In 1946, just after the end of the war in the Pacific, my father arrived in the Philippines. He had lied about his age in order to enlist in the Army and, although there was some residual fighting in the islands even after the war was over, he was fortunate enough to have gotten there after the really nasty episodes of the conflict were over. I guess I was fortunate, as well because he was able to return home and become father to four boys, I being the eldest of them. He was thrilled to hear that we were going to the Philippines, to his old stomping grounds, even if we were not so thrilled.
Actually, Manila, the capital of the Philippines, was not at the very tippy-top of our “places we really want to visit” list. In fact, it kind of didn’t make it onto the list at all and it is unlikely that you would be seeing us do a post on the city but for the fact that the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) held its Asian conference there. Jessica and I went in hopes that we would learn all the things we need to know to make our blogs more widely read and here are our takeaways:
- We have to travel, hence the “travel” before “blog.”
- We have to blog about our travels, hence the “blog” after “travel.”
- And, we have to work our butts off to let the world know that we’ve actually put something out there worthy of their time. This translates into becoming besties with Google and acting as the bucktoothed misfit hanging out with the head cheerleader by doing everything we’re told and asking “how high?”
But this isn’t about TBEX, per se, though, if you are a travel blogger (bless your soul) their conferences are highly recommended. This is about our Manila experience.
Some initial observations:
- Filipinos wear smiles like they would be naked without them. They are extraordinarily friendly, accommodating, almost obsequious people.
- A lot of the locals pack heat. Even the doormen at our hotel were carrying and, not in a fancy holster but just a pistol shoved under the waistband of their trousers. And, accompanying us on the ferry to Corregidor (more on that later) was a member of the Philippine military with what looked like a very mean automatic weapon slung over his shoulder.
- But, while they may pack heat, the Filipinos don’t seem to like it much. Everywhere we went in Manila felt like a meat locker. Outside it may have been hot enough to make a dolphin sweat (Think about it.) but inside restaurants, the convention center, clubs and cabs, the temperature made us yearn for a parka. One of our fellow bloggers said, “The coldest place I’ve been in years is anywhere indoors in Manila.”
- The people seem to be both stuck in a colonized mindset and fiercely independent. They speak often of the Arab, Chinese, American and Japanese colonial periods and even seem grateful for some of the things that the American occupation brought to the country (public education, infrastructure development, hot dogs, etc.), but they will no longer accept the idea of being subject to any other power.
- Manila is a very difficult city in which to get around, especially for people like Jessica and me who like to walk a place to get to know it more intimately. Not a good idea in Manila, as we were warned many times by locals. The rampant and well-documented drug problems in the Philippines have put personal security considerations at the top of everyone’s list in the capital city and even in tourist areas, we were given admonitions against walking around. We visited the famous Chinese cemetery, supposedly the number one thing to do for tourists in Manila, where extravagant mausoleums are built to house the dearly departed, tombs that include toilets, running water, televisions and motorbikes just in case the deceased should find need of such things. We found ourselves quite alone, except for the occasional squatter who had made one of the tombs his home (or in one case, his garage) as we meandered in and among the impressive last resting places. When we told a local that we had wandered around the cemetery, he told us not to do such things since it is dangerous to walk around many parts of the city. As a result of the challenges to mobility, we ended up taking cabs to wherever we needed to go and immediately on placing our butts onto the seat of the taxi, we were told by the driver to lock our doors. It was explained to us that often, while stopped in the dense, often stationary traffic for which Manila is infamous, the car door will be pulled open by a street person who has decided to make your stuff his stuff, and grab whatever is within his reach. We obediently locked the doors.
As part of the TBEX program, we were invited to spend a day visiting Corregidor, an island infamous as the place where the American army made its stand against Japanese forces in 1942. It was there that General Douglas MacArthur received orders from President Roosevelt to leave the Philippines and escape to Australia. Upon his arrival in Australia, MacArthur famously promised the Philippine people, “I shall return.” Major General Jonathan Wainwright assumed command of the US troops on MacArthur’s departure and, following days of relentless shelling by the Japanese, he was forced to surrender. The captured soldiers became the unfortunate victims of the Bataan Death March. So much for the history lesson. If you’re aching for more, Google it.
What you won’t get from Google is the fact that the crew of the ferry we took from Manila to Corregidor broke into a sporty song and dance routine to the song “Come Dance With Me” shortly after we left port. The four young stewards smiled the ever-present Filipino smile throughout the routine and it kicked off the forty-five-minute boat trip in a very entertaining way, allowing me to completely forget my susceptibility to mal de mer. Of course, the song was preceded by a prayer for our safety on the twenty-six-kilometer journey, the Philippines being a very Catholic country, that did not inspire confidence.
