Our flight landed in Clark, Angeles City, just before midday. Having been told in KL, at the Filipino embassy, to ask to extend our visa at immigration in Clark, we were told by the officers there that it was not possible and we would have to extend it at an immigration office. Typical!
Chris had read that the taxi fare into the centre would be very expensive, and that if you walked out to the main road you could catch a 'jeepney'. Not really understanding what a jeepney was, we walked in the midday heat and kept our eyes peeled. Before we knew it we saw plenty of jeepney's - modified army jeeps left behind by the Americans after WWII. They have been customised by the Filipinos, with brightly coloured paint, coloured headlights, and have their route written on the side of the jeepney. After finding a local to ask, he kindly helped us hail one down, jump on the back, and pay between 8-10 pesos (12-15p) for your journey. We did also read that if you have luggage then it's best not to use them....and we realised why...just a tad cramped! And although you jump on the back, no one moves up, so we had to clamber through people with our backpacks and rucksacks to the front of the jeepney! Awkward!
Not really sure at this point where the jeepney was taking us, all we could do was enjoy the ride until it stopped. We watched as we passed by our hotel on the other side of a huge fence, but then soon after the jeepney stopped at a station. The friendly Filipino man who helped us hail down the jeepney, also got us into a tricycle to take us back to our hotel. The tricycle is known as the Philippine rickshaw - a little, roofed sidecar bolted to a motorcycle. You can imagine the looks we gave each other when we were told to climb in, with our two backpacks, and two rucksacks! Lets just say it was very cosy!
We stayed at the 'Tune Hotel', a modern, Premier Inn type hotel. Then both starving we ventured out.
What a place - sleazy, dirty, ugly. I thought it was worse than Pattaya in Thailand. And after walking down one of the main streets, passing by the numerous gentlemen's clubs, with young Filipino women not wearing a lot trying to encourage us in, we decided the safest option was to head to a large shopping mall.
Feeling safe and in the air conditioning, we spent the afternoon, and into the evening, eating and window shopping (Chris keeping me at bay!).
Knowing we would be staying six weeks in the Philippines, we had to extend our visa, and this was possible to do in Angeles City. So we caught a jeepney and tricycle to another shopping centre, where the Bureau of Immigration was. Prepared with the forms already filled in, except for two references, who had to be Filipino, we were told to just ask the immigration office police for them to be our references. They were more than happy to help!
Visas extended, and just over £90 lighter, we decided to stay in the shopping centre to use the Internet, eat, and plan.
A lot of hours spent searching on the Internet and making lots of phone calls, we decided we wanted to visit Mt Pinatubo. There was a definite lack of information on the Internet and with no tourist booking offices anywhere, all we could do was get on a bus, and head to a homestay we had managed to find on Tripadvisor.
We caught a bus to Capas, a town about 20 Km north of Angeles, then a tricycle the same distance again, but west to Sta Juliana. Luckily this tricycle had a roof rack, so the journey was a little more comfortable for space, but we still experienced the bumpy roads.
We arrived at Alvin's Mt Pinatubo guesthouse, to be greeted by Alvin himself. A friendly, very hospitable Filipino man, who had converted his home into a lovely Homestay, with a nicely landscaped garden and restaurant. We spent most of the afternoon relaxing in the garden.
Chris had read and heard about the Holy Week processions in the Philippines, and was keen to investigate further. Being a predominantly Catholic country, Holy Week is the biggest celebration in the Filipino calendar. Speaking with Alvin he knew exactly what we were talking about, and said if we walked down to the village chapel we might catch a glimpse of the procession. Mostly men, who feel they need forgiveness or owe God for answering a prayer, construct a cross, carry/drag it to the church, then self-flagulate (cut and whip their backs to bleed). Curiosity taking over, Chris was keen to find out more, knowing how culturally important this procession is to the Filipinos. Reluctantly I agreed to join Chris, but with the condition that when I want to leave, we leave.
We found the chapel, and much to my relief there was just children playing and women singing the Bible over a microphone. I found out that two women at a time chant/sing passages from the Bible. They are on two hour rotations, 24 hours, throughout Holy Week, so that the entire Bible is sang.
