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skull Hong Kong, Manila and Angeles skull

The wonderful view of Hong Kong from Chris' place.

November 23

I love HKG! I love the energy, the lights, the shopping, the people and how it somehow retains its Asian flavor. I love walking down the street past high rise buildings and people in suits more expensive than my budget for this year and turning down a side street to find a chaotic market crammed with 25 cent scarves and knock off purses and fish and fruit and something that looks like dried dog poo. I love the subway and busses and ferries. I love how in thirty minutes from the centre of town you can be on a quiet beach taking surf lessons, or hiking on an island or sitting quietly sipping a Starbucks and looking down on it all. Hong Kong honestly has something for everyone; including English! It’s just an easy city. Oh and I love the food. The last time I was here I spent half the time eating and the other half wishing I was hungry. I was bursting at the seams as our plane landed.

We gathered our bags and went looking for the bus. The subway takes half the time but costs almost twice the price so we opted for the bus. It was pretty easy to find our bus stop and lined up to wait for it. Yes, lined up. Hong Kong, unlike most Asian cities, likes to queue; another reason to love the city! Our bus finally came and we climbed on. I sank down into a seat and stared out the window at the bright lights. I told James how amazing it felt to be out after dark, well past dark, alone without an escort carrying a three foot long machete. It only took about an hour to get to our stop near Sheung Wan where Chris lives (we are crashing with him) and a few minutes’ walk to his side street. As we turned the corner we heard “Nibsy!!” Chris had arrived home from school the same time we arrived, perfect. After a few uncomfortable backpacks in the way hugs we crammed into his tiny elevator. After Blaine’s description we were expecting something crazy small but I was surprised. It wasn’t that bad. Actually it was cute, clean and had tons of room. Well maybe not tons but enough for us and our bags. James and Chris headed for snacks and I headed for his spotless shower. I was still dripping when his friendly roommate came home. He is a young guy from France who spent a few years in Montreal. We chatted until Chris and James came home. I was sleepy so sat back with my cookies and enjoyed the Williams reunion. I love that no matter how much time passes between seeing each other it’s like yesterday. Catching up always involves funny stories from the past, lots of laughs and usually beer. I finally headed to bed; yes bed. Chris very sweetly gave up his bed for the three nights we are here. Before falling asleep I pulled back the curtains. I wanted to make sure I could see Hong Kong whenever I woke up.

Busy Soho

November 24

After an amazing sleep I stumbled to Chris’ kitchen. I was so excited to be standing in a kitchen! It was pretty small but had a tiny window with a tiny view of the harbour and I stood watching ferries glide past. “Sigh” I love Hong Kong!

James and I had a few errands to do, so got ready and left after making plans to meet up with Chris for a meal later. I was practically skipping I was so excited. Our first stop was a Flight Centre. They are the only booking agent for the Continental Micronesia Pass (Thanks Dave!). We got a little lost but finally found it…and treats. There are Seven-11’s on every corner full of snacks we haven’t seen in months! It took us much longer than we thought at FC but got it booked. Doing the Micronesia pass has been on our list for a few years and when I first started looking at it I couldn’t find anyone who knew about it or how to book it. I eventually did and explained we wanted to do it on this year off. Between the research and the “we have dates” part the agent quit. So we found another. We had to switch Micronesia to the last half of the trip and the new agent was promoted and didn’t seem to have much time left for bookings. Also to book through an Australian agent would involve expensive bank transfers. This new promoted agent agreed we should visit the FC office in Hong Kong, how sweet. And, once we explained to her what the pass was, and showed her on-line – we got it booked. It will be a shame I won’t be working with FC in the future – I seem to be the only person other than James and Dave who knows of its existence.

Next was the Indian Embassy where we had bad news. We would not be in Hong Kong long enough (when we are here in January with Blaine & Judy) to get our VISA. Then to the dive shop for more bad news, well not bad news just bad service. We did manage to find spare batteries for our dive computers so the day wasn’t a complete waste. On the way home I dragged (literally) James down a few side streets and I picked up some cheap silk crap and a few Christmas gifts. I love shopping in HKG!

