There are some cities in the world which can only be described as great cities. Cities where you can walk around all day and never cease finding good street food, restaurants, parks and shops. The people are nice and the streets are clean.
Manila is not such a city.
I learned the hard way that there is a difference between Manila and “Manila”. The Manila metro area has about 10 million people. Manila proper has maybe 1/10 that amount. Most of metro Manila consists of other municipalities. I told my cab driver in the morning to “take me downtown”. Bad move. He did exactly what I asked, but he didn’t take me to Manila, he took me to Makati. It is near Manila, but it is the equivalent of being dropped off in Brooklyn if you are trying to get to Times Square. For purposes of clarity, when I refer to Manila, I will be referring to the metro Manila area.
The first thing I noticed after getting dropped off were the guards. There are armed private security everywhere. The McDonald’s has a guy with a gun who is in front. It was sort of odd to see a uniformed and armed guard, busing tables. In front of the banks downtown there were guys with shotguns and M-16s. Some had helmets and full body armor. It seemed as if every business had an armed guard out front. As far as I could tell, they were all private security guards, not police or military. The percentage of people employed in the security industry dwarfs the number you see in the US. Even the rise the last several years of security in malls and gated communities doesn’t approach what I’ve seen in Manila. (I found this to be true outside of Manila as well. Every establishment able to afford a building seemed to have at least one armed guard.)
The other thing I noticed were the street vendors. Street vendors per se aren’t that big of a deal. You will see them in most big cities. In New York they are all over selling everything from roasted chestnuts to rip off sunglasses. What did surprise me was street vendors selling locksmithing services and notary public stamps. The locksmiths literally had a cardboard sign and a small grinder set up on the sidewalk. The notaries had a small mobile stand set up in front of banks, which if you think about it, is pretty brilliant.
To get to Makati to Manila I figured I would just start walking. I knew the direction where I wanted to go and where I was on the map. Taking a taxi is pretty cheap, but I figured that it would be better to just walk and get a feel for the city. I walked through several residential neighborhoods and got a lot of looks. I’m guessing a lot of white guys don’t walk down their streets, especially carrying a camera bag. The neighborhoods I walked through were very densely populated. Most of which were very poor, but nothing as poor as I saw in Honiara. Many people had cars. Everyone seemed to have electricity.
Transportation around Manila is very interesting. There are bicycles with sidecars you can get hire for short trips. Motorbikes with side cars, taxis and buses. The uniquely Filipino thing however are the jeepneys. The jeepneys are small privately owned buses that are literally built on the bodies of old jeeps. It started after WWII and has keep on going since then. The jeepneys are tricked out and individualized. Most of them are named and most are covered in chrome. While not all the Jeepneys are in fact jeeps (some are mercades or Isuzus) they are all nonetheless called jeepneys. I’m going to write more on this subject in a few days.
I had massively underestimated how far i would have to walk. My goal for the day was to reach the Intramuros, so I decided to take a taxi. As I sat on the corner trying to hail a cab, I was picked up by a horse drawn carriage. They normally cater to tourists, so I figured “what the hell” and went the rest of the distance by horse. I can now add horse to the methods of transportation used on this trip.
The Intramuros is the old, walled, Spanish part of Manila. This is where the Spanish governed the Philippines for several hundred years. In fact, while the Spanish were in control, native Filipinos were not allowed inside the Intramuros. Many of the original buildings in the Intramuros have been destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries. A significant amount of damage was done at the end of WWII during the Rape of Manila by the Japanese. There was still one building that was nothing more than a shell from bombing.
The primary goal of my trip to the Intramuros was to visit St. Augustine’s church. St. Augustine’s is the oldest church in the Philippines and the primary site for the UNESCO “Baroque Churches of the Philippines” World Heritage Site. St. Augustine’s had somehow survived WWII and over 400 years of earthquakes mostly intact. It is really the first “old” building I’ve visited on my trip so far. Had I started my trip in Europe, I probably would be sick of old churches by now. It was interesting to see not only the building and the neighborhood around it, but the artifacts as well. In the choir of the church they had an enormous book which was used by the choir in Spanish churches. It was cheaper to make one big book with enormous type than it was to make books for each choir member. (If you are ever on the coast of California and visit the Hearst Castle, look at the lampshades in the library. They are all made from the pages of the big choir books from Spanish monasteries in California.)
