Brick passage at Fort Santiago in Manila

Travel Update: Manila

[Editor’s note: The previous post, detailing our last days in Japan, omitted a rather crucial detail — our nearly-botched mission to return Shawn to Canada. The first few paragraphs have been updated to include that story.]

Our last big trip during our time in Asia was to the Philippines, the source of half of Amelia’s genes and a startling variety of deep-fried foods. Unlike our previous trips, we didn’t have much planned beyond “show up in Manila and see what happens”, which is Amelia’s preferred method of itinerary construction.

This worked out surprisingly well for us. We arrived at our hostel, asked what there was to see, and were immediately caught up in the wake of two impromptu tour guides. These two fine gents (whose names, I am ashamed to admit, I do not recall) lead us outside and onto the Philippines’ signature mode of transportation — a jeepney!

You may not be familiar with the wonder that is the jeepney. Imagine a jeep crossed with a limousine, add a dash of minivan, emblazon a name across its front, paint it a garish colour, and festoon it with decals, signage, and occasional filigree and you will arrive at a reasonable approximation of a jeepney. We made something of a sport of photographing our favourite jeepneys over the next few days.

You ride a jeepney like this: You walk up to the back of a slow-moving (or stopped, if you’ve no sense of adventure) jeepney, clamber in through the always-open rear door, toss some pesos into a jar, and sit on the benches lining the walls ’till you get where you’re going.

The jeepney took us to Intramuros, the historic walled city from which the Spanish once ruled the Philippines (before the Americans won a war and bought it off them for a song). We took a quick tour of Plaza Roma, which (based on the available context clues) I believe to be some sort of Italian public square. I’m not sure how Italy figures into this, and I did not ask.

Plaza Roma in Intramuros, Manila
King Charles IV wasn’t super chatty.

The Plaza Roma is smack in the middle of Intramuros, and is flanked by the Governor’s Palace (which we tried walking into, but were rebuffed), the National Treasury, and the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica. As the signs outside informed us, this is the biggest, most important, most pilgrimage-worthy, and most Papally-approved church in the Philippines.

We were starting to run short on sunlight, and our guides were eager to move on. We resolved to return the next day.

We caught a pedicab over to the edge of Intramuros, along which the stone walls of the old city run. We stopped at the walls for a mini-tour, where we ran across a group of children who were singing and dancing.

The children noticed Amelia’s interest and invited her to join. They taught her to clap along to a nursery rhyme (the details of which escape me), which delighted her. Once the lesson was done, they thrust out their hands for their reward — an entrepreneurial spirit is imparted to Filipino children at a young age, it seems.

We paid up and moved along.

The guides were quite eager to show us the crown jewel of Manila – the Mall of Asia. This was a gleaming, modern structure that blended indoor and outdoor space and played host to the most fashionable denizens of the Philippines.

We appreciated our guides’ desire to show us the best that the city had to offer, and we didn’t have the heart to tell them that malls generally weren’t our first choice when it comes to tourist destinations. Plus, both we and our guides were getting peckish, and we were assured that fine Filipino food was on offer at the Philippines’ finest mall.

Our guides took us to Calaben, a buffet restaurant serving all manner of Filipino dishes. This was exciting for us, since it let us try dozens of foods which were heretofore unknown to us. We feasted on adobo, kaldereta, kare-kare, sinigang, lumpia, and pancit. Amelia in particular was excited to guide us through her culinary heritage and to discover how the local recipes differed from her mom’s formulation.

When the bill came, our guides (somewhat conveniently) didn’t have any cash on them. We were happy to pay — they had spent their afternoon showing us around their city, and it was only fair that we compensate them with a meal.

By the end of dinner, night had fallen. We wanted to keep exploring, and our guides needed to take off, so they gave us directions to get home and then departed. We wandered down the nearby boardwalk, which was hopping with nightlife. Our first stop was a cluster of ocean-facing bars, each equipped with person-sized speaker systems blasting the surroundings with music.

Nearby, a group of masked men (I assume, for reasons that will become apparent) in baggy pants cavorted for an audience. They were entirely silent, providing their comedy via an exaggerated pantomime and energetically soliciting passersby for tips. As soon as I passed nearby, they lept into action, eager to snare the big foreign tourist. They were right to do so; for the next few minutes, their whole act centred on me and my companions, and we were enthralled.

The group with masked performer at Mall of Asia in Manila
One of the performers (clowns?) posing with his new best friends.

Even my camera became a participant — they snagged it and ran about the boardwalk snapping photos of ladies in slinky nightclub attire (again, to the hoots and hollers of the audience). None of these women seemed to be particularly keen to be harassed by masked strangers in the dead of night, so I quickly retrieved my camera from the jesters. This oddly misogynistic turn was a sour spot in an otherwise-entertaining comedy routine.

