Tropical Escape: A Philippine homecoming

PROLOGUE

In February 2013, Longbranch Chronicles went on assignment to Dumaguete City, Philippines, in search of the charming town of my youth. For 10 days, I explored this city of more than 120,000 people. Dumaguete City is on the island of Negros, about an hour flight south from Manila, and is the seat of government for the province of Negros Oriental.

This was my first time back in almost 30 years and I was as much a stranger to my countrymen as was my wife Meg. I have shared as honestly as I can the experiences my lovely bride and I had as we discovered a place that has only lived in my memory for the past three decades.

Join us as we visit the land of my youth.

AN IMMIGRANT’S LOVE LETTER

Feb. 18, 2013

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Me on a pony on my family’s beach in the mid 1970s on the island of Negros, about an hour by jet south of Manila, Philippines.

Dear Inday,

I have to say I have not been this excited since the day I bid you farewell and boarded my Northwest Orient flight to the United States. I was just a boy then — scared, awkward, not entirely certain of what was to come.

That was 30 years ago. Way too long, if you ask me.

As you read this I will be at 36,000 feet strapped to a seat next to my lovely bride in a Boeing 777 going approximately 564 miles an hour. To be honest with you I am scared all over again. I am now a middle-aged guy with a few rodeos under my belt yet I don’t know what I am going to say when I see you again.

Philippine map

My memories of you date back to a time when Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was topping the charts, “People Power” was yet to hitch a ride on Cory’s (Aquino) shirttails and Dunkin’ Donuts was all the rage as “pasalubong” (omiyage or souvenir from a trip).

Much has changed since then. Michael’s dead, Nonoy (Cory’s son) is president and you can get a pie right in town at Pizza Hut. I suppose that passes for progress these days.

Boy you’ve been hard at work. Your Gross Domestic Product has grown almost tenfold since I left. Even home prices are through the roof. I think it is a travesty that you can’t seem to gain recognition as one of Asia’s leading economies. I suppose, being considered a Tiger Cub economy is not all that bad.

I’m sure that oversight is just a stubborn stain leftover from the government corruption during the Marcos regime and the era of Erap (Joseph Estrada). I mean c’mon, a B-list action movie star as president? What did we think was going to happen?

But enough with the political talk. I want to talk about you.

I can’t wait to see you, hear you and smell you as you are today.

I’ve been dreaming of fresh harvest rice steaming in banana leaves with grilled succulent “sugpo” (giant tiger prawns) in a sweet lime and chili glaze. Just the thought of homemade “siopao” (steamed pork buns) and “tocino” (marinated sweet pork) makes my mouth water.

How about fresh young coconut meat all mixed in its juice, a few tablespoons of condensed milk and crushed ice? I might even throw in a couple of scoops of “macapuno” (sweet palm) ice cream. If you want to call it halo-halo, go ahead. To me that is mother’s milk.

Do you remember how you used to run to the bakery — long before the sun was up — to wait in line outside for the first batch of pan de sal fresh from the oven? I do. I remember spreading margarine on those still-warm breakfast rolls and sprinkling white sugar on top.

And then there is the “humba” (braised ham hock). Believe me, I’ve tried making it here in the States but I can’t make it like you can. I know its bad for me. But… oh the sweet taste of tender tendons and fall-off-the-bone pig’s skin.

You probably won’t recognize me when you see me in designer jeans, black blazer and slip-on black leather shoes. You will probably ask: “Who’s this American wannabe flip?”

I get that. Really I do. I might even deserve it.

But I have to tell you, my life in the States has not been all a bed of roses. Every time a “Cano” (slang for American) looks at me I’m sure they’re thinking “affirmative action”. Or, wonder if I’m related to the guy they spoke with on the phone when they called customer service for their local newspaper.

Chasing the American Dream has not all been that simple. All this talk about immigration reform throws our people right back in the limelight. Or, should I say crosshairs?

I came here legally when I was 16. You remember. I didn’t even want to come. My mother was a naturalized American citizen, having gone through the system legally, and petitioned for me to join her. But sometimes I feel as if that nuance gets lost in the color of my skin. Damn.

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My Lovely bride Meg.

The one thing that has definitely turned out well for me is meeting my lovely bride. You will absolutely love her. She is an all-American gal who grew up in a two-storey colonial in Guilford, Connecticut. Her childhood home came with a small pond in the backyard. She is a rebellious hippie broad who, with a few San Miguels in her, might have a saltier mouth than a sailor fresh off the deck of an “estrangjero” (a large foreign-flag freighter) anchored on Dumaguete Bay.

But she loves me. She really, really loves me. I know this because she doesn’t say anything even when the stench of fried fish and shrimp paste fill the house. She will sit and eat with me an entire fish with head still on. She even thanked me for making her “kalamungay” (a green leafy vegetable) soup when she had a bad cold. This chick claims Filipina-hood just because she is married to me.

Like I said, you will absolutely love her. Believe me, she is just as excited to meet you.

Well, I’d better finish up packing. I wouldn’t want to forget the sunscreen. I shall see you in 18 hours.

With all my love and affection,

David

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Feb. 20, 2013

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The boulevard along Rizal Avenue is the main attraction on Dumaguete’s waterfront.

If Dumaguete City was a musical, the hum and whine of a motorcycle engine would be the chorus.

I have never seen so many commuters on two wheels zipping in and out of traffic. Scooters, dirt bikes and even the occasional Harley-Davidson motorcycle can be heard rumbling down Rizal Avenue, the town’s main throughfare.

On just about every street corner in this town you will find rows of parked motorcycles.

“Are these bikes for sale or rent,” Meg asked, pointing to a row of motorcycles about 150 feet long and two deep in some places. “There is so many of them.”

It seems to be the vehicle of choice for locals. It allows for quick travel through narrow and crowded streets where traffic crawls along at 15 miles per hour — if you’re lucky.

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Dumaguete’s narrow streets are packed with pedicabs — a popular mode of local transportation.
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Seeing my hometown after 30 long years was bittersweet. Some of the landmarks, such as the port, I could still recognize.

THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD

The drive from the airport was an eye-opener for me. Thirty years is a long time to be away. I could barely recognize my old neighborhood.

Almost every open lot along the way has been built on. The house I grew up in now has an internet cafe on the front yard, where we used to play catch. Smoke from a grill billowed out back. My guess is that they are selling food as well. Where there used to be mango trees and old acacia trees there are now houses and hostels — the sort popular with young European backpackers and adventurers.

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Remnants of a more genteel past can still be seen along the boulevard, where rich families had their mansions overlooking Dumaguete Bay.
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The once quiet avenues of this city now buzz with the daily churn of business.

My town has grown old. Wrinkles and blemishes now mark her once quiet and radiant avenidas. She seems to be carrying more weight than she ought to. Her streets are bulging with vehicular traffic that comes with progress. The buildings lining the narrow streets look tired — some even look desperate. The big-city smell of diesel exhaust and rotting garbage is her fragrance of choice.

Thank goodness for the sea breeze. The gentle salt air blowing in from the Tanon Strait is cleansing. It blows the stench away, even for just a moment.

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The shops in downtown Dumaguete are colorful and a fun diversion.

A SHOPPER’S PARADISE

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An official Starbucks coffee mug could be bought here for $2.

After more than 40 hours of travel, we decided to get our bearing and go for a stroll around downtown Dumaguete.

A great idea. What a hoot.

One thing surprised me on our walk. We did not get an aggressive sales pitch — not from inside the shops selling colorful island wear nor the souvenir vendors on the sidewalks.

