Memories of Manila

(written back in Big Sur but I’ve only had the chance to post now…)

Since I’ve got the luxury of free time today, I’ll do some catch-up blogging. Where I’ve left off: we were just leaving Taipei for some beach time in the Philippines. It’s over a year ago now that we were at this point in our trip (First of all, MIND BLOWN. Second of all, ack, I have soooo much catching up to do!).

As I’d mentioned in my last post on the topic, we’d decided to stop in the Philippines for a bit of easy down time after two jam-packed months of shuttling all over expansive, intriguing China.

The easiest way to gain access to this archipelago was via its capital city, Manila. We’d heard other travelers’ advice and opinions about the place, which were pretty much, get out as fast as you can and the place is a cesspool (actually, more colorful language than “cesspool” was used in this case, but I’m trying to keep this blog rated PG).

Our guidebook didn’t disagree with this perception, but did a decent job tempering city’s negative aspects:

This is the sort of city you leave, fellow travellers tell us, immediately after arranging your ferry ticket out. To a degree, Manila’s earned its rough-around-the-edges reputation. After all, this incredibly huge metropolis is home to well over 11 million souls, with scores of hungry transplants from the provinces arriving each day. In other words, this is exactly the sort of place in which there’s bound to be a good bit of chaos…

For a city that’s not known as a major tourist draw, Manila sure has a lot to see. Because of its hugeness and its traffic, you’ll likely never see it all. As you explore, you’ll get an appreciation for a city that has been at the pinnacle of Asia – and almost at the nadir as well. And you’ll get a feel for the soup of cultural influences that combine to make Manila the free-wheeling metropolis it is today. Much of what’s best to see isn’t always at a traditional sight , but rather can be found in the life of the varied neighborhoods.

…If you’re a traveller who likes to get a feel for the pulse of a place just before the rest of the world storm in, it’s quite likely that Manila may just be the sort of town you’ve been looking for.

(Lonely Planet Philippines)

We are not such savvy travellers that I would claim we managed to read Manila’s pulse, but we did decide to spend a couple days exploring the city before heading to the country’s idyllic beaches. Even though we were happy to have a break from exploring culture and history after all that we’d taken in in China, I’m still SO glad that we gave Manila a chance.

Yes, it’s rough. Yes, it’s loud. Yes, it’s grungy. Yes, I saw more human feces on the streets of the city than I saw on the whole rest of the trip (heartbreakingly, it seemed there were more homeless in Manila than in any other than in any other metropolis we’ve visited on the trip).

But there was a lot more to Manila than its roughness. May of the sights we visited were beautiful and fascinating and nowhere else in the Philippines were we more readily able to tap into the sense of this complex country’s history and culture.

First impressions

Exiting the airport, my first impression was that we were someplace VERY different from the rest of Asia.

The air was warm and muggy but with a different feel to it than the tropical countries we’d visited in Southeast Asia. Our cab driver spoke English easily as we navigated through the traffic of, to my American eyes, well-known makes of cars and trucks to our hotel. Somehow everything felt nearly familiar to me, even as we entered our Spanish colonial style hotel. If I relaxed my senses, I could just about convince myself that our short flight from Taipei had landed us somewhere in the Caribbean, Mexico or Florida somewhere. This was a surreal feeling to have, knowing full well that we were still in Asia and not at all that far away from countries that had felt very exotic and foreign to me during our months of exploration.

The strange sensation of familiarity – and how at odds this put Manila to all the other places we’d visited in Asia – made me eager to see more of the city. All things considered, we managed to get around a decent amount in our limited time there.

Bits and pieces of Manila

We stayed in historic Intramuros, the walled neighborhood in Manila that was once the strong point of the Spanish colonists, where today one can still feel the echo of the conquistadors’ presence in the style of architecture; in fact “many of the buildings still have Spanish-tile street names” (LP Philippines).

We wandered a bit, exploring aspects of Manila as diverse as its rough but interesting Muslim quarter to it’s massive, overly air-conditioned and pristine western-style shopping malls. I hope the photos below can help give a sense of the diversity found within the city…

Photo impressions of Manila

DSC_0955The church of Saint Augustin in Intramurous
The oldest stone church in the Philippines. Completed in 1607, the structure has survived quite its fair share of disaster – from earthquakes to invasions by the British and the Japanes and the Spanish-American war in 1898.

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Beautiful massive doors and Spanish architecture in Intramuros.

DSC_0958Manila graffiti

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The Manila Cathedral

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Fire truck

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At Fort Santiago. Aside from its general historic significance, the fort holds a significant place in the Filipino psyche as it was where Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, was imprisoned prior to his execution by firing squad at the age of 35. A quick overview from Wikipedia:

He was a proponent of achieving Philippine self-government peacefully through institutional reform rather than through violent revolution, and would only support “violent means” as a last resort. Rizal believed that the only justification for national liberation and self-government is the restoration of the dignity of the people, saying “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” The general consensus among Rizal scholars is that his execution by the Spanish government ignited the Philippine Revolution.

For more on Rizal, please click here. 

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Filipinos walking Rizal’s steps towards where he was executed

DSC_0986DSC_0991Manila

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Pedicab driver taking a nap between jobs

DSC_1000I loved the Jeepneys!

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Reading the paper as a bus rolls by

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Outdoor market 

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Walking to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. The bridge we’d just crossed was clearly a place to sleep for a lot of homeless people, with many corners having obviously been turned into outdoor bathrooms. Not the most pleasant walk…

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Selling flower garlands outside the Basilica

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Devotion at the Black Nazarene

DSC_0044In Manila’s Muslim quarter

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Homeless; possibly trash pickers since the child was in a dumpster

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Manila

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A homeless man surveys golfers inside the Club Intramuros golf course

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Indoor skating rink at one of Manila’s insanely huge, western-style malls

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Getting ready for Christmas

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3 thoughts on “Memories of Manila

  1. I lived in Manila in the late 1990s and the guide books are just wrong! Yeah, it’s dirty, sleazy and so gritty it makes Raymond Chandler read like Beatrix Potter on ecstasy, but it also has more life and energy than any other city on earth. I lived in the red light district in the CBD, Makati, and spent most of my time partying my ass off with the friendliest people on earth in the many, many, many clubs and bars in the neighbouring districts of Ermita and Melati. Parts of the town are fascinating. Tondo, for example, has been a desparate and dangerous slum for nearly five centuries and is one of the most densely populated urban centres in the world today, but it used to be the centre of The Kingdom of Tondo, a major regional trading power until the Chinese closed their borders in around 1430 and the Spanish arrived and started slaughtering everybody in sight a century and a half later. (That’s the problem with Spaniards, as I know to my cost, they just can’t stop the slaughtering and the torturing… sigh.) The city is ugly, disorganized, massively polluted, completely dysfunctional (though I hear the infrastructure is greatly improved since I was there) and frequently quite threatening but I was never bored there… now I live in Zurich which is, in almost every single way, entirely the opposite and I still haven’t worked out which I prefer.

    • I can’t imagine how Zurich is going to seem after all the places we’ve been – Manila included, even though I didn’t get to see nearly close to what you must have when you were living there. How long were you there Gavin? When’s the last time you were back? I’m so glad that we got to see a bit of it – despite the guide books and what people had been saying about the place. Do you speak any Filipino??

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