After enduring the tiresome gruel of the proverbial “real world” for (almost) the entirety of one year, I have finally returned to the mystical realm of indulgent backpackingism. Unfortunately though, the scale of my current journey is reflective of the dramatically changed lifestyle full-time employment creates. Indeed, henceforth my trips will not be defined by months, but rather weeks or even (horrifically) days. Required to take annual leave while the office closed and thereby forfeit being in Melbourne for the festive season (since I take a strictly geographic interpretation to the concept of leave), I chose to travel to the Philippines for 5 weeks during supposedly the best month to visit. Prior to departure, several ignorant souls remarked incredulously, “You’re travelling to JUST the Philippines for 5 weeks?!”, suggesting they thought 35 days in the world’s second largest archipelago of 7,107 islands was a tad excessive. With slightly more awareness for the scale and complexity of the country, I decided to limit my itinerary to 3 regions: North Luzon, Palawan and the Eastern Visayas. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to also visit the national capital of Manila, despite its maligned reputation.
Manila is located on the northern island of Luzon, one of the country’s largest islands and easily its most populous and important. In a country of more than 100 million residents, Manila is intriguingly the only large city in the archipelago – although roughly one-fifth of Filipinos call Metro Manila home. Manila was established in the sixteenth century by the Spanish to serve as the capital of their East Indies possessions (the modern-day Philippines). It was the first time in history the ethnically and linguistically diverse Philippine islands were administrated by a centralised government, as previously the archipelago was divided into petty kingdoms and chiefdoms. The Philippines as a nation-state is essentially a colonial construct and the country’s offical language is the mother tongue of only Luzon and surrounding islands. However, the Spanish successfully established a binding and enduring identity for the archipelago: the dominance of Christianity, or more specifically Catholicism, with roughly 83% of contemporary Filipinos subservient to the Bishop of Rome. The notable exception is the southern island of Mindanao, which has a sizeable Muslim community. Manila however is staunchly Catholic, and when I arrived in the city at 11:00pm on Christmas Eve, local families were preparing for the biggest celebration of the year – the midnight feast (I assume this ungodly hour for food consumption is another vestige of Spanish influence!).
In somewhat of a rarity for me, my flight journey from Melbourne to Manila was not disrupted by irksome passengers leaning their seats back or kneeing my seat excessively. Early trip horrors instead commenced on the ground in Manila. After checking-in to my hostel exhausted at midnight, I was annoyed to find random belongings and foot marks on my allocated bed. I moved the items and attempted to sleep, but was awoken by an accusatorial Brit in the wee hours of the morning. He eventually conceded that his allocated bed was also taken when he arrived, so he chose the course of anarchy and randomly selected an unoccupied bed. Thank goodness for my arrival to reestablish civility to the dormitory. The following day, I felt nauseous throughout and struggled in the Manila heat and fumes, either because of a poorly timed bug courtesy of my nephew or the limited sleep overnight. I was so debilitated that I only managed to eat half a bowl of mediocre wanton noodle soup and had to retire at 8:00pm – on Christmas Day!
Manila was once lauded as the “Pearl of the Orient”, bequeathed with a stunning ensemble of colonial edifices the legacy of Spanish occupation of the Philippines. The city controlled a monopoly on trade between Asia and Spanish possessions in Latin America, exploiting its location on a deep bay, and the cityscape exhibited Manila’s consequent significance and wealth. The Spanish constructed a colossal cathedral (destroyed on several occasions by earthquakes – the current incarnation fashions a neo-Romanesque façade), plethora of churches, grand civic buildings in European architectural styles and a grid-based layout, totally contradicting the traditional urban form of Filipino communities. Even after the collapse of Spanish colonial rule in the New World in the early nineteenth century, Manila thrived on the booming Filipino sugar and tobacco industries. This was reflected in the numerous stately mansions constructed for merchants during this period. Manila also flourished on the opium trade with China, and as with virtually every other trading centre in South-East Asia, a large Chinese community evolved (again, as with most other South-East Asian countries, the ethnic Chinese have achieved disproportionate economic clout in the modern-day Philippines). Manila was thus a cosmopolitan, prosperous and opulent maritime centre by the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, the splendour of Manila was entirely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War Two, as imperial Japanese forces were reluctant to abandoned the conquered and strategically important city. The destruction of Manila was so comprehensive that many argue the city has failed to properly recover since. Indeed, the partially restored historic core, known as Intramuros, is a shadow of past glories. There is at least an Iberian vibe with cobblestone streets, small plazas, colourful townhouses, ruins of the old fort and relief from Metro Manila’s clutter. But the area has the sad aura of irrelevance and neglect, forgotten and swallowed by megalopolis’ rampant sprawl.
