A giraffe bent its neck over the chain link fence I was enclosed in and with its long, flexible tongue grabbed the leafy branch I was holding in my mouth. My friend captured the experience on his cellphone while other tourist groups enacted similar rituals. A group of us were standing within a four-foot-tall circular fence that had no roof in Calauit Safari Park. Giraffes encircled the small enclosure and with lethargic grace acted out what was likely a rote experience for them. Without pushing one another or making any noise, the giraffes reached down into our cage to receive their green treats. What attracted the giraffes to the branches we offered in lieu of the surrounding lush vegetation alludes me. Maybe they enjoyed the attention and paparazzi like ardor showered upon them.
In that same park, I knelt an arm’s length away from a zebra as it sauntered past in the open field. The lack of restrictive supervision by the park personnel and sheer closeness to the animals provided an exotic thrill unfelt in American zoos. The entire island of Coron in the Palawan province of the Philippines imparted the same sensation—a sense of freedom and worldliness I had yet experienced. It’s a sensation that in hindsight invites beautiful and troubling memories.
My friend and I intended our vacation to the Philippines to have Manila as our primary destination. We had initially not planned to visit Coron during our visit, but my friend’s friends in Manila insisted we plan a vacation away from the capital city because “there was nothing to do there.” Certainly Manila, a Southeast Asian metropolis, would have plenty for us we thought. After sitting mired in traffic for hours leaving the Manila airport, a cacophonous symphony of horn blasts accompanying us every crawling meter of the journey, we were glad we heeded their advice. I was told the traffic wasn’t as bad as it could be because each weekday prohibited certain numbered license plates (i.e. plates ending in 1 or 2) from driving on the roads. Gazing at the stagnated traffic around me, I wondered how strictly that rule was enforced. While we sat motionless on the highway, I watched small children, clearly under 10-years old, move deftly between the cars offering cigarettes, flowers, and small candies for a meager number of pesos. Most drivers looked ahead without batting an eye.
The Philippines felt like a country of contrasts. Some of the world’s largest, most opulent malls stood at the center of Manila. SM Megamall, the 13th largest mall in the world, casts a large shadow over Oritgas Center. It consumes over 5 million square feet of the downtown and hosts nearly 1000 shops, a bowling alley, IMAX theater, skating rink, archery range, and even a church. SM Megamall is only the third largest mall in the Philippines. The grandeur of this small city does not radiate far from its foundation.
Surrounding the perimeter of the mall were security guards touting pump-action shotguns slung at the ready. They all looked weary in their body armor as the downtown humidity and pollution berated them. To enter SM Megamall, you had to pass through a security checkpoint which consisted of another gun wielding security guard waving you through as soon as you approached the entrance. They didn’t deign to give you more than a glance or check your bags. It seemed like their eyes were more focused on the clock hung near the entrance.
A couple streets away from the megamall and you’re in worn-down alleys lined with dilapidated buildings long abandoned. Jeepneys lumber past exhaling trails of smog. These staple public transportation minibuses can be seen everywhere in Manila. These gray, metallic beasts carry Filipinos crammed in its belly like packed sardines. A few passengers hang perilously on the outside. Time, experience, and necessity often wears down trepidation though, and most of them look well at ease and text while they hang with one arm. Lines of people stand beneath the blazing sun at Jeepney pickup points scattered throughout the city. The shining red and yellow Jeepneys with smiling passengers reflected in a Google search are nowhere to be seen. Any shine or glamor these monsters might have possessed has eroded under the heel of time.
An old woman inevitably sits on the sidewalk of one of these streets with a large metal vat filled with eggs. She’s selling balut, a popular street food. Balut is a fertilized developing duck egg embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. Salt and vinegar often accompany it. The balut is unappealing to the unacquainted eye. Part yellow yolk, part eyeballs, part cartilage—it’s an unnerving sight when you consider the intent is to eat it. Once you pop it in your mouth, the flavor is surprisingly uneventful. It was like eating a crunchy boiled egg.
If you’re having trouble putting a balut down, warming up with a Red Horse couldn’t hurt. Red Horse is a Philippines brewed strong lager with a sweet taste that was able to capture the affection of my typically beer-averse taste buds. Lightweights beware, these beers have a reported 6.9 alcohol content that doesn’t pull any punches. Don’t try this great lager outside the Philippines though. There must be an export modification on the homeland recipe because any Red Horse I’ve purchased outside of the Philippines tastes like gasoline and lacks the signature sweetness.
