Readers' Submissions

Faces of Panay – At Mr. Gumbo’s

  • Written by Akulka
  • June 30th, 2008
  • 13 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, it's a new day in paradise. Well, perhaps not quite paradise, for this is the rural Philippines.

Canapian, a little township in northern Panay in the Visayas: A textbook example of a provincial backwater where people's hopes are often low and prospects even lower. Poverty-stricken, rice paddy riddled, and seemingly worlds apart from the glitzy setting of Boracay's famous White Beach that has been cashed up and spoiled for comfort tourists for decades now, and is located just a few hours of uncomfortable chicken bus ride away at the northern tip of the island.

No guidebook has ever mentioned this place, keeping it firmly off the tourist radar. The only foreign visitors that seem to bother coming here are the occasional NGO workers and Western men married to local girls who visit family before moving on to greener pastures.

Meet Mr. Gumbo:

Until very recently there used to be no real accommodation option except maybe for the most intrepid and resourceful traveller. Enter Mr. Gumbo, a locally successful businessman, who has put his mind to changing his hometown's fortune – and certainly his own – for the better by luring the adventuresome traveller.

Mr. Gumbo is a genuinely likable guy with a jovial character, hospitable, and apparently always up for a laugh. He is also utterly incompetent when it comes to completing even the easiest tasks on a computer. Enter Akulka to show him how to access and write emails.

Mr. Gumbo has even had someone create a super cheerful multimedia website with streaming video and testimonials of enthusiastic family members proclaiming their eagerness to please future guests. They advertize a five star experience at a budget price, speak of the untarnished beauty of a tropical wonderland, the home of the real Philippines and Filipino people at the doorstep of some of the most impressive natural islands that most visitors never experience. They all paint the alluring image of a taste of paradise. And even though the reality might not exactly live up to all the hyperbole, I enjoy this place much more than many others I have been to in the Philippines.

Some may call me egocentric, even narcistic, but I do enjoy the attention, curiosity, and smiles tremendously that are directed at me by all and sundry and wherever I roam that just seem to come with the territory in a place like this. One almost feels like a genuine rock star.

"People from places where Christianity has traditionally been one of the pillars of society have an immanent desire to experience smiling people in dirt-poor settings."

This is what a guy I had the pleasure to host in my home not long ago commented while discussing our respective motives for travelling. He has been on the road incessantly for five years now, and has thereby seen and experienced more on all six continents than I can ever hope for. And indeed I grew up in – what one could call – a Christian society, yet have never been religious. His remarks were food for thought in any case.

The rooms at Mr. Gumbo’s hotel are certainly nowhere near five-star, but reasonably tidy and clean. Some even have an ocean view. Much of the décor is kitsch actually, but it’s easy to tell that Mr. Gumbo, who also owns a large shop with an upstairs bar and restaurant as well as a motorcycle repair shop, has made a huge effort to build up something nice here.

The shower is cold water only, and the water in the toilet shimmers with spots of fuel. There’s air-conditioning and a fan, but I hardly make use of either one of them. In any case, Mr. Gumbo’s low-key hotel is certainly the flashiest building in town.

After the sun goes down people gather in the small town’s myriad videoke bars, and then the howling begins from all quarters. Everybody seems to be having a good time with this, but I fear the next season’s winner of “Philippine Idol” will be discovered elsewhere. By 10pm the town grows dead quiet, save for the dogs that by then have taken over the howling from the retired videoke crowd. Sleep doesn’t come easy without earplugs, and yet every morning I wake to the high-pitched sound of squealing pigs. I soon find out there is a ramshackle pigpen on the other side of my room’s wall.

Meet the town:

I have hardly spent a day in town and have already made half a dozen new “best friends”. They all ask my phone number, and at first I more or less indiscriminately dish it out if I’m only asked for it nicely enough, which is actually always the case; a decision I come to regret, as this results in me not only getting bombarded with a ceaseless stream of often inane text messages from them 24/7, but also from people I don’t recall ever having met. It seems like my phone number has proliferated in town faster than a nuclear chain reaction.

