I had purchased a AC ticket for the ferry to The Philippines. I didn’t really know what the difference would be, but after sleeping in cockroach central on the way from Jakarta to Pontianak, I had no intention of repeating the experience. Happily, the Tim Marine ship from Sandakan to Zamboanga was nowhere near as bad and at least a million times more fun.
As on the ferry from Pulau Batam to Jakarta, I shared a large-ish cabin (only this one had bunk beds) with about forty or fifty other people. It was a nice communal atmosphere and everyone who spoke a bit of English was happy to sit and have a chat with me, amongst them was a guy called Zakaria who was the Secretary General of the Foreign Relation Office of the Sultanate of Sulu.
Where’s that eh? Next to the Kingdom of Kirk and the People’s Republic of Spock?
Ah yes – I should explain, the Sultanate of Sulu hasn’t been invented yet.
Zakaria was keen for me to read the declaration document which will be presented on November 17th 2010 in which the islands of Sulu (the currently Filipino-owned islands which stretch from Borneo to Mindanao) stake their case for becoming a new and independent nation. Yup, if Kosovo or South Sudan doesn’t get there first, the islands of Sulu are hoping to be the 193rd member of the UN.
Should I worry? Should I head out to the Sulu islands just in case it becomes a nation before I finish The Odyssey?
Nah. First up – MUCH too dangerous. Secondly, if it is going to happen, it won’t for a long time. A few reasons (which Zakaria and I discussed)…
1. The Philippines are unlikely to give up an oil-rich region of their sovereign territory without a fight.
2. The document that Zakaria gave me says they want to set up a Sultanate, not a democracy: a tough sell, even to the UN.
3. The document also says that they want to enforce sharia law over the inhabitants of the Sulu islands. As a sizeable minority of Sulu islanders are Christian or animists, another tough sell.
4. The separatist rebels of Mindanao and Sulu have been committing terrorist acts for decades now. This will not warm any civilised nation to their cause. The fact that The Philippines government can (somewhat justifiably) argue that they are fighting ‘terrorism’, the ball will be in their court.
The Sulu separatists are, sensibly, dropping the rest of Mindanao from their vision, as Mindanao has been ‘colonised’ by too many Filipino Christians for it to make sense as a Muslim state (I love the assumption that the Christians are the usurpers and the Muslims have been there since the beginning of time… I think there are some animist tribes that may well have a chuckle at that one).
Independence struggles that involve the protagonists murdering innocent civilians hardly (if ever) work in this day and age: just ask Hamas, Eta or the IRA – the national governments tend to just dig their heels in. Yes, some African nations think they bought their freedom in blood, but in the general sweep of history I would have been amazed if after Portugal had gotten rid of the tyrant Salazar and then kept hold of their colonies, especially since by 1975 pretty much every other European power had already given theirs up: India, the jewel of the British Empire, was granted independence because of a elderly lawyer in a nappy who explicitly preached non-violence.
Generally speaking, your best bet is to reign in the hot-heads, deliver a compelling case for independence (which I do think Sulu has – historically and since The Philippines government is riddled with corruption) and – as I suggested to Zakaria – add the word ‘peace’ to their movement’s name – AND MEAN IT.
Zakaria told me that he was hopeful that Sulu would be a full independent state within two years. Given that it takes a good seven years for a western nation to prepare for the Olympics, and that the UN have been pottering around Western Sahara for the past nineteen years doing a hell of a lot of nothing, my thinking is that it’ll take a heap big longer time than that.
But, you know, Zakaria wasn’t a loony, he handled my difficult questions well, and he was obviously sincere in his belief in a better future for Sulu. I just wish that he wasn’t doing it for all the wrong reasons: the last thing this world needs is yet another nation in which the church and state are inseparably and inexorably entwined. Any church, for that matter – but particularly the one which Zakaria is a member of: one in which unfairness, sexual discrimination and intolerance of beer, dancing, kissing, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and apostates (not to mention brutal penalties for offenders) is coded in a seventh-century law that can never be amended.
Not exactly propelling the human race forwards to utopia is it? Well, not one that I fancy being part of.
Anyway, after all that dry politics I was in the mood for some nice wet beer. I entered the canteen/karaoke bar and the Filipinos on board (and pretty much everybody was Filipino) just wanted to do what Filipinos do best: attempt to get me drunk. And hurrah for that!
The San Miguel following like warm frothy waterfalls, I soon joined in with the spirit of things (my collective noun for Filipinos is a ‘Karaoke’) and began warbling some half-remembered tune. The microphone had broken by this point, but that wasn’t going to stop me. The afternoon was given over to Bacchus as we sung to the sirens, drifting imperceptibly towards the forbidden island of Mindanao, borne on Neptune’s wake. Or, in other words, beer and karaoke, yeah!
By the time we arrived in Zamboanga at 11pm, I had lost all apprehension of Mindanao, lousy reputation notwithstanding, and the concept of spending the next two days cowering in my hotel room seemed not just cowardly but a trifle bizarre. Off the boat I was shepherded by a group of passengers who were working doing PR for a soap company, and one of their brood, a transsexual called Jenn, chaperoned me to my hotel ($7 a night and a room the size of a shoebox) and then we went out for a drink in one of the marvellous tuk-tuks they have here, which are a motorbike and sidecar-type that I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, a government imposed rule that nobody could drink alcohol the next day (there’s a local election on Monday) meant that from midnight all drinkies were off.
I didn’t mind so much – after all that San Miguel and karaoke this afternoon, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I headed back to my hotel and got my head down for the night, happy in the knowledge that I was now in NATION NUMBER 182: THE PHILIPPINES!!
And to think… THREE WEEKS AGO TODAY I WAS IN SHANGHAI…!
In just three weeks, the time I was stuck in Gabon, the time I was stuck in Comoros and less than half the time I was stuck in Cape Verde or Kuwait I have made it over land and sea to Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and The Philippines. No wonder I was so tired.
That’s 182 countries down, 18 to go – but every single one of them is an island which I can only attack from the sea. If I get to the next 11 countries in less than three MONTHS, I’ll be doing well. Here goes nuthin’…
After a (much needed) lie-in I head out to the park ‘Jardin Maria Clare Lobregat’ with Jenn, safe in the knowledge that ladyboys to Muslim fundamentalists are like garlic to vampires. Maria Clare Lobregat was the previous and (seemingly very popular) mayor of Zamboanga and this delightful park, filled with birds and butterflies, was built in her memory.
Funny – here’s me expecting Beirut in the 1980s. However, all is not sweetness and light – there are parts of Zamboanga that I was told – in no uncertain terms – I was ill-advised to visit, but we stayed away from them in the same way that you’d stay away from Scunthorpe if you ever visited Britain. Easy.
Jenn’s dream is to move to Thailand. She currently works in Malaysia and gets on with most people there, except for the few who call her haram and ask her to leave the house. I asked if she’d ever pulled a Crying Game on someone, but she said that she’s too honest.
Later we headed down to the waterfront where there are loads of cafes and bars (sadly none serving alcohol today). There’s a stage for concerts and a large outdoor cinema screen for films. Cool! There we met up with some of Jenn’s mates. I’ve met loads of Filipinos already on my travels, especially on the many boat journeys I’ve been on and they have to be some of my favourite people in the world – always ready to smile and laugh and everybody just seems so damn happy to see me.
Later on that evening, we were having a coffee when Jenn told me that the current mayor of Zamboanga – Marie Clare Lobregat’s son, Celso, was sitting on the table behind us. Jenn introduced us and Celso and I had a good chat about Zam and he introduced me to most of the top brass of the local government who he was having coffee with. Can’t be too bad of a place if here are all the city councillors out having a drink in the open. I somehow couldn’t imagine the top brass of Detroit doing the same.
So to sum up my weekend: Friday: Orang-Utans, Saturday: Muslim fundamentalists, Sunday: Ladyboys. Shame we didn’t all meet up in the same place, it would have made one hell of a tea-party.
I was woken by Jenn knocking on my hotel room door at 7.25am. It was time to go. We grabbed some breakie in the Chowking restaurant downstairs and then headed out to the ferry office to buy my return ticket to Borneo – this time I thought I’d splash out and get a berth in a four-person cabin. The ship was due to leave at midday, so we had time to go to the supermarket and grab some supplies (wet-wipes, mainly) and then it was down to the docks through the surprisingly cheerful mean-streets of Zamboanga.
I said my fond farewells to Jenn and thanked her for looking after me all weekend (although do I shake her hand or give her a kiss?). I wished her the best of luck getting to Thailand and promised to give her a shout next time I’m in town.
Leaving Philippines I was more than a little miffed that I didn’t have the time nor resources to make it to Manilla. Cramped into that tiny Zamboanga hotel ‘room’ (‘slot’ would be a more accurate noun) and having to suffer a trickle of cold water on my head as some lame excuse for a shower whilst staring forlornly at the seatless, broken communal toilet mere inches away from my bare feet, I couldn’t help but kick myself: a very very nice person who works for a major casino company here in The Philippines had offered me a free couch if I stayed in the capital… only I could have stood up from this particular couch, glided across my massive room in my complimentary bathrobe, sipping a G&T from the minibar, and flung my weary body onto the KING-SIZE BED that awaited me in a FIVE-STAR HOTEL… had I been able to take her up on the offer.
Ack! But The Quest, The Glorious Quest…
These windmills aren’t going to tilt at themselves, you know.
If I’m getting a little bit of Don Quixote complex, it’s because these last eighteen countries I need to visit are going to be nigh on impossible: borders drawn across continents by man are much easier to traverse than ones drawn across the ocean by nature: all of the final eighteen countries are islands or parts of islands, and since day sixteen, islands (together with visas) have proven the bane of The Odyssey.
With the lure of cheap plane rides knocking out any chance of a ferry service, attempting to get around this planet on ships has been a nightmare: the Caribbean took two months longer to complete than it should have, my infamous trip to Cape Verde ended in disaster and me being stuck there for over six weeks. Getting to Sao Tome and back cost me three weeks and I left Mauritius on 1st November 2009 and didn’t arrive back in Africa until 17th December.
And I still haven’t been to the infernal Seychelles!
This year I was trapped in Dubai for a month waiting for a ship, I tried to get to Sri Lanka from India, but after wasting two weeks India was having none of it, and that scuppered my plans for getting to the Maldives as well.
I’ve timed my entrance into Oceania perfectly to coincide with the summer cyclone season which runs until next May, so that even if I do find a well-meaning skipper he or she wouldn’t be able to take me to any of the TWELVE Pacific Island States even if they wanted to.
My only choices at this point are cargo ships and cruise liners. It’s going to take a lot of time and a helluva lot of patience. If you think I might get this finished this year, you’re sadly mistaken. If I make it to the Solomon Islands by Christmas I’ll be doing well.
Look at the stats for this year:
Countries visited per month (2010)
And most of that was OVERLAND. Even if I somehow keep up this rather dismal average of five countries a month (last year it was eleven), it’s still going to take four more months to do this: but I’m steeling myself for it to take much longer than that. At this rate I’ll be hitting country 200 around the time the last Harry Potter film gets released.
Then you’ll have to find somebody else’s tedious blog to read
The ship back to Borneo was the same one I arrived on, but going back it was all but empty. It turns out that the people on the top deck who were sectioned off from the rest of us (I regrettably made a joke about them being the Irish third class passengers on The Titanic) were all being deported back to The Philippines after being caught working illegally in Malaysia.
Disturbingly, some of them had spent up to a year in jail before being sent home.
But the lack of return passengers did have one positive outcome: I didn’t have to share my cabin with anyone.
The karaoke machine fixed I spent the evening drinking, singing and laughing with the zany and oh-so-Filipino crew. What a great bunch of lads and girls. Although after this weekend, I’m having trouble deciding which is which…
It was early afternoon before the ship pulled into Sandakan. I’m now going to be backtracking over the exact route I took last week, so if you like you can just read those blogs again but backwards.
