Darwin Peh

A year ago, when I was preparing to take time off work, I knew I wanted to go to the mountains. The first person I rang was Darwin. We met up that evening and agreed over a beer that we would go trekking in Pakistan, to the base camp of K2. It was his idea – he’d wanted to do the trek for seven years. A few months later we joined Anthony Wong’s group and flew to Islamabad. For me the trek was the perfect start to a year of travelling, and Darwin was a great person to share a tent with.
Last Tuesday, Darwin’s girlfriend, Wei Ling, rang to tell me that Darwin had died suddenly of a heart attack while wakeboarding in Singapore.
I first met Darwin on a trek in Sikkim in November 2004. He was an adventurous, kind, talented and funny guy, up for anything, be it partying, scuba diving or hiking in the Himalayas. He had a cheeky, irreverent sense of humour, a healthy sense of the absurd side of life and a personal warmth that set people at their ease. He was a wonderful photographer: most of the photos you see on these pages are taken with a camera that he persuaded me to buy, picked up himself from the shop, and taught me how to use.
It’s a great shock to lose a friend so suddenly and so unexpectedly. Darwin was a good friend to many people. We’ll miss him.

The Tao of Engelbert Humperdink

The date on my ticket says it’s time to leave. But my feelings on the matter are mixed.

It’s 4 months since I arrived in the Philippines. After the rarified atmosphere of the Himalayan heights, it came as a shock. It seemed somehow less spiritual here, more worldly. However, as the Existential Vacationer, my unending task is to seek enlightenment wherever I find it, whether it be on a Karakoram glacier or in a Filipino cock pit. And seek it I have.
Much has happened since my last post. I have trekked into thick jungles, swum with some very big fish and met some very interesting characters. Did these experiences bring me closer to self-realisation and the truth which shines through mere appearances, illuminating our souls? Did I experience any Filipino Epiphanies (or, as I catchily now call them, “Filipiphanies”?) Or did I just get pissed on San Miguel? Read on…

Top 10 Things to do in the Philippines

1. Jungle Trekking
My companions were fifteen local guys from mountaineering clubs in Negros. I signed up for a five day ascent of Mount Talinis, the local peak near Dumaguete, whose mist-shrouded peaks I had been observing since arriving on Negros in December. I borrowed a two-man tent, packed some clothes and a sleeping bag and stuff, and went shopping for five days worth of food. The result: a heavy backpack. Combined with the thickest jungle I have ever hiked through and overnight rain on the third day causing the trails to degenerate into mud slides, this turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated.
We camped by lakes in the mountains and cooked on stoves. The local guys spent all of their time preparing and consuming the various ingredients and special herbs which they had brought with them. They put me to shame. While I was breaking out the instant noodles, they were peeling potatoes for breakfast and tweaking the seasoning in their stews. Fortunately, in Filipino culture it is very rude not to offer to share food, a trait which I ruthlessly exploited in order to scrounge as much of their delicious repast as possible. Result!
I needed it. The summit assault involved hauling our bodies through small gaps in the undergrowth. Eventually, caked with sweat, mud and rotting vegetable matter, we reached the gnarled pine trees which crown the extinct volcano and looked out over forested mountains to the plains of Negros Occidental.

2. Visit a police station
It must be the ultimate in retro chic. The police officer typed out his report on a huge old black typewriter. I can find no better words than his own to tell the story leading up to this:

Investigation disclosed, that herein complainant was the owner of the abovementioned items all placed inside his back pack bag. At 6.oo pm of March 21, 2008, complainant was on board a SCALA taxi driven by a male person and he alighted along Mabini St. near corner Padre Faura St Ermita, Mla then he momentarily left said taxi and proceeded inside Lotus Garden Hotel. However, when complainant went out of said hotel to pay his taxi fare, same was nowhere to be found and took and carted away his bag. Inquiries were made and one of the security personnel told him that when he was about to enter said hotel said cab sped off. Efforts were exerted to locate said taxi but it was all in vain then he reported the incident to this station for appropriate actions. Hence, the report.

