Filipino Style

Standing at the Crossroads of Travelers & Traders

We're sitting at an outdoor restaurant in Puerto Galera, waiting for the ferry to Manila where we'll catch a flight out of the Philippines. Puerto Galera is bustling with early-morning business. The wharf is lined with restaurant bars, trinket shops and snacks-and-cigarette stores. Boats are being loaded and unloaded, and porters are scurrying between trucks and the water, hauling boxes and suitcases.

I'm looking out over turquoise and azul water at the Verde Island Passage, dotted with islands, sand beaches and dense mangroves. Brightly painted wooden boats make their way through the channels, navigated, in the shallows, by boys with long poles and bare feet.

You can feel the history here: Puerto Galera has long been a crossroads of travelers, traders and conquerors. During the tenth century, ships were trading around the Pacific, and merchants of the Sung Dynasty in China were using the Philippine Archipelago as a stopover. The very spot where I now sit became brisk with trade of Chinese ceramics, cloth, metal and spices for Philippine gold, marble, coral, shells, birds, and forest products.

Divers are still finding sunken galleons with pottery from ancient Vietnam, Siam, China and even the Middle East. Archaeologists have unearthed native graves with skeletons draped in jewelry and household items. The ancient death rite, outlawed by Spain in the 17th century, was to bury bodies with possessions that might be useful in the afterlife.

Today, the town has that feel of certain travel destinations—that sense of legacy to what no longer is. I think Hemingway would have enjoyed writing here, as he did in Key West and in Cuba. In fact, there are more than a few Hemingway look-alikes—barrel-chested men with trim white beards and heavy brows, sitting in bars along the wharf, drinking coffee and nursing the rum hangovers. Some sit beside their "girlfriends," who probably aren't putting up with the company for free, and they all seem to have been here for years.

Traveling this country has been easy compared to other Asian destinations. The Philippine/US relationship goes back a hundred years. After a dispute over Cuba, The United States and Spain went to war. On June 12, 1898, Admiral Dewey, helped by Filipinos who wanted to oust the colonizers, defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Although America "paid" Spain $20 million at the Paris Peace Treaty for ownership of the Philippines, President Roosevelt later recognized an independent Philippine constitution and Manuel L. Quezon was sworn in as president.

The relationship was strengthened when the Japanese landed in Luzon and inflicted heavy losses on US troops in battles on Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula. General Douglas MacArthur made his famous vow to return, and in 1944 he landed in Leyte to liberate the country.

I was surprised to meet so few Americans here, given the lack of Anti-American hostility, beautiful beaches, and laid-back nature of the people. This last characteristic is obvious here in Puerto Galera. A snappily-dressed Filipino just walked by whistling a tune. Even the women trudging around with enormous woven-baskets on their heads are smiling, and just next door a gang of dock-workers is shooting pool—apparently unconcerned about today's wages.

There's a man standing near our table. He's about 40, but with dark, smooth skin that makes him look much younger. He carries a small bag, the tell-tale sign that he's got something to sell. I'm betting he's targeting us, a foreign couple with money enough to sit and drink.

Jill is writing postcards, prepared, I'm sure, to dismiss him with a smile. I'm distracted, though, and looking for an excuse to chat.

Here he comes—let's see what he's selling.

"Good morning, sir." He's got that host-like ring to his voice that you hear so often here. It's very polite, but when you hear it constantly it can grate on your nerves.

I raise my eyebrows, the Filipino way of acknowledging someone.

"Would you like some pearls? Black coral?"

He pulls from his satchel a long string of each.

I know nothing about pearls, so I ask him to pass me the coral. It's real, with rough edges and the shiny green reflection on deep black. Bought at the cheap local prices, it would be worth a considerable amount back home.

"Very nice," I say. "Where's it from?"

"Right here," he says pointing to the bay.

I thumb it over, the necklace shines.

"Very cheap, sir. Good price."

"I'm sure, but it's illegal for me to take this back to my country. If they catch me with it in customs, they'll fine me $500."

"What?" He sounds surprised. "I have known many foreigners, and this is not a problem."

"It is in the United States. Black coral is on the endangered list, and they won't let it in."

He's flustered—a salesman on the wrong end of skepticism.

"I know, I tried it after visiting Mexico. Real nice stuff, too—just like this. They won't say anything if they don't know." I smile, passing back the necklace. "But that would be smuggling."

"Hmm." He says, almost convinced. And with that, his demeanor changes. He becomes more authentic and friendly even though there won't be a sale.

"So how long have you been in the Philippines?"

He's genuinely interested, and I'm reminded of what I like most about the folks here. They talk with you, not at you. Everyone does, from boatmen to waitresses to people that pass you on the street. Filipinos speak amazing English, better than some Americans I've known.

In the bus station in Cebu City, Jill and I were making sandwiches from vegetables we'd bought in the market. While we sat on a sidewalk slicing carrots, cucumbers and onions, a crowd gathered to watch us like aliens landed in New Mexico. We were a bit frightened at first, to be encircled by 30-some people, but they were just curious. We made friends fast, despite their contorted faces at tasting the canned olives I passed around.

"We've been here only two weeks," I tell the coral-hawker. "Not nearly enough time."

It's true: If you ever want to come to the Philippines, make sure you have at least a month. Some say it would take you more than 20 years to visit all of the 7,001 islands, even if you only spent a day on each. And once here, you'll want to see it all.

"Before Puerto, we were down in the Vasays Islands," I tell him. "Excellent: unbelievable coral reefs, great beaches, delicious grilled fish. Cheap beer. We're sad to leave."

"Have you been to Borocay?"


The tourism authority bills Borocay Island as "the most beautiful beach in the world," and the locals are proud of the title. It's difficult to gauge differences at the highest caliber, but beautiful it is: mile long white sand beaches, full-sky sunsets, clear green water.

"So... American?"


"How you like Clinton style?" He's smiling a big grin.

It's amazing—we haven't read a paper in ten days, but have still stayed abreast of what they call "Bimbogate." For the most part, people are incredulous—no, amused is the word—not at what happened, but how much attention we're giving it. On the front page of every Philippine daily, there's sure to be a picture of Bill and Monica and bold headlines I don't have to understand.

"Clinton style?" I blurt out, laughing.

"Yes, you know: the oral office."

I'm not quite sure how to react.

"Why is this such a big deal in your country?" he asks.

"Well, the president is accused of infidelity."


"And he's the president."

"But it's only natural."

Jill seems to have lost interest in her postcards.

I don't respond immediately, because we've entered a conversation where cultural differences create distortions of meaning. Sex scandals in Asia are regular occurrences. As a sign of virility and wealth, Asian men often keep lovers on the side. I would like to respond by saying that this sort of thing doesn't happen in America, but that wouldn't be true (even, I'm sure, with presidents), and besides, it wouldn't convince my new friend.

"Well," I say, "people are accusing a president of being dishonest."

"Ahh, you Americans," he laughs. "You worry too much. Live today, die tomorrow."

And with that, he's off with a wave to try for another sale.

I'm left with the Puerto Galera scene: the bright sun, clear water and islands all around. I sip my pineapple shake. The whistling man walks back the other way, and I can hear laughter—workers in the pool hall next door.

The ferry sounds its horn—time to move on.

Live today, die tomorrow, he said. Easy enough.

Until the next time, safe travels.

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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