Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Joe Philippines - 8: Beaches and Bottled Water

With a quite word spoken in a foreign language that I didn't understand, I was instantly awake and this time the cobwebs hadn't yet taken hold of my brain. Most likely this was because it wasn't yet two in the morning and I hadn't yet fallen into a deep sleep. We were getting up early to begin a long nighttime journey to our destination and as it would turn out it would be the first of several during my stay in the Philippines. With an enormous population crammed into such a small land area and with only a few roads shared not only by vehicles but by bicycles, pedestrians, chickens, dogs, carabao, waterfalls, mudslides and cavernous potholes, Filipinos often get up before they go to sleep to get to where they were going to avoid everyone else who also have the very same idea.

In our case, we were headed to a beach on the South China Sea for a picnic lunch and to spend the day relaxing. We got loaded up into the van with our trusty hired driver and headed into the inky blackness down the mountain. Nearing five o'clock in the morning, we pulled into a town somewhere in the lowlands and because we hadn't been to church in almost thirty-six hours, which was probably a new record for the highly religious Philippines, we found a church and attended mass. Surprisingly, the church was full of sleepy eyed Filipinos who like me, were on some long odyssey somewhere and just needed a place to sleep for an hour while someone soothingly chanted in Latin. After the service, they all excitingly lined up and filed up a steep flight of stairs behind the alter to touch the back of the Virgin Mary's dress. I don't know the significance but judging on the line waiting, it must be something important.

Outside the church, we found a nearby tent with tables lined up underneath and got some steaming bowls of arroz caldo, which is a meat stew of sorts, served over rice. For me, the taste was so good that it was my more religious experience of the morning. But like all good things, we were soon finished and back in the van to continue our journey. I asked the driver how much further it was to the beach completely forgetting that Filipinos are notorious for underestimating the time. The driver told me that it was only two hours away and exactly four hours later we pulled up to the beach.

We quickly unpacked enough food to feed the entire Filipino national army and set to eating it like shipwrecked sailors who didn't trust anyone around the food. After I had eaten my share and then some, I began to look around my surroundings a bit. Our lunch was in a bamboo hut not ten feet from the crashing surf and the beach was perhaps only five feet deep at this point. At least in this part of the Philippines, we had to pay to use this 'private' beach and facilities, which I found surprising for a nation with 7000+ islands and thousands of miles of coastline. But we paid for the use of this private beach that we also shared with a couple local fisherman fishing thirty feet out from shore using casting nets. After the fisherman was gone and the food was digested enough that I felt I wouldn't cramp up and sink like a stone, I went swimming in the ocean for the first time in my life. The power of the waves amazed me and the salty taste of the sea assaulted my taste buds whenever I shipped a little water. In the end, I kept thinking about stingrays, sharks and other creatures of the Filipino waters and I elected to relax in the shade of the palms and soak in my surroundings with perhaps a little bit more food.

All too soon it seemed, we were packing up the van for the long drive back, I presume to beat the rush of millions of other vacationing Filipinos who were thinking the very same thing. It was a long, tiresome journey so when we stopped at a roadside stand for another bowl of arroz caldo on our way up the mountain, I was more than ready for a rest. Our drive and I ordered bottled water with our meals and in my tired state, I didn't notice that the seal had been broken. Only after we got home a couple hours later and the cramps started hitting both of us, did I find out that the owner of the food stand had probably bottled the water herself just that morning from the stream that ran not ten feet from the back of the building. It was an important traveling lesson learned and later as I was emptying out the contents of my stomach, I had time to contemplate the fact that even our native Filipino driver got sick from the local water so it was no wonder that I was ill.

I took some of the drugs that I had brought on this trip for just this sort of occurrence and retired to my bunker underneath the house. Unfortunately, I soon learned that it was my mother-in-law's birthday and my presence for the cake eating part of the celebration was mandatory. I struggled up the stairs set into the side of the steep ravine to the main level and forced myself to down a piece of cake and carry on conversations that I can no longer remember. At the first sign of the party winding down, I made my way back down to the bunker and crawled onto my cot, praying for the medicine to kick in soon. My wife came down and rubbed some minty smelling ointment all over my chest, forehead, hands and feet that was supposed to make me feel better and then left me alone to my stomach cramps and delirium as the medicines fought to regain control of my body. Sometime around midnight after much sweating and trips to the bathroom, the medicines successfully won the battle and I slept peacefully the rest of the night.

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