Memoirs of a Philippine Mongerer
C How they made me chapter 31:
Batangas and beyond.
Getting off the bus and stepping foot on Batanags peer was in those days an adventure in itself. In the coming months I was to get used to it and had the place pretty well figured out but on my first visit there this was certainly not the case and I was hesitant to even leave the comparative safety of the bus. Rosie seeing my reservation said everything ok be nice to Filipino and Filipino nice to you. Now this may seem like stating the obvious but in years to come I was to learn just how much a simple smile and cheery disposition can help one avoid potentially dangerous situations.
We descended the bus steps with me carrying my rucksack tightly strapped to my back and as we hit the ground we were literally descended on by a horde of green shirt porters eager to carry our luggage. As they surrounded us Rosie went into overdrive telling each and everyone politely but firmly no thanks we can carry our own luggage. Slowly but surely we emerged from the crowd of porters only to find ourselves surrounded by raggedy kids all with their hands out crying hey Joe give money. Being still comparatively new at this my heart went out to the kids but Rosies previous warning echoed in my head so I simply brushed them aside and followed Rosie who was walking towards the peers end where a line of Filipinos had gathered waiting for the ferry.
It took us a further five minutes to negotiate our way through the kids and then I found myself sitting with my fellow bus passengers waiting for some mysterious boat to take us to Mindoro and the promised land of Peurto Galera. We waited there about ten minutes but still no sign of the ferry and since there was no shade available or anywhere to get a cold drink I took of my rucksack laid it on the ground and sat on it thus quashing any ambitions of a would be thief. While we were waiting there Rosie engaged a middle aged Filipina in conversation who it turned out had a series of bungalows on Sabang beach. After a while Rosie introduced me to the lady and asked could we stay at her hotel and I replied no because I have a booking at Captain Gregs but if we did not like that then I would check out her place. The woman and Rosie seemed a little disappointed but accepted my knock back and were soon deeply involved in their conversation again.
We waited on the dock for what must have been about another twenty minutes and during this time I had a good look at my surroundings. The Port area of Batangas was at that time a real shit hole. There was basically one large area where the buses parked and beyond that a wharf then behind that a sort of squatter town on stilts. There were literally hundreds of squalid shacks with thatched roofs all built on stilts. This was obviously a very poor area and life here was a hard grind against oppressive poverty. When I was growing up in Australia I had seen famines and people starving on the television news but it was another story altogether when I found myself confronted with it only 200 yards away from me. Throughout the entire squatter area life went on as normal with people performing their day to day routine there were filthy kids dressed in rags running around in the sea of plastic bags that littered the ground everywhere one looked, there were Filipino women washing clothes balanced precariously in their front doors and groups of Filipino men just standing around staring out into the distance with faces devoid of emotion.
Most noticeable all was the air of palpable tension even resentment that was pervasive throughout the entire area and I decided then and there this was not the sort of place I would want to spend to much time in. This was an area of grinding poverty and squalor where life was cheap and could easily be lost for the price of the next meal. I could see why the kids resorted to thievery and the men just had vacant stares. There was absolutely no incentive and no means to get money. Life was a day to day grind where one wondered if he would get a square meal or have to make do with fish heads and rice. With conditions like these I could fully understand how the people became as those I saw around me. In the years to come I would see many areas such as this including the infamous Smokey Mountain however none were to make as lasting an impression as the squatter area in Batangas. Maybe it was because it was my first time to actually be confronted with a slum area, maybe it was because I had come from a wealthy suburban middle class family and had no point of comparison or maybe it was because I was the only foreigner and was feeling vulnerable. I guess I will never truly know but I do know how the hopelessness of this place affected me and I couldn’t wait to get on that ferry and leave this place far behind me.
Just as I was beginning to wonder if the ferry would ever come there was a stirring amongst the crowd and I heard Rosie telling me honey boat come now. I looked up to see an old wooden ferry overflowing at the seams with people and lying low in the water slowly approaching the pier. Now at this stage in my Philippines adventures I was still a mere rookie and I was not familiar with the sinking of trans island ferries that happens in this country on a regular basis. The Philippines much like Indonesia is an island nation and yet despite this a large percentage of the population cannot swim. Combine this with ancient poorly constructed boats, massive overcrowding as money hungry ferry boat operators cram people on board far exceeding the boats weight capacity, boat captains whose maritime experience extend as far as the local fishing banca, a severe lack of properly functioning safety gear and the fact that tropical storms lash this country four months of every year and you have a recipe for disaster. As I have said at this stage in my adventure I was still very much a newbie and blissfully unaware of the Philippines maritime record and besides this ferry seemed a much better option than being caught in the Batangas pier squatter area.
