How to Travel and Not Fuck About

Standard
anttimasstourism

Tourist No More

I mentioned in a previous post, that I am in Xela for a few weeks to dust off my Spanish. Although the second biggest city of the country that is Guatemala is not on the tourist trail, there is still a fair amount of foreigners, the vast majority of which is studying Spanish at one of the many language schools and/ or is participating in a volunteering project. For a certain traveller Xela has a perfect balance of not being terribly touristy, but having a decent infrastructure to assist western foreigners. There is a decent amount of hipster cafes, that can satisfy one’s preference for coffee with coconut milk, wheat-free treats, smoothies and other hippy-food bollocks. There is a yoga studio housed in a shabby, yet charming colonial building. The building is pretty big, yet the studio itself seems to have been an old living room and with about 20 people or so in class, the place is absolutely packed. They offer yoga mats that are absolutely minging, but the teaching, by an international collection of instructors, who are actually living in the building*, is good and classes are dead cheap, even for Guatemalan standards. Not that I’ve sampled any of it, but the night life in Xela seems pretty decent as well.

When Tourism Becomes Prostitution

Most places that don’t suffer from a tourist and/ or ‘expat’ overload (yet), tend to welcome an influx of a certain type of foreigners, as they bring in mighty dollars, euros or yen and can liven up a place. Malta, the Mediterranean Rock I recently escaped from, has always been very excepting of and welcoming to tourists and foreigners- as long as the latter are westerners; Africans and Arabs seem to get a rather different treatment. Tourists have always brought in decent amounts of money to the country, that has no natural resources and very few other sources of income until very recently, and summers are considerably livelier, than the off-season. However, an increasing amount of (western) foreigners, who are settling on the island, are changing things a fair bit, when it comes to the off-season calm.

There are places that feel rather swamped by tourists and according to an article recently published in the not so-independent British newspaper the Independent, Amsterdam, the capital of my native Netherlands, is one of those places. I didn’t need an article to confirm a sentiment, that I’ve had for a few years; there are too many bloody tourists and foreign residents, who don’t speak a word of Dutch in Amsterdam’s city centre. It’s not unusual at all to step into a coffee shop, restaurant, or bike rental shop in the city centre, where you are not able to use the country’s native tongue, which just really pisses me off.

Amsterdam Before and After the Flood

I used to live in Amsterdam in another century for several years and the city always had quite a lot of tourists all year round. With the exception of a few places, the city centre was very much a place of Dutch-speaking locals and tourists and locals pretty much lived in segregated worlds. You wouldn’t find (a lot of) tourists in the places the locals frequented and vice versa. Times have definitely changed. Not that long ago I walked for 45 minutes or so through the city centre, where my friend Moira and her kid live and I was rather appalled not to hear a word of Dutch and to be addressed in English first, rather than Dutch. I’m sure Amsterdam is a sort of Disney Land to foreigners with all the coffee shops, metropolitan- like entertainment, English and some other language widely spoken everywhere and a general liberal attitude. Yet, the current floods of tourists have been absolutely detrimental to community cohesion in the city and in the city centre in particular.

I remember some 15 years or so ago, Amsterdam started to oversell itself with the slogan I AMsterdam. I had already left the city and the country by then. The marketing campaign clearly paid off in terms of the amount of tourists with an 8-fold increase of foreign visitors in about 10 years. Now the head of Amsterdam Marketing, Frans van der Avert, is quoted in the Independent article. He said that the city has had it with tourists, which is rather peculiar coming from the head of an organisation that is responsible for the massive influx.

The Changing World of Traveller- Tourist Exploration

idyllic beach.jpg

Traveller- Tourist Ideal

There might be an idea amongst, especially older, travellers that all the best parts of the world have been explored and that a traveller- tourist life was much more chilled 20 or 30 years ago. When it comes to places like Amsterdam, Barcelona or Venice- the latter is interesting enough not mentioned in the article- then I am sure they have a point. There are, however, countries one couldn’t go to as a traveller- tourist 20 or 30 years ago. There are still plenty of regions unexplored and the majority of traveller- tourists wait until some sort of tourist infrastructure is in place. On the other hand, places like Libya, Syria or Iraq, which were great countries to travel in 20 years ago, are now pretty much off-limits due to infuriating foreign interference.