Perhaps the most touristy thing one can do in Manila (and, of course, we had to do it) is to take a 2,000 peso (US$41) horse-drawn carriage ride around the Intramuros, a walled “city within a city,” that the Spaniards built during their tenure as Filipino overlords. The Spanish Colonial Period lasted nearly 400 years (1521-1898) during which time the walls were built to provide the Spaniards with a place to live, work and worship without being bothered by those pesky Filipinos. Our tour guide pointed out the significant structures, talked about the history of the Intramuros and impressed us by knowing that American president James Garfield was ambidextrous.
We ended our tour of the Intramuros with a stop at the Manila Cathedral, the most important Catholic church in the city and elevated by Pope John Paul !! to the status of minor basilica. While the origins of the church go back to 1571, the virtual obliteration of the edifice in WWII means that the current structure dates only to 1958. It’s worth a peek in, but if you’ve seen some of the religious shrines elsewhere, this one will not astound.
It was raining when we walked out of the basilica in a way that it can only rain in the tropics and there was not a cab to be found to rescue us. We were trying to get to the Bayleaf Hotel that boasted a rooftop bar and spectacular 360° view of the city. The only transport option was a bicycle sidecar barely large enough for both of our butts. Through the downpour we rode, past a squatters’ area, vacant land where the homeless make homes. “That is where I live,” our driver told us. Fortunately, he did not suggest we stop by for a cup of tea.
The torrential rain put a damper (pun intended) on our plans to visit the roof of the Bayleaf Hotel but, thanks to Voltaire Garcia, the service captain at the facility, we did not have to abandon them. As we had a bite to eat and some beefy Australian wine at the restaurant one floor below the roof bar, Voltaire engaged us in conversation that eventually turned to our disappointment that the roof was closed due to the weather. After excusing himself to, as we learned later, go up to the bar, confirm that the rain had now stopped, he returned to our table and invited us to go upstairs. With typical Filipino hospitality, Voltaire had set a beautiful table for us complete with candlelight and an umbrella and instructed staff to carry our wine to our new table. We spent the evening, just the two of us, sipping the shiraz/cabernet blend, looking out over Manila Bay. Thank you, Voltaire.
And a quick shout-out to Kenny Hernandez, restaurant manager at Nobu in Manila. We braved the entrance to the City of Dreams entertainment complex, relaxing in the cab while security guards with mirrors and bomb-sniffing dogs inspected each vehicle that entered, and were warmly greeted at one of our favorite places to eat in the world. We have visited four of the Nobu restaurants (New York, Las Vegas, Kuala Lumpur and Manila) and finally got to one the location of which only has one word in its city’s name. Kenny spent a good deal of his busy evening making sure that we were happy campers and, indeed, we were as we devoured several plates of the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño and the miso black cod. I didn’t want to leave the place. I mean, seriously, I wanted to sleep there.
This is due, in no small part, to the fact that I had booked a hotel in Manila based on two factors: proximity to the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) and cost. What I failed to take into account was the hotel itself. The one I booked happened to cater, almost exclusively, to Japanese visitors and was attached to a very active casino. I was reminded every morning at the breakfast buffet of the fact that we were “different” when I realized that we were the only people there who didn’t know how to eat rice with chopsticks.
One benefit of the hotel choice was its location only four kilometers from, what Jessica has described as, the best yoga studio she has ever visited. As you loyal readers of this publication (both of you) know, Jessica is as dedicated to yoga as a politician is to campaign contributions and has been to yoga studios around the world so, when she says it’s the best, take her word for it. Unfortunately, though, in Manila traffic, four kilometers took her about an hour by taxi. Still, this world-class facility, surrounded by the likes of a Fairmount Hotel, a Raffle’s bar, and retailers such as Hermes, Gucci and Prada, is in this city where there is so much poverty and blight. We found it impossible to reconcile.
But we do owe a debt of gratitude to TBEX, the Philippine Department of Tourism and the warm and wonderful people of Manila for prompting our visit to the Philippines, making our stay there an enlightening and educational one, and for getting us home safely, despite a typhoon striking the area the day before our departure. Salamat.
As always, if you’d like to see more photos of our trip to Manila, go to Jessica’s site at jessicacoup.com.This entry was posted in Asia, Continents, Philippines, Uncategorized