February 17, 2003 - Gypsy Journal: In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." (Part 1)

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In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." (Part 1)

In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." (Part 1)

In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." While I served in Peace Corps Mongolia, about as different an Asian country as possible from the Philippines, there were many similarities between Noah's situation and my own memories of life on the steppes. This lengthy travelouge describes my experiences riding water buffalo, catching hermit crabs, drinking coconut wine, clinging to the roof of a van, and observing the squalor of Manila. Enjoy!


Sunday - 1 Jul 2001
Metro Manila , Luzon - Philippines

Wreck of a Manila policecar, abandoned on the curb

Arriving in Manila

Entering the airport (named after Filipino patriot Ninoy Aquino, who was assassinated on its own very runway), I began taking in the new country, began making impressions. I was amused to notice industrial-sized bug zappers in the departure lounge for international flights. My flight arrived at 11pm, and no one else was waiting in the area. The blue glow surged and crackled as it electrocuted mosquitoes. There was a prominent sign that welcomed back Filipino nationals who had been working abroad. Apparently this is a prominent source of income for the country. They have a robust national program to match up eligible workers with employment outside the Philippines. I cleared customs without a hitch, and turned over the form that declared in red ink, WARNING DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER PHILIPPINE LAW. A dire threat, it seemed to me, even though all I was guilty of “trafficking” were cassette tapes and a pair of binoculars. I changed a little money, and then stepped outside to find Noah.

Mmmm, yummy squid balls.

Noah takes me to the Pension & the Hobbit House

There was a mild thunderstorm in Manila when I stepped out of the airport. Noah was there, precisely where he said he would be. We walked out of the airport parking lot in the drizzle, and hailed a cab. The ride was lengthy due to intense traffic on Roxas Boulevard, the main road north along Manila Bay. We arrived at the Pension Natividad, a great lodging that would become my home away from home in Manila. The Pension is situated a block away from the Bay, in the shadow of an immense high rise, the Diamond Hotel. On the other side is a raucous karaoke bar. It is situated on the boundary between the neighborhoods of Ermita and Malate, both relatively well off and directed towards tourism and merchandise. Out in front of its cement wall, the Pension advertises “Clean Guest Rooms for Individuals, Married Couples, and Families.” It is made of concrete and stucco, with bars over the windows. It was at the Pension that I was first shown what a Catholic culture prevails in the Philippines. Tile portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary beamed benevolently at Pension guests. Each of the religious figures were fitted with a Sacred Heart which was startlingly anatomically accurate, and spouting flame like a Zippo, to boot. The damp Philippine air penetrates most buildings, as they lack the “climate control” that pervades Western architecture. The rain imbued everything with a wet smell, including the concrete walls of our room. Still, it was a room, and not Seat 13C. Upon arrival, I showered and reclaimed my sense of hygiene. I was in a zone between jet lag and exhilaration at being in a new country, and was ready to go out and experience something. Noah recommended that out first stop be the Hobbit House, a bar not far from our lodging. We passed another Peace Corps Volunteer in the lobby of the Pension, and Noah introduced us. When he mentioned that we were on our way to the Hobbit House, a look of intense amusement came over the woman’s face. Noah refused to explain, telling me that I would understand soon enough. I realized the source of her bemusement as soon as we ducked into the bar: the Hobbit House is staffed entirely by dwarves and midgets. I am no Wilt Chamberlain, and I measure a modest 6 feet in height. As such, it was surreal to enter a place where everyone else was less than four feet tall. The set-up for a bar like this seems incredibly un-P.C. I’m sure it would never fly in the United States, but I guess it works for what it is here in the seedy capital of the Philippines. We ordered San Miguel, the Filipino version of Budweiser. Not everyone was a midget; a talented band of ordinary-sized Filipino men was playing covers of American pop tunes. An attractive Filipina ascended to the stage and sang “Torn” in perfect imitation while gyrating her bare stomach and showing off the top several inches of her thong underwear. Though we were enjoying the (ahem) unique vibe offered by the Hobbit House, it was too loud to talk. Since Noah and I had been years without seeing each other in person, we decided that catching up was going to take priority over bopping with the little people.

Joseph Estrada, a.k.a. Erap

Cafe Adrtiatico, far into the night

Outside, the sewage smell was rank and fetid and distinctly third world. We wandered through alleys, and along a maze of dripping streets, taking shelter where possible under awnings. Many of them were so low that I was forced to duck, lest I stay dry only at the expense of knocking myself cold. We searched out another place, helped along by Noah asking directions in Tagalog, and the restaurant delivery boys looking amused to see a white man talking their language. It turns out that Noah speaks Kinaraya, the dialect of the central Phillipine island group known as the Visayas. He was using his rural accent here in the height of Philippine urbanity. To these locals, it must have seemed comical. A comparable situation might be found as New Yorkers deal with a Japanese man asking for directions in a pronounced Creole drawl. The Café Adriatico: We found a small table by a rain-streaked window overlooking the street. When our beers came, the waiter brandished a small towel and wiped clean the lip of the bottles. This was new to me: why would he do that? Noah explained that in the Philippines, a glass bottle is a commodity not to be wasted. Each bottle would be reused again and again. Indeed, I inspected the bottle and found two parallel rings of scratches around the outsides, and a faint rim of rust around the lip, where liquid beer had oxidized the metal bottle-cap. This rust was the offensive material wiped off by the waiter’s towel. Noah conducted a ranging monologue about his life in the Philippines, his village, his girlfriend, his work life. I was listening and drinking beer, gazing out the second story window into the rain, lit by a string of bulbs burning above Adriatico Street. We stayed up late into the night, sitting and talking at that table. I had not seen Noah in over two years, and though I had kept in touch with him by means of e-mail and writing letters, there was one aspect of his physical presence that I had forgotten. I refer to his laugh, which is a braying guffaw. In fact, it stretches the limits of the definition, to merely refer to his noise as laughter. Noah expresses mirth with a gasping honk, like an asthmatic donkey. It had not been my fortune to hear this laugh for 2 years, and judging from the reactions of the other patrons in the restaurant, no one there had ever heard anything like this before. Heads turned. I sipped some more from my bottle of beer, smiling at the scene.

