The only flight from Thailand to the Philippines happens to leave Bangkok just after midnight. To get to Cebu City requires an early morning three hour stop over in Manilla, the capital. So after a long and sleepless flight, we couldn't have been happier to see our mate, Jase, waiting for us at the airport.
We arrived only two days before the wedding, so spent them in preparation for the big day. We were immediately acquainted with all of Jase and Sam's best mates, and of course lots of exotic Filipino food. As soon as we got off the plane, we were taken straight to a bridal shop to hire a suit for Aidan, as he was to be a groomsman.
To mask the stench of nearly six months of backpacking, and attempt to blend in with our upper middle class Filipino friends, we took Jason's advice and checked into a fancy hotel in a good central location. Although we felt a bit awkward when the doorman insisted on carrying our grubby backpacks to our room, we enjoyed the comfort and freshness of our first proper hotel since Beijing.
From the moment we arrived, Jase and Sam tried their hardest to test our stomachs by ordering the strangest local food they could think of. We tasted a whole array of animal parts, including minced pig face and deep fried intestine. The most interesting dish that we tried was birds nest soup - which is literally a soup made from birds saliva which is squeezed from a pile of nests! Ironically, our hosts considered this one a completely normal dish and it was one of the few not ordered for its unusualness!
The day before the wedding, Jess was invited to hang out with all of Sam's girlfriends for the hen's day. Apparently there is only one male stripper in Cebu and the girls have seen the limited extent of his party tricks, so instead they spent the day at a beauty spa! Jess was treated to her first hot stone massage! There wasn't much of a bucks party, so Aidan spent the day lounging around in the comfy hotel room. That night, all the boys and girls reunited for a final nervous dinner before Jase and Sam made their vows.
The wedding was absolutely beautiful - it helps when most of the brides good friends are fashion designers and event coordinators! The official ceremony was held in one of the few churches that still faces the sea. Although most Spanish-Filipino churches were originally designed to face the water, many have witnessed shore line extensions, and now face concrete and brick walls. The sea breeze attempted to cool everyone down and added to the peaceful, openness of the wedding.
From the moment Sam bounced down the isle to the sound of an orchestra belting out the Corr's Runaway, everyone was in tears. And the tears didn't stop until the last speech at the reception! Sam looked beautiful in her white gown, and Jase, under advice from Sam's slightly feminine male friends, stylishly coordinated his pink bow tie to match the bridesmaids pink dresses. The reception was equally beautiful, held in a stunning private resort, also waterfront, and surrounded by lush gardens and coconut trees. Seeing as we'd met the newly weds through Capoeira, it seemed appropriate that the night ended with a bit of a drunken dance-floor Roda. Mr and Mrs Lagaac eventually left the party looking exhausted but ecstatic.
With a whole week until the honeymoon, we spent a good few days after the wedding hanging out with the couple and all of their mates. The newlyweds celebrated their first day as husband and wife by taking everyone for a Bangka cruise (a Bangka is a wooden boat with long extended floats running along either side). We cruised between a few of the islands around Lapu-Lapu, southwest of Cebu city, stopping for lunch and a snorkel NEAR a fish sanctuary (we had a bit of an issue with this later when we realised our hired skipper had skipped the sanctuary and pocketed the extra cash)! Nevertheless, the weather was perfect and there were enough fish to keep us entertained. It was a great way to wind down and ease the hangovers after all the wedding festivities.
After the wedding, we were invited to spend the remainder of our time in Cebu with Sam's (and now Jason's) family. Sam's father is one of the top neurosurgeons in the region so, although still very modest and humble, they lived in the nicest place either of us has ever stayed. Their family were more than hospitable and treated us with a very warm Filipino welcome, which largely consisted of eating. In the Phillipines it is apparently very rude to have your guests go even the slightest bit hungry!
We knew the Philippines were predominately Catholic, although we didn't realise that the Church basically controlled the country. In fact, since Malta have recently legalised it, the Philippines remains the only country which still does not recognise divorce! Before every ferry trip they show a prayer on the TV screens, and even for a short bus trip most older people make the sign of the cross for safe travels.
It came to the end of the week and so we decided to spend a typical Sunday with Sam's family. In the morning we followed them to their local church service. Considering how many churches are in the Philippines, and how conservative most of them seem, we were surprised when Sam's local mass was held in the shopping centre. In order to increase attendance, the Church decided to bring the mass to the people, rather than the other way around. As most Filipinos seem to like hanging out in the cool, air-conditioned malls, most malls now hold a church service on Sundays! It was an interesting experience as the priest's mic tried to compete with the eager shoppers down the hall!
After mass and a big, laid-back Filipino lunch, we all went down to the graveyard to visit Sam's grandfather, which we were told was a regular weekly outing with all of the extended family. Instead of the congested, depressing feeling you get from graveyards back home, this one was big and open, with the vibe of a lazy sunday family park. People were picnicking, jogging and kicking soccer balls around. Some of the graves were even built in small air-conditioned houses so that their relatives can hang around all day in comfort. Sam's grandfathers grave wasn't quite as extravagant, but suitably respectful, and it was strangely a really nice way to spend the afternoon.
It was interesting to see the way the modern Filipino culture has managed to integrate the Spanish-introduced Catholicism with their native spirituality. Most Filipinos manage to believe in two, arguably incompatible, spiritualities. As well as their fundamentally catholic belief in the One God, they have still maintained their traditional beliefs of coexisting spirits. Witch-doctors are still a big part of their culture, especially when someone is unexplainably sick, and offerings are made to the spirits to ask permission to move into a new house, or cure disease. It's encouraging to see the beliefs of an ancient culture able to survive and coexist with Christian colonisation.
To make sure we got a bit more of an understanding of the Cebuano history and culture, Jase spent a whole day guiding us around all the heritage sights. We started with the huge and well trodden Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, although didn't get to see the whole place due to all the eager Catholics lining up to pray. After this we visited the Casa Gorordo Museum, adapted from a beautiful ancestral house that shows how the upper-class lived shortly after colonisation, which some believe may be haunted. We also visited Fort San Pedro, built by the Spanish for protection in the 1500's, although, like most of the churches, the cannons now face out to graffiti covered concrete rather than the sea.
To compensate for a week of over-eating and indulgent desserts, we accompanied Sam and Jase for a session at their local boxing gym. Dissatisfied with the Capoeira school in Cebu, they have spent the last year leaning boxing. We tried our best to keep up, and it felt great doing some solid exercise and we gained a new found appreciation for a boxer's fitness. We were definately feeling it a couple of days later!
The best part about our time in Cebu was just hanging out and doing normal things that we might do with mates at home. It helped that Sam and all of her friends are very Americanised and speak perfect English. We ate pizza, went to a movie cinema and ate lots of junk food. The night before leaving, we celebrated Aidan's 27th birthday by eating at a delicious outdoor BBQ grill house and followed the meal with some vocal (and slightly controversial) trivia at a very English-style pub.
At first we felt bad for making all of Sam's friends switch to English for our sakes. We soon realised, however, that English really is like another first language for most city dwellers. Even the education system in Cebu is in English. As the Philippines is made up of a vast collection of islands, there are hundreds of different languages and all are completely different. Sam had some friends from Manila fly over for the wedding and they could not understand any Cebuano. The wedding, trivia, the speeches - nearly everything, was spoken in perfect English. Although this makes it easier for us, as long as we stick to populated areas, we probably won't have much incentive to be learning any Filipino, Tagalog, Cebuano or Visayan!