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Kumusta Ho from the Philippines!

What's this? Another email from Serena? It can't be, I've only just had one!

Well I thought the sooner I wrote the shorter it would be, so here you are. The abridged version is that I made it to the Philippines as did my bags and we all travelled here to Sabang Beach. No work as yet, which gives me plenty of time to swing in my hammock and drink cheap beer - shame.

If you want to know more, read on . . . 

I arrived in the Philippines a week ago, landing at Manila airport at half one in the afternoon. In the arrivals hall I found a hissing woman selling SIM cards and bought one - the hissing thing is what they do to attract attention over here. I called Cathay Pacific who had received my dive bag which had been sent as unaccompanied baggage, and secured a taxi ready to set about the simple task of getting it back . . . or so I thought. It took three hours of running around - literally - after one of three porter guys; driving through town to one customs office and back again; paying for carbon paper and numerous photocopies; countless other sundry charges; and bribing and lying to customs officers to avoid paying an unexpected US$100 in customs charges to finally get my bag of dive gear - or bag of used T-shirts, as I'd been told to tell the customs officer - back. At the end of the day it cost around £30, plus another £10 to the poor taxi driver waiting outside - not exactly a king's ransom. What a palaver though!

It may sound like a bit of a nightmare welcome to the Philippines, but actually it was good to have been guided through the maze of bureaucracy and officialdom by three helpful porters, and receive my bag back un-tampered with despite the fact that I had left my underwater camera in it and omitted to padlock it - D'oh! It was also interesting to see a Philippine EPU - they had a man in the corner giving massages! I was incredibly glad I had booked into the room at the airport and got a good night's sleep though (the muzak did eventually cease). I doubt I'd have taken it in my stride so much had I been feeling tired. That done, it was off to the City State Tower hotel where I was booked in for two nights. Despite the super posh lobby I found the rooms a bit on the grubby side - not what I expected for a whopping £12 a night. I pulled back the curtains to find a wall rather than windows.

My impressions of Manila came largely from the mindboggling bunch of wires hanging over the pavements, the pavements themselves with holes big enough to fall down in places and a rather unpleasant odour of wee. To add to the assault on the senses was the repeated sound of that bloody awful muzak tape I'd heard in Brunei. Some of the buildings were so run down I could have believed I was in a war zone. Before I left the capital I visited the National Museum and took a stroll around Rizal Park. The next day I checked out at half seven and boarded the bus to Batangas, to catch the ferry to Mindoro Oriental.

As we drove through Manila I saw evidence of real poverty. Along the road for most of the way were flimsy looking shacks, some made of corrugated iron, others just squares of hardboard hacked together. For a while we drove along the road beneath the Super Highway. The toll road sat above us like a roof, keeping in the exhaust fumes, and I wondered about the health of those whose hovels faced into the road. Still it could be said that they were the lucky ones, as many live on the streets.

At Batangas I boarded the small outrigger boat to take me straight to Sabang Beach. My fellow passengers included three old (50+) white men with younger dark women. One looked Thai, and was wearing a Bangkok hat, one - a German - was with a woman who looked too old to be a working girl (in my humble opinion), so I thought she may be his wife. The third - an English man who reminded me a lot of Peter Stringfellow with his shoulder length hair and cocky attitude, obviously loving himself - was with a really young looking Filipino. At one stage he said to her "are you twelve", "no" she replied. "I am thirteen." Now this may have been a joke - albeit in bad taste - but if she was older, it was by no more than a year or two.

This, and the large number of sex tourists I have already seen in the country prompted my to give the matter much consideration for the duration of the crossing. In theory I have no problem with prostitution, and am an advocate of legalising it. In Australia I saw nothing wrong with it, and even had a feeling that it gave the women the upper hand in some way; I did not feel they were being exploited.

Why then do I feel so differently about it here? I could argue to myself that it is all down to choice, that the women here have been forced into it, where as those in WA decided to enter into it, but is that true? Does any woman truly choose a life of prostitution?

The age thing is an obvious issue. Taking the couple on the boat as an example. Would it make a big difference if the girl was 13 or 16 or 19 - he was in his fifties, so isn't it wrong whatever her age? And working downwards, is a 50 year old man who has sex with a 19 year old that much more morally acceptable than one who shags a 16, 13 or even a 10 year old? Where is the line drawn? From what I see here it is not just an older man thing, there are plenty of men my own age and younger with Filipinos on their arms - is that any more or less acceptable?

