Faces of Panay – A 2008 Motorcycle Odyssey
One night I ask Mr. Gumbo where to rent a motorcycle for the day. Exuberant in his desire to cater to all my whims and needs he promises to take care of this matter for me. And indeed, walking the crumbling winding staircase from my room down to the breakfast area early the following morning a 110cc Honda with off-road tires is already waiting for me. An enterprising local has just earned himself 800 Pesos by renting out his shiny new bike to me.
Time to hit the road, head out into the unknown, hoping for more smiles and expecting adventures!
I'm all set to go, but Mr. Gumbo insists I start the day with a hearty breakfast, something I could have done without in favor of picking up fruits or something cooked at dinghy roadside joints along the way.
"No way I let you leave with an empty stomach!" he says wagging his finger at me comically.
Today he has prepared breakfast for me personally as his wife has left for Iloilo in the early morning to shop for new tiles for the pool, he explains. His face reflects pride and gracious hospitality. I fear mine reflects skepticism and dread. You see, I'm the only guest in Mr. Gumbo's hotel now. At the time I arrived there was a friendly Finn from Turku staying here too, but he left the previous morning. So now, more than ever, I'm treated like family by Mr. Gumbo and his kin. A privilege I feel, and a delightful experience for sure, but I also find myself at the mercy of their cooking, which without a doubt is always heartfelt, but rarely delectable.
Food in the rural Philippines is always a matter of hit or miss. Mostly it’s miss, so frequently I’ve come to content myself with ordering fried fish and garlic rice with a few sprinkles of fresh Calamansi juice. That is if I have a choice. Now I don’t. So I smile and give Mr. Gumbo two thumbs up. Nothing beats a little culinary adventure to start into a new day.
This morning Mr. Gumbo has outdone himself. He has obviously cooked to impress. Visibly proud he places five plates in front of me. There’s chili fried squid, which turns out to be a bit chewy but tasty enough. Three of the other dishes are variations of sweet rice treats. What’s on the last plate I first cannot identify. As far as shape and texture are concerned it looks like dog feces. Of all the dishes I courageously sample it first. It turns out to be some kind of caramelized sticky rice.
Having pushed my blood sugar levels to an all time high, finally Mr. Gumbo agrees that I am now well prepared for my daytrip, but still insists I take along the breakfast leftovers as provisions for the road.
Meet the Brides:
I follow the main road out of town, a rocky dirt track really, and cruise along the coast. I pass some quaint little villages, a Spanish style cemetery, and lots of rice fields. On the few short stretches of tarred road people have spread large canvas covers to rake and dry rice on. It’s quite an idyllic sight.
After about twenty minutes of driving I reach Cauguiat, a little fishing town by the sea, apparently very similar to Canapian. At first sight not much interesting seems to be going on here. I take my farting bike around the main square a few times in search of some worthwhile photo opportunities. Almost already having made up my mind to move on inland where, as signs indicate, the road will join with the coastal highway I discover what turns out to be one of the most worthwhile sights while visiting this region, a public mass wedding.
The whole affair takes place in the main public space in the center of town, a roofed over court where on other occasions sports are played or market days are held. A large number of couples have gathered getting ready to be wed in this – how I find – very practical but also rather unromantic fashion. I estimate at least forty brides and grooms have congregated in front of a large makeshift altar, with a considerable number of townsfolk attending in anticipation of the undoubtedly exciting event.
Only very few of the brides are actually dressed up in white gowns or other ceremonial attire. Most are clothed casually in simple dresses or even pants and t-shirts. It’s similar with the grooms, who mostly wear regular pants and plain t-shirts.
Forging ahead through the crowd of onlookers and onto one of the stands at the far side of the court I find the perfect spot to take in the show. One bride, standing proudly in the front row of the congregation, in particular catches my eye. With her shining white wedding dress she stands out like a white swan in a flock of black geese. She radiates an aura of confidence and grace that makes her the center of my attention during the ceremony, and she notices too.
