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The Picture-book Country


Carol Novis, The Jerusalem Post, April 25, 1997
Ferdinand Magellan, one of the earliest foreign visitors to the Philippines, was so impressed by the archipelago that he immediately claimed it all in the name of his sovereign, the king of Spain. But his audacity didn't get him very far. He was killed for his move by local tribesmen in 1521.

Today's visitors face a far more welcoming reception from a people who frequently refer to their beautiful country as the place "where Asia wears a smile." I discovered this for myself on a tour sponsored by the Philippine department of tourism and its representative in Israel, Isrotem. During the week-long trip, I forded rapids on the river at Pagsanjan where Apocalypse Now was filmed, hacked bamboo on a jungle survival course, and scrambled up and down rice terraces built more than a thousand years ago.

Though the country does have large cities, principally Manila with close to 70 million people, most travelers wouldn't cross the world just to see them. What is worth seeing are the spectacular beaches, lush jungles and vistas, and sights that relatively few have visited.

Perhaps the chief charm of the country lies in the fact that tourism is still in its infancy. Only about 2 1/2 million people visited the Philippines last year, a fraction of those who visit Thailand. As a result, this archipelago of some 7,000 islands is still largely undeveloped and unspoiled.

The Philippine archipelago was colonized in the 16th century by the Spanish, who named it after Philip II. Spanish rule ended in 1898, when the Americans took over. It wasn't until 1946 that the Philippines finally became independent, and only in 1991 that the last American naval base closed down.

This mixed Spanish, American and native heritage has given the country an unusual blend of Eastern and Western influence. Though local culture, food and customs are akin to those of other countries in the Far East, about 80 percent of the people are Catholic and almost everyone speaks English. As one writer put it, "the Philippines is a country with a Spanish soul, an American heart and the Malay spirit."

WITH SOME 11 million people, Manila, the country's capital, is a huge, lively, crowded city with perpetual traffic jams and polluted air, where the very rich live inaccessible lives behind guarded gates, and the poor struggle to survive in overcrowded slums.

Tourist attractions include the Intramuros Walled City fortress-complex, Rizal park and Ayala historical museum, but not, contrary to rumor, Imelda Marcos's shoe collection, which the present government seems to be trying to forget.

Street life is lively. There are sidewalk food vendors everywhere, hawking fresh tropical fruit, coconut juice, pigeon's eggs dipped in bright orange crumbs, and other unidentifiable delicacies. Also ubiquitous are the garish "jeepneys," the local taxis whose metallic exteriors are personalized with slogans, folk art and pictures.

It's quite safe to walk alone during the day and people are unfailingly courteous and helpful. At night, Manila offers a wide variety of entertainment, with clubs that run the gamut from respectable to sleazy, sophisticated gambling halls so crowded that you have to wait in line for a slot machine, and the popular Karaoke bars, where "hostesses" greet guests at the door and welcome them to sing-alongs in private rooms.

Manila is said to be an excellent place for bargain hunting. I had little time to shop in Manila, but I was told that women's clothing, shoes and pearls are fashionable and inexpensive. In the countryside, handicrafts such as carved wooden items (some useful, such as trays and containers; some truly awful, such as carved Mickey Mouse and rearing-horse figurines), bamboo, rattan, hand-woven fabrics and shell products are available for a pittance.

Local Philippine food is also original and cheap. The cuisine is a blend of Chinese, Thai, Malay and American influences, with rice a staple, and hot pepper, coriander, lemongrass, tamarind and garlic used frequently. Coconuts are ubiquitous and their milk, or gata, is frequently used as an ingredient.

Pork is the most common meat, and glazed whole piglet is often served disconcertingly whole, complete with curly tail and staring eyes. Seafood is fresh and readily available too, but I ate vegetarian food and never went hungry.

Filipinos do eat dog, though they don't like to admit it to foreigners, and you won't find it on menus. They are bewildered by our revulsion - why, after all, should a dog be different from a chicken or a goat?