It was funny seeing an entire cleaning crew at work inside one of the larger shopping centers in town on a Wednesday afternoon. It seems the work of polishing the five floors inside Lee Super Plaza in the heart of downtown is never finished. This place sells everything from microwave ovens to stationery supplies to “lumpia” (the local egg roll). If you are a Starbucks fan, you can have your very own coffee mug with the Seattle-based company’s logo for 199 pesos or roughly $2, depending on who changes your money.

Stepping outside into the damp humid air, we decided to poke our heads inside a couple of clothing stores. Meg was especially attracted to the colorful fabrics they were hawking. She loved it, a shopper’s buffet in front of her.

“Except everything here is so tiny,” she said showing me one of the colorful blouses. “I’ll never fit into one of these.”

We did not buy anything convincing ourselves we’ll walk around some more in the next couple of days and get a better idea of what constitutes a good deal.

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The streets of downtown Dumaguete have shops overflowing with colorful merchandize. Meg was in shopping heaven.
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Sidewalk vendors set up tables along the boulevard selling food and drinks. Locals go to the sea wall after the day’s heat has dissipated.

THE BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS?

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The boulevard comes alive at night — food vendors and the cool sea breeze being the main attractions.

As we walked down Rizal Avenue you can see a city’s growing pains.

Shakey’s Pizza has been shuttered, it seems for a while now. It has been moved to a shopping center on the outskirts of town. Cheaper rent, I hear.

An old restaurant building sits vacant, dust accumulating on its once proud facade.

But farther up the street, workers are busy erecting a new sign for a dive shop that promises to open soon. A handful of laborers were sanding and varnishing an outdoor bar next door to a tapas bar.

Business seemed to be going well with tourists and locals. Groups of people drop in on the handful of restaurants and bars along the boulevard.

Yet, some things never change. Young local women hanging on the arms of older, much older, European and North American men. Some are tourists and some live here. Everyone seems to be having a good time.

Also, everywhere you go panhandlers seem to be present. You can’t lose them. Desperation does not need an interpreter.

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A family enjoying the food on the boulevard.
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Meg gets an hour-long foot massage by the seawall for less than $5.
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A performer serenades diners on the boulevard. Silliman Hall — a local landmark and legacy of the American mission of education — stands tall in the background.

We stepped out of the elevator at the Bethel Guest House, our hotel on the boulevard, to a gaggle of giggly teenagers from a local college strutting around in their Sunday best — the girls in their gowns and the boys in their shirts and ties.

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Our hotel lobby was taken over by students from a local college attending a prom.

DAY TWO: PROMS, MANGOES AND PIRATES

FEB. 21, 2013

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Boys mill around the hotel lobby waiting for the girls to walk in.

A funny thing happened on our way to dinner last night.

We stepped out of the elevator at the Bethel Guest House, our hotel on the boulevard, to a gaggle of giggly teenagers from a local college strutting around in their Sunday best — the girls in their gowns and the boys in their shirts and ties.

No one could explain to me why college freshmen were going to a prom, but there they were nervous and excited. Boys gathered in the middle of the lobby helping each other straighten their ties while waiting for the girls to walk in. Then the girls come sashaying in groups of twos and threes.

A young man plops down on one of the overstuffed blue leather sofas and plays a guitar. He said he is practicing a number he will play during the prom. A group of young women come up to him to sing along. The other boys roll their eyes. Boys will be boys, I guess.

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A pedestrian in San Jose walks on the seawall along the road to Amlan.

NEVER LET THE FACTS GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD STORY

There is something about getting together with old friends, sharing a meal and telling stories. These are some of my favorite things — a reminder of what makes home special. Food is always present in these gatherings.

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We finished dinner with a plate of mangoes, grapes and red bananas.

Meg and I were picked up at our hotel by our friend in his Mitsubishi SUV. We all climbed in the burgundy four wheel drive, strapped on our seat belts and drove three blocks up the boulevard.

You really don’t want to walk in the heat and humidity, our host explains. Fair enough.

Our meal began with a cream of corn chowder that tasted just like my aunties used to make it. I had a plate of bangus relleno (stuffed white fish) with seaweed salad (“guso”, a brown seaweed) and Meg had a stuffed grilled squid. We finished the dinner with a plate of mangoes, apples, grapes and red bananas. You have not had a mango until you’ve had one grown here. There is a variety of mango called “señorita” that is used solely for its juice. It is almost unnaturally sweet. Then there are the red bananas — sweet, earthy almost a cross between a plantain and a regular banana.

Then there are the stories. Filipinos love to tell them. Our culture is chock full of them.

Then there are the stories. Filipinos love to tell them. Our culture is chock full of them.

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The City of Gentle People is blessed with a beautiful waterfront that is a favorite of locals and tourists alike.

Take the name Dumaguete, for example. The name was derived from an old Visayan word “dagit” or to snatch. Apparently the people who lived here were known for grabbing things they liked without bothering to ask, kind of like pirates. The irony is that the people who live here see themselves as the “City of Gentle People”.

Then there is the island of Siquijor, which sits a few miles southeast of Negros. As I was eating my seaweed salad, a friend shares a legend of the island. Apparently, the seaweed that my salad is made from — guso or deep-water seaweed — is what keeps our neighbor island from floating away. Something about a local princess falling in love with a commoner from another island angering the gods. So to keep the princess in place, the gods had the deep-water seaweed anchor the island in place.

As dinner rolled along so did the stories. Filipinos are proud of their history real or mythical. We never let facts get in the way of telling a good story. If you can tell them, people are sure to want to hear them. The magic of sharing these stories make home truly special.

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It was a beautiful day for a ride, although the ride in a pedicab itself was bumpy and uncomfortable. On the road we saw school girls walking along the highway near San Jose.

GOING FOR A PEDICAB RIDE

My mother had asked before we flew to the Philippines if I would go visit my father’s grave in Amlan, a small town north of the city. Meg and I told her we would. We just hadn’t figured out how to get there. Yet.

We flagged down a pedicab in front of our hotel for a ride to the bus terminal. The driver Sidro asked us where we wanted to go. We said Amlan. He offered to take us there. Meg’s ears perk up. She asks him “how much?” The negotiation was on.

As soon as Meg and Sidro agreed on a price, this man with short-cropped silver hair gunned the motor of his bike and we were off for the town of Amlan. A pedicab ride would not have been a local’s first choice. But we were up for an adventure and the price was right.

A pedicab or tricycle, which is a motorcycle with a cab or sidecar attached to it, is the most popular way to get around this relatively flat city. But this is a 22-kilometer trip or roughly 10 miles.

The first two miles was fun as Sidro slaloms through traffic. Then reality set in. This was going to be a slow laborious ride. It took almost an hour. By the end of the trip, we were both sore.

But the journey was interesting. We saw school break for lunch. An old man carrying water the old-fashion way: two buckets balancing on a pole across his shoulder. Roadside vendors hawking fresh fish. Long stretches of sandy beach confirmed the beauty of Negros.

This was fun. But next time hire a car.

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The boulevard along Rizal Avenue is a great place to watch people.

THIS TOWN IS FOR LOCALS

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A vendor on the boulevard selling fresh steamed corn — a popular snack on this island.

There is something special about sitting in one of the many bars and restaurants along the boulevard. It gives you a real-time look at life on this rock.

Although there are quite a few tourists around, Dumaguete is built for the locals. It looks and feels lived in. Locals motor around in their motorcycles and scooters — some running errands while others just out for a joyride. It is not uncommon to see an entire family riding on a single motorcycle.

The vendors along the boulevard peddle their food mostly to locals, who flock to the waterfront to get fresh air.

Locals go to the boulevard in the morning to jog or walk. After the sun goes down, this place gets packed with people enjoying the cool evening air. Vendors set up tables along the stone seawall. Entire families will come out to the waterfront for a stroll. It seems to be the place to be seen around here.

