Calamansi is a small, round citrus fruit with an aromatic, sour bite. It is served on the side of Philippine meals as a condiment; in a tiny bowl along with small chilies. You squeeze the diminutive green fruit over the chilies, crushing them and adding vinegar or soy as a dipping sauce. Also known as Philippine lime, its potent juice makes a delicious lemonade when sweetened. This bittersweet treat became my perfect symbol for the Philippines. There is much beauty here and much poverty, often existing side by side.
Cebu Island, Philippines
As a vacation destination there is a definite appeal; the dollar stretches far here and meals, lodging and transportation will be cheap. There are beautiful beaches, pristine coral reefs and world class diving and snorkeling. Filipino dishes are deliciously dimensional with salty and sour flavors; fresh fruit abounds on every corner. A Thai massage will unkink your travel knots while stretching your limbs until you are limp spaghetti. While here I will enjoy fragrant food, sip from coconuts, visit a deserted island, zip down crowded city streets, witness beggar children and holy relics. I will encounter the beauty of isolated chapels in jungled fields and brightly painted homes of crumbling cinderblock. I will attend a wedding and meet an astronomer.
I am south of Manila on the island of Cebu, one of the larger of the 7,000 islands making up the Philippines. Magellan landed here in the 1500s, starting the missionary movement that would bring Spanish colonization. Tribal chief Lapu finished him off a few weeks after his arrival but the wheels of colonization were set in motion. His sacred cross is displayed by the Santo Nino Basilica in Cebu City, a real survivor that has burned three times and lost its bell tower to the 2013 earthquake. A Flemish statue of Jesus from Magellan’s time is housed in a small chapel and has survived all the fires. Said to be miraculous, a long line of the devout stretches out into the basilica’s courtyard waiting to be blessed by its sight. Tourists mingle with worshippers here; I am given a wrap to cover my scandalously bare shoulders and legs.
Catholicism is ever present in the Philippines with statues of the Madonna and saints appearing in the most unlikely spots, such as the middle of a traffic median. Troops of school children careen around corners in their crisp uniforms, the girls linking arms. There is still an innocence in children here, with no cellphones or video games or hoverboards. The children of my host family delight in the Hot Wheels and Slime and Skittles candy I bring; toys from another era for me. They speak English fluently here but we laugh at an oddity we have noticed. Here “uh-uh” means yes, not no — my hostess Michelle answers yes to a question with a nod and uh-uh while I answer no with the same words.
I am here for a wedding; the bride Michelle is marrying one of my boyfriend’s oldest friends. The day before is filled with drama as is every wedding around the world, with transporting guests, greeting family, arranging food and flowers. Then after an unexpected marriage license issue there is a frantic last-minute search to find another priest, who has to travel from the next island. After all is settled the ceremony is beautiful and the food is a virtual feast with plate after plate of local seafood, meats, rice and noodle dishes. The meal is highlighted with Lechon, the celebratory whole roasted pig, resplendent in shining shellacked skin and upturned snout. I win the bouquet in the toss from the bride, ignorant to the local custom where the participants snatch a bloom from the bunch and toss it along, apparently not aspiring to matrimony like their American counterparts.
On the ride back to the hotel I see the never-ending juxtaposition of beauty with day to day life here. Fields of sugarcane, grazing caribou, shimmering seas, imposing volcanic mountains and shell bedecked beaches entice the eye. They co-exist beside block after block of tin-roofed shanties, homemade storefronts, wandering strays and drying laundry dotting the lines like native sampaguita flowers. About a quarter of the population lives in poverty here and it is still very much a developing country. Most families will never own a house; cars are a rare luxury and many have dirt floors, no electricity and subpar plumbing. The average family here will earn around 260 thousand pesos, or $5,000 a year.
