Saturday, February 22, 2014

February 21st – Enthusiastic Welcome to Manila

This time last year when we visited Manila, it was raining torrentially and the traffic was terrible. This year, on a warm and sunny Saturday, it looked like a different city.

As this is the home port for the majority of the crew onboard the Silver Whisper, our welcome was as warm as ever, as dance troupes and marching bands played to greet us, while the families of the crew waited to greet their loved ones. The sense of anticipation and emotion onboard was palpable.

Rather than get in the way of the family reunions, we walked into Manila's old town to see the few remaining colonial relics that survived the terrible damage of the Second World War, a horrific period when the city was pretty much flattened. The walk into town from the port isn't a long one, although you do have to brave the belching traffic and the groups of homeless people sleeping in the bushes alongside the road. Having said that, there wasn't a threatening atmosphere as you walked around – probably helped by the fact that there were security guards and police with big machine guns (who were happy to pose for photos) at regular intervals.

We walked through the massive city walls built by the Spanish to protect their city, crossing the golf course that has been constructed in the moat, and entered Manila's historic "Intramuros" District (literally, "between the walls"). There were still plenty of gaps in the cityscape where old monasteries and Spanish mansions had been destroyed that there weren't funds to rebuild.

We proceeded to Manila's oldest and most impressive colonial relic – the San Agustin Church, which had been built back in 1587. The architecture, iconography and atmosphere were all typically Spanish – an element that contrives to give Manila a feel that's as much Latin American as it is Asian. We then headed to Casa Manila - one of the few surviving old mansions that once would have been all around Intramuros. The building and its decorations were an interesting blend of European and Asian styles, and their grandeur were a sign that the wealthy few lived very good lives here in colonial Manila (while the majority locals were excluded from that wealth).

We discovered more about the Philippines' path to independence at the symbol of Spanish colonial rule, Fort Santiago, which again had to be reconstructed after the Second World War. This is where the Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal was imprisoned before his execution, and it became the US headquarters after they took over in 1898, and finally it was the centre of the Japanese occupying forces during the war, in which some brutal war crimes were carried out against the long-suffering Filipinos.

From the ramparts, we looked across the Passig River to our next destination, Binondo, Manila's bustling Chinatown. The route there didn't look very inviting, with shanty towns lining the river, so we decided to catch one of Manila's iconic jeepneys to get over there. These distinctive jeepneys are converted trucks that have become an informal bus system that seem to make up half of the traffic on the city's congested streets. They're hardly 5 Star luxury, given that they're incredibly cramped and not really made for anyone over 5 feet 8, but they're incredibly cheap – 8 pesos (18 cents or 11 pence) – and our fellow passengers kindly gave us help with directions.

If Intramuros felt Spanish and relatively ordered, then the hectic Chinatown definitely confirmed that we were in Asia. People everywhere, stalls selling all kinds of things, clogging hooting traffic and plenty of people living on the street. After a bit of exploring, we stopped in a dodgy restaurant for a drink while a man outside picked lice out of his little daughter's hair, until the smell of melting plastic (coming from somewhere unseen) became too much, and we hopped into a taxi to take us back downtown.

We were travelling down to visit another essential element of Filipino society – the Shopping Mall. This one, the Robinson Mall, was small by Manila's standards, but it was still fairly huge. The fashions and atmosphere show just how westernised Filipino society has become, as the latest consumer fashions have taken over.

After a nice Chinese meal at the mall, we made our way back to the ship, stopping in at Rizal Park to visit its various monuments and to savour its relaxed atmosphere, before briefly popping into the iconic Manila Hotel, built by the Americans, and home to the controversial US General, Douglas MacArthur. Back at the port, as the final emotional goodbyes were being said, we were treated to a tremendous show by the energetic dance troupes that gave us a wonderful send off after a hugely enjoyable day.

One local saying of the country's colonial experience, is that the Philippines spent 400 years in a convent, and 50 years in Hollywood (with all the good and bad connotations that implies) – and today certainly confirmed this intriguing and sometimes conflicting mixture of influences on the country.