My last visit to the Philippines was limited to just 5 days and spent entirely in the Old Intermural or Old Walled Colonial City of Manila exploring the historical sites. This year I decided to begin my 2022 adventure exploring the country’s many beautiful natural blessings as well as visit the infamous World War II tragedies of Bataan and Corregidor.
I will divide my Philippines blog into 4 chapters because there is just so much to share about this beautiful country, the happy and generous people who live here and their very rich and vibrant culture. This installment will provide a brief overview of my general impressions of the country, a short history and explanation of the geography of the country and a generalized impression of the wonderful people who live here.
First you should know that the Philippines is made up of over 7600 separate islands and is the world’s second largest archipelago. Though there are many island there are only four major ones – Luzon,
Mindanao, Samar, and Negros.
Historically the country has been invaded and ruled by 4 separate colonial powers. The first, the Spanish invaded and ruled for nearly 400 years and did as most European Colonial powers – enslaved the people, raped the land of resources and justified their actions by claiming the inhabitants were savages and barbarians little above animals.
In truth the people the Spanish found here were a thriving and mature culture with their own written language, laws, culture and civil structure. And in the 400 years of Spanish control – they did little to improve the lives of the local inhabitants.
As a result of the Spanish American War (1898) the United States routed the Spanish and Cuba, Porta Rico and the Philippines all became part of the US spoils of war. The Philippines became a US Protectorate and the new colonial power set out immediately developing a nation-wide free public education system, built transportation networks and set the country on a path to self-governance. In a very short time elections were held and a national congress of Filipino citizens were elected and eventually a Filipino Presidency was established and Manuel L. Quezon was elected to serve as the first Filipino President in 1935. In fact the timetable had been set for the Philippines complete independence by 1942.
Then in December of 1941 eight hours after Pearl Harbor the Japanese invaded. The combined forces of the Americans and Filipino forces fought off the invading forces for four long months before being overwhelmed by the Japanese. But it was a costly and only temporary victory for the Rising Sun and the Americans led by General Douglas MacArthur came back in 1945 with a vengeance and wiped out the Japanese and put an end to their bloody and savage rule.
You have probably noticed that I have only mentioned 3 invaders not four. The fourth is hardly worth mentioning because the rule of the British was short and uneventful. The British briefly vanquished the Spanish and laid claim to the island for 20 short months (1763 -1764) and had very little lasting impact before the Spanish reclaimed the Philippines for their own.
As I mentioned before the Filipino people have a rich and vibrant culture based on family and very conservative catholic adherence. The people are incredibly happy, friendly and industrious. They love to eat (6 times a day), sing (karaoke is practically the national past time), dance, and party. They work hard with the tools they have available or make their own out of necessity and when the work is done they play just as hard.
I found the people here to be very happy, welcoming and kind to strangers. Filipinos once called our little brown cousins by a less than politically correct Teddy Roosevelt may be small in stature but have oversized hearts, smiles and attitude. All they need to prosper in the future is a government as honest, caring and good as the country’s people.
So let’s move on to my tour of Luzon. I spent my first 6 days on the island of Luzon visiting the Pagsanjan Waterfall, Corregidor, the Pinatubo Volcano’s Crater, the Hanging Coffins of Sagada and the ancient 2000 year old rice terraces of Batad and Banaue.
Day one began by a brief side trip to what my terrific guide, MJ promised would be an interesting visit to see the old historical and first train tracks in the Philippines still in use as a “Trolly Line”. What she failed to tell me “Trolly” is a Filipino trolly (and I use the term loosely).
Industrious locals have built small lightweight backed benches on wheels to ferry passengers up and down the old rail line propelled by men on foot. If you look closely at the photos and short video you will notice the passengers sit on the bench seating as a young man propels the contraption down the track with one foot resting on the back of the bench’s back wheel and the other running along the track like he’s traveling on a kids scooter.
This form of locomotion actually moves down the track very quickly and when it is time to stop the breaking system involves dropping the heel and using the friction from the operators rubber flip flop against the metal wheel and track to slow then stop the rolling bench. There is only one track so if another bench trolly is met going the opposite direction the passengers from one bench disembarks, the train operator picks up his bench and steps aside until the other passes then resets the bench on the rails and the passengers reboard and continue the journey.
