Wednesday, November 23, 2011

No Man Is an Island

Yeah, maybe, but some of us live on one.

It has always amazed me how the Philippines is able to function as one nation given that it is situated on 7,107 separate and distinct pieces of land. I mean, just try counting to 7,107 and you will understand the problem.

How do you get schools there? Electricity? Ballot boxes? Gasoline?

How do you get your body there? Especially if you are prone to being seasick.

Oh, I know, not all of them are populated. Still, logistics here is the mother of all nightmares. But by Gods good will, it works.

My own island is hidden. Many Filipinos have no idea it exists, much less where it is. But somehow the Dutch have found it. And a scattering of Americans.

Getting here is an excursion on its own. You fly via Manila to Tacloban, the place where General MacArthur touristed near the end of World War II. Then you drive across the northern rice plains of Leyte and through a range of mountains thoroughly potted with coconut trees. This road was dirt until about 15 years ago. It is still narrow and prone to head on collisions as fast vehicles grow impatient with large cargo trucks and try to squeeze past, plowing into assorted vehicles coming the other way around the sharp bends.

On the way, you drive past the coastal fishing village where my wife grew up during her elementary schooling days. She'd walk a couple of kilometers to school each day, and on weekends, 15 k or more selling bananas to neighboring towns with her grandmama. She today does not have kind words for the heavy bananas, though her pinarito saging is awesome, carmeled with sugar and thin'sliced like I like them. She has fond memories of her grandmother, and visits her grave regularly to light a candle and bless her for her kindness.

You emerge from the mountains onto a gorgeous and windy bridge, across a rock causeway, and onto my island: Biliran.

Biliran reminds me of Hawaii before it became a state and was overrun by rich white retirees from the mainland. Gorgeous green mountains rising into the mist, clean air, a circular main highway that is paved about 3/4 of the way around. A large portion of that was finished just last year. The rest of the way around is dirt with potholes big enough to swallow my Honda Civic.

There is a fork in the road just off the causeway. If you turn right, you go east, then north. The southern and eastern coast is developing as beach communities, more for pleasure than anything, because the mountains come right down to the coast. There isn't a lot of space for farming. Nice homes are going in there. Retired Filipinos I suspect.

Juices, if Americans only knew the beauty they could find there. And affordable. Blue Pacific waters, islands in the distance. Clean air. Mountains behind, loaded with green. Retirement never had it so beautiful.

Or if the Philippines actually thought of WELCOMING such moneyed normal people as American retirees . . . and let them buy land.

Rather the Philippines welcomes hit and run sex tourists and wayward eccentrics like Joe Am. And government officials in Immigration, Foreign Affairs and Customs  snarl at these particular "guests" rather than make them feel welcome. As if being polite were an unfair burden to impose on such busy and self-important officials of the land.

"We don't need your stinkin' money or corruptive attitudes about good values!" they probably mutter under their garlic and ginger laden breath.
If you turn left off the causeway, you go northwest and eventually reach the main city of Naval, a comparatively clean, bustling gateway to the ocean and the rest of the island. All roads on Biliran lead to  Naval. That is because there are only three of them. Around the island this way, around the island that way, and up and over the mountains through a rocky, eroded dirt road pass.

Half the population of Naval pedals bicycles for a living. The other half works as shop keepers. Another half labors in the rice fields or doing construction. And the rest of us laze about.

I don't know how the Dutch found the place, but there is a community of them in the outlying suburbs. Each has a nice home and a Filipina wife and is old and opinionated. I fit right in, but I am not so pushy. Filipinos can't figure me out. I'm expected to be an arrogant idiot but instead I am deferential and kind. Boy howdy, THAT throws them off.

Naval has a university that trains up a lot of seamen. It has a dock which receives the Super Ferry and all kinds of freighters and local commuter craft. The entire downtown is only barely above sea level, so I don't know what will happen as the ocean rises during the next 50 years. Maybe they will build higher sea walls and people will live in a giant concrete bathtub. Already during major storms the ocean dumps truckloads of sand onto the main square.

