A River Adventure in Pagsanjan Gorge in The Philippines, and Thoughts About Tipping

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A River Adventure in Pagsanjan Gorge in The Philippines, and Thoughts About Tipping

Trip notes

We signed up for a day trip to the Pagsanjan Gorge and Falls (pronounced Pag-San-Han).

We were told to bring bathing suits, towels and a change of clothes, since we were sure to get wet.

Rex, our driver and guide, met us at the lobby of our hotel and told us that we will be the only ones on the tour that day.
He turned out to be a fountain of information for us about historical facts and life in the Philippines.

He told us that tourism, travel and transportation is the most lucrative business right now in the country.

We observed that there were many tour groups from Korea and Japan, and that the taxis and Jeepneys were always full.
These converted American military jeeps were customized to fit twenty passengers, who jump on the Jeepney and pass the money to the person sitting next to them.
The money will pass hands in a forward motion until it gets to the driver, who yells, “Who gave me twenty pesos? How many people, and where do you want to get off?”

The rate is calculated by the distance.
Up to 4 kilometers, it is 8 pesos (less than 25 cents), and after that there is a small price increase per each hundred meters traveled.

I regret not riding on a Jeepney as an interesting cultural experience, but I was not really tempted to board one, since most are as crowded as sardine cans.

Some of the Jeepneys are art pieces with paintings and biblical quotes, galvanized or brushed aluminum sides, and colorful seats.
Most engines are about eight years old, and are used diesel truck engines from Japan, which are used in place of the old army jeep engines.

Rex laid out a business plan for us:
500,000 pesos (about $11,000) can buy you a beautifully restored Jeepney.
You can hire a driver to operate it for you, and the driver will also service the jeep, register it and pay for the diesel.

There is also an additional cost to purchase a route, as each Jeepney must be registered to operate only on a specific route.
Ten Jeepneys run by the drivers as taxis, will generate for you a net income of $250 a day.
The investment of purchasing ten Jeepneys will be recovered in two years, Rex promised with a twinkle in his eyes, perhaps hoping that he had found investors.

Despite the twinkle of hope in Rex’s eyes, becoming the owner of a Jeepney franchise in Manila ranks very low on my list of personal goals and ambitions.

We headed towards the southern part of metro Manila.
Concrete buildings gave way to rice fields, and the main road in the countryside was lined with simple homes built from bamboo or concrete and corrugated iron.

Rex told us that in the old days, all of the houses in the countryside were built from bamboo and had thatched roofs.
Even nowadays, most people in the countryside build their own homes by themselves.
Building codes do exist, but are neither observed nor enforced.

At “Calamba” in the province of “Laguna,” we saw men holding signs saying, “Private Pool.”
The area lies at the foot of a volcano, and there is much thermal activity and hot water available in town.

From the road, you would not suspect that this is a hot springs town.
The buildings are simple and the road is crowded with vendors selling fresh crabs, inflatable toys and floatations devices, ladies holding fresh catfish hanging from a string, vegetables and wild greens, coconut vinegar infused with garlic in coca cola bottles, cassava cakes, ice cubes and coals for grilling.

The industrious locals in this town have built small, modest swimming pools at the sides of their houses, which they rent to the public as hot springs pools.

It costs about 4000 pesos ($100) to rent a whole pool for a full day for the whole family.
A family can bring as many friends as they like and they will bathe, grill and picnic all day long in those private pools.

It cost only 30-40 pesos for the day (less than $1) per person to buy a day pass to one of the bigger spas.

This town seemed to be very popular with the locals but not so appealing as to attract the many Korean and Japanese tourists who come to Manila.
It lacks the manicured, clean spa feeling of hot springs towns in Japan and Korea.

The next town of “Los Baños,” was not only famous for its hot springs; it used to be an area covered with bamboo and coconut groves.
It became famous for its “Buko Coconut Pie,” which is sold in this town along a stretch of the National Highway.

A line of cars was double parked outside a Buko bakery appropriately named: “The Original Buko Pie Bakeshop.”

Rex asked me if I wished to try it.
I said that I would love to, but that I wanted to pick it up on our way back, so it would not stay in the hot car for hours while we raft the river.

