Places I Remember with Lea Lane

The Philippines: Unspoiled Islands, Sprawling Manila, Friendly People

November 21, 2023 David Haldane, an expat and author of the memoir A Tooth in My Popsicle, lives in the Philippines for much of the year. Season 1 Episode 98
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
The Philippines: Unspoiled Islands, Sprawling Manila, Friendly People
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We'll transport you to the heart of the Philippines with our special guest, David Haldane. As an expat and author of the book, A Tooth in My Popsicle And Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino, David offers a uniquely insightful perspective on the blend of the Philippines' cultural landscapes --from bustling Manila, with its mix of modern skyscrapers and Spanish colonial architecture, to untouched islands including Cebu, Palawan and Boroquay! 

We'll not just traverse the geographical diversity of the Philippines, but delve into the country's rich culinary traditions (including delectable lechon and ube ice cream), and tight-knit village communities.  David recounts his warm welcome into a village, showcasing the Filipino's inherent hospitality and strong sense of community. And of course, we'll delve into tales from his book.
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David Haldane is an expat who lives in the Philippines part of the year, and is author of the  travel memoir, A Tooth in My Popsicle.
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Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, and  has written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember  (Kirkus Reviews star rating, and  'one of the top 100 Indie books' of  the year). She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.

Contact Lea- she loves hearing from you! 
@lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; Places I Remember with Lea Lane on Facebook; Website: placesirememberlealane.com

New episodes drop every other Tuesday, wherever you listen. Please consider sharing, following, rating and reviewing this award-winning travel podcast. 

Lea Lane:

I lived in the Philippines for a couple of months years ago and I know that the country has some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Most of us know little about it otherwise as a place to travel, so let's go over some basics. Located in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator, the Republic of the Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands, about 2,000 of which are inhabited. These islands are divided into three groups Uzan, Visayas and Mindanao. Philippine history includes Spanish rule, American rule and Japanese occupation. The country today is a mix of over 100 ethnic groups, cultures and influences. Our guest is David Haldene, who lives with his family part of the year in the Philippines. In his book A Tooth in My Popsicle, he offers stories and anecdotes of life as an expat on a beautiful Philippine island. Welcome, David, to Places I Remember!

David Haldane:

Hello, thanks for having me.

Lea Lane:

Well, let's start with the capital, Manila. It's a densely populated city on the island of Luzan which mixes Spanish colonial architecture with modern skyscrapers. Metropolitan Manila encompasses six cities and 12 towns. It's on the South China Sea and it's the capital of the Philippines. So it's historic and modern, rich and poor. Tell us what you'd visit in Manila if you were traveling there.

David Haldane:

Okay, well, first let me say that Manila is not my favorite part of the Philippines. That said, it's a great place to visit and there are many very interesting things there. Probably my favorite part of Manila is the area called Intramuros, and that is the old walled city within the city. It's really fascinating because it's just so historic, and the thing that I remember the most about being there was tracing Jose Resol's final walk to where he was executed by the Spaniards, and there's things like that. They actually have footprints starting where he was imprisoned, going along the sidewalk, ending up in the park at the spot where he was executed.

Lea Lane:

When was that?

David Haldane:

It was right at the very end of the Spanish colonial period, just before the US stepped in, and that was in 1898. He was a spokesman for the revolution, although he wasn't an active revolutionist.

Lea Lane:

I know Intramuros is also home to a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites. There's the Baroque 16th Century San Augustine Church and there's Fort Santiago, which was a military prison. So I agree with you, it's one of the more interesting areas. Makati is the area I probably would stay at. That's the more high-end area. It has a lot of culture and entertainment.

David Haldane:

Great shopping.

Lea Lane:

What would you shop for if you were going shopping in the Philippines?

David Haldane:

I think the best place to go in Manila is the Mall of Asia, which is the largest mall in the Philippines and something like the eighth largest mall in the world. I think it's quite amazing. It's overlooking the ocean. What you go shopping for almost everything is cheaper in the Philippines than it is certainly in the US and many other places, so it's a good place for going shopping, no matter what you're looking for.

Lea Lane:

I agree. Okay. Well, if you go to Manila, you might want to take a day trip out there to a coconut plantation or a volcano waterfall. There are lots of day trips offered. You could go to the UNESCO-listed natural sites of Bannuay and Banat rice terraces. They're 2,000 years old and you can hike to a waterfall. Have you done that?

David Haldane:

I have not. Right. n Manila there's a waterfall not too far. I would also add this is a little bit outside of Manila, it's like a day's drive, but a place called Baguio.

Lea Lane:

Yes, I've been there, yes.

David Haldane:

Beautiful. It's north of Manila, beautiful rice terraces, it's a gorgeous city and it's kind of up in the mountains, so it's probably the place in the Philippines that has the best climate. If you come from California or someplace like that, you like that kind of climate. Baguio feels almost like Southern California.