Switching on my mobile the following morning I’m faced with a barrage of text messages. I receive so many that the phone buzzes nonstop for almost two minutes until finally the memory of the old second-hand Nokia that I use for travelling has filled up completely. Throughout the day the bombardment continues. Without recharging my phone battery usually gives up at mid-day.

To one particularly persistent – and outrageously charming – girl I even give my tertiary email address. She also asks me to take our photo together. She doesn’t have email at home, and in general internet is a very rare commodity in Canapian, yet she assures me she will find a way to write to me and then ask me to send our photo to her. At night she texts me…

Hehe..itz n0t my fault u look like kevin n h0m al0n..i juz admire ur eyes and d way u smyl…”

I never receive email from her, but months later my email account’s spam box overflows with messages from “Canapian Ho” pitching fake Viagra and penis enlargements.

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Of course my new friends invite me to sing videoke with them. I warn them that even the fish will start crying and their ears will bleed if I do, but they insist and place two fat binders with song titles in front of me. I ask if they have REM’s all time classic “Losing My Religion”, as this is one of the few songs I know the lyrics well from start to end and am reasonably comfortable singing. They have never heard of the song but unanimously agree it can’t be good as the title is blasphemous already.

Meet Alisha:

Alisha, a 25-year old girl attending the community college in town, has volunteered to be my tour guide for the day. She somewhat proudly explains that she even spent a full month on Boracay to receive proper training on how to cater to every tourist’s whims and needs. She could have stayed to work there, but never felt comfortable with the environment. I pay her 400 Pesos per day for the privilege of enjoying her company.

Alisha has quite a small frame, neither too chubby nor too skinny, and a full but very friendly and cute face. Despite apparently being a naturally bubbly character, she is very reserved around me at first. My challenge for today will be to change that.

Other than visiting the town’s small market or paying a short visit to the local college there are not too many things to do in town. Alisha suggests going on a boat trip, so I ask Mr. Gumbo to organize us a local banca.

We have to wade through the filthy water at the shore to reach the boat. The waves are quite high today so we are in for a somewhat bumpy ride, but that’s quite alright for me and adds to the fun. I try hard to get Alisha to change from her serious and professional “tour guide mode” to a friendlier and more relaxed “companion mode”.

I take photos of us together but she is shy to smile. It’s easy to tell Alisha doesn’t have a lot of confidence. Later she explains she was traumatized by an experience in school where she was standing in front of the class after having eaten, and something was stuck between her teeth. Everybody made fun of her then, and since that day she has refused to smile in photos. I let my charms work and can tell she likes it too. Ever so slowly I succeed.

I come to very much enjoy her company. She’s fun to be around, cheerful, likes to laugh, and can be teased ever so easily. Her English is impeccable too.

Yet Alisha is still very hesitant to ask me any kind of even remotely personal question though. She explains she has been taught at tourist school to respect people’s privacy and never to be too nosey with visitors. Also she is extremely time conscious and always wants me to be safe safe safe at all times, wear my life jacket, keep my legs inside the boat, never stand up while we are moving, and so on. She means well, but it’s quite annoying all the same. As her paying customer I humorously command her to forget about all those rules while she is with me.

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Our first stop is an island that holds the highest peak of all of Panay. The Spanish named it Pan de Sal in reference to its shape that reminded them of famous Sugar Loaf in Rio de Janeiro. The locals have a different name for it, but I can’t remember it now. We don’t stay long. There is a beach but it doesn’t much invite for swimming. Not many people are around at this time but some old lady and about ten little kids, digging in the sand for fishing bait.

We leave after thirty minutes and travel over to Binao-bauan, an island across the channel. It’s a lot smaller. The sand is quite nice, mostly white, and the views of Pan de Azucar are stunning.

