Time Traveling in the Philippines

Much of its history is a story of battle, but one of its national heroes wielded only a pen. The Furthur crew sees and feels the past in the Philippines.

We have enjoyed five years of blissful cruising in the Philippines. Warm days, secluded anchorages, phenomenal diving and incredible sunsets. It’s all a boater could ask for. But there is more. Voyaging by boat here brings one close to a treasure trove of history, as our vessel has been transformed into a time machine, opening a portal to phenomenal historical events that span five centuries.
(Ed. note: Visit FurthurAdventures.com to read about Calvert’s nine years at sea.)

One of the first amazing places we visit in our floating time machine is in Cebu. It is the second largest city in the country, ultramodern with new skyscrapers sprouting like weeds, yet this is the site of one of the most celebrated and ancient events in the country: the day the Filipinos kicked some Spanish butt! Let’s set our time-travel clock to April 27, 1521.

A statue of Lapu Lapu towers as a warning to the Spanish not to return.

Ferdinand Magellan landed with a full assembly of heavily armored conquistadors — shiny armor, sharp swords, muskets and forged steel–tipped lances — ready to invade and do battle with the local indigenous population. The mission was to force them into an alliance with the king of Spain, and no resistance was expected. Local chief Lapu Lapu had other ideas.

A monument in Cebu honors Lapu Lapu and the warriors who defeated Magellan and his crew in 1521.

He rousted a group of nearly naked warriors armed only with wooden shields and spears to ward off the strange creatures coming to shore. Ah, but he had Mother Nature on his side. Magellan had picked the wrong place to wade ashore weighed down in armor: a thick, muddy, shallow beach.

Imagine the sight as the invincible Spanish troops, with their state-of-the-art weapons, simply got stuck in the mud and the natives beat them silly. Soon Magellan, famed navigator and explorer, was killed in the battle and the invaders retreated, not to return for quite a while.

Lapu Lapu is a national hero. We visit a local park that features a huge statue of and monument to him. It’s just one of the time travels a cruising yacht provides. Sitting on the decks of Furthur, I can imagine the hysteria during the Battle of Mackan as we travel in time. Today the island is home to the Cebu Yacht Club, many high-end resorts and an international airport.

Donna and Brian visit Culion, site of a former leper colony, and of an effort that eradicated leprosy.

 

Peaceful Warrior

Next up on the chronological path we find what’s likely the nation’s most cherished hero, José Rizal. Subic Bay Yacht Club is on one of the many Rizal-named streets in the Philippines, much like Washington Avenue in the U.S. Dozens of statues and memorials to this noble patriot stand in every part of the country. Rizal was not a warrior, however. No body count nor heroic battles are attributed to him. His sword was the mightiest: the pen. He wrote several books that championed independence. Until the Spanish executed him, which energized the Filipinos to revolt. I find it a very Filipino move to have the country’s most loved national hero be an author; it says a lot about the people.

 

Site of Suffering

Furthur’s time travels take us to 1942, to the historical island of Corregidor, the guardian of Manila Bay. We anchor in a protected lagoon, just off the main wharf, take the dinghy ashore and are greeted by a local memorial guide. He takes us via jeep around the island as the tour unfolds and he tells an amazing story.

Gen. MacArthur retreated with his outnumbered forces to Corregidor after a last-stand battle on the Bataan peninsula. Japanese forces bombarded the island for 72 days before they landed. The last Filipino and American forces sought protection in the Malinta Tunnel. After a siege, the remaining forces surrendered on May 6, 1942.

Gen. MacArthur was evacuated via PT boat from a small bay on the west side of the island, where he made his famous promise, “I shall return.” And return he did. In 1945 MacArthur led the Allied troops that took back the island and liberated the Philippines.

On the far side of the island, overlooking the bay where Furthur awaits us, is the Japanese memorial. It consists of Buddhist shrines, cherry trees and markers for the thousands of dead Japanese troops, many of whom took their own life rather than surrender. The monument tells of the gruesome wasted sacrifices the emperor demanded of his people and forced on the rest of the world.

During the day-long tour, the carnage, suffering and destruction are laid out before us. It is chilling. The bombed out barracks, the tunnels where the troops sought shelter for 72 days, the now silent artillery all take us through a portal to a time of great suffering and courage.

