Flying from Hong-Kong to Manila
We make it to Hong Kong’s airport in order to catch our flight to Manila. And it’s Easter Week. What to expect from this monster of a city, one of the world’s most populous and Catholic urban areas? We’ve heard contrasting accounts, including some downright scary ones.
The hostess from the Philippine Airlines counter doesn’t fail to ask us for a return ticket: we miraculously produce an onwards ticket to Indonesia, which we fortunately booked that very morning despite its high price, after much debate.
Thus we know we have seventeen days in the Philippines, which is a start. It also means we’ll have to loop back to our starting point. We lack any other information whatsoever, except for a computer tab listing some of Manila’s pricier hotels found on booking.com – we’ve used the site successfully throughout China to find hostels and cheap accommodation, but budgets listings are severely lacking when it comes to Manila. We haven’t had time for any further research.
The plane lifts over the deep blues of the South China Sea, as we leave the Chinese coast in our wake. The color of the oceans changes to a lighter blue, then to scintillating turquoise, as they intertwine with the oncoming currents from the Pacific Ocean. We watch, spellbound, as lush green white-sanded isles spread on the seafloor.
One element aboard our flight reveals some of the facets of the country we’re about to visit. The flight safety video blossoms with sexual innuendoes: a hostess donned in a mini-skirt and bright red lipstick kneels in front of a man and fastens his seatbelt tightly, her head a few inches from his lap.
Our actual arrival brings us face to face with the grimmer reality, as we step out one of the airport’s older terminals onto the tawdry sidewalk. There’s no information counter in sight. Let alone Internet access. We’ve heard from a Filipino friend who suggested staying in the Malate neighborhood. But we know nothing more.
A woman in an official-looking uniform and walkie-talkie grasps the opportunity and offers a cab ride to our hotel.
“Where are you staying?”
After some hesitation, we name the only hotel that came up during our quick search, the Tune Hotel. With that information, she quietly ascertains our wealth and calculatingly replies:
“It’s about 750 pesos… Less than $20,” she adds, to reassure us, motioning a taxi to come. We step in the cab lukewarmly. Of course we’ll later learn the fare was only a third of the quoted price. This is the first time we get scammed a reasonable amount during this trip. But it’s not the last.
The ride is comfortable though, and Coco and I hold hands listening to the slow, sensual groove emanating from the car’s speakers. I suppose that this comfort and feeling of safety are an added price to pay. I watch as we get stuck in heavy traffic, and are surrounded by myriad of spray-painted jeepneys, the local minibus, each named after a Biblical figure. People of all creeds clamor in and out of the jeep-like pick-up trucks, zigzagging through the acrid spouts of traffic.
I also keep an eye on the various street vendors and loiterers who walk by. We’ve heard of tourists getting nabbed in the street, or while their car was immobilized.
So I remain watchful. In a way, I’ve been looking forward to this. In fact part of me has dreaded the ease and convenience of the countries we’ve visited so far. But Coco may not be ready as I am, and there can be a fine line between a healthy thirst for adventure and putting yourself in a foolish situation.
The cab driver momentarily halts and takes a leak on the pavement, outside of a gentlemen’s club.
Malate, Tune Hotel: Vices and Virtues
We end up at the Tune Hotel, in the heart of Malate, one of Manila’s central, tourist-friendly, commercial districts. And more, as we shall discover.
The Tune stands far above our allotted budget, close to $40 per night. Built on a low-cost airline price model, customers incur fees for everything including towel rental, Wifi access, and so on (indeed, Tune and Asia Airlines are part of the same group).
With the day waning away, and for lack of any better option, we decide to settle in for the night. Coco just got an assignment for some freelance work, so we take this welcome income into account.
The bare, minimal room is nonetheless clean, and its upper-floor view opens onto the darkening blue sea of the harbor. This will have to do for now.
Coco does some work while I take an afternoon stroll, trying to get a feel for the place. I remain relatively camera-shy. The tight weave of traffic and sweat are worrisome at first. But few people seem to take notice. This is the ‘OK’ part of town. But just a few streets away, homeless people are stacked on pieces of cardboard warped on the sidewalk. They’re friendly, but I’m careful not to linger.
