The City of Love, Mango Island, and Bad Luck in Bacolod

The City of Love, Mango Island, and Bad Luck in Bacolod
Ati children greet visitors with a song, Boracay

Before leaving Boracay, I make a quick visit to the protected village of the indigenous Ati people. They are the original inhabitants of the island and used to live freely, largely avoiding the effects of both Spanish and American rule and Japanese occupation during World War II.

But what colonization and war could not manage to do, tourism did. As Boracay began to gain popularity in recent decades, the Ati were forced off their land. Most have already fled to the neighboring island of Panay. No more than a few hundred remain in a small village of bamboo homes on a sliver of beachfront land that the community received the "ancestral domain" title to only a few years ago.

The Ati have long been discriminated against for their dark skin and curly hair – they are sometimes referred to by the slur dumi (dirt). Community leader Dexter Condez was murdered a decade ago in what some suspect was connected to his efforts to preserve their ancestral land.

Despite being what displaced them, tourism has also become the hand that feeds, as many Ati depend on low-level work in the travel sector to survive.

I also make a return visit to the spot where I found the abandoned kittens. I'm relieved to find out that no mother cat ever showed up looking for her babies, meaning I didn't take them against their best interests.

After not having a real lunch or dinner for a couple of days, I notice that the jeans that were fairly tight on me at the beginning of my trip are now almost falling down with every step I take.

I make the same trip as I did less than 48 hours before - a ferry back to Caticlan, a van to Kalibo, and then a trike ride to the Aklan Animal Rescue & Rehabilitation Center, where the kittens are being cared for.

Ongoing renovations to the main house's roof mean the dogs can't be let out of their pens to run around as they normally would for a few days, but they still have plenty of room. Many dogs suffer from mange and are kept in a separate pen.

One has a horrific gash on its snout where it was slashed by someone, but they opted against surgery as it is still able to eat normally. Like the kittens I found, most of the dogs came from Boracay. The local government there rounds up strays in order to keep the streets clean and safe for tourists, and if they aren't claimed by anyone as pets within just a few days, are euthanized.

The workers tell me the area where the dog pens are flooded last year, requiring them to be moved up to the main building for a few days.

There's another litter of three kittens at the center – with their mother. They look a bit younger than mine. I wonder if maybe they will try to get that mama cat to nurse my kittens, but they think introducing four would be too much for her and also worry that she is too "moody" to accept them.

Given kindly offers to take me to the bus station. I hop on one that immediately departs for Iloilo. It's easily the worst bus I've been on in the country so far. There's no air conditioning and many of the seats are falling apart. We pass in and out of rain showers several times and water leaks through the roof and onto the floor and the seat next to me.

Since I have lost weight, I enjoy the freedom to grab snacks like buko (young coconut) pie from vendors whenever we stop.

Iloilo is nicknamed "The City of Love," which seems to be related to the local Ilonggo people's reputation for being soft-spoken, friendly, and hospitable. It is considered one of the nation's most livable cities. The streets are a bit congested at rush hour, but the traffic is still noticeably better than in any part of Manila that I've seen. It has also received the ASEAN Clean Tourist City Award.

Outside of Manila, Iloilo was perhaps the most prominent province during Spanish colonial times, which means there are a number of beautiful churches around the region that were erected during that period. The Molo Church in particular is impressive, especially in the evening.

As one of the most important trading ports in the region since its early history, it's a fitting home for the Museum of Philippine Maritime History.

I notice that many of the jeepneys here are not actually jeeps but look like stretched-out 1980s models minivans.

It only takes about 10 minutes to go by ferry to Guimaras, which is renowned for its mangoes. In fact, the island bans visitors from bringing mangoes from other places.

I arrive earlier than I thought I would and well before my check-in time, so I choose to wait for a jeepney instead of taking a faster tricycle. Unlike Luzon, the vehicles here seem to have dedicated attendants who collect money from the passengers so the driver doesn't have to worry about it.

It gets so full that by the time we pass by my hotel, I know there's no way I can get my bags out through the door and have to hand them out the window to the attendant.

It doesn't take long to realize that mangoes are indeed serious business here. The keychain attached to my room key is a mango. The door hanger on my room is shaped like a mango. Along the highway, there are countless stands selling several varieties of mangoes.