Alvin also recommended we walk around 500m, up the road, to a hill to watch the sun set behind the mountains. As we walked through the village, everyone would say hello and wave to us - we felt like celebrities. We eventually came across the local Aetas tribe - the original tribal people from this area. We were surrounded by children and adults of all ages, all intrigued as to who we are, asking lots of questions. One of the great things with the Philippines is that they speak such good English, as they learn from primary school. So communication is made easy and allows us to really connect with the locals.
Finally managing to say goodbye to the Aetas tribe, we walked to the hill and caught the end of the sunset. We were lucky to catch a very colourful sunset, but also a storm was in the far distance, so some incredible fork lightening made for a more impressive viewing.
Angela and Verline, the hostesses, had cooked up a very tasty tuna omelette, with rice and vegetables for dinner. They were both lingering after dinner, watching us play cards. So we invited them over to join in, and Verline taught us a new game. Angelo, the handy man, and a tour guide, interrupted us to walk us back down to the chapel to see if we could catch a glimpse of the men with their crosses, learning of Chris' curiosity. Unusual for a Filipino, he was 6ft3", so it felt like we had our own bodyguard for the evening.
We saw plenty of men dragging their homemade crosses along the road, towards the chapel. Some were then crawling along the floor for the final stretch into the chapel grounds. It was like a festival down at the chapel - with clothes stalls, and plenty of food and drink. Angelo introduced us to buko juice, which is coconut water with shredded coconut in. And also bambingka, which is a rice cake, served with either brown sugar and coconut, or salted egg and cheese. We opted for the sweet version and it was delicious. Surprisingly light as well. We stood around for about 45 mins, speaking with the locals, and waiting to see the self-flagellation. Lucky for me, it seemed this was not happening this evening, so we headed back when the rain began to fall quite heavily. Apparently it had been four months since the last rainfall - seems like our British presence had an effect!
Up for a 7am breakfast of scrambled egg and some sort of sliced meat. We met a couple from Korea, Moon and Sujin, living and working in Manila, who would be joining us on our trip to Mt Pinatubo. We signed our lives away, met our guide, Henry, and climbed into the 4x4.
The 4x4 took us on an intensely bumpy ride for about an hour, along the Pinatubo Skyway - a dried up river, which since the eruption is now like a moonscape. This led us over rocky paths, through water, and to a 7km drop off point. We did make a quick stop off at 'toblerone hills' for some pictures. I don't think I need to explain why they are called toblerone hills.
We trekked for 7km along the impressive skyway, surrounded by incredible scenery. When we reached the car park, it was a further kilometre before we arrived at the crater lake.
Mt Pintatubo is an active stratovolcano, last erupting in 1991, which produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, and causing the deaths of hundreds of people (locals and tourists). The crater lake is a result from the last eruption, and is so deep that you can reach the sea from it!
The view was striking; a combination of blue water, green valleys, volcanic ash, and a bright blue sky. We walked down to the lake for an early lunch and to take plenty of pictures. You are not allowed to swim in the lake as someone had drowned, and a man had previously had a heart attack on a boat out on the lake and died. So they stopped the boats, and the swimming, and anyone aged 50 years old or above must have their blood pressure taken before they begin the trek.
We trekked the 1km back to the car park, and climbed into the 4x4 for the bumpy journey back to the village.
Our guide Henry mentioned that he lived on a farm and if we had time would take us to ride the carabao. We weren't too sure what he meant, but when he said he would pick us up a bit later we didn't refuse, thinking it would be nice to spend some time with a local, and see a local farm.
He rocked up in a tricycle for us to jump into, and about 5 mins up the road we arrived at the 'farm'. They harvested tomatoes, and had a patch of land, some carabao, and a bamboo hut to keep watch. He had his cousin Rebecca with him, who spoke very good English, and chatted away to us whilst Henry retrieved the carabao.
Carabao is the name given to Water buffalo in the Philippines. Henry appeared with a male carabao, and asked if we wanted a ride. I was reluctant, but Chris jumped at the opportunity. They also had a female carabao with a baby boy, which he also retrieved from their land, and we walked them about 1km down the road to a water hole. Chris compared riding the water buffalo with riding the elephants, just a bit closer to the ground.
The carabao are walked to the water twice a day, to drink and bathe. It was an experience to see and be so close, but not as fascinating as the elephants.
When they were done, it was my turn to ride back...but my first challenge was climbing on! I only have little legs, and even with a short run up and big jump, I completely failed when trying to jump on. After laughing and videoing my ultimate fail, Chris did give me a leg up. It was a lot more uncomfortable than riding the elephant, and he did not respond to the commands, so had to be pulled along by Henry.
We sat by the bamboo hut whilst Henry was very hospitable and picked some fresh tomatoes for us to try, then knocked down some coconuts from their one coconut tree on their farm. He cut open the coconuts for us to drink the water, but with no straws, we made a right mess! He then cut them open for us to eat the flesh inside. Delicious!
With the sun beginning to set, we had ended up spending a good few hours with Henry and Rebecca, but we had to get back, as Angela and Verline were cooking our requested Chicken adobo for dinner.
Chicken adobo is a native dish, stewed in vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves, and peppercorns. It was very tasteful and definitely a dish we would eat again.
Chris had arranged with Angelo to take us out again that evening, in hope of seeing the procession. Angelo very kindly planned to take us to the next main village, where there would be lots of 'stations', as he called them, and more chance of seeing the men in penance. All three of us squeezed onto Alvin's bike, as Angelo's bike would not fit us on, and rode the 15 minutes up the road. We walked around for a bit, through the back streets of the village, down roads we would never enter on our own, but of course we had our bodyguard with us so we felt safe. With no luck, we stopped off for a local Red Horse beer, and tried the Filipino hot dog and pork bbq squewer. All of a sudden this young boy, with a ripped shirt, and no shoes appeared next to us. Angelo introduced him as Dennis, and said that everyone knows Dennis around here. He spoke very little English, but sat with us looking as though he knew how the conversation was going. It became clear that Dennis had a very tough life, so we gave him 20 pesos to be going on with - Angelo informed us that this amount is more than enough for him, just 30p to us. But we couldn't help but notice the condition of his feet, due to him not having any shoes. We also learnt that Dennis lived in the next village, about 5km away, which he walked to and from the village we were in, every day. Having passed by some market stalls earlier, we encouraged Dennis to walk back with us so we could buy him some flip flops. He chose a garish yellow and black stripy pair for 50 pesos (about 80p). Angelo told him he must not sell them!
We carried on around the village, with Dennis and his new flip flops in tow. We were on the hunt for balute - duck egg embryo. Chris, having tried one in Vietnam, was keen to try the Filipino style. Dennis pointed out his favourite balute stall, and we treated Angelo and Dennis to one, as well as Chris trying one. After a lot of persuasion and peer pressure, I still managed to avoid trying it. It looked so much more disgusting than the one in Vietnam, and Chris' face told me that he too was not particularly enjoying it. At least in Vietnam the balute is presented for you, in a bowl, with some broth and seasoning. Whereas they had to peel the balute this time, drink the embryo fluid, and eat it down in one.
Moving on, we came across a lady cooking babingka. Having tried the sweet version the previous evening, we were keen to try the salted egg and cheese babingka. We had one to share, and bought one for Angelo and sent Dennis on his way with one for now, and one for later. I didn't really like it, so will stick with the sweet version in future.
Spending the evening with Angelo, we really got to learn about his life and future prospects. He had lived and worked in Canada for a while, with his family having to sell their carabao's to pay for his plane ticket. However he ended up returning back to the Philippines and struggles by each month, having to keep his parents, as they now have nothing to make money from. He was a truly lovely man, with a great sense of humour, and deserves more from the loyalty and commitment he gives Alvin, his boss. We handed Angelo a small tip (for us), but nearly another days wages for him, which he was extremely grateful for.
After breakfast we said our thanks and goodbyes to the delightful staff at Alvin's guesthouse and caught a tricycle back to Capas. What we didn't expect was to see lines of men committing self-flagellation. It was gruesome, and shocking to see the extremities of Christianity. Stunned and finding it difficult to comprehend, we took the next bus out of there....to hundred islands.