Old acacia trees line the stone wall along the avenue, giving much appreciated shade during the day. Squares of grass act as green buffers between the road and the seawall. There is not much of a beach here. The coastline in town is rocky and the water comes up to the wall during high tide.

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A family on a motorcycle cruise down the boulevard.

Locals go to the boulevard in the morning to jog or walk. After the sun goes down, this place gets packed with people enjoying the cool evening air. Vendors set up tables along the stone seawall. Entire families will come out to the waterfront for a stroll. It seems to be the place to be seen around here.

HOME IS WHERE ‘VERY NICE’ LIVES

Feb. 22, 2013

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Silliman Hall stands as a legacy of the American mission of education. Dumaguete’s growth has brought with it big-city problems such as traffic and noise.

First impressions will always ruffle feathers.

A few people took umbrage at my whining about how hot and humid it is here in Dumaguete City.

“It’s the tropics. What did you expect. LOL,” wrote a detractor.

Fair enough.

After three days on the ground in my hometown, a little rest and a few San Miguel beers in my system, I have adjusted my outlook on this wonderful place I proudly once called home.

Don’t get me wrong this place is still crowded, dusty and dirty. Don’t even get me started on that stench. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’ve never bothered going down the port of Dumaguete or the market downtown.

The traffic is insane. How many motorcycles are there in this town anyway? Valet parking for motor bikes? Really? Only in Dumaguete, I say.

Now that I have have had enough sleep I can see things a bit clearer,” Meg said. “I love how everything is done here. It is all so personal.”

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A valet parking attendant fetches a motorcycle at a street corner in Dumaguete.
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John Nelson holding court on his green patch of paradise.

Sleep does wonders to the human condition. Rested and full after a breakfast of eggplant omelets and fruit, Meg and I started to meet the people living here and I have never felt more at home than I am today.

John Nelson, of Montreal, Canada, said it best while lounging in a folding lawn chair on a grassy patch at the boulevard: “People here are very nice.”

Nelson, who works in public relations for a company based in Cebu City, calls himself the “King of the Boulevard.” He has lived on the island for the last 10 years. As a habit, he sits on his chair at the boulevard on just about every afternoon.

In our conversation, he dropped names of local media types like chips at a blackjack table. “Double Down Johnny” was not shy. He was entertaining. Comfortable with life in Dumaguete, he carried on as royalty on his little patch of paradise.

Then there is our bellhop at the Bethel Guest House, Stephen, who is the epitome of nice. I can’t bump into him in the lobby without getting a warm “hello sir” and I have not tipped him, yet.

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Sidro, our pedicab driver, on our trip to Amlan.

Sidro, the pedicab driver we hired to go to Amlan, stopped his ride on the boulevard to come over to say hello to Meg and I while we sat enjoying an afternoon beverage. I know he made bank on our transaction the other day, but good luck getting that kind of personal attention from a cabbie in Los Angeles, Calif.

I am beginning to see the quaint little town I once called home. The warmth and hospitality of the people here is endearing.

“Now that I have have had enough sleep I can see things a bit clearer,” Meg said. “I love how everything is done here. It is all so personal.”

Well said my love. This place knows how to do nice.

“Filipinos just aim to please,” she said. “Some tourists can be so demanding. (And the people here) stay very nice the whole time.”

Amen to that.

MILLION DOLLAR DREAM, CHEAP PEDICURES

Feb. 23, 2013

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Gavin Hughes enjoying a pedicure on the boulevard.

Sitting on a bench on the boulevard on a muggy afternoon, Gavin Hughes looked pleased as he propped up his foot on a stool getting a pedicure.

This sort of pampering is not new to Hughes, who has lived in the Philippines off and on since he was a baby. His father, an American, was in the Peace Corps and took his family with him on his many postings.

“This is the life,” Hughes said beaming. “You should get one. It is the best 80-cent pedicure you’ll ever get.”

Dumaguete City, he said, has always had a place in his heart — and not only because of the cheap grooming services available.

Six years ago he moved back to Negros for good from Blaine, Wash. He got married, had two children and is now enjoying the island lifestyle. This was something he always dreamed of, he said. His wife is from Bacong, a small town five miles south of the city, and they live in Calindagan, a neighborhood just south of the city center and near Robinson’s Place Mall.

(Dumaguete’s) got its ups and downs,” Hughes said. “But I’ve learned to take the good with the bad.”

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Dumaguete has a reputation as a gentle city. Local families spend evenings on the boulevard under the grand acacia trees.
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Hughes’ vision would capitalize on the incredible views from the beaches of Dauin.

Hughes is a businessman with a lofty dream. He said he has been buying beach property in Dauin so he could build waterfront condominiums.

“When I get everything lined up,” he said, “we will have some of the best beachfront properties in Asia. They will be $10- $14-million condominiums.”

Hughes talks about his project with a ton of confidence and fancies his chances for success. Because, he emphatically declares, of where he lives. He says he absolutely loves living in Dumaguete City.

“It’s got its ups and downs,” Hughes said. “But I’ve learned to take the good with the bad.”

Lately it seems “things have gotten worse — the traffic, noise and garbage,” he said. “But at the end of the day it is about the people.”

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The beauty of Negros Oriental is stunning. Pair that with the people’s hospitality and Hughes may be on to something.

It is the people that has Hughes bullish on the town’s potential.

To put things in the proper perspective in his life, he takes his family out of the country for a trip at least once a year, he said. “It’s nice to be able to go somewhere and get away from here.”

But his heart remains with the “City of Gentle People” because “everywhere else people make you feel like a foreigner. Here we have nice people.

“You can be here for five minutes and you’re already an insider,” he adds.

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Local businesses have benefited from the opening of call centers in town.

He explains that most of the growth in Dumaguete arrived in the last six years. Dumaguete’s large population of highly educated, English-speaking people has made it attractive to companies seeking to open call centers in the Philippines. He said the labor is cheap and the cost of living here is still much more affordable compared to Manila and Cebu.

“Its phenomenal what has happened,” he said. “All these things have brought a lot of change to this place. That has raised the bar on the economy.”

Business may be good but he still laments the loss of Dumaguete’s small-town charm. He speaks fondly of the Dumaguete he once knew — the laid back style and slower pace. Rows of coconut trees, he said, seemed to go on forever.

His recommendation for those nostalgic for the past: “Go to Siquijor and experience what Dumaguete was 20 years ago,” he said.

To view more photos of Dumaguete City go here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmontesino/sets/72157632826604060/

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Rachel’s makeover inside the Pirates Bar on the boulevard caught some eyes.

RED GOWNS, PIRATES, AND VALENTINES

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Rachel’s makeover is for her coronation as Valentine princess at her school.

Little Rachel’s red gown glittered. Her hair done up. Makeup applied professionally by a family friend.

Patrons and workers of the Pirates Bar on the boulevard delighted in watching beauty in the making. It was quite a sight in the heat of a Dumaguete afternoon.

Where this scene was unfolding was surprising: a red-light bar on the boulevard. Rachel is eight years old. Her father Gil, who was standing a few feet away, beamed with pride.

“This is for her coronation as the Valentines Day queen at her school,” said her father, a waiter at the bar.

The second grader from Looc won the pageant and with it came a little cash. And that, her father said, “will help pay for her tuition.”

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Harley-Davidson motorcycles lined the boulevard while riders enjoyed a party at one of the “restobars”.

HOGS RIDE FOR CHARITY

On our third day, Meg and I are becoming experts on the local “restobar” (restaurant and bar) scene.

