Imagine yourself standing at the mouth of a great river, looking out at the sea. Through the mist you can see two islands, Imaklik and Inaklik. On a nearby pebble spit, native Yukaghirs cook walrus meat beside their yarangas, their baydars stacked neatly against a giant sequoia. The wind blows the mosquitoes out to sea, leaving the eland and moose free to nibble the wild beets and scallions unmolested. The sound of the crwth can be heard, along with a maiden singing in a strange language. Floats made of inflated seal stomachs drift in the river, while overhead a flock of cassowaries fly toward their nesting grounds in the Arakamchechen Peninsula. The sea, the sky, and the land are pure, clean, and peaceful. Guess where you are….No, not Moncton, New Brunswick! You’re in Cotabato City, Philippines!
Book your trip on Philippine Airlines and pay with your American Express Card, and your recommended vaccinations will be free. Depart from Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Las Vegas, and fly to Manila, then change planes to Awang Airport, which serves Cotabato City. Look for the pink luxury bus that says “Raffles Cotabato.” That’s your hotel.
Nicholas Emery, the General Manager, runs the poshest inn in the city. Expect to pay about $275 a night (or if you go during the typhoon season, there’s a 50% discount). The Raffles touch is unmistakable: Lost Continent seagrass carpet, faux-penguin-skin headboards, petticoat-shaped chandeliers with multicolored lasers, vibrating bamboo bimbo rocker, digitized stereo spider monkey screeching from within the walls and ceiling, Spanish Inquisition brocade wall hangings, giant cactus pedestal, spacecraft-style transformer shelves with wheelchair assist, voice-activated hand-shaped entertainment pods, sandstone bathroom with jungle canopy, objets d’art imported from South Moluccas, Baroque combination desk/bar/coffee table/drug station, robot mini-fridge and rare earth ceramic stove ensemble, oversize walk-in closet with Victorian gynecology sex chair, replica Corinthian spitoon, Lunar Receiving Lab environmental control system with Rocketdyne bug zapper, and Siberian-style gulag party bed, flanked by avant garde waterfall from the House of Szemetlada (Oroszlany, Hungary). Nick Emery is the author of the children’s book Tomaso, the Unhappy Potato Beetle, and he is the godfather of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
My host for this visit was Butch Bustamonte, who is the head of the John Ashley Fan Club. John Ashley, star of Frankenstein’s Daughter and other B movies, is idolized in Cotabato City since he produced several movies in this part of the Philippines, including Beast of Blood, Twilight People, and Mad Doctor of Blood Island. There’s a monument to the handsome actor in the city’s park, and Butch took me to see it. It’s a fine life-size statue depicting John Ashley as he appeared in High School Caesar (probably his best film), surrounded by a well-manicured bed of crocuses and Venus flytraps. The monument is cared for by Cotabato City’s civic organization, the Spitola Dumbasa. The “SD,” as it is referred to, also runs a cake-decorating school for ex-convicts and sponsors the annual Philippines National Spitting Championships, in which boys compete in various spitting skills.
“John loved the caves. They’re the main attraction of the city,” said Butch. He was referring to the Kutawato Caves, a long underground network right under the city. No other city in the world has such a feature. Don’t bring the kids on this outing, because the caves are 7 km long. It’s pretty spooky down there, even with the lighting. I thought of a good tag line for promoting the caves: Feel the Evil. Butch laughed and said it was a good one and he’d suggest it to the City Council. I noticed there were numerous passages that were roped off, and Butch explained that those areas were unsafe. However, there had always been rumors — call it an urban myth, if you like — that those roped-off passages led to the underground caves of an ancient race called the Deroes, who may still be alive. Mysterious disappearances of people and animals have been attributed to the Deroes, including Amelia Earhart and Gordon Brown’s pet hamster. Butch said John Ashley always believed that the caves led to something the government didn’t want people to know about. The caves also have a lot of bats. Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom visited the caves, because Khloe, like her sisters, is fascinated by cave bats. Odom hated every minute of the tour, according to Butch, and couldn’t wait to get out.
