A Bit of Chaos in Calbayog
The road from Viriato to Calbayog was just as beautiful as that from Allen to Viriato had been. There were some long and hard climbs, but I barely noticed them I was so wrapped up in just taking in the beautiful views – especially of the wide rivers with all the boats. The ride was particularly pleasant because there were no buses or heavy trucks. Three of the bridges on this stretch were being rebuilt and all the heavy vehicles were rerouted down a different road. Light vehicles – and, heavy as my bicycle was to pedal, it still counted as a light vehicle – were allowed.
I passed delightful barangay after delightful barangay. Each one could have been a wonderful place to spend a day and a night. But at that rate, I’d never have gotten anywhere and I contented myself with taking a picture here and there and cycling along.
I stopped at a nice eatery at around eleven thirty and had a good breakfast of rice and pork steak and a type of green vegetable – like a green bean. Not surprisingly, the people who owned the eatery had a relative living in Canada. It goes like this pretty much every time: “Where are you from?” “Canada.” “Oh, I have a ________ in Canada.” Fill in the blank with anything you like – aunt, uncle, sister, brother, cousin, sister-in-law, etc. I never quite know what to say after they tell me about this relative in Canada. I’ve learned that asking a follow-up question rarely works. They generally don’t even know what city this relative lives in or what they do or any of their life experiences there. Saying they have a relative in Canada is about as far as that conversation ever goes. In this case, they had a type of proof – a collection of school erasers with the Canadian flag on them for sale – sent, I assume, by this mysterious relative living somewhere in Canada.
Calbayog was a bit of a shock when I finally cycled into it – as noisy and crazy and chaotic and hot as every other Filipino city I’d encountered. I was worried at first that it was going to be another Matnog and keep its charms hidden. I even considered just cycling right through it and past it and looking for a place to stay in the countryside. But I thought I would give it a chance and I rode my bike down by the waterfront. There were lots of interesting large bangkas there, and I considered that it would be fun to take a stroll there and take pictures when the sun got lower and the heat took it down a notch or two.
Then as I rode around looking for a reasonable lodging house or hotel, I stumbled across small lane with a couple of coffee shops. One of them in particular, Isla Coffee, caught my eye, and I pulled my bike over and went inside. It was such a relief to step out of that hot sun and into a nicely air-conditioned interior. Isla Coffee was clearly an upscale place. They had nice seating and an enticing display of baked goods – cake and cookies and pies. There was a wonderful menu on the wall indicating that they could make such delights as mango/banana shakes and even a cappuccino. I ordered a mango/banana shake instantly and when it came, it was practically a religious experience. I found myself wishing the straw was attached to a fifty-gallon drum of mango-banana shake and I could just sit there for days and drink and drink and drink. I never wanted that sensation to end – the icy cold delicousness on my tongue and going down my throat.
Coming so soon after my days and nights of relative deprivation in Bulusan, Matnog, and Viriato, the riches of Isla Coffee were a bit overwhelming. It certainly gave food for thought as I considered the difference between the two worlds in the Philippines. I also considered how quickly the lack or presence of consumer luxuries can affect me. I drank my mango-banana shake and later consumed a cappuccino and chocolate cake and another mango-banana shake like a prisoner who had just been let out of a fifty-year sentence on Devil’s Island. I’d only been out there in the simpler world of the barangays for a short time, but I was practically drunk on the possibilities of good food and drink in Calbayog. It seemed that Calbayog had a lot of charm to offer, and it was worth at least a night and a day and another night to enjoy it.
After my first shake, I rode my bike around looking for a place to stay. On that quest, I didn’t have quite as much luck. I knew there were lots of places out there, but I just didn’t manage to stumble across them. I got directions from some people, but nothing came of them. I couldn’t find the places they were talking about. The only places I found were both right in the downtown area. One was a nice-looking new place with rooftop gardens and that sort of thing. The other was called Imelda’s Lodge and was much more basic. Both, unfortunately, did not have street-level access, and staying at either one would involve going up and down lots of steps through narrow staircases.
I knew the garden place would be expensive, and I saw no way to safeguard my bike when I went up to check it out, so I skipped it and ended up at Imelda’s Lodge. I was sure there were better places out there, but Imelda’s was acceptable and it was close to Isla Coffee and the waterfront. I took a single room with a shared bath for 300 pesos. Then I carried up all my bags and my bike. It was a struggle, but I got it done.
What sold me on Imelda’s Lodge was the woman who I assumed was Imelda herself. She was a friendly, sharp and outgoing woman who made me feel right at home and knew exactly what I was talking about. I mentioned before that I often feel like I haven’t actually engaged the attention of Filipinos when I talk to them. It never feels like a conversation so much as a one-sided script on their part. Imelda was different in that respect. She heard everything I said and responded to it exactly. It was just, well, normal, and it was a relief to have a normal conversation like that. I told her that I had a bicycle with lots of luggage, and she got it instantly that it would be difficult to carry it up the stairs and store it. She gave me a room that she felt would have the most room inside it for a bicycle. She responded to othe things I said in the same way and it was nice to feel that I had an ally. She helped me locate a little shoe repair shop, where I had my sandals repaired. The bottoms of my Teva’s had come completely loose and were flopping around. It was probably time to replace them, but I thought with a quick repair, I could get another a month or two out of them.