Rex suggested that we stop to reserve one to avoid, on our return, the long line of people who will be waiting for their pies to be baked.
That turned out to be an excellent idea.
On our way back we could not believe the long line of people who had lined up to buy Buko pies.

The bakery only bakes the pies to order, and the customers have to wait until their pies are fresh from the oven.

Like royalty, we bypassed the long line and picked up our pie.
We offered to buy Rex an additional pie to take home to his wife and kids, since he told us that they only eat it once in a blue moon, as it costs half of his daily salary, but the bakeshop had no extra pies at all.

We continued on to Victoria town in Laguna province, famous for its ducks and duck eggs called Balut.
Balut is a duck egg that is incubated for 18 days, so that it has the fully formed duckling embryo in it.
Rex said that the locals love to eat it boiled, and that it tasted like a normal boiled egg, only with a different texture.

The town of Pagsanjan was our destination.
Pagsanjan means “Two Branches,” for the two rivers which meet here and form the waterfalls.

We arrived at the “resort” on the river from which we were to take a narrow canoe to the falls.
The river is lined with similar shabby resorts, which are small operations offering tourists a place to eat or spend the night, to shower and change clothes and a souvenir shop.

Rex warned us in advance of the impending ‘River harassment’ that we will encounter.
He said that the boatmen will demand a large tip, that they will demand that we buy them food, that canoes selling food and drinks will tie themselves to our boat and aggressively demand that we will buy snacks or drinks.

All of this turned out to be true, and we even saw a large sign painted on the river banks warning tourists to beware of river harassment and asking them to call the local mayor to report any such behavior.

At the river’s edge, we boarded a long and narrow wooden canoe.
Jules sat on the floor in the middle of the canoe, barely wide enough for his butt, with a piece of plywood as his back support.
I was seated between his open legs.

The day was sunny and hot, and I regretted not bringing a sarong to cover us.
All the smarter Korean people that we saw on the river, were completely covered with sarongs.
By the end of the day, the skin on our legs was red and burned.

One boatmen sat in the front of the canoe and the other in the back.
They paddled with very short wooden paddles with only one blade.
The river was pretty shallow in most places.

The boatmen sitting at the front came and sat cross-legged In front of us nearly flipping the canoe over.
He introduced himself as “Billy,” and immediately launched his elaborate “Tip Campaign.”

He described how many kids he has, how he only worked once in ten days since the Mayor imposed a rotation that allows a boatman to work only once in a few days and even then, if tourists do not sign up, he had no work.

Billy continued saying that Koreans, who are the majority of tourists in this area, come in large groups and often have their own guides so he gets even fewer jobs, that he has a family to support and the work is SOOOO hard and difficult, that he is not harassing us, but he just wants to be our friend and friends take care of each other, and on and on it went in broken, almost incomprehensible English.

We reassured Billy that we fully intend to tip him at the end of the day.
He looked at us with puppy dog eyes and a distrust of the whole of humanity in his eyes.

Later Billy forgot that he told us that he has no work and when we asked about his life, he said that many of the river boatmen also work as fishermen, tricycle drivers or farmers.
Billy was a tricycle taxi driver when he was not on the river.

When we reached the first rapids in the river, the narrow boat creaked and cracked, as if it were going to tip over or break into pieces as we scraped the rocks.
Billy jumped out of the boat and navigated the Rapids by pushing the rocks with his bare feet.
After a few rapids, Billy pulled to the side and said that we must wait.

A motorized longboat came with a long rope tied to its tail.
Billy tied our rickety canoe to the motorized boat and situated himself at the front of our canoe.
Billy turned over to us and reminded us a few more times how hard his job was, and then promptly fell asleep with the short paddle resting on his face, shading him from the sun.

Billy did not wake up from his sleep when Jules and I groaned when our tippy canoe almost capsized a few times as the motorized boat dragged us farther up the river.
Our instructions were clear, keep your hands INSIDE the boat and keep the balance in the center.

Other canoes carrying tourists came to our sides and tied themselves to our canoe and we looked like a long millipede, with the motorized canoe pulling behind it five other long boats.

We reached the point in the river where the serious rapids started and they untied the ropes from the motorized canoe.
From that point on, each rickety canoe was left to chart its own destiny.

Billy moved to the back of the canoe and a younger stronger man, whom Billy said was his younger brother, took the position upfront.

