Me, Love and Other Catastrophes

An Odyssey in the PhilippinesMe, Love and Other Catastrophes Fresh from a break-up, Marco Buch sets out on an emotional rollercoaster ride in the Philippines, meeting dancing killers and tattooed girls, and experimenting with Tinder. Cockfighting, spit-roasted pigs and a cemetery where people live, in a capital city full of contradictions. Manila. It’s abnormally hot. The airport is crammed. I can’t quite get my head round it: the Philippines. Three days ago I had no clue I’d end up here. I’ve just broken up with my long-term girlfriend. For this journey (and, for the time being, in my life in general), the plan is that there is no plan. I’m going to follow my intuition and just let myself blow where the wind takes me. My hostel is at the other end of town. A throng of taxi drivers surround me as I leave the airport. After some negotiation, I find a young Filipino who takes me to Santa Cruz for a good price. On a broad street I realise that giant brothels are alternating with churches. After the first, rather sleepless night in a fourteen-bed room I’m sitting in the kitchen, tired, watching a couple of hippie types slicing fruit into their muesli. A Spanish man with curly hair barks at me, ‘The tour starts now, get ready!’ I can’t remember booking a tour, but I’m too weak to object. Some time later I’m crossing a busy street with a crowd of unfamiliar people, and suddenly find myself standing in the middle of North Cemetery. I don’t think I’m fully awake yet. Only now does it dawn on me that this is exactly the place I’ve been wanting to see for years. A cemetery as big as a small city – and rather lively: in the tombs live people. For two hours, we’re guided through the area by a friendly old lady, accompanied for most of the time by a gaggle of children. A friend of our guide opens the door to her home. Her cheerful kitchen is directly next to the graves of her relatives, and a few mattresses lie in a kind of cubbyhole. But the old lady seems content. There’s water and electricity, and you can’t say that of every home in Manila.     I make a piece of paper disappear behind my hand, then reappear from my ear. The kids are clever, and see through my magic trick the second time round. For lunch we have Lechon Baboy, which is delicious. Whole pigs are prepared on a spit in the restaurant. Back at the cemetery, we spend the afternoon with a French aid organisation. I find myself cutting out letters for a game with Joshua, an Australian. Trying to dodge the merciless sun, we sit in a small crypt. The craft supplies rest on the coffin lid. Joshua is a man with a plan, and I quickly decide to join him: he wants to see a cockfight, a popular form of entertainment here. We enter a completely packed arena. On the benches the audience scream at the top of their lungs; they’re largely men, but there are also a few women. Bundles of notes are changing hands. The noise level is indescribable, and we feel like we’re on a film set. Then they let the roosters have at it. Each has a five-centimetre-long razor blade attached to one foot. Often, the fight is over in seconds. ‘Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win.’ A Marlboro hanging out of the corner of his mouth, our neighbour is pleased to initiate us into the finer points of cockfighting. We don’t put down any bets. The lowest possible amount is about 30 euros. Often, both roosters die. It’s a gruesome display, and I can’t understand its appeal. In the course of an hour, we see at least twenty roosters breathe their last. We leave. In the evening there’s a group meal on the roof of the hostel. As well as the travellers, there are some locals present too, all from the couch-surfing community. I’m struck by a difference from my experiences in other countries (Thailand, for instance): the Filipinos meet the foreigners on an equal footing. Gradually and pleasantly, the meal turns into a boozy party. Soon I’ve got a guitar in my hand, and I’m entertaining the assembled mob. It’s been years since I last did that, and I enjoy every second of it. During a cigarette break, I get to know a very beautiful French woman, Aurelie, immediately falling under her spell. I’ve absolutely got to go to Bohol, she says, and Dumaguete too. I try to store this information somewhere in my inebriated brain. At some point everybody else leaves to go to a club. I’m just thinking that Aurelie and I are about to kiss when another girl shows up. The two of them immediately get along well – I’m no longer required. I take it pragmatically. My flight leaves early the next morning.   Chapter Two / CebuLove Songs Whale sharks, a dark village and heart-broken karaoke. Someone told me that in the Philippines, flying is the simplest mode of transport. So now, not thirty-six hours after my arrival, I’m sitting in another plane. It spits me out in Cebu City, the capital of the eponymous island. I share a taxi, which lets me out at the bus station. For my journey to the south of the island, I stock up on provisions: water and fried pork rinds. ‚Chicharron‘ – they love the stuff here! Not for the first time, I find it funny that many products, but also streets, have Spanish names, even though hardly anybody speaks a word of Spanish. On the screen in the bus they’re playing an action film, as outside it begins to rain. Next to me two overweight Filipinos are stuffing their faces with pizza, mayonnaise and hot sauce. I doze off.         