Handpainted movie poster, Manila

Jogging in the Smog

Back to pension, sleep on dampish sheets in a dampish room. I woke up early in spite of only 3 hours sleep and whatever jet lag I was harboring. As Noah slept in, I engaged myself with a novel and by attempting to bird-watch from the barred window of the room. There was mystery out there in the morning Manila air, I thought. As I listened to sounds, I hypothesized what strange feathered creature might be making them. We went jogging that first morning. If you care for your lungs, do not attempt to go for a run on your first morning in Manila. We loped across town, breathing gross air, dodging holes in sidewalks, and in places where there weren’t any sidewalks, we shared the street with jeepneys. A jeepney is a vehicle unique to the Philippines. Mechanically, they are a cross between a bus and a jeep, but then decorated in hallucinogenic garishness. Images and slogans are plastered over every available surface, including the windshield. They proclaim the driver’s sexual prowess to the same significant extent that they exhort God to bless their trip. Each jeepney has a name, emblazoned in letters so extravagantly ornamented that they strain legibility. As we ran, I read the jeepneys: “Gift of God,” “Scorpio Boy,” “Virgin Snow,” “Fine Lover,” “May God Grant Us A Safe Journey.” Images of astrological signs, the Virgin Mary, and plagiarized commercial logos predominated, all rendered in the most eye-popping glossy colors known to science. There were numerous big hotels in the area, located there for the good view west over Manila Bay. As I ran, I wanted to look in a thousand directions at once: at the street-side spectacle around me, at the skyscrapers overhead, the whirring colors of the umpteen jeepneys, and even occasionally at the pocked street itself, so as to avoid tripping. We jogged through the mile-long Rizal Park, where practioners of tai chi and homeless men and women could be seen in equal measure. At the end of the park, a large square pool featured a model of the archipelago. Little chunky islands like paiper-maché demonstrated the diverse sizes and shapes of the 7107 bits of land that are designated as the Filipino nation. My love of maps was excited by this encounter with an acre-sized topography. I stopped my run and studied it for a few minutes. Large cone-like volcanoes rose from several of the islands, painted as if they were snowcapped, which they are certainly not. The islands of Luzon (where Manila is located) and Mindanao are the largest landmasses by a wide margin. Together, they comprise over 65% of the land area. A thousand of the smallest islands do not measure even one square kilometer; a further 2500 even lack names! When we got back to the Pension, I was raging hungry, and the food was slow to arrive. I had several cups of coffee and a pile of fruit. The mangos and bananas came with a nice local yogurt. This was to be our day of chores in Manila before venturing out the following morning to Noah’s “site.” For readers not familiar with Peace Corps, each volunteer is assigned for a two-year assignment at a particular job, in a particular town. The combination of address and job description is referred to as the volunteer’s site. After breakfast, Noah and I went to the Peace Corps offices on Roxas Boulevard. I checked my e-mail, and sent out notification to friends and relatives of my status. I mentioned the Hobbit House. I also amused myself by turning down an electronic party invitation with the unusual excuse that I was in Southeast Asia, sorry, can’t make it. We arranged a flight for the next day. The next task was to pick up Noah’s camera lenses, which had been dropped off for a cleaning several weeks previously. For this, we had to travel to a different part of Manila, the district of Cubao. A train ride was necessary to get to Cubao, some miles from the waterfront. The presence of terrorist cells in the Philippines have led to bag checks as a fact of life whenever entering a shopping mall, bank, or system of transport. I unpacked my bag to guards’ observation hundreds of times in the next month, resenting it every time. Of course, the events of September 11th have softened my resistance to security precautions. This was back in June and July, before the attacks in the US, but after the beheading of an American tourist on the Philippine island of Palawan.


Cubay Barangay , Antique Province - Philippines

Arrival at Kalibo

The next morning, we flew from Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s domestic terminal south to Panay. Our flight would take us into the town of Kalibo. We passed over the Sibuyan Sea, which got visibly more blue the further we flew away from Manila. I strained to see the plume of smoke from an erupting volcano. The Philippine archipelago has a pocky topography resulting from an intense volcanic and seismic history. There are 37 known volcanoes in the Philippines, but only this one had been erupting in the past couple of days. I couldn’t see it: too much cloud cover over the highlands. Low islands were more easily seen, fringed in yellow sand and coral reefs.

Our destination, the island of Panay, was also clear. As we made the approach to the Kalibo runway, I was pleased to see a different countenance to this island, as compared to the rank urbanity we had just left. There were sinuous rivers full of V-shaped fish traps. Amid clearings in the palm forest, I glimpsed rice paddies gleaming with reflected sky.

Panay is shaped like a cat head, point chin in the south, and point ears sticking out in the north. We were landing on one of the pointy ears – the Northwest Panay peninsula. The airport in Kalibo was on one side, and Noah’s site, Pandan, was on the other side of the peninsula.

We took a trike ride from the airport to Kalibo proper. A trike is a motorcycle with a tall, roofed sidecar welded to it. They have no seatbelts, no doors, and no cushions on the seats. Decorated in a style indicating that they would be jeepneys if they could, these trikes routinely carried up to eight people. They would be crammed into the sidecar and riding on the motorcycle behind the driver, up to three deep.

