Pin The Tail On The Atlas

After going to the Philippines, Jody Morris and Willy Santos aren’t surprised by cockfights and homemade jeeps.

How exactly this decision process was enacted, I can’t clearly recall. But knowing that I prefer traveling to places I don’t normally go, who was to complain? Everyone has probably played this game once or twice. The one where you’re blindfolded and you try to return a missing appendage to a disfigured donkey. The difference in this case were the stakes. The deal was this: Dave Swift and Grant Brittain would blindfold and spin me as per the rules, but instead of a donkey it was a world map, and regardless of where my pin found a home, I had to go. If this wasn’t agreed to, no game. The potential for dire results is rather large–a few inches left and this could have been an article about my trip to a deadly war zone. The pin landed on the Philippines.

One of the best ways for any trip to begin is to have someone who agrees to go with you. It’s usually much easier than going to the other side of the world where they don’t understand what you’re saying and trying to convince one of the locals to throw himself repeatedly down a flight of stairs so you can take photos of it. Luckily, Willy Santos agreed to come along. Apart from his willingness to throw himself down flights of stairs, this was a return home of sorts for him. Willy was born in a city called Subic in the Philippines, and a good number of his relatives still live in the area.

There are two main ways to travel. The first is to go somewhere far away and stay in a hotel that tries its best to make you feel as though you haven’t gone anywhere at all. The other is to stay with the people who actually live there. If you’re going to go through the effort of traveling to a far-off destination, why not actually see the place? Not just the mall and the poolside cabana. Willy’s relatives were gracious enough to allow me to stay with them, and although staying with strangers feels slightly awkward, his relatives (as seems to be the case with most Filipino people) made every effort to welcome me. With Willy’s aunt and cousins as our guides, we were able to truly see how people live, what they do, and how they perceive the world around them.

The first thing a Westerner picks out about a foreign country is not what they have, but what they’re missing. Listen to someone who has returned from Europe or the like. They don’t immediately begin with, “The Riviera was spectacular.” It tends to be more along the lines of remarks about the absence of Doritos or 7-Elevens. It’s just that when things you take for granted are removed, you notice that first. Take for example the lack of a hot shower (or at times, the lack of any shower). But if you dwell on things like this, you tend to miss what’s actually there to be seen.

Our first stop was with Willy’s mother’s family. They resided about an hour outside Manila in the town of San Fernando in Pomponga. San Fernando is one of the only remaining towns in the area. About eight years ago, one of the local mountains decided it had just about enough of these towns and attempted to wipe them off the face of the Earth, courtesy of a volcanic eruption. It was rather successful from what Willy’s cousins showed us. The only visible remains of entire villages were rooftops–the ash floated for miles. According to Manila skaters, about eight years ago it turned the streets white like winter snow for miles in all directions.

Transportation for the most part is homemade–buses called Jeepney’s, homemade jeeps for personal use (they look similar to our Jeeps, but as though they were made in school during shop class), as well as homemade sidecars attached to motorcycles. These motorcycles with sidecars are used within cities, and a bicycle with a sidecar are employed within the neighborhoods.

In order to see the countryside, we headed for Mountain Arayat just outside of San Fernando. We found a guide to take us on a he through the jungle. We went about a mile or two up the mountain before the guide decided to tell us the trail we were on led to New Peoples Army’s hiding place. They’re terrorists. No thanks, we turned around and looked for water buffalo or fountains or something. Nice bird; did you see that bird, Willy?

From the book Fielding’s World’s Most Dangerous Places

“The Philippine Immigration Bureau’s Civil Security Unit (CSU) advises immigration officers to detect the following when assessing if an arrival might be a terrorist: foul foot odor, scratched elbows and hands, and calluses.” Basically the description of a skateboarder, no? “In 1996, immigration inspectors turned away some 200 arrivals as suspected terrorists because of smelly feet.”

Skating in the Philippines was a rather difficult endeavor. There was nothing to skate in the first province we visited. The two places we did manage to skate were both decommissioned U.S. army bases. Clark Air Force Base was close to Willy’s family’s house; part of the Vietnam War was fought at the base. Now it’s mainly a center for duty-free shopping. The neighboring city of Clark was Willy’s cousins’ favorite hangout. Similar to any bar zone, it had discos with loud music. This was the only place I saw foreigners during my whole trip. Subic was the other air base where we found something skateable.

We located Willy’s former elementary school; it’s now a high school. What happened next had to be a first. Willy and I were going to try to get a photo before we got kicked out. But instead, Willy’s cousin went in the school and asked the principal if it was okay. In America, as you all know too well, a school would never give anyone the permission to abuse their handrails, let alone turn out in numbers to watch you do it. About 50 or 60 students stood around watching Willy do a lipslide, and the only word I understood coming out of their mouthes was X-Games, “Blah blah blah, X-Games, blah blah.” The miracle of TV. Most of them had never seen a skateboard, but they knew Willy from the X-Games. Is this good or bad?

In the Philippines every skateable building is guarded by a security guard with a pistol-grip shotgun who truly believes he’s the last line of defense for his company. The Manila skaters told us of guards who kick you out with a shotgun to your temple. Any argument? Didn’t think so. I saw one police car the whole time I was there; maybe the guards were that last line. The good thing about these guards is that about $2.50 is enough for them to allow you to skate, as we witnessed courtesy of the Manila skaters.

Everyone has chickens, and if they don’t, watch out, ’cause they might try to steal yours. Cockfights are one of the main events in every town. They happen every night with large numbers of people attending and wagering on the outcome. It seems cocks cannot occupy the same space without wanting to tear each other limb from limb, which their owners help them do by attaching razor-sharp daggers to their feet.

In Manila the effects of overpopulation are obvious. The train tracks, intersections, and all unoccupied space were overrun by shanties built from tin, wood, and cardboard. Add to this the problems of alcohol (drugs being generally too expensive), and the results are catastrophic. We were told people are so desperate in these areas, they’ll slit your throat for pocket change and leave you in the gutter.

In order to remedy the situation of a shantytown that was built on a still-functioning garbage dump–people were subsequently dying from all sorts of nasty things–the government built a housing project and moved the people there. However, due to severe overcrowding and poor ventilation, people continued to die. There were numerous horror stories associated with the overcrowding and poverty.

But one can’t let that overshadow the warmth and kindness of the people. It’s often the people with what we consider

less who have the most to give. All of the people I met treated me as a welcomed guest in their homes. Through Willy and his relatives, I saw the people for who they are. I think there’re times when a hotel works nicely, a tropical beach vacation for example. However, there’s no substitute for experiencing the true pulse of the place you visit. I thank Willy and his family for this.

ll of the people I met treated me as a welcomed guest in their homes. Through Willy and his relatives, I saw the people for who they are. I think there’re times when a hotel works nicely, a tropical beach vacation for example. However, there’s no substitute for experiencing the true pulse of the place you visit. I thank Willy and his family for this.