There is plenty of opportunity to see the living conditions up close while whisked about on a trike, a motorcycle with sidecar that sits two (American) people comfortably. Locals ride four to six regularly, with two passengers sidesaddle on the back of the motorcycle. Cargo you would be used to seeing in a pickup truck in the States is enthusiastically stuffed in the trikes, from sugarcane to construction materials to brooms, often hanging out several feet. A trike ride will cost about twenty pesos; the equivalent of less than 50 cents. For a larger crowd, the jeepney is the workhorse of the roads. A small bus/jeep hybrid, these brightly decorated vehicles are packed with passengers. Riders hang off the back and sway as the jeepney weaves through traffic, honking repeatedly as they traverse the bumpy roads, with the occasional sleeping dog who considers moving when the wheels get close enough. There are no traffic lights outside of the city; every intersection is a suggestion, with an amazingly efficient blending of vehicles. On the street it is a mix of smells, the waft from a bakery offering fresh cheese rolls and sugared buns, suddenly blotted with diesel fuel, the greasy fast food odors of Jollibee and an undetermined scent that could be a mix of the sewer and garbage piled up for pickup.
We go on an excursion; myself and my host family, to a small secluded island. We trike to the coast and find a boat captain to take us on his banka boat, a large motorized outrigger canoe. It looks sea worthy enough though it has seen a lot of wear. I don’t spot any life jackets on board. The diesel engine is so loud we are quiet for the 45-minute ride to Capitancillo island, a pristine coral reef. The only inhabitants are a lighthouse, some beach kiosks and a waiting hammock. We have brought a picnic lunch; last night’s meal of fish, fried chicken and rice. The rice is tightly packed in woven banana leaf packets that you buy on the street, better than any Tupperware. Our captain makes a fire on the beach and we heat up the food, squeezing the calamansi overtop. Cebu is known for seashells and I walk the beach picking up coral fossils, cowrie and scallops right from the shore. I teach the children the chestnut “She sells seashells.” Despite their English skills they still struggle with the challenge and it is good fun. This is a prolific area for diving and snorkeling, with clear turquoise waters. But my host has talked about poisonous fish and shark sightings so adamantly that I opt to stay in the shallow water with the children instead of heading out in the strong current. With only a pair of goggles I am still able to see a multitude of gems; electric blue minnow-like fish, long zebra striped fish and large, transparent opalescent fish, their ghostly side eye staring back calmly. The water is warm and clear and is so salty that I float effortlessly. It is truly magical and I linger in the welcoming bath until the captain signals it is time to head home.
Derick, Michelle’s six-year-old son with the face of an angel, wants to be a dentist when he grows up. “And an astronomer at night,” he says. He has just gotten a telescope from an American relative. He can name all the planets in the solar system (they don’t even titter at Uranus like any American child would). I tell him about the museums we have in America for science and space and that we have the actual lunar module that landed on the moon in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. His eyes are wide in disbelief. I hope he has the chance to see it one day and I hope he becomes a dentist, or whatever he wants to be in a few years. The bathroom here is on the top floor. You enter it through the roof balcony, the shower being right alongside the toilet. You have to keep the lid closed on the toilet or mosquitos will breed. Mosquito born illnesses are a real threat and Derick’s brother Jondel was hospitalized recently. I imagine this balcony is where Derick sets up the telescope. It would be a stunning nighttime view with so few lights in the town. With all the tin roofs surrounding us, the rain must be a symphony of plunking notes.