We now know which places serve San Miguel beer grandes and which ones serve the Red Horse brand (a stronger, more potent brew). We have also figured out which establishments to visit during the day and which ones to avoid after sundown. You know, the places that only have red lights above the bar.

As we walked down the boulevard, we stumbled across a party at a restobar next to our hotel. The party people were arriving in large motorcycles, apparently some coming in from as far away as the capital city of Manila.

About 150 riders from around the Philippines brought their motorcycles to Dumaguete City to participate in the 8th annual Riding to Help Children fundraiser.

Harley-Davidson Road Kings converged on the boulevard to kickoff the fun ride south to the town of Bayawan. They started the roughly 80-kilometer ride on Rizal Avenue early the next morning.

But the party started Friday night. At least two bars on the boulevard had Harley-Davidson motorcycles lined up outside. It was an impressive display of American machinery.

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Our hotel the Bethel Guest House was prom central.

PROM CITY NIGHTS

February must be prom season because we’ve had a prom held in our hotel every night since we arrived. I suppose since it is nearly the end of the school year that this would be the time for proms.

Throw in a wedding or two and our hotel was evening gown central. It was nice to see men wearing the formal “barong” (the natiojnal costumes for men), which Meg said looked sharp.

We were even treated to a fireworks display.

Goodnight Dumaguete.

PRAWNS, SQUID ‘GUISADO’ AND BANGUS BELLY

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This seafood restaurant had a great view of the beach in Looc, a couple miles north of the city center.

A storm blew through Dumaguete early Saturday afternoon nixing our plans of getting manicures on the seawall. So, we hopped on a pedicab to find a good “sinugba” (grilled) meal.

A five-minute ride from our hotel is a restaurant called Lab-as (pronounced lab-us, meaning fresh in the local dialect). This 2-storey restaurant is popular with the locals. It is built out of wood, bamboo and has a nipa (palm frond) roof — giving it a total local vibe. Meg wanted to experience how Dumaguetenos eat and this seafood place in the neighborhood of Looc was perfect.

The view from our table was magnificent. The food was fresh and better than advertised. Our bellhop Stephen told us this was the place to find good local seafood. Since we had been craving “sugpo” (tiger prawns), this was our spot.

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The sizzling platter of fresh squid at Lab-as, a restaurant popular with the locals, was just divine.

So “sugpo” it was — grilled and pan fried in garlic. The head and tail still on, and delicious.

We also ordered “adobong kangkong” (a local green vegetable sautéed with squid and garlic). Since we were at a “sinugba” joint, we also ordered the grilled “bangus” belly. Good choice. I explained to Meg that “bangus” or milkfish is grown in fish farms and closely resembles a white mullet.

Of course, we couldn’t eat at a local restaurant without tasting the “kinilaw” (raw fish in coconut milk and lime). That went down well with our San Miguel grandes. The grandes are the pilsner in half-liter bottles that you can share.

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A San Miguel grande is a half-liter bottle of the local pilsner.

For dessert it was back to the boulevard for a thick slice of Sans Rival’s delectable concord cake — a mound of chocolate goodness. I have to say Dumaguete has more than its share of fabulous bakers — and chefs, I might add.

But as Meg surmised: “Eating like this every day… we would be so fat.”

A CITY’S HEART IS ITS MARKET

Feb. 24, 2013

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The public market is the heart of this bustling city of 120,000 people.

Like every town on the island of Negros, Dumaguete City has its own market. It has been, for as long as I can remember, the heart of this city.

It is grimy, smelly and loud. But it is also the most interesting place to visit. You can do just about every piece of business at the market.

There are banks and pharmacies along the busy streets that border the market. You can purchase a car or motorcycle from any one of the many dealerships downtown. A haircut? There are several barbers and hair salons to choose from. In need of a pedicure? Got that too. Your watch broken? There are at least two watch repair stalls tucked in corners of this sprawling market.

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Fresh fish arrive at the market daily by the bins-full.
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The bell tower at St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral is a popular destination for the catholic faithful of the island. The stone structure was built in 1754 and is a legacy of Spanish rule.
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You can get almost anything done at the market, including getting your watch fixed.
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You can fill your poultry orders at the market with live chickens at a corner outside…
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…or with butchered cuts resting on ice inside the market.
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Cuts of pork or beef are available inside the market.
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Fruit stands are everywhere at the market. This impromptu stall uses a mile marker as a table for a basket of bananas.
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Work is hard and never ends for laborers at the market.
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Locals flock to the market in their motorcycles.
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Pastries at a Mister Donut stand catches the eye of a young shopper.

Produce from around the island is brought here for sale. Fresh fish by the bins-full are auctioned to vendors. Beef, pork, chicken? The market has them all. If you’re in the market for a new broom, knife or coconut husk floor polisher, you’re in the right place.

The market itself covers roughly four city blocks. Around its periphery sit St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral, a local private college, Holy Child Hospital and bus terminals.

If you’re in Dumaguete City, it is definitely worth the time to walk through the market’s maze-like alleys to see how the locals live. Who knows, you might find something you can use.

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The neighborhood of Tinago is a quick walk from the boulevard.

A HIDDEN NEIGHBORHOOD: DISCOVERING TINAGO

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Locals living in this neighborhood treat the boulevard like their backyard. A man paints the outrigger of his canoe that he keeps by the boulevard.

A quick walk from the boulevard is a neighborhood called Tinago (translated hidden or hiding place) and was for years the place where the city had its slaughter houses. As a child I remembered going there to watch people butcher pigs and goats by the river. In time, a cottage industry of “lechon” (roast pork) restaurants opened up in the neighborhood.

Meg and I did not see a “lechon” or “manukan” (chicken barbecue) restaurant near the Banica River. What was there is typical of local neighborhoods — sari-sari (variety) stores, a Philippine lottery office, roadside eateries, a barbershop and locals hanging out by the road on a stormy and lazy Sunday morning.

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Tinago is much like any other neighborhood in this growing city — cramped, noisy and full of life.
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“Picture me,” said these children when Meg and I walked through the neighborhood.
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A small group of men hanging out at the neighborhood lottery office.
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Work goes on in Tinago even on a Sunday morning.
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The Banica River runs through the neighborhoods of Tinago and Canday-ong.

What was there was typical of local neighborhoods — sari-sari (variety) stores, a Philippine lottery office, roadside eateries, a barbershop and locals hanging out by the road on a stormy and lazy Sunday morning.

A SANDY SLIVER OF SERENITY

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Meg thought the sandbar near Bais City was just what we needed — sun, sand and serenity.
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The beauty of the sandbar included species of starfish that seemed to be everywhere.

I had heard about the sandbar near Bais City as a boy. It was a place of myth and legend.

The old people would warn the kids: watch out for the sharks and be careful of the steep bank that can drop you in deep water in a step.

My peers would tell stories about the sandbar. This was a place of stunning beauty and serenity — a sandy escape from the bustle of the city.

Yet I had never visited this oasis. Never.

This was my chance. I was not going to miss an opportunity to hop on a boat and visit the sandbar while I was back in Negros. It mattered little to me that I was there at the tail end of typhoon season, making everyone nervous.

I know February is not really the right season for it. A family friend, a local attorney, had warned me that we might not even find a boat to take us there because of inclement weather. Besides, he said, “wouldn’t you be cold?”

That made me laugh.

For a couple escaping the chill of the Pacific Northwest, cold is definitely relative. Like a petulant child I insisted we go. And like the Dumagueteno that our friend is, he obliges and makes the arrangements.

My quest was on.

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The tropical sun beamed down brightly while we enjoyed the spectacular view from two bamboo benches on our boat.
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The sandbar is a strip of sand about 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. There are four cottages on the sandbar that can be rented for a day or week.