The ceremony is quite straightforward. Most of it is held in Illongo, the local dialect, so I can’t follow the whole affair as well as I would like to. The best bit is when the grooms are finally asked to kiss their brides. Some couples are really shy about it and just stand there not twitching a muscle, looking embarrassed. Others are a bit less coy and actually bring themselves to at least give their newly wed love a slight peck on the cheek. But then there are also the ones that do go in for the kill, giving their love a full-blown kiss smack on the lips, much to the delight of the cheering bystanders. What a hoot!
But this thing only really kicks off when the contest for the couple that can hold the longest kiss starts. About twenty couples participate and the crowd just goes wild. Judges run around between the more or less entangled bodies like decapitated chicken, checking if everyone’s lips really are tightly locked. It’s great fun for most of the participants and spectators alike.
A few of the couples are really a sight to behold. They look very tense, the kissing very forced. In particular some of the brides look as if they wished the whole ordeal had ended already. But as a small money prize awaits the winning couple they have apparently set their mind to suffer through this as long as they possibly can.
After about an hour the ceremony officially ends with the couples lining up to sign their marriage contracts. The show is over, and I move on.
Cruising along the coastal highway I pick up speed and head in direction of the north-eastern tip of Panay. It’s past noon by now, and droves of young kids dressed in blue-white uniforms have streamed out of their schools and are now leisurely strolling home on the road’s shoulders. They all gaze at the tall foreigner on his farting bike in amazement once they have spotted me. I stop on several occasions to take photos of them, but whenever I do they eye me suspiciously and then change to the other side of the road.
After about another hour’s drive I reach Estancia, a poor fishing town and the main port in the region. The locals call it the “Little Alaska” of the Philippines. I park my bike in front of a small hole-in-the wall bakery, salute the four giggling salesgirls who are shuffling to the feel-good rhythm of Mr. President’s Coco Jumbo behind their sales counter, and check out the town’s indoors fish market.
Meet the Hopefuls:
As I walk through the aisles eyeing the heaps of dried and fresh fish all the chatter in the hall grows quiet. Once more all eyes on me.
I then hear some women and girls whisper “Guapo Guapo” to each other as I walk past their stands. Though my knowledge of Tagalog, and particularly the local dialect Ilongo, is almost nonexistent, a few words I have actually managed to pick up in the course of time. “Guapo”, which means “handsome” in both Tagalog and Illongo, is one of them.
So I jump at the chance to toy with them a bit, face them flashing a bright smile, and say:
“Oh, salamat! Maganda karin!” – in English: “Thank you, you’re beautiful too!”
Now that really raises the roof! People start roaring, faces are blushing, smiles abound! The ice is broken! Some of the saleswomen start gesticulating wildly, shouting and pointing out to me who is still single and available for marriage.
Soon I find myself sitting with a bunch of them at their table behind a pile of dried fish and squid. They are all quite flirty with me which adds to the fun. I doesn’t take long until the usual questions are raised.
“Where are you from?”, “How long are you staying?”, “What do you do?”, and of course “Do you have a girlfriend?”, followed by lots and lots of giggles.
And finally, with an a bit more serious expression: “Are you Catholic?”
This is the Philippines, after all…
They tell me that when they first saw me walking in they thought I was a Fil-Am, half Filipino, half American. They say I have an Asian look about me. I assure them that there is not even a single drop of Asian blood running in my veins, something they for some reason find hard to believe. <It's true! You could be mistaken for a look kreung! – Stick>
One pretty girl in her mid-twenties, her name is Toto, then takes the initiative and descends on me with an onslaught of questions.
Her: “Do you have a maid in your home?”
Her: “Can I be your maid?”
“Do you have a grandma?”
“Can I come to your country and care for her?”
