Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Vacation in Cebu Part 2

Because we rode taxis out to Mactan every day, we grew familiar with all the ins and outs of taxi fare negotiation. We refused to ride in taxis without a meter. Even so, in the mornings going out most drivers would try to get us to agree to 450 pesos out to Mactan. From experience we knew that we could get this down to 300, or else agree to pay 50 over whatever the meter said. A few times I had to open my door and start to step out before they agreed to the lower fare.

Some taxi drivers were more talkative than others. Many of them asked us if we were married, and then, how old we were. Our favorite driver was an aspiring tour guide who gave us a detailed tour of all the sites along our route, complete with personal tidbits. For instance, "That's the call center where my son works," and, "This is where my cousin lives."

This driver did not welsh on personal details. He had 7 children (like everyone in Cebu, he was a devout Catholic). As traffic slowed going past the provincial capital, he abruptly said, "I have a gay." As we took this in, he continued. "Do you know the gay? My son. He is it." It was unclear why he was telling us this, but he was clearly proud of his son. "He speaks English very well. He has a job at the call center. Maybe if you come to our house you can meet him. It's his birthday today, we're having a party. You should come."

One taxi ran out of gas 5 minutes into the ride, and we had to get out and find another. Another time, we were on the bridge when we felt a sickening thud underneath. Our driver swore and got out to inspect things, as cars piled up behind us. Then I saw the driver rolling a tire off the road. Apparently it had fallen off the back of the truck in front of us.

And then there was the gauntlet of roadside vendors and beggars we had to run every night. Some of these were merchants of a sort who approached cars at red lights, selling anything from fruit to sunglasses. More heartbreaking were the small children who pressed their dirty faces up against our taxi windows when we were stuck in traffic. There was one brother-sister team who came up to our windows on both sides and sang their little hearts out with their hands cupped around their mouths against the windows. The little girl looked about 5, her brother maybe 8 or 9. I had heard that these street children are often managed by an adult, sometimes a relative, who takes the money they make.

One night we went walking near the Fuente Osmena rotary, where my guidebook said the "local nightlife" was based. It turned out that "nightlife" meant mostly strip clubs and sports bars. The beggars in this area were particularly pernicious. They crowded around us as we waited at a crosswalk, a group of teenagers asking for money or food. Finally we got away from there and escaped into a restaurant, where Yukiko noticed that one compartment of her back was unzipped, and her camera was gone. That was definitely the low point of the trip.

The poverty in Cebu was inescapable, and took me by surprise. I knew the Phillipines struggled with poverty and corruption, but I expected that a major tourist destination like Cebu would be better off. Other places I had visited, like Bali and Thailand, clearly benefited from tourist dollars (and yen and won) so that the local community appeared, not exactly wealthy, but relatively comfortable. Cebu showed such a stark contrast between the glamour of the resort complexes and the ugliness of the rest of the town. The most attractive and well-maintained public places by far were the Catholic churches, which lit up on Sunday night like a fairground. Most areas outside of the malls and resorts were dirty and grim, with poorly constructed buildings and so many street hucksters that it was impossible for a tourist to walk freely anywhere. One time, through the taxi window, I caught a glimpse of a crowd of maybe 30 people all sitting together on the floor of a cafe, all facing an ancient-looking TV which was playing some soccer game.

I couldn't help but wonder how different things would be if this area could just get a decent government that wasn't so corrupt. They have such a beautiful environment, perfect weather, and with the steady stream of tourism from Japan, Korea, and Australia, they should be able to afford to enjoy some of it for themselves. I noticed some posters up encouraging people (in English) to re-elect so-and-so, and I privately thought that if I were them, I wouldn't re-elect any of their current leaders.

After the disastrous night at Fuente Osmena, we gave up searching for restaurants in town and learned that the majority of tourists and wealthy locals eat at one of the many malls. The Ayala Center mall had just about every imaginable kind of mall-restaurant, from TGI Friday's to Thai, French, Italian, Indian, Japanese - but all with American-style serving sizes. That mall was the sort of place I dream about; full of the sort of food I could never find in Kyoto or even Seoul, as well as shops selling clothes big enough to fit me, and a big bookstore containing rows and rows of affordable English-language books.

The mall was full of families every night, little kids running around the well-lit courtyard while their parents enjoyed a leisurely dinner, groups of teenagers carousing around the shops or playing in the game center. We also saw a number of odd couples made up of middle-aged white men with young Filipino women, who were clearly on intimate terms but also very eager to "see and be seen" together.
Ayala Center Mall at night

Every resort we visited was enjoyable in its own way, and most had reasonably priced day passes to enjoy the facilities. Only one place was so outrageously overpriced that we walked away. All the resorts had some degree of security keeping vendors and other unwanted visitors away; the most strict was probably the Hilton, which had its own completely blocked off little cove for swimming, and had dogs stationed at the gates which sniffed the inside and trunk of our taxi.

If I had to choose my favorite resort it would probably be a tie between the Hilton and the Maribago Blue Water. Both had very nice swimming pools and beach areas; the Maribago beach had a nicer view, but Hilton had better snorkeling because they had obviously cultivated a variety of exotic fish and plants in their protected cove area. On the other hand, Maribago had a little island just off shore which was an envigorating 10-minute swim away at high tide, walkable at low tide. Various entrepreneurs were wandering in this area trying to sell boat rides out to better snorkeling spots. Unfortunately, some of these were not connected with the hotel and were a bit annoying in their persistence. As I was swimming out to the little island, an outrigger canoe actually pulled up alongside me and offered me a ride, saying I could pay when I got back to land. Aside from these annoying but unflappable salesmen, it was one of the most refreshing places I could think of to spend a long tropical day.

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