When you’re away for long enough home feels like a foreign country #3

 

Tel Aviv

When you’re away for long enough home feels like a foreign country #2

Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital, Jerusalem.

Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital, Jerusalem

When you’re away for long enough home feels like a foreign country #1

Dolphinarium, Tel Aviv

Sinulog!

Obviously a few months late, but I keep showing people pictures, so I may as well put them here.
I was lucky enough to be in the Philippines for Sinulog, which I didn’t plan, but I would have had I known about it before getting there. Cebu City has the biggest celebration, with a carnival that starts in the early morning and goes on till late night. There are also fireworks and parties that last all night and everything becomes super packed.
I went down to the parade bit and tried out my new camera. The music was awesome with loads of live drummers playing quite tribal beats, because Sinulog is all about the Philippines’ pagan roots and how they all converted to Christianity after Magellan turned up packing a baby Jesus. Here’s the first lot of pictures, from the daytime parade. Imagine all this but with really good tribal drums.

So long and thanks for all the buns

I am currently at HK airport waiting to board my flight to London. I left my brother’s house pretty late and took a different bus to the airport than I did the last two times I left HK (to go to the Philippines). The E11 bus seems to go a long, winding way and stops at far too many pointless stops (to me) along the way. After a while I was getting stressed and started to hate things. I hated the slow bus driver. I hated the guy who hit the stop button to get off at what seemed like a motorway junction. I hated the oldish lady who took ages to get off the stairs. I hated all the stops at the farthest corners of the airport. Then the incredibly slow lift at the terminal building and the old lady who insisted on getting off at a floor below the one I needed. In the end, though, I made it in time to have some veggie noodle stir fry, which means I can skip the foul food Swiss try to offload on you.
When I get to London I’m going to use the amazing time travel powers of WordPress and do all the writing I’d have done while traveling if I’d had both Internet access and/or free time consistently enough. Roll on 16 hours of fun!

Trip to Malapascua #1

boats

Flimsy island hopping boats. Don't try this in a storm, kids!

Malapascua island is only 2.5km long. The main part has two main stretches of beach with a little village in the middle. As tiny as it is, it boasts a Catholic church, a karaoke bar (or videoke as it’s called here) a cock fighting ring and, apparently, an invisible (to the non-local eye, at least) yet serious drug problem involving some sort of local crystal meth. I didn’t see any cock fighting, but I did see the poor roosters. They are everywhere, tied to posts by a foot. They crow pretty much all day and all night and there are so many of them, that I named the first place I stayed at – a loose collection of beach bungalow “semis” — Angry Bird Village. The church I heard long before I saw it, while walking along the beach on my first to the island, only I mistaked the mass for a really bad filipino karaoke (or “videoke” as it’s known locally) sung by a drunk man. As it happens, the Videoke is actually on the other side of the village and it’s mostly women I heard singing. The church, as it happens, has a massive churchyard and on weekends the locals wheel giant speakers into the yard and have a dance party with what sounds like dance remixes of mainstream hits with the occasional old people’s home style bossa nova tune thrown in for good measure.

Malapascua is definitely a diver’s island, which is to say the main reason people go there is to dive with the thresher sharks that frequent a few dive sites within easy reach by boat. There are also some good spots with reef sharks and corals, though there is a lot of dynamite fishing in the area, so many of the sites are kinda sad on that front.

Divers tend to get up early (the shark dive trips leave the island at around 5AM daily) and when they are not in the water or at the dive centre sorting out their kit, they are usually getting thrashed on cheap booze at one of the local beachfront bars. The main topic of conversation in the bars and restaurants on the island is diving – did you see sharks? How many? How big were they? This reminds me of the time when…
Nowadays, most people are also armed with underwater cameras and an endless supply of photos and videos to share as well.

To get to Malapascua from Cebu City you need to catch a 4 hour bus ride from the North bus terminal to a town called Maya and then take one of the little island hopping boats, which takes another 30 or 40 minutes. It’s not a particularly pleasant journey. Even less so when it’s chucking it down with rain.

