Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Boatload of Fun

Steven Spielberg has tried to make the definitive film on nearly every major topic. Schindler’s List took on the Holocaust. Saving Private Ryan covered World War II from the American soldiers’ perspective. Amistad tackled slavery. And Batteries Not Included pretty much wrote the book on robotic Frisbees with advanced cognitive abilities. I don’t share his saccharine, moralizing outlook, but Spielberg’s movies are always well-executed.

I like to think of myself as the Steven Spielberg of Philippine minutiae. As far as I know, I’m the only person on the planet to devote thousands of words to topics like riding buses in Southeastern Luzon, the lifestyles of American import players in the PBA and the science of throwing long bounce passes to Filipino basketball players. Next up: traveling by sea in the Philippines.

Combining beautiful panoramic views with Ellis Island-style living conditions, the fresh scent of the ocean with the stench of urine and a completely unpredictable pop-culture mish mash, there really is nothing like boat travel in the Philippines. If you can spare 12-18 hours of your life (not an enormous commitment by local standards) and are willing to endure mild discomfort, it is an experience you can’t miss.

To give an idea of the size of these boats, witness the majestic "GOTHONG," which shared the waters with us.

The Princess of Negros, operated by Negros Navigation, is a big boat. Prior to this moment, the biggest boat I had ever ridden was the Staten Island Ferry, so I can’t offer a lot of perspective, but there were easily 500 passengers aboard the princess and there was room for many more. Some context: The island of Negros is a major sugarcane producer in the Eastern Visayas. Negros Navigation runs boats between Manila and Negros and other islands in between.

The passengers’ first act after boarding the ship is finding somewhere to sleep. It’s not exactly a mad scramble, because all the accommodations suck. The options include metal frame bunkbeds on open-air deck that resemble the quarantine quarters at Ellis Island and two-inch thick plastic mattresses laid out on the floor of air-conditioned rooms. The temperature is actually preferable outside, where the breeze and cool night air make for pleasant resting conditions. Unless, of course, the ship passes through a storm, which is likely and means anyone outside will be pounded by wind and rain. Indoors, passengers are exposed to the familiar deep freeze air-conditioning that chills bones and provides a glimpse of what it feels like to be cold-blooded.

Big Sly still gets love in the Philippine seas.

Ahh, but the entertainment options are spectacular! There are televisions planted in convenient locations all over the ship, and whoever chooses the films is a true connoisseur of American junk. During my return trip, the line-up included Rambo II: First Blood, Rambo III, Bring it On, Gone in 60 Seconds, Beauty and the Beast II and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Rambo III was a wonderfully dated nugget of recent history, in which John Rambo reluctantly leaves his tranquil new life in a Thai Buddhist monastery to save his old ‘Nam commander, now a P.O.W. of the Soviets in Afghanistan. Stallone pals around with the Mujahedeen and helps them take on the Ruskies; if only Rambo knew that 15 years after he headlined this soft-core anti-Soviet propaganda film, his hard-line Islamic homeys would be attacking American cities. At the end of the credits, viewers are treated to an ironic dedication “to the brave people of Afghanistan.”

But there’s a limit to the number of crappy movies every person can endure. One could watch Stallone’s taut pecs jiggle with the firing of a machine gun 703 times without any problems and then snap on that 704th repetition. Two or three bad films might offer a humorous, idiotic diversion, but sitting through an entire marathon of them could qualify under the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Negros Navigation brain trust anticipated the Rambo/Disney fatigue factor, and so they loaded the boat with more tacky entertainment.

There might be a secret link between the boat’s motor and its karaoke machine, because someone was belting out a tune during literally every moment of the journey.

What better way to start your day than with the Ying Yang Twins chanting "Go ahead and start and make that pussy fart and whistle while you twerk."

But the real magic occurs on the top deck, where people can sit at tables and on benches and watch the islands pass by while a DJ plays music. And during my trip, the DJ liked to keep people on their toes with a mix of piercing dance tracks, Filipino love songs and Dirty South booty rap. At 6:45 a.m., like a sleeping cartoon character led to the kitchen by the smell of roasting turkey, I heard a loud thumping and dragged myself up the stairs to the top deck. Lo and behold, the DJ was blasting Whistle While You Twerk.

After breakfast, a handful of the boat’s crew members changed into street clothes and performed N’Sync-style line dances to assorted pop songs, including what is becoming a de facto replacement for the Philippine national anthem, The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.” Here is some video. How can you not be entertained by these blinding, fast moves?

America’s post-colonial influence is oft-discussed and oft-denounced here. As an American, the Americana that makes its way into Filipiniana makes no sense to me. The mechanism behind the cultural filter seems so random, like a blindfolded orangutan pointing to items on a list. Popular exports include Spam, Barry Manilow and, of course, basketball. If you see a common thread, let me know.

Finally, there is much opportunity for adventure and self-discovery aboard the Princess of Negros, especially in the bathrooms. These boats keep very tight schedules, making two or three round trips between the Visayas and Manila Bay every week. That doesn’t leave much time for clean-up, and nowhere is this more obvious than the restrooms.

I searched high and low but found it hard to observe much cleanliness in the Princess of Negros' bathroom.

The Princess’ men’s room had signs posted inviting people to “Observe the Cleanliness,” (not my quotes) and I’m convinced they were ironic quotes. If you are within ten feet of the ship’s bathroom door, you smell urine. Actually entering the bathroom is disorienting, which creates a vicious circle situation where the smell inside and the rocking of the boat on the choppy sea make peeing straight – not exactly a strong suit of the male gender under ideal conditions – quite challenging. You just want to get out of there as fast as possible, and focusing on details like hitting bowl will only prolong your stay.

When I boarded the ship, I vowed that I would never, ever take a seated position in the bathroom. Around 5 a.m., I found myself breaking that promise, and while I’ll spare my audience the experience of reading any details about the ordeal, I will say that the memory will stay with me forever and despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to observe the cleanliness.


Anonymous Louie from Bayside said...

The name of that ship is GO-THONG.
Man, you got it made over there.
The only drawback seems to be the crappers.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Jon Mariano said...


I thought Negros Occidental belongs to western visayas region (region VI), and Negros Oriental is the one belonging to Eastern Visayas region....

3:35 PM  
Blogger Iloilo City Boy said...

I really enjoyed this entry and likewise your entrire blog. So what did you do in Negros - I'm interested to know? I'm from that region myself that's why I am interested to know about your impressions.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Soccer Nut said...

When are you gonna update this thing my man? The streets is waiting

6:30 AM  
Blogger RafeBoogs said...

To answer Iloilo City Boy's question, I will come out with the shameful truth. While I rode Negros Navigation, I never set foot on Negros. I took to boat to Caticlan on the Northern tip of Panay, and as many readers can guess zipped across the water to Boracay, the Philippines' version of resort heaven with its world-famous white sand beach. That makes me a much less adventurous traveller than if I were hitting the streets of Bacolod City, but someday I'll make up for it. It's hard to be ashamed of spending a weekend in a place as gorgeous as Boracay, anyway.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Iloilo City Boy said...

No shame in that man. I'm glad in fact you went to Boracay tho' I wish I could have warned you ... Boracay is addictive: it will haunt you forever and you will keep coming back to it! There's nothing in Bacolod but SEX SCANDAL VIDEOS anyway....(read my blog)

9:46 PM  

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