This trains line only extends about 3 kilometers from one end to the other and then the bench is lifted turned around for the return trip. The locals will pay 10 or 20 pesos for a quick ride from one part of the community to the next. As I would learn with each new day – Filipinos are quite ingenious and find interesting ways to solve daily problems with what they have at hand.
So after our quick 6 kilometer “train ride” we were back on track to visit Pagsanjan Falls. To reach the falls requires a 45 minute dugout canoe trip up the Bumbungan River and over 6 sets of rapids in a bangka propelled by two barefooted boatmen. The bangka is a canoe like light plywood boat but with a flat bottom and longer length. The unsteady boat was a little disconcerting at first but in time I got use to the feeling of regular near capsizing and released my death grip on the sides of the craft (have I mentioned I can’t swim).
The boatmen propel the boat with pie-plate shaped paddle’s through the calm waters but as they reach the rapids they jump out while still moving forward leaving one leg and foot in the boat and running again scooter style propelling the boat by running along the bottom of the river or when there are boulders or even small river rocks along the route using them to expertly kick off by placing their feet expertly in the exact best place for leverage at full speed and explosively extending their cocked leg shooting the boat forward. The motion is so fast and so precise the boat never looses momentum.
Amazingly the boatmen gracefully jump from one side of the boat to the other as boulders present themselves to best steer and propel the boat forward without ever making a misstep which would result in broken bones. In places the water is too shallow or the rapid’s incline too great and the boatmen would resort to dragging my fat ass and boat over the rocky bottom.
Eventually we recached the falls and transferred to a bamboo raft called a Balsa where we were pulled by an anchored rope across the falls pool and under and through the falls itself and into the grotto behind the falls known as the Devil’s Gate. I have been behind falls before but never in a raft directly through the teeth of the cascading water. A very exhilarating and soaking experience.
After a second drenching on the way out of the Devil’s Gate we reboarded our bangka for the trip back down river and shooting the 6 rapids traveling with the current and much faster. But again the boatmen are experts and navigated between car sized boulders not more than 3 feet apart traveling at speed through the zig zagging watercourse of the rapids.
After reaching our starting point we quickly changed into dry clothes and enjoyed a traditional a Filipino lunch of Pork Sinigarg (sour pork), Kare-Kare, , Pork Liempo and rice. Sour Pork consists of cubes of pork that have three layers (the hide, half inch of fat, and half inch of meat). I cut off the leathery hide and gelatinous fat and ate only the meat. This is cooked in a clear broth with some type of greens or weeds. The Kare-Kare is inspired by Indian cuisine but since they lack the spices of India they use a peanut base with eggplant, cow hide and I’m sure other ingredients best left unknown. This I didn’t care for nor did I care for the deep fried pig fat dish. But I was satisfied with the boiled pork and rice.
My second day began at 3am with a long drive up to the famed Bataan Peninsula and down along the Manila Bay coastline to reach the tip of the Peninsula to catch our bamboo outrigger motor boat for the 20 minute ride across Manila Bay to the Island of Corregidor.
Local guide and military historian Marianito (Mar) Malacaman (09283827334) explained the history of the islands and specifically the Japanese invasion and American/Filipino Defense of the Luzon.
I, of course, knew a little about Hollywood’s version of the Battle of Manila Bay and Luzon from watching the old black and white movies like “They Were Expendable” and “Corregidor” as well as a later movie “The Great Raid” about the rescue of POWs in a daring raid deep behind Japanese lines. But Mar offered a lot more detail as well as actual truth behind Hollywood’s fictionalizing for entertainment effect.
The Japanese plan was to take the Philippines in 50 days but the stiff resistance tied the Japanese up for 4 months and forced them to bring troops planned for the invasion of Papua New Guinea, back to the Philippines to reinforce the stalled Luzon invasion force. The stiff opposition and sacrifice of the American and Filipino forces at Luzon doomed the Invasion of Papua New Guinea and Australia.
The battle for Corregidor was more than just an artillery battle on the island itself. The defenders had set up three lines of defense across the Bataan Peninsula using the mountains running down its spine to best hold their lines. The Filipino troops made the Japs pay dearly for every inch of territory gained in massive causalities. But as brave as the defenders were they were out gunned and out maned and eventually had to fall back from one line of defense to the next until finally out of ammo and overwhelmed were forced to surrender and endure the infamous Bataan Death March and three long years as prisoners of war.