It is true that more and more people across the world get the opportunity to travel. Twenty five years ago it was pretty rare to see a Chinese tourist. Now, due to the growth of the Chinese middle classes, tourists from the most populous country in the world are to be found in pretty much every corner of the earthly plane. Sustainable tourism has been a fashionable term for quite a while, but perhaps with the exception of countries like Costa Rica and Namibia, most countries think sort term and quantity over quality. Until it’s too late and both locals as well as tourists get fed up. A population of a place fed up with tourists, is not nice to visitors, which is not particularly enhancing the visitors’ experience.

Xela, like any other place won’t be the same in 20 years’ time. People might get fed up with Antigua’s language’s school scene and/ or Xela might decide to totally sell itself as a more authentic alternative to Antigua; who is to say. We, as traveller- tourists can help the situation by behaving respectfully in the countries we visit. Cities, regions and countries can do their part by not treating themselves as low-life prostitutes. A tourist location, unless it’s a festival town like Montañita, where no one really lives, belongs to the people who live there, rather than the people, who visit and might bring in a decent amount of money, but don’t really respect the place.

Let residents and travel- tourists unite; everyone wants a happy place to live in and travel to.

* on 22 May I was informed by one of the instructors at Xela’s Yoga House that he is the only instructor, who lives in the building. The other rooms are occupied by non-yoga instructing people. I do wish to rectify in case he reads this ;-).

Guatemala; Kindness and State Terror

Standard

QuetzalMy experience with the people of Guatemala, is that they are a very friendly and kind people. Despite Guatemala being located in Central America, I haven’t experienced it as very Latin as such. Many Guatemaltecos love to dance and typical Latin music genres like salsa are by no means unpopular. Yet, it is perhaps the stronger presence of indigenous cultures that gives the country a non- Latin vibe. Around 40 percent of the population are considered indigenous, the vast majority of which are of Mayan descent. This percentage might be even higher, as the majority of the population is a mix of indigenous people and folks of European descendants, but quite a few don’t acknowledge their indigenous heritage. About two percent of Guatemaltecos are of African descent and they are mainly located in the east of the country at the Caribbean coast.

The Issue with Guatemala

Like all Central American countries, Guatemala has suffered greatly under Spanish colonialism as well as, more recently, under American imperialism. The nastiest symptoms of this imperialism are explained with the more conventional term of the Guatemalan civil war as part of the Central American crisis. In the 1960 an awareness of and objection against great inequality started to grow in wider Central America and also in Guatemala. Democratic elections had brought leftist forces in power, but a military coup in 1954 instigated by the US government, brought about a military dictatorship and the military stayed in power until the mid 1990s. While the military was in power social injustice only increased in the form of great income inequality, non-existing labour regulations in favour of workers and a lack of freedom of expression. Any protest was forcefully put down by the government, backed by the United States, who saw the support of military regimes as a necessity for the protection of its huge corporate interests in Guatemala and the wider region. US corporations owned most of the farmable land, yet only used a fraction of it and deprived Guetemaltecos from the right to produce their own food and provide for themselves.

In the Name of State Terror

Both the rural and the urban poor organised themselves and especially the rural poor formed guerrilla groups, who fought the army. From the 1960s and especially in the 1980s the army fought bloody campaigns, not only against guerrilla groups, but mainly against civilians, both rural and urban and of all walks of life, of which the army might have had the slightest (phantom) idea that they were supporting any opposition groups. I object against the term civil war, as the conflict consisted of a fight of the military apparatus against the population. So in that sense it wasn’t a war between people, but an unfair fight between the state apparatus supported by the US government and a very tiny minority forming the Guatemalan elite, against the population. Around 200,000 Guatemaltecos died or disappeared during the decades of state terror, and with these number the term genocide is appropriate.

