Smiling dragon statue at Philippine Taoist Temple in Cebu

Travel Update: Cebu

Our visit to Cebu followed in the grand tradition of our adventures through Asia — Amelia and I slept in while Kat went off adventuring. Specifically, she set out at a truly unpleasant hour to go scuba diving. Amelia has a deep mistrust of the briny deep (she’s still upset about the time I threw her into the surf during our honeymoon in Maui), and I am skeptical as to the moral justification for alarm clocks, so we were OK with giving this one a pass.

It looks like she had a pretty great time, notwithstanding our naysaying. Surely the psychological cost of facing the malevolent seas with leaden-lidded eyes was a great one, but Kat overcame the odds and returned to us alive and in good spirits.

Roughly five hours after Kat left for dive school (that is not a joke), Amelia and I crawled out of bed and somehow, heroically, found the energy to go to breakfast at the in-hotel restaurant. We were tempted to order room service, but we were in an adventurous mood that morning and resolved to explore the hotel for ourselves.

Truly, ours is a story of adversity.

After breakfast, Amelia and I headed downtown to see the sights. This took us through a series of neighbourhoods with some dramatic variations. Ramshackle houses gave way to gleaming towers in a “business park” (the Wikipedia page for which appears to be copied verbatim from a developer’s advertisement) and cavernous megachurches sat across the street from strip clubs.

That paints sort of a grim picture, but that isn’t how the city felt. Cebu felt very much like a resort town, notwithstanding being the second-most-populous city in the Philippines. The city was a kaleidoscope of colours and architectural styles, all baking under the tropical sun.

Downtown Cebu, seen from above
That truly is a gigantic church.

We were headed towards the Crown Regency Hotel and Towers, home to the Sky Experience Adventure. It had come highly recommended from the concierge. The Sky Experience Adventure inhabited the top floors of the highest building in Cebu, and featured a movie theatre, a zip line, a rock-climbing wall, a bar, the Edge Coaster (I’ll get to that), and, of course, one heck of a view.

Sky bar at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
You can contemplate the horizon while sipping on a martini at the open-air bar.

The Sky Experience Adventure — wait, that is getting tiring; I’m going to call it the “SEA” from now on — the SEA had a token-based system for paying for activities. Upon paying for admission, you are issued a wristband with an RFID chip carrying a certain number of tokens. Every time you want to do something, you wave your wristband over a sensor, which deducts the appropriate number of tokens.

Amelia was eager to put these tokens to good use, so she made a beeline to the zip line. The zip line (“TOWER ZIP!”, as the signage referred to it) stretches from the top of Cebu’s tallest tower to an adjacent, slightly-smaller tower. It’s not terribly long, by zip line standards, but it is a dizzying 473 feet above the streets below.

For whatever reason, Amelia does not treat gravity with the same suspicion as the briny deep.

Amelia getting into safety gear at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
“I’m about to dangle off the side of a skyscraper, but at least I’m not on a boat!”

While Amelia was getting ready for the zip line, one of the attendants asked whether she was my wife. This was literally the first time that this had happened in Asia. My enthusiasm was tempered by the realization, a few sentences into this conversation, that the attendant was under the impression that Amelia was a local (and much younger) girl that I’d swooped in to carry off to a glitzy life abroad.

There was no judgement, mind you — the attendant was quite enthusiastic about the whole situation, and was keen to tell me (repeatedly) that “she is so beautiful”, “such great beauty!”, and so on. I was not so keen on the whole “excellent selection of wife material” vibe, so I scrambled to tell her that (a) Amelia and I are the same age, and (b) we are both from Canada. I did concede, however, that Amelia has some Filipino ancestry, which prompted the attendant to proclaim “I knew it — she has such great beauty!”

Not content to be the only one made uncomfortable by this exchange, I have spent the following several years exclaiming (more-or-less at random) “such great beauty!” to Amelia. My impression is uncanny, I assure you.

Amelia ziplining at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
Amelia was not aware of this exchange until after she returned from her perilous adventure.

You might be wondering “Wait, how did Amelia get back to the SEA after being deposited on an adjacent building?” Firstly, good on you for consistent use of acronyms. Secondly, the zip line is a two-parter; after arriving at the adjacent building, Amelia took a second zip line, landing her on a lower floor of the Crown Regency Hotel and Towers. This floor was also part of the SEA, and was home to the rock-climbing wall.

Amelia in front of a rock wall at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
Thankfully, there were elevators, so she did not have to climb back up to the summit.

I didn’t share Amelia’s enthusiasm for death-defying attractions, so we went to the SEA’s theatre so I could spend a token or two. The theatre was a bit of a gimmick — it’s one of these “four-dimensional” things where they spray mist in your face when water shows up on-screen. One particularly startling feature was a set of moving fibres underneath the seats that tickled the back of Amelia’s legs while furry critters (rats, maybe?) scurried around on-screen. I was wearing pants, and so was a little confused by the sudden shrieks coming from my capri-clad companion.

After taking in a fifteen-minute 4D featurette, we headed back up to the observation deck.

Silhouette of Amelia and Chris in front of a telescope at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
We carefully surveyed the surrounding scenery.

After all this, Amelia still had plenty of tokens to spare for the Edge Coaster. Now, the Edge Coaster is like a roller coaster, except it might be better described as a tilter coaster. Which is to say that, instead of rolling up and down undulating tracks, the edge coaster follows a flat track around the circumference of the building, and tilts forward so that passengers are facing the street.

I noted (vainly) that people typically prefer to face the horizon, and not concrete streets 473 feet below. Although I feel that I provided a fairly compelling set of reasons, Amelia would hear none of it. She was resolute in her desire to, uh, coast in an edgewise fashion.

Amelia on Edge Coaster at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
The face of a woman who mocks gravity, as long as there’s no water beneath her.

There was more to do at the SEA, but we were nearing the appointed time (about 4pm) when we had agreed to meet Kat back at the hotel. Amelia reluctantly left death un-defied at the remaining death-defying attractions. I left somewhat less reluctantly.

Imagine my chagrin, then, when Kat’s immediate reaction to being regaled with our tales of the SEA was “I want to do that, too!”. They nipped my objections in the bud by making the return trip contingent on first visiting the Crown Regency Hotel and Towers’ world-class buffet dinner.

My travelling companions may not be in possession of properly-calibrated self-preservation instincts, but they are excellent negotiators. We returned to the Crown Regency Hotel and Towers without complaint.

My bracelet had plenty of tokens left, so I passed it off to Kat. She shared Amelia’s enthusiasm for the Edge Coaster, though her view of the city was much sparklier.

Kat on Edge Coaster at Sky Experience Adventure in Cebu
Unlike Amelia, if there were water below, Kat would likely have tried to dive.

Amelia had just enough tokens left to attempt the last of the SEA’s attractions — the Skywalk Extreme. Amelia and Kat have a well-documented love of these deathtraps, although my enthusiasm has been more muted. At any rate, I was without a wristband (having gifted mine to Kat), so I was, sadly, unable to accompany them on their vertigo-inducing brush with death.

Fortunately, my travelling companions survived their foolhardy expedition and we returned to our hotel in one piece. Er, three pieces, I guess. We were each intact, is what I’m saying.

The next would be our last day of adventuring in the Philippines, and (moreover) our last full day spent travelling beyond our home base of Hong Kong. The SEA had been fun, but was wanted our final excursion to be a return to form. In our case, this means one thing: temples. So many temples.

Fortunately for us, Cebu is home to the Philippine Taoist Temple (also called the Cebu Taoist Temple). The temple is nestled into the Beverly Hills region of Cebu. That name isn’t an accident; this Beverly Hills is very much a parallel to its infamous namesake in Los Angeles. Here the great and good of Cebu make their beds and say their prayers. The local temple is reflective of the opulence of its surroundings, which makes it a fantastic tourist destination.

The temple is a popular spot for people seeking to have their fortunes told. The fortune-telling process goes like this: the fortune-seeker washes his or her hands, lights some incense, and prays. They then grab two wooden blocks shaped like kidney beans; the blocks are flat on one side and round on the other. The fortune-seeker asks a question or makes a wish and then tosses the blocks.

If both blocks land round-side-up, the answer is “no”. If the both land flat-side-up, the answer is “maybe” (the sign advises that you should have asked a clearer question, and suggests that you ask a temple attendant for help). If the blocks are mismatched, then congratulations — that’s a “yes”. If that sounds a lot like Pass the Pigs to you, well, I don’t know what to tell you other than perhaps you’ll need to play with greater reverence next time.

After our visit to the Taoist temple, we trekked to downtown Cebu, where we saw a host of cultural sites in quick succession. The first was Fort San Pedro (or, as its founding conquistadors referred to it, Fuerza de San Pedro). The fort’s history goes back nearly 500 years, though the buildings have gone through several iterations.

The fort is of particular significance because it formed the military arm of the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines. We hadn’t realized this before coming to Cebu, but the Spanish did not first land at Manila — they came to Cebu, which became the epicentre of a centuries-long campaign of colonization and conversion.

Today, Fort San Pedro is a smallish structure tucked into Independence Plaza (“Plaza Independencia”). It has a butterfly sanctuary, and at one point housed a small zoo. The Spanish heritage of this portion of Cebu has not received the same careful maintenance as Manila’s Intramuros. Frankly, I don’t blame them — as you may recall, the reverence for Intramuros was confusing to me. Turning a fortress into a butterfly garden, though? I get that.

The fort was surrounded by various monuments, including an 1855 plinth honouring Spanish queen Isabel II and a 2006 structure celebrating “400 years of continuing OAR presence in the Philippines”. The OAR is the Order of Augustinian Recollects, the earliest Catholic missionaries to set up shop in the Philippines.

Order of Augustinian Recollects monument at Plaza Independencia in Cebu
The Philippines has to be in the running for Most Catholic Country, so you can’t fault the OAR’s effectiveness.

That seemed like a lot of Spanish-centric monuments to have in a park that nominally celebrates Filipino independence, but hey, I’m hardly in a position to tell the citizens of Cebu how to embrace their heritage.

While we toured the plaza, we ran into two security guards. They were pleasant fellows, and we hung around to chat for a minute. One of them (the one of the bike in the photo below) took a bit of a shining to Amelia, and asked what she was up to later. She let him down gently — clearly he could not help but be drawn to her great beauty.

Amelia with security guards at Plaza Independencia in Cebu
Amelia was standing in the most secure spot in the park.

We left Plaza Independencia in search of the next major landmark. Along the way, we spotted some truly glorious jeepneys. Our love affair with the Philippines’ signature mode of transport is well-documented, and Cebu was home to some of our favourite jeepney designs.

Not far from Plaza Independencia is the Cross of Magellan. Remember how I mentioned that the Spanish first landed at Cebu? Well, when I said “the Spanish”, I meant “Ferdinand Magellan and company”. Ol’ Ferdie made landfall at Cebu, planted his eponymous cross, and swiftly got to converting the locals. Apparently Magellan got along pretty well with the people of Cebu, but not so well with their neighbours on Mactan — Magellan got killed shortly after arriving.

Anyways, the people of Cebu (and the Philippines in general, including modern Mactan) are big fans of Magellan’s Cross. They even built a bigger, hollow cross around it to protect the original cross from souvenir-seekers (apparently chips of Magellan’s Cross are a popular keepsake). They also built a chapel around it, for that extra layer of protection from the elements.

Right next to Magellan’s Cross is the Basilica del Santo Niño. As one might expect, given the above history lesson, the Basilica is the oldest church in the Philippines, founded in the mid-1500s. The current building dates back to the mid-1700s.

Like the Church of the Black Nazarene in Manila, the church is regularly overflowing with people, despite holding more than a dozen services on the most popular days. The Basilica’s solution to this seemed a little more elegant than the Black Nazarene’s; the Basilica now faces out on a gigantic outdoor auditorium (called the “Pilgrim Center”), which is used for the most popular services.

Since this was Sunday, we planned to attend a mass. The Basilica hosted several masses each day, some in English and some in Cebuano (a local language indigenous to the area). We happened to be there between masses, so we noted the time of the next English mass and took the opportunity to wander freely through the church and its surrounding grounds.

We continued our tour of this historic area of Cebu. Just a few blocks away was the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral. This church got demolished in World War II, and so the current building was quite a bit more modern than the old Basilica.

The Cathedral is the seat of the local archdiocese, which means that it is technically superior to the Basilica in the ecclesiastical org chart, despite the Basilica being older and larger. That seemed a little unfair to us, but (by way of counterpoint) the Cathedral is tremendously pretty.

Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral
A wedding was going on, so we did not head inside.

Just past the Cathedral was a large monument in the middle of the road. It was called The Heritage of Cebu, and it was composed of dozens of larger-than-life statues arranged on a dais. The statues were arranged into groups depicting historic events and figures, including our old friend Ferdie, his defeat at the Battle of Mactan, the conversion of native Cebuanos, and local figures of historical significance (including a saint and a former president of the Philippines).

Importantly, the monument was neighboured by an ice cream vendor. We enjoyed some frozen treats while contemplating the symbolism of the various faces of the monument.

We weren’t just gawking at churches and monuments all this time (though we were certainly doing plenty of that). Kat was on the hunt for appropriate attire for the evening mass — she had taken the acceptable clothing signage we saw in Manila to heart, and knew that her tank top would not pass ecclesiastical muster.

This hunt took us through commercial areas, which was more entertaining than expected. I have a special fondness for the hundreds of knock-off iPods (only 350 pesos each — about $9.50!), but my favourite sighting was a series of help-wanted signs. One asked for candidates’ “family background” and reminded job-seekers that “GOD WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS.!!!”. Another requested (among other things) that applicants for a sales clerk position be 5’2” in height, have a pleasing personality, be able to provide a birth certificate, and pass multiple types of clearance.

We weren’t looking for quality MP3 players or a rewarding career, though — Kat was just looking for something that would cover her shoulders. This was more challenging than it seemed. Despite Kat’s relatively trim figure, she’s something like a quintuple-extra-large in Filipino sizing, so suitable shirts and other coverings were in short supply. Even a simple shawl eluded us.

Street market in Cebu
We spelunked these alleyways for hours, to no avail.

Eventually the time for mass drew near. Kat decided that any moral obligation had been fulfilled by her extensive search, and that the Basilica would just have to survive a pair of exposed shoulders that evening. We returned to the Basilica for evening mass.

The service that evening was not entirely in English — the sermon was based around seven Cebuano words, although we didn’t quite catch what they were (the priest was heavily accented and offered no translations). The gist of it was that each of these words offered a different perspective on a single concept, and that Jesus demonstrated each of these distinct-but-related meanings at various times.

My retelling is lacking in details, I admit, but in my defence: we were thoroughly confused for most of the sermon’s duration. My takeaway is that the sermon seemed to be a sort of Cebuano spin on the classic lesson on the four Greek words for love that is popular at pulpits the world over.

Candles at Basilica del Santo Niño in Cebu
Our return to the Basilica was not entirely in vain: we arrived just in time to light some candles.

By this point, the day’s activities were nearly done. We had a flight to Manila scheduled for that evening, but had just enough time to catch a quick bite to eat. We only had to walk a block or so to find the perfect place — Jollibee! This is the Filipino McDonalds; it has a ton of locations in the Philippines and worldwide, but none in our native Canada (at least, not yet). We spotted their mascot (appropriately, a jolly bee) from afar and made a bee-line (get it???) to the eatery.

We did have to walk past a security guard with what appeared to be a pretty well-maintained assault rifle in order to enter. Unfortunately, we did not want to ask that rather imposing fellow for a photo, and I don’t know much about guns, so I can’t provide much more detail than “it was a surprisingly large gun for a local fast food establishment”.

In any event, we had a very pleasant meal in this particularly secure downtown Jollibee location.

With our hours in Cebu now spent, we headed back to our hotel and waited for a cab to the airport. We took those few minutes to relax and reflect on our journey. Once we got bored with that, we wandered around the hotel’s lobby, which was fully outfitted in Christmas gear notwithstanding it being mid-November.

On this, the Philippines and I are of a mind. If your Christmas decorations aren’t up on November 1, I urge you to reconsider what you are doing with your life.

Our taxi took us to the airport, our plane took us to Manila, and another taxi took us to a hostel. Due to booking shenanigans, our flight back to Hong Kong wasn’t until the following morning.

It’s all for the best, though. Our hostel had plenty of, uh, character.

Mercifully, our beds were not ingeniously-designed torture devices (unlike our previous Filipino hostel experience), and we managed to get some decent sleep. Come morning, we were whisked off to the airport, where we caught our flight to Hong Kong without incident. With final exams and paper deadlines looming, we would be staying in Hong Kong for the rest of the semester.

Our final adventures in Hong Kong would be entirely different from our jetting jaunts; rooftop barbecues, local restaurants, evenings with friends, and familiar streets would take up our free moments. It would be the perfect end to a hectic semester abroad.