When I booked for this trip, I was looking forward, above all, to returning to Dumaguete – its splendid walks, endearing people, amazing barbecued prawns and Ricky’s magical massage a la maison – so I was devastated when our itinerary was changed and the city of General Santos, and its palm oil complex, was substituted for beautiful Dumaguete. ‘You won’t like it’, I was told. ‘It is big, overcrowded, noisy, dirty, shabby, dangerous ..’.
Well, after three days in General Santos, I can report that my informant was right. It is big: 2.5 million inhabitants, all of whom seem at any one time to be on the streets. It is probably – thanks to end to end unmufflered traffic and ubiquitous muzak of the most appalling kind -- the noisiest place I have ever been to in my life (and I used to live not far from Piccadilly Circus). The streets and footpaths (when they exist) are chaotic, many buildings, both weathered bamboo and filthy breezeblock, look as if a healthy belch would send them flying, and here and there one comes upon military checkpoints and soldiers (‘Combat Support Company’) with machineguns, desultorily guarding .. what? Worst of all, the air is so full of exhaust (and other) fumes that you could slice it with a chainsaw. I dissolved in allergic reaction instantly.
I shouldn’t have liked it. How could you? But I did.
There is something about the Philippines, even on this scale, that you just simply have to like.
Our dock, a private one belonging to the Cargill palm-oil company, is some 16 kilometres from the city centre. It is tidy, tightly policed and impregnated with the sweet cloying reek of copra. We had two thousand tons of said copra to offload, but alongside us moored smaller vessels which had chugged two or three days across the straits to bring in their few hundred bags. Watching the lively lads – so many of them – bounding ashore from these boats, practically juggling 50 kilo sacks of sharp-edged copra on their shoulders, was quite something.
In spite of all discouragements, we ventured forth, and drove the 16km of congested, ear-searing road into town, where our minibus driver dropped us off at … a large, plastic ‘safe’ shopping mall. I couldn’t have been more bored. The venture was only made worthwhile by an interesting ‘mango sago shake’ and by my realisation during the trip in that, in spite of the intermittent machinegunners, ‘dangerous’ (by daytime at least) was surely an overstatement. Tomorrow I would escape the shops, and go walking.
However, on day two, another bus was arranged to take us to a ‘resort’. Well, if there’s not a lot else to do, I suppose I can get used to doing the resort thing. This one, La Parilla Resort (www.safihotels.com). turned out to have a very agreeable swimming pool (with very agreeable waterfall, see Trevor the waternymph below) , very agreeable food (and amazingly palatable wine) at very, very agreeable prices, and all in all it was a decidedly agreeable place to pass a few hours.
On day three, however, I finally got my act together and my boots on. Big John was a starter and turned out to be an ideal walk-mate: he can steam along effortlessly at my preferred speed, and we both enjoy nosing into the odd backstreet of native life. We knocked off a very happy dozen kilometres (in 37 degrees!), downed much 10-cent ‘popcola’ and water, and waved, grinned and shouted, every inch of the way, at the merry local lads, to whom the sight of two large white men doing what to them is power walking is evidently a vast novelty. ‘Hey, Joe!’ seems to be the popular greeting. Is this a GI legacy of the 1940s war?
Our grand morning ended up at the Saranganni Highlands restaurant, perched at the top of a steep hill, above our ship
It is a genuine beauty spot, built with flair and character, a fine view, and set amongst the most beautiful gardens of bougainvillea and frangapani and all sorts. Alas, a beauty spot is all it is. A restaurant it is not. My ‘fresh chicken sandwich’ was thick, dry, white bread spread with tuna paste. My ‘lemon juice’ was squash. Remembering the fine food at La Parilla, I though: ‘there’s no excuse for this’. Ah, well, you win some and you lose some.
But I was soon back on a winning streak. The itinerary may have deprived me of my repeat rendezvous with Ricky, but I was determined to get my annual Filipino massage. Trevor and I leaped into a chokingly consumptive tuktuk and headed for town and the Gensan holiday spa (recommended) at Tandem Centre. After two hours in the hands of the very beautiful and expert Tina (I didn’t catch the name of Trevor’s therapist), a session which ended with some decidedly acrobatic semi-osteopathy, we wobbled forth delightedly and fell into a return tuktuk. We hit on a merry speed-freak driver and, I can tell you, half an hour bouncing over the streets of Gensan after two hours heavy massage gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘all shook up’.
In some ways, I didn’t want day three to end: the wonderful walk, the pretty view, the splendid massage (OK, Ricky, it didn’t have last year’s romantic rusticity and balmy breezes, and I will come back…) ... but after swallowing half a beer and a little roast pork I tumbled straight into my bunk and slept the eleven hours till dawn.
Today is our fourth and last day in Gensan (we know each other well enough now for the familiar abbreviation), but I am not going ashore. Yesterday fulfilled all my wants and wishes, and I prefer to say goodbye on a strong upbeat…
I still want to go back to Dumaguete next year, but I won’t tear out my non-existent hair if our Philippines stop turns out to be Gensan.