Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Round the World Trip: The Farm in the Philippines

Within the first 15 minutes of exiting Manila’s international airport in our taxi the Philippines met all my expectations and more for an Asian city: crumbling cinder block buildings next to shiny new apartment towers, chromed-out jitney buses, tuk-tuks precariously balancing entire families on a vehicle that realistically should only hold two. Stray dogs standing in the middle of the street. Murderous driving habits. Billboards hawking Coke and Pepsi and American Eagle. It was more action crammed in per square meter than in any western city.

But we’d have to wait to explore the city as our taxi quickly put these manic scenes behind us. We drove 90 minutes south to a place called The Farm at San Benito, which stood alone on a hill, hidden away behind a massive wooden gate manned by security guards. The nearest town, which provided employment to many of the employees for The Farm, was a couple kilometers away.

The Farm is the kind of place I’d never volunteer to go to, but it is a dream destination for Sharon, and since this trip is hers as much as mine I agreed to go. Friends from Pittsburgh might call it a New World Hippy kind of place. I explained it to people as a vegan yoga retreat. Sharon described it as heaven. It was only going to be for 3 days and I figured I could handle it. I considered smuggling in beef jerky or something but went with my old standby of pretzels instead. Some peanuts came along for the ride.

The Farm was beautiful – definitely the most beautiful place either of us had ever stayed at. A sprawling, garden-like campus was dotted with open pagoda-style buildings housing reception, the restaurant, the spa, and some places you don’t find at a typical resort, such as a colonic room. Small, thatched roof meditation pagodas sat off the walkways in private walled-in areas. They looked like great places for a book and a nap.

We’d booked the cheapest accommodation, but for some reason were upgraded to a suite. All the suites were totally private – you could walk around naked and no one would be able to see you. In fact, the shower was outside.

Because we’d taken a red-eye flight from Australia, we arrived at The Farm early in the morning and I was treated to my first vegan breakfast ever. I have to say, I was expecting something approximating sand and Styrofoam, but it was actually quite good. After breakfast we attended a gentle flow yoga class, which was basically an hour of stretching. All good for the soul. I had booked a couples massage as a surprise, so we then moved on to an hour of massage. Life was pretty good so far. This was followed by lunch. Sharon decided to do circuit training afterwards and I took a nap. This was vacation after all. (Sharon’s ideal vacation would probably consist of tofu, half a day of boot camp, and half a day of yoga.)

We met a British guy over from Hong Kong who’d already been at The Farm for a few days. He’d had enough vegan food and confessed he took a cab into the nearest town for some ribs the night before. We met another Brit, this one from Singapore, who decided he needed a week’s break from the debauchery that was his life and was on a strict cleansing regimen. This meant he wouldn’t even be getting vegan meals. He’d just be getting vegan shakes. He was upbeat about it, but then again we spoke to him on day 1 of his stay.

There was a large group at The Farm and one of the members was the kind of person who walked around with a huge camera taking a hundred snapshots of everything. He was never in the moment, just documenting it. 100 times. I told Sharon it was a good thing she wasn’t like that or we couldn’t be together because I found it extremely obnoxious. She agreed and told me if the situation was reversed she’d slap the camera out of my hand.

At the end of our first day we took a walk into the nearby village with one of the employees. We passed a farm that was raising roosters for cock fights, which were legal and a big attraction. He also told us about balut, a delicacy in the Philippines best consumed after several pints of alcohol. Balut is a partially formed chicken embryo, so it’s part egg, part chick. The hedonist Brit from Singapore admitted he’d tried it on a previous trip to the Philippines and recalled getting a bit of feather and beak. (Do a Google image search of it and try not to gag thinking about eating it). Our guide told us in other parts of the country Filipinos ate giant rats, snakes, and monitor lizards. It’s no wonder you never see Filipino restaurants in the U.S. One other well known treat is the Halo Halo. Our first and very tasty.
Day 2 at The Farm consisted of calisthenics in the morning followed by Equipoise. Calisthenics wore me out so I could barely stand afterwards. We had a late lunch and hung by the pool in the afternoon.

Day 3, Wednesday, was our final day at The Farm. Sharon took a morning class of yoga while I took a nap in one of the meditation pagodas. We had a final lunch and then whisked off to Manila.

Manila is, to put it nicely, a shithole. The excitement I first saw from the safety of a semi-air-conditioned cab evaporated as we spent the next 36 hours in the city. We stayed in a modern hotel in Makati City, which is within Manila but technically separate as it has its own mayor. Makati is pretty much owned by a single family, the Ayalas, who built it up from the ruins of World War II. Makati, being newish, is full of giant steel and glass skyscrapers and mega-malls. Were it not for the Filipinos, it could have been anywhere in the world.

Makati was also home to more fast food restaurants than we’d ever seen. McDonald’s. KFC. Burger King. Jollibee’s. Shakey’s. All next to each other. We didn’t get the feeling it was a healthy culture. And every single business had a security guard, most carrying shotguns. I wasn’t sure if this was some legal requirement to boost employment (because seriously, how many people are going to knock off a KFC) or if crime really was that bad.

And even in Makati the stench of the city got to you. While sewage didn’t run in the streets, it ran just below them and the odor snuck out of various sewer grates. The first night we ventured out for dinner and between the traffic, smog, and smell we couldn’t wait to get back to the calm of our hotel.

There aren’t many tourist attractions in Manila – it’s definitely not a tourist city – but Thursday morning we took a taxi through impressive gridlock to Intramuros, which is he old city the where the Spanish put their fort. We hired a bicycle cab to take us around after the driver followed us around persistently asking us to use his services. His fortitude won out and, I told Sharon, we had just reinforced his behavior by hiring him. It was worth it though as we didn’t have a map of Intramuros to know what the sites were.

Yes, he is flashing a gun sign


There was an old fort that looked over the very dirty river, some colonial government houses, old city walls, some ruins from the Battle of Manila during World War II (which I had never heard of), and that was about it. We were grateful to have killed a few hours at least.

Afterwards we stopped in the nearest café for lunch. It was a pope/bishop themed café, with pictures of high-powered Catholic officials and papal accouterments on the walls. All the menu items were named for various cardinals and bishops in the Philippines. It was pretty weird. The country is seriously Catholic and I wondered how they reacted to all the scandals the church has been dealing with over the past decade.

We got back to the hotel in mid-afternoon and literally kept ourselves sequestered there, in air conditioned harmony, until dinner. We were very excited to leave the city the next morning and continue to what was, in my mind, the main attraction of the Philippines: island hopping in the Palawan Islands.

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