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.

Drugged and Robbed in Manila

This is a tale of letting my guard down, trusting seemingly kind people and ending up being drugged and robbed. Six days later, all is fine, but some hard earned lessons were learned.

I arrived in Manila on Thursday and immediately encountered its infamous traffic as the taxi took nearly 2 hours to drive the 6 miles from the airport to my Airbnb in one of Manila’s most upscale areas, Makahati, and the Gramercy Residences. It is the highest building in Manila at 76 floors and its neighbour, for better or worse, is the Trump Tower.

On Friday, I decided to avoid the traffic and walk the 7 kilometres to the old part of Manila, Intramuros. Armed with Google Maps, I made my way towards the Bay of Manila, passing through wealthier and poorer neighborhoods, where the sidewalks were jumbles of broken concrete,  poles were threaded with electricity stealing wires and clothes hung out to dry at every window.

Chaotic street scene in Manila

Tuk-tuks and scooters were the transport of choice, along with a uniquely Filipino vehicle – the Jeepney – an elongated Jeep adapted after WW2, plying set routes as mini-buses throughout the city. In Intramuros, I stopped at the 15th century San Agustin Church and walked through Casa Manila, a museum made up to mimic wealthy 19th century Manilian life during the height of the Spanish colonial rule. After having walked around for 5 hours, I indulged in the Manila equivalent of Uber, called Grab, costing  $5.00 for the 45 minute ride back to the Gramercy.

Saturday morning came and I was feeling far less ambitious in terms of walking, so I went to the nearby Salcedo market, a weekly food market offering both Filipino and foreign dishes. It was too early for lunch, so after walking through the market, I left and walked down Makahati Avenue to see its sights.

Grilled Mackeral and Monkfish in the market

They turned out to be pretty slim, unless non-descript skyscrapers, bank buildings, 7-elevens and the Filipino equivalent of KFC, Jolibee, are to your taste. I started back toward the Salcedo market. Midway there, a 60 year old Filipino lady brandishing an umbrella to protect her skin from the sun asked me if I knew how to get to the Salcedo market. I said I was going there and we could walk together. She introduced herself as Gina and said she was a chef from the Ilocos province, visiting Manila for a few days  with a friend whom she was to meet at the market. Gina said she had 15 grandchildren and one grandson and showed me his picture on her phone. Gina had married at 15, had her first child a year later, but had been widowed for 10 years.

We arrived at the market and sat down. Gina said she would ensure I had proper Filipino food and brought over both a mango and a cucumber drink. I chose the mango, refreshing in the Manila heat. Gina brought other Filipino dishes, including barbecue pork and chicken skewers, rice wrapped in banana leaves, chicken adobo and empanadas. Soon her friends, Sazzann and Baya arrived; Sazzann was 67, but Baya was much younger. They both introduced themselves as business women. Sazzann had a mango farm in Ilocos while Baya bought clothes cheaply in Manila and resold them in her hometown.

The ladies indicated they wanted to go to a cheaper market that sold clothes and asked if I wanted to join them. I’m not a shopper, but I thought, hey, why not have an authentic experience in Manila with some Filipinos. We caught a regular bus and went to the Baclaran market, where hundreds of umbrellas make up the stalls.

A few of the thousands of umbrellas at the Baclaran Market

Clothes and lots of other things were for sale here at very cheap prices.  Gina bought a hand held portable sewing machine for her granddaughter’s birthday and Baya bought some earrings but that was it. It was hot and noisy and the ladies said it was time for a beer and a Jeepney ride. They asked if I wanted to join them and I said yes. Baya took our picture inside the Jeepney.

Gina (with the peace sign), me and Sazzann squeezed into a Jeepney

We stopped at an open restaurant/karaoke bar. Gina said her two nieces were going to join us – they were close by and liked to practice English with a native speaker. Meanwhile, Baya bought some drinks: San Miguel beer for them and a Tanguay for me-it tasted like a Smirnoff Ice but with only 5% alcohol and rum rather than vodka based.

Me, Gina and Baya at the Karaoke Bar

Eventually the nieces joined us, alcohol started flowing freely and the karaoke began. I’m not a singer, but Gina loved to sing – lots of Carpenter songs and Bonnie Tyler’s Straight from the Heart were a few I remember. The nieces said they were both studying business administration in local colleges and seemed like nice girls but there were warning signs. I asked to friend them on Facebook, and they said sure, but later. One of them asked to see the pictures I had taken and spent a long time looking at them on my I-Phone. More food was ordered, more drinks appeared and there was a lot of singing (but not by me). All seemed well.