The official year that the campaign of state terror ended is 1996, when the UN negotiated a peace deal between the government and opposition groups. A truth commission was installed by the UN, that concluded that more than 90 percent of the violence during the campaign of Guatemalan state terror was conducted by the army and CIA-trained para military forces. Since the peace accords the country has known democratic election, economic growth and a successful anti-fraud campaign. The country still suffers great income inequality, with half of the population considered to live below the poverty line and domestic violence against women is widespread.

The Only Way is Up

Attitudes in the country seem to be rapidly changing especially in the cities. This is noticeable in small and bigger things. There are more women with short hair, which only three years ago seemed quite rare. There is a slightly bigger acceptance of gayness, despite still prevailing machismo and although I have been here less than two weeks, I haven’t been asked once whether I’m married and/ or have children. As Guatemala is mountainous and has many towns and villages that are fairly isolated, change might not take place as rapidly across the country. As I am an optimist, I’d like to say, after a tough recent history and a kind and willing population to make their community and country a fab nation; the only way is up.

A very insightful documentary about the conflict in Guatemala is the documentary When the Mountains Tremble, made in 1982 at the height of the campaign of state terror.

Guatemala- Opening of the Dark Fairy Latina Ball

Standard
Antigua

Picture-perfect Antigua Guatemala

After our Filipino adventure, I roamed Europe for a month, residing in my native Lowlands Country, the City of Cities of my heart, London, and the Eternal City, Rome, which was an absolute zoo during Holy Week. After EU-roaming action- while it’s still possible- I boarded another plane to distant, non-European Lands. Just after May Day, when some people celebrate the coming of spring and others celebrate their corporate prisonerhood, or give anarchism a bad name, I made my way to Central America. I flew from Amsterdam to Guatemala City via Panama and headed straight for Antigua Guatemala, which is the old capital of the country and an hour away from the current capital. I arrived in Town at around 10 o’ clock in the evening and the streets of Antigua where absolutely deserted. After checking in at a fancy hostel I hit a top bed in a 4-bed dorm and fell asleep straight away. A beauty sleep after a 20 hour-plus journey during which I didn’t sleep, to set my bio clock to Central American time, was much needed and I woke up the next day well-rested.  I spent a few days in Antigua mainly to acclimatise and hit deadlines, so besides eating at various places and hiding behind my laptop I didn’t do an awful lot.

Antigua roof terrace chill

Antigua Guatemala roof-terrace chill

Antigua and the Yankie dollar/ Gringo Euro

Antigua is a pretty colonial town and one of Guatemala’s main tourist attractions. This is reflected in the prices, which are shockingly similar to prices in Malta. It is rainy season in the country and therefore officially low season. There are nevertheless plenty of tourists and prices are definitely not lower than Maltese prices during off-season. Antigua is not only famed for its colonial architecture, it’s also Spanish-Language-School Central and many a foreigner is in town to learn Spanish. Around the corner of the hostel I stayed at is a hipster café, where they serve caffe latte with soy or almond milk, gluten and sugar-free desserts and plenty of other hipster-friendly food; as if I were I my beloved Brixtonian Hood. One of Central America’s few active volcanoes, Volcán de Pacaya in proper Spanish, is located near Antigua Guatemala and a hike up this rumbling mountain is a popular ‘to-do’ when one is in town.

Beautiful_Xela

A quiet street in Xela

Moving off the Tourist Trail- Quetzeltenango (Xela)

After a few days in Antigua Guatemala I made my way to the country’s second-largest city called Quetzaltenango, or Xela- say Shella- for short. The city is not on the tourist trail and I was the only (obvious) foreigner on the bus, despite the fact the city has a great amount of language schools charging much lower prices than the schools in Antigua. The reason I am in Xela is just that; to perfect my Spanish, as I have plans to settle in Spain and/or in some other Spanish-speaking country in the near future. Compared to second cities in other countries, whether it’s Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Alexandria, Egypt or Medellin, Colombia, Xela is a surprisingly relaxed affair. I would call the city semi-colonial with a few pretty buildings, but Antigua it ain’t. It’s not surprising that Xela is not on the tourist trail, as there is not that much of tourist-interest. However, for a language student and/or someone who wants to get a deeper insight into Guatemalan life it’s an interesting place.