We met Chris at home and followed him to school for a short tour while he handed some stuff in. I have done school on-line for years and have a hard time with that. I can’t imagine at late thirty-something taking a year off your job and going back full time; and in a strange country where you don’t speak the language. I’m impressed. We stopped at a small restaurant for dinner that I barely remember. I was so tired I could have put my head down and slept on the table. After dinner the old folks (James and I) went to bed and the young-uns (Chris) went out to meet friends.

Chris & his roommate seem to be getting along.

November 25

Everyone slept in today. I thought about getting up and getting some groceries to make a meal but thankfully Chris hasn’t turned on the gas yet. I also thought about going for a decent cup of coffee but a cup of instant, my pj’s and Chris’s comforter won the battle. James woke up sick. This is the third time he’s had a high fever and flu like symptoms. I’m convinced it’s malaria but he’s choosing to ignore it, or sleep it off. I ended up spending most of the day researching and booking for the next few months of our trip while James slept. Late in the afternoon we decided to do something touristy before Chris went to his evening class. The unanimous choice was a drink with a view.

The bar we were aiming for ended up being closed and having a dress code none of us lived up to so instead got lost in the IDC mall. Honest, we couldn’t get out. We did find a decent grocery store that was giving away free Bailey’s shots (which is pretty awesome considering we’ve spent months in countries that didn’t even have Bailey’s) and eventually our way out. After grabbing a snack Chris took off to school and we went home so James could go back to bed.

After class Chris took us to an area called Soho. It was packed with young people out for a good time. There were bars blaring music and restaurants and food stands. There was also the handy Seven-11. For under a buck we bought a beer and just wandered the jam packed street with all the other smart (cheap?) people. A drink in a bar would cost $5-$10 but with no law against open alcohol in the street why pay it. We met up with some of Chris’ friends then went for a shawarma. James still wasn’t feeling well so we left shortly after that with a promise from Chris to bring us back.


November 26

I’m going to the Philippines today! I’m going to the Philippines today! I woke up doing a happy dance. A few years ago I’d thought I was going to the Philippines and had planned my route and everything. Then went somewhere else. Poor me, I know…but I was excited to be finally going. We packed up (which I’m sure made Chris happy) and went for lunch with Chris and a friend. We had an evening flight so was in no rush. Around 4:45 we left to catch our bus. Again it was easy and we luckily didn’t hit traffic so had time for a treat at the airport.

We landed at 11:30 pm, gathered our bags and headed to immigration. In my most sweet girlie friendly Canadian voice I asked if I could extend my VISA with him. We get a free 21 day VISA on arrival and it’s easy to extend ($$) but you are supposed to go to a Philippines immigration office to do it. My charm worked on him but unfortunately the cashier had already gone for the day so I couldn’t do it. James went through the same guy and he was grumpy. He was very confused that James had three first names and was almost angry. So what is your given name? How am I to know that? There was a really good chance he would have declined James’ request to extend his VISA. To get to our hostel we had two choices. Take a metered cab or a set rate which is good if it’s a high traffic time but 12:30 am wasn’t. So we grabbed a metered cab. It was only a 15 minute ride but when we arrived our cabbie asked us for ten times the amount we were supposed to pay. I know this because I travel with a walking calculator and we got a receipt at the airport telling us the rates. We argued back and forth for a few minutes. James kept telling the cabbie exactly what we would be paying and the cabbie kept trying to barter a higher price. We gathered our bags and went into the hostel. The cabbie followed. We paid him exactly what he was owed and after a few more attempts to get more cash the cabbie finally left. I think he knew it was a losing battle when the hotel staff agreed with us. Welcome to Philippines! “sigh”

A walk on the wall.

The Philippines is often called Asia’s odd child. It’s Catholic, carefree, culturally different and is geographically off to the side. In my research it was obvious this country was full of contradictions and I didn’t know what to expect. The country, especially Manila with a population of over 12 million, has a serious poverty problem; it’s considered to be one of the most corrupt countries but is laidback and easy going. This corrupt laid back attitude may be the mix that resulted in the world’s first ever successful “bloodless revolution”. It worked so well they did it a second time. Philippines, with a population of 94 million, is the world’s third largest English-speaking country (second behind USA & India). It has a literacy rate of 93% (Canada’s is 99% and Cuba’s is 99.9%). The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands and we, unfortunately, only have time to visit a handful.

