By WILLIAM SHANNON
Down the rutted dirt road, toward the rice fields, past the trotting pack of dogs and past the Nipa hut in the morning haze were the roosters being raised for cock fights.
Hundreds of little wooden shelters, numbered sandwich-boards, kept each rooster under cover and shackled by the ankle.
Michelle, a friend of my girlfriend, spoke in the Ilonggo dialect to one of the young men who guard the birds for a living. Seconds later, we walked inside the hillside compound, taking closer looks at the huts where the guards stay and at the birds whose fates involve knives affixed to their bodies while they face a similar competitor in front of crowds of gamblers.
Soon Michelle's father, Indo, who used to harvest some of the rice plots in the larger field, led us along the elevated packed-mud walkways between the watery plots.
Indo then showed us the Nipa hut he built. The huts are a signature feature of rural Filipino culture. This hut, constructed almost entirely of bamboo, overlooks a sloping agricultural landscape, with the island's largest airport in the distance. People from the village still sometimes gather at the spot to watch the few planes that land or depart on any given day from the airport, which was built in 2007.
We strolled back up to the main road of the barangay (or village) Gaub, in the town of Cabatuan, about a forty-five minute drive from one of the Philippines’ largest cities, Iloilo—pronounced Ee-loe Ee-loe.
The main road was being paved with concrete, small section by small section, and is almost completed after more than a year of work. This is a major improvement in a barangay that’s accustomed to pocked dirt and gravel on their well-traveled main road. Residents are hoping it helps keep the dust down in the houses, which, during dry season, can require many daily rounds of sweeping to keep up with.
Other common domestic hurdles in Gaub include removing garbage from houses before tiny ants in exponential succession can swarm anything organic (unless you’re welcoming in the friendly little green lizards which feed on the ants); spotty access to internet; and, in many, maybe most homes, no centralized running water. But even in homes with running-water showers, you’ll often find the familiar large garbage-can-sized buckets containing water and the small ladle-like bucket for bathing in the manner—which I heard from multiple people who grew up in Gaub—many people still prefer.
In rural parts of the Philippines, motorcycles seem much more common than cars. But most people in Gaub get around by paying a small fee to hop aboard what’s called there a tricycle—a motorcycle mounted with a one-wheeled side car which can usually seat one or two people in the front and one or two people in the back. But when those spots are filled, people without hesitation board the other possible spots to hitch a ride. Side-saddle on the back of the motorcycle. And perching on the outside front of the side-car, standing in the wind and holding tight up top, among others. Including the driver, it’s not uncommon to see ten people making their way to work or school on one tricycle, with all holding tighter when the vehicle slows to maneuver down one of the concrete slabs into the muddy squares of road awaiting pavement.
On one afternoon tricycle ride, I sat alone in the back while my girlfriend Rena’s youngest brother, Renan, drove a stretch of road I hadn’t seen yet. School kids stopped and looked back at me, waving and smiling; others stopping and watching until we rounded a distant bend—similar to the attention I’d received the day prior at an Iloilo mall. Renan, smiling, said I was getting the treatment of an endangered species or a celebrity.
The tricycles take people a relatively short distance, and commuters who must go farther, say to the city of Iloilo, must then board a Jeepney. These have become another emblem of the Philippines. The elongated Jeeps, which originally were surplus military vehicles following World War II, can seat two dozen or more people in two long bench-seats facing each other. The Jeepney drivers often race each other to the next stop to pick up more passengers and the open-air windows make fifty-miles-an-hour feel like a hundred. When it starts to rain, heavy plastic is rolled down in haste at the next stop, turning the crowded vehicle into an oven and making it easy to romanticize the open windows’ dusty and constant blast of air which, naturally, was taken for granted when you had it.
The Jeepneys are private commercial enterprises in densely populated areas. Each owner or driver decorates their Jeep in bright colors or other bold themes. In cases where there is no second worker collecting fares, the driver manages to calculate fares for passengers, collect and pass back change, all while weaving in and out of traffic and honking at wandering stray dogs, with different bills organized between their tightly-gripped right-hand fingers.
