Manila Philippines –
What’s immediately different than anywhere else we have ever been? “Jeepneys!” The roads are chalk-full of these Technicolor elongated jeeps screeching around corners and flying-low on the straight-a-ways. The originals were converted US army jeeps left over from WWII. Millions of Filipinos depend on these open-sided vehicles with seats along the sides to get to work, school and about the city. Whether almost ready for the junk-yard or a splashy newer model, each has its unique name emblazoned on a board above the windshield and a distinctive paint job ranging from vividly coloured abstract designs, to faces of celebrities, religious icons, images of Jesus and saints. Some appear to have halos with the amount of chrome glinting in the sun, some are strung with fairy lights, but all have a dozen or more rosaries and crucifixes swinging from the rear-view mirror. For a ride to a mall we choose one with “Jesus Saves” on the name-board, and the face of Christ amid red and yellow swirls painted on the sides – for extra insurance, given the jeepney-accident-rate.
Our Philippine Photo Gallery
Equally ubiquitous are the pedi-cabs (three-wheeled-peddle bikes with a covered side-car for passengers), plus motorized versions of these. The seat space for two Filipinos is often crammed with a family of four plus parcels, and as we watch them chisel for space between the four-wheeled vehicles and a hair-width from being sideswiped by the insane antics of motorbikes, I say, “Not for me! Never!”
Our first Manila sojourn was in Makati area – the business district. Our choice hinged on our research that in the Philippines the 84th Academy Awards would ONLY be televised on the “Velvet” channel. Rationalizing if there was any hope of a hotel having this channel, it would be in this upscale area – and low-and-behold we luck out. Us movie buffs will do anything, with the exception of selling our souls, to keep up our record of 30 years of not missing the Awards; challenging since we are in a different country around the world each year at this time.
“MoMa”, the new lingo for “modern Makati”, is dotted with fine hotels and offices. The area is experiencing a construction boom of low rise and high rise residential units; including towers by real estate mogul Donald Trump. Shopping? The Ayala Centre is a complex of four interconnected malls, so vast one needs a GPS to navigate around. In stark contrast the sides of the same streets are filled with small huts selling food cooked over propane stoves, shanty stalls selling cheap goods, and slum housing not far off. The very rich, average, poor and destitute can be in the same visual scan on the streets; an instance frozen in my mind’s eye is a Mercedes Benz zipping along past a shabbily dressed mother nursing a baby while her aged-4-or-so dirt encrusted daughter clutches a soiled teddy bear while foraging in a garbage bin.
After a few days we move to the White Knight Hotel plunk in the middle of Intramuros, the old Spanish walled city in Manila. We immediately feel at home in this smaller hotel with wide red-carpeted staircases, spacious rooms and staff that aims to please. The surrounding streets are filled with students from the University, College and sizable highschool within the city walls, along with the very poor struggling to survive as roadside vendors selling everything from fresh cooked corn and roasted nuts to kitschy jewellery, children running about at play, and rows of pedi-cab and horse & buggy drivers enticing visitors to take a tour.
Each day we venture out to re-live the history of Intramuros. The fortification walls span 4.5 kilometres (enclosing an area of approximately 64 hectares) and have a series of baluartes (bastions), puertas (gates) and military installations. Fort Santiago with its vital reconnaissance location on the Pasig River was a citadel ruled by a native ruler, Raja Soliman, long before the Spaniards arrived in the south Philippines in 1521 expanding north and constructing a stone fortification here in1571. Fort Santiago was destroyed and rebuilt many times during its three centuries of Spanish rule, followed by a period of US control after the Spanish-American War of 1896, to the black period of Japanese occupation during WWII, to the Battle of Manila in 1945 wherein the US army and guerrilla forces ousted the Japanese, resulting in an independent Republic of the Philippines on July 4, 1946.
Milling through the restored and still bullet-riddled buildings, past cannons and dungeons, we come across a curious set of gold-coloured footprints leading from a shell of a building to the outer gates of the fort. We learn this is the final walk of National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal on his way to his execution by firing squad. Charged by the Spanish with “instigating a revolt” in 1896, his death did indeed flame the Philippine Revolution.