In manila we had decided to stay in a shiny new hostel despite only getting a dorm bed; we were only staying a few nights and wanted to get some information on the area. So at 1:30 am I crawled into my creaky top bunk.

What's left of Fort Santiago.

November 27

There is no need for an alarm clock in a 14 bed dorm. Bright and early the beds start creaking, doors start opening and closing, the shower goes, toilets flush…and I’m awake. Where2Next, the hostel we stayed at, had a decent free breakfast, free wifi, a comfortable lounge area and full use of the kitchen. I almost wish we were staying longer, but in a private room. After a few coffees to get me going we started off on a tour of the city. We hadn’t heard anything nice about Manila so weren’t expecting much. A few blocks from our hostel we passed a huge, fancy modern mall. We walked through to get supper ideas and I was amazed. It had every store and fast food chain you could want. I didn’t expect Philippines to be like this. I thought we’d be roughing it.

We continued on with our walk and after a slight wrong turn ended up at Intramuros, an old walled city. It was invaded by Chinese pirates, threatened by Dutch forces, held by the British, Americans and Japanese and yet somehow survived; well most of the wall did. The fortress itself was destroyed in WWII. At its height it instilled fear in Spain’s enemies as a mighty European city, the only one of its kind in Asia. Today the walled city attracts tourists and locals looking for green space in the dirty city. It also has a golf course along one side. We walked part of the wall passing people having picnics and out for a stroll or jog. We also, unfortunately, had a lot of young children asking for money. They sang Christmas carols and followed us around. It doesn’t take long to notice the poverty in Manila.

The very pink San Agustin Church.

From the wall we walked to Fort Santiago. The fort was once used to guard the entrance to the Pisig River and is a designated Shrine of Freedom. It’s an interesting group of crumbling buildings that includes a museum full of history on the area.

Next on the tour was San Agustin Church that was the only building left intact after the destruction of Intramuros. It was built between 1587 and 1606 and is the oldest church in the Philippines.

It was getting dark and we were getting hungry so started walking back towards the mall. On the way we walked through the very busy Rizal Park. It’s spread over 60 hectares and is full of ponds, and green spaces, and fountains and food stands and families and tourists. It was fantastic, like an oasis in the middle of the city.

Rizal Park

We finally made it to the mall and decided to make pasta and sauce back at the hostel for dinner. I would have liked to do something fancier but we were leaving in the morning and I didn’t want leftovers of any kind. While I was making dinner James was booking a ferry from Manila to Coron, an island in southern Philippines. It only went twice a week so we picked one for 10 days away. We weren’t sure if that left us enough time to do northern Philippines but we didn’t want to fly. We tried to book a private room on the boat but ended up with a tourist class bunk. I wasn’t excited but I’ve never done and overnight ferry so was chalking it up to an “experience”. Wonder if it’ll be one of those yeah! Loved it ones or did it once and never again ones…only time will tell.

I have to admit I feel a bit old for dorms, even if there always seems to be people older than me doing them, and tonight I really felt it. Usually they aren’t that bad but for some reason we had every douche bag backpacker in the 14 bed dorm room. Until the wee hours of the morning a few guys kept walking in, turning on the lights, leaving the door open and talking. The cranky old person in me came out a few times and I grumbled once or twice. I was glad we were checking out in the morning, I had made a few enemies I think.

November 28

This morning we were up early and headed to the bus station. For the next week or so we’d be traveling in Northern Philippines through the mountains, small towns and famous rice terraces. At the bus station we noticed that some of the busses advertised free wifi. We were curious and thought maybe it was for people who had plans already. Whatever it was our bus didn’t have it.