Ceres liners are yellow buses that are the most plentiful and are also apparently considered the safest. Considering one of the other companies that serves Maya is called “Rough Riders”, I think Ceres will do. There are aircon buses and non-aircon. The non-aircon buses are only 10pesos cheaper, but seem to leave more frequently and when we get there there’s actually one leaving within 15 minutes, so my gracious hosts leave me in my seat on the bus and head back home, as it’s not even 9AM yet. I’m left chatting with one of the young guys employed by the bus company to round up lost passengers like me. Only it seems that he’s taken a shine to me and while not quite as gropey as his equivalent would be somewhere like India or Egypt, he does seem to be touching my arm and my shoulder a great deal as he talks without any apparent reason. In the end I wait till his back his turned, slip my ring off my middle finger and onto my ring finger on my left hand and when he’s back with his hand on my arm I flash it in front of his face while laughing and say “Why do you keep touching me? I’m a married woman!”. Does the trick.

When I first got to Cebu City, my friend Deep who’s been living here warned me about the air pollution. You can see the locals covering their mouths and noses either with their hands or with bandanas or handkerchiefs when riding Jeepneys or walking along the roads. I’m not sure how effective that is, but I didn’t actually suffer too much from the pollution in town. Maybe it’s the time already spent in Hong Kong what did it but it didn’t make me cough or anything. The journey out of the city towards Maya though is evil. Once out of the terminal the air is so thick with pollution you can practically count the cancer cells. The rain, the wind and the fact that I’m not dressed for the weather don’t help make the journey any more pleasant and I also quickly find out that the journey is only four hours long because the bus works like a Jeepney – dropping off and picking up passengers on request along the route. If you want to get off you can bang on the wall or make a kissing sound not unlike the one North African men used to sleaze over you on the street in London, or a kss kss sound I mostly associate with communicating with cats. Amazingly, after about an hour or so of this, they both seem perfectly normal as means of attracting the bus driver’s attention.

Even though it’s raining, the journey is interesting. I see all kinds of cool things – a Jeepney branded with Hello Kitty, a local equivalent of lollipop man or traffic cop wearing one of those round straw hats with the pointy top, a bike taxi painted with what looks like Mickey Mouse bearing a stigmata on his white-gloved palms. I also see some less cool things – a run over ginger kitten by the side of the road, being slowly soaked with rain, a dead dog covered in blood and a man unloading a small cow from a pick up truck by a big building bearing the sign “slaughterhouse”.

After some eternity, we reach Maya and the bus drops us off by the water’s edge. From there it’s 20pesos to be taken by a little boat to one of the “big” boats – flimsy looking things with a narrow middle bit and “wings” made out of bamboo and wire. A ticket on an island hopping boat to Malapascua ought to cost 80pesos per person, but in reality you’re likely to end up paying anything from 80-150 and more if you don’t want to hang around for hours waiting for the boat to fill up. I’ve done this journey twice more since in either direction and only once paid the official fee. This first time, it’s still raining. It rains when I get on the boat. It’s still raining when I get off the boat at the other end. It rains when I have my lunch at the Italian restaurant on the beach and when I walk around with my gear looking for a place to stay. It even rains when I settle into my bungalow at a place called Daño’s, which has a veranda and faces the sea.

Boat wings

A close up on the boat "wings", held together by cable ties, wire and madness


My bungalow doesn’t have any sockets in it. I turn over the whole room looking for a socket – surely you can’t have a room without sockets, right? I move the beds (there are two. It’s a double) and the wardrobe. I crawl on my hands and knees and feel along the skirting boards. Nothing. I even climb up on the bed to see if the ceiling fan is plugged into a ceiling socket I could hang my mobile or netbook off. Nope. Hardwired into the ceiling. And me without a screwdriver or any electrical knowledge. I end up charging my phone at a place called the “Craic House” which claims to be the local Irish bar. No WiFi, though – the wifi on the island’s been dead for 3 days. My mobile Internet comes and goes randomly, only enough to show me the subjects of the emails I’m getting. I can’t even send texts. The Craic House has one veggie dish on the menu for dinner, which is in the starters – a salad. “Vegetarian? You could have the sausage?” the barman suggests, trying to be helpful. I settle on the salad and banoffee pie for dessert. The rain starts up again when I’m on my way back and carries on all night. I go through 150 pages of the book I’m reading and manage half an hour of Plants Vs. Zombies on the PC before I run out of charge.

Amazing sweets and desserts of the Philippines

Filipinos have a major sweet tooth, which I can totally get behind. Since I got here, I’ve been working on sampling the local cakes and sweets, so I thought I’d make an illustrated guide, in case you ever find yourself in the Philippines and in need of a serious sugar injection. Let’s call it “great things I ate and you didn’t”.

Ube Cake1. Ube Cake

Ube (purple yam) is purple, so at first I thought it was the same as taro, which is also purple. Apparently it isn’t. It has a sweet and subtle flavour, which was especially subtle in this cake, which tasted much like creamy sponge cake.