I left a generous (and showy) donation in an outstretched hat, and was met with bowing and scraping in return. There’s probably a post-colonial analysis that can be done there, but I try to keep each post to just one breezy recognition of systemic inequality.

We headed back to the Mall of Asia, in search of a ride back to our hostel. Along the way, we gawked at the various attractions dotting the landscape — inflated person-sized balls that people could hop into and walk across a pond in, standing astronaut statute/costume devices, various illustrated cutouts (you know, the kind that you stick your head through for a photo), and even a carousel!

Amelia and Kat on a carousel at Mall of Asia in Manila
We always have time for a carousel, but we skipped the rest — it was late.

We found our way back to the hostel and proceeded to have a truly unpleasant night’s sleep. I still think about that night, even years later. If you go to the Philippines, I strongly recommend that you stay in a hotel; a hostel will save you a few dollars (literally — the Philippines is a very inexpensive country to visit), but hotels are more likely to feature beds that are designed for humans to rest in them, and are more likely to provide air conditioners rather than wide-open windows facing the nearby (and very active) fire station.

Anyways. We overcame our sleep deprivation, examined maps of the area, and set out for the University of Manila. Amelia’s mother taught accounting there many years ago, and Amelia was eager to see this part of her family’s history.

Along the way, we passed by fruit stands, gardens, and (most impressively) the Basilica of the Black Nazarene. This church was hopping — the basilica itself was somewhat small (and was packed entirely full), but it was flanked by two more recent (and much larger) halls which were also completely stuffed. The congregants spilled into the streets outside, where gigantic screens broadcast the day’s homily. And this was on a Saturday!

Of course, not everyone outside was attentively fixated on the screens — like with any large group of people in the Philippines, a fair number of entrepreneurial souls had set up shop with various wares.

The basilica had a banner draped across a wall that read “Mabuhay! Mabuhay! Mabuhay! Congressman MANNY “Pacman” PACQUIAO, WBO Welterweight Champion”. (“Mabuhay!” is a cross between “Long live!” and “Welcome!”) I noticed it because “Pacman” was a hilarious nickname, but I was later informed that Mr. Pacquiao is something of a national (and international) celebrity, and had just recently been elected to Congress as the leader of his own political party (which, amazingly, is called the People’s Champ Movement). He would be brought up spontaneously in conversation many times by people we met in the Philippines, especially cab drivers.

Cab drivers, it seems, have a special love for Manny Pacquiao.

We schlepped on over from the basilica to the University of Manila, or “UM” for short. The University uses this acronym in its formal vision statement, posted by the entry gate. That statement, by the way, proclaims in all-caps the University’s dedication to “THE TRILOGY OF UM IDEALS: LOVE OF COUNTRY, LOVE OF SCIENCE AND LOVE OF VIRTUE”. Evidently, they do not feel the same dedication to the Oxford comma.

Manila has dozens of universities (many of them having names only slightly dissimilar to “University of Manila”). They are crammed into city blocks, sharing walls with commercial and residential buildings. UM is no different in this regard. It is packed into a surprisingly small space (three buildings!), and is separated from the outside world by only a thin wall. It’s a far cry from the “small” university that I first attended in Canada, which covered expansive grounds atop a hill far from the nearest home or store.

Like any university, however, UM apparently has a thriving social scene. This was especially true (somewhat surprisingly) of the Computer Science department. Glass-encased bulletin boards were covered in photos and names of “ComSci” students, and the wall of the department’s officers featured dozens of smiling faces, many of them with the appearance of professional glamour shots. Officers’ titles included “muse” (a lady) and “escort” (a gentleman) alongside the more traditional “president”, “treasurer”, and so on.

Most surprising of all was that the ComSci department (a) had a majority-female student body, and (b) actually held social events (with dress codes!). Neither of these things had seemed attainable at the male-heavy Computer Science program that I hailed from, so kudos to UM for succeeding where so many programs are not.

Computer Science party poster at University of Manila
This would have passed for an April Fools joke at my alma mater.

Being as it was around lunchtime, we stopped in at the UM cafeteria for some grub. The food they served was varied, but we only ordered one thing: the impossibly cheap and incredibly delicious daily special — spaghetti! In fact, it was so good (and so cheap) that I ordered it twice.

We ate near a group of students, who were delighted to see some tourists at their school. One of the students decided that it would be fun to call me “Daddy” whenever she saw me. “Daddy,” she would cry, “take me home with you!” I told her that my wife might not approve (gesturing to Amelia), and she commented that we could all go together. I politely declined, but the damage was done; Amelia continues to mimic her appeal to this day, whenever she wants to make me feel deeply, profoundly uncomfortable. (Our marriage is a lot healthier than it sounds.)