The Spanish school, where I am following classes, is located in a relatively small and pretty building. I am having individual lessons for four and a half hours a day by a lady who is to hit her Big Three O next month and is about to finish her law degree. I expected having one-to-one lessons for four and a half hours a day to be rather intense, but in my first week the mornings have flown by. Classes have been filled with a lot of talking, polishing my rusty grammar and some more talking based on articles I’ve written on topics of my choice. Xela might not be as pretty as Antigua and it doesn’t have that ‘safe cushion’ of a solid tourist infrastructure, but it offers besides much lower prices a more authentic Guatemalan experience.

Cebu: Kawasan Falls Victory (Water World Thingy Part II)

Standard
DCIM100GOPRO

Part of the track at Kawasan Falls

After the mass-tourism experience that was the whale-shark watching and visiting a near-by island, that left us a tat underwhelmed as we, the Magnificent Seven, were so terribly spoilt after our Tao expedition, we were driven to our hotel in Badian. Badian is an hour-and-a-bit drive away on the west side of Cebu island and once we reached our hotel, we chilled for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The next day we had another water activity planned namely, canyoning in the natural water park of Kawasan Falls.

Kawasan Falls Water Adventure

Dressed again in swimming gear and a life vest and this time around also a helmet, we were driven to a spot close by, away from the main road. We walked the remaining bit to the beginning of the water track in the natural park of Kawasan Falls. For a few hours we waded, floated, glided and jumped in and through the water, that runs through a narrow canyon and the whole event turned out to be another highlight of our trip. At several points along the track, you could jump of rocks into the water. As I have a certain fear of depths, I gave most jumps a miss. The first one was from a height of around 5 metres, or 16 feet, from which I did make the jump, but already found quite scary and there was risk of injury, as the natural pool was quite shallow at some places. Rick filmed that particular jump and on screen it didn’t seem that high at all. There were other points where other members of the Magnificent Seven bravely jumped into the water, while I gave it miss and just walked down whenever that was possible. After a few hours of wading and floating and an opportunity to sling like Tarzan over the water, we came to the end and the piece de la resistance of the track, which was a jump into a large pool with clear water from a height of 10 metres or 32 feet. It looked terribly scary and I didn’t see an alternative path to take me down. It helped that I was the first in line of our group and our guide told a ‘white lie’, that there was no other way down. So I jumped, which I consider a small victory. After the jump and a swim across the pool, we reached a seating and eating area, which was absolutely packed with people. As it was a Sunday many families treated themselves to a pleasant day out at the beautiful and cooling Kawasan Falls. After lunch we walked back to the car through the park, which was another 20 minutes, but no wading in water was needed and we could stick to unpaved paths. In the Philippines food is never far away and when we walked back to the van, several members of the Magnificent Seven were tempted by all sorts of treats vendors had on offer along the track, despite just having had lunch.  Once we reached the car, we got rid of our protective gear and made a short drive to the hotel, where we had 30 minutes to get our stuff and check-out, so we could be driven back to Cebu City.

Back in Cebu City

The van took about four hours to get back to the apartment complex, where we spent a few hours before we went on our whale-shark watching trip, as there was a fair amount of traffic on the road. As we were stuck in traffic near Carcar City, Louis took the opportunity to buy Buko pie, that was being sold at the side of the road. Buko pie is a traditional Filipino sweet dish filled with young coconut, that is consumed across the country. It would be the last night with the complete Magnificent Seven, as we split up the next day.

The following morning Lara, boyfriend Jason and paternal cousin Melody left in the morning to have another adventure on another island. Cherry left for her own adventurous action, although we did catch her at the airport. Rick, Louis and I also returned to airport in the afternoon to catch a plane- again with the budget carrier Cebu Pacific – back to Manilla, which was our last port of call before returning to Europe via Doha.

