Boracay. September 2003. Off-season in Paradise and only the rains keep the peddlers and prostitutes off the beachfront. By day, the tourists roast themselves on the beach and eat three-dollar spaghetti lunches. At night they drink themselves into oblivion and do things they wouldn’t do at home.
Peter is a member of an Austrian choir group, in the PI to take part in an international choir festival. The festival ended a week ago but Peter and five other members are still here. They have dived and jet skied during the day; drank and fucked at night. “We were meant to go home last weekend, but what’s the rush?” He laughs, squeezing the local girl who has wrapped herself around him. “Where else can you do this?” He laughs again and his new friend kisses him gently and runs off to dance.
All around us are other men who are putting off reality, taking a temporary break from real life. We are in ‘Summer Place’, one of the more popular watering holes that line the beachfront. It’s the very epitome of tropical hedonism. A gaggle of bare foot local girls dance seductively to Bob Marley while red-faced Westerners drink 60 cent beers. A group of Korean tourists get drunk in a corner, drinking margarita by the bucketful.
Beneath the relaxed hedonism of the island, there is an air of menace. Stories abound of foreigners getting robbed, raped and worse. A man I met in Cebu told me to keep the windows in my taxi wound up. Apparently a Westerner had been knocked out by a gas that was released into the taxi by the driver. His body was found two days later in a parking lot. On the way from Lapu Lapu to my hotel, the taxi driver tried hard to convince me to meet his daughter. “She is very nice, young, you will like her, I will give you cheap price.” He said this in the tone of a man trying to sell me ice cream. In Boracay, a local tried to sell me grass. He wanted the money upfront, promising he would return with the dope. When I protested, he retorted with the classic “You don’t trust me?” I didn’t and he soon got nasty. I managed to make my excuses and leave, but it was a warning I did well to heed. With the average daily wage being somewhere between two and three dollars, the locals are not backwards in coming forward.
Jee was 24, tall and beautiful. She was also a he. She didn’t fit the stereotype of a transsexual. She was beautiful, with none of the exaggerated sexuality of her friends. I had met her at one of the bars, one Tuesday night. I was an easy target; alone, bored and with a full wallet. Her friend Chin invited me over. Chin was plainly not a girl, her attempts to hide that fact only making her more pathetic. Her aggressiveness was off putting and she wasted no time in proposing a threesome. My lack of interest only fuelled her ire and I soon got tired of her mismatched physicality. My refusal to pay for her drinks also pissed her off and she was soon gone; off to find more compliant prey. So then it was me and Jee. She was good company, with none of the overt sleaziness that Chin displayed. I was aware she was a whore, but not that she was not female. I wasn’t going to pay for her, but thought I be able to charm her into bed instead. My charms failed spectacularly as we soon ended up back in Summer Place where she began to flirt with one of the Austrian choir members, Günter, a heavy set forty-something.
At this point a group of other lady boys began watching us and making comments. Eventually one of them pushed a note into my hand. I read it under the stark bulb in the toilet. Scrawled in pencil it read “Are you stupid? It’s a boy!” the note referred to Jee. I walked back to Günter and showed him the note. He, having seen who gave me the note, walked straight up to her/him and proceeded to give her/him a piece of his mind. Bad move. He/She immediately pulled out a flick knife and began waving it in his face. Günter responded in kind, grabbing his/her arm and elbowed him/her in the face. He/she collapsed in a transsexual heap on the ground. Then all hell broke loose. Immediately trannies began crawling out of the woodwork, clawing and hissing. An alarming number of them had blades. Günter and his choir group were now going ape shit, shouting in German and swinging beer bottles. I decided to make my excuses but as I was leaving I noticed a few more trannies eyeing me from the entrance. These ones just looked like track suited blokes with eye shadow, which in fact they were. Just as I was deciding how I was going to explain my hospital bill to my parents, gunshots rang out. It was the security guard from the bar who had finally decided to take his finger out of his ass. Immediately the commotion stopped, and after a few minutes of shouting in Tagalog and German, everyone was told to leave. The next morning I got the first boat back to the mainland and headed to Sabang.
Divers place, Sabang beach. “Fucking Kenny G. Put on Fucking Kenny G!” I didn’t know what was stranger. The sight of a big sunburnt German striding unsteadily across the restaurant and banging his fists on the table or the fact that someone was getting passionate about Kenny G. “This is not a fucking rock concert,” he had exclaimed earlier, irritated at the piped rock music that was being played in the restaurant. The waitresses shifted nervously and giggled, unsure of what exactly he wanted. He cleared that up with his display immediately after. Kenny G evidently. Loud, obnoxious and drunk. Three words that are as apt a description of Sabang as they were of my German fellow diner.
Sabang is a dirty, cluttered little town that spills onto a makeshift harbour. It has an air of faded sleaze that, coupled with its claustrophobic alleys, can make it a depressing place to spend time.
