Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Uniquely Filipino

(Courtesy of Ike Stranathan)
The Philippines is home to 7,107 different islands, over 100 distinct languages, endless summers and an official population of 98 million people. It's a fascinating country that unlike some of its South East Asian neighbours, has yet to be ravaged by mass tourism and remains delightfully authentic.

Home to boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, money grubbing Imelda Marcos (2,800 pairs of shoes anyone?) and the world's largest supply of coconuts - check it out now before it's all too late!

While this country is officially one of the world's friendliest, a few tips on local culture and customs will always go a long way. Just remember that despite your own beer preferences, Red Horse is the local favorite and a beloved source of Pinoy pride!


Due to an overwhelming English literacy rate, many visitors don't bother to learn Tagalog during their stay. This makes Filipinos all the more appreciative for any efforts you make to learn the local lingo.

Filipinos are a polite bunch, so if they don't address you as sir, expect to be called either 'kuya' (big brother) or 'ate' (big sister). If you do the same yourself, you'll see that whoever named Thailand the 'land of smiles,' never made it as far as the Philippines!


Kaliwa (kah-lee-wah) - Left
Kanan (cah-nun) - Right
Diretso (direct-sho) lang - Straight ahead.
Para (pa-rah) - Stop


Kamusta (cah-moo-star) ka na - How are you?
Salamat (sah-lah-maht) - Thank you.
Magkano (mug-car-no)? - How much?
Maganda (mah-gun-dah) ka - You're beautiful
Masarap (mah-sah-rup) - Delicious


Did you know that the world's smallest primate is no bigger than a tennis ball?

If you didn't, then you'd best make your way to the island province of Bohol, which is home to this rather peculiar little creature known as a 'Tarsier.'

Upon first glance, their huge eyes implore you to do a double take, and it's perhaps no surprise that each singular eye is as large as its brain. Those big soulful eyes are that special shade of amber that melts your heart, so it’s no wonder that they’re the number one tourist attraction in all of Bohol - take that Chocolate Hills!

It takes just one look at their little fingers, each of them no bigger than a matchstick, to see where Spielberg got his inspiration for E.T. Looking at their bizarre head shape and alien-like ears, I can also see hints of Yoda flickering about. It's not all good news though, as I learn that these fascinating fur balls are in serious trouble.

“Tarsiers in cages are weak and sickly. They move slow and will never survive long in captivity,” says Joannie Cabillo, the program manager of Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc. (PTFI). “This is because tarsiers are not only nocturnal, but territorial, and once territory is established, they die to keep it.”

Unfortunately, tarsiers are also one of the few species capable of committing suicide. Rather than adding to their misery, responsible tourists should avoid the roadside zoos and make their way instead to the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary, just 14 kms from Tagbilaran. Visitors to the sanctuary can speak to the experts, engage in their natural environment and discover all sorts of fun facts about the world’s cutest primate!


* No matter where you find yourself in the Philippines, the locals have an unusual habit of pointing to things with their mouths. Rest assured Romeo, nobody is trying to kiss you.

* If you need to leave a restaurant in a hurry, the sign for 'bring me the bill' can be made by raising your hand and sketching a rectangle with your thumb and index finger.


Whether you're out front of a tin-roof shack in Tondo, or in the food court of one of many glitzy malls in Fort Bonifacio, dining options are seemingly endless in Metro Manila. Chinese food is particularly popular in Binondo, the world's oldest Chinatown - established in 1594. It's on the street scene though, that remnants of American colonialism are on display, as burger vans and hot dog carts are easily found.

For truly adventurous eaters (those of you functioning on an Andrew Zimmern/Anthony Bourdain level), why not try balut? In a country where day old chickens are deep fried (kwek kwek) and the national dish (sisig) is made from sliced pig cheeks, for a food item to be considered unusual - it must really stand out. Considered an aphrodisiac by some, the sight of a crumpled up baby duck, oozing blood and bone, won't meet everyone's preferences.

Best served with beer, balut is high in both protein and cholesterol, but differs from your standard duck egg as it has been fertilized and allowed to develop somewhere between an embryo and a chick. Depending on how long it has been aged, feathers and/or beak are distinct possibilities. Balut aficionados would describe the taste as somewhere between scrambled eggs and roast duck (imagine that!), while the majority of expats seem to deem it as nothing more than a dare.


You're never going to head home from an exotic destination, gather your friends and amaze them all with your story about that magical cab ride from your hotel to a shopping mall. Even if the traffic laws are non-existent, there are more exciting ways to get around than in your standard sedan.

Jeepneys on the other hand, are less about getting somewhere for the sake of convenience and more about embracing the local culture, living life as a local. This is the nation's most popular mode of public transportation and can be found in every region, from the inner-city streets of Pasay to remote island provinces such as Batanes.

Originally just modified US army jeeps that were left over from WW2, the jeepney is unique to the Philippines and often decorated in a flamboyant style to catch the eye of commuters. Like falling snowflakes, no two jeepneys are identical. This leaves the streets looking something like an oil painting from above. The patok (popular) variety for instance, can be seen screeching down highways at breakneck speeds, with disco lights flashing and pulsating pop tunes - literally a disco on wheels!

Many hands make light work, as you'll see when everyone on board helps out to make sure the driver gets his fare. If you pick any seat but the one closest to the exit, you'll take part in passing people's fares to the driver and if you really want to impress the locals, say 'bayad' when doing so.


Taking place each year during the week leading up to Easter, Holy Week has long since been an exodus from Manila to family homes and provincial hotspots dotted throughout the archipelago. There's a long list of festivals and celebrations, but surely witnessing a crucifixion first hand is not something you'd find on the to-do list of many travelers.

The epitome of one of those 'only in the Philippines' moments, I decide to go along and see for myself what all the fuss is about. The 'Lenten Rites' take place on the outskirts of San Fernando, only an hour's drive from Manila and perhaps the only place in the world where a vendor selling helium-inflated balloon animals can stand adjacent to a man being crucified. He looks on in interest as a man is readied for crucifixion, but seems more concerned with the crowd and their need for tacky pasalubong (souvenirs).

I notice that a soft thud from the hammer, is all it takes to force out a blood curdling scream as the volunteer's body thrashes about in agony. His body is writhing, like a snake being skinned, and his howls of pain could easily wake the dead. The same thing happens when his right palm is nailed to the cross, and he's sobbing as they stand the cross up straight. I shudder to myself and think in dismay that he's not out of the woods just yet, as both of his feet must soon be nailed down too.

I remind myself throughout the process, that this man has volunteered to be where he is, as a way of cleansing his sins. In fact, some of the volunteers come back year after year to go through it all again. Whatever their reasons, it's an impressive display of faith.

All of a sudden, it feels a tad familiar for me, as if I've stumbled into this stranger's bathroom to find him sitting on the toilet. It's an uneasy feeling, as we're wired to help people in need rather than watch on silently. It's not for everyone, but how many chances in life do you really get at seeing a crucifixion?

Once they come off the cross, they're treated like rock stars and mobbed by the adoring public. Everybody wants their picture taken with these brave souls, but shaking their hands is strictly frowned upon. 

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