Now I am thinking to myself……How can I describe the odyssey of the eventful adventure of what happens next….

Have you ever seen the Werner Herzog movie “Fitzcarraldo?”

It is about an obsessed opera lover who wants to build an opera house in the remote jungle.
To accomplish this, he first has to make a fortune in the rubber business, and his plan involves hauling an enormous river boat up a small mountain, with aid from the local Indians.

Similarly, in Pansanjan, the strong boatmen pull the narrow canoes up the river to its origin.
The river is very rocky with huge boulders.
There are many rapids on which the locals placed strong thick bamboo poles in order to drag the canoes over the rapids.

This whole operation is closed during the rainy season which starts in June, since the rain makes the river rise so high, that rafting is impossible.

The scenery is stunning.
A wide and very tall gorge with rocky canyon walls, frame both sides of the river.
I estimate it to be more than a hundred meters tall (300 feet), thick with native plants which grow into the sky.

We fully understood Billy when he said that his job was HARD.
To me, his job was impossibly hard.
These boatmen should be paid more than any lawyer or plastic surgeon in the world, and it’s too bad that the world does not work this way….

They run the canoes up the river over those bamboo poles while jumping in and out of the canoes like agile monkeys, pushing the rocks with their bare feet, running, kicking huge boulders as not to allow the canoe to crash into them, and landing back into the canoe to paddle the boat to avoid other canoes narrowly passing from the opposite direction.

We were amazed and at awe of those guys.
They were not river men, they were river gods!

I took some movie clips which are amazing, and I regret that I cannot post them while we still travel.
Hopefully I will post them upon our return home.

It was totally worth seeing this display of agility and strength performed by those men.

These river gods demonstrated what is possible for all of us to do with our bodies, if we only understood that our bodies are NEUTRAL and capable of SO much MORE than we ask them to do.

At that point, there were no longer houses and water buffalo along the river.
The locals come to the river to rest, swim and to picnic, and they rent large bamboo platforms floating on the sides of the river.
These platforms have thatch roofs to shade the people, and bamboo dining tables with benches.

We saw kids swimming in the river, joyfully splashing around while the adults waved at us with big smiles.
Many of the kids swam to our canoe asking us to give them a “High Five” and yelled: “Where you from? USA? America Number ONE! America Number ONE!”
They do love Americans in the Philippines, which is such a refreshing feeling.

After almost two hours on the river with the river gods performing their impossible feats of coordination, agility and speed, we reached the end of the river, or the beginning of it, to be more correct.

From there, we walked between huge boulders to reach the modest waterfall and the large pool which has formed below it.
A bamboo raft was designed to take the tourists through and behind the waterfalls.
It was hand operated by the locals who pulled the raft with a rope tied to the rocks on both sides.

With so many Korean tourists going back and forth, we chose to swim to the waterfall instead of wasting our time waiting for the raft.
The water was nice and SO refreshing, not cold at all, as many waterfalls are.
It was awesome.

The way back was down river and a bit faster, but the guys still needed to balance the canoe and navigate it between huge boulders, and over the bamboo poles by jumping in and out of the canoe.

We gave Billy a large tip, about a day’s worth of salary for a worker in that region, but he pouted and in a baby tone of voice said: “Give me more, give me more, a few bills more!”
He left without thanking us.

Rex told us that they always acted this way, no matter how much you give them.
They are never happy with their tips.

Rex said that in the past, the Philippines was not a culture of tipping.
“No offense,” he said to us, but this was one of the worst things that the Americans introduced to the Philippines.
The idea that it is OK to demand tips ON TOP of your normal salary.

Rex added that twenty years ago, the boatmen were the richest people in the region.
At that time, the majority of the tourists came from Japan, when Japan was at the height of its economic prosperity.

The Japanese occupation of the Philippines was the deadliest and cruelest of them all, and some of the guilt ridden Japanese tourists used to fan a large wad of pesos in front of the river men, and asked them to take their pick.

I wasn’t sure that all the boatmen were this way.
During the long day, we saw and chatted with some that seemed to have honest and kind faces.
I could tell that their energies were dignified, and I doubt that they also acted this way.