I stop by the National Mango Research and Development Center, where they have developed most of the strains of the Carabao mango, a cultivar native to the Philippines. The Guimaras Super Galila is considered the sweetest in the world. They also have recipes for mango preserves and mango atsara, a pickled condiment usually made with green papaya.

Many of the trees on the premises are bagged with newspaper, which is supposed to reduce the amount of residue from pesticides and increase the amount of marketable fruit.

I keep walking all the way to the Trappist monastery, the only of its kind in the country. Although the cafe seems to have permanently closed, there is a gift shop selling a line of foods made on the monastery grounds, from mango jam to mango biscotti. There's also a guest house with rooms available for rent.

I get into the spirit and try an iced mango latte and mango muffin at a nearby coffee shop.

When I go out for dinner at 7 PM, I discover that almost all the restaurants have closed already – even those that say they are open until 8:00 online.

In the morning, I walk to the local market and catch another jeepney to Dolores, where I transfer to a motorbike taxi that takes me to the Guisi Lighthouse. It was the second lighthouse built in the Philippines and fell into disrepair long ago.

I finally try the mango pizza at The Pitstop, the original place on the island to make the dish. It's topped with crushed cashews, another local specialty. Although the mango tastes nice, the crust, sauce, and cheese just aren't up to par. I wouldn't call it a win for the anti-fruit-on-pizza crowd. With higher-quality ingredients, it could have been a hit.

Getting to Bacolod requires me to backtrack to Iloilo and then hop on another ferry for a 90-minute ride across the Guimaras Strait.

My trike driver stops to boast to his competitors about the fare he suckered me into – even inflating the number a bit to earn some street cred.

The room I rented on AirBnB turns out to be very far away from town in a residential area. The locals don't seem as warm as in other places I've visited. No one smiles or says hello to me after I drop my bags and walk around, and I wonder if I've finally stumbled into not-so-friendly territory.

A small shop owner greets me with the kindness I've come to expect. She gives me advice on where to visit around the area. I note that she only asks for the same three pesos for a stick of instant coffee as any 7-Eleven, whereas most other shops like hers charge me five.

Bacolod is where inasal, which is chicken marinated is calamansi juice, vinegar, various herbs and spices, and annatto oil (which is where its bright color comes from) and then grilled was popularized. There is a whole street of restaurants near the main plaza that specialize in it, and they're all packed at dinnertime.

After returning to my room, I discover it is infested with cockroaches. I contact the host, who seems unconcerned. For the first time ever, I contact AirBnb and tell them I am abandoning the room. However, their customer "support" ghosts me, so I scramble to find a room on another app. By the time I leave, it's after 10:30.

The room is so far outside the city center that there are no Grab drivers available in the area, but luckily a trike goes by and I flag the driver down.

The location on the map is wrong, but my driver asks around until we find the right alley. It's well after midnight by the time I shower and crawl into the much-too-small twin bed.

The following day, I try another room on AirBnb. It's a bit above what I usually spend on rooms but right in the middle of the city. Upon entry, I find there is a stunning view from the 8th floor of three of the area's highest mountains.

I step out onto the small balcony to take in the view and the afternoon breeze, but when I try to go back in, I find that the door has somehow locked behind me.

Fortunately, my phone and the room keys are in my pockets. I use the key to try to pry the door open, but I'm afraid of breaking the key or the door. I don't have calls or texts on my local SIM, but I do have 4G. I know AirBnB wouldn't be any help, so I message the owner and wait for the response.

After 30 minutes of waiting, my appreciation of the view has worn off, so I try to wedge the door open again more forcefully and finally pop it open.

I'm not sure if I believe in "signs" or not, but it feels like the universe is telling me not to stay here. It's a shame because Bacolod ticks a lot of boxes for me.

The food is probably the best I've had in the country, with lots of cheap seafood options. I could watch the sunset over the water whenever I wanted. It's fairly green, with plenty of trees that keep it from feeling too much like a concrete jungle. It has several nice malls downtown. There are plenty of mountains and islands to explore nearby.

I see more foreigners than I expected here, so it seems to be an up-and-coming spot.

Sometimes the universe gets it wrong.

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