A Buying Trip to the Philippines

Added over 9 years ago

One of the most frequent comments we get from our customers is how much they would like to join us on our buying trips. Read on about one particular trip to the Philippines and see what our job is REALLY like...


28th December 2000: morning

We arrive in Manilla late on the night of the 26th December after a 12 hour flight and check straight into the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City for a night's rest.

Never having been to the Philippines before, our first task on this buying trip is to get orientated as quickly as possible and to work out an efficient trip plan that will maximise our buying time and minimise dead time spent travelling from place to place. We do this firstly by identifying where we will do most of our purchasing - sometimes towns are the best places, sometimes it's best to go upland direct to source. We have to organise transportation for ourselves and for any goods we purchase, and we have to identify how to get our goods out of the country by the most cost-effective means possible. We also need to identify viable ways of accessing methods of payment, which means analysing bank availability across the country and any safety issues related to carrying large sums of cash.

Having decided that on this trip our primary means of acquiring stock will be to travel to source, we spend the day and night of the 27th getting organised - checking out dealer shops, buying maps and organising car hire. We also visit the city's main markets and buy strings of freshwater pearls for jewellery making back home.

As a matter of interest we check out a few modest restaurants round the town. The food here is interesting to say the least. MacDonald's and fast food burger joints abound, but the real thing is a blend of salty and sour flavours with a strong Spanish influence. Unfortunately, offal, intestines and pigs ears feature prominently in many of the dishes we sample. Apparently there are some excellent restaurants to be found here in Manila but for us they will have to wait for a future and more affluent visit.

One thing we notice straight away is the number of guns carried openly in the city. Guns are everywhere, big ones, small ones, shiny new ones, even old blunderbuss style antiquities, carried by men as old as the weapons. Even petrol station attendants carry them. We are thoroughly searched with metal detectors and also patted down every time we enter a building, including our five-star hotel and a nearby supermarket. This is a very visible by-product of the overpopulation, congestion and crime that plague the city of Manila, but is also apparent throughout the north island of Luzon. On every major road we will see partial roadblocks called chicanes, designed to slow down getaway cars in the case of kidnappings (wealthy Chinese businessmen are favourite targets, not scrubby looking westerners like ourselves). Passing one church I see a big sign: "Please Check Your Guns At The Front Door!." In another town we see a sign above a large estate saying "Trespassers Will Be Shot!". This is all quite scary given that we are required to carry large sums of cash with us on this trip...but here I am getting ahead of my story.

Car hire here turns out to be pretty expensive but we manage to find a local company that charges about A$40 a day. One big problem is that they (and all other hire companies in Manila, including the international ones) insist that we leave a passport behind as security. This is technically illegal on both sides as a company does not have the right to hold your passport and foreign visitors should not travel without one at any time. The car company also insists on a P3000 (A$120) deposit. At this stage we are concerned but we have little choice if we want a car and so we go ahead with the plan - I have dual citizenship, so I cleverly give them my lesser-used British passport and keep my Australian one, we take possession of the car and we set off into the northern highlands of Luzon.

28th December 2000: afternoon

Our first destination is the city of Baguio, situated in the province of Benguet about 250 km north of Manila. Little do we know that the trip, which looks like an easy three hour journey on the map, will take six and a half backbreaking and frustrating hours to complete.

Driving in Manila, and in fact the Philippines in general, is awful. Pollution is the worst we've ever seen, anywhere, in any country we've visited - a thick choking blanket of smog that reduces road visibility and leaves you feeling raw-throated, tired and disorientated. In addition, nobody on the roads stick to marked lanes, the roads are in poor condition and degenerate with little warning into mere dirt tracks. Curiously, turnoffs are marked with tiny signs in many cases after the actual turnoff. Outside of Manila all roads become single laned, and so the entire transportation system is held to ransom by three wheeled tricycles, trucks and jeepney buses. Driving is often done at walking pace. Driving is also extremely dangerous because most drivers (almost exclusively male outside of Manila city) prefer to overtake on blind corners, and it is the oncoming vehicle that must give way or be forced off the road.

