Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Philippines: Corruption at the Bureau.

I've been in the Philippines for three and half months, and next week I’ll be returning to the Bureau of Immigration in Manila where I’ll renew my Tourist Visa once again.

I had an interesting experience the first time I renewed my Visa at the Bureau of Immigration. As I've mentioned in one of my previous posts, the non-governmental organization that monitors political corruption, Transparency International (TI), scored the Philippines at a 2.4, on a scale from 10 (highly clean) to 0 (highly corrupt) in its Corruption Perception Index for 2010. To get an idea of how poor of a ranking this is, the Philippines tied with Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

Tied with Zimbabwe? Now that’s corrupt.

So I shouldn't have been too surprised when the government employee working at the cashier’s desk of the Bureau of Immigration attempted to rip me off, overcharging me for the Visa nearly $30 USD. Luckily I had Sheila call the Bureau prior to our arrival and ask how much the Visa would cost, just in case something like this would happen.

Once the cashier punched the numbers in the calculator and turned it around for me to see, I knew I was being overcharged.

“What the . . . ?” I said to Sheila, raising an eyebrow.

Sheila quickly told the man that she’d called earlier and was told the Visa would cost much less. The man didn't speak a word; he simply reached for the calculator, nonchalantly punched in some new figures and turned it around, displaying a much cheaper price.

He smiled and gave Sheila a wink.

Now you know a country is corrupt when a low-level government employee tries to rip you off. If it’s corrupt at this level, I can’t even begin to imagine how corrupt it gets once you begin to move up the ladder.

It appears that Transparency International’s recent assessment has proven to be undoubtedly accurate - not that I’d ever doubted it.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Philippines: Christmas Caroling For Cash.

After having dinner next door with Sheila’s family I returned to the apartment. My belly was feeling bloated due to an over-consumption of rice, so instead of walking upstairs I plugged in the laptop, sat at the kitchen table and extended my legs onto another chair where I began to relax, allowing my stomach to digest as I read my daily dose of international news.

And then it began. . .

We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

It sounded like children singing. Initially I didn't pay any attention to the singing that I'd heard as this was the Christmas Season - which, in the Philippines, has to be the longest Christmas season in the world as they begin celebrating it in September. Plus, it’s a 24-hour commotion cycle in the neighborhood, from vendors yelling and selling things; to the frequent firecracker explosions; to the ignorant neighbors who allow their children to piss at my front doorstep, etc. And because of this, I've learned how to block out my surroundings.

But the singing continued.

We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Then the knocking at the door began, followed by . . . you guessed it, more singing.

We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Raising an eyebrow, I starred inquisitively at the window. And then it dawned on me. But of course! These were neighborhood Christmas Carolers! Wow.

People still do that?

Anyways, it was sort of bad timing. I mean, I was pretty comfortable. But not wanting to be perceived as a Mr. Grinch or Mr. Scrooge, I got up and opened the door to greet them.

We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

“Okay. Wow. Great job.” I said, smiling.

However, once they finished singing an awkward silence ensued.

“Um. Again, really great job, kids. That was . . . [cough, cough] . . . that was really great.”

Still nothing.

I guess since I've been living in a comfortable apartment for 3 months I forget that I’m still in Southeast Asia. This wasn't the typical Christmas Caroling that I've been accustomed to in the States. Oh, no. This was “Christmas Caroling for Cash.”

But what’s the going rate for tipping Christmas Carolers in the Philippines, I thought?

So I poked my head out the door to see if any of Sheila’s family members were around. And sure enough Sheila’s mother was standing outside watching.

She laughed.

“Just give them a few pesos,” she laughingly told me. So I grabbed a few pesos out from my pocket and handed it to the children. They sang a little “Thank you for giving us some money, we’ll be on our way now” tune, and left.

Oh, Christmas in the Philippines. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Road Trip to Northern Luzon, Part 3: The Bangui Windmills & Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.

Feeling rejuvenated after twelve hours of sleep, Sheila and I were ready to travel back to Manila. But first we had our tricycle driver take us to Ilocos Norte's most prized landmarks: The Bangui Windmills and Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.

I was highly impressed with the sheer size of these massive wind turbines, which stood 23 stories high.

I was also genuinely surprised with how relatively quiet these massive wind turbines operated, as I was certain that I would be able to hear the rotor blades slicing the wind. However, all I could hear - maybe it was due to the sound of the waves crashing ashore - was the soft humming of the enclosed generator.

The windmills, which are referred to as the Northwind Bangui Bay Project, were recently installed in 2005 and are considered to be one of the biggest - if not the biggest - in Southeast Asia.

The windmills are an alternative form of energy, albeit a source of clean energy which produces 40% of the Ilocos Norte's electricity. And before the installation of this wind farm, many of the province's inhabitants didn't have electricity in their homes.

Our next and final stop of our weekend-long road trip in the Ilocos region was to Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.

This was my second time to see one of the Philippines' Spanish colonial-era lighthouses, as I'd just seen the lighthouse on Capones Island off the coast of Pundaquit located in the province of Zambales.

However, unlike the lighthouse on Capones Island, this lighthouse appeared to be in better condition.

It's still fully functional as well, and directs ships entering the Philippine Archipelago towards safety.

Our road trip to northern Luzon was a success, and after a 12 hour bus ride from Laoag we safely arrived in Manila. Phew! What a weekend.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Road Trip to Northern Luzon, Part 2: The City of Pagudpud, Waterfalls, Caves, and Blue Lagoons.