When I come back to my senses they’re already onto Part 2 of the piece-of-fluff movie, and shortly afterwards, equatorial darkness falls. Then somebody yells ‚Oslob‘ and I grab my things. It’s interesting how without a guidebook you have no idea how place names are spelled. You just have the sound in your head. It’s pitch black and the bus disappears into the darkness. Suddenly a moped appears out of nowhere. The driver has a grin on his face, and wants to be my personal tour-guide. Sure, let’s go – I’ve hung out with crazier characters than this! Daniel takes me straight to a guest house, where I’m the only guest. While we’re still on the moped, he tells me everything there is to do for fun around here. I book a whale-shark tour and an additional trip to the port. He’ll be here at five in the morning, he says. I’d better go to bed, then. My head has barely hit the pillow, however, when I realise that sleep isn’t an option. My window is directly over a karaoke bar, and the party is in full swing. I dress again and go to have a look. Cut to a few minutes later: I’ve fetched a few bottles of beer and some menthols from the kiosk next door, and I’m singing karaoke with five young students. For hours. At times it’s so emotional that I almost want to cry. After the students find out that I’ve just been through a break-up and my heart is still aching, we only sing love songs, falling into each other’s arms. Next morning I’m insanely tired, of course – and hung-over. I can’t go on like this. No alcohol for me today. Daniel stuffs my rucksack between his legs on the moped and heads off into the sunset. A coastal road, gentle waves, people just waking up – wow, it’s gorgeous here. The whale sharks are a well-organised activity for tourists. You pay, get a number, chuck your stuff into a locker and get on the boat. Thankfully it’s not too crazy yet.     What an incredible experience! I share my boat with two Dutch people, who tell me that their favourite activity in the Philippines is going to bed with local girls. They’re even using Tinder on the boat. My next destination! The island of Negros, as seen from Cebu. The two Dutch guys are heading north, and I’m off to Dumaguete. ‚Hell’s Inn!‘ they call after me – at least, that’s what I hear. I’m immediately intrigued! One delicious chicken-and-rice breakfast later I’m sitting on a small ferry. Soon I’m on the third island of my journey – and I’m only on day four.   Chapter Three / The Island of NegrosLotte’s Shoulder A half-developed duck embryo and the question of why I’m really here. Arriving at ‘Hell’s Inn’, I realise my mistake (it’s actually called ‘Harold’s Inn’) and clap the motorbike taxi driver on the shoulder, glad that he took me to the right place anyway. I check into a small, dirt-cheap room and sleep for the rest of the day, with the fan maxed-out.         The vibe reminds me of my first backpacking trip fifteen years ago, and I love it. ‘The small beers are really a waste of money. Shall we share a big one?’ asks Cumhur, a very nice Turkish businessman passing through town. So much for not drinking. From six till three, Cumhur and I down one litre-sized beer after another, chatting about God and the world, forgetting to eat and having an amazing time. People come and go, a Filipino gives a great concert on his guitar, and I’m crushed at pool after noticing two tables. Once people start giving me weird looks when I talk to them, I go to bed. . . . It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as bad as I do the next morning. I stumble out onto the terrace, getting laughed at by a few people for last night’s escapades, and down three coffees in a row. Then I’m overcome by a completely inexplicable urge to leave Dumaguete at once, even though I’ve seen absolutely nothing beyond the roof terrace! Wait, why did I come here? Right, Dumaguete was recommended to me a few days ago. But why was that again? I check out and wait in vain for a motorbike taxi. To be honest, I’m not sure where I want to go. And why the hell do I always have to get so stressed out about stuff? Can’t I just stay somewhere? After all, it’s nice here! But I always feel like I’m missing out on something elsewhere. Good old FOMO – fear of missing out! And since the break-up, especially, I’ve basically not given myself a minute’s peace. I go back inside, pay for a second night and ask the staff to change my sheets, which are soaked in sweat. Then I go back up to roof terrace and sit down. And I’ve got to laugh. I’ve probably never been such an idiot on a trip before. The hangover gradually ebbs away and I get to know a few new, amusing people. Go-getting Lotte from Holland and timid Lore from France. A few Danish girls from last night are still there, and hesitantly start talking to me again. They’ve done a motorbike tour of the Twin Lakes which they strongly recommend, but right now I’m not in the mood for so much activity. Some time later I’m wandering through the centre of the small student town of Dumaguete. It’s sweet here! A few colonial buildings, sickly-sweet coconut shakes, a great market where I get an excellent meal for less than a euro. I’m now back in good spirits, clearly having sweated out the alcohol.         