reprinted from Filipinas 2.0 magazine, July 2004
I'm here today to talk about "why it's worth visiting the Philippines." And also why the editor might live to regret giving me the assignment.
See, I'm a news journalist. This means that when I write about the Philippines, it's usually in relation to corruption, crisis, crime and violence. Not exactly the kind of words you'd put in glossy travel brochures, unless you're preparing a tour package for mercenaries.
While I've criss-crossed the country, it's usually been to cover drought, armed rebels, environmental destruction and lunatic warlords. And the amenities I've enjoyed? In western Samar, on the way to a midnight rendezvous with communist militia, I slept in a chicken coop liberally laced with, uhm, chicken dust. Not quite the digs to which tourism writers are accustomed -- I understand one Manila daily's lifestyle czarina demands nothing less than queen-sized beds each time she goes on a freebie junket. Bed size (I suppose) being inversely proportional to writing talent.
For those who think that getting there is half the fun of travelling, well, I once flew from Manila to Davao and then Leyte - which meant I visited Luzon, Mindanao and Visayas all in one day. What made it particularly memorable was that while I've taken many plane rides, this was the only one that had me standing up throughout, holding on to an overhead strap. It was a military transport, crowded with sweaty, heavily armed Marines. And oh yes, right in the center of the cargo hold was a shiny metal coffin.
And how can I forget that day-long banca ride off northern Palawan, through monsoon seas? "Those waves seem kind of huge, don't they?", nervously remarked my companion, an Australian journalist. We survived being swamped but my clothes were wet, my bag and its contents soaked and the bay we were trying to get to was at low tide so we had to partly drag the boat through mud. I flopped down on the beach, where I was promptly and viciously bitten by sand flies.
I suppose, after hearing all this, by now you must be headed out the door, bags packed for a lovely weeklong trip to Singapore.
But before you pass up going to the Philippines, stay a while and listen up close. I'll admit I might be the wrong person to breathlessly extol the five-star wonders of Philippine tourism. In my line of work you usually don't get the time to enjoy the sights you're zipping by. But, you do remember them. Many's the moment I've vowed that I'd come back and visit what I passed.
On various plane flights I've always been struck by the beauty of our islands - many of them like white gems glinting on a blue, sun-dappled ocean. And the sea: I've been on an oil rig off Palawan and seen the water so breathtakingly, brightly blue, it looked like it was colored using special effects. Standing on the platform, I could see straight into the water for dozens off feet. As you can imagine, Palawan is on my list of places to visit if I ever find the time to get away from Manila. I have friends who swear the diving in this area is stellar.
The only island I've ever actually been a bona fide tourist on is Boracay, which you definitely don't want to miss if you love sun and sea and white sand so fine, it actually feels like sugar. It's the one place I've been to in the Philippines where you can wander straight off the beach into a sari-sari store and pick up a bottle of German white wine casually displayed on a rack. I recall being in Boracay during the rainy season when the skies are gray and the crowds sparse. While the colors were more muted than in summer, it was still a beautiful place. Seated on a table at the edge of the beach early in the morning, I had a shrimp cocktail for breakfast and reflected that overall, life didn't seem to be too bad.
If you think, though, that tourist attractions in this country begin and end with beaches you should go to the mountains. Writing about illegal logging in northern Luzon, I went to the totally unremarkable city of Tuguegarao, capital of Isabela. I took a small plane across the Cordilleras to a logging camp on the coast, and folks, what can I say? This jaded journalist's breath was taken away by sight of the mighty forested mountain range passing underneath the single-engine Cessna. The word "majestic" came to mind, as did yet another memo-to-self to someday come back for a real visit.