Jeepneys, or as we take to calling them, Jesus Buses, deserve a special mention all of their own - anyone who has travelled to the Philippines will recall these blazingly vivid vehicles with a heady mix of nostalgia and fear. They are a hugely popular means of local public transport. Originally constructed from the bones of US Millitary jeeps left over from WWII, they are renowned for their flamboyant decoration, outrageous hood ornaments and painted slogans such as "Jesus Saves!" or "Ride with God!" - and also for the people hanging off every available surface. This bright icon of Philippino culture is a dangerous fuel guzzler that must eventually go the way of all behemoths but for the moment they are firmly entrenched in the Philippino mind-set and rule the roads without exception.

We arrive in Baguio at about 8pm, only to find that it is some sort of special holiday and every hotel in the city is fully booked. This happens to us on a regular basis everywhere we go in the world - call it lack of planning or bad luck, we just seem to attract special events. This would be GREAT if we were tourists, but we're not. So we drive around for two full hours and end up settling for the only place in town left with rooms, at A$80 a night - single twin beds with foam mattresses, ruffled pink nylon covers and pillows like boards. There is no TV, the towels are paper-thin postage stamps and the hotel is situated above an amusement park next to a main road. We are kept awake by happy screaming people and the traffic for another 3 hours but finally the noise dies down and we are able to fall asleep.


29th December 2000

The next morning we discover that we have landed on our feet in one very important respect - the hotel is within walking distance of a place called City Market, 3km in length and THE place to find everything from dried fish to hemmed handkerchiefs. It's a great place to start our buying and so we find a couple of good dealers on the upper levels and get to work.

Gaddung ear ornamentsThings are expensive but not outrageously so - lets just say the locals know the value of their "antiques", many of which appear to have been made within the year and artfully aged. We buy a range of authentic handmade items including beautifully hand loomed Ga'dung beaded capes and skirts as well as two very special items - a pair of jawbones belonging to Japanese soldiers head-hunted by Bontoc warriors during the Second World War. These have been drilled through with two neat holes, the purpose of which (as explained by the dealer) are to pass a rope through and suspend a large bronze gong from. Such gongs are then hung on the house wall, providing instant visual confirmation of the status of their owner as a powerful and potent head taker and a force in the village to be reckoned with.

30th December 2000

We stay on in Baguio the entire day buying interesting stock, then set off early on the morning of the 30th to Bontoc, 300km to the north. This is a very difficult trip - it takes seven and a half hours to get there and at times the road is so bad we crawl along at walking pace. According to the guide book, the view would be astounding if not for the heavy cloak of fog which obscures everything. At one point almost halfway, hugging the side of a mountain with a thousand foot drop next to us and rocks falling constantly from above and the road behind and in front shrouded in mist, we think we cannot go on and must turn back. We have not seen another car for three hours, the road consists of jagged boulders and rocks and we are driving entirely in first gear. We know that if we become stuck we will be in very big trouble.

Then, like a vision, we see the most amazing thing...in complete silence an ancient and decrepit Volkswagen Beetle appears out of the swirling mist on the hairpin bend 100 metres before us, then slowly draws near and creeps past, it's wheels literally scraping the edge of the road and the drop beside it. The fog is so thick we never see the occupants of the car, but I want to run out to them and hug them. We know if that car can make it, so can we, and so on we drive for another four nerve-wracking hours...

By the time we get to Bontoc we are exhausted and it is just verging on dark, so we decide to treat ourselves and stay in the best the place has to offer - the Pines Kitchenette and Inn - and we take their "deluxe suite" at US$19 per night. Two beds like planks, the usual foam mattresses, no door on the bathroom and no toilet seat. We fix the toilet ourselves before it will flush - thank God Ian is handy with this sort of thing - and our comfort is complete with an intermittent luke-warm water supply and a barnyard under our window containing myriad pigs, chickens and a big brown yappy dog.

The town is large, and a major trading post for the entire region. As the Pines Kitchenette functions as the town's only real tavern, the downstairs dining room and bar is filled with people of all description - regional farmers, town locals, a smattering of American tourists, tattooed tribal people in from the surrounding jungle area and funky young men self conscious in their blue jeans and fake Chinese Ray Bans, come in from the surrounding areas for a big night out on the town. We have a quick meal then retire for the night to our foam mattress beds and the sounds of the barnyard close by - thank God I've packed my earplugs.