Buko pie

Buko Pie

 

Captured by the Mall

We spent a couple of days in Manilla, where the boys mainly went shopping at the very nearby Robinson Mall and I mostly worked as I finally could make use of a solid and reliable wifi- connection. I have therefor not seen much of Manilla, except the mall and the road from the airport to the hotel. The city doesn’t seem particularly pretty, but it is very lively and an event seems to occur on every street corner. The mall, which is massive to my Lowlands- Country standards, is an attraction for Filipinos of all ages and income brackets. Kids play truant to hang in the mall, as that is considered far more interesting, than being stuck in a class room. The place offers relief on very hot days as it’s fully air-conditioned. The affluent can shop western brands, that are far more expensive than in their native countries and the less affluent can window-shop. The mall also has a large food court, which is accessible to everyone as food is inexpensive.

On the third day, the time had come to return to Europe. We left for the airport on a heavily air-conditioned bus and spent too much time at a very uninspiring terminal of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. At around midnight we boarded a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, where we were to arrive in the early morning for another long stopover.

top image by Koen F Smit- Amor
Buko pie image courtesy of burble.com

 

Cebu: Enlarging One’s Water World Part I

Standard
DCIM100GOPRO

Cebu’s Sea Circus; Whale-shark Watching

After the five-day Tao expedition during which we enjoyed beautiful sceneries, great food and lovely people, we arrived at the port of El Nido. We seemed to be quite a spectacle, as crew of near-by ships were watching us disembark, as if we were the latest instalment of the James Bond franchise. After having just been with Tao passengers and crew for a few days, being in El Nido was another contrasting experience, as the place is touristy as hell. The Magnificent Seven spent one night in El Nido to leave the next morning to Puerto Princesa to take yet another plane with destination Cebu. From El Nido to Puerto Princesa is a three and a half hour drive. I had already experienced Filipino-style driving, which involves overtaking in bends or just before a hill and tailgating, which surely makes driving exciting, but not necessarily safe. In Puerto Princesa we had lunch in a very atmospheric restaurant, where shoes are not allowed, so make sure you don’t have smelly feet or holes in your socks when you go. After lunch we boarded a plane to Cebu City, as on Cebu island we had a whale-shark watching and canyoning trip planned.

The Cebu Circus

One of the girls had booked a lovely house in an apartment complex in Cebu City, which would be our base for two days in total. It was quite a challenge to reach that base. After arriving at Cebu City airport a massive queue for the taxis awaited us and after four of us finally managed to get into a taxi, the driver was being difficult by refusing to switch on the metre and demanding extra money, despite it being an official airport taxi. After we forced him to pull over we found another taxi to take us to the apartment complex. The driver said he knew where it was and with the help of google maps, we thought we would have found the place in no time. We were wrong, however and the others, who had taken another taxi, seemed to have the same problem. After a lot have hassle and a lot of time passed one of the members of staff of the apartment complex picked us up at some central point- the 7-Eleven, an American chain of convenience stores and a popular meeting point for Filipinos- and arranged a van to take us to the place. We were only to spend a few hours there, as we were picked up the next morning at 3 o’clock to be taken to Oslob, near the southern tip of Cebu island, where we were to swim with whale sharks. I am not a big fan of animal tourism, but the trip was booked and I didn’t want to be a ‘bah-humbug’. I also secretly didn’t want to miss out on the experience of being in the water with large sea animals. We arrived at the whale-shark-watching beach at sunrise and the whole event was- obviously- a total sea zoo. Dressed in swimming gear and life vests we boarded boats and were sailed no more than 200 metres from the shore. As we were lying in the water with what felt like hundreds of people, the whale sharks were lured with bait, so we could witness them from very close by. Those poor animals probably don’t know how to feed themselves anymore and would feel ill at ease when they don’t spend  the entire morning with hundreds of people. But then, I’ve been in the water with large sea creatures, which I found, despite the zoo-like situation, quite a special experience and the local community could claim their tourist pesos for the day.

Too Many Selfies on the Reef

After the sea zoo, we had breakfast and after that we were taking to a nearby island, which was also some sort of tourist attraction. Yes, the water was very clear and light blue and I’m sure the reefs were beautiful, but after the Tao expedition, it was a very underwhelming experience. The island had a very tiny beach with little to no shade and it was packed with people, many being terribly busy taking selfies. The most underwhelming thing of all is that all we had to our disposal was that tiny, shadeless beach and the dozens of people, as the rest of the island was off-limits. After an hour and a bit or so, after someone might have said something, our kind guide led us through the water around a few rocks to another tiny beach. But at least this beach was in the shade and besides us there was no one there, giving us a mini-Tao experience after all.

