Phillippines: Manila

22- 23 December 2013

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SONY DSCWhat is that big golden cathedral?

The flight into Manila with Philippine Airlines was great. I was greeted at NAIA airport with a heavy police presence. Police with guns lined outside the terminals and the air was tense. I was not surprised since the in-flight newspaper had the headlines “MAYOR, 3 OTHERS SLAIN AT NAIA”.

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Assassinations and guns are common in the country so despite how uncomfortable the thought of being gunned down is, chances are low. My guesthouse is located in the Makati CDB and 8 minutes away from Manila’s newest shopping centre. While you would feel that Manila is clearly overpopulated from the slum areas, nearby Quezon City is actually the largest in population.

IMG-20131222-00539I’ve always hated MRT in Beijing but Manila is worse. Nevertheless, it is the best way to see the city and rather convenient too. Directions from station to station and the locations of ticket windows are “assumed knowledge.” The signs are not clear and I got lost many times. However, everyone was very patient with me even when I took a bit of time trying to find the exact fare for the ride. 

SONY DSCAfter 30 minutes  from MRT Buendia to UN, I was sweating bullets. 28 degrees oh dear! Without a map, I was lost again when I got off at UN MRT. I had a rough idea that Rizal Park is to the left of the station and sensing that I was a bit lost, a very lovely policewoman led me to the other side of the road and told me where to go and what to see. 

Before long, I was at Rizal Park, a quiet place where the locals gather to escape from the noise and chaos. Rizal Monument was built to commemorate Jose Rizal, a Filipino nationalist who was executed in 1896. Guarded continuously by soldiers, it was constructed when Americans ruled the country in the early 20th century. Philippine’s flag stands tall and overlooks a country that has been consistently conquered by foreign forces.

SONY DSCTowards the right side of the park is the National Museum. It is a great place to learn about the history of the country, the various foreign colonisers, their influences, the geography and the flora and fauna of Philippines.

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SONY DSCI thoroughly enjoyed the portrait exhibition and the blue nape parrot that is featured on the back of the 500 peso bill. 

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SONY DSCThe next stop is a place that is within the walls- Intramuros. It is a short walk from Rizal Park and the gate, partially engulfed by plantation and immersed with the modern Manila, marked the entrance to the oldest district and the most historical part of the city.

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Entrance to Intramuros
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The wall that divides the city

This walled city was the original city of Manila. During the Spanish Empire, it was the seat of government. Anything outside the walls- as the Spanish goes is extramuros. It is the only place in Manila where old Spanish-era influences are most plentiful. The buildings, structures, streets and the occasional horse carriages sure reflect that colonial period. 

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Empty street- best way to see the city

SONY DSCThe defensive walls was built in the late 16th century by the Spanish to protect the city from foreign invasions.

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Japanese canon pointing to the area that is the US Embassy

Canons can be seen today pointing at other landmarks in the distance. Unfortunately, the wall was heavily damaged during the battle to recapture the city from—guess who – JAPAN in WW2. Reconstruction is ongoing and much needed due to the historical value that the place holds.

SONY DSCGuarding the old city is the 16th century Fort Santiago (75 pesos) – a citadel located near the river, its citadel located at the mouth of the river.

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At Fort Santiago that stood at the mouth of the river- reflecting on the trip and contemplating about life. As usual, I became all emotional.

As a defense structure, it stood throughout the centuries and witnessed the struggles of the country and her people. The prison at Fort Santiago housed Jose Rizal before his execution. When the Japanese invaded Philippines, prisoners were held there as well along with ammunition. Records had it that 600 Americans died of suffocation and hunger after being locked up in the tight prison quarters.  The wall and fort is a great stop and visiting it during the afternoon really helped me to escape from the other tourists. 

Jose ( tuktuk driver) is a very humble man. He has lived in Manila his entire life. I asked him a lot of questions about his country and wanted to hear his opinions but at the start, he was reluctant to do so .

“Ma’am, I’m not educated. I don’t have a university degree so I can’t say much.”

“Sometimes, the ones without a degree know more than those with one. Sometimes they have more clarity and understanding. Plus, you speak great English and can certainly teach me a thing or two about you country.”

That was when he started to open up and he couldn’t stop .