We took cold showers and changed back at the humble resort where Rex waited for us.
We bought some photos from a lady who snapped our photos before we left and begged us to buy them so she could feed her family.
We had a simple veg meal of cooked veg and fruit, and drove back to Manila.

Along the way we picked up our Buko coconut pie.
That night we ate the whole pie instead of going out to dinner.
It was still hot from the oven, crispy, not very sweet and SO very yummy.

We paid Rex for the trip and tipped him generously also.
It felt funny to tip a guy who told us that tipping is a terrible habit, but he also told us that he was only a driver, and that the tour operator who collected our large payment for the trip was a wealthy Chinese man, and that most of the money we paid went to the nature conservancy and to the boatmen, who no doubt, worked the hardest.

It is always a tricky subject as to how much to tip and when to say enough is enough.

We met a sweet taxi driver named Albert, who took us the next morning to the airport to catch a flight to Dumaguette, on the island of Negros Oriental.

Albert told us his life story and tears came to his eyes when he spoke about his first wife, who had left him years ago for another guy.

Albert said that he went back to his village and tried to convince his wife to come back to him, but that she was unmoved.
He could not get divorced, since the Philippines is a Catholic country, but he found another woman, and he lives with her as if they were husband and wife.
They have three kids, two girls and a baby boy.

I tried to comfort Albert with sensible words, but I had more to learn from him than to offer.

Albert had a tin full of coins at the ready in the front of his taxi.
When a begging kid came to his window, he rolled down the window and handed him a coin.
The kid thanked him and Albert blessed him back.

Albert did not attempt to save the kid from poverty by offering a huge gift, he just gave something.
He also did not shoo the kid away with an overwhelmed feeling, since after all, he sees begging kids all day long every day as a taxi driver in Manila.

When someone shoos a begging kid away, the kid might feel that people are unsympathetic to his misfortune.

Albert gives something to everyone who asks him.

By giving to everyone, even a small coin, Albert subconsciously shows the homeless kids that people will help you if you ask them for help.
People might not “save” you, you still have to become wise and save yourself, but the world is not as cruel and heartless as you might think.

It is common knowledge that you should not give money to homeless or deformed kids in Asia and India, since it encourages their bosses or their own parents who have sent them to the streets to beg, to maim or burn them so they will look more pathetic and thus generate more donations.

I met mothers with tiny babies begging for money just to buy milk to feed their babies.
Of course I gave and even saw the mothers go to the shop to buy milk.
Later we heard that those mothers have a deal with the shop owners in which they sell the milk back to the shop owner for some of the cash.

Recently we read in the newspapers the story of a man who “worked” begging at many airports around Europe.
He would approach people saying that he had missed his flight and only needs ten or twenty euros to pay for his rebooking fee, which he did not have since his credit card did not work.
He promised to pay the people back as soon as he got home.
Most people gave him money.

In fact, so many people gave him money, that he made $30,000 PER MONTH scamming people this way for more than five years.

He finally got caught when somebody photographed his passport and posted his photo on social media.
When he next approached someone, that person recognized him and called the police.

So what should we do?
Should we follow Albert’s advice and give something small to everyone who asks?
Or….. Should we give large and know that it might be a scam or that it encourages people to beg or do harm?

I have no idea….
If you think of something, please let me know….
Jules wrote:

Pagsanjan Gorge and Falls, Sunday, May 17, 2015

We have chosen to spend our last full day in Manila on a day trip outside of the huge and crowded metropolitan center.
From the available day trips offered to us by our concierge at the Manila Hotel, we selected a river trip, by canoe, through the Pagsanjan Gorge and rapids to see the Pagsanjan Waterfalls, because it sounded like the most adventuresome and interesting.

We woke up at 6 this morning, so we would have enough time to enjoy breakfast before our 7:30 pick-up for today’s trip.
We were met right on time in the lobby by Rex, our well-spoken and super-knowledgable guide and driver for the day.

Pagsanjan is located between two and three hours south of Metropolitan Manila, depending on traffic, in the province of Laguna. The expressway south from the city center through Makati City soon turns into a two lane road, skirting many recently harvested rice fields, and passing through many rural towns along the way, with heavy traffic in each town center, and much less congestion between towns.

