This is my Lonely Planet / KLM On Assignment 2012 contest entry. I may not have won but I’m quite proud of this. So I’m sharing this with you and I hope that this will encourage you to rediscover / discover Manila.
PS: And yes, feel free to give your suggestions / comments for improvement (it’s actually my way of saying that I do need a mentor :)).
Eight years ago, I wrote a letter to my mom begging her permission to come home to the laid-back city of Bacolod because I could no longer stand the debauchery of the concrete jungle that is Manila. Everything about the city wrecked my senses: the dreadful traffic, long lines at the train station, skyscrapers popping everywhere, and the awful noise pollution worse than William Hung’s Christmas album. But my mom wrote back saying that I should reconsider because staying in Manila would open my eyes to new experiences.
It was during the 80s when my mom first brought me to Manila for a vacation. She would tell me things like, “You’ll live here one day” as we drove through the historic Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or Edsa, the site of a revolution two years later. The city already seemed promising back then with its developing structures and leisure sites that were uncommon in the province such as big shopping centers or that local clown-killing fast-food chain.
During the 1500s, the Spaniards colonized Manila and it went on to become a famous site for trade. Spanish influence was replaced three centuries later with the American dream of modernization. But World War II broke out and left Manila in ashes. After the war, the city was reconstructed and a Metropolis, including Manila and 16 other surrounding cities, emerged. Despite the promise of a new beginning, heinous government corruption impeded the city’s growth and the pangs of yesterday’s animosity continue to reverberate with more Manileños sinking in poverty.
For my mother, however, it was never a delusion to find success in the Metro. She already knew that an experience in Manila would change my life. And she was right. That’s why eight years later, I’m still here.
Manila may be a semi-chaotic metropolitan district pulsating with vitality in the form of high-rise buildings, red light districts, garish Jeepneys, karaokes, and religious congregations that seem to know more about family planning than the Department of Health. But it is exactly this urban mayhem that gives the city its impermeable character, making it more ostentatious to a local and certainly fascinating to the foreign eye.
To experience Manila means having an intimate affair with the unknown that leads to a sense of dislocation that ironically rewards the soul with impeccable wisdom. Manila gives the timid what it needs to be freed from the shackles. Above all, Manila changes people and awakens the spirit that has latched onto complacency for so long.
Take a bite out of Manila’s culture, food and night life through 3 of its districts namely Old Manila, Makati, and Quezon City. It’s chock-full of surprises indeed, but the reward is as pleasurable as an ultimate psychedelic trip.
Welcome to the jungle!
Culture Shock In Quiapo
“Dad, I’m going to Quiapo,” a friend tells her father. “Why?” he asks her. “My problema ka ba?” (Do you have a problem?)
It is not surprising that the thought of Quiapo can evoke fear and worry. In fact, visiting this rundown commercial attraction in Old Manila could leave visitors aghast. Perhaps it’s the black-market horror story or the stench of the gutters that intermingles with fish oil that makes Quiapo daunting. But it is the area’s penchant for the unexpected and the bizarre that makes it the most intriguing among all the districts of the Metro.
As one meanders through the teeming haven of vendors selling everything you could imagine from clothes to housewares, it should not be surprising to feel flabbergasted at the sight of stalls selling Betamax or grilled chicken blood and illegal birth control paraphernalia that are stealthily handed over when asked. Little children no longer just sell candies. They will grab you, lead you to a nearby stall and speak to you with utmost persistence, “Bili na ho kayo (Please buy),” while pointing at a rack of pornographic DVDs.
On the other hand, Quiapo has an interesting side that could lure serious buyers. There’s R. Hidalgo Street, the Mecca of all things photography, and the famous Raon that sells electronic equipment below market prices. And if genuine experience involves heading to a local market, the colors, the madness, and the pungent scent of Quiapo’s Quinta Market will most likely pique those curious about local diet and haggling.
But in the middle of all the bargaining and the festivities stands the venerable Quiapo Church that houses the Black Nazarene, an icon believed by many to perform miracles. It is the procession held during the Black Nazarene’s annual feast day on the 9th of January that captivates the entire world. It’s when blood, sweat, tears, injuries and death happen at the same time for the sake of a miracle. The event, which is undoubtedly a testament to the austere Filipino faith and devotion, draws thousands of believers hoping to touch the dark statue for their prayers to be granted. To witness a swarm of devotees is one for the books, but one fine day inside the Church can be an experience in itself whether you’re a believer or not. Simply observe a Filipino devotee in prayer, or you too can say a little prayer. Who knows? The Black Nazarene may just listen.
A Piece of History in Intramuros
To assuage congestion discomfort, all it takes is a short jeepney ride from Quiapo to the walled city of Intramuros. Centuries ago, Intramuros was a Spanish city with churches, schools, and courtyard houses. But most of the key structures were destroyed during World War II and only a few remnants of the Colonization remain.
The historical district is less heaving and more serene if not for the college students taking their breaks and feasting on sour-smelling quail eggs known as kwek-kwek on the side streets. A walk along Victoria Street could already give visitors a fine picture of kalesas or horse drawn carriages taking on passengers garbed in elegant Spanish dresses.