Like any third-world den of squalor, Kalibo had a petrol fume/human excrement stink to it. The town was drier than Manila, but with much more exhaust and dirt in the air. I was glad when Noah arranged a ride on top of transport bus to Pandan, his village. Riding on top of that vehicle was an experience I will never forget. At first, I was thrilled by the air, the views of paddies, and bamboo and palms. Farmers were threshing rice by hand, drying rice on the street, planting new rice behind a plow pulled by a carabou, the ox of the Philippines. As we rode, I gripped tie-lines that held in place a half-ton of luggage and supplies. These sacks and boxes were lashed to the roof of the bus, and Noah and I and five other men were clinging on top of it all. Soon a few drops of rain began to fall, and the temperature cooled noticeably. There was a gray wall of clouds ahead of us, and it looked like thunderstorms to me. Noah shouted something to me that I couldn’t quite make out: it sounded like he said “typhoon.” The raindrops increased infrequency and decreased in temperature. I put on a pair of sunglasses to protect eyes, in spite of my giddy desire to see as much as possible.

Transport on Panay

Two days before I had been back in America, packing up my classroom, getting coffee with my girlfriend, and now I was here. Surreal, I thought, gripping the wet guy-lines, atop a bus, hurtling down a mud road on a minor island in the Philippines, rain lashing my face. We rigged up a tarp to protect us from the cold rain, and in the lee of its shelter, we made it comfortably to Pandan.

Pandan Dismounting from the bus, we walk a few steps into the BioCon office. This is the organization that Noah works for. They have as their goals the preservation of the forested interior of the northwest Panay peninsula, and in particular, saving the two endangered species of hornbills that live there. Hornbills are large rainforest birds, similar in appearance to toucans. They are bulky, noisy fruit-eaters, and they have been hunted close to extinction by those who covet their feathers and meat.

Four other Americans live in Pandan, working for BioCon. Two are PCVs like Noah, Jesse and Tasha. The other two are Noah’s boss and his wife, Eric and Jill, both on the verge of leaving the Philippines. They are due to move out in less than a week. When they leave, Noah will move into their house. In the meantime, he tells me, we will stay with his host family in a small village ten miles further up the coast. I also meet Fel, Noah’s counterpart in the organization, a native of Panay well versed in conservation theory.

We all go to lunch at an open-air café and store. I order soup with a fish head floating in it. My own Peace Corps experiences interest them, and we talk about Mongolia. There are flies everywhere, landing on my food, on my skin, on the table and walls. As we eat, a fierce downpour begins. We are protected by a roof, but the rain seems to drive all the mosquitoes inside too, joining the flies. I alternate between eating and swatting at them. I’m a little bit worried about malaria, because I am not taking any preventative medicine. I elected not to, since Noah told me that malaria wasn’t present in this part of the island, and that he himself chooses not to take the Peace Corps-issued prophylaxis. Noah in fact takes a cavalier approach to disease and sanitation. I blanched when went to the back of the café to wash hands and urinate in their little pit toilet: everything was slimy, dark, and to my American eyes, festering with germs.

After the meal, the rain has stopped, though the main street in Pandan is flooded by six inches of water. Noah again demonstrates his comfort with low levels of sanitation by wading on through. I wait for him to fetch the Jeep and come back to get me. The Jeep is property of the BioCon organization, but Noah uses it for errands. It is not however, called a “Jeep.” I suppose this is to distinguish it from the jeepneys, but they call this one the “Owner-type.” We travel north in the Owner-type on the main road. It is dirt. Our destination is Noah’s host family, in the small village of Cubay. Everywhere, there are chickens and dogs. School has just let out for the afternoon, and uniformed children are walking home in haphazard phalanxes of black and white. As he drives (taboo to Peace Corps), Noah demonstrates Filipino reliance on horns, beeping almost constantly, emitting a sort of early warning sonar, especially when rounding sharp curves. Along the way, Noah suddenly brakes and tells me, “That’s my dog.” A medium-sized mutt with a plumed tail spots the familiar red Owner-type, and runs towards us. He leaps up into Noah’s lap. This is Pawikan, named the Kinaraya word for sea-turtle. We drive Pawikan up to Cubay with us.

Hosts and Birds

In Cubay, I meet Lolo and Lola, Noah’s host family. They are old, gray but stringy and compact. They feel like grandparents to me. Lola fixes up a nice meal, bananas and fish. Rice is the staple of the Philippine diet, as it is for much of the Orient. I’m not used to consuming so much of it, though, and this meal is the first of what will be way too much. After dinner, Noah and I take a walk to the beach. It’s about thirty meters from Lolo and Lola’s house. Standing on the shore, surrounded by trees and quiet, seashells underfoot, I feel like I am finally here. This is what I had imagined the Philippines would be like: nature, forest, sea, peace. I inhale with contentment. We walk to the nearby Bulanao river, another quarter-mile distant. En route, we run into a friendly drunk who wants to drink tuba (fermented coconut juice) with us, though we defer. We cross the Bulanao River and Noah tells me how the current runs both ways, depending on the tides. This is pure poetry, it seems to me: a river that runs both ways! What a metaphor for the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Back at Lolo and Lola’s house, I am ready for sleep. The adjustment to my circadian rhythms is still in flux. Again, I wake up early, and from my bed, I can look out the window at the tropical sunrise. Bats and birds are dark in the lightening sky. I look out from my pillow onto the Jungle. Mango, papaya, banana, coconut trees grow in every direction. The papaya, in particular, impress me: they grow wild like weeds.

Breakfast follows, more fine Mindanao coffee. After we have eaten, we walk back to Bulanao for the hornbill feeding. Another BioCon coworker, Nestor, lives in Bulanao, the village adjacent to Cubay, even smaller than its neighbor. Nestor maintains several captive birds in a set of cages there. We join him and Fel there, and I take photos of the birds.

There are two species of hornbills that are of particular concern to the staff of BioCon. Both have long, scimitar-like beaks, decorated on top with a vertical ridge that meshes with the skull. The first, and less endangered species, is a medium-sized hornbill, decorated in a decisive pattern of contrasting black and white. This is the tarictic hornbill, Penelopedes panini. About 500 pairs of them remain in the wild.

