Saturday, August 18, 2007


You can learn a lot, travelling by bus from Baguio to Manila and back again.

A few things I learned:

- Since Baguio is up in the mountains, it takes about forty, forty-five minutes to descend to a somewhat more level layer of land. You go from being up in the clouds, watching the white, wispy mist slice through the hurtling path of the bus, and then, suddenly, you are in a lower place, and the white is gone, and the sky is blue once again. The sun is brighter. You step out into the first rest stop and suddenly the air is hot, and thick, almost stifling. A sudden desire to step back up into the clouds comes over you.

- Apparently The Scorpions are still big in the Philippines. Or at least they are with the bus driver I had in Manila, who saw the puzzlement on my face as I tried to make out who the elderly rockers were on the TV at the front of the bus. "The Scorpions!" he said, nodding his head in time to the music. "Live from Romania." Ah. I guess the Scorpions are still big in Romania, too. (It was only at the end of the DVD that I saw that the concert was actually taped in Portugal, not Romania. Whatever. Far from the Philippines, in any case.)

- From the windows of a bus most places are beautiful, even the ugly ones. You pass by quickly, seeing slums and barefoot children and random shacks aligned alongside random roads, and then suddenly there is a Pizza Hut, and a KFC, and a McDonald's, and then moments later you are once again plunged into the evergreen fields of a Filipino summer. The swaying palm trees look just like the ones did in Platoon and Apocalypse Now (both filmed in the Philippines), and the sky becomes more vast. Because everything moves quickly, you don't get to dwell on the deficiencies; the bright spots stick out like diamonds and lodge in your memory.

- Some taxi drivers will rip you off and others will not. Taxi drivers in the Philippines are supposed to work by the meter system, something they always do here in Baguio, but once you hit Manila, and are recognized to be that most valuable of commodities -- a white foreigner -- many taxi drivers mysteriously decide that bargaining is a better bet than a meter. The first taxi I spotted at the bus station in Manila wanted two hundred pesos for the short ride to the Canadian Embassy; I haggled with him, but he wouldn't budge, and I was hot, and in a hurry, so I said 'fuck it' and took the cab anyway. Thirty minutes later, on the way back from the embassy to the bus station, the first cab I got in had a meter, and I asked him to use it, and he did, no questions asked, no problem. He was an older driver. (Maybe more moral?)

- Reading the travel advisories offered by the Canadian government at the Canadian embassy for Canadian citizens in the Philippines is not recommended. It's kind of scary, actually, warning of kidnappings and robberies and walking at night and the threat of terrorism. (The only amusing part was its poker-faced description of Filipino drivers: "Drivers here are undisciplined." Um, yeah. Slightly.) If I had read one of these Canadian-advisory-pamphlet- thingees before I left for the Philippines (or Cambodia, for that matter), I never would have gotten off the plane. Ignorance is not always bliss, but it's often a necessary evil in life. Otherwise we would be too afraid to do anything but stay in our living rooms and watch The Price Is Right for a good forty, fifty years.

- Spending fourteen out of fifteen hours on two different buses is an interesting way to spend a day. You ride for seven hours one way; stay in one of Asia's biggest cities for less than an hour; then hop back on another bus and go back from where you came from. It was windy and rainy and dark in the morning, and then Manila was hot and sultry and sticky and clear in the afternoon, and by evening, back in Baguio, it was windy and rainy and dark once more. A cycle had been completed, and within that cycle there were even smaller cycles, life simplified and rotated. You stop at the same rest stops six different times, and you see the same sights, but the people are different, which changes everything. At one of the rest stops, a small store bracketed by outdoor vendors cooking up Filipino food for weary travellers, I watched a skinny old man selling snacks sigh in frustration as he watched the bus he was supposed to be on pull away without him. I wondered how much he made for his daily wares: hopping on various buses, walking up and down the aisles hawking candy and fruit, then stepping off again ten, fifteen minutes later. Was it enough to live on? Did he ever eat his own candy? Was he his own boss? Did he sleep well, or were his dreams constantly interrupted by the roll-and-shake of the bus rides that determined his daily life?

- True Lies, the James Cameron film from the mid-nineties starring Governor Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold, and watched by me on the bus ride back, is actually a bizarre, subversive comedy about relationships and modern moral values stuck inside of a conventional Arnold action flick. I saw it in the theater over a decade ago but didn't think much of it, but this time around I was surprised at what an entertaining, unusual film it is. How did this get made? It's funny, and violent, and nominally what an Arnold film is (or was) supposed to be, but it has a lot of troubling, perceptive, possibly misogynist ideas about modern relationships. Deeper than it looks.

- In Canada or America or even Japan you often see people, homeless people, living under the highway bridges, but I've never seen whole communities, entire neighborhoods set up under bridges like they do in Manila. Small stone houses, tin shacks, clotheslines, the whole deals.

- The buses here (unless you pony up for a deluxe one) don't have bathrooms, which means I can barely drink anything on the bus. Two bathroom breaks in seven hours won't do it for me, otherwise. Who are these people (meaning, the rest of humanity) who guzzle drink after drink and never need to pee?

- After fourteen hours of bus rides, your butt hurts.

- Baguio is a long way from Manila, but everything's relative. The Philippines is a long way from Japan, and Japan is a long way from Cambodia, and Cambodia is a long way from Canada, but I've managed to make my way. If the world is getting smaller, perhaps we can become bigger.