I love Southeast Asia. Returning there for our shoot in the Philippines makes me feel like a raindrop entering the river. So naturally I am out of bed earlier than usual today. Nineteen hours (layovers!) later, I am driving into Metro Manila after landing at Aquino Airport and I get my first look at the local paper. Welcome back big fella … Let’s see what’s news today. Well, it’s the 61st anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, anyone caught with drugs will be punished by death, it’s going to be a scorcher out there today, it’s humid and, oh yeah, I can smell the city before I see it. Turn the page … Mount Mayon is erupting, there are earthquakes in Fiji, Mr. Janjalani, the Abu Sayyaf’s head troublemaker is being hunted here in Mindanao, and I have to eat my first balut when I wake up in the morning. So off I go to Pateros, just outside Manila, for my Balut fest. If you haven’t eaten fertilized duck embryos, then you haven’t lived. They taste like teeny iron-y liver balls with a duck burp on the back end. I need to get to the countryside.
I mean, do you really want to hear anything else about the Manila where there is more sadness, poverty, pollution and traffic than almost any other place in the world that I have ever visited? Or do you want to hear about the Manila where the privileged elites live behind walled compounds with private mercenaries guarding them and spend their days working in high-rise office towers and their afternoons shopping at Prada? Amazing world we live in. I cannot wait to get to Palawan this weekend, an island paradise where rich and poor all share the same realities of daily life. Manila has beaten the pants out of my high spirits. But I digress.
Some things that kept me busy while I sweated out the urban experience:
Jeepneys: Jeepneys are the most popular form of transportation in the Philippines. You hop on, pay the driver based on the distance you will travel, and hop off. Every Jeepney driver tricks out his ride in their own way. My cameraman, Mike, suggested a new reality show that we could do here, Un-Pimp My Ride…The Jeepney style and name are a holdover from the American occupation and the surfeit of Army jeeps that we left behind. Funny, but the Spanish were here for 500 years and you can’t find a trace of their footprint anywhere except for a few oddball recipe holdovers and the crumbling walls of Intramuros. The Americans have been here for 60 years, and there are more KFCs per capita than there are back home. Go figure.
Mayors: Mayors are a dime a dozen. There are more office-holding politicians in this country than there are potable water sources, and every town and village we go to insists that the Dept. of Tourism honchos bring us by to get the key to the city and kiss some babies. That is how we start each day.
Worms and Frogs: Crawly stuff are traditional foods here, and a stable source of protein. I ate plenty at the Balaw Balaw restaurant, an artist’s gallery and famous eatery in Rizal province. The worms are the size of golf balls. The frogs in the Philippines are afraid of the worms.
Staff Lunch: Staff lunch is shared each day by the whole crew. Often we have a big group with us. Travel and Living Channel is what they call the Travel Channel here, and my show is apparently a big hit. Each day we have more and more people with us, it seems. The Dept. of Tourism keeps telling them where we are and they keep showing up, which is fun because we have gotten our best tips on food from the crew.
Lounge Acts: The lounge act at the Manila Diamond Hotel is called Pepi and MultiVitamin. Imagine Siegfried and Roy’s illegitimate step-kids. Filipino lounge acts are so bad, they are great.
Angeles: Angeles is a town that should be avoided at all costs. It used to be the red light district that serviced the American bases here. Now it is rundown and has lost its biggest client, since the United States pulled out. Imagine Sodom and Gomorrah, but one so tawdry and used up that it seems more reminiscent of one of the rings in Dante’s Inferno than a place you want to drink and flirt with hookers. It is evil incarnate.
Finally, from the filth, traffic jams and decaying urban sprawl of Manila, we are in the remote island province, Palawan. We fly right into the capital of the province, Puerto Princessa. It feels like the Philippines are supposed to feel … and look and sound and taste. In fact, the vibe here is straight out of Somerset Maugham’s South Pacific short stories … ever read “Rain”? After years of searching for the sensation that civilization has really ended, I think I found it. The best part is that modern life and some of the comforts we associate with it are in Puerto (like running water), but you can drive 10 minutes and be in the middle wilderness, real tropical wilderness.
It has rained here for a week straight, the effect of Siaopao, the worst typhoon to come through these parts in 50 years. Palawan got the side swipe. China took a direct hit, so we feel lucky. It is still raining when we land, pouring, in a way that the rain only falls in the equatorial climes of Southeast Asia during the rainy season. We are welcomed into this teeny town by a delegation from the local tourism ministry and driven to our hotel. There we wash up, get back in the car and head up the coast to the Badjao Seafront Restaurant.
I would rather eat a meal in a restaurant at the end of the road than at any other type of eatery I can think of. Whether it’s a Maine lobster shack, like Five Islands Lobster Company, a beachfront oyster bar in Brittany, a Montauk Point fish house, or a seafood restaurant like the BSR, I am in heaven. The BSR is a mahogany-and-teak raft floating a quarter mile out in the South China Sea, on the edge of a mangrove forest, dripping with wild orchids. The owner, Mrs. Mendoza, knows she has the best joint in town, but works doubly hard keeping it that way. We ate sauteed chicken with lemongrass and banana flower, chili crabs, grilled prawns, roasted tangigue (a mackerel local to the seas here), grilled eggplant in coconut milk with onions and lime, grilled tuna, ceviche, steamed clams and several seaweed salads. We sucked down banana and mango purees made from fruit that was hanging from trees on the property. We grabbed dessert at a local jungle market that caters to the banana pickers and farmers in the town. The ripest fingerling bananas are rolled in coarse locally made brown sugar and wok-fried for about 45 seconds, taken out, rolled again and dunked back in the oil for 30 seconds more. The result is bananas Foster without the snooty waiter and tableside flambe gimmickry.
You gotta’ love the Philippines.