31st December 2000: morning

Today is New Years Eve, so we decide to take the day off and visit the region's main attraction - the Banuae rice terraces, a 2000-year old system of vertical terraces commonly referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built entirely by hand, the terraces are located some 1500 meters above sea level and cover an amazing total of 10,360 square kilometres.

We find a local registered guide in the town and set off by four-wheel drive to the base of the terraces where we will begin our trek. On the way we stop to buy several cartons of matchboxes, which will be used as payment for crossing terraces belonging to local tribal Bontoc and Ifugao farmers - our guide explains that the farmers are very poor, and are often overcharged for staples such as matches and aspirin by the town's store keepers, hence these have become the preferred methods of payment. Local tribes-people to this day still tend rice and vegetables crops on the terraces and we meet several farmers who make their livelihoods from farming, however more and more of the younger generation prefer to work the lucrative hospitality industry generated by the terraces. The result is a gradual degradation of the steps, which need constant reconstruction and care.

In the afternoon our guide takes us to visit the hanging coffins of Sagada, a beautiful little town situated forty five minutes drive away from Bontoc. Another famous feature of the north island of the Philippines, these aerial coffins were traditionally made from hollowed out tree trunks, but are more recently made from dressed planks. The corpses of dead relatives are buried in these after being carefully folded and dried into a foetal position in a "death chair". Although this practice has prevailed for over two thousand years in the region, the oldest coffins date back only one hundred years, and the practice has been almost discontinued in the present day - the last aerial burial took place over ten years ago.

On our return to town we show our guide the pieces we bought back in Baguio and he tells us that you can still find the real thing in some of the more remote Bontoc, Kalinga and Ga'dung villages (Ifugao relics were cleaned out by western traders long ago). He also confirms our conclusion that most of the supposed old stuff sold by the city dealers is faked. The problem with accessing the real thing is that you must trek for a minimum of 2 and 3 days to get to the relevant villages. This is no toy tourist-style car trip - it would involve the hire of guides and porters as well as the purchase and transportation of several live pigs for payment to village elders, plus an acceptable form of payment for the goods themselves. All of the trekking would have to be done on foot, or if into the far north-east where the Ga'dung people live, would involve an ocean-going boat ride of several days duration. And then of course there is safety to consider.

The tribes of the north island were formerly head hunting peoples. Generally outlawed during the early 1900's because of the rising influence of Christianity, heads are still taken in these areas and in fact the practice is currently on the increase, although this fact is officially repudiated by the Filippino government. Our guide is reluctant to talk about the matter but finally opens up. He tells us that tribal disputes and subsequent killing raids are still common, but that sometimes young men will take heads in a "shameful" way, by lying in wait at the edge of rice terraces and shooting dead rice farmers of other tribal affiliations. These are considered initiation rites amongst the male youth of these regions.

Traditionally, the taking of a head would be recorded in two ways - via a physical memento of the kill, consisting of a piece of cranium or jawbone, which would then be hung on the wall above a bronze gong. The male who took the head would then also be personally marked in some way to commemorate the kill - in the case of the Bontoc people, a blue bar tattooed on the chest.

According to our guide, when headless rice farmers are discovered by the police, all the young men of the region not from the victim's immediate tribal group are rounded up and made to display their chests to see whether they have new tattoos. In turn, young men are now finding other ways of recording their kills without giving themselves away to local authorities.


31st December 2000: afternoon

We return to the Pines Kitchenette at about 8pm, and after a quick clean up in our room return to the dinning room/bar to have dinner and celebrate the end of the millennium. By 11:00 pm we are asleep exhausted in our beds - so much for our New Year Eve celebrations. But let me backtrack for a moment.

