ate and kuya, or “older sister” and “older brother” come from Chinese).

Not only have Filipinos been exposed to Chinese immigration, the country has also been exposed to Arabic immigration, to the point that part of Mindanao (the Southernmost island group of the Philippines) is a Muslim area.

The “Culture Shock Philippines” book by Alfredo and Grace Roces says

“At about the same time as the Chinese, the Arabs had also come to the Philippines to trade. In the Southeast Asian region the founding of Malacca, followed by the conversion of its leader in 1414, spread the influence of Islam among the Malay peoples, reaching southern Philippine shores in the 14th century. Islam remains a dominant influence in the southern Philippines, a factor that unified the kinship groups in the area to resist colonisation by Spain effectively and strongly for 400 years, and put up a strong resistance to American colonisation. Although only a small minority within the Philippine population—about 5 per cent—the Muslims have added cultural character to the nation. The Filipino Christian majority today express pride and admiration”

Spanish in love and American in ambition

The fact that the Philippines have been exposed to 300 years of Spanish colonization and 50 years of American colonization sets them apart from both the rest of Asia and Polinesia and gives the Philippines a strong Western veneer to the point that a Westerner like me really feels like having landed in a Western country when he first sets foot in the Philippines.

In the Philippines you can find Spanish architecture as well as American-style skyscrapers.

Actually the Philippines was not even directly controlled by Spain, rather it was ruled by the Spanish via Mexico so, in this respect, the Philippines could also be viewed as a slice of Latin America situated between Asia and Polinesia but, at the same time millions of Filipinos speak English rather fluently and the American impact on the country can easily be observed by a tourist who sets foot in the Philippines.

So, yes, the Philippines is a very unique place: it’s a mixture of Asia, Polinesia, U.S.A. and Latin America.

From a selfish point of view I should encourage you to visit Italy, because my country will badly need tourists after this Coronavirus crisis but I must honestly tell you that I would rather encourage you to visit the Philippines than to come to Italy.

It’s geografic position as well as its exposure to all kinds of cultures and its incredible mixed architecture make the Philippines a place like none!

Kawayan or Bamboo in the Philippines

While in the Philippines I was amazed at how resistant and how versatile bamboo can be.

Filipinos use it everywhere: I have seen bamboo poles on the sides of the boats I took to get to the One Hundred Islands, the one I took on Lake Taal as well as in other places.

One common feature with many boats in the Philippines are the long bamboo stabilizers fitted to either side of the boat.

Also in the Philippines there are plenty of bahay kubo which are made of bamboo or kawayan and kugon or cogon grass.

The last time I was in the Philippines a bahay kubo was being built in the backyard of our house in barangay Pinaod, San Ildefonso Bulacan and I was amazed at how tough and resistant kawayan is.

Bahay kubo

Filipinos are so closely tied to bamboo that they have their own mythology about how man came from bamboo:

“there was a bird that flew incessantly between the sea and sky, unable to find a place to alight and rest. To add intrigue, the bird sparked a quarrel between the sea and the sky. It told the sky that the sea had designs of rising and drowning the sky; the sky replied it would fight such a move by hurling rocks and islands to hold the sea down, a statement the bird conveyed to the sea, provoking it to lash waves at the sky. The sky retaliated with rocks until, weighed down with islands, the sea no longer proved a threat. The bird then alighted happily on a protruding rock.

While it was resting, a bamboo node washed ashore and nudged the bird’s feet. The bird shifted a little. The bamboo nudged its feet again, and again the bird shifted. This went on until the bird, in anger, pecked at the bamboo, breaking it open. Out of the bamboo node emerged the first man. From the second node emerged a woman. Obtaining permission from the gods, the couple had many children. All grew up idle, doing nothing to help their parents until the father angrily picked up a stout stick and threatened to beat them all, sending them scampering in terror. Some ran out of the house, others fled to the bedroom, a few cowered in the living room, some hid in the kitchen and some among soot-covered cooking pots. Those children who entered the bedroom sired the chief and datos; those in the living room became free men; descendants of those who hid in the kitchen became slaves; while those blackened by the cooking pots produced the Aetas. From those who fled the house never to return descended all the people from other parts of the world” (source “Culture-shock Philippines” by Alfredo and Grace Roces-Chapter 2)

Maybe the only way to break open a matigas na ulo is by using bamboo….

Close to my wife’s town is the city of Meycauayan. I thought that it meant may kawayan (there is bamboo here) but I didn’t see much kawayan there….but I didn’t see any bakla in Baclaran either….

Pangasinan, La Union and Benguet: From Tropical Beaches to Temperate Climate in Two Hours

One of the areas I really love in the Philippines is the area situated between the provinces of Pangasinan, La Union and Benguet because it literally gives you the opportunity to spend half-day on a white-sandy tropical beach and the other half in an environment that almost resembles parts of the Alps.

I’ve got friends in Damortis, La Union, and the amazing thing about that area is that you can go to places like the One Hundred Islands or Bolinao in a couple of hours or so and enjoy blissing out on a tropical white-sandy beach or snorkel in waters that are filled with corals or, in only about one hour, you can reach Baguio City in the province of Benguet where you can find a climate that is more or less the same as the temperate areas of the world and you can see forests of pine trees and Alpine-style chalets.