The trip to Coron provided a parallel to our experience in the mainland. We flew from Manila into Busuanga Airport, a small, no thrills airport. After grabbing our luggage, a van assigned to our tour group picked us up and began its 30-minute shuttle to our hotel at the center of the village. We spent the next few days being transported from our hotel to the docks and ferried to local snorkeling spots and the safari park I spoke about in the beginning.
Every moment on those excursions felt like it was ripped out of a vacation magazine. Saying the surrounding waters were crystal clear feels like a woeful understatement when you take a moment to appreciate the surrounding beauty. Can a crystal ever hope to sparkle this majestically? With snorkel gear in place, a quick look beneath the surface of Coron Bay reveals prismatic ocean life. Giant clams, rays, fish, and turtles swirl about the sunken remains of a Japanese ship destroyed in World War II. The next moment your assigned boat comes ashore a reserved beach of Malcapuya Island. It’s outfitted with covered seating areas and hammocks along white sands. There’s Black Island Cave with its unique rock formations and small shaded swimming pools to explore. You can free dive off the cliffsides sprinkled throughout Kayangan Lake. Each island you visit seems strategically equipped with a trail leading to a hill overlooking the surrounding area. Standing at the summit of any of these presents a breathtaking sight. Past the surrounding cliffs patched with green vegetation and fine sand beaches, another tourist boat bobs in the ocean as it crests wave after wave in their journey to this sacred spot. Unfortunately, this idyllic dreamscape only offers temporary sojourns. In a flash we’re back on the boat headed to another mesmerizing landscape.
At the conclusion of the day’s trip, we are confronted with the other side of Coron as we dock the boats. Wooden ramshackle homes with tin roofs haphazardly put together are strewn alongside dirt roads. A dog with ribs protruding like knives gnaws on an empty meat skewer. Shirtless men and children wander the streets seemingly without purpose. As someone who has only been to America and Japan, the poverty and lifestyle on display is foreign and shocking. But don’t fret, a comforting Western influence has made its way to the island. One look and you can forget about the village woes and feel relaxed by a refreshing reminder of home. I had seen it on our drive to the village, but our return date to Manila happened to be its grand opening. A McDonalds had just opened on Coron. A mass of villagers crowd around every side of the building as if a celebrity is inside providing autographs.
Its location still strikes me as sinister. With its golden gleaming arches, the McDonalds resides outside of the village and certainly outside a comfortable walking distance for anyone staying in the tourist section. McDonald’s capitalist DNA wouldn’t open up a location if they thought they couldn’t profit from it. Is it for the villagers then? At the time I didn’t venture inside (I doubt I could have made it through the crowd and still made it to my flight on time), but part of me wishes I had so I could have looked at the prices. Only now through Googling their Coron branch’s website do I see that the Mega Meal (Chicken McDo with fries and Burger McDo) costs 167 Philippine pesos, roughly 3 American dollars. The Chicken McDo is a deep-fried chicken drumstick. The Burger McDo, despite its different name, is a typical McDonalds cheeseburger, though don’t be surprised if it’s missing some of the listed ingredients when you receive it. Supply chain issues and sold-out items were a common occurrence during my couple stays in the Philippines. I wonder how much profit the first international food chain on Coron made selling their Mega Meal to the shoeless villagers looking through the spotless glass windows?
As the McDonalds faded in the rear-view mirror of the van and as the Philippines faded in the airplane window, I reflected on my experiences. The crowded Coron McDonalds and dingy alleys caught in the shadow of SM Megamall gnawed at my mind. I visited the Philippines a few more times while I was living in Japan. Each time I saw new sights and met new people. I talked with Filipinos I met about their feelings on home. When I voiced my thoughts about the intense contrasts around us, they weren’t shocked by my perspective. They were all too familiar with it. It was a staple of their life, it was their home. They loved it all the same.
My friend’s friends who guided us through Manila and insisted we visit Coron had lived in America for a while working as nurses, but decided to return to the Philippines to raise a family. They warmly welcomed my friend and I into their home while we were visiting and shared beer and food around the kitchen table. Their live-in maid (a more common profession in the Philippines than you might guess), a young woman from one the providences, cleaned up after us. Being a live-in maid in the big city was a financial opportunity she wouldn’t have back home.
The hospitality and friendly conversation felt a lot like my own home.
As time passed, the Philippines made me think less about the juxtaposing splendor and shabbiness and more about the artificial barriers we erect around ourselves, others, and our experiences. The Philippines was a beautiful place to visit, contrasts and all.