Following our death defying, icy bus ride, we arrived in Laoag City, capital of Ilocos Norte. The sun came up at 5:30AM (having no affect on the temperature in the bus), and we rolled into town at 6:30AM. A big “Laoag City” sign and a pair of golden arches greeted us as we drove over the bridge into the city. I didn’t get a picture of them due to the loss of feeling in my extremities. The McDonalds sign tried to tell me (can you halucinate due to extreme cold) that there would be civilization there, but it pretty much lied to me.
The very first thing that was glaringly obvious in our arrival was the poverty. The people there, and in many of the places we visited in the Philippines, live lives I’m not sure I was able to really accurately picture prior to my trip there. Both homes and shops were mostly shanties. Many streets had open sewers (a concrete trench dug next to the road), but I didn’t get close enough to them to get a good look at what was in them. I suspect just runoff from the streets, since the town didn’t reak of sewage at all. It did smell pretty bad, but that was a combination of exhaust and animals, not rivers of …… stuff that should be in rivers.
The exhaust was horrible. Tricycles (mostly), donkey-drawn carriages (okay, so the smell wasn’t *only* the mechanized exhaust – there was other exhaust as well) and a few jeepneys and motorcycles crowded the streets. BTW, just in case you’re wondering, horses are only for the rich in the Philippines. Donkeys are the beast-of-burden-of-choice.
I was pretty amazed at how many people there were in such a small area. The town was probably the size of Collinsville, but I bet there were as many people there as in St. Louis. Those are wild guesses, but you get the idea. Geography (land area) = large for the Philippines but not the US. Population = large for the Philippines but not the US. Density of people = typical for a city in the Philippines, but INSANE for the US. Even with Chicago’s massive skyscraper apartments, I would be shocked to discover that the number of people per acre or square mile was much different. And these people weren’t living in high rises, I can tell you that.
The bus dropped us off at the bus station in Laoag, which was just like the one in Manila, only much smaller. A car from the hotel was waiting for us, and took us on the 15 minute ride to get there (weaving dangerously in and out of traffic, which we were pretty much used to at this point).
The hotel was obviously very nice for the area, but foreign enough and in-the-center-of-radical-poverty enough to shock me when I opened the door to our room. It looked a little questionable on the outside (of our room), but I was actually taken aback when I entered it. It’s clear I’m very spoiled (yeah, like we needed this trip to tell us that).
The room was the “Family Suite”. It had two beds, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The shower head was European in design, and had a wall-heater for the water. The first shower I took was scalding, and the second ice cold. There were two nobs on the shower head. I’m fairly bright, but in two shower’s worth of time, I couldn’t figure the thing out. Neither could Faith. So, we just rolled with it. Also, you can’t put anything that doesn’t come out of your body into toilets in a world like this one, so that was interesting too. Naturally, I waited until I got to Laoag to need to … well … drop the kids off at the pool, so to speak, so I don’t know what kind of certifiable genius that makes me! 🙂
Anyway, I really don’t want to be down on the hotel. It was as clean as a room could be expected to be in that environment (where it was obvious that nobody had anything). Plus, the courtyard and pool and restaurant were very nice – both well kept and pretty. We did spend time in the pool, which was quite nice, and we ate almost every meal for the day we were there in the hotel restaurant. Also, the hotel staff was very friendly, and all about customer service – as was pretty much everyone in the Philippines. That was one of the things that impressed me most about the country in general … but I digress.
Oh, I guess I should have mentioned that up front… We only stayed at this hotel for 1 night and 2 days, just long enough to recoup from our overnight hypothermia-inducing bus ride, before meeting John. So, we checked in on Thuesday, 9/30 at like 7AM, and checked out on Wednesday, 10/1 at about 10AM when the van from Shekinah Home (John’s orphanage) retrieved us. In that time, we ate two breakfasts and one dinner at the hotel. We ate lunch the day we were there in the city. Let me get into a little more detail on our meals there.
