Monday, November 16, 2009 by Daniel

Day 2: In which we visit the oldest part of Manila

Woke up bright and early thanks to the jet lag, and forced myself to keep sleeping until around 7:30 or so. The hotel doesn’t have its own restaurant, but does provide vouchers for complimentary breakfast at a café around the corner. The food there was really good, but teeny-tiny, so we supplemented from Starbucks, which has rapidly become my most-visited spot in the Philippines. Which is sadly illustrative of both my own addiction to coffee and the kind of neighborhood we’re in. The only other place around here that has coffee serves its cream in little paper packets, so…snob on.

Ben arranged for us to get a tour of the city from a guide he knew named Greg, an American ex-pat who has been living here for the last 25 years. Greg was a great guide – extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and knew when to use “who” and “whom” in regular speech. Also really tall. My kinda guy. He took us on the scenic route to our destination, which was the oldest part of Manila, a place called Intramuros.

Turn out our hotel is not in Manila proper – we’re in one of many booming outliers to the city called Makati. Kind of like San Francisco vs. the Bay Area. Manila has a population of 3 million, but the larger metropolis is more like 12 million. The city has a tremendous history dating back to the 16th century, but thanks to sieges and occupations by both the Japanese and then the Americans in WWII, there’s not a whole lot of architecture from before 1945 to be seen – there’s a huge amount of modern development, and a great deal of buildings from the 70s and 80s (largely thanks to Imelda Marcos) that is going to seed and sadly being abandoned or torn down. Which isn’t THAT tragic, as much of it is hideous poured concrete bunker-style architecture, but still it’s an important part of local history.

Greg navigated his Toyota truck confidently through the chaotic streets while giving us a rundown on what we were seeing. The occasional pre-war relic, usually abandoned. Buildings and cars salvaged from wartime-era army surplus materials. He taught us a bit about local governance, which he describes as extremely corrupt, enabled by a largely apathetic population. They might turn things around this spring by electing the son of their only non-corrupt president in recent memory, but he’s skeptical that the election will not be stolen by the incumbent president.

After about a half-hour, we arrived at Intramuros. Founded in 1574 by Spanish colonists, Intramuros is the original location of the city of Manila (at least, as it called – there was an indigenous presence here well before that). It is a walled city (Intramuros translates literally as “inside the walls”), about five square kilometers on the banks of the river leading to Manila Bay. These days it is primarily an educational area, home to over 10,000 students spread out among several colleges. It is also home to the oldest church in Asia, San Agustin, built 1594-1604. There were several other churches once, but they were burned or leveled in the war.

We started our on-foot portion of the tour in the church, which is very beautiful and very much like many of the churches I’ve been to in Europe. They were cleaning the chandeliers in the church itself while we were there, filling the hall with a sweet sound of tinkling glass. We toured the crypt and gardens, then went outside and got in one of the donkey-carts that tours around Intramuros. Capably pulled by a diminutive, frothing-at-the-mouth horse named Rambo, our driver pointed out the Japanese prisons carved into the walls, the cannons on the walls used by the Spanish to keep the low-caste Chinese laborer population in check, and the various colleges and universities we passed.

Rambo drew to a halt at the northernmost tip of the district, Fort Santiago. We got a lesson in the specific battles of WWII and the destruction they wrought on the Philippines in general and Manila specifically (over 100,000 Filipinos killed in Manila alone). Fort Santiago, an old Spanish fortification, was the site of the Japanese last stand against the invading Americans at the end of the war, and also the site of the incarceration and execution of Jose Rizal, a writer and martyr to the cause of Filipino independence from the Spanish in the 19th century. Now it is a beautiful collection of ruins with an administration that pipes music through speakers placed throughout the grounds, making the whole place feel like a bizarrely ancient Disney military fortification.

That concluded the walkabout portion of the tour, and we adjourned to a cute restaurant called Barbara’s with an extremely forgettable buffet and a trio of musicians serenading us with songs like “King of the Road,” and Elton John’s “Daniel.”

We were all feeling pretty tired by this point, so Greg drove us back through crawling traffic. Rebecca and I went to the hotel gym for a workout, then to Starbucks for afternoon coffee, followed promptly (on my part) by a nap. Dinner was a bit problematic, as nobody had any strong preferences, but Dana stayed at the hotel so we could bring her back something. The only really transportable food we could find that appealed to all parties was California Pizza Kitchen, but we justified our horribly non-cultural purchase by getting the Chicken Adobo pizza, which is available ONLY in the Philippines. This made us all feel much better about ourselves. And it was really damn good pizza, too, despite being on cracker-thin crust (they’d run out of proper pizza crusts). Tomorrow we fly out to Palawan, where hopefully our local dining options will not be limited to a giant mall filled with nothing but international chain stores.

A word about the shopping experience, while I’m on the subject. Apparently minimum wage in the Philippines is about $7/day, and there is no shortage of people looking for work. The upshot of this is that EVERYWHERE you go is staffed to the gills – it isn’t uncommon to walk into a store and see the staff vastly outnumbering the customers. And they are VERY eager to help. We went into an electronics store thinking to maybe get a wireless access point for our hotel, and had three young workers telling us all about Wireless G vs. Wireless N and which routers they would support, with two others hanging back in case the first three were somehow insufficient. Inevitably, entering a store will result a chorus of “Hi Sir!” (or “Ma’am,” as the case may be) and a swarming of helpful salespeople. It is, frankly, creepy. But all part of the culture, as Greg explained.

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