I had never been in a vibrant country like the Philippines. Houses of purple, blue, yellow, red, pink, grey and green were shining in the sun. On my arrival I could feel the creativity of Bohemian culture. Graffiti was not only created outside of the buildings but also on the jeepneys, the most distinctive transportation tool in the country. So there were thousands of colorful canvases running on the streets. This was quite a spectacular picture to me. The Philippines used to be the Spanish colony for 400 years. Thus, Spanish relics still could be seen in the local street names and family names. Those colorful squatters on both sides of the street immediately reminded me of my favorite place in Argentina—La Boca.
The Philippines is the eighth country of my visit in Southeast China. I am proud of my overseas travel history regardless of the fact that I haven’t been to the well-developed countries in Asia like Japan and Korea. I feel I am bonded with the underprivileged all the time. The Philippines has revealed to me the bright and dark sides of capitalism following the political system of the United States. I am told that because of corruption, there are many fat cats from the government in the Philippines. And the gap between the rich and the poor is dramatic—the wealthy can own their private jets and priceless properties; while the poor live by begging on the street. The squatter area in Manila is unbelievably widespread. Don’t forget to look down from the window when your plane is landing. You will see a massive area of squatters around the airport. Some are so colorful that they radiate in the daylight.
I stayed at Manila most of my trip. I learned that Manila actually had 18 different cities. So Manila in a broader meaning is also known as Metro Manila. The first city I knew was Makati, which was where my hotel located. And the first attraction I visited was the Ayala Museum. The Ayala family has great influence in the Philippines. The Ayala Mall I visited the next day also belongs to the billionaire family. Designed by the famous artist Fernando Zobel de Ayala, the museum housed a number of antique porcelains, which mainly came from the trade with China and gold accessories. There was a special showroom dedicated to the great Philippine painter Fernando Amorsolo. To me his painting style was quite European and his female portraits were impressive. In Manila I heard a lot of big names in the conversations between the cab drivers and my tour guide, such as Henry Sy who was the founder of SM (ShoeMart) mega store and Lucio Tan who was the owner of the Philippine Airline. It sounded like many Chinese descendants were quite successful in the Philippines. They had made great contribution to the economy of the country.
The second day I visited the active volcano in Lake Taal, which was about two-hour car ride from Manila. According to the driver, the location of eruption moved slowly. I was led to an island inside the lake by motorboat. I had never taken such a wet boat ride. Since there was no protection from my seat except for a sheet of unreliable plastic wrapping paper, my collar above was totally drenched. And I was barely able to see through my wet glasses. As I arrived at the island, I was arranged to ride on a pony to the peak of the hill. This was my first time to ride on a horse but I guessed it would be my last time as well. Looking down from the mountaintop, I saw a quake lake in the crater with smoke coming out from the bushes and the bank. There came the name “a volcano inside a volcano” as many believed that the lake circled the volcano was once a crater or mouth of a volcano. My delicious lunch was served by the Lake Taal. Since my guide introduced me to the Philippine national dish, Adobo, I could not resist its temptation. At lunch, I tried the fish caught from the lake, chicken adobo, fusion veggies and pineapples as dessert. Yum! They just hit the spot.
The third day was solely for Manila city tour. I was guided to several famous tourist attractions in old Manila, such as Fort Santiago, Intramuros which includes Casa Manila Museum, San Agustin Church (unfortunately I didn’t go inside to visit), Manila Cathedral and Tsinoy Museum (Chinese Philipino Museum). Just on the same day I tried several different transportation tools from ancient time to modern days—from jeepney (7.5 pesos per person) to light rail (19 pesos per person), from taxi (30 pesos as base price) to horse drawn buggy (price is subject to your bargain skill). I felt like I had lived through a life of 400 years. Walking on the pebble street in Intramuros, it reminded me of Largo do Leal Senado in Macau. Well, the Spanish colonized the Philippines was just about the same period of Portuguese’s occupation in Macau. It was an excellent idea to wrap up my tour in Intramuros with an authentic Spanish cuisine at Illustrado Restaurant. The restaurant seemed to be the favorite hangout spot for the upper-class. Anyway, I liked the ambience of the restaurant.
Christmas is the biggest festival in the Philippines. I had a chance to spend the Christmas vacation this year in this Catholic country. It was extremely memorable. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I signed up for a package tour to Corregidor, which used to serve as a focal point for the naval defenses of the capital city of Manila. After an-hour ferry ride, we landed on the tadpole-shaped island. During World War II, Corregidor was the site of several battles and its fall to the Japanese forces was instrumental in the subsequent capture of the Philippines and the retreat of the United States in the early stages of the war. Although the island has become an important historic and tourist site now, I could still smell the smoke of gunpowder, especially after a live exhibition show inside the Malinka Tunnel. Perhaps because I am extremely anti-war I somewhat had an antipathy to what I saw on the island. All those bombed barrack relics stood still like the Roman Colosseum. Looking at the peaceful Manila Bay around Corregidor, who would image there used to be fierce battles happening here to destroy the tranquility and ecological environment of this island? Later that day I visited the China Town in Manila and had a scrumptious seafood dinner in the neighborhood. It looked like the Philippine Chinese liked ordering take-away from restaurants on Christmas Eve. A number of people were waiting for their orders at the entrance of the seafood restaurant. And my day ended with the solemn midnight mass at Manila Cathedral. You could not imagine how crowded the scene was—even the exit was blocked by layers of loyal Catholics.
The last day in Manila was the most relaxed. As it was Christmas Day, all shops were closed. And it was basically a family day for all Philippinos. One of the favorite gathering spots in town was Manila Ocean Park. My day began there and then a walk in Rizel Park. You know, the first country hero I learned was Jose Rizal. Until today he is still highly respected in the Philippines. On the 25th of December, Rizal Park welcomed hundreds of thousands of local families. It was like an ocean of happiness—colorful kites in the sky, happy children with their families and friends, hard-working vendors, romantic couples and visitors like me with cameras. You could just feel how joyful the Philippinos were by looking at their impressive smiley faces. There were just too much to observe! I had a late lunch at the nearby Manila Hotel. Speaking of food, the Philippine mangos are a must-try. If not because of the Custom restriction, I would have brought a whole box of mangos home as souvenir. Don’t forget to try Calamansi juice from little limes, too. A walk by the bay at sunset was superb. I realized why the Philippinos enjoyed hanging out in the mall or outdoors mainly because it was really muggy and hot in the country all year round.
The rest four days I stayed at a resort hotel in Mactan Island of Cebu. Cebu City is located in the center of the Philippines. I think it’s the second largest city in the country. Life here in Cebu can be very relaxing and comfortable as there are mega-malls like SM and Ayala Center which sell international groceries and daily necessities and there are many beautiful beaches and recreational spots. I spent two days to leisurely sightsee Cebu City. I went to Fort San Pedro, which was the smallest and oldest triangular bastion fort in the country, Basilica Minor Del Santo Nino and the Magellan’s Cross, which came with Magellan from Spain to the Philippines in 1521. I even visited the only casino in Cebu City. However, the casino was not as big and fun as those in Macau, China’s Las Vagas.
Apparently, despite the fact that Spain ruled the Philippines much longer than the Yankees, the Philippinos still look up highly to Uncle Sam. American culture influences the Philippines deeply. As the eminent Philippine writer Mr. Frankie Jose said, America is the second largest home to the Philippines. I assume many Philippinos would like to go to America even though they seem to be happy with their lives.
Mimicking MacArthur’s famous speech “I Shall Return” before he left Corregidor for Australia, I ought to say to the Philippines as well, I shall return to explore more of this amazing country.