I assume that she was referring to “Canada” rather than, you know, any prurient meaning. Amelia is not so sure. At any rate, I’ve chalked that one up to cultural differences. Moving on!

Differences in scale, student culture, and cosmetics aside, UM is plainly a real university with a clear vision. Instead of unrealistically trying to do everything in its limited space, it targets specific programs (mostly accounting, law, and computer science) and it seems to operate more-or-less as one would expect. After obtaining visitors’ passes, we toured the registrar’s office (packed with students), the library (much less packed), and various classrooms.

After our tour of UM, we headed back to Intramuros to explore Fort Santiago. It’s an old fort — it was built by the Spanish (a popular nationality among Santiagos) in the late 1500s, got trashed in the Spanish-American war of 1898, and has undergone extensive renovations since the 1980s. Nowadays it’s more-or-less intact, which was convenient for us.

Fort Santiago occupies a weird place in the Filipino national identity. The signage praises its historic character, but alternates between celebrating and denouncing its colonial builders. We saw cheery Filipinos putting their faces into Spanish settler cutouts for photos right next to signs discussing the forcible conquest of the Philippines and dominion of the Spanish crown. Fort Santiago is where old Manila (Intramuros) began, but it is also where the Philippines’ national hero, an anti-clergy and anti-colonial firebrand, met his end.

I haven’t mentioned him yet, have I? His name was José Rizal, and you’re about to hear a lot more about him. First, though, here’s what Fort Santiago actually looks like:

Rizal is best introduced by the plaque placed outside of his prison cell: “Dr. José Protacio Rizal is our national hero and martyr, the greatest apostle of Filipino nationalism.” He was a medical doctor and philosopher who studied in Spain, France, and Germany and wrote satirical, nationalistic, and revolutionary works criticizing the clergy and the colonial government while defending the merits of pre-colonial Filipino society. He is widely venerated by Filipinos today, to a degree that sees no real analogy in Canadian culture. He’s a sort of secular, national, and ethnic saint.

We visited during the 150th anniversary of Rizal’s birth, so the fort was a particularly popular pilgrimage destination for Filipinos during our visit. Rizal was imprisoned at the fort before the Spanish authorities (who were less enthusiastic about his agitation than modern Filipinos) executed him for sedition. Today, the fort’s central structures have been converted into the Rizal shrine, each wall covered in his writings, quotations, and personal history. It was poetic — the colonizer’s prison supplanted by the spirit of the colonized.

Prison cell of Jose Rizal
His prison cell is now a room for contemplation, illuminated by the words of the poem he wrote the night before he died.

The shrine was quite stirring, even for someone without a personal connection to the culture or history of the Philippines. It sounds cheesy, but I feel like I left with a deeper appreciation of the Filipino national identity than I had entered with.

We left the shrine and passed back through Plaza Roma. We had a little more time to wander about this time around, so we checked out the nearby Governor’s Palace and popped in to Manila Cathedral.

Our ultimate destination for the day was San Augustin Church, the oldest church in the Philippines and the site of numerous significant events. These include Spain’s concession to the United States in the Spanish American War of 1898, which saw the US take control of the Philippines.

The US controlled the Philippines right up until World War II, when Japan’s imperial forces began one of their characteristically brutal occupations. The Philippines became the centre of a major conflict between the two powers. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the crossfire, many of them in Manila. Memorials still dot the city in commemoration of those lost; we ran across one on the way to San Augustin.

Memorial for civilians slain by Japan in Manila
The Philippines peacefully obtained independence from the United States shortly after the war.

San Augustin Church wasn’t far beyond that. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, and it’s home to numerous artifacts and cultural works. We explored the grounds, which included gardens, mausoleums, art collections, and (of course) an actual, functioning church.

Eventually our travels through the museum portion of the complex lead us to the gallery of the old church. This was neat not only because the gallery was host to an organ, an enormous (and glass-encased) bible, and all manner of decorations, but also because it gave us a great view of a wedding service happening down in the nave.

We returned to the not-so-mean streets of Manila and wandered in the direction of Manila’s signature aquarium, Ocean Park (we love aquariums). Along the way, Kat bought a bag of oranges, which she shared with some kids on the street.

Children with oranges in Manila
I wanted to call them “street urchins”, but I was worried that it might be taken in a pejorative way. They were lovely!

We also discovered a rooster tied to a pole. This was hilarious to Kat and me — it conjured an image of someone taking a rooster out for a walk, like a dog, and tying it up outside while they tended to business indoors. Amelia didn’t see the big deal.