The other is a massive bird, much more gaudy in appearance due to a bright red bill and canary-yellow facial skin, and an orange neck. This is the Visayan writhe-billed hornbill, Aceros waldeni, but no one calls them by that name. The native Kinaraya term is easier to say: dulungan. Dulungans are extremely imperiled: only 60 pairs remain in the wild. When I say “the wild,” I mean “ the world”: they only live on this one island, and they are going fast.

There were five new tarictics held captive in the cages that morning. Nestor and Fel told us how the birds had been confiscated by the police in a raid, elsewhere on the island earlier in the week. The police had turned them over to BioCon for safe-keeping. Also present were a changeable hawk (what does it change into?) and a spotted dove, (elegant and timid).

Rene, the crab hunter.

Rumnick and Rene

On our way back from the bird cages, through the two tiny villages, we were obligated by the mores of Filipino culture to do a lot of visiting in peoples’ houses. This aspect of our day, these polite social calls reminded me of Mongolia. Actually, it occurred to me that in spite of the humidity, fruit, ocean and jungle, there was a great deal that reminded me of my own Peace Corps experiences in Mongolia. The sketchy airplanes, the bland food, the dark skin and short stature of the people, the foreign tongue, the prominence given to chintzy decorations in households, the smell of diesel and woodsmoke, the overloaded vehicles lumbering down the ad hoc dirt road.

Life in Cubay There was a sweet rural simplicity to the several days that I spent in Cubay. There wasn’t anything loud or offensive, no need for me to feel anything other than contentment at slipping so easily into small-town life on an island far from home. Lolo and Lola accepted me into their house, and I felt comfortable there in almost every respect. We ate bananas off the trees in their yard: short fat bananas that smelled like oranges, with fragrant meaty flesh inside. For meals, Noah and I would alternate cooking with Lola, and we sat down together at a formal meal, eating with our spoons only, slurping fish and fruits and onion and rice. I slept with open windows, learning day by day to accept the mosquitoes. I enjoyed the night air, aware that I was sharing it with ten-pound bats and all manner of winged insects.

There were two boys in the neighborhood who had befriended Noah, Rene and Rumnick. They were welcome company on our sorties in the forest and along the beach. Neither spoke English, but evidently they were interested enough in us to persist in trying to explain their home and show us new oddities of Panay nature.

One day they showed me how to find hermit crabs in the forest. On a walk through a teak plantation, Rene held up a crab, a little bundle of claws and antennae, folded up inside a swirled snail-shell. The crabs fascinated me: I had not been able to see them at all until Rene and Rumnick pointed them out. Suddenly I became aware that at the base of almost every tree there were several crabs clustered in their candy-striped shells.

On another afternoon, I woke from a nap to see Rene in the tree outside my second-story window. He was gathering tart Indian mangos. When he picked one, he put it in a net with a long handle. I peered down, and at the other end of the handle was Rumnick, grinning up at me. Inspired, I climbed out on the roof and reached out to grab a few fruits myself. They brought their harvest upstairs with a can of crystal salt. The technique to eating the Indian mango was to press chunks of salt into its green interior, and then suck on the juice. The flesh of these mangos was tougher than their yellow cousins, and far more bitter. The salt mollified the bitterness, but it was the experience of sitting on the roof with these two kids that was truly sweet.

Riding the Carabou

Rene had a puppy with big teal eyes. It was a fat little dog, very friendly and curious. It was cute enough that Lolo and Lola had allowed it the run of their house. Noah had been asked to name the dog, and he chose the same Palutan, the Tagalog word for the salted meat snacks that are served with alcoholic beverages. Rene went with the name out of deference to Noah, but later told him that originally, palutan snacks often are salted dog meat.

One day, nothing much was happening, and Lolo suggested that I go for a ride on his carabou. The carabou is the beast of burden in the Philippine islands. It is an Asian ox, with long horns and a dripping nose. I had not seen anyone else riding a carabou, though Lolo assured me that it was an acceptable use of the animal. He grabbed a rice sack and we walked out to his mahogany grove. The carabou was tethered there, chewing a wad of vegetation. I stood by with my camera as Lolo washed the carabou in a stream, splashing it and talking softly to it. Once mounted, I realized how uncommon it actually was for a person to ride a carabou – essentially, it’s riding a cow, which would earn you a stare in America. Add to that the fact that I was already an object of curiosity as a white man in a brown village, and you can imagine how many heads turned as I directed the animal down the dirt road. We soon had a sizeable entourage of laughing children, and I began to feel a bit ridiculous. The carabou is not a tall animal; my feet were only a few inches from dragging in the dirt.

After dismounting, mud clung to my legs. I wondered whether some choice parasites had made the jump from cow to rider. Noah and I went to the beach to take a swim, and the crowd of kids followed. We all played in the waves, careful to avoid the large sharp chunks of coral that littered the floor of the ocean. The kids were tough, and threw themselves headlong into the waves and into the beach-sand to amuse us. We collected some seashells, and swam down the beach to the river that runs both ways, and swam there too. Pawikan was nervous about swimming in the ocean, but he readily waded in to dog-paddle once we got to the river.

After our carabou adventure, Lolo took me to meet his son who lived across the street. I was shocked to see the interior of his son’s house: it was really well decorated, clean, well lit, and almost Western looking. I was surprised that a person would live so much better than his parents: it seemed odd to me. His son spoke English well, and we had a nice talk as I was thinking how disproportionately more comfortably he lived.

Another day, we took a hike in search of hornbills. We picked up Jesse the Peace Corps Volunteer, Bimbot the local veterinarian, and Pinoy the local hunter. Together, the five of us went to Malumpati, a small settlement at the end of the road weel inland. Malumpati is something of a spa, due to its river of turquoise water. This was cold water, flowing from caves hidden deep in the shade of the rainforest. It was a glacial blue, like paint, unreal in a setting so dominated by green. When I asked why the water was this teal color, I was told it had minerals dissolved in it.