Lea Lane:

I know much of the Philippines is humid. I think the best time to visit is in the winter, when it gets a little less. So would you agree?

David Haldane:

I would say yes, yeah a lot of rain. But it's warm tropical rain and it's actually quite pleasant. If you're sitting in a house, you feel this incredible drumbeat on the house like that for about 15 seconds and then it goes away.

Lea Lane:

Oh, I love that.

David Haldane:

Yeah, me too. I find it very soothing.

Lea Lane:

That puts me to sleep.

David Haldane:

Lea Lane:

u to go to sleep in white noise, just to hear it.

David Haldane:

Yes, I agree, filipinos think I'm totally weird because I like that.

Lea Lane:

Well, the gem of the Philippines are the uncrowded tropical islands. Many remain unspoiled with clear water, palms, sand beaches, coral reefs. Let's mention a few of them, but we certainly will have to come back. So, thank you, thank you, tell me about the island of Cebu.

David Haldane:

Well, cebu pretty much everywhere has beautiful beaches, and the city of Cebu is very interesting as well. I've been scuba diving there once or twice, off of some of the beaches around Cebu. The areas of Cebu are Maktan, Lapu, Lapu. Really all those beaches are beautiful. One thing in Cebu to do that I really suggest is they have an annual fiesta there called the Sanulag Fiesta, which is the third Sunday of January and that's probably the biggest fiesta, at least the most famous fiesta, in the Philippines.

Lea Lane:

Well, I know there are many fiestas and towns have their own one right, all year long, and you want to find them right.

David Haldane:

Every town i Barangay has a fiesta every year for its patron saint. So pretty much wherever you are in the Philippines, there's a fiesta going on somewhere nearby.

Lea Lane:

So seek it out if you can, because they're wonderful to attend for sure. So Cebu has a lot of clubs and bars and galleries. It's got a city, as you said, so there's some culture and nightlife. What about the island of Palawan?

David Haldane:

I love Palawan. There's a beautiful city, small city there, called Puerto Princesa. There's something called the Underground River, which is a really interesting place.

Lea Lane:

You paddle in the dark. I know you go through there.

David Haldane:

Yeah, very quiet. El Nido is a beautiful place in Palawan to go to and there's a lot of island hopping there and a place called Caron. Those are all areas where you go, get a little boat and they'll take you everywhere. So Palawan is beautiful.

Lea Lane:

I can imagine it's uncrowded, even though it's popular because every place, as you said, you can find a little island near it, even if the main island is busy.

David Haldane:

Well, that's true, you know. As you mentioned earlier, there's 7,000 plus island s, so you're never far from an almost deserted island. Perfection.

Lea Lane:

There's a private island on Palawan called Banwa Private Island. I read about this one. I did not go there. It costs a hundred thousand dollars a night and it's considered the most expensive island resort in the world. It's 15 acres, yes, and it's a two hour helicopter or seaplane ride from Manila, so you can go all the way to the top. You can go in a hut or you can go there.

David Haldane:

I'm not aware of that and I don't think I'll be spending any money anytime soon. But you know, maybe one day if I win the lottery, you know.

Lea Lane:

Right, nice to think about it. Yeah let's talk about the island of Boracay. Tell me about that.

David Haldane:

Boracay is also beautiful. Now that's a very popular island. There's a lot of tourists there, but again, you know, there's so many different places there. Boracay is probably more developed than some of the other islands. There's a lot of lovely resorts there and beautiful beaches. There's a nightlife in Boracay which you don't get everywhere. There's a lot of beach bars and people hanging out, drinking and dancing on the beach. You know it got a lot of attention a few years ago because the president Duterte actually shut down Boracay for about six months because he was concerned about the environment, pollution of the environment. So he basically said okay, that's it, no more business in Boracay. And they'd also a lot of the resorts had violated national ordinances about building too close to the ocean, you know. So I was there shortly after they reopened it and it was amazing. It looked like the public officials had gone through the island. You know there's a 30 meter mark and it's illegal to build anything below that. There were resorts with their whole sides just, you know, cut off and you could see the rooms. They've recovered now and they've rebuilt all that and it's a wonderful place to go. So I highly recommend Boracay.

Lea Lane:

Well, it has been called the world's best island by one of the magazines that I you know Travel in Leisure, Condé Nast one of them, and Palawan has as well. So I guess it's recovered. It's got powdery white beach, glorious sunsets, it's got Mount Lujo with panoramic views over the island and shipwrecks, and sounds perfect.