Our first stop was the City of Angeles to climb Mount Pinatubo. Honest. It has nothing to do fact that Angeles has been dubbed the centre of the Philippines sex industry. In 1908 American troops were relocated to what is now called Clark Air Base, or Clark Special Economic Zone. Over the years Angeles, which a few minutes’ drive from Clark, has become home to a large colony of expatriates. This proximity to the base has also lured the U.S. servicemen who frequently visited Fields Avenue, a street/area that has been known as a center for prostitution. Today the 10,000 girls and women working the area represent about a 10th what it once was.

Oh, and we had to extend our VISA. We’d read that, other than Manila where can take days there, most places do it in a few minutes. We hadn’t left ourselves much more than the afternoon so hoped we’d read right.

In Angeles we had to catch a tricycle to our hotel. Even though we’d left our dive gear safely locked up at Where 2 Next it was a tight fit. I hate to compare it to sardines in a tin can but I think the thing was made of tinfoil so it’s a pretty accurate description. We checked into our hotel and asked about setting up the hike for the next day. Before I booked I had made sure they could help us do the hike as a day trip so we could maximize our time. They said they’d get the information and then pointed us in the right direction for the bus to the consulate.

Shiny jeepneey

It was a strange ride to the consulate. We were in a shiny tin truck/van thing but I could have sworn we were in North America. There were strip malls with wide green lawns in between and everything was clean and well kept. You could really see the signs of the American expat community. Getting the VISA was so easy. We showed up needing some copies so the guard sent us to another strip mall to get them. Then we came back, filled in the forms, handed the stuff in, paid and were walking out in about 15 minutes. Easy Peasy! We had a fast food lunch and went looking for our shiny bus. We tried to hail one down but they just drove past making us think you had to be at a stop. So we went looking for a stop. We found one with a couple of shiny busses parked in front and two guys sitting in the shade. They said they were going our way but no matter how nicely I asked I couldn’t figure out when. To James’ amusement I got cranky and decided not to wait and tried to flag down another shiny bus. Nope, no one was stopping. Finally a group of kids showed up and our driver climbed in…so did I. Hmph!

We got dropped in the centre of town and went looking for a scooter rental place. We weren’t sure if we wanted to get to/from the hike ourselves or with a driver. We found a travel agency that booked local tours and they told us the road to the hike was closed. Huh? It had been closed for over two weeks due to mud slides. Hmmmm…wonder when our hotel plans on telling us that? We walked back to the hotel and they were still arranging a driver for us; completely unaware of the road closure. When we told them I don’t think they really believed us and hinted we should go and check it out. No thanks. So now we had nothing to do and no reason to get some rest. We headed to Prostitute Street (aka Fields Avenue). Why not, I love to people watch and this should be something interesting and different.

Fields Avenue

We walked the entire street and found a bar that had free wifi and a long wooden bar overlooking the street. We ordered some beers and sat back and enjoyed the show. A few minutes into our beer I took a look around the bar and realized we’d missed the sign stating the dress code. Women had to be under the age of 18 and half naked and men had to be over the age of 55 and wearing a wife beater. I was by far the oldest girl in the bar and James was by far the youngest guy. My creepy radar was screeching so I had a few more beers. As it got dark it got more…interesting. Eventually we decided to move on. We walked back down the street and it had changed a bit. Out in front of all the cheesy bars were groups of girls dressed up, dancing and giggling and trying to entice us into their club. I didn’t find it very enticing but when in Rome…you visit the Doll House? Our curiosity got the best of us and we decided to have one beer in one bar. It was everything you’d expect…but grosser. We got shown to a pink plastic bench seat and a half naked young girl took our order. On stage was a group of 10 or so even more naked young girls doing, what I’ve always called, the grade eight shuffle. James said he recognized the look on their faces – you know, the look you see at 2 in the afternoon staring back at you from your computer screen? They looked bored and tired and depressed. The place was full of creepy old men which made it even more depressing. I decided I had to go pee but the bathroom was being “used”. A very sweet dancer let me into their bathroom then I made a bee line for James. We are outta here! We laughed about it on the way back to our hotel but both of us know we just saw a glimpse of what really goes on; and I don’t find much humor in that.

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