But while taking the fight to the invading Japanese there were small victories and huge instances of incredible personal bravery. The world’s last successful carvery charge occurred on Bataan against the Japanese forces. And many instances of smaller Filipino units repelling much larger Jap infantry charges and tank assaults before being overrun.
Once the battle reached the island of Corregidor or as it was known before the war, Little America the battle became one of attrition. And after 4 months of continuous artillery and air bombardment and once supplies and ammo ran out General Wainwright was forced to surrender and spend the next 3 years as a prisoner of war along with his surviving men.
In 1945 General MacArthur returned and with the might of an awakened sleeping giant overpowered the Japanese and liberated both the Philippines and the surviving prisoners of war in quick order.
But it was too late for many prisoners of war and civilians. The Japanese were cruel and sadistic conquerors bayoneting prisoners of war with little to no provocation. And the civilian population endured even worse with mass executions of men and women, mass rapes and babies thrown into the air only to be caught on the points of bayonets as sport for the Japanese soldiers.
As I listened to all of this and thought about what I had just read about the Russian War Crimes in Ukraine I just wonder what it is about war that brings the most evil and demonic nature out in men. Is it simply the nature of men attracted to war or is it the brutality and senseless slaughter that turns decent men into brutal blood thirsty animals enjoying the suffering and pain of others. Hard to say but as old as the nature of war itself.
MOUNT PINATUBO CRATOR TREK
On the third morning I rose at 2am for the early morning drive to Mount Pinatubo. We began the trek at 6:30am and followed the river basin’s meandering path for 7 kilometers crossing the stream multiple times before beginning the climb up Mount Pinatubo. Eventually we reached the highpoint overlooking the crater lake covering the volcano’s caldera. Pinatubo is a still active volcano and you may remember its last major eruption in the early 1990s when the U.S. Air Force’s Clark Base had to be evacuated and eventually abandoned.
I’ve included photos of the route (notice several photos with large yellow stones and boulders – these were ejected kilometers from the caldera during the eruption) as well as the beautiful crater lake from the rim observation point where we enjoyed a nice picnic brunch of salty chicken teriyaki and rice before heading back down for the long 10 hour drive to Sagada.
We reached Sagada after midnight and fortunately found my lodging for the night and after a cold shower got a good 6 hours sleep after being up and on the move for 24 hours straight.
Certainly one of the strangest burial customs I have come across is that of the Igorot People of the central Highlands of the Cordillera Mountains in northern Luzon. The Igorot have been burying their dead in coffins hung from the side of a mountain or stacked in the entrance of one of the many limestone caves dotting the cliff faces for at least 2000 years.
The coffins are hand carved by the deceased before they pass or relatives and then are tied or nailed to the cliff face. The practice is based on the belief that the burial in sunlight brings the dead closer to their ancestral spirits and their pagan gods.
The process begins long before death as each full blooded Igorot selects the cliff face they wished to be attached to. And I should mention, only full blooded Igorots that have adhered to the old religion may be buried in this manner. Once the person passes – a funnel and hose is used to fill the body with water (the Igorot do not believe in embalming). Then the body is placed in a chair and a small fire is ignited beneath the chair to heat the body and encourage evaporation. Once the body has steeped overnight then the corpse is ready to be transported to the cliff face.
All the men of the village line up in a long procession and walk with the body from the home of the deceased down the mountain into the valley, across the valley floor, and up to scaffolding that has been erected on the cliff face on the far side of the valley for the burial.
At the top of the mountain at a view point before descending and crossing the valley the procession halts while the village elder shouts across the valley to the spirits inhabiting previously placed coffins. He introduces the newest spirit to the elder spirits by shouting something like the following: “Elders – this is Dawuani she was a good woman and an expert tour guide in this life and she will make a fine guide for you through eternity.” Or “this is Brenda and she was a wonderful seamstress and she can make you beautiful clothes in the afterlife.”
