Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.

Philippines: South of Manila

– visited March 2020 –

The Philippines are a country that I honestly do not understand. Meeting Filipinos around the world they are usually well educated, often working jobs that the locals do not know how to perform. They speak good to very good English and when I look at the country, I mostly see potential. But still, the country is poor, the infrastructure is inadequate and Filipinos are leaving in droves.

Filipinos are wonderful friendly people, relaxed, always joking and easy-going. They love karaoke and my guidebook says it is a serious offence to criticize someone’s performance at the microphone. Not such a bad idea, people sing because they like it and we in the western world are way too quick to poke fun at someone. At Amami Resort four guys are training a new dance, they look ridiculous but why make fun of them, I rather ask them if I can take a few pictures (“of course” they say) and laugh with them. Overall, I regard Filipinos highly. And then they elect Rodrigo Duterte as president. A man who swears on TV, boasts about killing someone and who sends his death squads into a so-called “war on drugs” that leaves more than 30,000 people dead. Most of them poor and undereducated. Instead of sending him to prison, the vast majority approves of his presidency.

Maybe my problem of understanding stems from only coming for short visits. My first, in 2015, was five nights and this time I will be here for a stopover of only four. I should one day devote more time to the Philippines, maybe that would help me solve these riddles. The beauty of the country certainly warrants a longer stay.

On my last visit, I explored Manila and the island of Luzon north of Manila. This time, I want to head south, with only four days, I am looking for something beautiful and easy to reach.

Taal Volcano

Prehistoric eruptions have left a massive caldera with a diameter of 25 to 30 kilometres. A lake has filled this caldera and inside this lake another volcano has arisen that is, despite having been dormant for 43 years, one of the most active in the Philippines. It has a great majesty; you can stand on the rim of the prehistoric caldera and look down on the lake and the volcano. Unfortunately, Taal Volcano erupted again in January 2020, causing 39 deaths (yes, people were encroaching to close) and destroying the village that had formed on volcano island. The volcano is a lifeless grey nowadays. The eruption also took away the livelihood of people who used to ferry tourists around, visits to the volcano and even boat trips on the lake are no longer allowed.

Taal city shares a name with the volcano but is not a place from where to visit. It has a few museums, including one dedicated to the woman who sewed the first Filipino flag. She was an intellectual who also knew how to sew, contrary to the male intellectuals around her who did not. Taal sees few visitors; at both museums I explore (the other is a camera museum) I am surrounded by young guides overeager to show a foreign visitor around. Taal Basilica is considered the largest church in Asia.

Puerto Galera

The municipality of Puerto Galera is in the north of the island of Mindoro. The mountains fall into the sea and provide many attractive bays, a beautiful peninsula and a few islands. Easy to reach from Manila it sees a great influx on the week-ends. Several villages cater to different tastes. Sabang is known for diving, snorkelling and the red-light street, Puerto Galera town is more family oriented (and generally less touristy), White Beach caters to a Filipino crowd and Talipanan is more upmarket. I like White Beach the most, it is full of life. Further inland are a few waterfalls and renting a motorbike makes sense to get around.

I finally own an underwater camera. I try it out on a snorkelling visit to the coral gardens. The trips are done by small outrigger boats, you visit a beach, an underwater cave and then the coral gardens. The gardens are very beautiful but the way to visit them is not to my taste. Because of the many visitors you are supposed to hold on to your boat (to a rope going from the boat to the outrigger to be more precise) and then the boat is pushing you through the water. I love to be free and follow interesting fish when snorkelling. Oh, and there were some jellyfish, they sting, I left the water with some nice blisters but they go away after a day.

Being pulled through the “Coral Garden”.

I did not know when I left the Philippines but a week later most of the country would enter a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I flew out just in time.