Backpacker In Waiting

Adam test drives a jeepney towards another new direction.

The last month before I go back to the U.S. has definitely been the hardest period since I left (except perhaps the first ten days, where everything went wrong). I don’t know how much of this actually has to do with going back imminently, except that I feel a limited amount of time to figure out a way forward for when I get back and problems reaching that goal seem a little less recoverable than they might otherwise.

The other problem is just that my health has deteriorated. It looked for a New York minute (and after a month of coughing up drainage from it) like my ear problem might at last clear up, but as it has always done before, it just wound up taking on a new form and irritating me a different way, which was a major drag. After my rounds with doctors here, who have at least taken a decent crack at figuring this thing out, I’ve reached a point where I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.

This is a very depressing prospect, because the ideas I have for expanding my life are pretty contingent on my health improving more than it has, and things are currently going in the wrong direction. I hide it well, but the ear problem sucks hours out of my day, either in managing it or in the decreased energy and comfort level I feel when I choose not to manage it. The hacking cough that has followed me around for the last month are a direct result of the ear draining out, but that hasn’t cured me. It just gave me a hacking cough on top of everything else.

So this realization put me back into a major funk as I sat in my unfortunately mildewed (from the recent heavy rains) room in Angeles and pondered options for my future.

The next day I got up feeling pretty lousy and greatly desiring more sleep, but I had set aside today to make myself check out a new location. I decided instead that this was just the way it was going to be, and my play today was going to be to plough forward, put the best face on I possibly could, and force myself into an exploratory mode I wasn’t really feeling at that moment. Because what did I have to lose.

My goal that day was to take a bus ride to Zambales-Subic Bay, a part of the Philippines I’d long heard about but never had been to. It lay about 70 km to the west facing the South China Sea. Though I’d been to the Philippines many times, my trip up to Angeles the prior week on an early morning bus from NAIA was my first real experience with public transport. This time I was just going to get on board without much research about my destination or how things worked.

After a hearty breakfast where I went out of my way to be outrageously flirty with the waitresses to try and get myself in the right reckless spirit – which did at least shake off my crappy feeling, though it may have been the coffee – I headed to the mall and after a certain not egregious amount of waiting got on the bus. It only had about a half dozen people making the trip with me. I was the only Caucasian.

      I was loving the landscape on the drive from Angeles to Olangapo.

This was a new part of the country for me and I had my nose pressed to the glass most of the way. One of the things that drew me to Angeles was my fondness on a previous trip for the wide-open landscape and less crowded infrastructure, and the mountains and streams that we passed through on the drive reminded me of a more tropical, jungled version of central California. I really loved it.

As I said, I hadn’t really researched the destination much though as the bus wound through Olangapo I got a good look at it…it was a funkier place than I’d imagined it being. I was a little surprised, after all the other people had gotten off at other stops, to be deposited not at the beach but at the bus station in central city. The porter indicated, despite the sign at the Angeles station saying the bus went all the way to Subic, that I’d need to take a taxi to Zambales.

Well, this wasn’t my first rodeo. As soon as I heard that I knew what was gonna happen next. I got off the bus and was swarmed by two or three extremely happy taxi drivers who were more than ready and vying for the opportunity to drive me to Zambales. I didn’t know if my fare was supposed to include the cab ride (I doubted it very much), but based on my experience in Asia a big dumb white guy coming off a bus in this situation is going to be viewed as a giant piggy bank. So to their astonishment and dismay, I turned my back to the cab drivers and started walking briskly away from the bus station into the city. One of them pursued me, crying incredulously “where are you going?!?” I gestured forward and said in Tagalog “that way!”

Of course, I had no clue where I was headed, my only experience with Olangapo being the not very inspiring looking streets I had just passed through on the bus and which I wound up retracing as I strolled away. But that was fine. It was all new to me, I was in the spirit of adventure, and I might as well see Olangapo while I was at it.

After I got a few blocks away from the bus station I pulled out my phone and started triangulating to the nearest mall – because no matter how funky the area is you’re in (and I’d give this spot a 6.5 on the scale of 1 to 10), in the Philippines there’s going to be a mall somewhere nearby where you can regroup. Once I found my way to said mall, it wound up being a pretty dismal affair – but at least it had a restroom. That taken care of, I tried to order up a Grab, but they didn’t have service in that area. OK, Plan B.

I figured my next step was to find a jeepney to take me to Zambales. I knew one existed because I saw one at the bus station (but it was stationary and not moving for 30 hot minutes, which is why I didn’t take it), but that was the extent of my knowledge. Despite my many visits to the Philippines, I’d never gotten in a jeepney before…though I’d determined that that would change this trip. I actually had stopped at one a few days earlier and interviewed the driver to understand how it worked, so I was ready. I decided my best bet was to head for the much swankier mall that the bus had stopped at earlier and which was only a few hundred meters to the south.

I did this, and went inside for a bit to get some juice and cool off for a bit. Then I went out again and talked to the security guard. He let me know there were no jeepneys at the mall, taxis only. I asked him what he thought the fare would be and he ignored me and gestured a cab van over. The driver happily opened the door. I asked him the fare to Zambales. “500 pesos!” he said cheerily to the big dumb white guy. So, $9 for 6 km, or 250% of my fare for my 60km drive to Olangapo. I laughed in his face and shut the door.

