Reflections on an Asian Archipelago

img_2318Pop Quiz

Which Asian country has English as one of its two official languages; has a decidedly Hispanic feel, and has a spaghetti and deep-fried chicken combo as one of its more popular McDonalds’ treats?


Not sure?  Ok, some more hints: its population of 100 million is spread over more than 7,500 islands; it was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years, until after a failed war of independence it was ceded to the US; and it had a despotic leader for over 20 years, whose First Lady, it was discovered, had more than 1,000 pairs of shoes. Bonus Canuck hint: About 10% of the population works overseas: foreign remittances account for about 15% of the GDP. Canada receives more emigrants from here than any other country.

I bet that for a certain generation of reader, Imelda Marcos’ shoes gave it away. The Philippines is the correct answer.

So, here I am in Phils. I flew through Guangzhou, China, on China Southern Airlines (rated 7/7 for safety, compared to 6/7 for Philippines Airlines).

Guangzhou Airport Does anyone know what "The Exit for Flight Cancellations" means?

Guangzhou Airport Does anyone know what “The Exit for Flight Cancellations” means?

This is a vacation I want to repeat.


Manila is a big capital city with some stunning real estate developments rising from amongst the squalor. I could live with that – just don’t think I could ever get used to the intensity and slowness of traffic. On the map, you see a wonderful grid of wide boulevards and rapid transit. But everything is clogged: both the roads and the raised rail system. I was in a swish condo connected to the MRT. But a lot of good that did me.


Do I feel safe in Manila? Yes. Was I in a protected bubble? Yes, most of the time. Security at condo entrances. Under the condo complex is a mall – with a security guard checking bags on the way in. Outside on the streets a notable proportion of Filipinos look as cautious as tourists: the number of backpacks worn frontwards is notable.

Getting to Puerto Galera

My destination island, Mindoro, is just to the south of Luzon, the island that has Manila on it’s southern edge. Looking at the map, you might think it’s an easy migration. Nope. Thanks to Uber I know my ride (recommended for its security) to the bus terminal took 52 minutes to travel 12 km. For this hour-long drive I paid ₽378 – pesos. That’s damn close to C$10.


The bus for Batangas Pier crawled along an “express way,” averaging less than 40 km/hr. But the fastboat, an outrigger-style common here, left 15 minutes early, and its speed on the water matched its descriptor. Then one of the plentiful tricycles to get to my rental property.



It’s a triplex. Upstairs a retired CIDA man, Robert, and his Filipino husband, Federico, are staying. These two have been my company and my cultural compass.


I am going to be posting at least twice from here. This one will be more touristic; the second more socio-political.


I picked the area of Puerto Galera because it is the locus of coral-reef diving in Asia and because Airbnb offered me a deal I could not refuse: an inexpensive rental property (C$500 for the month) on a beach. Subsequently I discovered there is amazing hiking on the mountain trails in the otherwise impenetrable interior of the island.

Within greater PG, there’s vivacious Sabang, on a gnarly peninsula protruding into the bay, which is both the diving and sleaze center.



To the west of PG are a series of small resort towns. Then there is Dulangan Beach, in the opposing direction from all of the action. Well, there is still lots of action outside my windows, but it is mainly local fisherman looking for that one last fish to mine.




Only Robert, Federico, and I seem to use the beach for recreation. Further along the only road are more exotic beaches, with good coral for snorkelling. Mind you, I have passable coral 10 meters from shore. I confess I first discovered it when I stood on it, thinking it was bottom.



Throw out the idea of solstices and equinoxes being an indicator of seasons. Spring starts by late December. Then by late June, the dry-season called “summer” is over and the monsoon season begins. This is then followed in late September by the start of the typhoon season. Yup: it’s a rainy kinda place.

I arrive in Puerto Galera to damp weather only two weeks after an unseasonably late typhoon chews up the area. It is 28° most days and a “cool” 24° at night. My doctor, who sold me $200 worth of anti-malaria tabs, said I would be in a risky area. Yet screenless windows are open everywhere. Indoors and outdoors become one.

A preemptive verdict

I love the place. I came hoping to find a place for snow-birding and I am not disappointed.

Now just some random observations:


Those Danes were such awful liars. This is greenland. A picture (or two) is worth a thousand words.




Small packages

First, for once I do not feel short with either my 5’11” friend or my monster son towering over me.

Second, take a look at this:


So much of what people buy from their local store (called a sari-sari store) are in individual packages. The idea of a bottle of shampoo seems foreign here. I have a theory. Stay tuned.

Clean people in a dirty country

Most westerners come prepped for a strategy to avoid the “revenge.” But I find people here cautiously germaphobic. And with good reason. With the heat north of 40° in summer, nasty things breed fast.

A standard canister of sealed drinking water is supplied by the municipality for ₽40 ($1). Observe the way that cutlery or beer bottles are placed in a restaurant.


Or how about the next pic for the storage of cutlery and dishes in a standard kitchen?

A wet country

All the rain leads to special adaptations: many houses have veranda-style roofs to disperse the water and give out-door refuge. Drainage ditches abound. I have never seen an earthen ditch. They are concrete and about 5 feet deep.

In Manila, the condo had special disposable bags for wet umbrellas.


And here is a standard entrance way: throw off your ubiquitous flip flops and wipe your perpetually wet feet on one of these padded ornamental mats.

While on the topic of water: see that pipe zigzagging down the road?


That’s the mountain-fed municipal water supply. With all the leaks it is amazing it keeps any pressure. I am told that greater problems arise in the summer months, when the mountain-based aboriginal people, short of their own water, cut into the pipes.

One last thing:  in my sample of two locations, no hot water in kitchens or at the bathroom sink: the only on-demand hot water is for a shower.


Three sounds are pervasive here. First, it’s not motorcycles, as many of these seem to purr so quietly that you might think they were electric. But about once per minute a tricycle, with its engine straining with its unintended weight, trundles past the house.


Second are the roosters. Forget at dawn. Those birds just never shut up and they are everywhere. Lastly are the waves. Last night the sound was constant, like noisy “air con.”  But often the waves are big enough that they pound onto the beach and you can feel the impact in the air. With my screen door always open, I still sleep well.

Sit and wait

This is a country of waiters. In the bank to get some local currency, I am faced with a 90 minute wait (I elude this, it turns out, because a law makes me a senior who gets priority). Three tellers, administering mountains of paperwork are serving about 30 people, in rows of seats, each clutching their number. Enumerable tricycles wait patiently for a ride; sari-sari-store women wait for the occasional customer. And the other waiting I see is for … something to happen?  As I walk through this community, with many starkly poor shanties, I am struck by the number of young people, in their customary squat, just waiting. Waiting for something to happen in their lives? More on that in my next instalment.


All photos by and © Ian Hornby 2017, except for McDonalds’ meal.


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