After the cave tour, Butch took me to eat at a fancy restaurant called Putanginamo, which specializes in zebra mussels, a delicacy for which Cotabato City is famous. Head Chef Cornelio Cuevas-Pena is the originator of Zebra Mussels Cotabato, and here’s the recipe:
For the Sauce Cotabato, put four ounces of butter and three spoonfuls of flour in a saucepan and heat until smooth. Add one cup of eel broth, bring to a boil, and mix in three egg yolks and a can of evaporated milk. Add a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper, one chopped clove of garlic, and the pulp of three or four moonseed fruits. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. For the zebra mussels, wash first to remove grit, then put in casserole with four ounces of white wine and one cup of water. Bring to a boil, add six chopped shallots, and boil until mussels are open. Remove the mussels to another vessel and strain the broth. Serve on the half shell with the Sauce Cotabato and a side of french fries.
The South Seas Mall, which opened in 2005, draws a lot of tourists, although it is plain and unremarkable by Western standards. You may prefer the funkier old shopping district downtown, with its odd boutiques. Kulangot T-Shirts, owned by Ramiro Villagrana, specializes in “mistake” t-shirts with unrecognizable faces and misspelled slogans. They will custom-print anything you want on a t-shirt. Pokpok, owned by Marin Agudelo, sells local handicrafts such as eelskin wallets and handbags, burqas for Muslim women, and a wide assortment of personal care products that failed safety tests in other countries. And Braulio’s Sex Shop, owned by Braulio Soto-Loera, specializes in Filipino porn, which is heavy on exploitation and violence (and you don’t even mind that the Filipina women are flat-chested).
The biggest surprise of my trip was walking into a dimly-lit second-hand bookstore and finding a worn copy of my 1980 classic, Lightning Struck My Dick. I bought it as a gift for Nick Emery for $2, since he has a weird sense of humor. You can try looking for this book (and my other ones) at www.abebooks.com, which serves the collector’s market, but don’t blame me for the high prices.
The theatre district had two hit plays running while I was there — Cebu Boo-Boo, a musical comedy about life in a Filipino prison, and Shoes, a musical about Imelda Marcos.
One item you won’t find in any tourist guide, however, is the Washday Problems Center (note the American spelling), which is a CIA front located in a nondescript building above some stores. I promised the Agency not to reveal the location. If you should happen to find your way in, you will see people in white smocks doing laundry. They’re testing laundry products, ha, ha. The man in charge is named Mike, and he says he’s from Syracuse. No, I won’t tell you what these people are really doing.
Cotabato City is steeped in religious tradition. Filipinos have always been extreme in their religious devotion, and there is no better example than the Good Friday “Procession of Flagellation,” in which devout Christians drag heavy crosses and whip themselves with flails until their backs are bloody. The procession begins on Ecorse Road at the St. Rodan Church (named after the patron saint of virgins seeking husbands in the U.S., which rules out all Russian and East European women), then goes along Washtenaw Avenue, then along Packard Road, Geddes Road, and Textile Road, arriving finally at Jollibee, where everyone has milk shakes and burgers. Street vendors will try to sell you souvenir whips, but they are poorly-made Chinese crap that falls apart after one or two uses (big surprise), not like the authentic Western-style horsewhips I use on that Socialist bitch Olivia Chow, who likes severe ass whipping. (Hazel McCallion used to be into that but now says she’s too old.)
I should mention that nutrias roam freely in Cotabato City, and tourists are always alarmed because they mistake them for giant rats. These big rodents are quite friendly and gentle, and it’s okay to let your kids play with them.
There are a lot of Muslims in Cotabato City, but they’re just as benign as the nutrias, so don’t worry.
Speaking of Muslims, Cotabato City now has a “sister city” with a Muslim Mayor — Luton, England. Mayor Muhammad Riaz has come a long way since the days when he stuck windshields on Vauxhalls at the local auto factory. Now he’s the Mayor of “Britain’s best town” (according to a survey). He’s eager to network with the prominent Muslims in Cotabato City and find out about such things as e-mail security, banking laws, and the police. “We can help each other,” he says. And he doesn’t mind admitting that he’s ambitious. “So I’m a pushy Paki. What of it? Today Luton, tomorrow the world…..Don’t print that.” England was once such a great country. You can read about it in books.
Somewhere in the U.S. there is a Dr. Jeffrey Brown, who was a dead ringer for John Ashley when he was a young man. Every time I see a picture of Ashley, I think I’m looking at Jeffrey. If you think you know him, ask him if he went to Syosset High School and if he remembers his next-door neighbor.
Recommended vaccinations: dracunculosis, cholinergic urticaria, Yunis Varon Syndrome.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org