Saud Beach, Pagudpud

After visiting Vigan we hired a tricycle driver to take us to the bus station. At the station we boarded a run-down, barely operable looking bus. And just as we were about to leave, the driver shifted the bus into park and began repairing it. It took the driver about 30 minutes before he finished. However, after about 5 minutes he pulled over again. We waited for another 30 minutes before I nudged Sheila, who had been asleep, and exited the bus. The driver was nowhere to be found.

“What the . . .“ I said in disbelief. I looked up to Sheila who was sitting near the window and told her that I didn't see our driver. To our dismay, a passenger who had just boarded the bus said that our driver was taking a bath.

“He’s doing what?” I said to Sheila, as I was certain that my ears had just deceived me.

“He’s taking a bath,” Sheila responded, gesturing a person taking a bucket bath.

That was the last straw.

I walked straight to the street and hailed the next approaching bus. It pulled over and we hopped inside.

Boom. Done.

I love how you can hail buses anywhere in the country. I wish it was like this in the States so I didn't have to drive. That would be amazing.

Two hours later we arrived in the city of Laoag where we transferred onto another bus to Pagudpud, near the northernmost tip of Luzon. The sun was rising as we were riding along the island’s northern coast which made out for some pretty scenery. I had difficulty staying awake during this stretch as it'd been over 24 hours since I'd slept. However, when I did awake from my brief, periodic slumbers it was to the regions diverse landscape: pretty mountainous scenery, rolling hills, green coastal land, water buffalo, and rice fields which were attended by people in ankle deep water.

About a half hour outside of Pagudpud, our bus driver pulled over and picked up an old woman who was standing along the street, waiving. The brittle old woman looked as if she'd been alive since Moses: she was about 4 feet tall; had zero teeth; dark skin; and deep, thick facial lines which zigzagged across her entire face, undoubtedly the result of exposure to the sun for over 10,000 years. She was full of personality and always smiling and laughing, and her voice sounded like one of the munchkins from the movie The Wizard of Oz. She was so adorable. And when she spoke it wasn't in Tagalog - the Philippines official language - but in Ilocano, the predominant language spoken in this region of the country.

Once we arrived in Pagudpud we immediately hired a tricycle driver for the day. We didn't have a hotel booked as of yet, so we asked our driver to take us to a place within our price range. He took us to Northridge Beach Resort, located along Saud Beach. I would guess the beach was over a mile long, and was lined with pretty palm trees and clear blue water. The view of Saud Beach was definitely well worth the long sojourn to the north.

We requested for our driver to pick us back up in 2 hours, giving us ample time to check-in, eat breakfast, and take a brief nap.

The first stop of our tour around Pagudpud was to Kabigan Falls. To reach the falls we had to pay a small entrance fee and hire a guide. It was compulsory. The people managing the entrance desk said the money would stay within the community. I hope so.

To reach the falls we had to walk about 1.5 miles through pleasant panorama scenery with gorgeous green vegetation. The sun was intense as we walked through the small village. However we were protected by the sun once we entered the jungle and its thick foliage.

Kabigan Falls was amazing. The pictures speak for themselves.

Stop number 2: Patapat Viaduct, one of the northernmost roadways in the Luzon.

Stop number 3: Aquao Paradiso/Grande.

Stop number 5: Timmangtang Rock.

Stop number 6: Bantay Abot Cave.

Stop number 7: Blue Lagoon Beach.

The Blue Lagoon Beach was our final stop before returning to Saud Beach.

Back at the hotel we decided to walk the entire length of the beach. The beach is so long that it's easy to find a section vacant of tourists. I think the round-trip took us nearly two hours, with one brief stop in order to enjoy the sunset.

We worked up quite the appetite walking the entire length of the beach and back. So immediately after our return we enjoyed a delicious dinner, which included pasta and salad.

An eventful day it most certainly was :-)


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Road Trip to Northern Luzon, Part 1: The Historical City of Vigan.

This past weekend Sheila and I traveled to Ilocos, a region located in northwestern Luzon. As I've mentioned before, since Sheila works during the week we typically travel during the weekends. And it's fine, really, because it allows me to see the country at a slower pace. And traveling at a slower pace ultimately leads to spending less money which is ideal for long-term traveling. However, due to the lack of inexpensive flights, we had to travel to the northernmost tip of Luzon without flying. In other words, we had to rush.

After Sheila got off of work, we took a taxi straight to the bus station and boarded the next bus bound for Vigan. Due to the amount of traffic in Manila, however, it took us 1.5 hours to leave the city. Damn you, traffic. Damn you.

We arrived in Vigan at 2am after a 9 hour bus ride. The historical city of Vigan is a Spanish colonial town that was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The main tourist attraction of the city is the preserved colonial street of Calle Crisologo. After exiting the bus Sheila and I walked straight to this famous street, passing a line of horse-drawn carriages. And since we arrived in Vigan in the dead of night we were able to experience the city’s main tourist attraction in relative solitude, with the exception of a few drunken passersby who slowly stumbled their way down the dark, desolate cobblestone street conjuring images of walking zombies as the sound of their shoes skidding the surface of the street echoed off the old colonial buildings.

We lucked out with the weather, too. It couldn't have been any more perfect. The sky was clear and the temperature was cool and refreshing which made out for an enjoyable stroll down one of the country’s most historical sites. Lamps hanging from the old colonial-era buildings casted long shadows of us over the cobblestone street as we quietly took pictures. It was a real treat.

Vigan, however, was just a short stop-over before continuing north to Pagudpud. And after an hour we caught another bus out of the city, hoping to arrive in Pagudpud by 8am.

So much to see, so little time.