Traffic gets especially heavy over the weekends, as many city dwellers head south to one of the many, many hot springs “resorts” lining the road we were taking.

The word, “resort,” in the Philippines does not imply anything at all like the big beach or golf resorts we are familiar with in the U.S.
Here, they are small places, often with only a few rooms and a hot spring-fed swimming pool, where families come to enjoy a day or two of relaxation.

Rex, our guide, who has visited one of the resorts along this road with his family, told us that besides enjoying the hot spring pool, most families will buy the ingredients for a feast from vendors lining the roadside, including those selling fresh-caught catfish, because the “resorts” all offer self-catering options.

Along the way, we passed a stretch of road where every other store seemed to be a bakery advertising buko pie, but only one of them had a line of cars outside, all double parked, and a queue of people waiting to be served.

Rex told us that buko pie is a traditional delicacy loved in all of the Philippines, and that this one bakery was the place where it was invented, more than 50 years ago! If you’re going to visit your mom, or if you’re an invited guest at a party or dinner, or if you’re going to enjoy a day out with your extended family, what you want to bring are two or more buko pies as your gift. Each pie, by the way, costs 200 Philippine Pesos, so two of them equal a day’s pay at minimum wage in Manila, and more than that in the rural provinces, where the minimum wage is about 25% lower.

Buko is a mixture of pure coconut meat from fresh coconuts, mixed with custard and raw, native honey to produce the filling for a delicious pie.

After another 45 minutes of driving, we arrived at the town of Pagsanjan.
The town lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Balanac River and the Bumbungan River, and the three-tiered waterfall that results from this meeting has been a famous tourist attraction in the Philippines since the Spanish Colonial era, with the oldest written account dating from 1894.

Here’s a local legend about how these famous waterfalls came to be, borrowed from a book written by Gregorio F. Zaide:

“Long, long ago, there were no falls. There were only the foliaged highlands, the twin rivers called Bumbungan and Balanac, and the alluvial delta where the town of Pagsanjan now nestles. On the eastern bank of the Bumbungan River lived two old brothers named Balubad and Magdapio. For many years, the two brothers enjoyed a rustic life of peace and happiness. But one day calamity struck. A terrible drought brought ruin and death; no rains came for successive months. The soil became dry as tinder. The blooming flowers and food plants withered and died. The birds, deer, wild hogs, monkeys, and other animals disappeared. The rivers, creeks, and mineral springs dried up. Not a single drop of life-giving rain fell from heaven.

Balubad and Magdapio suffered immensely.
Day and night, they prayed for rain, but the gods did not heed their prayers.
The older and weaker of the two brothers, Balubad, died of thirst.
Magdapio, with a sorrowing heart, buried him on the slope of the mountain overlooking the river delta.
This mountain is now called Balubad.

Left alone in a waterless world, Magdapio agonizingly trekked to the upper region of the arid riverbed.
He reached the high rocky cliffs, after an arduous journey. But to his utter disappointment, he found no water.

“Ye gods!” he sobbed bitterly, “Where is the water?” In despair, he angrily hurled down his big cane among the rocks.

Suddenly, a spring bubbled on the spot where the cane fell.
Rapidly it grew bigger.
The fresh waters roared down the canyon walls, soon becoming a booming waterfall.

Amazed at the miracle, Magdapio fell on his knees and thanked the gods.
He drank the cool water until he felt new energy surging in his blood.
Thus emerged the falls of Pagsanjan.”

The Pagsanjan experience, essentially unchanged for more than a century, starts with a two hour canoe ride up the river, through a beautiful, verdant gorge, in a narrow wooden canoe with one boatman at the front and one at the rear, and two or three passengers seated in the middle.

This ride is upriver, so the canoes must be portaged through fourteen narrow and rocky sections by the boatmen, who manage to do this with the passengers remaining seated in their canoes! The destination, of course, is the waterfalls, which lie at the back of a circular pool of water perhaps a hundred meters in diameter.

A bamboo raft takes the tourists across this pool and through the falls to the “Devil’s Cave” behind, where another raft will come and retrieve them when they are ready to return.

Because the rainy season does not start for a few more weeks in this part of the country, the river, along with its rapids, is at a low ebb, and the falls themselves have only one drop, not three, as there is when rainfall is abundant.
So it wasn’t surprising that the small riverside resort where we stopped to begin our two hour canoe journey to the Falls was empty except for us.