Pinoy led us off into the rainforest on a thin path. We hiked past an enormous hairy spider and a brown vine snake that was thin as a string but as long as my arm. We waded across tributary streams, all “normal” water color, which is to say, clear. Eventually we crossed over the river on a bridge of bamboo. A trio of children in shorts was squatting on the bridge, spear-fishing for suckers.

Searching the Forest

The forest was rich in animal life. Every rotting log seemed home to two or three giant millipedes, fully seven inches in length. Butterflies cavorted in the open, sunny areas. We saw birds and rodents and large insects. Turning over a leaf, I found the underside studded in a convocation of disclike snails. There were crimson forest-crabs on the rock outcrops, scuttling into the pocked limestone like little moving flowers. On more exposed areas of rock, we found rubbery little mollusks, unlike any animal I have ever seen. Later, I found that they were locally known as “naked snails.” Pinoy picked up a nut that had been chewed on. He told us that a monkey had done it.

The object of our hike was to check on a known tarictic hornbill nest hole. These birds have a unique was of making a home and raising their young. First, they select an appropriately-sized hole in a tree. The hole should have a relatively small exterior entrance, but be cavernous inside. Once they find one, the mated female goes inside, and she seals herself in. Building a wall of mud and feces, she narrows the outside hole to a small slit. The male remains outside, where he must gather enough food to feed himself, his wife, and his child. Food is passed beak-tip to beak-tip through the tiny access hole, and the same hole is used when the female defecates: she shoots her waste out in pulses, and teaches the hatched baby to do the same.

The nest hole that we were checking on today was unusual: it was located only two meters off the ground. Usually the birds nest much higher up, far from easy access to those who would conserve them. Unfortunately, while it was a simple matter to check on the birds, it would also be a simple matter for predators to get to the nest. On a previous check-up, Noah and Bimbot had found scratches from the claws of a monitor lizard leading up to the hole. They had installed a protective sheath of metal around the tree trunk, in the hopes that the carnivorous lizard would not be able to climb its slick surface.

When we got to the tree after two hours of hiking, we had passed stands of bamboo as thick as my leg, small scraggly fields of corn growing on steep hillsides, and copses of coconut palms, with a sort of stepladder hacked into their trunks. Eventually, all these symptoms of human influence had grown less frequent, and we entered the virgin forest. The trees here were far larger, and more varied. No coconut, but gnarled rainforest giants like teak and XXXXXXXXX, with drippy trunks like melted candles. Some of the roots formed huge curtainlike buttresses. Both Noah and Jesse wore smiles. The surrounding jungle with its cavalcade of multiform green was their reason for being here, isolated from their own culture, for two years. “This is it,” Jesse told me. “This is the real forest.” Hornbill country.

We found the nest hole, and it was empty. The mood changed. Concern clouded the faces of my companions. Noah, Bimbot, and the hunter all played detective, trying to puzzle out whether the birds had fledged naturally, or been eaten by the monitor lizard, or been poached. They inspected the grubs inside the hole, grubs eating the detritus left behind by the birds. Based on the size of the grubs, they were able to make a guess about how long the nest had been abandoned: any grubs present during the hornbills’ residency would have been consumed as an in-house snack. There were more claw-marks from the lizard, though it was difficult to say whether it had made it past the metal collar. Pinoy the hunter climbed the tree, to search topside for clues. He found a second entrance the nest hole. Ultimately, we gave up, had a snack, and hiked back down to Malumpati.

Beer at Boy's House

The way back, being downhill, was slippery and tough to negotiate. The three Americans all stumbled and fell several times. Each time I fell, more dirt and rotten leaves stuck to my sweaty skin. A swim in the blue Malumpati water was definitely next on my To Do list.

The water was cool and refreshing. It had quite a current, too, and I had to swim constantly in order to avoid being swept downstream. Noah and Jesse joined me in the water, but the Filipino men did not. We ate a lunch that was disproportionately satisfying to its apparent simplicity: canned tuna and crackers, and some bananas pulled off a nearby tree.

One evening, Noah told me that he had met up with a friend of his on the road. His friend, named Boy, had been host to a party the previous evening, and was fortuitous enough to have a gaggle of San Miguels left in his “ref” (read: “refrigerator”). Boy had invited Noah and I over to help him polish off the stock of bottles, and have some dinner as well. We took the Ownertype, the little red jeep that Noah’s organization was letting him use. It felt a little bit decadent to be driving to dinner, given the setting. Most of the people on Pandan would never be able to afford such an extravagance. It also seemed to be a bit at odds with the Peace Corps profile. When I was serving in the Peace Corps in Mongolia, we weren’t even allowed to touch a motorcycle.

Boy lives in Libertad, a town north on the coast of Panay. It represented the furthest north that I ventured up that side of the island. We passed the Libertad National Vocational School, where Noah and I had been coordinating a pen-pal exchange between my students and the local kids. Boy welcomed us in a manner both complimentary and relaxed. We left our shoes at the door and popped the caps off the first of many brown bottles of San Miguel.

Boy’s wife Natty was at the dining table with two friends, preparing food. Boy and Noah and I sat in the living room, talking business and nature and culture. Before long, a comfortable buzz warmed the evening and the living room scene.

We snacked on palutan: those salty snacks that are traditionally served to men when they are drinking. The palutan for the evening were: skewered pork strips and a broiled tropical fish, white with maroon edges to its scales. This fish was beautiful: it could easily have been the centerpiece of an American aquarium. (It probably would have been better there too: I found it entirely too bony to be palatable.) The porky kabobs, on the other hand, were just fine. I had renounced my vegetarianism for this trip, and this was why. Those skewers reminded me just how sublime carnivory can be.

Boy was very articulate despite his lack of teeth, and he had a ready laugh for us, as well as a storehouse of knowledge on a variety of topics. We talked about herbal medicine and mining and Filipino history. Dinner remains a bit of a blur to me, though some more fish and a lot of rice were featured, and one of the shredded pickled “salads” that are so pervasive in Asia.