When we arrive downstairs the bar is jumping - hundreds of people have come to Bontoc for the night. As the restaurant owner guides us to our table, he asks whether it is our car that is parked outside? When we tell him yes, he advises us to immediately move it somewhere else, preferably somewhere fenced like the town's Police compound. As we eat, the local Chief of Police approaches us. He also suggests we move our car to his compound. We are fairly suspicious of all this solicitous advice - in our experience when you try to get your car back the next day you will find that a large "fee" has been attached to the release of the vehicle. However, shortly a French photographer who has been in residence in the hotel for several weeks pulls up a chair and reiterates this advice. You see, our car is from out of town and therefore the most expendable to hand - should anything happen to it, we have no relatives in the area and therefore no recourse to payback. And it is highly likely that the car would be dynamited as part of the New Year celebrations. We do see, and so we immediately move the car to the Police compound as suggested, and thank the Chief of Police (and the Inn owner) profusely.

That taken care of, we return to the bar and proceed to start drinking with some of the local boys. As the night progresses past 9:00 pm the noise outside becomes a cacophony - firecrackers and guns are being let off everywhere by some very drunk people. We are advised not to leave the hotel again tonight, advice we are happy to follow this time. We become somewhat inebriated and get involved in shouting rounds of drinks with our new best friends and then get drawn into a loud and boisterous discussion about Philippino politics, apparently a favourite local topic. We are having a wonderful time. Then at about 10:30 pm, the French photographer once again quietly comes to our rescue.

Jacques has been in the region for several weeks now documenting the various tribal peoples of the area and their vanishing way of life. Based at the Pines Kitchenette, he treks for days out to remote villages carrying live pigs as payment, then returns to Bontoc town to recoup and recharge, both figuratively and literally. As a result he has gotten to know these tribal people quite well. He tells us that while we think we are having a spirited philosophical discussion on the direction the Philippines nation is heading, these local boys are taking our comments very seriously, as are any army personnel or rebel fighters in the room. And that should anything we say be taken out of context, or be misunderstood, a dynamited car will be the least of our worries. We are sobered immediately by this information, and deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, retire to our "suite" for the night.

As we lay in our separate plank beds, (I slipped up on the terraces early that day throwing out my back and am actually in agony and delirious on pain killers), we listen to the gunfire and firework noise escalating outside and joke about how our friends back home will think we are spending the turn of the millennium: at a five-star resort perhaps, gazing over the ocean sipping pina coladas while an orchestra plays nearby. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. This is definitely the less glamorous side of our job, but it is the reality of it.

1st January 2001

The next day when we awake the entire township is very subdued. So is the barnyard under our window - and also much depleted. Not only are the pig and most of the chickens missing, but the big brown yappy dog is as well. The tired landlord reminds us that dog is commonly eaten in the Philippines and is in fact considered to be a local delicacy. No doubt we could have ordered it at the Pines restaurant had we been so inclined, but sampling man's best friend is an experience I can well do without at this time, although Ian seems somewhat disappointed at this lost culinary opportunity.

We check out of the Pines, stopping on the way out of town at a trader's shop to do some buying. This is a long and drawn out process, involving much arm waving and protracted haggling - we feel we are seriously overcharged on the textiles we buy and in fact her prices go up as time goes on, which is exasperating, but before long the woman (most of the people we deal with here are women as the tribal system is largely matriarchal) brings out the really good stuff - three pieces we buy from her at this time are museum quality (and we still have one of them to this day in our collection).

Finally we set off for the township of Banuae to the east - the road is much better than previous roads and it only takes three hours to get there. We arrive and check out the local hotels. The town boasts two "four star" edifices, one in post-industrial concrete toilet block style and the other a multi storey building with a grand entrance way and a large air-conditioned foyer. The grand effect is somewhat ruined by the giant pig which lies sleeping across the doorway. The animal is no doubt taking full advantage of the cool air that occasionally seeps out of the foyer, and I doubt given its size that anyone is game to move it on. Or maybe it is the hotel's beloved mascot? Who knows?

Anyway, this sybaritic luxury is not for us, and so we make our way up the hill to check in at the delightful but basic Banuae View Hotel (deluxe room US$31).