Head next to General Luna Street to witness the grandeur of the San Agustin Church, which is the oldest stone Church in the entire country and where weddings should be booked a year earlier or else…
I once entered the colossal structure and marveled at its magnificent murals and baroque style interior. My jaw dropped in awe of the beauty around me and I could only mutter the words of the stupefied: am I still in Manila or what?
At the end of the street is Fort Santiago where national hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned before his execution in what is now known as Luneta or Rizal Park. The historical value of this former Spanish headquarters is as astounding as its preserved relics and ruins. A visit will bring you back in time and tell you more about Rizal and his writings. But nothing is more stimulating than the thought of Spanish ghosts haunting the fortress. Wander alone in the dungeons and get free goosebumps!
Makati – Comfort At Its Best
The grueling atmosphere of Old Manila takes a backseat as the ambrosial scent of luxury captures the air. Makati, the business district of the Metro and the Financial Capital of the Philippines, is Manila’s answer to the Wall Street of New York and the shopping centers of Hong Kong.
Strolling at the Greenbelt area will give you upscale restaurants and put you face to face with the Gucci aficionados. If glamour is too much for you, a short walk from Greenbelt, crossing Ayala Avenue, will take you to the cozy Filipinas Heritage Library where you can browse books about Philippine history and culture. Surrounded by Ayala Triangle’s nature and serenity, the library is a place of refuge away from the lavishness of the surrounding malls and 5-star hotels. Walk a little further, passing Paseo De Roxas, Gil Puyat, and Jupiter Street and you will end up in P. Burgos, the irresistible red-light district of Makati. Despite being a little tame compared to the ping-pong whiffs of Bangkok’s Patpong, a short walk at night can definitely captivate the senses (think: neon lights, pretty girls, and, yes, spandex).
But Makati’s wonder is not found in its shopping malls or Go-Go bars. There actually exists a variety of cheap restaurants in this expensive city that can transport every hungry soul to the depths of gastronomical indulgence. Let me put it this way: delicious food for less than a thousand pesos. What more can you ask for?
Start your day by heading to Rufo’s Famous Tapa along Kalayaan for a plate of tender tapa (dried / cured beef) marinated in special sauce and served with garlic rice and fried egg. It’s one true Filipino breakfast that cannot be missed. For lunch, try JT’s Manukan along Malugay Street for a taste of the famous Bacolod chicken inasal (roasted chicken). Order the pecho (chicken breast) and pair it with a bowl of Kansi (beef, bone marrow vegetable soup) for a divine experience.
Makati also has a line of international, hole in the wall restaurants worth checking such as the unnamed Chinese restaurant (to get there, ride the pedicab or bicycle rickshaw from Estrella St.) at the back of Rockwell for authentic Hunan dishes, and SOMS Noodle House along Alger Street for Khao San Road worthy Thai delights.
Quezon City: La Vie Bohème
An MRT ride from Ayala or Buendia Station of Makati will take you to Quezon City, the largest city of Metro Manila. Despite its dense population, Quezon City thrives on its spectacular bohemian scene.
Rock bands and dubstep DJs can usually be spotted at Cubao Expo or “Cubao X” according to local hipster language. Formerly known as Marikina Shoe Expo, the U-shaped joint within the Araneta Center, hosts a number of bars, small restaurants, and thrift shops selling vintage items. The entire place reeks of old wood and leather that fuses with the scent of alcohol and cigarettes. It is where the young and the hip feast on vinyl records, channeling the inner flower child and sometimes, smoking the big roll. You’ll never be a stranger in Expo. The trick is to grab a chair, bob your head to the music of post-rock bands with long names blasting from the speakers, and savor the 6.8 alcohol potency of the ultimate Red Horse.
A taxi ride to Visayas Avenue will take you to Conspiracy, the artsy garden café that attracts local painters, troubadours, activists, and cineastes. Whether it’s a weekend or a weekday, you can catch poetry jams, independent film screenings, or acoustic gigs with the country’s underground musicians. If you’re lucky, you can also experience nude sketching or painting sessions with local artists. The event is open to anyone who has the knack for the arts or those fearless enough to bare it all.
If engaging in an intellectual discourse is your thing, Sarah’s is the answer. It’s a homely outdoor restaurant within the vicinity of the University of the Philippines Diliman campus that’s famous for its sumptuous appetizers and cold beer. Professors and students of the renowned university come here often to relax, have a conversation with strangers, sing Beatles songs, talk politics, or philosophize until the wee hours of the night. The sisig omelet, a flavorful combination of rice with onions, pig head parts and liver wrapped in scrambled egg, is to die for. Drown it with a bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen and you’re good to go.
“Manila…I keep coming back to Manila”
Filipino Band Hotdog was right when they wrote this line to proclaim one’s affinity for Manila. Maybe it’s the noise of the jeepneys, the unusual concoction of luxury and cheap tapa, or the Churches and the Sarah’s. But there’s no doubt that Manila’s charm is infectious and it’s really impossible not to come back once you’ve left because everything about it graces the memory with remarkable experiences.
From Quiapo to Quezon City, Manila is sacredness, pleasure and vitality rolled into one. It’s all you need, really, for a journey you’ll never forget.