Tuesday 11 January 2011

Globosocial Adventures in The Philippines

I decided to go to the Philippines purely by chance. It wasn’t on my list of places to go simply because I’d never really thought about it. However, I was trying to find a place to take a break and my extended brother in law Jensen suggested I crash at his beach shack in Cebu. Over-thinking is not my way of life; if opportunity knocks, it’s best you take it. It sounded good and was hassle free, so I went with it. Bought my ticket and flew into Cebu for a few weeks of rest and relaxation.

Jensen Go Chow

My trips are usually very intense because I’m constantly dealing with new everything. From place to food to people to context. Each challenge I help address has to be faced in a bespoke way if the advice or support is ever going to be practically useful. It’s non-stop focus and I tend to burn out every three months or so.  My ability to process information and articulate things takes a palpable dive. I can literally feel it. Like Robocop losing his charge. If I don’t wind down properly and recharge, the next leg becomes that much harder. The original plan was 6 weeks out after every major region, but actually I got about 3 weeks of rest this time. Ah well. They were a great three weeks though :)

I arrived on three hour hop from Singapore, followed by a short cab ride to the Kawayan Marine resort where Jensen rents his shack, and began a few weeks of doing nothing more than sleep, eat, swim, scuba dive and watch old Kung-Fu films. No frills or luxuries. Just all the basic comforts you could want – like one of those genius rackets for defeating mossies.

Kawayan Marine, Mactan Main drive heading into the sea

The living room The bedroom 

Mactan transport is all about pimped out Jeepneys, and motorbikes with modified sidecars that fit four or five people. I usually took the Jeepneys which I rode from the resort to the main town every day for meals in or near the local malls.

Jeepneys near Marina Mall Front spoiler on yellow Jeepney

The closest mall was the Marina Mall, but for bigger and fancier ones you have to get closer to Cebu City which is about half an hour away from Mactan. Gaisanos is on the way, but in the City you have the much fancier SM and Ayala malls with all the glass and bright lights we’ve come to know and love/hate in the West.

Filipino food is an interesting one. Everyone (all westerners) I met before I left assured me that Filipino food is terrible, and I found quite the opposite. I loved it. From the street barbeques to big legs of chicken to junk food at ChowKing, Julies and Mang Inasal. I tucked into Barbeque chicken with rice dipped in calamansi, chillies and soy; Chicharon; Pochero; Kinilaw; and the famous Lechon.

Barbeque pork and rice in street stalls. Awesome. Sweet and spicy.


Pochero and calamansi dip

Home cooked food with Jensen and Connie in Malabuyoc

While at the Resort I helped Connie figure out how to increase the profitability of the place, which was struggling; largely due the fact that it was trying to be everything to everyone and losing any clear identity in the process.

Restructuring hostel services

Here’s the website we put together to help get them going. Hopefully it’s helping!

In return Connie very kindly took me to visit her other resort in a town called Malabuyoc about 4 hours away on the west coast. It is amazing. Check the pics here. It’s so peaceful and the water is clear and warm like you can’t believe. We went scuba diving and dolphin watching and drank Tuba on the walkway under the stars. Buy a ticket and go visit. Now!!!

Kawayan Marine Resort in Malabuyoc Jumping off the walkway into the sea at high tide. At low tide this would be pretty dangerous!

On the prow of a boat designed for dolphin watching.

Dolphins right under my feet

On returning to Mactan I made a little trip across the water to an island called Olango which has a bird sanctuary. Didn’t see too many birds but the place was unbelievably peaceful. No one there at all. Apparently you can camp out there overnight. Something I’d like to do some day.

From the peaceful to the social. I went out a couple of nights with Jensen and friends into Cebu City and checked out the local clubs. Not the fancy ones that look like any club anywhere, but where the locals and students go like Pump Julies and KTV places. The Filipinos love love LOVE Karaoke, and you can’t help but get into the swing of it yourself. 

P1000473 P1000481

Jensen and I also got invited to a party at his uncle’s place. Apparently it is standard practice to have a full roast pig at Filipino events, but I was still pretty impressed. Serious food.

Saying Grace before tucking in to a full roast pig

Everywhere you go kids and young guys are playing Basketball. Even at night. On broken courts, with no lights. Basketball here is like football everywhere else. A relic I guess of the American presence during World War II.