 

 

 

Banana-Q2. Banana-Q

My introduction to the Philippines as a kid was a book about bananas, which had in it a lot of stories from the Philippines, alongside the interesting trivia about how many types of different bananas there are here.  Apparently, quite a lot. These little bananas are not the kind I’m used to back home, but they are roasted on the BBQ. I’m not sure they are really called banana-q but the name makes sense. They taste sort of like a cross between a banana and a plantain and are coated in something very sugary. This skewer originally had 2 on it, but I ate one.

Coconut bread3. Coconut bread

Lovely buns with fluffy dough and a sweet and sticky coconut filling that’s more sweet than coconutty. This one may not look amazing in the pic, but I assure you I’d have eaten a whole bag of the stuff if it weren’t for the fact that I was already stuffed full of bananas on a stick.

 

 

 

Halo-Halo4. Halo-Halo

Literally “mix mix”, I think, this is the local sundae and is the king of Philippine desserts. You can get other sundaes here, but I don’t think anything gets better than this. It’s got ice cream (I chose ube flavour), ube jam, pieces of leche flan, shredded coconut that tastes like coconut and feels like noodles, cornflakes, jelly, crushed ice and, perhaps surprisingly, sweetcorn. It might have other bits in it, for all I know. This one comes from Ice Castle, which is apparently the best one. I think they are all over the Philippines.

Sweetcorn, by the way, is eaten as a dessert here and so is avocado. A bit of an unusual context for me, but the sweetcorn kinda works.

Jeepneys!

I’ve finally found some vehicles to (almost) match the awesome trucks in India – Jeepneys! The original Jeepneys were converted from old American jeeps left over after the Americans left the Philippines. They’ve been customised and numbered and are now being used as cheap public transport. Sort of like a cross between a shared taxi, a minibus and a chicken truck. There are now all kinds of Jeepneys, including more modern ones. Seeing as this is a predominantly Christian place, they often feature all kinds of Christian themes. However, as there’s strong American influence, the art work, unlike on the very spiritual Indian trucks, is a mix of pop culture, brands (Shell and Texaco feature heavily in the sticker decorations) and American symbols. I wish public transport back home was this cool.

Getting online in the Philippines

In Bo's Cafe

Passion fruit ice tea, a comfy chair, sunlight and the netbook.

I’ve temporarily left Hong Kong and am currently visiting the Philippines to catch up with my friend Deep and his lovely fiance. Seeing as I keep getting freelance work in, in spite of actually wanting to enjoy the tropics without having to spend too much time doing writing for other people (but you know how it is with freelance work…) then I’ve had to quickly learn about the way phones and Internet work here. Seeing as this is apparently useful info for other people apart from myself, then I thought I’d put it down in a post.

I am currently in Cebu City, where getting online is very different from what I’ve gotten used to in Hong Kong. Firstly, mobile Internet isn’t quite there yet. It’s cheap, though. You can get a week of unlimited mobile Internet for 250 pesos, which is about £4.
I’ve borrowed a Sun Cellular sim, which is a normal sim they’d sell you to put in a phone. If you go to a mobile store and ask to be a broadband sim on its own, they will tell you it’s impossible and tell you to buy a dongle for about 1000 pesos to go with the sim. It’s great if you actually need a dongle, but I already have one (which I left in HK, duh) and also have my Galaxy, which I can use instead. Seemingly, we are at an impasse, but, what they don’t tell you is that you
can charge (or “load” as they say here) a normal sim with the same prepaid card you’d use for a dongle and it’ll work just as well. When you buy a 250 peso broadband “load” card, it actually says on it that you can use it for a normal prepaid sim card and tells you exactly how to charge it. I stuck the Sun sim in my Galaxy S2 to use as a mobile access point, but to begin with, it was connecting at insanely slow speeds. Turns out it was connecting at EDGE, instead of 3G. I waited a day and switched a few things on and off in the phone and now it’s doing 3G and above, so when it’s not cutting out or losing signal, it’s perfectly fine. It does tend to occasionally revert back to EDGE, though, annoyingly.

I also borrowed a “Smart Bro” dongle from the Smart network, but that seems to cut off quite a lot of the time (with a festive trumpeting sound effect to boot). Having both at least means that one of them is likely to work, so I can have something working about 80%-90% of the time.