But back on the roof terrace people have already brought out the booze, and I sense that it’s the main attraction of the town. I risk a small beer. It’s tasty. Lotte and I decide to take a look at the food market on the promenade, and agree to meet the others later at a bar. At the market they’re mainly selling fried bits of seafood, not exactly a culinary sensation. But then the cook offers me a true speciality: balut, a half-developed duck embryo, served in the egg. Before I have time to think twice, I peel the egg with its black, feathery contents. Although I have to suppress my gag reflex, I dunk half the egg in vinegar and chomp it down as quickly as possible. It’s completely and utterly disgusting, and I can’t get the slightly stale smell off my fingers. Feeling nauseous, I look around for a tricycle. I need to get to the nearest bar!         The two-storey wooden building Haya Haya is right on the water, and looks great. A pretty decent cover band is playing on the ground floor. On offer: cocktail pitchers, large carafes full of gaudy liquid. Lotte’s gaze brooks no refusal. We eat oysters with melted cheese and an enormous mountain of spicy nachos, downing first two neon-blue pitchers then two bright yellow ones in record time. I start thinking she looks like a famous german actress. Must be pretty powerful stuff! Downstairs we meet the others, who also seem to be well on their way. There’s a DJ playing now, and he’s surprisingly good. A Filipino biker gang love my hairstyle, and treat me to endless rounds of schnapps. I have no clue what we’re talking about, but it seems like they don’t either. In the heat of the moment I kiss Lotte’s shoulder, which makes her spend the rest of the night hanging out with the bikers. To be honest, things aren’t going all that well with the ladies. . . . I can’t go on like this. I’m having trouble remembering my own name. I’ve got to leave. As I’m drinking a whole litre of orange juice in one go the next morning, I bump into Cumhur. He looks the picture of health, and I hate him for it. When I tell him that I’ve got to leave, he claps a hand on my shoulder and shouts: ‘Bohol, man! Bohol!’ I ask what’s so great about the island, as I’ve heard it mentioned already. Cumhur tells me about white beaches, funny little monkeys and chocolate hills.         Chapter Four / BoholGreen Eyes and a Pout Suicidal tarsiers, sex tourists and a bit of a crush. A jeepney, at last, it’s a jeepney! Having been fascinated by this vehicle for years, I suddenly find myself sitting in one. With about forty other people. Comfy. For an hour we judder along beneath a setting sun, stopping at every single crossing. Then, finally, I’m there: Alona Beach.         Is this where I wanted to go? Whatever, the beach sounds good. I throw my stuff into a plain but clean room and head straight out. Alona Beach is the new Boracay, they say. That should have made me think twice. Everything here is built-up and crammed with tourists. Sure, the sand is white and the rolling boats are colourful. But I’ve seen that sort of thing too many times to get excited about it.         Alongside hordes of overweight old people in diving gear I shuffle through the sand and play with a few feral dogs. Then I drink an overpriced cup of coffee and walk back down the main street to my hostel. It’s really not that great here. German beer gardens, red-light bars, gross old perverts from the West. The signs on the bars: ‘Bei Hans’, ‘Schnitzelwirt’, ‘Paulchens Eck’. On the way back I see a woman covered head to toe in tattoos, and I wonder how anybody could disfigure themselves like that. Five minutes later I meet that exact girl. Her name is Kat, and she’s in the lobby at my hotel. Her incredibly green eyes and gorgeously pouty lips instantly make me forget all about the ink on her body. I’m hypnotised. When, after five minutes, Kat asks me if I want to go on a trip with her next week, I hear myself saying yes without hesitation. What?! Me? I never want to go travelling with anybody. We talk for a while. About break-ups, exes, life, God and the world. We have very different lives, but uncannily similar problems. Then, for once, I get a good night’s sleep. I dreamed about my ex-girlfriend. In it, we made up. . . . In the afternoon I meet Kat again, and for a second time we sit in the lobby and chat for hours. I’m kind of infatuated. But I can kiss goodbye to that idea – like me, she’s into women. Early next day I’m sitting on a 125cc Enduro scooter. Kat leaps up behind me and we clatter off into our adventure. I haven’t felt this free in a long time. The old motorbike feels good, the sun is blazing in the sky, and a beautiful woman is clinging to my back. Everything screams: adventure!       First stop: an old church north of Taglibaran.   The traffic is better than expected. Kat’s hands are resting on my stomach, her breasts pressing into my back, which feels wonderful. Let’s face it: despite our many differences, I’m head over heels with this weird girl. We cruise onwards through the postcard-pretty island. Coastline, hills, ancient forests, smiling faces everywhere. Loads of Filipinos point at Kat. Women don’t get tattoos round here. She’s the star of the show wherever we go, and I like her even more.         