3. Videoke
God knows how they got the girl to sit on the Carabao. Those things are hairy and smelly. Actually, come to think of it… no, I won’t complete that thought. Anyway, I arrived in the surf-battered beach resort of Bagasbas, near the town of Daet, described in my 2004 edition of the Rough Guide as a ‘beatnik surfers’ hang out’ but which turned out to be a windy strip of run-down karaoke joints, albeit with wonderful waves crashing onto the rubbish-strewn beach. I drank enough San Miguel to get me to sleep over the sound of popular tunes being viciously murdered at high volume. The next day, after a swim, I met the owner of the diner, a sixty-year-old widow who invited me to Apuau Island. My guidebook said it was the nicest place to stay in the area, but then my guidebook also said that the resort was open, and it hasn’t been for years. The swimming pool is full of rainwater with swallows swooping over it, the golf course is pasture for cows and a small flock of sheep, and the pictured Carabao wanders contentedly between the ruins of the once well-appointed guest cottages. (It’s reassuring if you sometimes think tourism is taking over the world to see the process in reverse.) There is a barrio at the other end of this small isle, with fisherfolk and crowds of excitable children, with whom I played badminton. The only other inhabitants were my hostess and her friend. I spent a very agreeable two days on one of the most stunning islands I have seen here.
Of course, in the evenings, the ladies wanted to – yes, you guessed it – sing karaoke. I obliged with my best renditions of Elvis and Engelbert Humperdink* (why is he so popular here?) Most surreal moment: when a bat flew into the room and couldn’t get out, and was swooping around over our heads. I was passed a microphone and told to sing. Perhaps bats hate Engelbert Humperdink too.

4. Climb Mt. Mayon
Actually, I didn’t do this because since the 21st March I do not have any boots with me. But I’m sure it’s a great thing to do. Maybe next time.

5. Eat snails
I have to admit I thought Filipino food was a bit boring until I went to Legaspi. Not a great town by anyone’s standards, but the food was a novel experience, and really quite tasty.

6. Swim with Whale Sharks.
They are thirty feet long. They eat plankton. They congregate every Spring in Donsol, Philippines, to gawk at the snorkellers who come at this time of year.
I spent a very exciting three hours on a boat following these stunning creatures and jumping into the water whenever we caught up with one. Truly amazing.

7. Witness a cockfight
Yes, it’s cruel and bloody, but it’s a huge part of the culture. Watching the pandemonium as bets are placed, followed by the relative silence as the roosters face off against each other is an education in what makes the men here tick. Something about the attitude to life in these islands is captured by this brutal spectacle.

8. Scuba Diving
“Yeah, i saw two nudibranches and a turtle…” Sentences like this float around the Nipa-roofed bars along palm-fringed beaches, over the gentle hushing of the surf and the squeaky dog-bone sounds of geckos calling out in the night. Even though I can name about one and a half species of fish, I still enjoy the occasional Scuba trip. Padre Burgos, on the southern tip of Leyte, has some of the most impressively gorgeous coral reefs I’ve seen. And I saw how turtles use the coral to scrub themselves clean. It’s like teleporting into the Discovery Channel. Extra bonus: go deep enough and the Nitrogen gets you stoned.

9. Meet other Existential Vacationers
I have met many interesting characters here in these islands, proving that the enlightenment which travel brings us comes in many forms. Here’s a link to the web pages of Wayne, a fellow diver and seeker after truth whom I met yesterday in Padre Burgos. Whether you believe him or not, it’s certainly interesting to ponder whether the world will indeed end in 2012 during the London Olympics as Prince Charles is revealed as the antichrist. Much food for thought.

10. Found a new religion
Just call me Mr Kurtz. Maybe the jungle got to me, but I’m going all Heart of Darkness here. When the time comes to leave, perhaps I won’t want to. I have visions of staying, of becoming worshipped like a god, of starting a new religion. I’ll call it the Cult of Malibog. Drums will be heard in the jungle, possibly with a bass solo afterwards. Confused young virgins will be cast into volcanos. Visitors will be forced at spear-point to approach on their knees. Yes… here I can make a new start….

Will Chris really leave the Philippines, or will he join the other confused long-term foreign residents in building a radically new lifestyle for himself? Will we ever find out how they got the model to mount the Carabao? Will the Engelbert Humperdink craze infect other countries? Tune in next time for another exciting installment of Existential Vacation!

*also known to Eddie Izzard fans as ‘Dinglebent Slapdiback’ or ‘Slut Bum Wallah’