Immediately after checking in there is a power failure that lasts for several hours. We grope our way through the town with a flashlight borrowed from the hotel (remember this is New Years day, so no one is available to fix the failure) and do a small amount of jewellery buying: beautiful, traditional fluid looking fertility charms hand crafted from silver and brass. When we return to the hotel we ask another traveller to take a picture of the two of us, sitting dirty and discolate side by side in the gloom in a swing chair - the look on our faces is priceless. A cold dinner and a fascinating chat with a family of American missionaries completes our evening's entertainment and so we once again retire austerely to our separate beds...


2nd January 2001

The hotel has it's own museum and shop attached. It is owned and run by a lovely Ifaguo woman, Ate Tessy, who has lived in the region all her life, her mother and grandmother before her. Once she realises we are serious buyers she brings out many additional old pieces for us to examine - beads and trinkets owned by her grandmother, used textiles from the neighbouring tribal clans and the Ikat cloth that is supposed to be a speciality of the region. This famous cloth is dyed in the thread, and the differently coloured lengths are then woven together to create the pattern. Only four colours are traditionally used: red, orange, grey and white. She only has four pieces to sell me - when I ask why so few, she tells me that it is a dying art: only the old women now know how to make it, and the job is long and backbreaking. The mud used to create the coloured threads must be brought up from the river 500 feet below us via a treacherous winding switchback pathway. The youth of the region are not interested in maintaining the old ways of the tribes and are more interested in the money to be made from tourism. She brings me out a huge pile of dreadful, garish textiles, chemically dyed in bright yellows, greens and reds, and assures me that the French and German tourists love them. She has tried to convince the young villagers to learn the old dying and weaving techniques from their grandmothers but they laugh at her and tell her she is stupid. What happens, I wonder, when the grandmothers are dead and the techniques are lost forever? She agrees with me sadly, as we sit on the floor of the museum surrounded by relics of a bygone time.

Bontoc Boar Tusk NecklaceThe museum is amazing and deserves a special mention of its own. While it's collection of Ifugao relics is fascinating, it is largely dedicated to the period during and immediately after the Second World War and the overthrow of the Japanese, who committed such atrocities against the local people that they were universally despised by the usually easy-going Filippinos. One chilling photo panorama takes absolute pride of place - a life size photo of the execution of the Japanese High Command, who were apparently hung on a scaffold built on the hill behind the hotel. For the first time I realise why the trader back in Bagio was so happy to get rid of his two Japanese soldiers' jawbones - at the time I had asked whether it would be acceptable to take them with me and his response had been swift and venomous - he had literally spat on them ("steady on" I had protested) and had told us to take them and "good riddance". Perhaps they are better off with us after all.

We have chatted for so long with this amazing woman that it is early afternoon before we are packed and ready to leave. Before we do, we make quick use of her internet connection. It's good we do. We discover that fourteen people were killed and another hundred seriously injured in Manilla on New Year's Eve by Muslim separatist rebels in five separate bomb attacks. Luckily we were far away by that time enjoying the delights of Bontoc, however our families do not know this and are frantic with worry. After reassuring them via email we head off and spend the rest of the day driving grimly to the west coast, finally holing up for the night in a dreadful industrial town called Dagupan.


3rd January 2001

The next morning, we are so appalled by our surroundings that we leave at first light, driving 1/2 an hour along the coast to San Fabian and the only "resort" recommended by the Lonely Planet in the entire region. If this had turned out to be a dud we were prepared to drive non-stop back to Manila and get the hell out at any cost. But it was lovely - finally a single large bed (what they call a "matrimonial" in the Philippines), cable TV and big towels and a real toilet and shower, right on the beach. Owned by an Australian as it turned out, and God bless him too. So we stay 3 nights and recuperate, and even have dinner at the nearby San Fabian Yacht Club (somewhat hopefully named as there are only two boats tied up and neither of them are yachts). And we also finally get to have that pina colada - made with powdered milk, but what the hell.


6th January 2001

We check out early for the drive back to Manila, knowing that we probably have a 6 - 7 hour trip and wanting to make it back in plenty of time
without any stress. One surreal thing I remember seeing on the road. A motorcycle approaches us going at a furious pace in the opposite direction. The driver, a man, is bent low over the handle bars, with a pair of goggles strapped firmly to his face. Sitting beside him in the sidecar is a giant pig, its front hooves resting on the front of the sidecar and a pair of goggles also firmly attached to his face. Oh well.