It’s an onrush of pleas if there’s any chance at all I can help them leave their dreary lives behind and get them out of the country. They just all seem to want to get out, no matter where to, no matter what the prospects there. She and her friends offer themselves as maids, nurses, and of course brides…anything really that would give them an opportunity to leave.
After about an hour of sitting with them chatting I tear myself away, abandoning them to their monotonous routines. Feeling very humbled and counting my blessings I walk back to my motorcycle and drive on, following the highway heading north-east again.
While the weather in the morning was just beautiful with clear and sunny skies, clouds have begun to move in by now and it has even started to rain a bit. The sky looks as if there will be more rain coming, but I am just not prepared to turn back now already.
I don’t stop anymore for a while, trying to reach the beaches in the region of the remote town Balogo. But then it starts to rain more, and having just passed a road sign pointing to a place called “The Silver Moon” I decide to turn back and take shelter there for a while.
The resort is a five minute drive down a rocky track from the main road, which in itself is not in a very good condition, half gravel and half concrete. There seems to be a lot of construction going on to improve the roads, but it’s obvious that there still is a lot of work to be done.
The resort looks very basic at first sight. I don’t spot anyone except two middle-aged Pinay women sitting in what looks like the reception area under a large tin roof. I ask them what this place is, a restaurant, a bar, a resort, or else, but don’t get a straight answer first. Eventually I learn that this place was meant to be a low key resort, but the owners ran out of money building it, so it has never been finished.
The woman I’m talking to is actually the wife of the man who had this dream, a Brit in his late 40ies who apparently had high hopes for the tourist potential of this region. He walks in just a few seconds later. His name is Mick. He offers me rum and water, some unripe Papaya to chew on, and a long conversation. I feel like he and his wife are badly in need of company here.
The stories he has to share about the resort, this area in general, but especially about his former life are quite interesting. He says this whole area was meant to be developed for tourists but corruption has made it all so difficult for anyone who has seriously tried. Island hopping could be done from here to many of the mostly deserted islands off the coast, he says, but not even the scruffiest backpackers have discovered this place yet. He bemoans that the only foreign visitors this region receives are foreign husbands to local Filipino women, who usually stay with their wife's in-laws anyway. It’s not holiday season now anyway, so his only customers are local couples who pay a pittance to rent out the few available rooms by the hour.
Mick’s life has been turbulent. He used to work as a truck driver in England, but after his marriage to an abusive English girl had gone sour decided to sign up with the International Red Cross and go abroad, trying to rid himself of the memories of his old life. He went on missions in Kosovo, Sri Lanka, the West Bank, and other perilous places, not balking to take risks and often being posted between front lines. He earned good money and invested it in building the Silver Moon Resort together with his Pinay wife he happened to meet in an Emirates beauty parlor.
Everything was going reasonably well until he learned that he has a cardiac defect and needed surgery. He got a bypass, but was consequently deemed unfit to go on missions for the Red Cross anymore. Without that stream of income he has not been able to complete the resort, and all attempts at selling it have been fruitless so far.
It has rained cats and dogs for the past two hours now, and I am starting to get worried. I really don’t feel like spending the night at the Silver Moon, even though I am sure this would actually be one of my better, if not the only, options between here andCanapian.
I decide to get on the bike and get going the first chance I get, once the rain stops or at least doesn’t lash down as hard anymore. Mick urges me to return to Canapian before dark. A new fishing port has been built at a nearby town. It’s a well known fact that much money, at least by local standards, is travelling between there and Estancia in the evenings after local businessmen have finished their trade for the day.
Hold-ups are not uncommon. Local thugs are known to man minivans and go hunting for prey, usually after dark, but more and more frequently also during daylight hours. Just recently an elderly Swiss guy passing through the area on his touring bike fell victim to a bunch of masked culprits, stopping the guy on his motorcycle at a roadblock, pointing some M16s at him, and taking everything he owned, including the bike. To prevent these things from happening to visitors and locals alike some watchtowers have been installed along the main roads. I did see them driving this way, but also noticed how most of them were manned by unarmed old-timers who were either sleeping or playing cards, and apparently couldn’t care less about what was happening around them.