A mortar at Corregidor Island is a reminder of war, as is a bronze monument to the soldiers who fought and died there.

 

Vestiges of Battle

Not far from the site of the Battle of Corregidor, another battle was waged that created an unexpected opportunity many decades later. The Japanese, facing inevitable defeat in 1944, moved their supply fleet out of Manila to a hidden bay on the remote island of Busuanga. The Allied forces found the fleet and planned and undertook a daring long-range air raid. One hundred and twenty fighter bombers and dive bombers took off from the Fast Carrier Fleet, but given their limited range they had only 20 minutes to destroy an entire fleet.

Today, the history of that long-ago day is still evident, as the seabed beneath the battle site is a wreck-diving mecca. Eight ships in the same area are all on the bottom at recreational diving depths. As we swim through the wrecks, I can almost hear the Hellcats whining as they dive to bomb the ships and sense the mayhem that must have followed as eight ships were sunk in one morning.

Refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam arrived by the thousands in boats just like this one.

 

A Haven

Not all history is war. Medical history was made on a tiny island in the Palawan region decades ago when Culion became a leper colony. For decades lepers were moved to the island for isolation. In the late 1900s, the medical field’s focus shifted to finding a cure, and many scientists and doctors came to the island to work on a cure for leprosy. The efforts paid off. In 2006 the World Health Organization declared that the epidemic was over, leprosy was declared cured, Culion was leper free and the Culion miracle had been fulfilled.

Today, one can visit the remains of the hospital and visit a great museum with displays that highlight the change from isolation to cure. We have to go, so we drop the hook just off the town’s shores, find a great dinghy landing and wander around looking for information. As often happens, just the right person comes to us. A friendly young man sees us dining and introduces himself as Pastor Hermie. He is a local and a descendant of lepers who lived in the colony: his parents and grandparents. He is not infected.

He takes us on a heartfelt tour of the hospital, the dormitories and the museum — right into the heart of the old facility. He explains that there have been no new cases of the disease and those who were affected had seen the disease go into remission. Our visit comes to an emotional peak. Our guide introduces us to one of the survivors, a frail old woman whose piercing eyes tell a story. She offers me the bandaged stub where a hand once was, inviting a touch. I admit to feeling a bit of jolt. Touching a leper brings back all sorts of themes, from “Ben Hur” on. I see an opportunity to connect in a way I have never experienced. My faith overcomes my fear and I embrace the offer of a handshake. The old lady seems to know the conflict I’m feeling and what it means to touch her, because she gleams right through me when we touch. I feel my soul light up as the experience leaves me quivering. I will never forget those eyes!

Calvert takes a moment to think in a dormitory for lepers on Culion Island.

A marble marker commemorates another kilometer along the path of the Bataan Death March.

 

Peace & War

Moving along the historic plane, we moor Furthur at the Subic Bay Yacht Club, once the site of the officer’s club for the U.S. Navy base, and hop on our motorcycle. We dial the time machine to the late 1970s and head for a United Nations refugee site nearby. Thousands of refugees fled war-torn Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in small, overloaded, inadequate boats to seek a new home. The United Nations established the Philippines Refugee Processing Center in 1980 and proceeded to aid 400,000 refugees. The people were given proper vaccinations, certifications and often basic English skills before being transferred to the U.S., Canada, Norway and France.

As the need subsided, the UN left the site in the 1990s, but Filipinos did not want this amazing site to return to the jungle, so they established a park and museum. We ride up to the site, which sits high in the hills and overlooks the area of the infamous Bataan Death March on one side and a once-massive U.S. Navy base on the other. The site also has the well-maintained Buddhist shrines erected during its peak to provide refugees a spiritual base. The different cultures are depicted by the detailed shrines from each affected country. The memorial is a testament to peace and humanity, yet a reminder of the horrors of war.

Not far from the UN settlement camp we ride along the wellmarked Bataan Death March route. Each kilometer is noted by a marble marker.

 

Today

We return to Furthur. Our time machine has taken us from the first Spanish invasion to the war-torn days of WWII and then a peaceful time after the Vietnam War. The centuries of suffering inflicted on the Filipino people by an assortment of invaders sheds a light on the people we now love. Their remarkable ability to find happiness in times of peril, to survive harsh and inhuman treatment, and yet to today open their hearts and homes to all visitors, that is the Pinoy Spirit.

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