On the ride back south, in the blackness of the coastal road, the stars were fierce overhead. The headlights picked out a fresh-water turtle crossing the road, and we stopped to examine it. Noah said it was the first one he had ever seen in the Philippines. Sea turtles up to a meter in length were relatively plentiful, but little sliders like this one are a rarity. In fact, Noah’s dog is named the Kinaraya name for “sea turtle,” Pawikan.

Life in Cubay

The days in Cubay passed in a relaxed routine of eating, cooking, swimming, sleeping, mosquitoes, fruit, and hikes. I lived the small details like everyone else. Standing in the kitchen making coffee, I was bitten by an ant, right between my toes. When the patter of rain began to sound on the roof, I ran outside to rescue my drying laundry off the line; the rest of the village was doing the same.


Sunday - 1 Jul 2001
Pandan Town , Antique Province - Philippines

Move to Pandan

After the better part of a week in Cubay, the day came when Noah’s boss Eric was leaving. Noah had volunteered to drive Eric to the airport, and would then return to move into the vacated house on the beach in Pandnan. We picked Eric and Jill and Fel up, and then drove to Caticlan, a village on the other side of the island. Fel was fawning in the Jeep, a bit of a sycophant towards Eric. Caticlan has an airport because it is the gateway to the tourist island of Borocay. This “jump off point” for Borocay had a very different flavor than the backwaters of Cubay and Pandan: there were advertising billboards and restaurants serving German beer, and in general, a greater feeling of affluence based on tourists spending money as they passed through. We were passed by hordes of rich Koreans, sunglasses and nailpolish and strappy sandals. Eric and Jill treated us to a glass of fresh mango juice, we say goodbye, they get on the plane, they fly away.

Because Noah and I were broke, we had been planning on taking a jaunt across the water to Borocay. We had need of the ATM and e-mail resources that were only available there. However, we were forced to ditch our plan to go to Borocay because Fel had to go to the bank, and he was being difficult. He and Noah had a tense discussion that bordered on a spat. They were different people with different agendas, and Noah was getting very frustrated. We stopped to get a snack, and Fel waited in the car. Noah vented his frustration to me in a strained whisper while we walked a short distance to the store. He was beet-red as he told me, “This happens…all…the fucking…time.” We got back in the car, a tense situation: me and Fel and Noah, the counterparts who were each fuming at the other for impinging on each other’s plans. I gave up, realizing that I could not talk to Noah while Fel was there, and that I could not make the requisite smalltalk with Fel without driving Noah crazy. I lay down in the back seat and go to sleep. They traded turns playing music: Noah playing a folk music tape that I brought from the States, Fel playing pop crap like the Backstreet Boys. It was a relief to get back to Pandan and part company.

Noah’s house is made of bamboo and roofed in a native frond called nipa. The nipa is arranged in bushy layers, like shingles. The bamboo slats that comprise the floor are elevated a meter or so above the ground; they flex slightly as I walk through the three-room house. There is running water, which Noah says is safe to drink. I take full advantage of the shower in the bathroom. At Lolo and Lola’s house, I had bathed with a bucket and ladle, squatting on a concrete floor. As a consequence, I never really felt clean. Here at the nipa hut, I stood up on a white tile floor and turned a knob: the showerhead immediately began spraying. Sweet luxury: I felt very American. I had developed a rash due to the humid tropical heat, a series of raised red bumps across my chest and back. Noah, the eternally-wounded, gives me a cursory glance, and tells me not to worry, “That’s nothing.”


I like the nipa hut, it seems like a good place to live. I am relaxing after the stressful jeep ride, reading and feeling clean(er). But no sooner have I stretched out and gotten into my book than Noah returns with guests! Silent rest postponed, I sit up and meet them. There are four: three British citizens, one a traveler like me, the others a couple who work as VSO volunteers on another Philippine island, Sibuyan. The VSO is the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. The fourth person is a Filipina, native to Sibuyan, named Zita.

Zita was a former coworker of Noah’s when he lived on Sibuyan. She is now the counterpart of the VSO couple. The other British girl was just visiting her friends, when the trip to Panay was launched. She had no choice to tag along. Zita did have a choice about coming along, since she had no upfront motive for making the trip. However, the longer I watched how she related to Noah, it soon became obvious enough what her motives were.

Zita is edgy and flamboyant and skinnier than it seems like she should be. She is loud and brash and articulate in the English language, including crude slang. Meeting her for the first time, my instant impression was that she loves fun in its myriad modern forms. She seemed a little unstable, but suddenly, the first evening in Noah’s new house, we had a party going: Who was I to be a stick in the mud?

We all had a welcome-to-Pandan beer, and then I went off shopping. This was my first solo shopping trip, and I daresay it was successful. It’s amazing how far you can get on just a bit of sign language and a smile. I bought a bunch of vegetables and eggs and cooked up a spicy stir-fry for the assembled party. Noah’s pal Boy came by too, which made for seven in all.

It was a fine way to “house-warm” a new nipa hut. We stayed up late sharing our three cultures and customs and our impressions of the one country that we all had in common: the Philippines. Around 10pm, the Brits left to go stay in a hotel, but Zita stayed where she was. I went to sleep not long after that, leaving Noah and Zita up and popping the tops of more San Miguel, and catching up on old times.

The Morning After

I slept on the porch, but a squall came through in the middle of the night, and I had to move my sleeping bag inside the little storage room.

I woke up and stretched. Sitting in my sleeping bag, I realized how light-tight the small room was. The sun had risen outside, but the only place that light came in was between the bamboo slats of the floor. I wondered at the efficiency of the walls at blocking out light so well, yet the holey design of the floor: why would they build it this way? (I would soon find out)

I opened the door and went out on the deck. It had stopped raining. I gazed in a sleepy way out over the ocean to the south and west. Blinking away the sleep, I felt good. I walked down to the surf, and waded in. I swam out a short ways, floating and side-stroking to compensate for the longshore current.

