Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dumagete: Just keeps on getting better!


Years and years ago, when Ian and I sailed annually across the Pacific on the Blue Star line, I became friendly with one of the ship’s officer cadets, a serious young Filipino man by the name of Jay. He shared his family story and his ambitions with me, over a can or two of beer, and I remember his final line: ‘You should come to the Philippines, you would love them’. Why me, especially? I thought. And then I remembered ghastly tales of over-populations, fume-drowned photos of Manila and Imelda Marcos’s shoes and decided the young lad was being patriotic rather than personal.

Oh, Jay, why didn’t I listen to you! Not, I suppose, that in the decade between then and now I have had much of a chance to make it here, but, still, why didn’t I believe you? OK, I’m sure that the over-populated areas, the fumes of Manila and anything at all to do with politics and footwear would still turn me off, but as of 72 hours ago my experience of the Philippine Islands has been enriched by visits to the buzzing, colourful, million-populated town of Dumagete, to the villages of Bacong and Dauin, and to places around and beyond … and I am falling for this place like Isaac Newton’s apple.

We arrived in the pretty harbour at Bacong early on Easter Sunday, and I’d planned on staying on board for the day. Surely nothing would be happening. But purser Steve had organised John the cab-driver to take all those who wanted – for Easter mass or just plain sightseeing -- to make the 12km trip to Dumagete, so I went.

The good vibes started as soon as we hit the Main Highway. Warm, bright, colourful, busy. Fine houses, fabulous flowers and greenery, and Lord be praised: an immaculate tarmac road simply buzzing with mopeds, bikes both motorised and pedal, the ubiquitous tuktuks and a good ration of buses. Rather fewer private motor vehicles. And the vibes stayed good as we hit town.

I wont pretend that the centre of Dumagete proper is particularly aesthetic. A main square with a heavy ration of statues (Jose Rizal is evidently the local hero, I must find out why), some pretty flowers and .. a great hole in the middle where a sewage plant is being installed. And, alas, the odd baby beggar and moneychangers almost at the doors of the temple. The temple is the C18th-19th-20th cathedral.

I spotted the sea, and headed in that direction and found myself on a lovely half-mile boulevard stretching round the bay to the ferry port. I devoured it happily and encountered one of the most amazing statues I’ve ever met, commemorating seven nuns who arrived here in 1904 and made themselves beloved of all.

I circumvented the vast campus of the 1901 Silliman University (50,000 students!), dove through shopping streets and residential streets and mean streets and ended up at the Municipal Market, a vast affair of open food halls and gloomy stalled corridors which even on Easter Sunday were in semi-full swing. So many food stalls! I suppose a million people can eat all those gleaming fish and scrawny chickens (I’m now told they may have been fruit bats) and cleavered up chunks of meat in one day ..?

Finally, I arrived back at the Cathedral where Easter Mass was coming to its end and I joined the small crowd at the welcomingly wide-open doors for the sung Lord’s Prayer. Sadly, it wasn’t the version I used to sing on the radio in the 1960s so I couldn’t join in.

And then, back to the cool of the ship, glowing with the almost certitude that this place was for me.

Considering that I’d seen all the city I needed, I determined on day two to don my walking shoes and head away from town. So at 9am I set off towards the village of Dauwin 3 ½ km distant. Walking on the Main Highway is a wee bit hazardous. Few people walk, everyone takes a tuk-tuk or a jitney, also the traffic is pretty heavy and everyone hoots as they overtake. Which means the hooting is all but continuous. They also hooted when they saw this madman striding towards them down the edge of the tarmac and took wide or sometimes less wide evasive action. I now know why moped drivers wear yashmaks: many vehicles wouldn’t pass a noxious fumes test.

The walk was a joy. I seem to like everything I see in the Philippines. I noticed a lot of slightly incomplete but ‘wealthy’ houses up for rent (how much, I wondered), I noticed several beachside resorts, almost all ‘for sale’ (not going there!), but mostly it was the same combination of glorious greenery and happy houses, endless little shacky ‘shops’ (mosltly sporting, or half built of, Coca Cola ads), roaming or roped cows and careless chickens, and, of course, the cheerful and half-shy ‘hallo’-ing people.
Local preoccupations show though. I passed a sizeable medical centre which advertised its services: ‘family planning’, ‘HIV/AIDS’ and ... ‘gender sensibilities’. We are in the land of the ‘ladyboy’.
I also passed ‘Ricky’s Massage’ in the township of Dauwin, and longed to pop in for a bit of much-needed pummeling and osteopathy. I regretted that I’d cashed no pesos. But 100 metres further down the road I came to ‘Ricky’s welding services’ and thought that maybe Ricky wouldn’t be quite the man to take out my kinks.

I got a wee bit carried away, pounding through the mid-morning heat, and when I found that I’d gone 3km beyond Dauwin I judged it prudent to turn back. Just as well I did. You see, I’d forgotten to change into my walking shoes. Espadrilles on hot hard tarmac aren’t quite the same. My faltering must have shown around km10, when a kind young man offered me his pillion. I was too proud, and he zoomed on. And blow me down if some minutes later he didn’t appear from behind me, again…!

I reached the ship, footsore and broiled, and realised that I’d done my 12km plus in little worse than 6km per hour. That was my speed 35 years ago, when Alison and I used to tramp the hills of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic together. So maybe this old boy isn’t doing too badly after all. Still, maybe I should have tried Ricky.

Tired of ‘tours’ centred on shops and souvenirs and ‘resorts’, I – in allegiance with Jim (83) and Betty from Minnesota – arranged with John for a drive into the country for our day three activity.
This place just keeps on getting better!
We had a glorious day. A drive of little more than an hour inland and upwards, past scenery which looked sometimes New Zealandish, sometimes French, but – thanks to its tropical greenery and – once the mansions of the foreign rich (yes, I asked the price) passed -- its tropical houses, shacks and storelets, was clearly neither. Just lovely.
We slung our anchor at a spot in the hills, named Cocosava, beside a waterfall-ridden river, where a rocky pool, some tables and chairs and a barbecue grill had been installed. Entrance 10 pesos (25 cents US). Our braver members bathed in the icy river, underneath a heavy cataract. I broke my non-swimming habit and irrepressibly leapt, in my best shorts, into the rocky pool to gambol in its fast-flowing waterfall. Heaven!
Unlike in Santo, we didn’t have this place to ourselves. Two large groups, young men and children mostly, soon joined us and, as we disported ourselves in the pool and the torrent, the place rang with squeals and laughter.

It was also soon infused with the smells of delicious BBQ cooking. John’s 16 year-old daughter Megan flung the most enormous prawns I have ever seen on to the flames, along with rich slabs of lamb leg chop. John produced ice cold beer, rice and condiments and then filleted fresh pineapple …

One of my fondest meal memories of all time is of a beach feast of fresh fish and salad, taken on a beach in Rhodes, around 1973. I think this one must qualify for the same kind of memory. I can taste and feel the bloody juice from the rare lamb dribbling down my chin. And I shall dream of those cray-sized prawns.

What else, I wonder, can the Philippines come up with to enchant me? The next day or two will tell. But one thing I know already, I am definitely coming back here.

Wheels in Dumaguete: Pierre John R Buscato, Godspeed Cars, 0906-2710312

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