He showed me around the various casas and the areas where they filmed Bourne Legacy. He also took me to Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church. I especially like the Baroque style and the fact that it was one of the four Philippine churches constructed during the Spanish colonial period. It is a popular venue for weddings.

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SONY DSCReligion is important in this country and it only makes sense for me to visit such religious sites. Again, I like the structures from an architectural/artistic point of view. I am myself a rather agnostic individual with devoted Buddhist grandparents…thus, I’ve always (I guess) had a stronger connection to Buddhism. Nevertheless,  whatever religion it may be, it is beautiful because the art, architecture and symbolism is another obsession of mine. 

The tour ended at a golden statue. Jose insisted that I see it because he want me to remember the message behind it.  He told me that the golden statue is of a religious sister born to a Chinese father and a Filipino mother. She is known for her work in women rights and rescued many locals by hiding them in the church basement.

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Statue of Ignacio del Espiritu Santo – half crying and half smiling

“I want you to walk away from today knowing that if you are sad then smile because someone will help you and if you are happy remember the sad times and those who are less happy so that you can help them. If no one helps you then you need to help yourself – half smiling and half crying.” – Jose

My last night in Manila was a great one. I spent time talking to a wonderful lady. Ruby openly shared with me her life, her struggles and her honest opinion.

I’ve worked hard to get by in life and you must work hard too. You have better control of your career and less so on your family so know your priority. Money IS important – you need to have the right amount. When you suffer, tell yourself to move on and to know that others suffer more than you. – Ruby

The following morning, I headed out early to visit some of the slum areas in Manila. It was a very rushed trip since I had to leave in the afternoon. A quick walk around the slum was an eye-opener. Everyone is nice and ignored my presence. The level of poverty  did not shake their happiness since the people there all had a beautiful smile on their face. Time flies when you take your time absorbing in the local atmosphere and when some boys asked “Ma’am, you want to buy gun?”(surreal)- that was a sign for me to leave. Then, I did something that I wasn’t very happy with- I became fascinated and drawn to the level of poverty at the slum and to ease my conscience, I rocked up to a local clinic/hospital and handed them a small bag of medical supplies + some money.  I   I need to do more than that- next time, I should stay a couple of days and volunteer at these medical clinics where many people from the slum areas go to for medical help. For those with extra time on their hands, do pay a visit to the slum areas. The people there are friendly and witnessing life there is an eye -opening experience.

SONY DSCMy flight out of Manila like all my previous departures was painful. I’ve stated over and over again that one of the saddest things in life is when you know something is not good  but you “just can’t help it.”  I’ve always been a sentimental being- too emotional for my own good. However, I’m also an ambiguous hybrid since I’ve had some moments where I was both soul-less and cold. Deep down, my emotions wrecks me and I turn every little moment- especially departures into a big ramble of equally emotional words. I looked out the window of my flight and as I left Manila, I wondered when I’d be able to see her again. Despite how beautiful the place is, it’s not mine and I can only enjoy it for a few hours. This strange sadness- please leave me!

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Observations/Facts  (Italics = what my tuktuk driver told me) 

  • Locals like to use “Sir/Madam” and everyone is really friendly especially the police. Like the police in Thailand, the Filipino police are extremely approachable.
  • Infrastructure could be improved and like other SE Asia countries, development is evident.
  • Heavy police presence at every MRT stop. They have a desk where you are asked to open your bag for inspection. They also hold  black sticks when carrying out the inspections.
  • Philippines- Beautiful smile, Karaoke, boxing and Facebook
  • Signs of the country’s Spanish and american influences seen in landmarks and the language e.g. drug store instead of pharmacy
  • Deeply religious
  • The country was taken over by the Spanish around 330 years, British 3 years, American then Japanese 3 years. The Japanese occupation was the bloodiest around 100,000 people lost their lives. 
  • March to May is peak season
  • Corruption is a big issue in the country. Many politicians who are in power are the offsprings of former Presidents therefore corruption continues and runs in the family.There is a growing gap between rich and poor. Many new graduates can’t find a proper job that match their skills. Education is expensive and many families cannot afford to pay for books and other fees. 
  • Philippines depends on agriculture ( Cebu mangos!!!! OMG! bananas etc) and tourism.

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