A visitor's guide to learning FMA in the Philippines
It really warms my heart to see foreigners coming over to learn my country's fighting systems. I'm not just talking about Pekiti Tirsia but Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) in general. The Internet has triggered a "rebirth" of sorts in FMA, making information available to more people and getting students to visit the country to learn it at its source. Of course the Internet has also brought its own set of irritants to the martial arts in general and to FMA.
I won't go through the details on the usually travel tips on coming over and staying in the country. You can get that from Lonely Planet and countless other sources. Instead, I'll give info on what those sources don't tell you about coming to the Philippines to study Filipino Martial Arts.
First, let's get a myth out of the way. Filipino Martial Arts is not available at every street corner over here. The systems are still a bit underground, mostly unappreciated by the general public and one has to know precisely where to look for it. Tae Kwon Do and other foreign arts are more accessible to the average Filipino than their own martial arts. That's sad but it's the unvarnished truth.
For many Filipinos, the only exposure that they have had to FMA is probably a class or two in high school or college and that may have perpetuated the myth that FMA is only practiced with sticks. So going around Manila looking for FMA by asking cab drivers is not the most efficient way to get the training you're looking for. The cabbie may know a school or two, but the quality of training will be up to you to determine. It may be different in Cebu though but I'm not sure. Strangely, I've traveled all over this country and the one city I haven't visited is Cebu. I should though; it's a hotbed for FMA and I hear the food is delicious.
I suggest you visit some online FMA sites to get contact details. The internet is full of FMA messageboards and there are hardly any systems nowadays without a website of their organization or style.
If you're already studying a particular system, contact the national organization for your style and they can give you contact information of clubs and teachers here. If you're a new to FMA and want to learn it here, I suggest you do research on what system interests you and then plan your visit. Arriving in Manila looking for something to learn is not a plan I would recommend.
For training the best time to visit, weather-wise, is around January to March. That's among the coolest months of the year and is right before the brutally hot summer months of April and May. The monsoon or rainy season is from July to November and can be uncomfortable if you'rr not use to tropical downpours and high humidity.
If you use a stick longer than 28 inches, I suggest you bring your own training weapons. Getting good quality sticks at custom lengths here is not going to be easy. Ironically really good quality sticks are already somewhat hard to come by so I suggest you bring your own. As you practice here you'll find the sources of suitable sticks and you can always hoard a batch for your return flight. If you're new to FMA, the school can refer you to their source of sticks.
Obviously you need to check in your FMA weapons for the flight but call the airline first to make sure there won't be any problems. For God's sake do not travel with edged weapons, especially balisongs. If your instructor tells you to bring one, make sure you're not breaking any laws by traveling with them. For that, I suggest you call the Philippine embassy or consulate in your country.
Humility is an absolute requirement. Don't come over and try to impress the locals with what you know, what you do, what you've done or who you've train with. I've seen that from some visitors and it irritates me and it's safe to assume other Filipino FMA practitioners find it annoying as well. Instead, visit with a willingness to experience FMA from a different perspective, to learn it from the land that created it. A know-it-all attitude will just make you unwelcome to the people you train with, at the very least.
Relax and don't live by a rigid schedule. We Filipinos have an often irritating habit of not being too particular about time, schedules and plans. The same applies to bus and ferry schedules, travel agendas and yes even FMA. If your instructor decides to be a little late to class or changes the training curriculum without prior notice, don't be offended and alarmed. I for one don't tolerate "Filipino Time" i.e. failure to understand the concept of punctuality. But I do understand it as part of how we are and so should you. So kick back and let things slide a bit.
We Filipinos are a social bunch so take time to socialize with your fellow students after class. A few drinks, a little karaoke and some strange food made from animal parts you never considered edible will go a long way toward moving from "visiting foreigner" to "one of the guys". Avoid getting stinking drunk but always be willing to lose some dignity by singing some cheesy tunes. More Filipinos have gotten beaten, shot and stabbed after drunkenly crooning "My Way" than many other causes of death so avoid that little ditty.