The last island we visit is called Agmalobo. It belongs to some family who also lives there and has built some small huts on the beach for visitors to picnic in. Alisha and I find ourselves a nice spot and have late lunch. We get ourselves some coconuts, drink their juice and eat their flesh while lazing on the beach, Alisha in a hammock, me on my beach towel. Suddenly she loses her balance and falls out and almost onto me, blushing all over and giggling hysterically. I can’t help noticing she smells like vanilla.

Next morning Alisha shows up at Mr. Gumbo’s early. I have a quick breakfast and invite her to join me. She says she doesn’t eat breakfast and anyway she has snacks with her in case she gets hungry…two chocolate bars.

We ride out of town and follow some remote dirt tracks into the hills. The roads are really bad, rocky and often muddy, and I struggle balancing the bike with the two of us on it, and only wearing flip flops. Alisha is prominently wearing her large tourist information office name tag around her neck, explaining this is to show to everyone that she’s on official tourist guide duty and not on a joyride with some stranger, especially as she has dozens and dozens of gossipy family members living in this area.

It takes us about forty minutes to the base of Mt. Binuntuca from where a trail uphill starts. Most of the trail is heavily overgrown with all kinds of weeds and vegetation. It’s obvious it is not walked often. It gets more difficult the further we get up, and very slippery too. Worst is that sometimes it’s impossible to see the ground because there is just so much weed in the way. It’s hard to climb up with flip flops, but at this stage I know already coming down again will be the real challenge. I just hope it won’t rain, because if it does we will just be stuck up there on the mountain and later slide down all the way in the mud on our bums. Not my idea of fun.

Half way up the mountain I ask Alisha if she knows of any snakes in the undergrowth.

“Oh yes sure! Many many!” she says as if it was just a matter of course.

Great! Nobody mentioned this to me earlier! Anyway, walking uphill I’m thinking it’s almost more likely a forgotten soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army with his rusty rifle will sneak up on me from the bushes than some poisonous snake. The scenery very much reminds me of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece “The Thin Red Line”.

After about an hour we finally reach the top. It’s not really pretty up there on the peak as a deserted and overgrown telecommunication station is blocking all views. Therefore we walk the trail a few hundred meters down again and rest at a more scenic spot, sitting on rocks and taking in the views, which are pretty, but not spectacular. One can see the town and the islands in the bay.

We hang around for a while before starting our final descent again. I warn Alisha that it’s probably inevitable for me to fall at one point or the other as it’s already been so damn slippery walking uphill. Alisha gets all worked up over this and insists on walking behind me now, proclaiming she will catch me if I fall, and constantly reminding me to be careful.

“Keep your distance! If I really fall I might squash you!”

“Ha Ha! Very funny! I’m a strong girl you know! Now you be careful lah!”

“Yes ma, don’t worry ma!”

Anyway, eventually she cannot stop me from falling, and I hit some rocks with my left knee but mostly my bum. It hurts but not for long. Alisha’s hysterical shrieking watching me slip and fall is actually more painful.

Fortunately I don’t fall a second time but get very close repeatedly, putting Alisha fully back into her far less charming concerned tour guide mode, and thereby in a constant state of agitated alertness.

“Careful! Watch your step lah! Take my hand here! Hold onto this tree! Don’t step here lah!”

I hold on to all kinds of weeds and trees sliding down the trail, while Alisha is surprisingly skilled at balancing herself. She literally hovers down the trails, and never even comes close to falling.

We are back down by the motorcycle at about noon. I’m pretty tired and exhausted from the walk. Sweaty as I am I can’t wait to make it back to Mr. Gumbo’s to shower and maybe even dip into the pool. I drop Alisha off at her house and then return to my hotel where a huge and surprisingly tasty sandwich is already waiting for me.

Stickman's thoughts:

You're lucky it didn't rain or you might have had an adventure like Caveman's recent report!