DCIM100GOPRO

View on The Magnificent Seven

Imagery: Koen F Smit- Amor

Tao Experience; Be Human; Travel

Standard

TaoHutsAfter a few days of Bukdinon Chill, we returned to Davao, the capital of the southern island of Mindanao, to catch a plane to Coron via Manilla. Coron is an island situated in the north of the province of Palawan, which is an island group in the south west of the Filipino archipelago. We made all our internal flights with the budget airline of the region Cebu Pacific. The flight attendants of this airline definitely look better than their counterparts of budget carriers in Europe, yet delays with Cebu Pacific seem very common. On every flight they also play a simple game, with which you can win prizes in the form of free merchandise, truly giving you a ‘I- am-on-a-bus-journey-to-Spain’ feel.

Some More Island Travel

Coron has the tiniest of airports I’ve ever landed at and, like with all Cebu flights, one’s luggage arrives super quick, something their European counter parts can take a example from. Coron is another beautiful island with a slightly different landscape, of which the capital with the same name is a rather touristy affair and a sharp contrast with Bukidnon and wider Mindanao.

Embarking on an Expedition

From Coron Town we were to depart on what ended up being one of the highlights of our trip; the five-day boat trip that is the Tao Expedition. Tao means man, human or humanity in one of the Filipino languages and is the name of a business organisation set up by two Australians. These Aussies had the wish to connect travellers and tourists with the local communities of Palawan without turning the experience into a zoo. We sailed for five days along the islands of Palawan from Coron to El Nido, 200 km to the south. Our boat was a traditional vessel predominately made from bamboo and wood, that accommodated our large group of 22 Tao explores. The boat had no sail, as, funnily enough, sail boats don’t seem very common in the region. In Coron Rick, Louis and I were joined by friends and family members to form the Magnificent Seven. These Magnificent Seven consisted of Lara, a Dutch-Filipina friend of Louis and Rick and her boyfriend Jason, who is half Dutch and half Filipino. They both also live in Amsterdam; Melody, who is Lara’s cousin from her father’s side and Filipina- American living in the US; Cherry, Lara’s cousin on her mother’s side, who lives in Singapore and then Louis, Rick and I. The boat crew consisted of men from the region, who had all followed a special course to become a Tao crew member. For them it was a special experience to have so many Filipinos on board, as that doesn’t tend to happen very often. The trip is relatively expensive and one is deprived of luxuries like aircon or even a fan and hot or even running water, something most Filipinos wouldn’t go for. We slept in simple bamboo huts on idyllic islands along the route and washing was done with rain water scooped up from a large barrel. Toilets were bowls without the seats, which were flushed with water also scooped up from a large barrel. Day times were mainly filled with sailing, snorkelling, exploring islands, social interaction and eating. Evening time entertainment consisted of some more eating, socialising and taking massages. At a few of the camps there were masseuses available, who would give you an absolutely fabulous massage for a whole hour for a fraction of the price you would pay in Europe and one’s first massage was even complementary. The food served during our expedition was absolutely amazing and all freshly made from scratch, including a pig they bought to have lechon on the last evening. Tao could easily be marketed as a foodie camping/ boat trip.

TaoShip

Lower deck of our Tao Vessel

Kombuis

Where the Tao Food-Magic happened

What is Humanity

After having spent four nights on different islands and having been on the water for five days, during which we’ve seen fantastic sceneries- both above and under water- got to meet new people, had several fabulous massages, absolutely fantastic food and I managed to read a 600-plus-page book, we arrived in the port of El Nido. What I enjoyed most about the trip was the experience of being on water and the relaxed feel that gives. In five days I barely checked the time and as there was no wifi, no one could get lost in their small-screen world. We also got a beautiful insight in how some of the islanders live, without having the idea we were on excursion trying to discover some special human species.  What I did find a challenge was being part of such a large group, as I’m not terribly good at following the herd. I think I managed it very well, which is very much thanks to the Magnificent Seven, who totally let me do my own thing if they wanted to do something else. The rest of the group was lovely, considerably younger and mainly focused on other stuff than whatever some solo-minded Dark Fairy is up to.