We press deeper and deeper into the jungle. At the edge of the road, people are drying fruit. After a while we reach a small house. Here live the tarsiers, tiny monkeys that always look like they’ve been on a three-day bender. We check five times that we’ve switched off the flash before we photograph them. The smallest things can stress this species out so much that it’s not uncommon for them to commit suicide by beating their heads repeatedly against something. It’s no joke.         Onward to Loboc. Greeted by the sight of tour groups, we hesitate, but then book a lunch cruise on one of the barges. A mariachi band is playing on the pier. I feel like I’m in a film. We pass trees from which children are leaping into the cool water and houses split in half by the last cyclone, and travel through unspoiled forest.         Kat and I are smiling fit to burst, feeling very happy. Suddenly a thirty-strong ukulele band strikes up. It can’t get any weirder … On the way back I spot a large cross on a mountain. I point at it with a questioning look, and Kat nods euphorically. So we get back on the bike and shoot off. We’re on fire, coming up with one crazy idea after another!         On the way down the mountain I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I’m bursting with happiness! We’ve had enough for one day. ‘Something to do with nuts,’ says Kat when I ask her where we’re going to sleep. And then it occurs to me that somebody else mentioned that hostel to me. ‘Nuts Huts?’ Yeah, that could be it. Aurelie, the beautiful French girl from Manila – despite the kiss that never was, our meeting wasn’t in vain. After some asking around we find ourselves standing in front of the Nuts Huts, far away from everything. And it’s fantastic. An endless staircase leads from the viewing spot down to the restaurant, then it’s a few more steps down to the bungalows, which are situated directly on the emerald-green river. We check in and sit down in the restaurant. The view is magical. In the most beautiful spot they’ve put a four-poster bed, and a couple are stretched out in it as if nowhere else existed.         Several hours later, all the other couples have gone to bed. We’ve graduated from beer to gin and tonics, and have been feeding each other with pancakes, vanilla ice-cream and rum-raisins, still high on this amazing day. When at last we get hold of the four-poster bed, the waiter turns out the lights and asks us to go back to our room. On the veranda of our wooden bungalow, Kat lets herself be drawn into a kiss in which she very nearly rips my head off. As I’m considering whether I should interpret her brutality as passion or as irritation at having entered into the whole kissing scenario in the first place, I realise it’s already over. So nothing’s going to happen with us … Still, we cuddle the whole night, chatting every hour or so about the astonishingly loud sounds of nature that keep waking us up. . . . ‘Want an insider tip?’ ‘Always!’ I say. The Belgian manager of the shop points out a precise location on a map hanging on the wall and says, ‚This waterfall.‘ I shake his hand and we get on the bike. The Belgian’s insider tip is so insider-y that it takes us ages to find. But after a few wrong turns and conversations with people on the edge of the road, we know why he recommended this spot. The waterfall is almost impossibly beautiful. We spend almost two hours just marvelling that such places actually exist.     Then it’s time to return. We make a bit of a meal of it, as neither Kat nor I want this trip to end. We drive directly towards the setting sun. The sea glitters by the roadside.   Chapter Five / PalawanIn Good Times and Bad A moped, lots of dust and many tears. Shortly before our moped tour we bought a flight to Palawan. We agreed that at any time we were free to go our separate ways. A band consisting exclusively of blind people plays cover songs by REM in the airport waiting room. It really is an odd country. On the flight to Puerto Princesa I’m reminded of my break-up when I hear some old music. Gazing down at gorgeous beaches, I cry like a baby. Kat comforts me, which I think is very sweet. I realise that this, at least, binds us together: a recent turning-point in our lives. In the late afternoon we have a substantial meal, and I ask at reception whether you can explore Palawan on a moped. You can. Onwards with the plan.         We pass ancient vehicles, small villages and people leading along water-buffaloes on a rope. At some point we roll up to the flat landscape of the west coast, which is still steaming in the humid heat, even at night. Sabang. We sleep in a bamboo hut. Outside we’re surrounded by the noises of the jungle, and as I doze off I think about the story of the python who recently ate a dog here. . . . I awake to the sun and a wonderful view, staring at the misty mountains for ages. In the afternoon we cruise along on the moped through the merciless heat, and find a beach very close to the village that seems too beautiful to be real. Although it’s huge and covered in white sand, we’re the only people there. Fate is smiling on us.     