Trying to find the Philippines: Manila

I arrived in the Philippines with no expectations, just a desire to see and learn about a country whose people, when they emigrated to Canada, struck me as gentle and kindhearted. Internet searches touted Manila as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, the Unesco world heritage rice terraces of the Philippine cordilleras were highly recommended and, of course, the thousands of islands, tropical paradises all with the requisite white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and palm trees swaying in the wind.

I looked closer into going to the rice terraces, but every guided tour involved a bumpy 6-8 hour ride in a four wheel drive vehicle, followed by a night in lodgings universally described as rustic and basic, which translated to no air-conditioning, no indoor plumbing and the possibility of plenty of unwanted insects or worse. It was a lot of effort to see rice fields, which, despite their 2000 year old history,  Instagram perfect photo opportunities and heritage status were still, at the end of the day, rice paddies. I passed.

Thus, I decided to concentrate most of my time in Manila, a conglomerate of cities with a population in excess of 12 million and the dubious honour of being the densest city on the planet. Despite my unfortunate drugging/robbing incident, I persisted in spending 8 days in the city trying to understand a bit more about Filipinos, their history, culture and what makes them tick.

I started with a 2 1/2 hour walk from Makati to Manila Bay, seeing a cross section of neighborhoods, from the wealthy skyscrapers in Makati to the shantytowns that line the airport and waterways. While I didn’t inspect the shanties on foot, they didn’t differ much from the worst shantytowns I had visited in Johannesburg or Calcutta; houses built piggly wiggly, with corrugated metal roofs and walls made from a few wooden planks filled in by cardboard. The waterways provided the only available plumbing and electricity was freely stolen from electric poles, with wires dangling along what passed for roads.

One of many shanty towns in Manila

I had decided to walk as the traffic was horrendous, but I hadn’t realized how pervasive the smog was. As I started from my residence, the heavy gray air emanating from millions of vehicles spewing diesel fumes obscured the sun. Thirty minutes into my walk, the smog entered my lungs, making me wish I could buy one of those textile face masks that were worn by a third of the populace on the streets. It got worse – an hour later – I could feel the grit on my skin, where it stayed until I showered back at the residence. I had heard about the smog problems in Beijing and New Delhi, but Manila should certainly be added to the list of very polluted cities.

Curious to see more picturesque sites than smog and shanties, I signed up for a day tour of Tagaytay, promising volcanoes, palaces and a bamboo organ. A driver and guide picked me up promptly at 8:30 and announced I was the only participant today. Great, I thought, no fights about the middle seat but not so wonderful for meeting people. After 2 hours in Manila traffic, we finally arrived at our first attraction – the palace. Not some ancient Filipino/Hindu/Spanish palace, but a summer home started yet never finished by the former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda – she of the thousand shoes- fallen into disrepair. There’s a darker side to the house/palace. Construction began to welcome then US President Ronald Reagan to the Philippines in 1981 at a cost of US$ 10 million, but Reagan cancelled his visit and the mansion was abandoned. What is left is a monument (amongst many) of the Marcos’ opulent spending and a reasonably well maintained road to a better view sight of the Taal Volcano.

Abandoned Marcos” Palace

After taking a Jeepney to the very best view sight, the volcano was completely obscured by the abundance of low lying clouds. Undeterred, the driver and guide drove down below the clouds, where at least a view, if not bright blue skies, was possible.

View of the volcano. The structures on the water are fish farms.

The tour went downhill, literally and figuratively, from there. After another hour in Manila traffic, we stopped at tourist sight number 3- the Jeepney factory. These vehicles are a hybrid Jeep and minibus, adapted by the Filipinos after WW2 to serve as local buses. We walked around for a few minutes, before the guide conceded that the factory wasn’t busy because it was soon to be closed. The government had ordered all diesel Jeepneys to be replaced by electric ones, making this factory obsolete.

Me and a jeepney

Our final stop was the church housing a Bamboo Organ, the only one in the world. Unique it may be, and it did make beautiful sounds, but I will spare the details other than to say it was hardly overwhelming.

Feeling no further enlightened about anything Filipino after this tour, I signed up for another one, this time to Corregidor Island, located 40 miles from Manila.