Rooster on the street in Manila
A real, literal cock of the walk.

Not far from Ocean Park is Rizal Park, which distinguishes itself from Ocean Park by literally being an actual park. This is the big central park in Manila, and it also happens to be the location where José Rizal was executed by firing squad. In addition to the wide open leisure space, it holds Rizal’s remains and various monuments memorializing him.

Before we could get to any of that, though, we needed to eat. We stopped in at a food stand and ordered whatever they happened to be serving. This worked out pretty well for us.

We wandered through the park, which is sprawling (one of the largest urban parks in Asia, we’re told). Our sauntering took us past pools and monuments, strikingly-lit by the descending sun.

We also ran into a group of kids who were enamoured with my camera and requested a photo. I gladly obliged. Afterwards, they clustered around me to get a peek at the results, which they seemed pleased with. We exchanged Facebook information so that I could share the photo with them later.

We soon found the location of José Rizal’s execution. It’s now a statutory-filled clearing named “The Martyrdom of José Rizal”. Bronze gunmen fire at a bronze Rizal, face permanently twisted in a grimace equally weighted with pain and ecstasy. The imagery of sainthood runs deep in the Philippines.

Statues of Rizal’s execution at Rizal Park in Manila
The anti-clerical writings are probably a roadblock to canonization, though.

The central scene is surrounded by depictions of important moments in the last days Rizal’s life. Statues of Rizal write on bronze paper, are judged by bronze men, and say farewell to bronze women. These are evenly spaced around the central tableau, and have a very stations-of-the-cross vibe to them.

Amelia helping Rizal’s statue write at Rizal Park in Manila
Amelia gave Rizal some helpful tips on effective writing.

Dusk was quickly beginning to fall, so we walked along the waterfront to Ocean Park (the big aquarium that we’d been angling for earlier). It wasn’t far away, and we found it without trouble.

Though we were eager to see the fishes of the sea, we dawdled for a moment at the water’s edge to watch the sun slowly melt into the horizon.

Sunset over the port of Manila
Goodnight, sun!

We spent most of our time at Ocean Park gawking at ridiculous fish. For example, have you ever heard of the longhorn cowfish, known in the Philippines as baka baka? We certainly had not! Simply knowing this magnificent creature’s name brought joy into our hearts. The knowledge that “baka” is Japanese for “stupid” only increased our enjoyment.

Aside from the name, though, the longhorn cowfish has an unremarkable appearance. We found plenty of more striking sea creatures to commit to digital film.

Ocean Park is also home to the Snow Village (just past the penguins’ habitat, if you’re curious). Much like the ice funhouse in Macau, this chilly wonderland was an exotic attraction for the locals and a reminder of home for us Canadians.

The Snow Village was the end of Ocean Park’s visitors’ loop. Not being quite done with feeling chilly, we found an Oh My Yogurt (“American Premium Frozen Yogurt!”) in the main lobby. We feasted upon yogurt bedecked with strawberries, chocolates, and the like.

After our visit to Ocean Park was done, it was time to head to our hotel. That wasn’t a typo — thankfully, we were not returning to our hostel in Manila. Instead, we were travelling to Cebu, where we had lined up more luxurious accommodations.

Being as Cebu is on an entirely different island, we had also lined up a plane to get us there. We caught a cab to the airport.

Dashboard icons in a taxi in Manila
Presumably another icon of St. Nicholas. Dude is everywhere!

The airport itself was not particularly noteworthy (although it did have a Muslim prayer room next to the restrooms, which was new to me but is probably a pretty common feature in airports the world over).

The is one thing worth pointing out, though — or, rather, Juan thing. The airport was full of ads for international brands, as many are, but apparently they had all decided to make the exact same joke. For example:

Citibank “Juan” puns ad in Manila
It’s official, Citibank has weaponized the dad joke.

Citibank was not the only offender. Cube Pacific Air (a local brand, even!) had a poster right next to Citibank’s with the tagline “Bright Skies for Every Juan”. Now, I am a well-known fan of terrible puns, but after a half-dozen iterations the “Juan sounds like one, get it?” punchline starts to wear thin.

Anyways. The flight was fine, and we arrived in Cebu without incident. We were overjoyed to discover that our four-star hotel lived up to its rating, meaning that it offered about five more stars’ worth of luxury than our hostel in Manila. We took advantage of this by ordering pizza from room service, gorging ourselves on cheese-slathered dough, and falling swiftly to sleep.

We would spend the next two days in Cebu. They would be our last days spent outside of Hong Kong during our exchange, and we intended to squeeze every last drop from them.