At the taxi rank outside the port a woman overheard me asking the cab drivers how much it would be to the bus station and, since she was going the same way, suggested that we share a taxi. This unfortunately required a short fight with the drivers. Not only do the taxis in Malaysia not have meters (SO annoying) these guys were insisting that we took separate cabs. Seriously – what is this? Saudi?
Eventually they relented. It was about half three by the time I got to the bus station and I was left with two options:
I could get on the 4.30pm bus back to Kota Kinabalu and arrive at 11pm tonight, or I could head into Sandakan town, sit in a café for a few hours and get the overnight bus later on. The lure of a hot shower and a cool bed in KK drew me to take the four thirty option.
Annoyingly The bus didn’t leave until about 6pm and the driver must have been a cousin of the one I had last week across Sarawak – he drove like an utter t—, gunning it around the winding jungle roads (dark, no streetlights) and overtaking trucks on blind turns.
Frazzled and weary, it wasn’t until 1am before I checked into the KK backpackers and it was 2am before I had updated the website and uploaded a blog or two. Since I had to be up at half six, I thought it best that this point to hit the hay. You’ll just have to wait.
On our way to Hong Kong now, but we still have a couple of pitstops along the way. First up, Davao on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Now Mindanao gets quite a bad press on account of those murderous muslim militants, who, amusingly enough, call themselves the MILF (I guess they didn’t get the memo). But the city of Davao is remarkably safe. Why? Because if you’re naughty, the mayor will have you killed. Seriously. Like Boris Johnson.
Third Mate Michael is getting off the ship today, his tour is over so he’s flying home for a few weeks. I’ll miss sitting up on the bridge with him drinking tea and making fun of the MILF. Since we would be in port all day, Second Mate Kenny offered to take Chief Engineer Arkadiusz and I to the nearby Crocodile Farm.
The crocs looked happy enough, and I got to get a cool picture of me holding an albino python and a baby crocodile, but there were other animals in the zoo that didn’t look so content – you know, the ones that don’t naturally sit there all day waiting for food to come along. Don’t get me wrong, I have no objection to zoos per se, I think they serve a vital educational role as well as help endangered species which would have otherwise become extinct, but when I see a fellow primate in a tiny cage, it doesn’t make me happy – they could at least give them a decent area to roam about.
One of our third cousins – an orang-utan – was laying in a cage not much bigger than my jail cell in Congo. I know great apes are capable of higher-level emotions, and this one looked bored shitless. I guess that’s were I draw the line on the issue of animals in captivity – the orang-utan sanctuaries in Malaysian Borneo were much more humane, giving the rangas a much wider range in a living forest. Stick to the crocodiles, Davao!
Talking of crocodiles, a wild croc in Philippines recently hit the headlines as the largest living specimen ever caught, if it was anything like the monster croc they had in this zoo, then it must have taken twenty men to take the thing down, damn they can grow big!
The zoo is actually a crocodile farm (quite what the orang-utans are doing there is anyone’s guess), and so it seemed fitting that after gawping at the grizzly authority of these magnificent creatures that we should eat one in order to re-affirm humankind’s position at the very top of the food chain. So Arka and I helped ourselves to a couple of tasty crocodile sausages – although Kenny would have none of it. Oh don’t look at me like that, it’s the circle of life – haven’t you seen The Lion King?
After croc city, Kenny took us to the local shopping mall for a ton of lunch – traditional Filipino fare – seafood in oyster sauce, satay beef, fragrant rice… nice! Kenny and Arka headed back to the ship, leaving me in the shopping mall. You see, there was a battle coming, and I had to be ready with all my wits (and free wi-fi) about me. HSBC had blocked my debit card in Palau, probably because the hamsters that work for HSBC have never heard of Palau and therefore naturally assume that it’s in Guatemala.
The problem was that the internet signal in the Starbucks coffee was so weak that Skype was running like a bucket of bolts (I refused to buy any coffee in protest). After SEVERAL HOURS of trying to get through, I was told that my card had been used in Guatemala(?) and the USA(?!). I was later to find out that both of these times had been me, in Palau, which presumably – as far as HSBC is concerned – moves around the world much in the matter of the island out of ‘Lost’.
After speaking to three people from three different departments, the guy on the end of the string-and-tin Skype line refused to go any further unless I had a decent line.