Despite its lost beauty and prestige, Manila has exploded into one of the largest metropolises on the planet. The city of Manila itself is actually just one of 19 within the monstrous conurbation of Metro Manila, which is characterised by heaving traffic, crowds and pollution. Metro Manila lacks a comprehensive commuter-rail network and is therefore almost entirely dependent on its tangle of reputedly ever-congested roads. The flotillas of kamikaze motorcyclists synonymous with South Asian cities are strangely absent from Manila, as locals seem to have a preference (and presumably financial mean) for cars. Jeepneys are the constituent form of public transport and are uniquely Filipino. The iconic and colourfully painted vehicles feature open-air compartments at the back with two wooden benches, allowing for 14 people to cram inside. Unfortunately, navigating Manila by jeepney is an extremely difficult task for first time visitors, as they all have different routes and destinations. Three rail lines exist and collectively form a rough ring around the central areas. While the rail lines were not particularly convenient for me (40 minute walk from my hostel to the nearest station), I used them several times to avoid commuting by taxi everywhere. The carriages are were overcrowded and the platforms dangerously narrow, but I found the trains (built by the Czechs, strangely) to be fast, reliable and clean. I was rather fortunate not to experience the full extent of Manila’s notorious traffic, presumably because activity was reduced over the Christmas holidays.
I stayed in the city of Makati, which functions as the financial heart of the country. Makati is characterised by corporate towers, shopping centres, ornamental gardens and relative cleanliness and order. However, the existence of a strip of seedy bars catering to silver-haired Western gentlemen seeking love in the tropics kind of dampens Makati’s sophisticated front. Hidden behind Makati’s glitz are pleasant Filipino neighbourhoods, which I ambled through on New Years Eve to soak in the local atmosphere. Groups of Filipino families and friends congregated at the front of their houses for street parties, with makeshift karaoke setups de rigueur.
The Philippines were controlled by another colonial power that left an indelible mark on the country’s culture: the United States of America. After the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were “acquired” by the US for $20 million. Imperialism was a highly contentious political issue in the US, as many believed the concept contravened the country’s founding principles. Imperialists argued that advanced countries had a responsibility to educate and develop “uncivilised” societies and therefore colonialism was justified, although no doubt American ambitions for a foothold in Asia was another motivating factor for control of the Philippines. Nevertheless and unlike the Spanish, the Americans demonstrated their commitment to improving the lives of the Filipino population by investing in infrastructure and the education system. The modern-day outcome is that English is spoken widely throughout the islands and more so than in neighbouring countries. The Americans granted independence to the Philippines in 1935, although the republic has remained a close US ally with an oddly fervent passion for American culture ever since (or perhaps anti-culture is the more apt term). Basketball is the national sport, fast food joints are depressingly omnipresent and shopping malls are the favourite haunt for Filipinos to hang. Manila boasts some of the largest malls in the world, with all the Western brands available - at Western prices. The reality is though, the overwhelming majority of Filipinos cannot afford to shop at malls, so the prevailing extreme income inequality in the Philippines is perhaps another undesirable legacy of American influence.
At the hostel, I met a middle-aged woman on her own from Angola; representing just about the last demographic I would ever expect to met at such an establishment. Upon discovering my nationality, she quickly attempted to rope me into her application for a visa to Australia and insist I act as her reference. I soon discovered she had been in Manila for 2 months applying for the visa, only to be continuously rebuffed because she required an Australian contact. Naturally I was completely unprepared for this situation (at breakfast!) as I was distrustful of her motives and unsure of the legal responsibilities I would hypothetically incur. Cowardly, I slithered out of the conversation and hostel, and avoided it thereafter. I am still rather conflicted about what the morally just solution to that dilemma was. If she is genuinely a tourist, its grossly unfair she cannot enter our country without a contact (how can she be expected to know an Australian?) when we can easily travel to her country. Yet I sensed she wasn’t telling me the full story, and my philosophy when travelling is of course don’t listen to your head or heart, but listen to your gut.
Sometimes countries that are not internationally famous for their food have surprisingly delectable culinary scenes (Tunisia, Latvia and Indonesia come to mind). The same cannot be said of the Philippines. Despite its proximate location to China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, Filipino cuisine is generally characterised by blandness, fattiness, meatiness and monotony. Pork is ubiquitously consumed, fresh produce is conspicuously absent, while vegetarians have few options beyond steamed rice thrice a day. The national dish adobo is actually quite nice, although every rendition is quite different. Adobo is basically pork or chicken cooked in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar – the ratio of which is essentially what varies between kitchens. In Manila, I also sampled lumpia, which is an inferior version of the Chinese spring roll. Lumpia consists of a soft wrap stuffed with stewed vegetables (possibly turnip) and a not-so-pleasant sauce. As previously mentioned, Filipinos are alarmingly obsessed by fast food. Manila’s cityscape is blighted by countless franchises of international icons like McDonalds and KFC, as well as local institutions like Jollibees. Jollibees is probably the most beloved fast food brand in the country, with a signature dish of fried chicken, rice and Filipino spaghetti. I have yet to summon the courage to sample this blatant insult to food. Filipinos are strangely enamoured by pasta, while noodles are less readily available. Spaghetti bolognese (sickeningly sweet and probably with pork), carbonara and marinara are constituent components of Filipino menus. Occasionally, the pasta actually looks vaguely authentic, although I stress occasionally. Prepared for the reality of food in the Philippines, I decided not to enforce my normally strict efforts to eat local dishes and I have instead dabbled in a more palatable international diet.
I never anticipated Manila would be a pleasant city, so I at least wasn’t disappointed. For travelling purposes, Manila is really just a transit point to other more interesting places in the Philippines.
That’s all for now,