Bigger than everything else though is Cock Fighting. This is what it’s all about. Even Manny Pacquiao is a regular, betting millions of Pesos on a single bout. The cock fight itself is often over in minutes; the long blade strapped to their legs makes it deadly and quick. There can be 60 or 70 fights in a night, in an arena shaped exactly like a boxing ring. On my way back through Manila my hosts were heading to a fight so I went with the flow. Watching animals kill each other is not my idea of fun, but the human interaction around it was fascinating to witness.

It is the only time I’ve ever seen large scale betting without an organised middle man. It’s all one to one, trust based betting. Odds are called and while the birds warm up, the crowd goes into a frenzy. People shouting for others to place bets with; all going silent when the bell rings. And when the fight is over a couple of minutes later, all you see is small bundles of folded up cash being thrown across the arena from losers to winners. On scouts honour. It is chaotic and impressive and it all works. I guess if you got caught doing the dirty, there’s an arena full of activated testosterone to ensure you don’t do it again.

Kids playing basketball on the West Coast of Cebu Fighting Cock being reared and trained in its coop

Talking of sports, Jensen is a Capoeira teacher so I attended the grading ceremony held at the fancy Ayala mall as an event in the main courtyard. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that is practised to the beat of drums and rhythm vocals. It is acrobatic and fluid and fantastic to watch.

Capoeira in the Philippines

Towards the end of my stay in Cebu, as always, I got involved with social development. This time through the Rotary Club of Cebu, who fund and support a number of non-profits in the area.

  • Maria Josefa Recio Mental Health Therapeutic Centre
    Mental health is not recognised in the Philippines, which means there is no state funding or medical care dedicated to mental illness. There are no clinical psychologists either and hence a major shortage of skills to care for patients. The foundation used to receive money from the Church in Italy, but due to global recession this funding had been arbitrarily cut. We discussed fundraising for patient care, before recognising that in reality what was first needed was funding to build a movement raising awareness and national recognition of mental illness. We looked at designing movements and building platforms for raising money in the future. Unfortunately the big bosses in Italy weren’t having it and so the Foundation struggles to survive.
  • Soil and Water Conservation Foundation
    I spent some time with Bill Granert and his wife and team who have been trying to save watersheds and have been involved in a wide range of ecological development in the Philippines over the past 20 years. As ever the primary challenge lay in raising funds to support their fieldwork and future projects. In actuality we established that the best value that SWCF could add at this stage of organisational maturity was to capture and disseminate the knowledge and techniques developed over so many years. Evolving into an advisory rather than delivery entity would not only reduce the size of funds that need to be raised, but also massively increase the scale of impact they could have.  

    Bill and Aida Granert from SWCF
  • Project Mercy School
    In low income environments in developing countries, teenagers drop out of school for a wide range of complex reasons, but educational systems are typically unable to deal with individuals that fall outside normalised conditions. Addressing the needs of young people in these circumstances requires holistic solutions, that cover 8 key elements

    1. Emotional resilience and adaptiveness
    2. Family engagement and support
    3. Life-oriented learning and curriculums
    4. Work and life preparation
    5. Nutrition – at least one square meal
    6. Basic healthcare
    7. Extra-curricular activities
    8. Alumni programmes & After-care

    The school was set up and is run by Bayon Suico who used to be a teacher in the top private school in Cebu, and she was an absolute inspiration. We looked at systematising the model they use with some improvements for long term care, addressed the challenge of scale, and laid out a development roadmap that will one day ensure that the model she is proving will become part of the state system.

    Bayon Suico with the scaling model for her school

Finally, just before I left I was asked to give a talk at a Rotary Club annual function, which was pretty fun. It’s really a bunch of old boys enjoying, but they donate money to good causes and support some key programmes so its definitely worthwhile.


On the way out I got caught out at immigration. The visa on arrival is usually 30 days so I didn’t bother to check; too many trips to too many places. In the Philippines however it is 21 days. Turned up just in time to make the month deadline, only to find that I’d overstayed my welcome by a week. Mild panic ensued, and the guy eventually waved me off to the immigration payment counter to pay for the additional visa. I thought he was being magnanimous but found that the queue was massive. Clearly standard procedure here. Any worries that I would never be allowed to return vanished with the general disinterest offered once I’d paid up. Still, I’m now a lot more careful with checking dates!

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