Later, we take another walk. The evening sun bathes the streets in golden-orange hues. I begin to relax, easing into the feel of this city. Some people smile as we walk past, others look distrustfully. Grime and Shine. Yes, I’m starting to love Manila.
Upon our return to the hotel, we lazily elect to dine at the ‘Irish Pub’ set at the foot of the hotel, dubbed Molly Malones.
We spend a good deal of the next days oscillating between working in the hotel room, club sandwiches at the Molly Malones and afternoon visits of Manila’s imbricated neighborhoods, at a slow pace dictated by the unforgiving April sun and daily downpours.
Intramuros: the remains of the Spanish (and temporarily British) fortified headquarters, posh Renaissance-era European facades (although most of the city was destroyed during World War II), recycled into museum and contemporary administrative buildings, dutifully shading the homeless population living under tarps a few feet away.
Chinatown: reputedly the world’s oldest, and its flurry of jewelers and gold retailers. An unfortunate delivery man loses his cargo of shrimp on the street. He dutifully braces them back into his parcel, unable to part with his livelihood.
We’ve begun to notice the peculiar traits of the tourists populating our hotel.
“Did you see how he was looking at me?” asks Coco, as we step out of the elevator.
“Why, of course he was.”
“No, not like that. Worse than that.”
Even the least acute of observers are soon faced with the obvious: Manila has become a refuge for sex trade of all kinds, a cheaper, less conspicuous alternative to the Southeast Asian business. In the matter of days we see it all, from the classic middle-aged man seeking female affection, the mature gay man and his boy-toy, young cohorts of curious college kids, but also luscious women in search of cheap sex.
At night, the ‘beauty parlors’ which line the streets come alive, boasting healthy line-ups of girls of all ages, many of them presumably adolescent. Legions of bare-chested drummers pound their instrument in rhythmical cadence, commanding the lust of unscrupulous tourists.
We dine at the Molly Malones, increasingly aware of this situation. The waitresses themselves are evidently cherry-picked for their pulpous looks, clad in kilted mini-skirts. Here the clientele of the night comes for their drink of courage; the bar’s a mere gateway to the more sulfurous transactions that ensue.
Later in the night, the grunts we hear through the hotel’s razor-thin walls leave little to the imagination.
A billboard in a supermarket sells us on the idea of Palawan’s idyllic beaches.
Our research is coming to fruition, and we’ve drawn up an itinerary. Besides, we don’t have much time, and our budget is going through the roof. I’ve promised Coco we’d get some rest and beach time, but I’d also like to wander around the countryside.
We’ll first be looping through the main island, Luzon. Our tour will feature the devout town of Baguio, which promises to be spectacular during Easter – however we’ll be missing the near-macabre, and very real, re-enactments of Jesus being carried on the Cross. We’ll also be visiting the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, hoping for clement weather. We’re in a for a pleasant surprise.
Holy Week – Manila Easter at Quiapo Church
Few places in the world can rival with the Philippines when it comes to celebrating Holy Week. Every day of Lent, culminating during the more prosaically named Easter Week, thousands of Christians and Filipinos of all creeds flood Quiapo Church square, burning incense and gifting flowers, to voice their adoration.
We wade through the heavy crowd, carefully, although the precaution is unnecessary. People mind their own, and the celebrations are carried out in orderly fashion. A multitude of street stalls, shaded by ubiquitous rainbow-colored parasols, offer the full panoply of relics, candles and flowers required by the followers’ devotion.
But already it’s time to leave, and I fear these few lines render little poetic justice to the tentacular, and most beautiful, beast that is Manila.
I meet a homeless family as we prepare to depart. The daughter’s nursing a newborn. The mother’s left eye is gouged.
“We live in the streets, we have no home.” Yet they’re saying that with a good-natured smile.
“We believe in God.”
That night we board the crowded but overall comfortable bus (plastic unfoldable chairs are set in the aisles), and soon its engine roars as the bus swings and flies through mountain roads to Banaue, for what will be one of the trip’s most memorable adventures.