After the introductions and the echoes recede the procession continues the precarious trek down the narrow, steep, winding path and across the valley to the foot of the chosen cliff. Once there several of the strongest men will climb the scaffolding and secure a chair to the side of the cliff. The body is then passed forward from the back of the procession. With each man holding the body in a bear hug and passing it forward to the next one after another until the body is at the face of the cliff. I’m told that each man squeezes the body tightly to encourage the spillage of body fluids on them. Supposedly the more body fluids leaking onto a man the better his fortunes so they each squeeze very hard.
Once the body reaches the cliff face the strongest of the villagers lifts the body up into the scaffolding and ties it securely to the chair where it will stay bound in a blanket with leaves and vines and smoked for several days to delay decomposition and to allow the family to say their good byes. Then in a few days the villagers will come back and fold the body(breaking bones) into fetal position and place it into the small hand hewn coffin and then secure the coffin to the cliff face with either ropes/cables or spikes.
As I mentioned before some coffins are placed in the entrances of caves. There are separate caves for men, women, bachelors and even women who died in child birth. Also I should note that only people who have died of natural causes may be buried in the old way. A person that has been murdered or committed suicide may not be buried in the valley.
One interesting side note, while I was taking a brief break at a small café at the coffee plantation at the head of the valley I had an interesting conversation with several of the older female guides. They showed me the fertility room in a traditional Sagada house and explained that large families are desired in their culture. Each woman proudly told me how many children they had. The most fertile proudly told me she had 11 children. Then proudly explained her husband is an excellent shooter and she is an excellent catcher. I have to admit I never considered the act of procreation as sporting event but the description does seem appropriate for their proven success at repopulating the tribe.
BATAD AND BANAUE RICE TERRACES
High up in the mountains of northern Luzon lies ancient rice terraces built over 2000 years ago and in continuous use all throughout the melena. In the rest of the Philippines rice cultivation all occurs down in the flatlands where the farmers can harvest two crops a year using traditional planting methods employed throughout Asia. Only in parts of China, Indonesia and this remote mountain settlement in northern Luzon will you find rice cultivated in stepped terraces carved into the mountain with rock sides and employing an elaborate irrigation system that systematically moves water down the terraces flooding each subsequent terrace.
Unfortunately one dimensional photos fail to capture the grand scale or richness of color that the eye sees. But if you wish to experience this beauty first hand you should be prepared to pay a physical price. The village for the terraces begins about half way down the mountain and spills out far below on the valley floor. This requires a long walk down the side of the mountain to any number of transit or guest houses and I will be generous and just describe them as primitive.
After nearly an hour down hill trek we arrived at my hovel of a guesthouse which was basically constructed of plywood walls, an ill fitted window, flimsy door with a small block of wood for a lock, no electric outlets to charge electronics, a naked bulb in the ceiling, no internet, no heat, no in suite bathroom, no screens to keep out the mosquitoes, no sink or shower facilities, only a communal totterers toilet and no edible food.
Oh and also you have to share the hovel with a pig, chickens, geese, and half a dozen dogs. The only thing this place has going for it is the view and the fact that it would require another hour walk straight up if you rejected the s___ hole of an accommodations and went searching for more civilized sleeping quarters.
But I learned later that the only way building materials as well as supplies reached the village is in the hands or on the backs of the villagers themselves. Every bag of cement, every cinder block, every sheet of plywood, every 2 X 4, every toilet, tool and store bought food had to be carried by a local villager. So maybe that cast iron bath tub or full size refrigerator, or deluxe toilet didn’t actually make practical sense.
While there my guide MJ took me on a tour of a traditional village house and showed me how rice is dried, stored, separated from the husks and prepared for meals using a shallow ratan separating basket, a stone mortar and huge heavy wooden pestles, and lots of child labor (it is the job of the children to prepare the rice for meals while the parents are working in the fields).
I would like to strongly recommend two guides should you decide to visit Luzon.
First Marjorie Joyne Zamudio was my general guide for the entire 6 days in Luzon and is a true professional. Always on time, attentive to details, knowledgeable about the history, culture, foods, geography, and current affairs of the island. Additionally MJ is a happy soul and an absolute pleasure to be around. She can be reached via Whats App 63 917 560 6687
Second my guide for the WW II sites Marianito (Mar) Malocaman is an excellent guide for the Island of Corregidor or all things relating to the history of the island. He was knowledgeable, engaging and extremely funny and likeable. He can be reached via Whats App at63 092 838 273 34.
Next stop Boracay, Cebu City and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol…