January in China means the Spring Festival, the biggest holiday in the country. For most Chinese, it means heading en masse to their hometowns, and clogging the public transportation lines beyond belief. That and fireworks — lots and lots of fireworks, regardless of the time of day.

For ex-pat teachers like myself it’s also a joyous time, the part of the year when all of the annoyances that come with living in China suddenly become worth it. This has nothing to do with getting into the spirit of the holiday and everything to do with getting weeks of paid vacation that allow us to get out of dodge and backpack around South East Asia.

My first Spring Festival vacation was a three week rampage through Thailand that set an absurd standard for debauched good times and tropical beauty. Last year, was a more low-key trip to the Philippines with my Filipino girlfriend Kristine, who got to visit her family for the first time since she’d come to China nearly two years prior.

This year’s itinerary was a bit more ambitious, splitting time between a week back in the Philippines and two in Indonesia. For my second trip to the former, Kristine and I put together a more conventional party vacation, starting in Cebu City, capital of the eponymous province in the center of the country’s chain of islands. From there was the main event, three days and two nights in Boracay, the undisputed king of Filipino beach paradise party centers.

Getting around the Philippines can be something of a pain in the wallet. Every airport requires you to pay a 200 peso terminal fee until you’re ready to leave, at which point it goes up to 750. Boat terminals have their own taxes and fees. Granted, the Philippine peso is a fraction of a dollar, but it adds up when you’re traveling on a budget, and is the first of many contradictions within the country.

As one of America’s staunchest regional allies made of largely English-capable Catholics, in an area dominated by Buddhist, Muslim, and occasional Hindu majorities, the Philippines is in many ways a very easy and accommodating travel destination for Americans. But, the country’s largely, impoverished nature means they make you pay for everything, from endless travel taxes to checking your bank balance.

The Manila airport itself represents another dichotomy, one that most international travelers will experience since most flights at least connect there. The inside is notoriously shoddy – the few currency exchange stations keep lousy hours, the Wi-Fi is hit-and-miss, and Terminal 1 was just named one of the world’s 10 worst major airports by Frommers’ travel website.

Yet, the area surrounding the runways exposes you to trees so green that they look like they’re coming from some kind of glorious hallucinogenic experience, the likes of which simply do not exist outside of the tropics. Remember the vivid shades of green in Apocalypse Now? When you arrive in the Philippines, it immediately makes sense that the movie was actually shot here.

As is usually the case when we visit the country, my Filipino girlfriend Kristine and I, avoid ever leaving the airport and dealing with the filthy and congested mega-city outside. Instead, we head for Cebu, a largely Westernized city with more amenities present than those of the larger Asian cities I’ve been to. For all of the treasures contained there in malls like Ayala and S&M – US-style delis, multi-level English bookstores, delicious seafood grills – going two city blocks in the wrong direction takes you into areas of staggering poverty, which can be strange to take in. All the same, Cebu has been a favorite stopover of mine, since my first trip.

Our now-yearly visits during our Spring Festival holidays from teaching in China coincide with Cebu’s own nationally beloved celebration, the Sinulog festival. Lasting nine days, and culminating the third Sunday of January, it’s like a Filipino Carnivale and gives insight into one of the deepest, most essential contradictions in the country’s history. It commemorates Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, introducing Christianity to the area and giving the gift of Santo Nino, a likeness of baby Jesus, to the local queen.

Magellan was killed soon after by the resisting chieftain of a nearby island, Lapu Lapu, who is now hailed as the country’s first national hero, but the Portuguese explorer’s Catholic teachings have kept hold to this day. At its heart, Sinulog is a celebration of the fusion of pre-Magellan pagan ways with Catholic faith. Of course, at this point, it’s mainly just a gigantic party, full of elaborate costumes and lots of percussion and street dancing.

We left before the actual Sinulog this time, but were there for the latter part of the eight-day build up, during which the excitement was tangible. Roving quartets of drummers made surprise marches through Ayala Mall and the event’s two theme songs were played in near-perpetuity everywhere we went.

As much fun as the event is, it was fortunate that our flight to Boracay, our next destination, was before the final weekend, as finding a decent hostel last year had been murder, and owners raked tourists for increased rates.

Before catching said flight, we had a blast doing some considerable drinking with a group of locals at a bar called, The Outpost. It’s located halfway up a hill, just outside of the Ayala area of town, and frequently plays host to live music and large, fun-loving groups of young Cebuano drinkers. This particular night, we were approached by a guy named John and invited to join his table of friends, who were enjoying the traditional drinking method of tagay.

“Tagay” essentially means “cheers,” but in application, it’s more about showing the closeness and trust of friendship by passing around one shared glass in a rotation. When you don’t have the tagay glass, you don’t drink. I’m a historically impatient tagay drinker, try as I might to respect the tradition – too used to spoiled American drinking, mixed in with a dash of independence and gluttony, I suppose. Knowing this, Kristine was kind enough to nip it in the bud for me and excuse me from the rotation, while I talked to the increasingly drunk and nonsensical John, as I drank a large bottle of my own.

But while the friendliness and openness of the Filipino people is one great aspect of drinking in Cebu, it’s not the only one.

The Philippines is also the best Asian country I’ve encountered when it comes to domestic beer, for the simple reason that, it has variety. San Miguel Corporation dominates the market with what borders on a monopoly, but they produce a number of brews including a pilsner, lager, a 6.9 percent variation of the lager, and a black beer called Cerveza Negra. Most other Asian countries have minimal distinction between their beers, so it’s nice to find a brand that is not only stronger and tastier, but also more varied.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Philippines without some odd contradiction, and this one proved quite frustrating. For all of its malty glory, Cerveza Negra, which really makes the San Miguel line stand out for me, is easily one of the least popular brands. I had always assumed that it was a newer brand, but it’s evidently been in production since 1890 and has earned a number of international distinctions. Yet, for whatever reason, it’s often hard to find, and many Filipinos haven’t even tried it. Well into our Outpost night, I went off on a drunken rant on the matter; only to find that none of our companions had ever drank it, though John only admitted to that after chastising his friends on the subject. Fittingly, Outpost was out of stock that night.

A lack of one craft beer in no way impeded the good times had that night, and thankfully, this proves true more often than not with Filipino contradictions, at least for tourists, who don’t have to worry much about the financial desperation that sends so many locals abroad for years at a time, simply to send money to support their families. When merely passing through, though, even the most persistent annoyances are overwhelmingly outweighed by an open and exciting culture, which turns a shared heritage of East and West into something genuinely unique.

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