Of course my lovely bride asks me the when, where and how we were going to get to the sandbar. The honest truth was that I did not know. Our friend told me to wait for his call early Saturday morning.

Sure enough my phone rings at 4 in the morning, earning me a groan of displeasure from my lovely bride. We had been out the previous night enjoying a few pints of the local pilsner.

Our friend arrives at the hotel in a rented van and driver an hour later.

Then it was off for coffee and breakfast. Believe me Meg and I were in dire need. McDonald’s has two restaurants here in Dumaguete that are open 24/7. Before you scoff, their coffee was better than most of the swill served on this rock. Sadly Seattle it is not.

Workers and joggers were already sharing the city’s dark streets. Many businesses were still shuttered and yet people were already crowding the many bus stops along the way.

Since traffic was relatively light, our driver slaloms his way around pedicabs and motorbikes. Mario Andretti would have been proud. Luckily there was no need for the caution flag. We got out of the city in one piece.

The hour-long drive north gave us a good look at the remnants of old Negros. We cruised through valleys of sugarcane fields and fish farms. Banana trees lined much of the highway. Nipa palm trees stuck out of the marshes.

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The road to Bais City gives visitors a peek at a Negros of old. Farm laborers work all day cutting and stripping sugar cane. Sugar is one of the island’s leading industry.

The hour-long drive north gave us a good look at the remnants of old Negros. We cruised through valleys of sugarcane fields and fish farms. Banana trees lined much of the highway. Nipa palm trees stuck out of the marshes.

Sadly, we mostly saw more development and construction along the highway. The old plantation estates were either gone or simply abandoned. The “hacienderos” (big landowners) have their palaces in town or on the beach.

As the sun rose over Cebu island, the “nipa” (palm frond) houses along the beaches that sat on stilts looked like a watercolor painting. At each town we passed — Sibulan, San Jose, Amlan and Tanjay — throngs of people waited for the bus to hitch a ride to Dumaguete.

Finally, we arrive in Bais City. Our friend makes a call to his guy. He is to guide us to his boat. All this seemed so mysterious.

We do not have marinas on this island. Boats are either tied up on the beach or anchored off it. The boats are motor-powered outrigger canoes. Some are big enough to accommodate 20 passengers. Ours was a white boat about 30 feet long with two blue tarps for shade.

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Fishermen paddling out to Bais Bay in an outrigger canoe.
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The 20-minute boat ride was well worth it.
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A fisherman checks his fish trap on Bais Bay.

The tide was beginning to roll back and our boat captain hurriedly herded us all in his boat. The sandbar is best enjoyed when the tide is low, he said.

We pushed off into Bais Bay as a bright tropical sun beamed down. We saw fishermen paddling out to the bay in their outrigger canoes. Another stood hip deep in the water to check a fish trap. Last night’s bounty hopefully awaits.

Children from the nearby shanties sat on the concrete jetty, curious about the visitors this early in the day.

From a distance, you can see the four cottages on the sandbar. Squat structures on stilts sitting on the sandbar’s edge. Clouds loomed in the horizon. Cebu island was getting a little rain. The wind picked up steam and our captain punches the throttle. Our friend sat on one of two bamboo benches aboard, eyes nervously scanning the horizon, worried about the weather. Silly man.

The ride to the sandbar was bumpy. The view to die for. Rolling hills of sugar cane fields was a spectacular sight. White smoke from the sugar mill billowed lazily in the distance.

We slid to a stop on the sandbar, the deckhand leaps off the bow and sets the ladder for the rest of us.

We were finally on the sandbar.

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Meg hops off the boat at the sandbar.
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I took a swim by our boat, which is a 30-foot-long motorized outrigger canoe.

This piece of sand is roughly 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. It is actually owned by the municipality of Manjuyod, the next town north of Bais City. The cottages are available to rent for $60-$80 a day. The boat will cost you $40-$50 a trip and is a separate transaction. Arrangements can be made for you by your hotel.

The sandbar provides the ultimate private beach experience. Walking on the sand was magical. It was not cold. It was just right.

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Our boat captain grabbed a large squid right out of the water, ten minutes after we arrived on the sandbar.

Now that is what I call lunch and a show,” our friend the local attorney said with a chuckle.

Ten minutes on the sandbar and our boat captain’s yawp got all our attention.

“Come here, come here,” he calls out to the lawyer’s driver. “I will need your help.”

He directs the driver over to him, pointing at the water. The driver gets excited. Our boat captain snatches a nokus (sweet squid), about a foot long, right out of the water.

“Now that is what I call lunch and a show,” our friend the local attorney said with a chuckle.

Lunch caught. Well done, sir.

“This was so worth it,” Meg said. “I absolutely love it here. The sand, the water, the sun … It is so peaceful.”

KUNGFU FIGHTING WITH A LOCAL LEGEND

Feb. 25, 2013

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On any given Sunday on the boulevard, a group of men and women practice martial arts — including the local form of stick fighting.

Under majestic acacia trees on a grassy patch of the boulevard on just about every Sunday morning, you will find a group of 20-30 men and women practicing various martial art forms — including a style that originated in the islands called arnis or stick fighting.

Leading this pack is a gentleman and a local martial arts legend named Leonardo De La Luna.

The 69-year-old teacher, his back ramrod straight, paces along two rows of students barking instructions as they go into simulated combat.

Sweating in the tropical heat, the students listen. They watch intensely. They know the old man has plenty to teach. They’ve heard the stories about the local champion. He is someone not to be trifled with.

De La Luna’s reputation precedes him.

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The old master Leonardo De La Luna barks orders to his young students.
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The students participate in simulated fighting, practicing what they’ve learned.

This is how you learn. The best always learns from the best, the old man said.

De La Luna learned his martial arts from his father, who was also a champion. His father gave him his first pair of rattan sticks at the age of six. He has learned and mastered several martial art forms since.

Many flock to the boulevard when the local legend is teaching. They sit on the concrete benches around the acacia trees. Most of it is like a ballet — choreographed down to the smallest moves.

De La Luna heads the local club Philippine Tiger Martial Arts. A lifetime membership can be bought for 150 pesos, about $4. Michael Empic, the old man’s assistant, then collects 20 pesos (about 50 cents) from each participant at each session.

It is money well spent, according to at least two of the practitioners. Empic, the trusted assistant, included.

Empic, 22, became interested in martial arts while preparing for his studies in criminology.

“This is something I do for exercise,” he said. “But I also wanted to teach others how to defend themselves.”

The tall, wiry and well-spoken assistant conducts all the club’s business-related chores for his teacher, including speaking to an inquisitive foreign visitor.

He proudly produces mementos from the distant past of his master’s exploits and accomplishments. Faded 8- by 10-inch prints showed the old man posing with trophies from a number of Asian martial arts titles he won, at arnis exhibitions around the country and at a demonstration of skills at a mall in town.

The young man apologizes for having to speak for the master. “His English is not so good,” he said.

Empic said he got started in martial arts six years ago. New students start with basic karate skills, and as they develop, they are taught kung fu and eventually graduating to the fighting sticks.

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Students have to master the basic forms of kung fu before learning the arnis, the fighting sticks.
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Students pay 20 pesos (50 cents) to participate in the sessions.

A few feet from us, Jovelyn Jainjja was practicing her sticks. Like Empic, she joined the club to improve her martial arts before studying criminology at Foundation University, the second largest university in Dumaguete.

The pretty 19-year-old is from the island of Mindanao, half an hour by jet from Dumguete.

Her face scrunched up in concentration with beads of sweat rolling down her slender face, Jainjja firmly holds her rattan sticks as she goes over choreographed moves with an instructor. Her goal, she said in explanation, is to help prepare for real-life crime fighting.