David Haldane:

So let's hear about your island that when you live near, the island that I'm most familiar with is called Shargal Island, and it's actually where my wife is from. She was born there and we have a. We have a little property there and we go there quite a lot on the weekends. We have a little beach cabin there. It actually, historically it was a very quiet, kind of undiscovered island, and then then the surfers discovered it. Now it's considered the surfing capital of the Philippines. It also was named at one point by Conde n magazine as the best island destination in Asia.

Lea Lane:

Asia.

David Haldane:

When Boracay was closed by Duterte for that period that I told you about, shargal really benefited because everyone that was headed to Boracay changed their plans and went to Shargal. Probably the most interesting place and you want to see the culture is a town called Genraluna, and that's where they have every year t the international surfing competition there and that's where most of the tourists and foreigners hang out. Just all kinds of things to see there and nightlife and but it's also very islandy. It's not a city, you know, it's really an island town. There's also a place called Mongcapunko Beach, which is where we're like that. Mongpapunko. That means a squatting rock, and it's named that because indeed there's a rock, a big boulder there, and at low tide it looks just like like it's squatting there. Mongpapunko is famous for its rock pools. They're just tide pools and during low tide you can go swimming in them. It's just like a swimming pool. It's like a warm saltwater swimming pool and a lot of tourists go there. That's actually where we have our property in Mongpapunko, and it's a beautiful place. It's changed tremendously since the first time I saw it about 20 years ago, when nothing was on the island. In fact, my wife and I built the first structure on the island, which was a little wooden structure with hearts in the ceiling. For you know, because we were in love, you know? Yeah, it's not there because it was was blown away by the recent typhoon two years ago, and so was a lot of other things at at Shargal, but they're coming back. I was just there last weekend and it's a beautiful place to visit Real quickly. They also have an international fishing tournament in April in a place called Pilar, and probably my favorite favorite place is another island very near Shargal called Bukus Grande, and what's interesting about that island is there's only one way in and it's through a place called Sikoro Cove, and that's the most famous, desirable place and the only. There's only one way to get in and it's through a tunnel that's only open at low tide, you know. So you get in a boat and you go through this little tunnel and you got to get out before the tide goes up or you're stuck there for the night.

Lea Lane:

Well, that doesn't sound so bad if you get stuck there.

David Haldane:

No, I can think of worse places to be stuck. It's a beautiful place with a lot of underwater caves and rock formations, and one of my favorite things is there's a little lagoon there with thousands of stingless jellyfish, you know, and you can go stingless. Stingless they can't sting.

Lea Lane:

Oh, because they are beautiful if they're stingless. Beautiful.

David Haldane:

So you go swimming there underwater with a mask or something and you just see all these beautiful jellyfish and they won't hurt you.

Lea Lane:

Wow, love it. I love these ideas and you can see there's stuff to do in the Philippines, but many travelers don't know much about the Philippines culture or the reality, so let's talk a little bit about that. Let's start with food. Everybody's interested in that. What are some of the favorites that travelers shouldn't miss?

David Haldane:

What I've found is that Filipinos would pretty much eat everything or anything you know. So some of it's kind of appealing to travelers, some of it not so much. One thing that's traditional and you see it every fiesta, every birthday party, every celebration is Le. You know the pig on the table. The first time I saw it I was shocked because here's this big whole pig. You know roasted pig. The only thing that was missing was the apple in its mouth. You know pig, and that took a little getting used to, but I did eventually and it's delicious and it's lovely. And you know you have to get over your Western prejudices. They have a dessert that's called halo halo, which is really lovely, ice and fruits and you know all kinds of beautiful things. It's different wherever you go. Ube is a flavor it's a purple flavor that they make ice cream and cakes and everything out of ube. And then there's some kind of weird things that not everyone likes to eat, like I don't, like I've never tasted them. Balut is one of the famous things and what that is, it's actual eggs with duck embryos, you know.

Lea Lane:

They have that in Vietnam as well. I know I've been offered it the r. e

David Haldane:

f love that and they swear by it. My wife loves it and I can't bring myself to try it. I'm sorry.

Lea Lane:

How about adobo? That's more popular, that's just a regular stew right.

David Haldane:

Yeah, very good, very tasty. There are a lot of shakes and fruit drinks, mango shakes and things like that. There's a drink that you only get out in the very remote islands, like the one that I live on, called tuba. It's a coconut wine, I guess. They get it from the sap of the trees and it only lasts like maybe two or three days and then it goes bad, so you can't buy it in a store.

Lea Lane:

You got to drink it all up.

David Haldane:

You have to get some local kid to climb the coconut tree before you can get it out, and then you drink it right away and it's very powerful.

Lea Lane:

Well, maybe after that the egg with the fetus in it.

David Haldane:

Yeah, that's right.

Lea Lane:

Sounds delicious. I mean, most of the things are tropical and lovely. Let me ask you about the infrastructure, because I know it's a society that's still developing its tourism and I know it's a problem. What are some of the situations with the infrastructure in the Philippines?