Facing forward, the driver puts the upturned palm of his right hand toward the crowd of travelers when he hears passengers, passing a fare which translates to about thirty cents for a half-hour ride, say “bayad,” or “Ako mabayad,” Ilonggo for “payment,” or “I will pay.”
The Philippines is a land of many languages. There are more than 7,000 islands in the nation, about two thousand of which are inhabited. Most of the islands are not connected by bridges, making regional cultures quite pronounced. If a Filipino from one island goes to another, they may only understand half of what a Filipino there says, due to differing dialects. Almost all Filipinos also speak English, since it’s taught heavily in schools from an early age. And almost all Filipinos can also speak Tagalog, the national language. So Filipinos in an area of the country other than their home area must be quick to calculate which language is best to speak.
On one Jeepney trip to Iloilo, we encountered and were stopped briefly by a parade with dressed-up children riding in the backs of slow-moving trucks and little girls dressed as princesses, holding umbrellas and strolling in the road. The parade was part of Buwan ng Wika, an August celebration of Tagalog as the national language. Many believe the language is fading away—an occurrence that has happened throughout the world countless times in history.
For most of our trip, Rena and I stayed at a house her aunt, who lives abroad in the U.K., had built, which is a stone’s throw from the cinder-block house where Rena grew up, and where her parents (her father is retired from the Philippine Army and her mother teaches second-graders), her sister and her three brothers live.
Before we made it to Gaub, word had traveled that I loved ube—the purple root crop that is sweetened in the Philippines for cakes, ice cream and other treats and which has a unique taste, maybe in the ballpark of pistachio but with its own, more pronounced and lasting taste. So we were greeted with an ube cake.
During our days in Gaub, visitors dropped by beginning early in the mornings—Rena’s aunts and uncles, cousins and former schoolmates, co-workers of parents and former teachers. Rena and her sister, Annie, showed me how to cook meals on a little charcoal grill. Her father and youngest brother harvested coconuts from a nearby tree and we ate fresh mangoes, fish and local rice at almost every meal. Her father slaughtered one of his chickens for Chicken Adobo, a signature Filipino meal. Rena and her father enlisted Renan, who graduated this year from a technology college and is preparing to work in the shipping industry, for various errands—quick shopping trips, tricycle rides from the Jeepney stop, picking up mobile data refill cards, and snaking a long hose from a neighboring property’s well, through the back door of the house to fill up our drum of bathing water each day or two.
My contribution was to keep the house well-stocked with bottles of San Miguel beer from the nearby bamboo convenience store. Rena’s father and I bonded best when there were a few empty San Miguel bottles standing around.
Rena and I, along with Renan, Annie, two of their cousins and two of Rena’s closest friends, took a weekend trip about six hours away to a paradisiacal place called Boracay Island. We roamed the D’Talipapa market, a large outdoor area with a fish market and hundreds of little bamboo stalls selling a variety of goods—an area which was decimated by an early-morning fire three weeks later.
During the three-day trip to Boracay Island, we floated in the ocean past sunset, paddle-boarded, parasailed, jet-skied, were caught in a monsoon-like downpour, and roamed the beach and its night-life, rife with bands and fire-dancers.
When the Philippines makes headlines in the U.S., it’s usually either for its ISIS-linked muslim rebels in the southern part of the country—who in May captured and still control the city of Marawi—or the drug war currently championed by the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. The president, known for encouraging killings of alleged drug dealers, seems popular there, though quite a few Filipinos mentioned reservations about his tactics. And Duterte left a bad taste in the mouths of many Ilonggos when he labelled Iloilo province the “most shabulized” or most crystal-meth infested province in the Philippines.
While we were there, many residents were anticipating that the mayor of Iloilo may soon be killed, since the city’s then newly appointed police chief, Jovie Espenido, had been appointed to two different cities by Duterte just before those cities’ mayors were killed. The Iloilo mayor, Jed Patrick Mabilog, who Duterte has labeled a narco-politician, took sick leave at the beginning of September, saying through his spokesman that he feels unsafe and fears for the lives of his family. As of October 9, he remains on leave.
