I left Thailand on February 28th, and met my baby brother in Manila for a few weeks of Ettenbergian fun in Bohol. I was, and remain, surprised at how different the Philippines is from Thailand and what else of Asia I have seen. That’s not to say I expected the same thing, just that on a base level, it is whole other universe here. I feel as though someone took a South American country and plopped it in the middle of the water on the Asian continent: the food, people and mannerisms well resemble Ecuador, not Thailand or China or Malaysia. When you consider the history of the country, its Latin feel makes a lot of sense.

The Philippines consists of over 7,107 islands nestled between the South China Sea to the East and the Philippine Sea to the West, including some 1500 that are too small to be named. From what I've experienced thus far, it is well beyond the backpacker trails of South East Asia - most days pass by without spotting another tourist at all. The landscape is somewhat overwhelming, even to a seasoned traveler: you can choose between limestone beaches (like those of Rai Leh in Thailand), lush jungles, swaying, vibrant coral reefs and deep, damp bat caves.

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Given that the Philippines was colonized by Spain and the USA, but is located in the heart of the tropics, several things stand out as being quite a bit different from where I've just been:

1) Garbage is everywhere here. Other than a few towns that have cracked down on littering (Puerto Princessa, Hinoba An, etc) the streams and streets are cluttered with plastic and remnants of meals. People throw litter out the windows from buses and tricycles, without hesitation.

2) For a tropical climate, there is far less fruit than I expected. I’ve found are bananas and mangos, and the occasional mangosteen. Otherwise, slim pickings. Some apples, on a good day. I have, however, discovered that coconut and peanut together make a mean, mean fruit shake.

3) I l hate to say it, but I am not a fan of the food here. There are almost no vegetables, other than kangkong (swamp cabbage) and green cabbage, and meals are mainly meat and rice or meat and noodles and with many tasty varieties thereof. A saving grace: there are a ton of roast chicken or roast pork roadside stands, each of which are juicy and crunchy and delicious, and there is Halo-Halo (see below) everywhere. Food is otherwise filling and tasty, but not exciting. I dream of spicy green curry with coconut milk.

4) Everything is sweetened. Coffee, tea, ube snacks, cakes, muffins – everything here has a ton of sugar added. No such thing as whole wheat bread either: you get white bread, with sugar baked in, dripping with sweetness. I've stuck to rice and eggs for breakfast, which happens to be delicious.

5) Halo-halo is the dessert of champions. Halo-halo (pronounced hallo-hallo) is a mishmash of all things goopy and crunchy in a plastic bowl. Start with crushed ice, add milk, coconut pulp from a young coconut, fruit gelatin, sweet flan, a scoop of ube ice cream and top it off with corn flakes and voila! you've got halo-halo. The perfect mixture of anything you might crave on a hot, sticky day, it has proved a great way to duck in and get some air conditioning and ice cream in the middle of the afternoon.

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  • Jodi Ettenberg

    Born in Montreal, Canada, Jodi Ettenberg is a former new media and technology lawyer who quit her job after 5+ years of working…

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