Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Manila Invasion

When i told people that i was going to the Philippines for a holiday, the general theme of responses that greeted me was, "Why Philippines? Is there even anything to do there?". Well, why not Philippines? I like the idea of being in a largely Catholic country (especially on Christmas month), their culture is different, it is affordable and more importantly, i have never been there. Never go, never know.

The adventure pretty much began when we got off the plane. We caught the bus to the city, then somehow found our way--with heavy luggages in tow--through a sea of humans and cars to a train station, then got lost after being directed here and there by locals. Nobody seemed to know where our hotel was! So we gave up on walking and turned to the pajak instead.

For many, the pajak is a form of transportation that gets you from point A to B. For many of the drivers, the pajak is their form of livelihood and their home. It was heartbreaking to watch our pajak driver shoo her family--a young woman carrying a naked baby--out of the pajak so that she could drive us to our destination.

There is a major, and slightly disturbing, difference between the rich and the poor in Manila. The new metropolitan suburb does not allow beggars and basically looks like a rich man's playground. The area we lived in was badly lit and peppered with beggars and homeless individuals. However, after a few days of scrurrying along dark paths and holding tightly to our bags, we realised that it was not as scary as it appeared to be. Sure, people came up to us for food and money but that was basically it. They never once laid their hands on us or intimidated us in any way.

It was in Manila also that we discovered new food--no, we did not dare sink our teeth into balut. Chicken adobo, bread with a combination of icing sugar, cheese and salted egg, chicharon (crispy pork skin with a dash of chilli powder--so good, we bought FIVE packets) and a dessert called polvoron. When we first saw polvoron at 7-Eleven, we asked the cashier what "polvoron" was. His answer? "Polvoron is the name of the item". Epic.

Alcohol was so cheap and easily available that we overbought, and since good things are to be shared, the guards who worked at our hotel got lucky on the morning of our departure. And while we are on the subject of good things, the cousins staged a little birthday surprise for me, though at the most unglamorous of times--when i just walked out of the toilet.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the Manila American Cemetery. When i first saw the attraction on our tour itinerary, i thought, "A cemetery? How morbid." But it was far from that. Since its establishment in 1948 to honour soldiers who lost their lives to World War II, America has been paying Manila to maintain the place. I am amazed by the extent that America goes to give the soldiers nothing but the best final resting place. What makes it even more special is the inclusion of the Star of David on several tomb stones, respecting the religion of the fallen as oppose to branding everyone with a cross. Truly a sight to behold.

Manila is a little bit of everything. To us, it was also unpredictable. Every suburb appears to be very different, each with its own story to tell, and if you let yourself take that chance, you will discover something new. I'm ending this with another discovery that we made courtesy of our tour guide.

Tour Guide: Do you know that Manila Hotel (a luxurious, historical and expensive) is the holiest hotel in Manila?
Us: Holiest? Why so?
Tour Guide: Because when you step into their lobby, you go "Oh my God" at the sight of its beauty. And when you check out of your stay, you go "Jesus Christ" at the sight of the bill.

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