Monday, 6 February 2012

Hong Kong and the Philippines Part 2: Manila and Lapu Lapu


Another week has passed us by and here is another installment of my Philippines travelogue, this time talking about how Ryan and I found Manila. Incidentally, real life seems to reflect blog life at the moment, for I had a visit this weekend from an old friend that I drank with whilst in Asia and we had a drink with a Filipina and her husband. It was great to see David, the former leader of the International Cathedral Choir Saigon and I just hope that one day I get around to writing an article about my times singing under his instruction in front of a thousand people or so in Ho Chi Minh City's Notre Dame Cathedral.

If I do, it shall be published here first of course!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Hong Kong

Part 2: Manila and Lapu Lapu

Part 3: Cebu and Bohol

Part 4: Vigan, Badoc and Batac

Part 5: Bagiou, Montalban and Manila


Going through Aquino Airport in Manila, we thought that we'd perhaps arrived on the same plane as some local celebrity. A band was playing and TV cameras filmed the arriving passengers. Who was it? Film star, TV star, rock star, model, politician..? None we later learnt, the whole show was put on for the benefit of incoming Filipinos who toil abroad and were returning home for the festive period. Overseas workers in the Philippines hold an exalted place it seems.
My first impressions of the Philippines bustling capital city, Manila, were not the most favourable. Admittedly they were probably not enhanced by the fact that I kept drifting off to sleep due to lack of time in bed the previous night, but nonetheless monotonous grey concrete buildings, heavy traffic and even heavier smog are pretty uninspiring whatever one's state of consciousness may be. No, I was far from impressed and I wondered seriously whether I would actually enjoy my time in this country. Somehow, and sometime my opinion of the dirt-choked Manila did change. I didn't like it at the offset it's true, but by the time we were leaving I'd actually fallen in love with the place, the hustle and bustle, the noise and the chaotic if aromatic streets. When and why this reversal of opinion came about is a mystery to me. I don't know, Manila's charms sort of gradually crept up on me, rather like those of a hypnotist; you don't realise that you're being hypnotised until the process is complete.
One negative impression that did not go away however was the smog. Manila has to be the dirtiest city that I have ever come across. Tokyo is infamous for it's air pollution and Ho Chi Minh City hardly smells of roses. Ryan reckoned that London was none too pleasant in the air quality department too, (I never found it that bad), but Manila is simply a league apart. Put it like this, where I live in Japan, most people wear those surgical-type masks over their faces, (you know the ones, like your dentist and his cute assistant wear when they cause great pain in your mouth), whenever the slightest suspicion of a cold or pollution appear. Sensible and responsible this precautionary measure may be, but I'm sorry to say that it really annoys me. I don't know, just one of those irrational hatreds I suppose, but they look so damn stupid and you can't hear people talk through them. Perhaps it's because they're a symbol, like twenty miles an hour speed limits, of the Japanese taking ridiculously over elaborate precautions for the most minimal of dangers. But Manila's heavy air, laden down with jeepney fuel and other unpalatable odours, well, put it like this,
I would have given anything for one of those masks.
Our pre-booked hotel in the Ermita district was named the Lotus Garden, (formerly 'Royal Palm' according to the soap in the bathroom). To tell the truth, I'm not a big fan of pre-booking, I prefer to just turn up and see what happens, but this time I was glad of it, being too tired to be bothered to organise anything at all. The taxi driver told us that it was expensive, (probably because it wasn't the one that he was commissioned to take people to), but at four quid fifty a night, I wasn't complaining. What's more, it was actually quite nice, so happily I climbed into bed, (yes, bed, the first time since August), and fell fast asleep.
Late in the afternoon we woke up and showered, ready to met our first two Filipino contacts. Number one was Cris Corpuz, the older brother of Arlene. Cris seemed a nice guy though unlike his sister, rather quiet. We dropped off the gifts that we'd carried with us from Japan and then organised our trip to his family home in Ilocos Norte, which would occur later in the holiday. Just before Cris departed for the long journey north to his family, number two contact arrived, our guide to Manila, Randy Aquino.
