Taal, Philippines — GEN. DOUGLAS MacARTHUR enjoyed a posh suite at the Manila Hotel when he bunked-in during post-World War II visits. Today, rooms are usually available there for visitors who can afford them. Nice. But the only Filipinos you're likely to encounter are the desk clerk and busboy. Here's an alternative.
``Call me `K.','' said Kealoha Kelekolio, as he greeted us here in rural Taal.
Mr. K. is a gentle man with a quick smile, a wit like a whip, and a penchant for grand opera, songwriting, and raising gamecocks.
After traveling in Asia for some time, K. - a native Hawaiian - found this area ``much like Hawaii must have been 50 years ago.''
So Mr. K., along with a partner, founded the Philippine Experience, this country's first community-based tourism program, about six years ago. The reason: ``We just weren't pleased with the way tourism was developing in the Philippines,'' he says. ``You know, large groups of tourists being herded around.''
Bad timing slowed takeoff
But the timing couldn't have been worse. Just as the program was getting off the ground, anti-Marcos opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated. The ensuing political turmoil put tourism, and the Philippine Experience, in a tailspin.
As things began to settle down, tourism slowly began to rise.
Here in Taal, just 2 hours' drive from Metro Manila's staggering congestion and pollution, is a chance for visitors to spend a day or more in a Filipino home.
Actually, ``People can stay as long as they want,'' K. says.
It's not fancy. No air conditioning - and it can get hot! - no telephone, or newspapers. No Time, Newsweek, or National Geographic magazines. Just a library of dogeared paperbacks, assorted issues of Opera News, and the latest journal on cock-fighting (a sport that's popular here even though Stateside animal-rights advocates rank it among the cruelest).
Real people, real bugs
And yet it's real. Real people. Real life in a typical, sleepy, rural town. Wonderful home-cooked meals, and all the mosquito netting you need to keep the buzzing insects at bay.
Oh, and the shower is strictly a barrel-and-bucket affair.
K. lives in a house of the typical old Spanish style. The bottom level, opening onto the backyard, is dirt. It houses a maternity ward (for brooding hens and chicks) and separate coops for the cocks.
As in most houses of this style, the people's quarters are upstairs. High ceilings with weathered wood and large shuttered windows coax the evening breeze through the long, inviting living room. Floors with wide, polished boards are smooth as moleskin. ``We like to have a get-to-know-you session,'' says K., passing around some eagerly snatched glasses of iced tea.
Customizing a tour
``Too often tourists are just dictated to. This way we find out your interests, and what you want to do. You get to plan your own itinerary. Maybe you want to get away from the city and just relax. Maybe you never want to see the inside of another cathedral.''
Right on, Mr. K.!
Learning that native food was a particular interest of ours, K. planned a cookout dinner at Balayan Bay, a five-minute drive away. We watched the sun set into the South China Sea as dozens of fishing boats slipped across the horizon. Each dangled a large lantern to attract fish. After we took a quick dip, Mr. K.'s three young apprentice cooks grilled dinner at the foot of a coconut tree while local kids played their own brand of Frisbee with freshly caught blue starfish.
For dinner, we supped on succulent clams, grilled until they peeked through their shells, then dipped in vinegar flavored with garlic, onion, and hot peppers. They were followed by pork shish kebab brushed with ``seven-secret-spices'' sauce. A compote of cool fresh native fruits was served for dessert.
Back at the house our eyelids drooped to half-mast, halfway through a tape of Puccini's ``Turandot.''
``Sleep well. Full day tomorrow,'' said K., as we trotted off to bed.
The day begins when you awaken to the cries of the local hawker selling fresh bread from door to door, or to the wake-up call of the cocks - whichever comes first. (It's nearly always the roosters. And it's always about 4 a.m.!)
Anyway, there's much to see; so an early start is worth it.
What did I want to do? ``Everything.''
So after breakfast it was off to push and shove our way through a busy market to shop for the evening meal. Then a half-hour of being butted about at the weekend cattle and water buffalo auction. After that, a tour of the old historical houses in town, a visit to a peanut brittle factory, and a stop at a few churches and even the outside of the obligatory cathedral.
And finally home for lunch.
Relaxing river cruise
The afternoon was spent in a most enjoyable, relaxed way. We boated down the Pansipit River that runs from Lake Taal to the South China Sea.
Here, in the afternoon, entire families meet at the water. Children swim and pick through the reeds for edible snails, while their mothers do the day's laundry. Water buffalo wallow in the river, while village men fish for supper.
Mr. K. planned a special dinner. He contacted an experienced cook who whipped up a fine farewell meal of shrimp, along with pork stew thickened with lung sauce. Not what I might have ordered, but surprisingly delicious. Jack fruit - a kind of mango-melon cross - was served for dessert.
Evening entertainment by the kitchen staff included local dances, guitar music, and a farewell song written by our host.
Rooster's wake-up call
After struggling to stay awake for the second half of ``Turandot,'' it was off to bed just minutes, it seemed, before the live-in roosters roused the neighborhood.
The weekend could have been more restful. But that wasn't the itinerary I chose. I wanted to see it all, and Mr. K. and his staff went out of their way to see that I did. All along the way, it was an opportunity to meet and talk to the average Filipino, while at work, play, marketing, or just leaning out a kitchen window.
``For outsiders to come and share home and community life is important to the local population.
``Chances of our hosts being able to afford to leave the country are, like, nil, so this is how many of them get to travel and be in touch.
``Tourist agencies are always saying, `There's no market for what you're doing.' But I think there is. I think most people - back in their minds somewhere - want to get away from the tour and go out and meet `Jos'e,''' says Mr. K.
And Mr. K. believes that guests are not the only beneficiaries.
``We sort of act as a bridge between two cultures. Why spend the money to come here if you don't see anything that's really Filipino?''
Arrangements for a stay of one day or longer can be made through your travel agent, or by contacting the Philippine Experience, Negros Navigation Building, 849 Pasay Rd., Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines. Telephone: 86-60-61.
Rates are between $20 and $30 per day, including hotel pickup, tours, food, and lodging, if you plan to stay overnight.
Groups are usually held to about four, though some homes are large enough to accommodate a larger party.
Guides are not polished professionals but, rather, people from the area who work on an on-call basis. They speak English, which is spoken by most people in hotels and shops in the Philippines.
A similar program on Cebu Island is also available.