David Haldane:

Well, everything is. Things are not reliable like they are in the West, like electricity I mean. Brownouts are common and every house, including ours, has a generator, a diesel generator so when the power goes out, you can start up the generator. As a matter of fact, we're planning to go solar and we found a very good solar person here in Suriga where we live. So people if they can afford it, they go solar. We've actually been saving money to do that. It will in the long run, make our lives much easier here. Transportation is problematic at times. I'm sure that there are laws in the Philippines about how people should drive, but I've never seen one enforced.

Lea Lane:

I remember that.

David Haldane:

Yeah, and so you kind of have to just go with the flow, yeah.

Lea Lane:

I remember also, did they still drive with the lights off at night?

David Haldane:

Oh yes, oh boy, yeah, an amazing thing, I mean, and you'll see motorcycles with whole families on them, seven people with no lights, driving down the street at night. It's amazing that more people are not killed here.

Lea Lane:

Let's talk about one of the best elements of the country the people. Filipinos are among the happiest and friendliest people on the globe. I remember that very well I was working there. How supportive they were, how hospitable they were. I was just blown away by how lovely they were. So what do you think? What makes them that way? Why are they so kind?

David Haldane:

Well, I agree they are. I mean, there's a warmth and the culture and they're very friendly to visitors. They go out of their way to make you feel welcome, they smile. They're very religious also. They tend to be Catholic most of them are Catholic and they take their faith very seriously. For the most part and I think that may have something to do with their disposition they tend to be very optimistic and you know, I sort of say that. You know the basic credo is despite all evidence to the contrary, everything will be just fine. You know, that's kind of the way Filipinos feel about life and you can see that in their attitude. It was one of the things that I loved about my wife when I first met her and one of the things that I admire and I've always. I always want to be more like that, be more optimistic. Being a Westerner, I tend to sink into these dark moods. Filipinos don't do that too much, you know. They see the positive side of things and I love that.

Lea Lane:

I remember how wonderful they were with elders. They have a title of respect automatically they bestowed on someone whose age is over there, so it's a very respectful thing. And they even, I remember, touched the older person's hand. That's right, their forehead, and a blessing. It was wonderful.

David Haldane:

Yeah, that's right, and they have their titles built into the language Kuyia means older brother, ate means older sister, and various names and, of course, being 74 years old myself, I really appreciate that.

Lea Lane:

I like it too. I like it too. I know they love nature. They live in harmony with all kinds of lowly creatures, so you have to get used to that a little bit too. It's part of their wonderful love of life. So, I would say that the islands and the people are the two things that made me remember Philippines as a wonderful place.

David Haldane:

And I would concur the physical beauty of the place, the whole country everywhere you look, and just the warmth and joy of the people, and especially with how poor people here are. There's a great deal of poverty here and there's not a lot of opportunity. They so appreciate what they do have, so grateful just for life itself, and that's very inspiring to me.

Lea Lane:

Very inspiring. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember, so we share memories, David.

David Haldane:

My most vivid memory of the Philippines is when I met my wife, and you know I told you she comes from Shargo Island, from a little village. We met online, actually, and we corresponded for a while. And then I came to visit her and she met me in Surigao City, where we now live, in the port with a chaperone, and she hardly said a word to me and within an hour we were on a boat full of bananas and pigs on the way to Shargo Island to meet mom and dad, and that was an incredible experience. We walked into this little village Now this is 20 years ago All these kids are following me through the streets and she takes me into mom and dad's house and here the whole family is sitting there you know mom, dad, four brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone and outside half the town. Probably 60 people are outside looking in the windows and I said, ivy, what are all these people here for? And they said, oh, they've never seen a foreigner up close. And it was really something. I had just met Ivy, and we hadn' no plans we certainly didn't have any plans at that point to get married, and the first thing our mom says to me is so you want to marry my daughter and poor Ivy's, tensing up next to me, you know, and it was an interrogation, but it said a lot about not only her family but about the culture, and I don't know to what extent it's still like that, but I think it is largely they were not going to let their daughter leave that little town without a pretty thorough investigation to do who she was going with. And then after that I went out to the beach and the townspeople had a teacher translate for them and they asked me questions and in the end I guess I passed the test, you know because, they gave us their blessing, and so we were able to move forward.

Lea Lane:

It gives a sense of community. I know that there's a tremendous sense of community in these little villages where I felt it as well.

David Haldane:

Yeah, very much so. They were not going to let her go off with anybody. It wasn't just her parents, it was the whole town.

Lea Lane:

Very interesting. Well, you can read more of this kind of anecdote in David Haldine's memories of life in the Philippines and his entertaining new book A Tooth in my Popsicle. Thank you, David, for your insights about this still much untraveled destination. It was fun.

David Haldane:

Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking with you.

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