It was here that I first noticed the mass of people trying to sell me stuff. Everywhere I went, I couldn’t go more than a block without someone hounding me to buy something. They will sometimes literally follow you for a minute or two trying to guilt you into a purchase. If I was here for work or just a vacation, I would probably have bought something, but I can’t really afford to constantly be buying stuff and carrying it around. The real cost for me when I buy stuff on the road isn’t the cost of the item (which can usually be pretty cheap), it is the cost of sending it back to the US. I’ve seen some really neat, cheap items that would cost me hundreds of dollars to ship home.
The last thing I saw in the Intramuros was Fort Santiago. This was the original military garrison for the Spanish, but that is not what it is known for now. It is best known as place where Jose Rizal spent his last days.
Who is Jose Rizal? I didn’t know either until I walked into Fort Santiago.
Jose Rizal is sort of the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson of the Philippines. He was a medical doctor by training and wrote extensively on Filipino independence. In 1898 he was tried by the Spanish on trumped up charges and executed. The photo you see with footsteps in the pavement are permanent markers showing where he last walked from his cell to the firing squad. His cell and the building containing it are now literally a shrine. There is a fragment of one of his bones on display. The building has a very reverential atmosphere. I was told to take off my hat while inside. It is sort of like being at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
All of the school groups in the Intramuros were there to visit the Rizal shrine. His death is a national holiday in the Philippines and you can see monuments and parks dedicated to Jose Rizal all over the country.
I stayed in a hostel in the city of Tambo, just south of Manila proper. I’m used to run down hostels. I can deal with hot, stuffy rooms, cockroaches, I can deal with no internet. I can deal with no electricity. I cannot however deal with no water. The hostel I was in had the water in my room sort of stop working, which made it hard to flush the toilet. Wanting my poop to go away it turns out is my tolerence level. That coupled with everything I listed above (the internet was dead, there were brownouts, there were cockroaches..), so I moved out to a new hotel. I picked something cheap on-line that was more in the heart of the city, so I picked Makati.
In between moves, I also made a trip to the Mall of Asia. Walking through the neighborhoods of Manila and visiting the Mall of Asia was an enormous study in contrasts. The Mall of Asia was one of the nicest malls I’ve ever visited. It was certainly nicer than the Mall of America. It did have a few things which I found funny. There was a store called “The Pink Box” which sold school supplies for girls and a restaurant called KKK…I have no idea what sort of food they served. The big thing in the mall is a large ice rink. I don’t get the impression that Filipinos are used to ice skating based on how everyone was doing on the ice. I also went to go see an IMAX movie and the IMAX theater was the best I’ve ever been in.
Walking outside my hotel in Makati was sort of a shock. Everywhere I went I would be hounded to buy things. Cheap Filipino knives, fake Rolex watches, jewelry and the best of all, a guy who tried to sell me five American dollars from 1798 to 1805….which were made out of Aluminium.
What really stood out were the white guys who I saw around the neighborhood. They were all in their mid 40s to early 60s, and they ALL had young Filipino girlfriends. I was the only white man I saw in Makati without a young Filipino woman at my side. I think they are there to meet women they met through the Internet and through Filipino mail order bride services. Being in my late 30s and a white male, I am pretty sure that it was assumed by everyone I met that I was one of those guys. I had one conversation with a Filipino in a restaurant that went something like this:
Him: You got Filipino girlfriend?
Him: You not like Filipinos?
Him: You gay man?
Him: Then why you not have Filipino girlfriend?
Oh! Guess what the street vendors will try to sell you in a neighborhood with tons of middle aged white guys with young girlfriends??? Viagra.
I should note that this really isn’t any of my business. It isn’t my cup of tea and I’m sure everyone out there who is dating a Filipino isn’t hooking up via mail order bride services. I’m sure there are even a few marriages that work. However, it does seem to be a serious concern here. One day I went to the US Embassy to look into getting my passport renewed. The other line near me had couples coming in and the embassy person behind the counter would grill them for 5-10 minutes on how they met and know each other. The mail order bride business is also technically illegal in the Philippines, but that still leaves a big loophole for people to meet over the internet.
I’m not saying it should be banned or that willing adults shouldn’t be allowed to make such arrangements. I just find it creepy is all. The same thing exists in Russia and other Eastern European countries too. Western men want wives. Women in poor countries want a way out of the poverty.
Manila isn’t a dirty city insofar as there is litter on the ground. You will find people all over sweeping the streets. It is however a grimy city from all the air pollution. The density of the population and the constant attempt to try and hustle westerners makes it a very unappealing first impression of the Philippines. There is little in the way of green areas in the city to go walk around in.
Manila isn’t the worst city I’ve been in, or even close to the worst, but it is definately in the bottom half. It is a shame that this is what most people will see of the Philippines, because as I got out of Manila, I was much more impressed with what I saw.