One popular method of drinking here is the infamous "tagay". Everyone drinks from the same glass, which is refilled continuously and passed around to be emptied by everyone involved. It guarantees that everyone gets totally hammered at the same time and helps break the ice between you and your fellow students. San Miguel beer in its many forms is popular in the cities and large towns but in the provinces and in smaller towns gin and rum are their preferred intoxicants.
Try to finalize your training fees and other details before coming over. Expect to pay more than the locals. You may find that unfair but realize that you're coming over to train may mean being personally taught by the club's instructor or have changes done to the club's practice to accommodate you. It's up to you to determine if the training fee is fair or worth what you paid for.
Be smart about staying healthy. The Philippines is a third world Asian country so prepare for the nasties. Only drink bottled water and only have drinks with ice when dining at decent restaurants. Get all your shots and get ready for mosquitoes. Street food is delicious and popular with a lot of FMA practitioners I know but be aware that double dipping in the sauces exposes you to the risk of diseases. If you want to try street food, choose the vendors that serve them on little cardboard trays. Usually they have the sauces in jars with spoons and discourage dipping the food in them. What exactly is this street food? Let me put it to you this way: not a single part of a chicken is thrown away in this country as garbage.
But don't let me discourage you. Eating is an important part of our culture and you'll discover that we have a delicious culinary tradition to match. Try the local food in restaurants and you'll discover the delights of traditional Filipino cooking. I recommend "kare kare" and "crispy pata".
There's no other way around this next tip so here goes..
Bathe and bathe often, once in the morning and again before sleeping. It may be ludicrous and insulting for me to advise you on personal hygiene but there's a good reason for it. Caucasians and "Westerners" (Americans, Europeans, etc.) in general have a reputation among Filipinos for body odor and that reputation is not completely unfounded. I'm not saying that all foreigners will start to smell halfway through a class - I've trained with a few Caucasians and only one or two were "ripe" - but it's happened often enough to become a familiar problem for Filipinos who have trained with foreigners.
You may be offended by this insinuation if you think you don't smell but Filipinos have learned the hard way that Westerner men and women often exude an...interesting...odor regardless of race, gender, nationality, body weight or any other physical attribute once they arrive here. It's probably the humidity, and which is probably why we Filipinos have this obsession with bathing.
Take it from me, unless you prefer to practice alone, bathe as often as possible, don't wear the same training clothes twice in a row without washing them and use deodorant. If your practice partners advise you to bathe with "tawas" (alum), they're telling you something you need to deal with.
As with all cities, Metropolitan Manila has safe areas and places which you must avoid. Your fellow students can tell you the parts of town you should stay away from. If your school happens to be in those parts, then I suggest you make it a habit to travel to and from the training venue with your fellow students, as many of you as possible. Strength in numbers, I always say. Most probably the school is known in the area and the local thugs will leave you alone.
If you do travel to the provinces to train or just to see the sights, I suggest you don't wear anything remotely military-looking, like olive drab cargo pants. Trust me, you don't want your jeepney stopped by a rebel checkpoint while heading out to see an obscure style in the middle of nowhere and have to explain that you're a tourist and not an American military agent.
Metropolitan Manila is a city of 11 million people and covers 636 square kilometers. Depending on where you'll be staying, the experience of staying in this metropolis can range from thrilling to ghastly, which is why I suggest you take time out to travel outside of the city to see the best of the country. Don't take a trip to the countryside to seek out more FMA styles, but rather just to take in the essence of our culture and understand it. Be a tourist but see it from the eyes of someone who already studies a part of the culture, a part that remains hidden and misunderstood by many Filipinos. Go off the beaten path and see the rest of the country that isn't in the tourist maps. For example, experience village life among the mountain tribes of the Cordillera. Or take a boat ride around Northern Palawan, and choose an island to explore. Watch how they gather "tuba" (coconut wine) and taste it fresh from the tree. Attend a town fiesta and discover why we are known for our hospitality and home cooking.
The county has so much to offer, so many facets to experience. If you're already studying Filipino Martial Arts, consider yourself lucky. You're already seeing our culture from a perspective many of us do not understand.