We walk along the top of the walls on old stone paths from Fort Santiago to the impressive Baluarte San Diego, the formation of its three consecutive stone walls shaped like the ace of spades. Originally built in 1586, San Diego also has a history of destruction and rebuilding; last demolished in 1945’s Battle of Manila, followed by a long wait until the latest rebuilding was completed in 1992.
Next was “church day”; time for a closer inspection of the two grand Catholic churches we pass daily when leaving the White Knight Hotel. Eighty percent of Filipinos are of this Christian persuasion and churches abound. Like most of the structures in Manila the majority of the churches were destroyed by earthquakes and wars and rebuilt many times.
We approach what is still known to locals as Manila Cathedral. Originally constructed of bamboo and nipa in 1581, the current structure is the sixth edifice to rise on its site. The church was last destroyed in the Battle of Manila, and rebuilt between 1953 and 1958. It was elevated to a Basilica by Pope Jean Paul II in 1981, officially named Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Alas, a sign on the door states it is closed for structural renovations and is due to reopen to the public in 2013.
The nearby San Agustin Church and Convent is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, originally built in 1571. The fourth church on this spot somehow escaped being levelled during WWII, only needing repairs after the war. Its interior is one of exceptional detail with its vaulted ceiling painted in superb “trope l’oeil” giving the optical illusion of the floral motifs, geometric patterns and religious icons being 3-dimensional. In 1994 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Wrapped in experiencing each country is the food, and across the street from San Augustin we are ready for some sustenance – which turns out to be our most memorable eating experience – as well as tasty, home-style cooked food it is like eating in church. Restorante delle Mitre (Le Mitre for short) is filled with religious icons including shelves on a feature wall with three “mitres” (bishops hats used in liturgical celebrations). The dishes served are the claimed favourites of real live bishops from Manila and cities outside of Manila. Our choice is “Bishop Jesse Marcado (from Paranaque city) Pumpkin Soup”, followed by “Malaybalay city’s Bishop Jose Cabantan’s Fillet of Sole”. The next day we kick-it-up-a-notch with an Archbishop endorsed dish, namely “Archbishop Angel Lagdameo’s Chicken Adodo” a Filipino style chicken simmered in soya/vinegar sauce. Some of the staff in the restaurant are deaf, making a tap on the shoulder necessary for attention, which prompts the server to produce a pencil and pad. Le Mitre provides an affordable menu for Intramuros workers at lunch break. A boss nun breezes through regularity to ensure all is running in the sublime mode.
We needed another church day to go out to Quiapo distict to view one of the only two all-steel churches in Asia. Minor Basilica San Sebastian rises gloriously in Gothic style metal-armoured splendour. Twice, the church on this site was completely destroyed by earthquakes, as it sits on an earthquake fault. In 1883 architects designed a church of steel. The metal sheets were prefabricated in Belgium and shipped to the Philippines in six ships, given the total weight of 50,000 tons. Over time the steel gave way to some rusting and corrosion, remedied by painting the exterior, the color of choice being mint green. The exquisite stained glass windows are from France.
The House that Imelda Built
The Coconut Palace says much about 1st Lady Imelda Marcos’ excessive spending during the Marcos Regime. Facing Manila Bay, this presidential guest house commissioned by Imelda and costing 37 million pesos epitomizes her many extravagances. Imelda named her creation Tahanang Philipine (Filipino House), designed with the intent of displaying the versatility of the coconut tree, with 70% of the structure and furnishing being made out of parts of the tree (wood, coconut fibre and shells). The grand U-shaped staircase, the floors and ceiling are fashioned from the beautifully grained wood. And impressive chandelier in the entrance is made from 101 coconut shells. Donna, our guide, sums this up, “Nothing was considered impossible by the Marcos’ during their rule. This house was built especially for Pope Jean Paul II.” It was constructed in 1978, the first year of Jean Paul papal duties, although his first visit to the Philippines was not until 1981…and he declined staying at the palace due to its pretentiousness. We enter the formal dining room with its 24-seat table inlaid with 40,000 tiny pieces of coconut shells; the small hands of 60-80 children were used to complete this intricate task. Coming to two open airy sitting areas with walls covered with stunning murals, Donna points out that one is the depiction of Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May) a special religious festival held annually, and the other shows the history of the Filipino people since the arrival of the Spanish. In actuality this house was rarely used; the bedrooms for Imelda and the President were never slept in, while the amenities of the guest bedrooms were enjoyed by a few celebrities and dignitaries. It is now a popular place to host one’s wedding reception. Currently two of the bedrooms have been turned into offices for the Vice President of the Philippines, Jejomar Binay.