Since they had put the shits up me by telling me my card had been used in Guatemala and the USA, I said they could call me back on my UK mobile phone number, at a cost to me of about £5 a minute, but they would have to be quick, since it’s got to be a damn good sex-line for me to waste £5 a minute on it.
They called me back only to tell me they had to put me through to yet another department. Mercifully, I ran out of credit before they could put me through. A fine waste of £11.72 that I really don’t have to waste right now.
Buggering this for a game of soldiers, I headed to a pub called Kaori’s Place to meet up with Arka. My directions had said it was opposite JollyBee – a Filipino fast food joint. However, there are at least three different JollyBees in Davao, so this took some time. At this point I realised I was just having one of those days and that I should just see the funny side. I would buy a Filipino SIM card tomorrow (something I should have done today) and get HSBC to call me on that and sort everything out.
In any case, taxis in the Philippines are mega cheap, so I wasn’t overly fussed about the extra time taken in finding the pub (it was, as always, in the last place we looked). It was a Sunday night, so Kaori’s Place was a bit quiet, but the live band made a welcome respite from the ubiquitous karaoke joints that Filipinos go Lady Gaga for. After a few beers, Arka and I said goodnight to our Filipino ladyfriends (I’m fairly certain they were actual ladies this time) and headed back to the ship, we’d be departing at 2300 for General Santos. No, that’s not a person, it’s a city.
After arriving in the port of General Santos I met with Vincent, the local agent for Mariana Express, who took me to see Manny Pacquiao’s mum’s house. It’s a pastel-coloured concrete mansion off a dirt track – the dirt track on which the octuple world boxing champion himself grew up. The other houses in the area were typical concrete hovels, overflowing with people, with kids, with hustle and bustle. I don’t get it – Filipinos are some of the sweetest and most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Why do they have so little to show for it?
The other night, Third Mate Michael and I were chatting about the world and he said he wished the British had colonised The Philippines rather than the Spanish. I thought this was a bit of an odd thing to say – I mean, who wants to be colonised? But what he meant was that, given the choice, the British would have left a better legacy – and looking at the performance of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong in recent years, Mike seems to have a point – especially when you compare the woes of Latin America with the economic powerhouses of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
But why is this the case? Why can’t I think of a single ex-Spanish colony that really done well for itself? One that’s a world player, a economic powerhouse, a beacon of justice and democracy for the rest of the world to aspire to?
Michael pretty much answered that question for me: religion.
While the Brits were happy, in general, to let the people in their colony’s keep their own religion – at worst pushing them to be quaint old Church of Englanders, the Spanish, Portuguese and French were gung-ho for converting as many people as possible to Catholicism.
And what goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism? Poverty! The Catholic Church’s retarded attitude towards birth control has been instrumental to the economic retardation of pretty much ALL of the world’s ex-Spanish, ex-Portuguese, ex-Italian and ex-French colonies.
Think about it: if your population is doubling every few years, you’re very soon going to run out of commodities, jobs and space. Take the Philippines: a country that is now pushing 100 million people. Tiny one-room apartments house up to three families. With millions living on top of each other in abject squalor, you’re going to very quickly see a situation in which people turn to crime in order to survive. And Catholicism lends a helping hand to criminals as well – it tells them WHATEVER THEY DO will be forgiven!!!
Is it any surprise that the Mafia comes from Italy? That Irish priests find it so unproblematic to live with themselves after repeated raping children? That Mexican drug barons are renowned as the most savage and ruthless in the world, all the while sporting a gold crucifix around their necks LIKE IT MEANS SOMETHING? Who cares how much suffering, how much pain, how much death you inflict on the world, YOU’LL BE FORGIVEN!!
Here’s a formula for ya…
No control on your population levels + an ‘all will be forgiven’ attitude towards lawlessness = every wretched and impoverished state in the world.
And the really sick thing? What little the people in The Philippines and countries like it have, they give to the church, presumably so The Pope (bless his paedo-enabling socks) can continue to dine off plates MADE OF GOLD.