In the afternoon we cruise along on the moped through the merciless heat, and find a beach very close to the village that seems too beautiful to be real. Although it’s huge and covered in white sand, we’re the only people there. Fate is smiling on us. Sabang is practically magical. Again and again we stop at tiny kiosks to drink coke or coffee. But Kat never stops talking, and is getting on my nerves. I’m always pleased when I put my helmet back on and can’t hear her anymore. After nearly eight hours in the heat we reach Port Baton in the late afternoon, looking as if we’ve been dragged through the desert. Exhaustion sets in. Concentration and the shaking of the moped has completely done me in. On the beach we search for a guesthouse. When at last we find one, a young Filipina tells us that they’re closed for a family function. Then she stares, fascinated, at Kat’s tattoos. After a few seconds she says that maybe we can stay after all. Assuming we take part in the celebration. It’s a deal! Once again, I’m surprised at the situations Kat’s body art gets us into. The young woman introduces herself as Cindy. It’s her birthday, and they’re roasting a whole pig to celebrate the day, as well as several large fish and all sorts of side dishes.     We sit together for a while on the beach, listening to Filipino pop and having a good time. Cindy and her boyfriend James are really good-hearted people. They tell us about their plan to marry and open a restaurant exactly where we’re sitting. Little Seisei is having the most fun of all. Eventually Cindy and James invite us to explore the island with them the next day. . . .     With us on board: Several of Cindy’s family members. In a shallow part of the water we go snorkling. We swim in a waterfall. We’re shown baby turtles by the only family there. Finally we travel to ‘German Island’, an island named after the Germans who lived here on their own for a few years. I immediately understand why. The island is wonderful. I think I’d like to be the next German who lives there. On the way back we’re lost for words about this fantastic day. Arm in arm, we wander down the misty beach. And on top of all this, Cindy announces that she’s had a word with everybody and they’ve decided not to charge us any petrol money, as we’d previously agreed – she says her family liked us so much that they consider us their guests. I have tears in my eyes.         The next day we head further north. This stretch of the journey is pretty tough and long, and Kat’s complaints about her back and my driving are beginning to get under my skin. It feels like we’ve been in a relationship on fast-forward, and a completely platonic one at that, putting my tolerance to the test.   Chapter Six / PalawanWhat Does Tinder Have to Do with Ants Break-ups, illnesses, dating apps and a dance-group full of friendly murderers. El Nido is famous for its countless offshore islands and hidden beach paradises.     Kat decides to make the rest of the journey there by bus. When I’m alone at last on the road, I let out a literal whoop of joy. This is decidedly more fun. The fabulous view from our terrace! I’m not really in the mood to do much, as unfortunately I’m not really myself at the moment, emotionally speaking. But here in El Nido there’s no getting out of another snorkelling trip. On a wooden boat we cruise from one stunning bay to the next. But time and again I’m struck by a sense of loss and heartbreak, so while the others explore the turquoise water in a kayak, I sit on the deck of the boat, listening to familiar music and crying. . . . Next morning I’m fit and full of beans. We’re off to Nacpan, where there are no roads. But Kat’s back problems return, and I can literally feel the atmosphere getting worse and worse by the minute. Then I get lost again – personally, I’m quite glad when that happens. She isn’t. We’re like an old married couple. I can’t do this anymore!         When we get back to El Nido that afternoon, I’m restless. Something’s got to happen today. I download Tinder, try to understand it, and quickly find a few pretty girls who like me too. All three ‘matches’ want to meet in the Reggae Bar. That’s handy, I think, and go for a quick swim outside the cabins. Only once I’m in the water do I remember that I’ve seen several sewage pipes leading directly in here. I look around – I’m completely alone … The Reggae Bar isn’t bad. There’s a pretty great band playing and everybody’s in a good mood. Everybody except me. What the hell is wrong with me? It would be easy to blame everything on Kat. Thankfully she stayed at home, and we’ve decided to part ways the next morning. But even without her, I’m not myself. I drink rum-and-cokes from jam jars, trying to get into the party atmosphere. As it starts to work a bit, out of nowhere I suddenly get terrible diarrhoea, and only just make it back to our cabin. Maybe it’s from the sewer I was swimming in before? Once I’m feeling better, I go back to the bar on the beach. Among the crowd, I recognise one of the women from Tinder, obviously looking for me in vain. But she has an almost crazed expression on her face, so I pull down my cap and slip past her on the dancefloor. Now or never, I think. But just as I’m launching into my dance moves, I step in an ant’s nest. The little creatures bite me all over my lower leg, and by now I’m really fed up. Angry and disappointed, I stomp back to my bungalow. I spend a while sitting and crying on the terrace. Then I spend most of the night on the toilet.         . . . I’m still feeling pretty unwell the next day, my whole body aching. I can’t eat anything, and I don’t want to do

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