“This will make it easier,” she said.

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Hundreds of spectators sit on plastic chairs and wooden benches up steep bleachers to wager and watch chickens fight.

THIS IS WHERE CHICKEN FIGHTS LIVE

South bound on the road out of the city, just past the market and over the Banica River, sits an icon of Dumaguete life that many who have lived here all their lives have never experienced.

The hulking mass of concrete, wood and rusting galvanize iron hosts a sporting pastime some locals call “Sunday school.”

This is where chicken fights live.

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Entry to the Dumaguete Cockpit is roughly $1.50.
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The chickens are paired to fight in a courtyard at the cockpit.

It is a sanctuary where men indulge their primal desire for blood. This is where their fathers took them as boys. They walked out as men. This is a rite of passage for many Dumaguetenos. This is a brutal sport.

Hundreds of spectators sit on chairs and benches up steep bleachers that overlook a glass-walled pit. In the pit two chickens fight to the death. This is not for the faint of heart.

The language spoken here is only for those who participate. “Biya. Upat tolo.” Odds are many long-time residents of the “City of Gentle People” do not understand this strange tongue. This is a private club open to anyone.

I was introduced to chicken fights as a boy in our neighbor’s backyard. I begged my father to get me a rooster. That made him proud and happy. He took me to the cockpit instead. I was hooked.

Thirty years later, I return to the blood-soaked ground of the Dumaguete Cockpit to reprise a childhood passion.

Not much has changed. The building was as I remembered it.

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The men loudly call out for bets in a language all their own.
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A fight begins with the protagonists pecking each other.
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Then the animals are released…
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…and the fight is on.
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The fight ends when one of the animals is dead.
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Then bets are paid out.

Inside the men loudly call out for bets. The lady in the corner sold refreshments. The man at the front gate sold deep fried pig intestine, a local delicacy.

I could always tell when my father won money at the cockpit. There would be a greasy bag of pork in the refrigerator in the morning.

My father would constantly remind me this was as much a part of our culture as going to church or dancing the “tinikling” (a traditional Philippine folk dance). This was in our blood. This was what men do.

I lasted an hour and a half before I could not stand to watch another bout. It was brutal. I hope to never experience this again.

The lady at the front gate smiled as I walked out of the pit.

She knew.

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The ritual of cockfighting has its traditions, such as the wrapping of the metal spurs around a chicken’s feet. This work is done in an anteroom at the cockpit.
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Chickens are kept in bamboo coops in a courtyard, their handlers waiting for their bouts.
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The brutal battle between two chickens armed with metal spurs…
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…results in serious injuries. Surgeons at the cockpit stitch up the birds — underscoring the awareness the animals’ masters have of the value a winning bird has as a breeder.

I lasted an hour and a half before I could not stand to watch another bout. It was brutal. I hope to never experience this again.

DAUIN: EASY TO GET TO, FULL OF LOCAL FLAVOR, BEAUTIFUL BEACHES

Feb. 26, 2013

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Meg enjoyed the ride to Dauin on the most Filipino of transports: the jeepney.

My two goals yesterday were to get to the beach in Dauin (Duh-win) and take a jeepney ride.

Check and check.

We were up bright and early, excited about our trip south of the island. We went down to the hotel cafeteria for breakfast of “talong” (eggplant) omelet and fresh fruit.

We got directions to the jeepney terminal from our favorite bellhop Stephen. We were going to the beach on the most Filipino of public transport.

A jeepney has the nose of a military jeep and the bed of a truck with two benches facing each other. The jeepneys are usually painted bright colors — with some adorned by artwork painted by local artists. They stick out — flamboyant, loud and full of local personality.

So off we go, by foot, to the market for a rendezvous with a jeepney.

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The beaches of Dauin are not crowded and the water is clear.
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We picked up San Miguel pilsners from a store at the local market — the heart of this town of 16,724 people.

The small town of Dauin has gotten quite a buzz lately in travel magazines because of its beaches and dive resorts. Roughly seven miles south of Dumaguete City, this town of 16,724 people is an easy place to get to.

Public transportation to Dauin is easy to find. There were at least a dozen jeepneys lined up at the southern end of the market, waiting to take passengers for the 20-minute ride. It is cheap, only 50 cents per person.

Seeing the line of jeepneys at the market transported me back to my childhood.

I used to go to Dauin with my high school friends for the feast of San Nicolas de Tolentino. A fiesta meant free food — lots of it — and an opportunity to steal a couple of drinks.

Towns in the Philippines celebrate the birthday of their patron saints with a big feast. Houses in town open their doors to total strangers, feeding them and providing libation.

My friends and I were very well acquainted with this tradition.

Meg and I were quickly brought up to speed on the proper protocols of boarding jeepneys. One doesn’t just walk around picking the ride they want. The jeepneys line up so they could be filled with passengers in the proper order.

We were then herded to a vehicle that didn’t look like it could take another passenger.

“Do they want us to get on this one,” Meg asked me, clearly concerned.

You bet they do, my dear.

“Where are we going to sit? There is no room in there,” she said.

This is the thing about jeepneys. Be prepared to contort yourself into a pretzel just to get to your seat. Mind you, everyone will be as helpful as they can. Everyone will slide down the bench a smidge. But that is it. A smidge.

The rest is on you.

Welcome to the Philippines darling.

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Meg and I watched a local man catch tiny crabs with a bamboo basket.
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He said he likes his crabs fried.
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The beaches of Dauin are not crowded and are clean.
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The sandy beaches are popular with the locals, including these two school boys on their way home.

Although a bit tight, the ride was not too uncomfortable. We found the market in Dauin without a problem. We hopped off, grabbed a couple of San Miguel pilsners at the market, and walked in the direction of the beach.

The beach in Dauin was just as I remembered it. It was not crowded and the water was warm and clear. Coconut trees lined the edges of the sandy beaches. Clearly, dive resorts are the prevailing business in this town.

A stunning bonus is the clear view of Apo Island, a turtle-shaped rock roughly 4 miles southeast of Dauin. Its 30 acres of land does not do justice to its giant reputation as a world-class dive spot. Its coastline is a marine reserve protected by Congress. Needless to say, the diving is pretty good around here.

It is not unusual to see locals using the beaches around here. Schoolboys still use the beach as a way home — walking along the surf’s edge, playing games on the sand oblivious to the beauty that surrounds them.

Meg and I watched a man skim the breaking surf with a bamboo basket to catch small crabs. “It is great for frying,” he said.

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You can still witness remnants of old Malatapay market in action at the livestock auction.

MOURNING THE LOSS OF OLD MALATAPAY MARKET

Feb. 27, 2013

Crispy “lechon” (roast pork), fresh snapper and rice steaming inside palm frond baskets are just a few of the things I remember about Malatapay Market.

I fondly remember going to this outdoor market with my family. The market is near the town of Zamboangita, about 15 miles south of Dumaguete City. It was always a special trip because the market is only open on Wednesdays.

The market was started by fishermen who picked this strip of beach with black sand to offload their catch. Fish wholesalers would drive down and buy the day’s catch.

Entrepreneurial farmers and craftsman eventually caught on with the trend. Add food vendors to the mix and you have a bonafide market.

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Locals swear the “lechon” (roast pork) in Malatapay market is the best in the entire island.
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You can find just about anything you need to keep house at the market in Malatapay. The colorful displays add to the carnival atmosphere.
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Malatapay’s black sand beach is where tourists hop on motorized outrigger canoes for Apo Island.