Some history, much of it gleaned from my guide Brian on the Corregidor tour. In 1521, after becoming the first European in centuries to visit the Philippines (via South America), Ferdinand Magellan arrived, claimed it for Spain (he’d had an argument with his Portuguese king), converted some of the locals to Catholicism and was promptly killed in a battle by a poisonous arrow. The Spaniards stayed for roughly 375 years, until they managed to lose the area to the Americans after the Spanish – American war and the 1898 Treaty of Paris (and payment by the US of $20 million). The Americans ruled it until 1942, despite what the Americans refer to as the Philippine insurgency and the Filipinos refer to as the American-Philippines war circa 1898-1902. Between 1941 and 1945, the Japanese occupied it, but eventually a US/Filipino force liberated it following the devastating battle of Manila, in which over 100,000 civilians were killed. A year later, the Philippines were granted independence, but didn’t get rid of the last US armed forces base until 1991.

Corregidor is one of 5 islands strategically located in the Bay of Manila and was the center of the US presence since 1902. A large US base was located there, complete with cinema, bowling alley, a railroad and all the trappings of a small US town. Not so prevalent in small town USA was the Malinta tunnel, burrowed under the mountains to provide security for civilian and military headquarters, a hospital and food and arms storage.

On May 8, 1941, 9 hours after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Japanese Air Force stuck the main Philippine island of Luzon, followed by ground troops a few days later. Opposition came from a makeshift amalgamation of regular US and Filipino soldiers – the latter had been separately trained since 1934 in anticipation of independence in 1944- but they lacked the arms and manpower to overcome the Japanese, who proceeded forward to Manila quickly and were targeting Corregidor. MacArthur was ordered to leave the island by Roosevelt. On March 20, 1942, he made his famous “I shall return” speech from the boat launch on Corregidor Island, where now a statue marks the spot.

Me, the statue of MacArthur and the wind on Corregidor

Corregidor was eventually captured by the Japanese army, but instead of the 50 days they expected to take to overrun the island, the spirited fighting of the Filipino forces engaged their enemy for 150 days before conceding defeat. Brian was very proud of this fact and repeated it numerous times during our tour. Eventually, the Japanese prevailed and were ruthless in their victory. In the infamous death march, over 70,000 US and Filipino soldiers clamoured through the jungle for two weeks without food or water to a POW camp. Over 20,000 did not make it.

Today, Corregidor Island is a monument to the war. Tours drive past the remnants of the army barracks, the 19.5 miles of railway line, the tennis courts and the anti-aircraft batteries. Three monuments commemorate those who died during the war – the Pacific War Memorial funded by the US, the Filipino Heroes Memorial and the Japanese Memorial Garden. When the joint American and Filipino forces invaded Corregidor in February, 1945, most of the 2000 Japanese soldiers committed suicide rather than surrender, including blowing up the Malinta tunnel. The 20 Japanese soldiers who did not die were tasked with salvaging the tunnel. Today, it had been rebuilt and a sound and light show is presented walking the tourist through its construction, uses and significant events during the war, with the finale being the playing of the Philippines anthem. Tours today are offered in both English and Japanese. Brian said the content of the Japanese tour differs slightly, emphasizing Japanese strategy and battles.

It was an educational tour, enlightening me about WW2 and the war in the Pacific beyond my high school highlights of Pearl Harbour and the atomic bombs. But despite the efforts of the tour guides at Corregidor, I still didn’t feel I understood the Philippines, or in the vernacular, what makes it tick.

Various internet sources about what to see in Manila were uninspiring. Too many of them focused on its fabulous shopping centres, something I do my best to avoid, its food markets, of which I had my fill or Intramuros, the old walled city I had walked through on my first foray out of my residence, but it was dominated by Spanish colonial history. Surely the Philippines had a history before the Spaniards came.

It was just a little hard to find, but I persisted and made my way to the Ayala Museum. Housing archeological treasures, gold artifacts, textiles and dioramas displaying centuries of Filipino history, it provided a chronological retelling of settlements, societies and significant events in the Philippines. There was life before the Spaniards! 4000 years ago, waves of Chinese and Malays migrated to the islands, integrated with the largely fisherman tribes who had been there for 40,000 to 50,000 years and began farming the islands. Indians arrived as early as 900AD, creating Hindu/Buddhist states. Rather than a single empire, these were largely small, local cities or villages. The earliest writing is attributed to a text in 900, in which the ruler released a local fellow from his debt. In 1380, the first Arabs arrived and created some Sultanates, the remnants of a small Muslim minority still exist mostly on the southern islands.

Then the Spaniards arrived. I heard, from tour guides, that the Spaniards gave the islands its religion – Catholicism – and the Americans gave it English. Today, Tagalog (Filipino) and English are the two official languages, with most schools teaching in English.

I left knowing a little more Filipino history, but still not understanding much. Everyone said that if I wanted to appreciate the Philippines, I had to go to one of the islands. So my next stop is the island paradise of Boracay.

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