Child prostitution aside - I think that should and would bother any 'decent' person - do I have any right to be upset by it? Should I just keep my opinions to myself and try not to think about it, or would I be condoning it by turning a blind eye? Practically speaking of course my opinion makes no odds, I know that. I just don't know what to think about it; whether it should bother me or not.

There is the question of exploitation, of abuse. Now I know for sure of at least four men who have been sex tourists - and no doubt I am acquainted with many more that have been, although I don't realise it. If the man treats his prostitute well and pays what is asked or more, is that okay? Do the girls feel that they are being exploited? Does it matter whether they feel they are being or not? After all a child that has been habitually abused from an early age may not see the abuse for what it is, but that does not change the fact.

There is also the issue of gender. The norm is for males to be sex tourists - I don't think I'm spouting any ground-breaking feminist opinions in saying that. I know that that is not always the case; I am thinking now of Watamu in Kenya. Here I saw elderly European sex tourists of both genders, the men with their prostitutes and the women with their beach boys. Common in either case was that the elderly one was white and the young one black. Should I bestow the same sympathetic feelings upon the beach boys as I feel towards the prostitutes? Are they being exploited and abused in the same way? [On a personal level this was not something I felt, but that was due largely to the fact that I couldn't take a five minute stroll along the beautiful beach without being pestered by these men, often quite persistently - at least there is none of that here.]

The longer I am here the more used to it I am getting, desensitised as I was in Africa where prostitution was rife. Apparently Sabang is nowhere near as bad for prostitution as it used to be. A couple of years ago people came here for the girls and maybe did some diving; now they come here for the diving and maybe do some girls.

Anyway, after spending two nights in an slightly grubby establishment I moved here to At-Cans Inn. I have an upstairs room, large and airy, with an attached kitchen and bathroom. I also have a private balcony overlooking the sea, and my first job when I got here was to string up my hammock. For better or worse I have a TV too. Out of 36 channels three are worth watching, BBC World, the Discovery Channel and HBO.

This beach and the next one are home to around two dozen dive operations, and I handed my CV around to about half of them looking for work. June is a quiet month, and I'm not likely to get anything in the next few weeks. Not to worry, I've five months to get some diving in. Instead I have been spending most of my time writing, and am making good headway so far.

I went out snorkelling the day I arrived. Now since first learning to dive I have become a bit of a snob where snorkelling is concerned, but I was really most impressed with this. I wasn't out long before I came back in for my camera. I plan to snorkel regularly, and hope to really get to grips with my underwater camera.

Monsoon season has started and accompanying this are an increased number of brownouts. Brownouts, I have discovered bear a remarkable resemblance to blackouts. They do provide a welcome relief to the godawful music they play next door. The Philippines appears to be stuck in a musical time-warp (not too different to Australia there then!) I did think that the place next door had only two tapes, one of Celine Dion and another rather nifty 80s megamix including Kylie's I Should Be So Lucky and a Rick Astely number. Today though they pulled a dire Europop compilation out of the bag. I Want to Dance to you Like Cha-Cha-Cha, and Be My Lady of the Night were my personal favourites.

When I moved into this place I decided forget karma, I was declaring war on bugs. I bought a can of Baygon and sprayed liberally and in the morning found a cockroach on its back in the bathroom. On closer inspection I saw that it was still alive, so apologised as I gave it a direct hit. That was three days ago, and it is still lying on its back twitching its legs! At first I felt incredibly guilty over the pain and suffering I had caused it. I'm over that now - I just want the bastard to die.

Vegetarianism is not really understood in the Philippines, but I am fortunate in that there is a Thai restaurant in town, so I can get a tasty veggie meal for around two quid. Other than that I can cook for myself in my little kitchen - though ingredients are limited. Mushrooms come in a tin, and cheese in a jar. The beer makes up for it though. San Miguel is what the locals drink, and at 15 pesos a bottle (that's 15 pence, folks, or around 40 Australian cents) you can see why. With beer this cheap, you can forgive a country a lot of things.

Well I guess you're all up to date now. I'll leave this here and retire to my balcony for another cheap beer. It's a hard life.

Live long and prosper.


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