Waiting for us there were our young boatmen, who are not affiliated with the resort, along with the resort owner and manager.

Before we left his car, Rex warned us that we might be solicited for tips by the boatmen in a heavy-handed sort of way, and that sellers of cold drinks would also approach us, asking us to buy drinks for the boatmen.

Rex also told us that all of the boatmen had full time jobs, usually in agriculture or as pedi-cab drivers, and that they served as boatmen for only one or two days a week, as a way to supplement their regular income. Boatmen have been among the highest paid workers in Laguna Province for many years.

As soon as we headed out onto the river, our boatman, Billy, started to talk us up, telling us how poor he was, how he barely got out onto the river to work, and how, as our friend, he expected us to take good care of him, so he could feed his family.

Shortly after they started paddling, a motorized longboat came and attached a line to our canoe, and began to tow us up the river. Other canoes attached themselves to our boat, and soon we were at the front of a line of canoes, all being towed upriver. Our boatman took the opportunity to lie down in the front of the canoe, put his paddle over his face to block the sun, and close his eyes.

We passed a huge rock on the river’s edge painted with a notice to tourists that forcible tipping by boatmen was illegal, and that tourists who felt harassed should contact the mayor’s office.

We passed lots of families who were picnicking either at the river’s edge, or on bamboo rafts in the river. Every available space seemed taken with picnickers enjoying the hot, sunny day, and the cooling river. Tons of kids were playing and swimming in the river, having a great time. Almost everyone greeted us, or waved, “hello!” with genuine enthusiasm in their voices, and smiles in their faces..

As we approached the first of the fourteen rapids on the river, the towing upriver stopped, and the real work – the portaging – began.
The boatmen in our canoe switched positions, with the younger fitter, guy, introduced as Billy’s younger brother, coming to the front, and the still-moaning, sleepy and now also sneezy Billy going to the back.

Younger Brother began to navigate between the rocks using his bare feet to keep the boat going upriver without crashing into any of the exposed rocks lining the narrow channel.
Because the river level was low, more and more of the rocks of the Rapids were exposed, and there was not enough running water to continue to navigate, so the boatmen began to carry the canoe, with us sitting inside it, over the rocks to the next patch of running water.

They did a great job of keeping us moving upriver, without crashing the frail-looking wooden canoe into any of the exposed rocks!
I was super-impressed with the fit and agile Younger Brother, who managed to leap from side to side to keep us on an even keel throughout he journey.

In past, less safety-conscious times, this trip was also made during rainy season, with the river and its Rapids at peak strength, but Rex told us later that nowadays, the season ends when the heavy rains begin. This journey would have been truly awesome if we had run the Rapids downstream, on our return from the waterfall, at full strength, but now the portaging part of the journey was actually more exciting than the downstream Rapids!

We reached our upstream destination, with the falls directly above us, and left our canoes to cross a short path of rocks to the Falls and the Devil’s Cave.
There were many tourists waiting to take the raft through the Falls to the Cave, but we were quite happy to swim instead – a refreshing and cooling dip!

We started back downriver, and after we portaged through the narrow, rocky portions of the gorge, we pulled over to the side to wait for our tow by the longboat back to the resort where we had begun.
Billy launched into his final pitch for a high tip.
When we offered him what we thought was a very generous tip (about a day’s wages), he at first acted so offended that he refused to accept it!

I was immediately in favor of not offering him a second chance, but Tali did, as we arrived, and he accepted it, but only begrudgingly.
Rex later told us that this kind of behavior is common among the problem boatmen, who I felt were just a small minority of the guys we saw out on the river that day.

During our drive home, we stopped to pick up our Buko pie, and to our delight, we got to walk right up to the counter, unlike the dozens and dozens of people waiting in line for their pies to emerge from the oven.
Back at our hotel, we sampled a piece of the pie, and found it to be delicious, not too sweet at all – just the perfect dinner for us that night!

What a great day we had today!
The trip to Pagsanjan was terrific, and the river and falls quite beautiful.
We did find that our legs had gotten quite sunburned from sitting in the canoe for so long, but nothing detracted from this wonderful experience, not even sneezy Billy!

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