Karaoke, island hopping, and scuba

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Where I stayed
Bituon Beach Resort

Flag of Philippines  , Visayas,
Friday, April 20, 2007

Gloria, a gregarious Filipina on the ferry to Masbate Island, helps clear up a bit of our confusion about travel routes then offers us a ride to our hotel, pointing out her Baptist church along the way. She laughs and claps her hands when I notice the drumset on the stage and exclaim, "There's a band!", and she replies, "Well, we used to sing those old hymns, but we don't do that music anymore." She's jubilant when I tell her my grandmother was a Baptist.

Baptists are a minority in this predominantly Catholic country. Everywhere you look there are Catholic churches, statues of Jesus and Mary, crosses, and religious saying like "Bless our ways" and "King of Kings" painted on every available surface. As a gay traveler from a country where Christian conservatives actively legislate against and promote bigotry toward me based on their "faith", traveling in such an obviously Christian culture was a bit unnerving at first, a reminder of all the intolerance back home that it's been so nice to escape. But the people we've met here are just so darned nice that we're quickly won over. This is said with one caveat. They can't figure out why on Earth two thirty-something, unmarried men traveling together haven't found two nice Filipina women. Todd's a good deal more shy about this than I, but over the past six months I've outed us literally hundreds of times, and I'm over being America's self-appointed gay ambassador to Asia. Or maybe it's just that the flow from "I'm Baptist!" to "We're gay!" sometimes isn't as smooth as one would like.

After a night at the MG Hotel, where we gorge on the lusciously creamy fettuccine alfredo, we switch to the Bituon Beach Resort hoping for some sand and swimming. It's a weekend, and there are groups of local families and friends gathered who come to picnic and drink and play in the garbage-strewn water. Yep, more garbage.

They take their barbecue seriously here. On one picnic table there's a whole roasted pig which is picked clean to the ribs by the end of the day.

The sound of the water is nice. We check out the algae-filled swimming pool and opt for billiards instead. There's a terrific tiki hut-style restaurant - all natural wood branch railings, thatched roof, open air, right next to the sea. When we sit down for dinner and our first round of San Miguel pilsner, one of the staff is busy uncovering a videoke machine with monster-sized speakers and a couple people are flipping through song lists.

The great thing about karaoke in Asia is that it's not at all about how good you sound, whether or not you're going to win the next American Idol. You pick a song that speaks to you (or at least that you know), put your heart on your sleeve, and wail out your very best. For the first hour I'm horrified. Todd and I sit around like nervous wallflowers at a junior high school dance, nibbling our meals, while the locals at the tables around us down liters of whiskey, laugh, and sing. Every once in awhile we size one another up, the locals and us, from across the room. I can feel the pressure building, the curiosity mounting. I tell Todd I can't hang back any more. When a table near us sends the waiter over with some of their home-made coconut salad, we seize the opportunity, shove our table next to theirs, and within minutes we're making our way rapid-fire through the friendly but familiar barrage of questions. "Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have girlfriends? What do you think of Filipina girls? Would you like to meet some? She's available! (ha ha haaaahh! lots of blushing by the one pointed out...) What do you do for work? Tell me again why you're not married? You're not married - this doesn't make any sense!"

Supposedly the Filipino culture is very accepting of homosexuality, but it's such a relief to finally be spending time with locals that I'm just not up for popping their well-intended but naive firing squad-style bubble.

In the morning, the group of us travels by bangka to a teeny nearby island of gleaming white sand and shimmering, clear water. We swim out to a bamboo shelter anchored offshore. In the U.S. this breathtaking spot would be swarming with tourists. We are the only ones here. Fantastic! Everyone needs to experience having a beautiful tropical island all to oneself for a day! We'll miss our new friends from Masbate.

On the overnight ferry from Masbate, an early morning announcement awakens us just before we arrive in Cebu City. This is the way to travel! We're quickly onto a bus heading south, but at one of our stops in town, four gunshots suddenly pierce the calm. Many of the passengers jump up to see what's happening, then drop to the floor to avoid any more bullets. The bus driver quickly shuts the hydraulic doors. People slam down their bus windows. Todd sees two plain-clothed guys with old pistols go running past outside. We're happy about our decision not to spend any time in Cebu.

Suffering and poverty are unavoidable here. We're gently approached by people begging, children and adults, nearly everywhere we go. Our taxi driver describes the incredible corruption that permeates all levels of government up to the President. One day you have a business, he says, the next day when you arrive to work someone else has occupied your space. The last big typhoon wiped out electricity and fresh water supplies for six weeks in Cebu City and the outlying areas were repaired even later. Gang territory is clearly marked - "Bloods" is spray painted in numerous places in various towns along the way. Every building, including churches, is protected by a fence and every window is covered by steel bars. Many businesses have armed guards - banks, pharmacies, even McDonalds. In this country of plentiful natural resources, the effects of the corruption and the desperation behind the poverty are easy to see.

Moalboal, our next stop, is a diver's haven where the strip of resorts are built right up to the water's edge. We opt for a cushier place, Love's Lodge, on the quieter southern end of the "beach" away from the scene. Looking out at the water, the shallower sandy bottom is a bright aqua for 30 meters out then turns deep blue where the shelf of sand suddenly plunges to a vertical wall covered in gorgeous soft and hard corals and the fascinating creatures that live in that other world. An hour's boat ride across this ocean channel, the hazy mountains of Negros Island rise in the distance. The freshly painted white walls of the resort bring images of Greece to mind, though I've never been there. I'm cheerful surrounded by palm trees and sunshine and radiant colorful flowers.

The scuba diving is splendid - brilliant, healthy reefs, swarms of schooling fish, crabs and shrimp and eels, giant sea turtles, striped sea snakes. The dive at Pescador Island is a highlight indeed. I marvel at a fish's ease underwater, wonder what their perception is of these bulbous, bubbling, machine-encrusted creatures that so often visit them.

Though it feels a bit more wild and uncontrolled than some of the other countries we've visited, I find comfort in the rhythm of the Philippines. I'm hopeful for this place. There's so much potential for happiness here, so much underlying abundance. The people know it and hold it like a delightful secret they're waiting to tell one another.
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