NORTH OF Manila, in the Luzon area, lie the Banaue rice terraces, termed the eighth wonder of the world. The terraces, some of which were carved out of the lush Cordilleran mountains 2,000 years ago by Ifugao tribespeople, are a marvel of engineering and aesthetic design, and are still being farmed today. They reach up to heights of 1,500 meters and measure over 20,000 kilometers if you were to stretch them end to end.

But as dazzling as the area is, there aren't many tourists coming here because the area is still fairly inaccessible. Traveling on a zigzag mountain road, with barely width for one car, it took 10 hours to complete the 350 km. from Manila to Banaue. It was worth the journey. With lush, green mountains all around us, we clambered down stone retaining walls and over pale-green rice saplings to reach a native village at the bottom, and then, much more laboriously, slogged back up the mountain.

Facilities in this area are basic: one comfortable hotel, (the log-cabin-style Banaue Hotel), with private lodgings and simple inns providing whatever other accommodation is available.

Another arduous eight-hour trip took us to Pagsnjan, a spectacular tropical gorge. I was apprehensive when I heard that we would be fording the rapids on the river, but I needn't have worried. I wasn't expected to paddle the canoe; that job was undertaken by two strong, young locals who skillfully negotiated the canoe through 11 separate rapids, until it arrived at the towering Magdapio waterfall. The current is so strong that the trip takes 21/2 hours upstream and only 15 minutes back at top speed. This is picture-book country, with towering cliffs lush with jungle vegetation on either side of a deep gorge.

Another spectacular spot is Tagaytay, a mountain resort 60 km. south of Manila, which offers a clear view of the Taal volcano, a small but dangerous active volcano which has erupted 20 times since the 16th century.

Less exotic is Subic Bay, now being developed as a major tourist resort. When the Americans evacuated the naval base at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force base, they left behind a local population who had mixed feelings about the move. Although the Americans had been resented, they had employed thousands of local residents.

To offset the loss, the Philippine government established an ambitious duty-free port and holiday resort on the huge Subic base. Six years later, the area features several luxury hotels, beaches, a casino, fishing and diving facilities, a golf course - and a jungle-survival tour.

During the Vietnam War, soldiers trained in jungle survival here, and the courses have been revived for tourists. We spent an hour and a half (though much longer versions are available) with a tough-looking gentleman dressed in camouflage, who took us into the jungle and showed us how to find water (just cut open a fresh bamboo), which plants to use to heal cuts and sores, and how to make a fire without matches in only 10 minutes - a complicated business involving bamboo shavings and friction.

It's not the sort of thing that sounds as if it would be very useful - but who knows? I might go back to the Philippines one day.

(Box) A Community Passing Through

The Jewish presence in the Philippines today is a minor one. There are one about 200 Jews in Manila, of who a large percentage are Israeli business people and diplomats. The community does support a rabbi, a synagogue and other community services, but it is only a remnant of what it once was.

According to the Philippine ambassador to Israel, Rosalina de Perio-Santos, the history of the Jewish presence in the Philippines dates from the time of the expulsion from Spain. In 1496, Jews who had migrated to Portugal from Spain were ordered to convert, and some chose to sail with the Spanish expeditionary forces to the Philippines instead. There, Jewish conversos became active in shipping, before most of them were forced out when the Inquisition reached the Philippines. Some, though, intermarried and remained.

"In the province of Pampanga," de Perio-Santos says, "the inhabitants still call their mother 'Ima,' the Hebrew word for mother, while elsewhere they use the word 'Ina.'

Jews trickled to the Philippines in the late 19th century from France, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, as well as from America, in the wake of the American occupation in 1898.

In 1924, the first synagogue was built in Manila. During World War II, the Philippines was far more welcoming to Jewish refugees than many other countries, and permission was given for the entry of thousands of Jews. But when the Japanese overran the Philippines in 1942, they were interned and many were killed. Only 700 Jews remained there after the war, and many subsequently left for Australia, the US and Israel.

An interesting footnote: 'When the UN voted in 1947 on whether or not Palestine should be partitioned between the Arabs and the Jews," says de Perio-Santos, 'the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in favor. By strange coincidence, the Philippine vote was to be the decisive one for the motion to pass.'