In one widely-shared social media post, Palma Cyril John, an Iloilo nurse, wrote recently:
“I lived in Iloilo for the past 28 years and like a son who saw his father being undermined, my hometown being tagged as ‘The Most Shabulized City’ caused a major blow to all Ilonggos. … Name the identified persons reasonably and not the City in general, for most have worked all their life to have a decent and reputable name to be inherited by the future generations. … Like I said a year ago, if Mayor Mabilog is truly guilty, it will present itself in the court of law. But there's no need for Espenido and his goons to act on a witch hunt and kill everyone in 50-meter radius. This is inhumane.”
According to the Reuters news agency, more than 12,500 Filipinos, allegedly drug users and dealers, have been killed by police and vigilantes since Duterte took office in June 2016. An alleged Iloilo drug lord, Richard Prevendido, was killed in a shoot-out with police while we were in nearby Gaub.
One of Rena’s friends when we paddle-boated the Iloilo River one day, pointed out Mayor Mabilog’s garish mansion. And Rena later explained to me that the mansion, even though Mabilog comes from private wealth, is sometimes cited as circumstantial evidence that the mayor is profiting from the drug trade.
Rena and I boarded a flight toward the end of our three-week Philippine adventure, for a five-day foray on the island of Palawan, where we rode through an underground river dubbed one of the seven natural wonders of the world, outside of which wild monkeys jumped from tree to tree. We also stayed in the city of Puerto Princesa at the house of two of our Hudson Valley friends, who work as nurses in the city of Hudson.
On a seven-hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, we rounded sharp bends through sparsely-populated terrain. Little villages were few and far between. On this drive, and the eventual ride back, we saw people riding on the tops of Jeepneys, little boys driving motorcycles, and a monitor lizard, three feet or more long, crossing the road leisurely.
In El Nido, a coastal town with a rich culture, we stayed in a beach-front hut, kayaked across a large bay, and spent a day on a chartered Filipino boat and on a few different islands, snorkeling, swimming and paddling into lagoons. At night we walked into the beach village to eat and hear live reggae and ska bands, and acoustic singers who switched between Tagalog ballads and covers of American classics.
Before leaving the country, we flew back to Cabatuan and spent most of the final day and a half socializing with Rena’s friends and family who are normally 10,000 miles away.
We attended a parade in Cabatuan, and took a final trip to an Iloilo mall, where, since September had begun, Christmas music was playing and Christmas displays in stores had appeared. Christmas season, they say, starts with the ’ber months in the Philippines—September, October, November and December.
One of Rena’s uncles who works in the shipping industry had returned after months at sea and a gathering was set for our final night in the Philippines. A goat was slaughtered. The feast was outside Indo’s little Nipa hut, overlooking the roosters, the rice fields and the airport.
Large banana leaves were laid out over a table as were white rice, roasted chicken, fish and mangoes in large quantities.
I sat with the men, snacking on roasted peanuts and goat and sipping blackberry wine, rum and San Miguels.
Around sunset, an airplane landed at the airport down the hill and we all turned to watch. One of Rena’s uncles said he’d come back the next day to watch our plane jut into the sky.
As the night wore on, we talked about the drug war and the Iloilo mayor and about the rebels in Marawi, but we talked much more about life aboard the ships, and about Nipa hut construction. The classic leafed roofs keep the huts cooler than metal roofs in scorching Philippine heat but must be replaced about once a year—plus they leak in heavy rains. A couple of the guys were curious about the costs to heat a home in New York winters and about the costs of furnaces. Also, if I came back at dawn, they said, I could see a sparring match between the roosters.
At some point, the women left us and we drank for hours more, replenished with fresh cases of San Miguel bottles.
Late in the night, the sounds of dogs fighting and the kick-starting of motorcycles marked the beginning of our retirement for the evening. But a group of us, stumbling and swaying as we ventured on foot up the dirt path in the dark, made enough noise to bring a small audience out onto the concrete main road—and we were guided to the houses where we each belonged.