Not too keen on looking down the barrel of some hoodlum’s rusty rifle I am certainly all ears to Mick’s advice.
Meet my Life-Saver:
At 4pm I finally get going. The rain has taken a break as I’m leaving the Silver Moon, but it doesn’t take long until it starts lashing down again. Anticipating this I already changed into my swim trunks at the resort, as I expected to get soaking wet no matter what I do. I had enough sense to pack my light rain jacket this morning too, but didn’t think of bringing any kind of headgear unfortunately. This turns out to be a grave mistake. As the rain starts falling harder again even my tight-fitting sunglasses can’t prevent the heavy raindrops getting straight into my eyes, almost washing out my disposable lenses, and in any case reducing my vision to almost zero. I can only drive at snail’s pace, not making any headway, while buses and heavy trucks are passing me frequently at breakneck speeds, dousing me with muddy splash water.
The roads are in a terrible condition. Where there’s no concrete they are terribly sludgy, the bomb crater sized potholes filled with water, and littered with slippery rocks barely visible. Even driving on tar is not easy as some parts are almost totally flooded, forcing me to slow down to almost a complete standstill. There is just no way I can drive on like this.
I think about driving back to the Silver Moon, but that I really consider my very last option. Then I have an idea. I stop the motorcycle at a small roadside shop where a few people have taken shelter from the rain. Two guys are wearing baseball caps, and fortunately they speak good English.
“Excuse me, where can I buy a baseball cap or any other kind of headgear around here to fend off the rain while driving?”, I ask them.
“Oh, you can buy one in the next town!”
“How far is it?”
“Not far! Just four kilometers!”
I’m thinking I can’t possibly drive another 100 meters in this torrential downpour, let alone four km.”
“That’s too far for me! How much for your baseball cap then?” I ask them.
Everyone appears visibly amused by the soaked to the skin foreigner’s question.
“You see, I can’t drive on like this with all the water running into my eyes. I would really appreciate if you were willing to sell me yours. That way I think I’ll at least have a chance to make it home.”
They all sympathize, yet neither one of them is prepared to sell.
“We still need it as we will probably have to drive home in the rain too”, they say.
Shucks! I drive on! A few dozen meters down the road I try my luck again. One of the guys there, a poor farmer boy, dressed in no more than rags, even takes pity on me and offers me his baseball cap as a gift.
I dismount my bike, wade through the ankle-deep water to the other side of the road, and break down a 500 Peso banknote at a food stall there.
“A baseball cap is just 60 Pesos” the shop owner informs me.
Returning to my bike I put 250 Pesos in the guy’s hand. He doesn’t even check how much I have given him.
“You’re a real life-saver!” I tell him, pulling his baseball cap down over my face, and putting my shades back on. The crowd cheers me on as I pull away from the rain shelter again. Driving is still a challenge, but at least I can make some headway now, travelling at slightly higher speeds.
I reach Cauguiat after dawn and have to negotiate the muddy track to Canapian in the dark. There are lots and lots of toads on the road now and I squash more than a few.
People emerge out of the dark in what seems to me more than ever like the middle of nowhere now, the white of their eyes reflecting my bike’s flickering headlight, and vanish again in the countryside like ghosts as I pass them. It’s quite bizarre.
Short past 7pm I reach Mr. Gumbo’s hotel, soaked to the bones, cold, and starving. Mr. Gumbo and Alisha have already been worried about my whereabouts. Mr. Gumbo greets me like a long lost son. Sighing with relief he pats me on my back and then scurries off into the kitchen to fire up the stove. Feels like coming come…
Great trip report!!! It sounds like a real adventure was had that day! I love these unplanned day trips where you just do not know where you're going and what will happen next.