China Town’s Cheerful Chaos
Visitors to Manila rightly rave about being ensconced in the flavour of China Town. While crossing the bridge to one of the friendship entry arches, Rick stops to take a photo, then stares in disbelief as the map of the area is pulled out of his bag along with his camera and is now swirling in the river below. Oops! This means winging it. Past the entrance we get the feeling this area with its dozens of banks crammed alongside each other is a contender for Makati as business district. Further along we are swept into a bustling world of road-side commerce unlike any we had ever seen. Jostled along with the multitude of shoppers, we dodge wagons loaded with product, pedi-cabs, motorbikes, jeepneys, cars, and trucks. Pedestrian streets are a bit tamer, but so jam-packed with bodies we move at a turtles-pace alongside the dizzying array of everything imaginable for sale. I spot and purchase my best ever bargain, a cute rust coloured blouse for 50 pesos ($1.25 CDN). Even without a map we find the huge stone Santa Cruz Church and a couple more prominent buildings. Stopping at one of the numerous restaurants we order “hopia” a sweet mug delicacy and tea for renewed energy before tromping back across the bridge to our hotel.
The Chinese Cemetery
The next day we chance taking the LRT to the Chinese Cemetery (Binando). Forget about even an inch of personal space on these railcars! Miles and miles of slum dwellings are seen through the windows. Getting off at “A Papa” station it is not long before we realize one station before would have been closer to the Cemetery gates. We walk what seems like forever alongside shabby shops backed by a blackened stone wall asking every 100-or-so metres “Chinese Cemetery?” until we finally arrive at the entrance, our clothes saturated in sweat from the sweltering day.
This cemetery is the 2nd oldest in Manila, designated for the Chinese citizens who were not allowed to be interned in the oldest La Loma Cemetery because they were not Catholic during the Spanish Colonial period. Founded in 1879 it became a resting place for rich and poor alike, the mausoleums of the very wealthy families being elaborate and seemingly competing for a prize in architectural design. The interiors of the ones on millionaire row are fitted with chandeliers, air-con, hot and cold running water, flush toilets in cased the newly departed are slow to move on into the ethereal world, or for the convenience of relatives who come to pay their respects to their descendents.
We come across memorials with placards telling of the plight of the Chinese-Filipinos when the Spanish became fearful of their increasing wealth and power culminating in massacres of the Chinese, and how this cemetery was turned into an execution place for Chinese-Filipinos at the hands of the Japanese during WWII.
Long before approaching the exit we are drooping from the 36 degree temperature. Rick says, “Let’s hop one of these back to the LRT station.” Without thinking, I crawl into the nearest three-wheel-motorcab, too fried to even remember my vow to never ride in one. Rick squishes in beside me looking like Quasimodo with room for only one butt-cheek on the seat, and his back rounded so his head won’t clonk against the roof. And away we go….hanging on for dear life we zoom along to who knows where…as the front windshield of the sidecar is painted black… maybe this is for the best. After several bumps we find ourselves off the road and voila! – the station. All’s well that ends well.
And it is near the end of our experiences in this great country. If asked to relate three things I associate with the Philippines, they would be:
– the country’s extremes in the reality of its citizens – the “haves” and the “have nots” are light years apart.
– that the historic sites and diversity of natural beauty of these islands is second to none, of which we only touched a miniscule part.
– and the kindness with which Filipino’s treat their families, and how they extend this value to travellers.
We are in countdown mode with just a few days to go before our four months – divided between Fiji, New Zealand, Indonesia and lastly the Philippines – is coming to an end and we are back on Canadian soil…..for awhile.
Published at What Travel Writers Say E-Zine
(Click here for our Philippine Bohol Island experience)