Randy was the brother of Richelle, another of the Filipinas working for SMK in Yatsuo. That was a little problematic since I didn't have the foggiest idea which one she was. I guess that I'd probably met her several times and even held conversations with the girl, but try as I might I have a serious problem when it comes to remembering names. In fact of all the Filipinas in Yatsuo, there was only three or four where I could put a name to the face. That was perhaps a slightly better record than with the Vietnamese last year, but at least with them I had the excuse that even if I remembered how to write the name, I would never be able to pronounce it anyway, so what's the point? (how do you pronounce 'Thiu'? Yes, that's right, it's 'Twee', obviously). But names like Sheila, Mildred and Randy are hardly that foreign to the English ear.
Randy turned out to be a jovial, outgoing fellow who was the ideal guide to Manila since he actually knew about his own city, (it's surprising how many people don't you know). What's more, within a few minutes of talking he revealed his interests to be politics and economics. That suited me down to the ground!
Leaving the hotel we took a jeepney to Luneta Park, the expanse of green in the heart of Manila. Before I talk about that however, I should perhaps mention what a jeepney is....
Once upon a time, the Philippines was ruled by a foreign king. Except that he wasn't a king, but in fact an uncle and his name was Sam. Uncle Sam did not actually live in the Philippines however, instead the boss of one of his armies, General Douglas MacArthur, (let's call him Doug for short), ruled in his place. One day, naughty Japanese soldiers attacked the islands and though Doug and his friends fought bravely, the Japanese managed to conquer the Philippines. Before leaving, Doug promised to come back one day, and several years later he did just that, bringing with him lots of men, tanks, planes, jeeps and other things needed for fighting the pesky Japanese. And fight the Japanese he did and very soon it was their turn to leave with their tails between their legs. Shortly afterwards, Doug left once more, this time not promising to come back, which was good because come back he didn't. Whilst our hero had left however, all the things that he had brought with him for fighting the Japanese he left behind, not having any use for them in his job as a peaceful man. Unfortunately, the Filipinos had no use for them either, since they too had decided to be peaceful. Some of the tanks and planes they stuck on plinths outside important places to remind them of Doug and his friends, but the rest they melted down to turn into new and more useful metal things. One clever Filipino however had the bright idea that instead of melting the jeeps down to turn into cutlery and washing machines, he could instead convert them into small minibus-type vehicles, to ferry people around the busy city streets. He called his new bus the jeepney. Other Filipinos saw what a clever idea this was and so they did the same. Thus today, jeepneys throng the streets of every town in the Philippines, alleviating the country's traffic needs and contributing to it's air pollution.
Today a lot of the jeepneys still date from World War II, but many have been manufactured since. What's more, today's jeepneys are not painted in the austere military green that was the fashion during wartime. Instead it's all the colours of the rainbow over-laden with lots of chrome and topped off with religious slogans. I thought at first that they'd perhaps have the destination painted on the front, but the first one that I came across said 'Nazareth', perhaps a little too far from Metro Manila! Common phrases were 'Praise the Lord', 'Christ is Lord', 'Christ is King', 'Hail Maria', 'Ave Maria' and even the mouthful, 'Pray the Rosary everyday, (it takes less than fifteen minutes)!'
Luneta Park may be the city's green lung but it was far from pretty and peaceful that night. That was largely due to the fact that half of it was occupied by a huge open air party thrown for the employees of the Ministry of Tourism with disco music blaring, and the other half by the homeless who also seemed to like loud music. In fact, it may be said that all Filipinos seem to have a thing is for loud, cheesy music, at strange times, most notably early in the morning. On board the Superferry, in the hotel and in Filipino homes we were repeatedly woken up early by the strains of Aquaesque pop. The one song that seemed to be doing the rounds in particular that Christmas was the catchy Angelina (you're my sweet senorina), the latest offering by German cheese master, Lou Bega. And yes, before you ask, of course I bought a copy.