Usually the first thing I do upon waking in the mornings is to start some coffee brewing. It is rare for me to feel the motivation to get up and immediately go. But it was delightful, to be hanging in the Sulu Sea, looking back on the forest-draped mountains of Panay, rising up like any tropical island you have ever seen; Gilligan or a skinny Tom Hanks would find their roles here easily. Golden sunlight arced over the crest of the mountains, causing a glossy sheen on the palm fronds and nipa leaves. A few bats skirted the canopy, late in returning to roost after their nighttime feeding. Out in the ocean, boats were floating: fisherman trying for an early catch. The Filipino boat is a simple affair like a canoe, but with two large bamboo outriggers. Unlike the thinner supporting framework, the outriggers are made of substantial bamboo, at least six to seven inches in diameter. It has an appearance like a spider dividing its legs between two skis and a surfboard. As I floated there, waking up and facing inland towards the rising sun, a persistent breeze approached from behind my head, out to Sea.

After a while, Noah emerged from the house and made his way down to the waves. As he swam up beside me, he had a strange look on his face. I suspected something was up. Not wanting to let on that I had noticed, I waited for him to bring it up. He eventually did; telling me that Zita had made a pass at him late the previous night. HE told me that he had responded at first, full of the glee of being the master of a new house (not to mention full of San Miguel). Then, Zita apparently started seriously trying to seduce Noah, which he resisted. This left her offended, he told me, and they went to sleep on less-than-good terms. I raised my eyebrows and swam a few strokes along the shore.

We talked it over, as men will do. Noah was worried that he had permanently soured his relationship with his friend. I was just glad that she was only visiting, and would soon be gone. The last thing I felt like dealing with was a jaded stranger from another culture living in the same two-room house as me.

That was the day that the typhoon started.

The wind begins to blow.

The Typhoon Begins

The “persistent breeze” that had been blowing from the southwest intensified through the course of the day. It was a sort of wind that we do not ever experience in North America. This typhoon wind was steady and constant, not gusty. It just continued to blow and blow and blow, hitting the beach at Pandan head-on; the shoreline perpendicular to the main force of the wind.

The rain came in mid-afternoon, joining the wind by degrees, until at sunset, the two were one: an unvarying horizontal threshing of droplets. The palm trees were all bent back, giant fronds splayed towards the northeast, like spiky-haired tykes squinting into a powerful hair drier.

Just 8 degrees north of the Equator, the sun sets early in the Philippines. Or rather, it sets “early” to my summer North American perspective. Bear in mind, I had come from DC, where the sky stays light in summer until almost 10pm. Here there is less variety; year-round, the sunset comes between 6 and 7pm. While the day began with a spectacular sunset as I swam in the ocean and heard Noah recount his traumatic evening, it ended with a dull fade-out. The lashing rain diluted any view of the sky or the horizon that we might have had. It just changed from light gray, to dark gray, to darkness.

I sat in the nipa hut in the darkness, thankful for the electric light that allowed me to stay up writing and musing on this new storm. The same wind that had been blowing all day was still blowing. The same rain that has been falling all day was still falling. Steps on the bamboo deck outside shook the house, and the door opened in a splatter of droplets. Noah had returned from town, and he yanked back the hood of his Gore-tex jacket, revealing a large wet grin. “It’s officially a typhoon,” he told me. “The whole town is talking about it.”

There is a mesh windscreen in front of Noah’s house, but the wind and water come through it with ease, and the beach-front side of the nipa hut was already sodden. The back of the house, facing inland, towards town and the mountains, is in the lee of the wind. I was surprised to find it was completely dry there, and even for several feet extending back, in the “wind-shadow” of the house. This evidence convinced me that the wind really had not changed direction all day. I was reminded of the act of spray-painting a textured object, where shadows of unpainted areas extend beyond any raised obstacles, fading at their edges into the exposed areas.

The Typhoon Continues, and Cabin Fever Sets In

In the nipa hut, we had moved into fortress mode. All the windows facing the beach and the force of the typhoon had been shut, resulting in a greater than usual sense of darkness in the house. We had a few windows open on the leeward side of the house, thankfully, admitting light and fresh air. There was a constant “white noise” roar outside the walls: the sound of furious but constant wind tearing through the coconut fronds.

It had been an odd day. We three (Noah, Zita, and I) had spent pretty much the entire day at the house. In fact, Zita had not left at all, not beyond the porch. The unceasing rain coupled with Noah’s urge to “nest” as a new homeowner kept us on the property. I took the opportunity to do some reading. I read through Pico Iyer’s perspective on the Philippines in an essay included in Video Night in Katmandu, and an ecological history of these islands titled Plundering Paradise.

Noah and I walked into town in mid-afternoon when we were both getting a little stir crazy. Also, we needed to talk out of earshot of Zita. We bought some hardware and some random fruits from the market. When we got back to the house, we sampled guava, mango, avocado, breadfruit, and santol: a nice filling little frugivorous feast. But out on the road, hunched under our Gore-Tex hoods, we discussed the situation back at the house.

Zita was being a sullen sloth. It was incredible to see how starkly her personality imploded. I compared last night’s devil-may-care rash party animal with today’s sleeping grouch. All day she had been laying around sleeping in the dark house. She told us bluntly in the morning that her period had arrived, but I was sure that Noah’s rejection of her advances led to her sour mood. When she was not asleep, she wrote silently and fiercely in a small journal.

She was not speaking much to me, and only marginally more to Noah. He had been polite to her all day, but kept taking every opportunity to try and convince her to leave. Cultural conflict was swollen in this situation: it’s the Filipino way to host a guest as long as they wish to stay, but it’s obvious to me that the situation was tense in this small little house with such foul weather outside, and her taking up all this space and energy by hanging around. Both Noah and I wanted to be rid of her. The longer she stayed there, slumbering in the middle of the room where Noah and I were trying to get things done, the more frustrated we became. She was dampening the mood, and making me nervous: I had seen the energy she was capable of the previous evening, and now I was seeing the sullen grade of her fury. Would she lash out? Would she burn down the house? My God, what to think? How to get her to leave, culturally sensitive or not? She didn’t even wake up to eat the dinner that Noah and I made: banana shoots and squash in coconut milk curry.