I try not to go off on one about religion too much, this isn’t the blog for that. But does nobody else get absolutely irate by this transparent global SCAM? How much needless suffering is acceptable in order to propagate these childish beliefs? Are people that shallow, that pathetic, that needy that they can’t live without the fantasy that they’re going to magically survive their own death and see their dead family and friends and pets again?
Is that (quite frankly laughable) fantasy worth the life of a single child? NO. But it’s that same childish fantasy that is inextricably tied to the exploitation and misery of BILLIONS of real, living, breathing human beings. Right here, right now, on this the only planet we’ll ever call home.
So let me get this straight: we’re happy to cause real people to suffer and die just so we can cling to the fanciful notion that we are somehow immortal?
I’m tearing what’s left of my hair out here: For heaven’s sake, humanity: GROW UP!!
A-hem. Sorry, I better get down off my soap-box now. *stomp* *stomp* *stomp* Yeah, yeah, I’m being far too black and white about this, I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why the world is the way it is, I just can’t think of any right now…
Where was I? Oh yeah, General Santos. He was a bloke you see, and they named the city after him. There’s actually a gold statue of him in the otherwise attractive central park. I don’t care how big or amazing you think somebody was, gold statues, well, they’re tacky as hell aren’t they? I’d be much happier with a bronze statue myself, preferably with an electric charge running through it so pigeons don’t shit on my head.
I then headed to the shopping mall (free wi-fi!) and began round 2 of my fight with HSBC. This time it only cost me £7, or as I like to call it ‘the price of accommodation for the night’. God I hate banks. With my cash card now rejuvenated and my website all updatiated, I headed back to the ship. I took a local taxi. Usually in The Philippines you get around in a ‘Jeepnay’, a classic pick up truck from the 1940s that is cared for and looked after by its owners to such an extent that they’re still running, fifty years past their use-by date. These Jeepnays are always very shiny and colourful – I don’t know, maybe they have best-in-show competitions or something, but they are quite groovy contraptions.
In GenSan though, there are no Jeepnays and instead you get around on converted Kawasaki motorcycles. And when I say ‘converted’ I mean ‘converted to fit SIX passengers’. That’s more than a standard hackney cab. And this is a MOTORBIKE?! Vroom Vroom! Whereas the autoricks and tuk-tuks of lesser mortals are set up for two, three people max, the mofo-moto-taxis of ol’ Santos town have two seats in the ‘side car’ part and two by two seats in the back, facing each other. It hurts my head just thinking about it.
After din-dins, I set out on the lash with Chief Engineer Arka, Second Engineer Luis and Bjorn, the Electrical Engineer.
Holy mackerel booze is cheap in The Philippines. A LITRE bottle of 6.9% Red Horse lager costs about a dollar. We sat outside a shack near the entrance to the ferry terminal. The night ferry up to Zamboanga was leaving soon, and so the port entrance was jumping with people, touts, street stalls and a bit of a carnival vibe.
After a couple of beers, Luis suggested that I try some Filipino street food. I’ll try anything once (except incest and country dancing), so I said I’ll give it a punt. I was presented with a hard-boiled egg, still warm. Only this was a duck egg. AND THERE WAS A BABY DUCK FOETUS INSIDE IT! Oh Jesus, it makes the chunks rise up in my throat just thinking about it.
So I cracked it open, I sucked out the juices and bit into the soft, mushy half-formed eggy brain goo inside. To be honest, it didn’t taste that bad, not far off a standard hard-boiled egg. But the sight of the yellow-grey veiny matter, the spongy texture and the very concept of eating what amounted to a duck’s abortion made me gag. I didn’t finish the egg. Luis gave the rest of it to a stray dog. Deep fried frogs legs though, with a bit of garlic mayo – now that s— was goooood.
After our crazy happy fun snack time, we left the port entrance and walked over the road to High 5, a karaoke bar. Our hostess with the mostess, Irish, sorted us out with copious amounts of grog before dueting with me for ‘Stay’ by Shakespear’s Sister (even though she’d never heard it before). I tried to fit her into my backpack and take her with me, but I thought Mandy might object.
So after a good night had by all, we staggered back to the ship. I cheated and took a moto-taxi.