Luneta Park with Randy Aquino
Walking through the park, we then stopped at the war memorial before heading to the waterfront to gaze out over Manila Bay. Randy then suggested that we retire to a disco, a suggestion heartily approved, so we took a taxi to Malate and entered The Arts Venue nightclub.
I must admit here and now, that I like nightclubs in South East Asia, and before you say it, it's not just the pretty women. I am not a nightclub person as a general rule, and in the UK I try to avoid them as much as I can, but when in Asia's south-east, it's the opposite. The reason is simple, people in Europe take their music far too seriously. Every nightclub these days either seems to play tunes that you can either only appreciate if high as a kite, or they are the domain of some extreme alternative group of society that berates everyone else's taste in music. But in Asia no way! It's Lou Bega, Aqua, Vengaboys and Britney all the way! What's more, the Arts Venue was better than most since it was a live music venue. No groups of drug-addled youths proving their creativity here though, no instead groups that sang cheesy music exactly like the original though with the added attraction of gyrating dancing girls supporting the main man or woman. The recital of Tom Jones' 'Sex Bomb' was most memorable. What was also memorable was the fact that beer was served by the barrel at only 500 pesos a time (seven quid). Perhaps not that cheap by Filipino standards by put it like this, it Japan you get two small glasses for the same price.
So we whiled the night away, watching virile student Filipinas dancing below and talking to Randy about everything from the state of Filipino politics, the mysteries of Filipino women, the effects of communism in Vietnam and China, the national characteristics of the Japanese to the planned construction of a railway line between Manila and Mindanao.
Part way through the evening Ryan disappearing to use the sanitary facilities, only to return with a huge grin on his face. "What's up with you?" I asked. "I just got the best massage ever!" he replied. Needless to say, when nature called I headed over to the little boys room and after shaking hands with the unemployed I was approached by a strange man who grabbed my shoulders. Normally this is something that I would find disturbing in a public toilet, but I let him carry on and for only twenty pesos he did a most excellent massage, which left me all the more relaxed and ready to go out and face the beer once more.
We awoke around nineish and headed down for breakfast. The dining room was full but the maid asked if we did not mind being seated on the same table as an elderly gentleman. Mind we did not, and thus that is how we met Jonnie. He, it turned out was of Filipino descent but was in fact a 100% American, residing in California. He asked Ryan where he was from but when he heard the reply, he admitted never going there. All Filipinos and Americans asked my comrade the same question and each time elicited the same response, so I actually felt quite sorry for the guy, as I now suspect that his family, and funny writer Bill Bryson, are the only people that have been to Iowa, let alone live there. Jonnie also turned out to be a bit of a dodgy geezer who had similarly dodgy business interests in several equally dodgy South American states, as well as in the Philippines, (a country hardly renowned for being undodgy), in particular a bottled water company, ("not that I'd drink my own water here" he added). His main profession however was as an immigration lawyer for the Filipinos who want to emigrate to that big country to the east where the grass is always greener.
Immigrants, according to our jolly breakfast companion, is big business in the Philippines. There are around 10 million Filipinos working abroad, 1.8 million of those in the States. Hong Kong however is the biggest receiver, just under 2 million there, though there are also around 100,000 in Saudi Arabia, and large communities in Singapore, Bahrain, the UK, Germany, UAE, Kuwait and elsewhere. Japan has over 30,000 making the Filipinos the second biggest group of foreigners there after the British, (all these figures may not be accurate I must add, since my source of data is the fat bloke that we shared breakfast with and not an academic report, but you get the idea). Indeed, I myself have come across many Filipino ex-pats on my travels; there's the ones in Japan of course, and also the thousands that we saw in Hong Kong. It doesn't stop there though, when I returned home last summer, I surprised to learn that our local hospital has over three hundred Filipino nurses and when I worked in Israel, there were Filipino carers looking after the elderly and infirm on the kibbutz. And here's another interesting anecdote. What was the first plane to arrive in Kuwait after the Gulf War? Was it full of diplomats? Nope. Businessmen and Aid Workers? Not one bit. It was a charter from Manila filled with 'entertainers'; that's one sector of the economy which according to our rotund font of information, Filipinas excel in. Yes, ex-pats are big business indeed in the Philippines, the money that they generate accounts for 55% of the wealth of the nation. No wonder they got a fanfare at the airport!
Randy agreed to meet us at twelve which gave me enough time to disappear for an hour or two, so off I toddled to the Manila LRT, (Light Rapid Transit), which I'd spied the previous day. Now, sad as this might be, I have a thing for railway trains. I will maintain my claim to anyone that in sex appeal alone, a train beats a motor car hands down, let alone it's other attributes, (speed, environmental impact, the fact that if you know how to, you can scam free rides on a train). Anyway, whatever. I had decided to check out some trains of the Philippines, so that explains why that morning I decided to visit the main railway station at Tayuman in Manila. It also explains my preferred method of getting to that station, the LRT.

