Well, here we are in the Philippines. Our second to last destination. In six weeks we’ll back in London. Homeless. Unemployed. Cold. And if I know England in January, probably wet too. But for now, Life is for living, and that is pretty easily done in this neck of the sunny woods. For a while we actually debated whether or not we should come to the Philippines. For one it sounded like Manila was submerged by recent typhoons. The Foreign Office is not terribly optimistic on the subject either, adducing terrorism, kidnapping, tropical storms, swine flu and military clashes as reasons not to come here. Of course there is the recent case of the 79 year old Irish Priest, Father Michael Sinnott, who was kidnapped and made to trek through mountainous countryside for a month. Upon being released the priest went on to say that his captors treated him really well and were pretty cool guys. He ended by saying "I have no desire to leave [my work in the Philippines], although I don't think they'll kidnap me again. I think if they wanted to kidnap somebody they'd be inclined to go for a much younger man because I was not able always to hike with the speed, and keep going - I often had to rest while they were hiking."
The uncertainty about travelling to the Philippines also came about from various conversations along the way. For example, I met a gregarious Filipino fisherman in Borneo and told him I would be going to Manila in a couple of weeks. He looked at me sceptically and said, “Have you ever studied any martial arts?” When I confirmed I had he smiled and said “Oh good, that kind of thing helps in Manila.” In the end though, we decided that we wanted to come here, and what a good decision that has turned out to be. We arrived at Clark Airport in the early evening and made our way into the lobby area where a long row of taxi companies hollered for business. There were maybe a dozen desks, all attended by wildly gesticulating and vociferous attendants. It was all good humoured though, done with broad smiles and with none of the animosity that you sometimes get in other East Asian countries. After messing about for a bit we decided to take the bus into town at a fraction of the price. The sunset from the bus was spectacular, a crimson ball of fire dipping beneath black granite clouds and then sudden darkness. We travelled for a disconcertingly long time.
The Rough Guide mentions that the airport is only seven kilometres out of Manila, yet we had been travelling for about forty minutes. The book came clandestinely out of our bag, we conferred in low tones and looked about furtively. Enormous billboards rolled by the windows, far larger than the ones we see in Europe. The traffic grew denser. And then intervention from a stranger, half obscured by the poor light in the bus. “You look lost… Where are you going?” A conversation ensues between us and our inveterately friendly interrogator and a couple of his friends. It turns out his name in Anthony, and he going pretty close to where we need to get to. We can hop out the bus with him and his friends, have a meal with them and then he’ll show us where we need to go. And all the time I am thinking, “This is just too easy, he is far too friendly… What’s his angle? What is really going on here?” The warnings from a thousand conversations and guide books comes flooding back. I fidget with my camera bag, steal looks at Nipun for her opinion and feign disinterest in the conversation, but then, as the bus stops and the conductor announces the stop we agree to join them. The next thing we know we are in a massive mall at Kenny Rogers Roasters, eating roast chicken and his friend, Leia, is giving us travel advice. She is a director of an up and coming travel company specializing in tours around the Philippines and fills up pages upon pages of travel advice for us. Tells us to be alert whilst we are in the Philippines. Anthony smiles continually and turns out to one of the nicest guys we have met whilst travelling. He is not only incredibly affable, he is also impeccably incredibly trustworthy and helpful. We decide to stay quite local to where we are and get a cab with another of the girls from the group called Jen. Jen insists on paying for the cab, nothing will convince her that we should pay as we are taking her out of her way. And throughout our travels in the Philippines these random acts of kindness have followed us everywhere. We decided to meet up with Leia and Anthony the following night and when we got a little lost, two twenty year old Filipino’s accompanied us for half an hour trying to find the bar we were looking for. Not only did they insist on finding the bar for us, they ended up joining us for drinks then dinner afterwards. And I think back to the Filipino fisherman who asked me if I knew how to fight. In some stage of out conversation I asked him why all the Filipino’s I had met were so damn friendly. He just laughed and said, “That’s it, we are a brotherhood.” That is how it has been for us. Sadly, it is not all like this though. The fanatics have their heels in the ground and 57 people were massacred in South Philippines this week. Included were women, children and 27 journalists. But for the few that tarnish the image of millions.
Our stay in Manila was good. The first hotel we checked into had rooms for rent at three tariffs: Four Hours, 12 Hours and 24 Hours. Apparently this is not a knocking shop, after all there is a massive picture of the Virgin Mary in the lobby. Rather there are a lot of travellers in Cuzon who need a place
to wash up and dump their bags for a few hours. Chuck, one of our new companions laughed at this theory, others maintained it’s veracity. We were too tired to care. We got the room for twelve hours, watched the Graham Greene classic “Travels with My Aunt” on the telly and passed out cold. Early the next morning we caught the train across town and then jumped on a jeepney towards Malatte where we stayed for the next couple of days. My impressions of Manila are still numerous and yet still undefined. For one it is massive. Sorry, make that MASSIVE. Between 10 and 20 million massive depending on which statistic you use. The traffic is diabolical and the air is thick with fumes. It is colourful, energetic, has more malls that anywhere I have been before and the trains at rush hour are worse than those of London. McDonalds has long lines of yellow “McDelivery” motorbikes. The restaurants are supernumerary and many of them are Western chains. The Filipino food we have tried is mostly delicious. In fact the only exception to this rule has been Balut, an incubated egg that is boiled and served after seven or fourteen days. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In the case of Belud they come at the same time. After several litres of Red Horse (local beer, seven percent volume and cheaper than chips) I tried one last night. The experience was short and only half completed. I like my chicken with chips, as opposed to egg.
The balance of our time in Manila was spent exploring the immediate area that we were in. The Bay of Manila has spectacular sunsets, but if you walk too far down Adriatico Street then things begin to look very ropey. There are an absurd amount of armed guards around, and our Pension seemed more like a security camp than a guesthouse, complete with a shaved head, shotgunned sentinel. During our stay Nipun and I got separated on a train (the genius that I am I got off a stop too early) and for the thousands of people around we thought we’d never find each other again. It took a frantic, panic stricken hour. Overall I really liked Manila, but it seems like the kind of town where the El Mariachi quote “Bless me Father, for I have just killed quite a few men” might not be that uncommon.