After a couple of trips around the block, I spotted the shoe repair place. I didn’t see it at first because I was looking up at all the storefronts and their signs. This was not a store so much as a small wooden box with a bench. It said “Shoe Repair” on the front of the box. An older man sat behind the box on the bench. He indicated that he would have to glue the soles back onto the sandals and then sew them up around the edges completely. That was exactly what I was hoping for, and he said he could do it that day for 100 pesos, and we struck a deal.
I had also hoped to get some laundry done. I’d been in the Philippines for nearly 2 months and I hadn’t done laundry even once – at least not in the normal sense. All I’d done was hand wash a couple of items in buckets a couple of times. From that point of view, the high-tech clothing I purchased in Taiwan had been a success. It never struck me as comfortable and it got wet with sweat very fast, but it also dried out quickly. I could rinse it and then hang it and it would dry in a very short time. And it never got that stinky. However, my sleeping sheet is cotton, and it had gotten a bit stinky. I thought it would be nice to have a few items plus that sheet actually laundered. Unfortunately, the laundry place I found was very busy and would need several days to do it.
A lot of these types of errands had gotten me thinking about what it’s like for a foreigner to be traveling around a country like the Philipppines. In particular, I wondered if it made any sense and whether we got any kind of a true sense of what life was like here. Much of my time was spent in trying to do the little things like this – the errands. And as a foreigner, I run into all kinds of problems. It takes a huge effort. The problem, though, is that I’m trying to do these things on my own. Whenever I have an effective local helper, the problems pretty much vanish and things just get done. The locals know the ins and outs of life in their own country – at least some of the time. I might form a very negative impression of a place – like Matnog – because of all the frustration of just trying to do simple things. But with the assistance of a local person, it all becomes simple and easy.
So my question is what is the reality? A foreigner could travel through the Philippines on his own and come away with the impression that it is a horrible, frustrating, inefficient, and crazy place – a place where he can never get anything done and where he ends up wandering around finding nothing but problems everywhere. But a similar foreigner, hooking up with local people, could find it a delightful place where things get done simply and easily.
After I settled into my room at Imelda’s Lodge, I went out on foot to look around. After carrying my bicycle up those narrow stairs, I wasn’t in the mood to carry it down so soon. I brought my camera with me and I walked to the wharf area. My plan was to take pictures of the boats, but it didn’t work out. The sun was in exactlly the wrong position, and I would be shooting directly into that powerful yellow orb the entire time. It washed out all the pictures and I gave up. I took one or two pictures of groups of people on the boats who shouted out “One shot! One shot!”, but that was all. I don’t think much else happened that afternoon and evening. I returned to Isla Coffee for a really nice dinner and then I retired to Imelda’s to read and had an early night.
I’ve been positive about Imelda’s so far, but there were in fact a few problems with the place. For one, there was a huge restaurant with a videoke set-up directly below it. And this being a Saturday night, I knew I would be subjected to karaoke until the small hours of the morning. I crossed my fingers and hoped it wouldn’t be too loud and that with earplugs, I could suffer through it. My room turned out to be just far enough away that the sound was muffled. I was aware of it all night long, but it didn’t drive me totally insane as it normally would.
The other problem was that my room had a set of huge windows without screens that overlooked a very busy intersection. That meant I could choose between closing the windows to keep out the roar of the traffic and therefore sweating to death in my hot room or opening the windows to keep the room cool but then suffering the traffic noise and possibly an onslaught of mosquitoes. With thoughts of dengue fever and malaria in my mind, I opted to keep the windows closed and suffer the heat. The room had a fan, and I turned it to high and aimed it right at my body and blasted myself to try to stay cool.
The next day was Sunday, and I had plans to hit the local Jollibee as early as possible to have my morning coffee and some time to relax. Jollibee is definitely not an ideal place. It is bizarrely expensive for what it offers, but as I pointed out before, it is the only game in town if you want to sit in some comfort and have a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. I like to wake up early and nothing else is open at that time.