Manila's LRT is simple. There is one line that is elevated along the main street, Taft Avenue, from North to South. There is one flat fare ticket of 12 pesos for any single journey. Even President Bush could work that one out I'm sure. The trains are actually trams, (similar to those in Manchester), but only some are air-conditioned. Not only did I make the mistake of getting onto one that was not, but it was also packed and going in the wrong direction. It's bad enough the Americans insisting on driving on the wrong side of the road, but passing the mistake onto their colonies is simply too much. Needless to say, wrong-hand drive was not a problem that we'd encountered in Hong Kong. Anyway, 12 pesos worse off, I managed to get another another train, this time going in the right direction, (though on the wrong track), and even air-conditioned. It was still packed however, but I later learnt that there isn't a train on the LRT that isn't.

I got off at the Tayuman stop and walked to where Lonely Planet told me the railway station was. Tayuman railway station is surrounded by some of Manila's worst slums and walking through the litter-strewn streets and broken-down shacks was certainly an experience, even if it did put me on edge. Yet even here, people spoke English. Locals yelled 'Hello!' or 'Merry Christmas!' to me as I walked through their neighbourhood. With the kids you could even tell who'd taught them. One street was populated by youths who obviously had a teacher who was into US gang culture films. 'Whassup dog!' they hollered at me as I passed. The next street however was a quite different affair. 'Good Morrow!' shouted all and sundry. A Shakespearian scholar at the local school perhaps?
Tayuman Railway Station was a disappointment however. The only trains on display were three rusting hulks located on plinths outside the main entrance. All around was overgrown grass and the a scrapyard of old buses. Inside however, the building was immaculately clean, yet deserted. The platforms were empty except for a couple or old carriages that didn't look like they could go anywhere even if trains were scheduled. Back inside I found a man sweeping the floor and a security guard. I asked the guard when the next train would be.
"Here?" he replied. "I don't know, not today. Maybe next week, maybe next month, who knows? You'd be better trying the next station up the track." So, there wasn't much chance of spying some Filipino trains here. I thanked the guard and left the abandoned station, taking a tricycle back to the LRT.
Why the floor needed sweeping I never learnt.
That afternoon Randy had planned to take us to Intramuros, (the old Spanish walled city), and Nayong Pilipino, a village of reconstructed traditional Filipino houses. However, as soon as we left the jeepney near Intramuros, we hit a snag. We had left the jeepney, but Ryan's wallet had not. Or at least Ryan's wallet was not in his pocket where it had been told to stay. To be quite frank we had been warned by the girls beforehand that the Philippines is pick-pocket packed, and due to that both of us carried very little money around in our wallets, but his cards had been there too, and they needed cancelling. We soon found out that cancelling a credit card was easier said than done, especially when the international phonecard that we bought was found out to be no use for international calls, so Ryan and Randy headed off to our host's abode in Pasay City to sort it out from there, leaving me in the SM shopping centre and telling me that they'd see me once more in an hour. To pass the time I went into the National Book Store and purchased Viajero by F. Sionil Jose, the Philippines most famous writer, and 101 Myths and Legends of the Philippines. I then retired to the coffee shop, and sat down to read.
Two hours later, despite learning that the first coconut was formed from the decapitated head of a star-crossed lover, then man and woman were created by the earth goddess who split a bamboo stick and that rumblings of the volcano, Mayon, were actually the roars of a giant sealed forever inside a cave in the mountain, there was no sign of Ryan and Randy. Not being a man to sit around, I upped and left and visited Intramuros by myself.
Intramuros, (literally 'City within walls'), is not actually that impressive. It probably was once, but due to the antics of the pesky Japanese and Doug during World War II (see earlier), there's not that much of it left now. One thing still worth seeing however, is the Santo Agustin Church which dates from 1599. Not that I saw it however, there was a wedding on at the time, but that was interesting to watch nonetheless, and the museum was good too. I then went to the cathedral, rebuilt after the war, but again I was thwarted in my sight-seeing mission by the marital brigade, so I beat a retreat by taking a cyclo back to the SM Shopping Centre which now came complete with Ryan and Randy. After much trouble, credit card cancellation woes had now been relieved, and we were ready to board the LRT south for Nayong Pilipino.