There are three girlie bars, a disco, countless guesthouses and restaurants in Sabang. Groups of girls prowl the bars looking for their next pay cheque. The visitors that come here are mainly male and old. Many have been here years and a significant number of the businesses are Western owned. The locals survive by latching onto these businesses, and the visitors that come here. What results is a strange mix of capitalism and socialism. Everyone seems to have a job. Get out of the moto in the centre of Sabang and immediately some one will take your bags to carry to the hotel. Someone else will show the way. That’s two tips and two guys who will make sure you are looked after. Jerry was the guy who carried my bags. Small, stocky and in his forties, Jerry was the quintessential Sabang local. Unfortunately in Sabang, that means you can never get rid of him. He seemed to have the ability to be in two places at once, to be omnipresent. He offered to organize everything from barbeques to orgies, should I be so inclined. He was also a difficult man to shake off.
I resorted to peering out of my window on an hourly basis, checking if he was still there. Sure enough, him and his day-glow orange t-shirt would be perched on a rock, chain smoking. I began to weave elaborate stories to explain why I couldn’t go diving/trekking/whoring on any particular day. I was engaged to a Korean girl who was staying in a hotel on the next beach with her family. They did not approve of me and that’s why I had to stay on my own near the centre of town. Although hopefully we could work it out and we could all go diving before we left. Eventually the Korean family all got names, ages and occupations. Mr Kim, a business man (computers) from Seoul was stern but fair and I was sure I could win his trust. Mrs Kim was fond of me, but dare not show affection in front of her husband. Ji-young was beautiful but stubborn and refused to marry a Korean guy. This seemed to work but Jerry was persistent, constantly hanging around the hotel and he seemingly had the ability to appear from nowhere. On my eventual departure from the port, he accompanied me on the boat and even on the taxi to the airport, literally until I had disappeared into the arrivals hall.
That plane journey took me to Cebu, the oldest city in the Philippines and one of the Visavayas most visited places. The guidebook had led me to believe Cebu was all old world faded charm and cosmopolitan glamour. It wasn’t. Cebu was a dump. Unfinished, derelict buildings lined potholed streets while touts ran after you trying to sell everything from cigarettes to hand jobs. I stayed on Mactan Island, home of the airport and countless overpriced resorts. One of the main reasons for the decision to stay in a top range hotel was so I could take advantage of an in house doctor. I was dizzy and faint on arrival and did not feel like running around at 10pm at night looking for some local doctor. Maybe I should have. The doctor, when he eventually came, arrived smoking a cigar and wearing what looked like a blue tuxedo. He seemed to laugh every time I described my ailments a la the doctor from The Simpsons. I soon realised he was stoned. As he set up some mucus sucking equipment on the bed, he began to tell me of his experience of Korean girls in Tokyo. “Very beautiful, wow! Very beautiful. But so expensive. You know $300 for an hour. Fuck that.” He took another long puff of his cigar and laughed. “But you know I didn’t have to pay.” To be fair to the doctor, his medicine worked and I was soon back to normal.
Cebu does have its charms, such as Magellan’s cross on Mactan island, and there are some nice restaurants and bars dotting the town, particularly in the North side where there are some stunning views to be enjoyed. There is also a notable Chinese influence which is resented by many of the Filippinos. I talked to one local in a seafood restaurant who complained bitterly about the influx of Chinese immigrants. To illustrate his point he glanced at a nearby table where eight Chinese businessmen were arguing bitterly. They continued shouting at each other at high volume for about twenty minutes. Eventually it became clear what they were arguing over. The tip. Finally they left the required amount and strolled back to their Mercedes, each happy in the knowledge that he hadn’t been ripped off.
The main pluses of Cebu are its nightlife and it’s proximity to two of the Philippines best kept secrets. The Chocolate Hills in nearby Bohol are a strange natural phenomena. Hundreds of malteser-shaped mounds dot the horizon, creating a unique dawn and dusk panorama. Elsewhere on Bohol is the Tarsier Foundation Centre where these strange, bug eyed marsupials can live unharmed by man. The tarsier is the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s ET and the director even sponsors a nearby town. Bohol is a welcome break from the toxic mayhem of downtown Cebu but is not a place to spend too long.
My last nights in Cebu were a blur of alcohol, go-go bars and offers of Shabu (synthetic cocaine), popular amongst the locals. Many of these locals will offer to take you under their wing and show you the town. Some of these offers are genuine, many are not. Use your own judgement and always realise that behind even the most benign offers can lurk something more sinister.
The Philippines is not a place for the faint hearted. Unlike Thailand, where everything is laid on a plate, the Philippines has more of a wild west feeling to it, which can be both charming and frustrating. The line between hedonism and anarchy is a thin one and tourists often get sucked into situations over which they have no control. That said, the Philippines is a spectacularly beautiful place with countless treasures to be discovered away from the regular tourist haunts. It will take numerous visits to separate the wheat from the chaff, as the many of the tourist destinations are distinctly below par. However, those who go with an open mind and a flexible itinerary will be rewarded with one of the most intriguing countries in Asia.