Michelle has made a delicious meal of Sinigang, a sour fish stew with tangy tamarind and eggplant served over rice. A simple comfort food, it is a universal Filipino offering that differs in every region. Common Filipino dishes include Daing, a whole fried fish marinated in vinegar so crispy you can eat the bones and Kare Kare, oxtail in curry that is tender and sweet. Tortang Talong is a butterflied eggplant fried with scallion and egg resembling an omelet. The Spanish influence comes out in dishes like chicken adobo, paella and flan. The food is not spicy, but pungent with garlic and onion, vinegar, ginger and soy. The Pancit noodles accompany every special occasion here for good fortune. Lumpia are long thin fried eggrolls filled with pork, probably the best known Filipino dish here in the U.S. and readily available in our Asian markets. There is no shortage of sweets in this country and bakeries are present on every corner. Halo Halo is a popular dessert made from shaved ice, pieces of Jello, dried fruits, beans, nuts, yam ice cream and condensed milk. It reminds me too much of Christmas fruitcake to stomach. I prefer Turon, fried plantains and jackfruit or Taho, a pudding-like snack sold by street vendors. With two tubs suspended on a pole held over their shoulders, the Taho peddlers walk the neighborhood, stopping to mix the custardy tofu with tapioca beads, caramel sauce and condensed milk on demand at curbside. But my favorite is the shakes, mango and avocado and Buko, sweet coconut milk. Cold and fresh and soothing, they are a treat on a hot day and serve as a satisfying breakfast.
I sightsee at a historical fort serving as a lovely walled garden in Cebu City. Inhabited mainly by wild cats, its grounds are cool and a welcome respite from the city’s heat and street hawkers. A blind musician plays the guitar and cannons dot the high walls, interspersed with holy niches holding Madonnas. Cebu is a musical place and they craft guitars here. Souvenir stalls sell small handmade guitars and tiny instruments adorn keychains and magnets. As I sit at a streetside table a traveling troupe of students from a local music school serenade me. American tourists are not common here. Besides the Australians lingering in Starbucks and McDonalds there are not many Caucasians. In fact I am singled out to join in a stranger’s photograph myself which is highly amusing to my boyfriend. (I think he is jealous that I am the exotic one here.)
Eating at a local barbeque restaurant, I am surrounded by a myriad of wandering dogs and cats hoping for a scrap. I select my meat of choice from the vendors, sticks skewered with pork, beef, chicken, fish or squid. My fish is put on the pit until it is blackened and tender. I sit at the picnic tables and nibble on BBQ with chips and of course, rice on the side. I surreptitiously drop a few bites of fish at my feet so a passing cat can scavenge it. I feel a bit guilty – food is not readily given to animals here. Leftovers will be taken home for another meal. Strays are generally tolerated but mostly ignored. Later after a fast food meal at Jollibee’s I take my leftovers, handing them it to a beggar woman on the street holding an infant. She literally curtseys to me in thanks.
I go on another beach excursion with my host family, this time to Bantayan, a neighboring island reached by ferry. Families with bags of snacks surround us; someone has brought a rooster tucked into a straw tote. (Roosters crow everywhere here. No matter whether I am in the country or city or how upscale the hotel, there is still always somehow a rooster crowing.) I eat calamari and sit on the beach as twilight arrives. George Benson plays on my iPod as we dance in the white sand, ignoring the Australian tourists nearby. The moon shines overhead as if on cue and not only is it full but it is a supermoon, the uniquely bright and large lunar sight we are lucky to see on our own side of the world. I wonder if Derick is looking at it through his telescope…
My journey is ending; I shop for souvenirs back in the city. T-shirts are hard to find with sizes not designed for American bodies. I select some shell necklaces and mango candy. At the airport baggage area back in the States, I spot a poster on the wall.
“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” A quote by Mary Anne Radmacher, it seems directed just for me as I remember my supermoon on the beach.
It pretty perfectly defines why we travel, why it matters to experience life on the streets of a city across the world and why we must go out and do it again. Will I go back to the Philippines? Well; uh-uh…
At home, I plan to find a map of the universe and send it to Derick. I try my own version of Tortang Talong with mixed results. I order a calamansi tree from an online nursery, the fruits as tiny as bb pellets. When they finally ripen I hope to capture a bit of this exotic place, a sour and sweet and biting memory of my time in Cebu.
Written by: Jenny Hogan
Jenny Hogan writes on the topics of lifestyle, travel, health and wellness. A former massage therapist and esthetician practicing in the Washington DC area, she writes for professional trade publications in the spa & beauty industries. Her inspiration is finding the beauty in the simplicity of ordinary life.