As the ferry approached the gang of green shirt porters materialized from out of nowhere and next thing I knew our group was again surrounded by them but this time they didn’t seem to focus on us but rather on the ferry’s departing passengers who obviously represented a better opportunity of carrying the bags and as such a better opportunity to earn money. In the following months I was to do many trips to Manila from Peurto Galera and back again and through these trips I actually became friends with one of the green shirted porters but that is a story for another time.
Once the ferry had docked a large gang plank in the form of a level stairwell with ropes at the side enabling people to maintain their balance was thrown onto the wharf and passengers slowly traversed it into the waiting throng of porters and ragged slum urchins. I watched this procession with interest because this time it was not happening to me and I was detached which gave me a very good view of how the porters, pick pockets and snatchers plied their trade. Watching this and observing their methods was to come in very handy in the near future but at that point in time it just reconfirmed my decision that this was not a nice place to be and it should be avoided whenever possible.
As we boarded the ferry I realized just how ancient this boat was and it also became very obvious that it was going to be overcrowded so I grabbed Rosies hand and headed towards the boats bow where I could see some seats and I figured we would get a nice sea breeze for our journey to Mindoro. The trip to Peurto Galera was excellent as we crossed the channel the sun was blaring down but there was a nice cool breeze blowing so the temperature was perfect. Rosie was not particularly impressed with my choice of seating as she did not appreciate the sun turning her dark and so most of the time she was huddled beneath my jacket trying to avoid those dreaded darkening rays. Half way through the journey I spotted some dolphins gracefully swimming besides the boat but when I showed them to Rosie all she could say was can I eat dolphin? I have always been a big fan of dolphins and an admirer of their intelligence, their gracefulness and their seemingly friendly disposition towards human beings but to the Filipinos these animals were just another fish which meant they were seen as nothing more than a source of food.
After just over an hour on the boat we pulled into the famous port of Peurto Galera which to look at in those days reminded me of a tropical pirate haven. There were a series of single level buildings all of which had seen better days and could have done with a new coat of paint. Interspersed with the old buildings were smaller buildings with “nippa hut style roofs all of which served as stores selling the basic goods that the day to day living Filipinos consume at a ceaseless rate. Behind the buildings the landscape gives way to lush tropical jungle like vegetation which reminded me of the movie Apocalypse Now. The dominant feature of Peurto Galera has been and always will be the harbor. Peurto Galera developed as a safe harbor protecting ships from the ravages of tropical storms and its seafaring past is still very much evident. By far the busiest part of this town was the wharf and as the ferry pulled up I was greeted with the sight of over 100 Banca boats all docked at the wharf all vying for the ferry’s passengers.
As the ferry docked Rosie and I followed the rest of the passengers out onto the wharf where we were greeted by the Banca boat captains all vying for the passengers attention and extolling the virtues of their particular Banca boat which looked exactly the same as the rest of the Banca boats. At first the milling crowd was a little confusing and whilst Rosie and I just stood on the wharf wondering which banca to choose we were approached by one of the captains who seeing our obvious confusion announced “Sabang Beach sir I number 1 banca boat driver”. I looked at Rosie and asked hey hon can you ask him how much to Sabang and then ten minutes later we were on our own private banca heading towards Sabang beach a place that I had wondered earlier on in the day if I was ever going to make it to.
The ride to Sabang supposedly took about 30 minutes depending on how big the bancas motor was and the prevailing currents. Rosie and I settled down on the hard wooden bench just in front of the motor which was ably manned by Albert the banca captain who as it turned out had an excellent grasp of English and was full of stories about his adventures as a banca boat driver. We had been traveling for about 15 minutes with myself and Rosie admiring the scenery whilst listening to Albert regale us with stories when suddenly the motor started to sputter and then died. When she heard the motor die Rosie was instantly in a panic and I must admit to being a little worried myself especially when I asked Albert if he was going to put any more diesel in the engine and he replied “sorry sir walang fuel”.