We pretty much ate breakfast immediately on arrival. It was very good, and I tried not to imagine the cleanliness factor of the kitchen in which it was prepared. It consisted of eggs, a Philippine favorite sausage called Longganisa (there has to be pork), rice (there has to be rice), scrambled eggs, fruit, and fruit juice. The rice came in two varieties: white steamed rice and garlic fried rice. Now, the Longganisa is one of these foods that stays with you all day and revisits the back of your mouth every couple hours (everyone knows what I mean), so there was no way in Sunny Ilocos that I was getting garlic rice on top of it. That’s the kinda flavor toothpaste can’t cut through. (Trust me!) But other than the fact I was beginning to feel my blood turn chunky with pork, it was a really nice breakfast.
Afterword we cleaned up a bit, and then headed into the city to explore. We wandered the market mostly, which was a fascinating place – if you mentally picture hundreds of very poor people in a very enclosed dirt-floor warehouse selling trinkets and food, you’ll get the idea pretty fast. I took a couple pictures (all of which will eventually be on Facebook), but they don’t really do it justice. We bought a few souveniers, and were very aware that haggling was expected, but I just couldn’t bring myself to argue over pennies with people that obviously didn’t make in a year what most Americans make in a week or two – which is no exaggeration; I learned while there that minimum wage in the Philippines is about $7.50 a DAY, making a $100 bill about 2 weeks wages for someone at that salary, which is very common.
We learned from our guide Jackie (who accompanied us everywhere while we were outside Manila; praise the Lord!) that there were plans to go visit a well-known beach resort with John that week. This sounded awesome, but we didn’t discover it until after we were in Laoag. We had consolidated luggage and left two bags at the hotel in Manila. This of course would have been no problem and would have nothing to do with this story if we were morons and hadn’t left our sun block in one of the bags there rather than bringing it with us to the north. So, we also looked for it while shopping in town. Sounds trivial except when you think about the fact that we were standing in a town of Philippinos who had probably never had to wear sunblock one day in their life. We eventually found it, but paid a good 4x what it would have cost us in the States. Oh well, better than frying ourselves on the beach just a couple hours north of the equator.
Lunch was at McDonalds. I picked that out of the (correct) assumption that there’d be air conditioning there. Score! Faith got the fried chicken, and I ordered spaghetti … because I was told that John-John really like’s McDo’s spaghetti, so daddy had to test it out. The sauce was really sweet, had a hint of BBQ flavor, and had chopped up pieces of hot dog in it. The noodles were the same as what we have here. Guess pasta is the universal constant. Just not sauce.
Faith loved the artwork in the main building of the hotel, and I loved the radio station that was playing there. We spent a couple hours there after pool time in the afternoon to journal and have some quiet time. Faith took a bunch of pictures of the artwork, including the signature on the painting, but even with a 6+ megapixel camera at close range, I can’t make it out. Maybe you can help… Any ideas?
We also learned, while talking to Jackie (this was our first interaction with her not over email), that John had been very excited about our arrival. Evidently, he had worn out the picture album we sent looking through it, and had gotten up early that morning telling everyone “My mommy and daddy are coming tomorrow!” Just melted our hearts. My expectations of his reaction to us had been pretty low, but that definitely started them climbing. We were pretty excited too. In fact, neither of us slept much that night, knowing that we would be meeting John in the morning. We journaled, watched TV (on the 12″ CRT in our room), and studied Ilocano. Was pretty intense.
The last aspect of the day I want to talk about was dinner. We ordered way too much food, thinking we would try new local things. And they were definitely local. I ordered this blackened catfish dish, mentally picturing this seafood linguini I’d eaten at a restaurant near our house in Chicago. When it arrived at the table, it was a large bowl with a whole very-black catfish floating in the top. It looked like someone had lit a catfish on fire, watched it die, and then thrown it into my soup. And I kid you not, the first thing Jackie said was, “Can I have the head?” I said, “Why yes. Feel free.” Actually all the dishes were interesting. Faith’s fish had so many bones in it that it made my catfish feel like a boneless fillet. I couldn’t eat it without imagining my intestines being perpherated. Jackie ordered chop suey, which we loved, until she told us that the secret to the flavor was diced pig liver. O.O The meal TMI just went from bad to worse the longer we sat there.
Okay, I think that’s enough of Laoag. It was great to see, and I’m sure we’ll visit again someday when John is older, but I definitely don’t see me ordering the catfish.