Saturday, November 15, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines


If you had asked me a month ago to make a list of ALL the places and countries I wanted to visit, the Philippines would have come last, with even a chance of not even being included in the list. I'm no beach boy, I've had my fair share of colonial architecture and Spanish heritage in Mexico, and top in my wish-list would be exotic and different destinations, not places with which we shared a colonial past.

So, when I was informed I had to travel to Manila for a week for work, I thought "Well, it's either now, or never!" So, I asked for a week off so we could travel around right after work. And we got a guidebook. And we found ourselves leafing back and forth, surprisingly overburdened with choice and unable to decide which of the 7000+ islands to visit. This promised to be one interesting trip, after all.



We spent about a week in Manila, because of my work. I disliked it, completely. Well, not completely, Makati, the part of town where we stayed, with high-rises, modern malls, green parks and restaurants was quite nice (though somewhat small).

Yet, once you stepped outside this new town, you faced a city that, personally, reminded me of the ugliest parts of Mexico City. It sounds horrible, but that's why I used the magic word "personally": it evoked very emotional reactions from me, and it was very hard for me to shake off the feeling that I was in the worst or most neglected parts of my beloved Mexico City (including the unfortunate activation of the fight-or-flight response, which was rather uncalled for in Manila).

Since we had Sunday off, we went downtown, to Intramuros, the old part of the city. And I felt disappointed. As it happens, a good deal of that part of town was destroyed during WWII, when the Americans were trying to kick the Japanese out. Some 150,000 inhabitants perished, and countless historical buildings were destroyed. We walked around the streets of Intramuros, dismayed at realising how much had been lost, how little was left, and how unattractive (from my point of view) it all looked. Unconsciously, I seem to have shot only the nicer places:

There was an old church, the San Agustín Church, and our guidebook mentioned its museum was interesting. Having no better plans, we went in. And the city presented us with its first "Aaaah" moment, a gorgeous baroque church with a wealth of treasures, like colonial religious statues and figures with real hair (eerie at first, then downright fascinating.), old dictionaries and grammars of the local languages written in old Spanish (you can't imagine how exciting that was for someone like me!), the 100+ year old gravestones of Spaniards and foreigners alike (a really moving discovery, given how really far from their birthplace were all these people, and how at home were they in Manila that they were buried there)...

It was hot, very hot, and the heat was trumping over our enthusiasm. Just when we were about to call it a day and leave, we found an entrance, a corridor, and being the curious person I am, we pushed ourselves to explore just a bit further, and made it to the choir!

The San Agustín Church was definitely the highlight of our visit to Manila. We tried visiting other places yet our impression was, mostly, a mixed one: amazement at what it must have been like, disappointment at what had become of them (through war, neglect, or both). And yet, as it seemed to be the city's style, quite a few pleasant and unexpected surprises arose here and there, like this shrine in Chinatown (another place with, at night, made me feel extremely , and needlessly, uncomfortable due to its resemblance to "bad parts" of Mexico City) which, from the distance and the way people prayed, definitely seemed like a Buddhist shrine, but which in fact was a Christian one!

Manila may have lacked beauty.

Manila may have seemed too religious to me. (Remember Makati, the poshest part of town? it's poshest mall had a chapel, and all the fashionable urbanites congregate there for Sunday mass, holding hands and singing. TV's got no less than 5 channels dedicated to Christianity. And the "religion section" of the bookstores could aptly be renamed the "christianity section", with a science section conspicuously lacking or microscopic at most).

But Manila truely compensated with the friendliness of its people. Since I am vegan, their friendliness and attention was tested again and again, and they passed with flying colours. Filipino fare makes liberal use of animals, and staff at restaurants always paid attention to my request to have dishes modified so they'd be vegan, even going a step further and alerting me if I was choosing something that contained animal parts or products and, the few times the cook forgot and did include something I wouldn't eat, they would apologise and replace the dish immediately without further questions.

Yet, like I said, and its beautiful and unexpected surprises and friendly people notwithstanding, Manila was definitely not for me, and I was really desperate to get away, so the very first morning after the course we set off to the Visayas, to the island of Bohol, for a week of adventure and nature! (which will be the subject of my next post, of course)