I had been told by the staff that they opened at 6 a.m. and I went there at that time to find it still closed. It actually opened at 6:30 I found out later. I waited until then, and to my displeasure found that lots of other people were doing the same. The Jolllibee was packed the entire time I was there. It was crazy busy with lots of screaming and yelling children. It was not the relaxing morning experience I wanted. Also, because it was so busy, I felt guilty about occupying a booth for so long and I never managed to relax. I like the booths because their plastic chairs at their regular tables are far too flimsy. It’s a small thing, I know, and a petty thing to complain about, but I find that these small and petty things add up over the course of a day. The backs of these plastic chairs are so flimsy that I can’t lean back and use them as support. The whole back of the chair bends away really hurts my back. Plus, the tables are never steady. There’s nothing more annoying than to sit at your table with your coffee and then the table tilts and your coffee splashes all over the place. Okay, this event isn’t the same type of awful thing as coming down with dengue fever, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
I suppose it says something about my petty mind that I think about these things so much – my rants about the lack of hooks in bathrooms, for example. In fact, someone like me really shouldn’t go traveling anywhere. There is simply far too much in this part of the world that has the potential to drive me absolutely insane. Another example from Jollibee:
It was really busy yesterday, but instead of opening several cash registers, the staff at Jollibee opened only one. I have no idea why. This created a huge long line-up that went right out the door. There was enough staff to open another register, but they just didn’t bother. Instead, they sent people out with little pads of ordering forms. These people took our order while we were standing in line. Then we could hand over this order form when we got to the front of the line.
This is a good idea in theory. In practice, I found it a bit of a problem. The main problem was that way back in that lineup, people (ie, me) could not read the menu on the wall behind the counter. So the guy was asking me what I wanted to order, but I was so far away from the menu that I couldn’t read it. I had to leave the lineup and walk to the counter so that I could see what I wanted and then tell the guy. He ticked off the items I wanted on his form and then signed it and gave it to me. However, like most people, by the time I got to the front of the line, I had changed my mind about my order. I decided to have a cup of coffee as well. But now the order form had to be altered and that required initials from someone to make it official. It was crazy complicated and inefficient.
And like all these fast food restaurants, their menu has gotten extremely complicated. You need an advanced degree in physics and 3-dimensional mathematics in order to figure out their various “combos”. I just want to order what I want to order without worrying about their deals and systems and combinations. I finally chose an item – a combo – and then the guy asked me about the soup. I guess some kind of mushroom soup was part of that order. Did I want the mushroom soup? I looked at him, a bit puzzled, and I said, “Sure. If it’s part of the meal, then I’ll have the mushroom soup.” The guy looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, sir. We don’t have mushroom soup today.” I laughed and said to him, “Well, if you don’t have any mushroom soup, why in the world did you ask me if I wanted it?” He just smiled and ignored me. He was reading from his internal script and there was no room for any of this sort of logical nonsense.
This is a pattern I’ve noticed all over the place in my time in the Philippines. I’m constantly tripped up by it. Restaurants will have menus. So I naturally go into the restaurant and look at their menu and select an item. Then I’m told that they don’t have that item. So I pick something else, and I’m told that they don’t have that either. So eventually, I have to ask them to tell me what they DO have, and we can go from there. I realized that it was much more efficient to simply ask them what they have first. But if I do that, it causes all sorts of problems. There is panic and confusion and chaos. I have no choice but to first ask for two or three items on the menu, be told that they are unavailable, and then they will tell me what is actually available. To go directly to that logical place simply doesn’t work.
Very little happened on Sunday. I spent a good chunk of time at Jollibee in the morning writing in my journal. I had my sandals repaired. I purchased another bottle of anti-itch cream from a pharmacy. I’d already gone through the first bottle I’d purchased. I returned to Isla Coffee for a wonderful cappuccino. They told me that they opened at 11 and I was there at exactly 11. Their main coffee-maker wasn’t there yet, and they said I had to wait for a while. That was fine with me, and they even gave me a glass of cold water and two delicious cookies for free while I waited.
While I was there, another foreigner came in. I spoke to him later when I left. He was sitting outside by then and having a cigarette. I’d actually seen a number of Western men in and around the Jollibee. I was a bit annoyed with these men because they were all hugely fat. I feel like I get judged in the same group as the other Western men in the Philippines, and I often wish they would present themselves better. I get annoyed when I see these massive, fat men wandering around.
This guy at Isla Coffee was, at least, slim. He was dressed in a pair of shorts and a grey t-shirt – typical attire for the Philippines. He was a very friendly guy and we chatted for a while. He was an American, retired and living on a medical pension. It was clear that his pension was not enough for him to survive in the United States, and he had relocated to the Philippines. He had been in the Philippines for seven years and was married to a Filipina. He owned some land in southern Leyte, but he was currently living in a rented place a few kilometers outside of Calbayog.
I enjoyed talking with him, and I got a kick out of how quickly we fell into sharing the same points of view. We were talking about the oddities of conversing with Filipinos, and he asked me if I had been “interrogated” yet today. That’s the same word I use all the time, and he used it, too, in exactly the same way.
I admit that talking to him was a bit off-putting as well. He had been here for a long time and he had developed that fairly standard set of negative attitudes that always seem to develop when a Westerner lives overseas. It is simply too easy to fall into the habit of just complaining about the local culture and all the inefficient and crazy things that happen. This man had actually seen me on my bicycle when I was cycling along the road to Calbayog. His reaction was that I was either very brave or crazy. As he put it, “The Filipinos have a smile for every occasion. They’ll even smile as they slide a knife into you.” He felt it was very risky and dangerous to do what I was doing, especially on an island like Samar.