Although my wife is Bulaquenya, each and every time I visit the Philippines, it is a must for me to head North and spend some time in my beloved Ilocandia where I get to enjoy this amazing variety of landscapes and climates and, all the more so because, under many aspects, Italy is also like that: there are parts of Southern Italy (like Calabria or the Sorrento Peninsula) where subtropical beaches are very close to high mountains so Southern Ilocandia is partly akin to my birthplace.

Backdrop View of the Mountains of Benguet From San Fabian Beach in Pangasinan
One Hundred Islands Pangasinan
Songyot Island in La Union
In Baguio City
Pine Trees and Alpine-style Chalets in Baguio

The Filipino Solution for Sinking Venice

Someone expressing concern on fb about sinking Venice
The “New Venice” in the Philippines
Canals and gondolas in the Grand Canal Shopping Mall

I am an Italian husband of a Filipina and one of the most famous tourist spots here in Italy, the city of Venice, is flooded.

Floods happen each year in Venice but the situation is getting worse and worse.

Venice is sinking and, according to recent studies, it will be underwater by 2100.

Does it mean to say that it will no longer be possible for tourists to visit Venice?

Well, Filipinos have come up with an interesting alternative: the Gran Canal Shopping Mall in Taguig that features canals and gondolas!

Venice is the city of canals so is Manila, the city of maraming mga kanal (at daga sa kanal….just like in Venice).

There is also plenty of kanal in the province and there is one running through my wife’s house compound in Bulacan.

Because the Philippines is the country of kanal, it stands to reason that only Filipinos could have created an alternative to the sinking city of Venice, should it completely go underwater….

The Underground River of Bulacan

The underground river of Bulacan
Barangay Akle
Our young tour guides

Falls and pools

The Philippines is primarily known for its amazing beaches and its islands.

But I personally find that the inland areas of this incredible island nation are just as interesting as the seacoast.

Maybe the reason is because I come from the subtropical part of Southern Italy where the seascape almost resembles that of parts of the Philippines.

As I already pointed out in my article, Italy has amazing islands and beaches and I was born by the sea in a village situated in front of an island so I am more naturally drawn to explore landscapes that are other than the seacoast.

And in my Filipino wife’s province (which is virtually an inland province as the seacoast of Bulacan is part of Manila Bay and therefore not worth exploring) I have found places that are cut out for me and in today’s article I’d like to share a few pictures of the underground river of Bulacan, a place situated near barangay Akle in the municipality of San Ildefonso Bulacan.

The area is comprised of a river that forms a series of falls and pools (like many in the Sierra Madre region) and the main attraction of the area is precisely the underground part of the river that connects San Ildefonso to San Miguel (where the famous Biak na Bato National Park is situated).

Many locals agree that, if that place were made known, it would soon become a tourist attraction.

I barely remember the road to get there but, as far as I can remember, we turned right at the intersection of the National Highway and the M. Valte Road and kept following the M. Valte Road until we got to Barangay Akle and then turned left at the Eagle Cement Corporation plant and followed the rough road (it was rough when I was there and, as far as I can see from Google Street View, it seems like it is still rough) until we got to the church that is in the picture below

We parked and two young kabataang lalaki guided us to the cave where the river flows and they were carrying torches to light our path.

The place is quite amazing: the water inside the cave was quite deep in some parts and we could even climb various rocks and dive in various spots inside the cave and the water was pretty cold, which is exactly what I was looking for to cope with the tropical heat.

Another amazing thing is that, as the river exits the cave there is a series of falls and pools.

If you pass by Bulacan you’ve got to check this place out and definitely explore the underground river of Bulacan.

Sa Kabukiran

One of my favourite Pinoy songs is “Sa Kabukiran” (in the countryside) by Freddie Aguilar, a song I have learned how to play on the guitar, not that much of a difficult song, just a standard “Travis” (or something similar) picking in the key of G.

The opening lyrics go

Sa kabukiran, minsan kami ay namasyal

Kasama ko ang aking barkada

Sa isang kubo, doon kami ay lumugar

At kami ay masaya, masaya

and I am happy that my wife’s birthplace offers some amazing kabukiran and a lot of bahay kubo kung saan lumugar ako.

My wife’s place (as I ‘ve already mentioned in some previous article) was originally given by the Spaniards the fitting name of Hacienda Buenavista (the modern name is San Ildefonso), as the surrounding kabukiran offers a stunning 360-degree view of the Bataan Peninsula, Mount Arayat, the Pinatubo and the Sierra Madre Mountains.

Although the song goes “Sa kabukiran, minsan kami ay namasyal
Kasama ko ang aking barkada…” I actually used to walk about in it and rove about on it all by myself but I also did it once with the barkada and, sure enough, as the song goes, we ended up in a kubo (as heavy rain caught us by surprise) at kami ay may kaunting (not “container”) “pampasaya”…..