After going solo in Taiwan, I got a nice change of pace in the Philippines accompanied by my old Peace Corps traveling buddy, Alex (by the way, if a picture from the next few posts impresses you, it’s probably hers). Our first stop, like many, was Manila, which I kept referring to asLimain a semi-conscious accident. In my defense, the similarities are striking. The city is a massive sprawl, choked by traffic consisting of a Noah’s ark of bizarre vehicles* and full of malls and sidewalk markets competing for customers, often side-by-side. There are panhandlers, amazingly deft pickpockets (one pulled a paper out of my front pocket without me noticing, until I found it on the floor, which is why I don’t carry nice things when I travel) and sleazy red light districts.
*My favorite by far: jeepneys. Cobbled together from leftover World War II jeeps, most are pimped out enough to make Xzibit blush
Within all of this, there are genuinely pleasant pockets that give you a bit of a breather from the surrounding bedlam. For two nights we stayed in the quite nice Makati district, couchsurfing with a Filipino travel writer named Edgar. Fro those that are unfamiliar with couchsurfing, it’s a website that connect people willing to offer up their couches, spare beds, or what have you to travelers. Edgar was a very pleasant, very interesting host, and a great source of info, in particular regarding the cuisine, which I’ll write about next time.
During our stay in Manila we balanced a bit of the Western lifestyle (I couldn’t resist when I spotted a Dairy Queen) with some tourism. Unfortunately, most of the old Spanish city that had been characterized as the jewel of Asia was destroyed as Manila changed hands repeatedly during World War II. The main surviving portion is located in Intramuros.
Literally translating to “within the walls” the small slice of the city features many Spanish-style buildings, churches, and ramparts, and is a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon. The highlight of the area is the focus on Filipino independence figure Jose Rizal, who was executed outside of the fort located on the far end of the complex. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, and discovering the particulars of his story and reading his final words- a poem to his countrymen- was a stirring experience.
The other Manila landmark I’d freely recommend is the Ayala Museum. The entry is about ten bucks, expensive for the area, but well worth it. I particularly enjoyed the exhibit of three influential Filipino painters from different periods, and the series of dioramas depicting the history of the Philippines from the Stone Age to the dawn of its democracy were very interesting, although probably even more so with an audio guide to fill in the gaps.
Most impressive, though, was its newest collection- an array of pre-Spanish gold pieces from hundreds to thousands of years old. The metalwork was intricate and often masterful, and after witnessing a slight like this it’s not difficult to see how the precious metal has put so many men in thrall.
This isn’t my pic, but this ridiculously intricate piece is the centerpiece of the collection
A few days in Manila is plenty, so we spent one of our final days there on a daytrip out to Tagaytay and Taal Volcano. Taal is on an island in a lake a couple of hours away from Manila. The volcano itself has a crater lake, and in that is another improbably placed island. You can hire boats to go out to the volcano and climb and explore it from there, but you need to get there very early, as the lake of vegetation or cover turns it into a searing hellhole by noon.
We didn’t get an early enough start for that, so instead we headed for Tagaytay, a town on a ridge overlooking the lake and volcano. We took it easy, lunching in one of the best restaurants in the Philippines for less than ten bucks apiece and enjoying the spectacular view.
As we left, I noticed a small hovel complete with free-ranging chickens and a scraggly guard dog located just below the restaurant patio. That dichotomy between a posh, upscale world and the impoverished one that the majority of Filipinos inhabit, often on display right next to each other, would be one of the recurring themes of my trip.