Luckily, unlike Hong Kong, Cebu seems to have a huge cafe culture and the cafes here (unlike Hong Kong’s dark and depressing cafes) are bright, friendly, cheap and plentiful.
I am writing this sat in a Bo’s Coffee, a friendly chain with comfy seats, big windows and a pretty inoffensive soundtrack.

I’m guessing it’s the American influence that has created Cebu’s abundance of LA-style strip malls – those 2-storey buildings arranged around a central, open car park with a big light-up sign telling you what businesses live there. They make a pleasant enough place to sit in a cafe and work, so all’s well. If you’re luckly, you might even be able to find a shopping centre / mall that has wifi you can use for free (though it’s apparently often slow or flaky) and the local Ayala Mall has lovely open spaces to sit in with lush plants and a laid back atmosphere. I’ve been missing that so much in Hong Kong.

Apparently once out of the city, mobile Internet (and even mobile signals on occasion) become almost nonexistent, so your best bet is to find a resort with wifi or take your laptop to one of the restaurants or beach bars that offer it. Even then, it might be a bit too slow for some lines of work. I will report more from the field when the time comes.

Hong Kong underground scene part 2

At midnight on NYE I was in Hidden Agenda again (it’s turning into my favourite place in Hong Kong), surrounded by hundreds of happy Chinese moshers going crazy to some fine local music. This time, I actually ran into a local friend (it’s good to already have a local friend) who could translate the intros for me, as well as clue me in on which bands were locally famous. The place was absolutely rammed, but sadly, a large part of that is apparently the relocation effect. I’ve been told the place is far emptier normally, as the only real promotion is done on Facebook and the website. The relocation parties were listed in the local Time Out and in HK Magazine, so I guess everyone in town into indie music knew about it. The crowd was a cool combination of the hip and casual – some girls (and guys) were very fashionably done up, but there were also lots of people in T shirts and jeans (and black leggings, which seem to be the most popular item of clothing for women here). Everyone was incredibly friendly, polite and smiley. Even when people got really drunk and the whole place went off in one big, crazy pogo dance it was all friendly and fun. People apologise for pushing past you or accidentally moving you or stepping on you and it doesn’t seem to be the autopilot response you get in the UK but an actual thought-out response.

The biggest band on the bill was apparently Chochukmo, which is apparently one of the very few bands whose CD is sold in the HK HMV (if that fact is indeed true then what gives, HMV? There are so many awesome HK bands, you’d think there’d be a whole section dedicating to supporting local talent!). They sing in English and sound not entirely unlike the Chili Peppers. They certainly seemed to have plenty of very keen fans who rushed to the front to see them play.
Then there were More Reverb with some really beautiful instrumental pieces. Hidden Agenda is actually relocating, rather than closing down forever, which is super good news for people in Hong Kong if you ask me. They’ll be moving somewhere nearby and their opening party will be on February 2nd. Shame I’ll miss it.

The night actually finished some time after midnight, so I headed off to a different underground Hong Kong venue altogether – the XXX Gallery, for a dancehall / reggae night.
Most foreign people I’ve met in HK so far seem to have fallen into the trap of going out in horrid Lan Kwai Fong which seems to be the local equivalent of going out in Leicester Square, or worse – some blown up version of the going out area in some super chavvy UK town. It’s full of loud, tacky bars where fat middle-aged Western bankers sit with their Asian hookers and drunken foreigners fall all over each other to the sound of mainstream hits. I went to an OKish bar there (Le Jardin) for the CouchSurfing meet up a while back and although it was pretty loud, the music didn’t suck too badly and there was actually a good deal on some very delicious martinis (plus the bar staff were cool and they sign you up for free “membership” at the entrance so they can serve you booze). Still, the area itself reminds me of all the sides of London I avoid like the plague. Apparently the going rate for a drink in the area can be as high as $100 HK (£8). I’d rather sit at home counting hairs than go out somewhere like that.

Anyway, if you thought going out in HK needs to be this foul, then I have great news for you. The XXX gallery is small in UK terms, but apparently a good size in HK terms. It has signs saying “private party” for that extra underground “not entirely licensed for this” feel and you need to bring your own booze cause they don’t sell anything there. It’s in Sheung Wan, so not too far from the vileness of LKF, really, but it feels like going out in London 15 years ago. There’s no dress code, no annoying drunks and everyone is incredibly friendly. At this particular party There was a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese (though, frankly, more foreigners than Chinese), the sound was good and the DJs were great. If you want to get an idea of what the vibe was like, then you can draw inspiration from the mother of all TV clubbing scenes. Just imagine a smaller venue, different music and no cheesy rave gear:

Awesome.