About 4 PM, one of the nieces asked if I wanted to join them on a shopping trip to the biggest mall in the Philippines, The Mall of Asia. As it had been on my To Do list, I readily agreed and the 6 of us climbed into a Grab taxi. Oddly, we stopped at a Jolibee for more food, which I declined (I was full) and then more alcohol came out. We had been in the cab for at least half an hour, which was again odd as I could see the planes landing at the airport and knew the mall was close to the airport. I asked what the hold up was – why weren’t we at the mall yet………..

The next thing I remember I was walking back from a bank close to my Airbnb on Sunday about noon. I had tried to withdraw money and couldn’t remember my PIN so I got a message on my phone from the bank saying it detected fraud and I had to call the bank. I walked back to my residence, so unsteady on my feet that I tripped on the sidewalk, ripping my new pants at the knee. A passerby saw me and helped me up, then walked with me the 2 blocks to my place. Try as I might, I have no memory of anything after being in the cab on Saturday, not where I slept that night or what prompted me to go out to the bank that Sunday.

As the fog in my head started to clear, I took stock of the damage. It didn’t take a genius to figure out I had been drugged, probably with Ativan, also known as the date rape drug, but aside from a bruised knee when I fell and a heavy head, I felt physically fine. I still had my I-Phone and my purse, but looking through it, I noticed by debit card was gone, along the equivalent of $80 in pesos and a note about my PIN on my US dollar Visa card. In retrospect, it was a pretty stupid place to leave the PIN. My Canadian $ Visa was still there; that was the one I had been trying to withdraw cash from when my memory returned.

A few days later,  I still have no recollection of anything between 4PM on Saturday and noon on Sunday. I asked the building’s security to review the CCTV to find out when I came home and how but have no results yet. I also had a strange note in my pocket, partly in my writing saying “you stole 10,000 k from me” (the equivalent of $250) and a cab’s license number in writing I didn’t recognize.

When I checked my bank accounts, 10,000 Philippine pesos had been withdrawn from my US $ Visa account. I quickly cancelled the account (and CIBC said they would reimburse me the funds since it was fraud and I was a good customer) along with my debit card. To date, nothing untoward has happened with my Canadian $ Visa card and I can only assume they either missed it or ignored it if I was unable to give them the PIN. They left me with my passport, health care card and driver’s license, far more considerate than the pickpocket in Riga. I suspect they made sure I got back to my residence. Other internet posts I have since read say this is the norm as they hope if not too much is missing and you end up back at your place, you won’t go to the police.

On Monday, I went to a local walk-in medical clinic to learn more information about the drug. It cost only $12.50 to see a GP. She advised of the problematic warning signals to watch out for – seizures, shortness of breath and excessive sleepiness past two days. She also offered to arrange for a toxicology exam so I could determine exactly what drug I had been given. As I did not seem to have any lingering symptoms, I declined but I did go see a neurologist to discuss the potential symptoms as well, This cost $29 and I had to wait half an hour for an appointment. Whatever issues I may have with the criminals in Manila, their medical system was a treat.

I also decided to go to the police station and make a report. Unfortunately, the officer seemed completely uninterested until I told him I had photos of the culprits. Although the nieces had erased the photos on my camera roll, I had sent some photos to my son and brother and they had not been deleted. The police officer took a picture of the thieves and another of the note with the driver’s license, but wouldn’t let me fill out a report. As I couldn’t remember where the theft had occurred except near the airport, he concluded that it was outside of his jurisdiction and he couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it.

It’s been 6 days since and all is well. Part of me wants to contact Grab and find out if the license number on that paper is theirs and, if so, to see if they have records of who called the taxi. But I have decided against it. I have to let this go and chalk it up to a bad experience which could have turned out a lot worse. I am out $80 but am completely healthy and like to think a little wiser about being victimized by scammers.  Although I had heard about scams like this, it was always young people in bars at night, not grannies in popular food markets. Sadly, I will be more reluctant to trust locals. I will also be adamant only to drink from bottles I have seen opened, never let my drink out of my sight and never share food with anyone, no matter the culture.

When I told my father what happened, his reaction was to return to the safety of Canada. I didn’t even think of doing that for a second. I have loved every adventure, positive or negative, I have encountered in the last year. Being drugged and robbed was definitely not a highlight, but it will give me endless stories. And despite its ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the Jeepney ride, the karaoke singing and the Tanguay drink with the grannies.

Next post: I Shall Return, said General MacArthur, but I probably will not.