19. The threat of vanilla and musk

By dodging and weaving mosquitoes I managed to escape Baguio without falling victim to viral plague, but instead lined myself up for that other scourge – the night bus. It carried me in relative comfort to Vigan, and once there dumped me unceremoniously on the side of the road at 2am, half awake and a mile out of town. The ever present taxi drivers, who are normally all over me like seagulls on a chip had packed it in for the night, and so I blinked in confusion at the bus’ fading tail lights, wondering what to do next. With no better option, I hauled my upside-down bags out of the dust and began the weary walk into town. Vigan was dark and sleeping at this hour, excepting the ubiquitous barking dogs, gargling roosters and meowing lady-boys, the populations for each of which seemed to be in an unhealthy oversupply. Having no accommodation booked, I nervously walked the streets looking for somewhere with a 24hr reception, doing my best to ignore the wolf-whistles and offers of a night cap, or worse.

Coming out of a hotel on the central plaza that was well outside my price range, I was set upon by a pair of young men in high heels. They wouldn’t take my protests for an answer and insisted on ‘escorting’ me to a more budget friendly part of town. Mincing along like a pair of cats in oestrous, their short skirts doing no credit to their muscular legs, they introduced themselves through pursed lips in quivering falsettos as Jessa and Rian. They led me safely around dodgy drains and dog turds, hissing at the solicitations of the numerous other dudes in a dresses, and purred questions about my past and more immediate future. To be fair, they found me a reasonable place to stay, but not convinced that their job was done, insisted on inspecting my room for quality and customer satisfaction. The reception desk eyed me with distaste, as though I had brought their rancid, mosquito aviary of a hotel into disrepute, and being one of those subjects made worse by any attempt at explanation, I just shrugged my shoulders resignedly. After they had tested the springs of the bed, conducted a survey on the number of bodies that could fit into the shower and preened each other in my mirror, I finally managed to thank Jessa and Rian and shoehorn them out of my room. I closed the door and kept my weight against it while I slid the bolt home, listening to them whisper to each other on the other side, obviously hoping for a last minute change of heart, or orientation. I stayed stock-still for ten minutes, controlling every breath and not game to move while the overpowering vanilla and musk perfume was still wafting through the keyhole. Finally, the stilettos clicked on tiles into the distance, and with my safety and dignity ensured, I fell exhausted into bed.

I woke late the next day and tried to keep to the shade as I made my way towards the centre of town in the baking hot, late morning heat. On my way there I was lucky enough to bump into the faultlessly polite, exceedingly informative and devilishly handsome Rogelio. He proved himself to be a wonderful guide, and understanding that I only had 5 or 6 hours to spend, whipped me around Vigan as fast as his 155cc Honda trike could take us. Being one of the few Philippine cities to escape injury from the WWII Japanese slash-and-burn policy or the Allied bombing offensives, Vigan really is a fascinating step back in time. The city centre is a grid of  500 year old Spanish architecture, much better preserved and more easily accessible than the more famous Intramuros in Manila. Looking every inch the tourist, I stood in the middle of the road snapping off photos, getting burnt to a crisp, blinking sweat out of my eyes and trying not to get mowed down by a half-sized horses pulling full-sized carts. The more sensible Rogelio waited patiently in the shade, occasionally tapping a foot in its bright pink croc.

The remains of the day was a blur of visits to Vigan’s best attractions. I made a woeful looking clay jar at the 450 year old pottery that still observes traditional methods and is surrounded by stacks of produce almost as old as the kiln itself. I narrowly avoided an awkaward impaling on a gargantuan wooden phallus at the botanic gardens. I spent a busy few hours gawping at churches ruined and restored, a mansion turned into a museum, and the fantastic crumbling bell tower. I was given an informative, although high velocity tour of the old jail by three young tourism students. The cells are barely an arm-span wide, but were occupied by 10-12 inmates until only a few years past. By mid afternoon I was shattered, but climbed onto yet another bus reluctant that I couldn’t spend a bit longer absorbing the history of this intriguing colonial relic of a town.

The north of Luzon had been wonderful, but touring it had burnt up almost half of my visa allowance. I wasn’t prepared to make sacrifices on my Philippines bucket list, so sitting in the departure lounge at Laoag, getting ogled by 200 shoulder-high locals and being entertained by a blind karaoke-singing organ-player, I began plotting a trip to the Bureau of Immigration in Manila.

I arrived at the Markati Board of Investments Building straight off the plane and in full harness. A frowning security guard dressed in more official regalia than an African despot and carrying a disproportionately large firearm, blocked my entry. He eyed my bare legs and told me that there was a standard of dress for such a prestigious address. Luckily, my research had prepared me for this, so before he could say, ‘tourist visa extension, 3130 pesos please’, I had whipped my only pair of trousers out of the top of my bag, crumpled like an old plastic bag and with a suspicious looking brown stain in the crotch from a fall in the mud on one of my Sagada adventures. I asked if there was a bathroom in the lobby in which to change, he agreed that there was but that I could not get into the building unless wearing trousers. Already tired of what was about to become a circular argument, I kicked my shoes off and made ready to switch pants in the reflection of the glass doors, the column of startled suit- and-ties parting around me. This galvanised some quick decision making on behalf of the guard and I found myself escorted to the WC post haste. It is evidently more tasteful to have a pair of shorts in the lobby than a 2m Australian with legs like a juvenile camel walking around in his Reg Grundies on the welcome mat.

From everything I had read, taking on the ridiculously complicated and inefficient visa extension department is about as much fun as the symptoms of dysentery. And the reality certainly didn’t disappoint. But at the expense of a handful of pesos, a wasted airline ticket and a day lost in a confusing tangle of confused people in an airless office building, I bought myself an extra month in the fantastic Philippines.




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