I've developed quite a thing for those reconstruction village places, having visited examples in the UK, Spain, Romania, Japan and the Netherlands now. I know they're not the real thing, but in my mind they're a great way to get an overview of the country. Nayong Pilipino was no exception, looking at the different styles of houses was interesting, and later on in the holiday, I managed to recognise the differences in architecture in Bohol, Ilocos Norte and Baguio from what I'd learnt at there. It was also an ideal place to buy gifts, the only problem was that by the time we got there it was going dark and since many of the shops had no electricity, we had to negotiate one by candlelight. Nayong Pilipino is also next to the airport and across the runway we could see a huge construction taking place. "What's that?" I asked Randy.
"It's the new airport terminal that they're building, it's going to be the biggest in Asia." Strange I thought, Manila is hardly a major hub, since it is a bit out of the way. Why was such a big terminal needed, I questioned Randy?
"For the overseas workers. It's the gift of the Filipino Government to them, since they bring in so much money."
We arose late the next day and leisurely caught a taxi to the airport from whence we would fly to Cebu. Inside the Domestic Terminal it was crowded and chaotic. Christmas is the most important festival of the year, and the time when the airlines are at their busiest, with everyone going home to their families. Nonetheless, we caught the plane in good time and after a short and uneventful flight, we landed in Cebu's airport on the isle of Maktan, which lies adjacent to the larger island which also bears the name of it's major city, Cebu. We were rather surprised that our pre-booked Cebu hotel was actually around the corner from the airport on Maktan island, but it was pleasant nonetheless, and again, at four pounds a night, one can hardly complain.
That afternoon we decided to go into Cebu City for we had business to conclude. We were travelling back from Cebu, not by plane, but by Superferry, as recommended by the ladies at SMK. Having reserved our places via the internet, we now had to collect our tickets, (that day being the deadline), from the offices of the WG&A Shipping Company in Cebu City. Simple enough, so we caught a taxi to the nearby town of Lapu Lapu from whence the small ferry across the water to Cebu leaves.
Lapu Lapu is worthy of note, for it is named after the famous Filipino chieftain who slew the even more famous Spanish explorer, Magellan, in 1521 at the spot where the town now stands. Magellan is of course renowned as being the first person to sail around the world. An impressive feat except that Magellan never did sail around the world at all. He wanted to, but his exploratory ambitions were put a stop to by the aforementioned Lapu Lapu. His ship did however, but even if he had not been killed by the warlike tribal guy, he would still have not been the first man to traverse the globe. That honour falls to a fellow named Enrique, who was in fact Filipino. He came from an island near to Cebu, and was captured by Muslim pirates who took him to Malaysia. There he was sold to the Spanish, who took him back to Spain via the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The esteemed Magellan, who was planning his jaunt around the globe reckoned that having a native of the Philippines Isles might just be a good idea, since he was planning to stop there awhile and the inhabitants were not yet fluent in Spanish. Thus, Enrique accompanied Magellan, and therefore, when the Philippines was touched, he became the first man to traverse the globe. Personally I think that the fact that it was a Filipino is quite fitting, since nowadays Filipinos, despite their lowly incomes are some of the biggest globe-trotters to be found, whilst the Spanish don't seem to venture far at all. Sadly, our Enrique was not so useful when it came to parleying with the locals, who it seems preferred to fight than talk, as Magellan soon found out, to his eternal cost.  The ferry journey was nice, and made all the more interesting by the fact that Ryan's seating companion was a chicken and the omnipresent 'Angelina' was blaring over the tannoys at a rather loud level. However, once in Cebu, the joy vanished. The shipping offices, whom we had phoned earlier and whom had told us that they were open, were closed. "Go to the SM Mall" said the security guard. So go to SM we did but again the office had that none too inspiring 'Closed' sign on the door. "Go to the Ayala Centre" suggested the girl at the desk, after she realised that it would take more than a 'Closed' sign to make us leave her domain. Going to the Ayala Centre however was easier said than done, especially at rush hour. Anyway, in about an hour or so, we covered the three miles in a taxi and joined the lengthy queue at the desk there, which thankfully was still open. About an hour or so later, we achieved our purpose, armed not only with our Superferry tickets, but also tickets for the Supercat to Bohol the following day; we were off to see the Chocolate Hills!


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