Noah asked me to sleep in the same room as them that evening as a deterrent, which I did. Roaring of wind and rain when I fell asleep, roaring of wind and rain when I woke up.

Day Two of the Typhoon

Day Two of the typhoon was a lot like Day One. The storm raged through the night, and continued unabated. In fact, it intensified in strength, though the unidirectional wind remained unaltered. The electricity had died during the night, some wire blown down somewhere on the island, wherever it came from. I had seen the haphazard wires in the trees, and I guessed that we wouldn’t have power for a while. I was right. Stepping out onto the deck, I was shocked.

The ocean had come up almost to the house! A furious whipping surf stretched from a few meters away, to a distance of about two hundred meters offshore. It was an incredible sight, and I thought first of running. But, as I stood there observing, I realized that it was holding steady, at least in terms of the reach of the waves. The whitewater was solid, a strip of froth as wide as an interstate freeway, running up and down the shore as far as the eye could see. The eye, incidentally, could not see all that far: the raindrops were thick in the air, and all images faded to gray before they were a quarter-mile distant.

Slack-jawed and breathing hard, I stared at this raging ocean. I was squinting, of course, since the wind and rain were coming straight in at the house. And it was loud: the constant roar of wind and waves had not faded nor paused for a full day. The beach was but a sliver. As I watched, a strong wave breached the storm-shield mesh screen. My eyes popped: I had never seen a storm like this before, never seen the sea so churned up.

I worried about the integrity of Noah’s house: obviously the thin bamboo structure would quickly disintegrate under a pounding from these waves. The question was: would the waves actually reach the house? Another one washed up past the netting and coconut fronds of the storm shield, curling white foam like a tentacle around one of the porch supports.

Across the way, one of Noah’s neighbors was wearing a green “hard-hat” helmet as he readied his homestead for the onslaught of weather. I guessed that this was to protect his head from stray coconuts that might be dislodged from above by the winds. He and his sons were pulling in one of their large V-shaped fish traps, trying to get it out of the greedy reach of the waves.

I go back inside, where I find Noah on the porch, and he says to me, Whoa.

We go inside to make some coffee. Zita is (of course) still asleep. I see that the cat has returned from its hermitage hideout (wherever that may be), and has snuggled up next to Zita. Perfect, I think, they deserve each other.

I’m really glad that Noah is as much an aficionado of coffee as I am. We use his French press and some coffee beans from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. We can’t sit outside because the rain has again started in earnest. We aren’t comfortable in the main room, because Zita is still sleeping in there. So we end up standing in the kitchen, which is actually about the size of a closet. There is enough room for two men to stand there, but a third would be too much. We stare with eyes that are at once revelatory of the stress of Zita’s presence, of the ocean that threatens to engulf the house, and our cramped quarters while drinking our morning coffee. Our eyes reveal fear and frustration at the predicament. We stare, then laugh. Pure comedy.

As the day goes by, I adopt a Zita-like strategy of staying indoors as much as possible. However, I start feeling tinges of cabin fever. I watch Noah cope with the stress.

As Noah was pouring Betadine into his cuts, his neighbor Linda came over. She apparently had a good relationship with Eric and Jill, the former residents, and accepted some pay to do their laundry for them. She didn’t waste any time asking Noah if she could borrow money. He had to turn her down.

I can tell by Noah’s lip-smacking mannerisms that he is perturbed. He has a lot to cope with at the moment: the storm, the mooching neighbor Linda, Zita intruding on his home territory, the new house itself, work, and even my own presence as a guest and therefore as added responsibility. He remains calm, but he is not his usually exemplar of happy ebullience. This reminds me of my own Peace Corps experiences in Mongolia: attempting to deal with ten issues at once. It is taxing.

I step outside during one of the drier lulls in the storm. The wind never quits, but sometimes it carries more water with it, sometimes less. There is an immense pile of coconut husks, bamboo, fronds, and colorful trash piled up next to Noah’s house: pushed there by the largest waves. Indeed, as I watch, another one washes up past the fence, into the yard, and under the porch.

During an especially strong gust earlier in the day, one of the four main supports for the storm-shield had cracked, and slumped against the house. The mesh slumped and whipped in small rivulets as the wind pummeled it endlessly. The bamboo that had cracked was a good five inches in diameter, substantial and strong. I was thankful for the presence of the storm-shield; I supposed that had it not been there, that damage would have fallen to the house itself.

Among the deposited flotsam, I saw a large pufferfish. It is dead, a big flabby bag-like fish, with an immense clean white beak, like a parrot’s. I beckoned Noah outside to investigate with me. He picked it up: a heavy sodden corpse, with scaly jowls shaking. We used the bizarre creature as a prop for some photographs, excited by this minor event in our otherwise boring day spent indoors. Noah, taken with a halfbaked inspiration, took the fish over to the neighbors who earlier had solicited him for a loan. They refused, claiming it poisonous. Ah yes, so

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By lae ( on Saturday, July 08, 2006 - 3:10 pm: Edit Post

Dear Writer of the article about Panay and Pandan, dear Noah.

Can you help me find the full name and contact information of Beth ....., who was the president of the Board of BioCon when I was at Panay with Responsible Cultural Experiences, a pilot ecotourism project set up by Chris Perkins, a Briton, and his Filippino girlfriend Rose?

I think the project has not survived the pilot period but I have kept a vivid interest in the welfare of that beautiful and peaceful nature and culture I had the pleasure and honour to share in August 2004.

I met Noah at the Magaba beach house and he gave me a copy of his Panay research bibliography.

Can you guys help me? And is BioCon still alive?
Thank you so much,

Laetitia van Haren

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