We do fine till we hit Manila proper - then we make one wrong turn and miss the "freeway" turnoff that would have bypassed most of the city. Instead we suddenly find ourselves in the thick of Manila traffic, and it is another hour and a half before we are able to travel 3 km and get back on to the freeway.

In the mean time we pass through one of the poorest areas we have ever seen. It pays to have a well-developed sense of humour when travelling in the Philippines, but ours has all but deserted us at this stage. We see five and more people living in cardboard shacks the size of dog kennels built directly onto the pavement. The stress that this generates is incredible - I put my head in my hands and cry while Ian bites his nails to the quick. When we finally get back onto the freeway, Ian drives like a man demented. One more major traffic jam before the airport (the village idiot with his misshapen face pressed up against the driver's window, tapping on the glass and drooling, keeping pace with us for more than a kilometre) and we are there, with 2 hours to go before departure time.

At this point it is time to return our rental car to the company and retrieve our deposit and passport. We ring the car rental company from a pay phone to tell them we are ready to meet them. They tell us they don't want to come to the airport after all, could we go to their office instead back in town? If not, do we know a particular hotel back in town? No? How about a street 10km from the airport?

At this stage I am starting to have my suspicions about this rental company. After I stop shouting at them, they agree to stick to the original plan and
come to the airport. It would be best here to cut a long story short, but suffice it to say that no one ever shows up. We make another five phone calls to their office but finally abandon the car in the airport carpark along with my passport and the P3000 deposit. We barely make our flight, and even as we reach the boarding lounge with seconds to spare, Ian tries to make one final phone call to the car rental office (the pay phone is out of order). As we prepare to board the plane, a Singapore airlines official runs up to us shouting our names. No, it's nothing to do with the car. We have been upgraded to Business Class.

We get back to Sydney late Sunday morning on the 7th, then head straight over to the shop to see my father and drop off the amazing stuff we've brought back. Tomorrow will be time to sort and document all of our treasures. Some pieces I will not be able to part with and they will take their place in our personal collection, but most we will pass on to people looking for the unusual, the interesting, the bizarre, or just the chance to step out of the mundane, touch the global consciousness and for a moment be part of a much bigger world.


Postscript: January 9, 2008

To this day we have never returned to the Philippines. The trip was so difficult, in so many ways. I remember making a rest-stop in one small town, and seeing the most amazing furniture carved from huge solid tree trunks, huge geometric shapes breathtaking in their simplicity and elegance. I asked the woman her price - the pieces were affordable. But how to get them back to Manila for shipping? No problem, she said dismissively, as though I were just a little simple. Just put on top of Jeepney and go.

At the time of writing we are planning a trip back, but this time will probably spend most of our time in Manila itself organising the inevitable shipping companies and agents so necessary to our business. Many new and small traders have opened in Manila since I wrote this journal in 2001, and Manila itself seems to have cleaned its act up quite a lot. I am also looking forward to visiting the south islands, which are renowned for their beautiful wood and stone beads. However, Mindanao is very dangerous, with many Muslim hardliners operating in the region - taking tourists hostage is one of their favourite occupations, and unfortunately the hostages, foreign or otherwise, are often killed. Perhaps a quick trip will be the thing. Please, stay tuned...

ps One last thing - a great thing about the Philippines is a chain of bakeries called Cinnabon - they sell wonderful iced cinnamon snails and pastries that I can taste to this day. If you ever do visit, make sure to sample their wares.

Pps Ok, just one more. The Filipino people are the loveliest people in the world. It is one of the few places I've visited where strangers will spontaneously approach you to see if you need help, if they see you consulting a map. No matter how poor, they are always ready with smiles and offers of assistance. Follow general rules regarding safety such as not looking too affluent, and don't carry large sums of cash - or if you must, draw from a small pile of low denomination coins and notes in your pocket, well away from your main stash. Don't be out too late after dark (this goes for both city and rural areas) and always tell people where you are going. Your trip will be a wonderfully rewarding experience, one that you will never forget.


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