I would do the Tao expedition again, if only for the food and I would travel in the other direction; from El Nido to Coron. The organisation has a couple of dozen base camps on the route, so chances are high one would sleep in different base camps if one were to do the trip again. If I were to do the trip again, I’d like to be part of a smaller group that has a wider mix of ages, but I guess, one has no control over that. Unless one books a private tour, which is obviously and option.

For some Tao is a life-changing experience depending on which paradigm they have been living in. If you ask me what I have learnt about humanity on this trip, is that humans are open and kind and want to experience; whether it is new sceneries, meeting new people or enjoying great food.

imagery by Koen F Smit- Amor

Island Travel Filipino style; Bukidnon Chill

Standard
IMG_8132

Down the Garden Path; at Louis’ family home in Bukidnon

Stay Playful; Travel

The first stop of my Philippine-trip with my fabulous friends Rick and Louis after Manilla, was the island of Mindanao in the south of the archipelago, where Louis grew up and where his family lives.

Insight into Bukidnon Living

After having landed in Davao, the capital of Mindanao, we were picked up by Louis’ father and his best friend, who would drive us to Bukidnon, the region where Louis spent his childhood and where his family still lives, in the centre of the island. It was a good 3-hour drive to the town of Pangantucan, where the family lives in a small house surrounded by a large garden. Besides beautiful plants and flowers, the garden is home to a fair amount of cocks, hens and pigs. Being in idyllic mountainous surroundings, the cocks made a fair amount of noise especially in the middle of the night and at sunrise. Besides chilling at the family house and going to town, we also went to the family house of Louis’ ‘gay mother’, who, like Rick and Louis, lives in Amsterdam with his Dutch husband. Louis ‘gay mother’, Godwin, is also from Bukidnon and had been in the region for several weeks to deal with family matters after a death in the family. His family house is located an hour away in the town of Don Carlos. Louis is from a humble family with modest means. Godwin’s family, however, have done rather well for themselves in business and their family house is located in a large compound, which includes servants’ accommodations. Louis, Rick and I were very warmly welcomed by Godwin, a few members of his large family and staff, who have been working for the family for many years and are treated like own flesh and blood. Godwin showed us around the compound and around the town, that is to get its own airport in a few years, which is expected to give the area a huge boost. We were also invited to the birthday party of one of Godwin’s older brothers. Rick and especially I drew a lot of attention and we were treated like the guests of honour.

Lechon, Spaghetti and Karaoke

Like in many Asian cultures, life very much revolves around food and Filipino culture is no different in that aspect. At the party there was a large buffet, that included a lechon, which is a whole pig on a spit, traditionally served on festive occasions. The family cook, a lovely lady, took the effort to show me around the buffet and explain every dish to me, assuming I wouldn’t be familiar with the typically Filipino dishes. Spaghetti with tomato sauce is considered a typical birthday dish in the Philippines and has to be included in a birthday buffet. Unlike in Europe, in the Philippines it doesn’t seem the custom to bring presents to a birthday party. You just wear your nicest frock, socialise and eat a lot of food. Like food, karaoke is also terribly popular and a party is not complete without it. Filipinos LOVE taking pictures and as Dark Fairies are a very rare species in the region, I received a lot of picture-taking requests, making me feel like some sort of celebrity. After a lot food, talk and picture taking, I hit the karaoke machine, as singing is good for the soul.

After the party we spent the night at Godwin’s family house and were further entertained the next day until the later afternoon, after which Godwin was so kind to drive us back to Pangantucan, Louis’ town.

Despite the negative travel advice and a significant amount of stares, I had a lovely time in Bukidnon, Mindanao and it’s probably one of the most authentic, ‘off-the-beaten-track’ travel experiences I had so far.

image by Koen F Smit- Amor