The city is progressive compared to what I've seen elsewhere. It has daily trash removal. An anti-dog ordinance (which is enforced haphazardly). Good water piping. Four gas stations, one of which has unleaded gasoline most of the time. No rebels creeping about extorting money in the name of political rectitude. Oh, sure, building standards are a tad lax, the reality of poverty and most people struggling financially, but most shops are in reasonably good condition. Most of the goods come in by boat. Prices are a little higher than what you would find in Tacloban, but you can get or order just about anything you need. We have no Jollibee or Chow King. Soon, I'm sure. Because this place is vibrant and growing.

It is 2 1/2 hours to Tacloban for a modern Robinson's Mall experience (National Bookstore, Greenwich et al, computer stores) and a good B-grade hospital. Ormoc is 2 hours away. I always get grim driving there past the river, thinking it was not too long ago in 1991 that 8,500 Filipinos were killed when a flash flood ripped through the city. It's fine now. You have to dodge sugar cane trucks to get there, so it is diesel alley the last 15 kilometers.

The road to Tacloban is a speed highway. The best of aggressive Filipino driving can be witnessed thereupon.

Biliran is sheltered from typhoons by the larger islands that make up the Visayas. The weather is surprisingly cool outside the concrete jungle of downtown, where mid-day heat is trapped in the cement of the streets and buildings. I suppose because the island is small. Cool ocean air is everywhere. And the mountains act like the freezer in the refrigerator, drawing down a nice nip if the winds are from the east.

To be honest, I think this island was probably the original Garden of Eden. It is still paradise in my book, my book not really being the Bible. I seek spiritual guidance from Jonathan Swift and John Grisham.

But I digress.

Stop by if your boat is in this area. Mi isla est su isla. Wakarimashta? Comprende, amigo? Kasabot ka?

You dig?


  1. On our Bucket List is a leisurely road trip from Manila to Davao. Looks like Biliran is about half way, so we’ll drop in to have a look around. Cheers, Greg.

  2. Halfway as the crow flies, but to go south you have to go north, if driving. Of course, there are ferries. Be sure to wear a life vest and insure the car.

  3. I know what you mean when you talk about paradise there. If it didn't take over 20hrs to fly. Hay Naku!
    The problem is that most retired single men want to be close to their families in the USA. Going to the Philippines is not going to be popular even for retires. They rather move to Florida, Costa Rica or Panama. It takes only a few hrs to fly and they can easily go back and forth visit their relatives, friends and loved ones or they can be visited by them.

  4. do you have a golf course there?

  5. Attila, you are practical, eh? And oh so correct. My family does not visit here much. It is too far and I suspect maybe too bizarre. And I hate the hassle of going back.

    MB, no golf course. But there is this great expanse of land near here, not used for anything as near as I can tell, that overlooks the sea and neighboring islands because it is on a gentle slope. Spectacular setting better than Pebble Beach. Come on down and put one in!

  6. Speaking of bizarre. I have been criticized by some of my coworkers and contractors at my workplace for visiting the Philippines. Their reasoning was that by never visiting South America I don't know what I'm missing and I'm wasting my time and money. Some of them are from South American countries like Argentina, Brazil Columbia, Peru and they just smile and shake their head when I try to reason or convince them why I like the Philippines. Interestingly I never met anyone who would be impressed by my vacation trip to the Philippines. To them I'm bizarre for going to a bizarre place.

  7. Attila, well, I am impressed with your vacation trip, for your willingness to depart from the well-beaten path. It is part of the reason I'm here, to find the riches that are obtained by living the unconventional, to learn to bend in the wind, like the bamboo in my back yard, and to not live up to the expectations of others. I've only been to Chile in South America, and it is spectacular, from the cold and windy southern reaches of Patagonia to the northern deserts, with lovely wine country in between.

    Is tuba wine or liquor? ahahahaha, tastes like fermented bugs

  8. Hey, Joe!

    Are you opening a hotel there?

    You took a break from your usual posts to write about your place. I say it's refreshing.

    I've been to Tacloban and Ormoc. I can say that life outside Metro Manila is simpler and relaxing. It's a wonder how you can still bother to care about issues that happen in Imperial Manila.

  9. brianitus, actually one of the Dutchmen has a small hotel upon a ridge overlooking the river canyon below, with its terraced rice fields, and the ocean in the distance. It is a spectacular setting. I think he also has condos attached to it.

    Indeed, life here is very different than in Manila. Rather like the difference between Los Angeles and Aspen, although it has not snowed here yet.


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