So, to find a jeepney. I started walking down the street in front of the mall and found one of the local barangay patrol that had an outpost on the corner and asked him how to get a jeepney to Zambales. He seemed delighted at my adventurous spirit and willingness to hoof it in foreign territory (a much more heartening reaction than deeply concerned, which happens sometimes), and showed me the route on google maps. I could catch a jeepney about a mile away – down one street, right on another, and across a bridge, then wait. Roger. Off I went, enjoying my trudge through the summer heat. I was out of the heavily urban area now and into a spread out section near the bay, with some industries and businesses sharing space with inexpensive tourist hotels that seemed to cater to Japanese and Koreans.

Inside the jeepney. Return trip I got the front seat…which nobody wanted since there was no side door and it was open to the rain. I didn’t care, I was already soaked.

Passing blithely through a security gate, hopping a guardrail and then over a water bridge, I found myself on the narrow road to Subic in a much funkier area. Old timers and kids from the shacks on the opposite side watched my progress with bemusement. I made my way carefully across the street where a young couple was also waiting for the jeepney, and in a few minutes it came. The girl kissed her boyfriend goodbye and climbed on, with me following suit. She uttered her destination, and the driver looked expectantly at me. I gave him 20 pesos – 480 pesos less than the cab van and still a significant overpayment – and simply said “I’ll get off at a good place.” The older woman in the front seat with me gave a little chuckle at that.

The road to Zambales wound up a hill high above the coast and I could see the vast Subic Baby peeking out through the trees opposite me. The jeepney was not built for tall western men and I alternated between craning my neck to look at the scenery through the windows and looking at the floor. The air inside the jeepney was exhaust-filled, but it wasn’t bad. It was not crowded, at least.

I got out in the Baretto district, which was an area it had been suggested I check out. This was apparently where most of the expats lived, and was sort of a low-energy red light district from what I could tell. I got a few catcalls from ladies on the side of the road but it was too early for anything much to be going on. The whole vibe felt very lackadaisical and the generally lax, debauched air was not something that really resonated with me, so I kept walking up the road, eventually getting into a local area. What I did not see at any point was the bay I had heard about and had planned to take in. After about 1 km up the main drag through a spread out local area, I saw a sign for “White Rock Beach” and headed for that. It turned out to be a private beach, and one that charged 900 pesos ($17) for the privilege – but owing to inclement weather, the beach wasn’t open. I could swim in the pool though. I thanked them and was on foot again, and headed back to the main drag to take in the 7-11.

Outside the 7-11 in Zambales right before the rain broke. I don’t take a lot of pictures of the Philippines because a lot of the places I walk around it doesn’t seem wise to whip out an iPhone and start snapping photos. I was going to take some pictures of the bay, but I never got to it.

By then the locals had gotten over their initial shock at the white guy walking around the local area and started to interact with me. I had enough Tagalog to banter with a bunch of old men hanging around the front of the convenience store – telling them how much I hated the “Havana” song that was blasting out a PA speaker nearby – and then with some kids inside the store. My throat was bothering me, so I got some hot cocoa from a machine.

When I came out again it was pouring rain. I had come with a flimsy umbrella so I immediately deployed that and started walking back down the road. My vague destination was a local, public (free) beach that the folks at the private beach had suggested, but the rain became so insistent that the bay was soon forgotten. I still was feeling the adventure though, and stopped at various food stalls – including one outdoors one next to the road where about a dozen people were making some empanada like thing for folks to drive up and take away (and with a lovely charcoal grill that I warmed myself over) – until I finally flagged down a jeepney, got into the vacant and soaking wet front seat, and headed back to Olangapo.

Once in Olangapo, it took me right to the bus station where a bus was waiting to head back to Angeles. The air-conditioned bus was freezing, and I was soaking wet, and I was treated to Air Supply’s Greatest Hits (as big as Springsteen in the Phils) all the way back to Angeles. You might say it wasn’t the world’s most comfortable trip but I felt quietly satisfied. Once returned, I headed home, got a brief dinner that I can’t remember, collapsed into bed and slept like a rock.

I had just covered 120km in a bus, another 12km in a jeepney, and walked a further 15km, a good portion of that in the rain. After breakfast I ceased to think about how much my head hurt or my ear was bothering me. At a certain point my pretended air of jaunty recklessness had turned to the real thing, and I was goofily singing, walking with a ridiculous jaunt through some fairly impoverished areas, and bantering with locals when they looked receptive. The previous night I had worried if I was going to be healthy enough to expand outward from what’s been – let’s face it – a relatively unadventurous year in Asia. I’ve spent most of the time in just two places and a good deal of that time at home. I have had a lovely time…but I need to move forward in some way. Mentally, I’m ready to explore more. The problem is the physical part.

And yet, I’d just done a pretty strenuous day of adventuring – got rained on, rode a jeepney for the first time, headed to another region without much knowledge or plan – and not only had it gone pretty well, I more or less kicked its ass. It would have been a pretty rigorous day for someone half my age.

The week since then has given me more to think about – some pretty high highs and some more low lows, and more challenges to my stamina with a flight that wound up being three hours late after an unfortunately sleepless night because of more neck/ear issues – but along with my yoga revelation a few weeks back, I’m at least starting to see some possibilities for what the next round in Asia will be like. The basic challenge of how to make a living and not be hunched over a laptop all day long is still there. But the key to not getting caught up on that is to have some goal above and beyond.

Now I forsee a possibility of a much more adventurous, and wide-ranging, plan of action when I get back. I’ve done an extremely good job of cramming my entire life into exactly 37kg of baggage – but it’s still 37kg that I have to carry around with me every destination I go, and it limits my mobility. Once I have a place over here to stow my stuff, a more backpacker existence living cheaper and rougher and seeing more places might be in the cards. It would be riskier and I might struggle to keep up. But I also might love it and thrive on it, and it would open up new opportunities than staying at home and planning might not.

There’s only one way to find out, anyway.

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