For a kid who lived in the city, going to the market meant plenty to see. The food was exotic — “puso,” rice cooked inside palm frond baskets; “lechon,” or roast pig; “kinilaw,” the catch of the day served raw in vinegar, ginger and coconut milk. Best of all it meant eating with your fingers like the farmers and fishermen did.

You can still find most of these things. The “lechon” skin was just as crunchy as I remember. The “tinola” (fish soup) was as refreshing in its steamy bowl.

But the innocence is gone.

In its place is a carnival of merchants, tourists and hucksters — all angling for a piece of what this market can offer. It is crowded, noisy and has the unmistakable stench of a market. What used to be a neighborly gathering has evolved into a commercial enterprise. The traffic to the beach a killer.

It is still a lot of fun if you come in the right frame of mind.

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Visitors of the market being serenaded by musicians while they take a food break.
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Fishermen take their fresh catch to the beach of Malatapay to sell to seafood wholesalers.
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Some of the day’s catch is served at the many food booths by the beach.
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A tourist is cornered at the end of the concrete jetty by a jewelry hawker.
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This market started as a place where farmers, cradtsmen and fishermen could sell their goods.

From the stone and concrete jetty we saw a line of tourists waiting to board a boat to Apo Island. A piece of timber served as a gangplank to a motorized outrigger canoe. Workers carried duffle bags on their shoulders while offering tourists a free hand.

A parking lot near the beach was bumper to bumper with cars from the city. Medicinal remedy hucksters made their pitch, amplified by the scratchy blare of speakers mounted high on wooden poles. Just getting to the beach was a bit of a hike with stalls lining every inch of the half-mile road.

Today it takes a determined effort to thwart the advances of jewelry vendors as they follow you around — like puppies begging for a treat.

“Pearls from Zamboanga sir,” they say as they tap you on the shoulder.

We even saw a peddler corner a tourist at the end of the jetty to make his pitch. The poor fella just wanted to light a cigarette.

The Malatapay I remember was a gathering place. It was a place for farmers to barter for fresh fish or dry goods.

City folk came when they learned there were deals to be had. Everyone enjoyed the fresh fish prepared the way the fishermen like to eat. It was a place to relax and meet people.

Not so much anymore. But it is still a place to get a deal on salted dried fish, livestock and farming tools. The eateries now offer “videoke” — karaoke off a television screen set on a bamboo table in the middle of the cafe. This place has gotten more hectic with foreign tourists from nearby dive resorts mingling with the locals. They are all searching for a good buy.

Thank you for the memories Malatapay. I shall remember you the way you were.

I left Dumaguete for the same reasons many leave this city. I wanted to see the world beyond the stately palm trees and blue waters of Negros Oriental. I wanted to make something of myself.

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Me in front of Silliman Hall on the campus of my alma mater Silliman University.

GOODBYE DUMAGUETE: YOUR SPIRIT AND WARMTH WILL LIVE IN MY HEART FOREVER

Feb. 28, 2013

The scariest thing about searching for the past is that you may never find it.

Eight days ago I began a journey of rediscovery — searching for the Dumaguete of my youth. My wife Meg came along for the ride because I wanted to share with her my hometown.

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Meg, my love bride, came along for the ride on my journey to rediscover the town of my youth.

All I could offer her when we first met were faded memories locked in a handful of old pictures my mother gave me. I would look forward to friends telling me stories of how much my hometown has changed. As far as I’m concerned, any news out of Dumaguete was welcome news. Even news of devastating typhoons was valuable because it gave me a peep into life there.

Thirty years is a long time. To me, it feels like a lifetime.

I left Dumaguete for the same reasons many leave this city. I wanted to see the world beyond the stately palm trees and blue waters of Negros Oriental. I wanted to make something of myself.

I always thought that in my triumphant return I would be going back to the charming little town I called home for 14 years. Where the dust would gather around your ankles after walking around unpaved pathways. Where acacia and coconut trees dominated the skyline. Where the smell of fresh steamed rice, pan de sal and chicken inasal (grilled chicken) would tease your appetite.

I longed for that simpler time. My heart ached for the innocence that was once my Dumaguete.

That dream is gone. My Dumaguete is no more.

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The charming little town I grew up in is slowly fading away.
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Robinson’s Place shopping mall now offers the latest fashion styles.
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The growing professional class in the city is driving economic development.

Today this city of 120,000 people stands as a model of economic development in the Philippines. Foreign investments dot the beaches of Dauin in the form of dive resorts. Downtown Dumaguete is a vibrant commercial center with shopping centers, restaurants and office buildings. Even the town’s preeminent academic institution — Silliman University — has gotten into the fray with a commercial development called Portal West, a building that is mostly leased out for commercial use.

According to provincial board member Jessica Villanueva the population of this town can grow to 300,000 during week days when visitors from the other islands converge on Dumaguete to do business.

And judging from the number of sunburnt foreign visitors sipping mango shakes in cafes along the boulevard, tourism is booming.

Dumaguete is now a destination for both business and pleasure.

I longed for that simpler time. My heart ached for the innocence that was once my Dumaguete.

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Remnants of old Dumaguete is now an attraction for tourists.
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But the spirit of a gentle people lives on.
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Locals continue to fish the water off the boulevard as development of the city proceeds.

What has not changed is the spirit and heart of the people who live here. As a foreign guest I have been treated to Dumaguete’s famous hospitality.

The singsong cadence with which locals greet you is endearing. “Morneeng sar.”

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Gavin Hughes enjoying a pedicure on the boulevard.

Their beaming smiles warm your soul. Their sincerity to help you any way they can is touching. This hospitality is mainly what has convinced many foreigners — Germans, Australians, Canadians and Americans — to call Dumaguete home.

“Everywhere else people make you feel like a foreigner,” said Gavin Hughes, formerly of Blaine, Wash. “Here we have nice people. You can be here for five minutes and you’re already an insider.”

Hughes, who moved here six years ago, is married to a woman from Bacong, a tiny municipality four miles south of the city. They have two children.

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Terrence Green, originally of Darwin, Australia, now lives in the foothills above the city with his lovely bride Vina.

Terrence Green, formerly of Darwin, Australia, was hooked after accompanying a friend to Dumaguete. It was during that trip he met a beautiful woman named Vina from Sibulan, a town three miles to the north. He married her and has been living in the foothills above Dumaguete the past seven years.

“I am very happy,” Green said. “I love where I live. It is very quiet. I only hear my cows, my goats and my dogs.”

They are staking their claim to this lovely place. To them this is home. Their children will grow up here and build memories of their own. They will picture a place where the palm trees do indeed stand tall and stately. Where the breeze from the southern sea blow gently through the town’s narrow avenues.

This is their home now.

I thank you for the memories Dumaguete.

I am proud that I once called you home. You will always live in my heart. I will always be thankful for your warmth and care.

With all my love and enduring gratitude, goodbye Dumaguete until we meet again.

EPILOGUE

On May 5, 2013, my employers — The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., and The Oylmpian of Olympia, Wash. — published a travel story I wrote about my trip home. It certainly was satisfying to commit to writing what I saw. To be honest, my account of Dumaguete is not that different from how I remember my tropical roots, except for perhaps the growth and development. But I am glad I am able to share this experience.

Negros Island will always have a special place in my heart. Its people, culture and beauty help mold the man I am today. For that I am eternally grateful.

“So, when are we moving to Dumaguete,” my lovely bride asked me the other day. “I love that place.”

We already have, my dear, in our hearts.

TROPICAL ESCAPE

(May 5, 2013) The island of Negros in the Philippines offers a little bit of everything: beaches, culture and exotic cuisine

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The natural beauty of Negros Island brings visitors to Dumaguete City. Its people’s hospitality convinces them to come back.

Dumaguete City, Philippines — If you’re looking for a tropical adventure to add to your bucket list, a trip to the island of Negros in the Philippines may just be the ticket.

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From the white sand beaches to the towering volcanic peaks, the beaauty of Negros is stunning.

This is where the clear blue southern sea nips at the white sand and corals. This is where the coconut trees stand tall and where the local hospitality is warm and endearing. Beautiful can only begin to describe its rolling hills, vast valleys of sugar cane fields and towering volcanic peaks.

Whether your idea of adventure is diving down colorful reefs or hiking mountain trails or tasting exotic cuisine, this emerald isle about an hour flight south of Manila is a worthy destination.

Best of all, the people here may just be the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

“You can be here for five minutes and you’re already an insider,” said Gavin Hughes, formerly of Blaine, Wash., who now lives in Dumaguete City with his wife and two children. “Everywhere else people make you feel like a foreigner. Here we have nice people.”

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The city’s waterfront is a popular destination for locals seeking the cooler salt air of the southern sea.
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Dumaguete’s laid back life style is one of the primary reasons foreigners flock to this tropical city of 120,000 people.

And according to lifelong resident and provincial council member Jessica Villanueva, people come to Dumaguete for “its laid back kind of life (that has) a little bit of everything, its perfect location (with) access to other big cities” and its climate.

Because of its location, Negros is sheltered from most typhoons by its neighbor islands. Pair that with temperatures in the mid 80s in February and March, and a trip to this sock-shaped rock makes for a welcome getaway from the gray skies and rain of the Pacific Northwest.

Worried about the language? Don’t be. “Everybody speaks English around here,” Hughes said smiling, clearly enjoying a pedicure at a park on the waterfront.

GETTING AROUND IS EASY

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Getting around the island is easy with a myriad of public transportation options available.
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Meg enjoyed her ride to Dauin on a jeepney.
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Locals ride the pedicabs to get around in town.

This is an easy island to explore with an abundance of options in getting around. There are buses and “jeepneys” — a homegrown vehicle that has the nose of a military jeep and the bed of a truck. Then there are the pedicabs or tricycles, which are motorcycles with a side car attached and are popular with the locals. Or, if you want to be a bit extravagant, rent a car and it comes with a driver.

Long stretches of the highway are lined with banana trees and dotted with palm frond huts. Here stately old plantation mansions share space with bamboo houses on stilts along miles of beaches through little towns named Sibulan, San Jose, Amlan and Tanjay (pronounced tan-high).

It is a trip back to a simpler time. An hour drive north will take you to Bais (pronounced bah-ease) City where you can catch a 15-minute ride on a motorized outrigger canoe to a sandbar in the middle of the Tanon Strait, the channel between the islands of Cebu and Negros.

If you’re lucky you might witness your boat captain grab a large squid — called “nokus” by the locals — with his bare hands.

“Now that’s what I call lunch and a show,” said a chuckling Lionel Tayko, a local attorney playing tour guide for visitors to the sandbar.

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Our boat captain scoops a large squid right out of the water at the sandbar in near Bais City.

If scuba diving is your thing, then a quick drive south of the city to the town of Dauin (pronounced duh-win) is where you will want to be. The beaches in this growing municipality are lined with dive resorts that cater to visitors eager to experience the reefs around Apo Island. This volcanic island’s coastline is a designated marine reserve and is home to 650 species of fish and about 400 species of corals, according to research from the Silliman University Marine Laboratory.

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Sweet marinated pork called “tocino” sits on a tray at a local restaurant ready to be cooked on the grill.

Or you can choose to stay in town, sample the local cuisine and immerse yourself in the local culture. Its old world charm can still be seen as you walk around the city. Street vendors sell fried plantains out of wooden carts. Fruit and vegetable vendors camp out at every corner. “Manukan,” or chicken houses, are everywhere serving a local delicacy: chicken marinated in lime and chili grilled to charred perfection.

A BLEND OF OLD AND NEW

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Silliman Hall, left, is the iconic structure on the sprawling campus of Silliman University. The university was founded in 1901 and is one of four major colleges in Dumaguete City, earning this city on Negros Island the moniker “university town”.
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The bell tower of the St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral is a stone structure built in 1754 — a legacy of Spanish rule in the islands.

Dumaguete, a city of about 120,000 people, is home to four universities, earning it the moniker “university town.” The largest and most prestigious of these schools is Silliman University, an institution founded in 1901 with a grant from New York philanthropist Horace B. Silliman to the American Presbyterian mission to the Philippines.

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Lenticular clouds shroud the top of Mount Talinis, the second tallest peak on the island.

It is also the seat of government for the province of Negros Oriental, the eastern half of the island. Its dramatic geologic profile is dominated by two of the region’s tallest peaks: Mount Talinis on the southern end at 6,243 feet and Mount Kanlaon to the north at 7,989 feet.

Old and new just seems to blend seamlessly in this place locals fondly refer to as “The City of Gentle People.” Ask anyone and they are liable to give you a history lesson.

At the heart of downtown Dumaguete sits St. Catherine of Alexandria Church, a stone structure built in 1754, that underscores the island’s Catholic heritage and epitomizes Spanish rule of the island. By the waterfront sits Silliman Hall on the campus of Silliman University. It is one of the original buildings on this sprawling campus built at the turn of the 20th century, an icon of the American mission of education.

A stroll along the seawall, referred to locally as “the boulevard,” is a must. This is where the locals cool off after the sun goes down. It is also where most of the restaurants and bars that cater to visitors are located. This is the place to be to sample local life.

A CENTER OF BUSINESS

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Business is booming in downtown Dumaguete — like inside Lee Super Plaza.
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Shopping centers like the Robinson’s Place Mall have opened to serve this city of 120,000 people.
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The old ways of doing things can still be experienced in the public market of Dumaguete.

But do not let this town’s gentle island character fool you. This is a bustling business center for the region.

Six years ago, a handful of companies running call centers opened locations in the city, fueling an economic boom. The impetus for picking this out-of-the-way location is its surplus of highly educated workers who are comfortable with the English language. Today, internet cafes dot the city’s narrow avenues and sit next to McDonald’s restaurants — a clear sign that a professional class has emerged.

“In terms of personal and professional development, (call centers) offer a relatively high pay and facilitate a better understanding of foreign culture and the working environment abroad,” said Silliman University President Dr. Ben Malayang III in an email. “The presence of call centers is indicative of the competitiveness of students in the city.”

The city’s rapid growth is a point of contention for both residents and officials alike. But what is not debatable is the fact that on any given day Dumaguete’s population can double as visitors from neighbor islands come to town for business.

Regardless of where they stand on the issue of development, there is agreement that the primary reason a growing number of foreigners call this place home is its simple lifestyle.

“I am very happy,” said Terrence Green, formerly of Darwin, Australia, now living in the foothills above the city. “I love where I live. It is very quiet. I only hear my cows, my goats and my dogs.”

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A man searches the tide pool by the boulevard for small crabs as the sun rose. The island’s natural beauty and simple lifestyle make it attractive to visitors.

9 thoughts on “Tropical Escape: A Philippine homecoming

  1. Hi David. Thank you for your engaging and riveting blog. Dumaguete City has always been my favorite city in the Visayas – my UP Los Banos professor in the ’70s, a Silliman alumna, always encouraged us to visit her beloved city. Thank you for such a great article! I will let my wife read it, too, so I can persuade her to retire with me in that cultural/intellectual mecca.

  2. Hi Dave. Thanks for the wonderful story and photographs. My wife and I were teaching at Silliman in the early 70s. Like you, we have fantastic memories of the people and place. We still return and find it very difficult to leave. Kind regards. Peter Howie.
    peter_howie@hotmail.com

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