Mother Nature does not add to Philippines' capital's sparse charms
07/04/2017 - 07/05/2016 92 °F
The Philippines were a late addition to my SE Asian adventure I'd planned for the summer. Singapore was my first destination of choice, and a travel friend's recent pictures from Laos convinced me to make it part two. However, once I'd counted up the days, I still had a little less than a week before I had to be back in the states. So, where to? I'd seen photos of the beauty of the various islands of the Philippines, so did some research. I decided to do a four-night stop on the island of Palawan, which was supposed to be a lot like Vietnam's Halong Bay, as far as natural scenery goes.
Manila's town walls
First impressions can be misleading sometimes, but other times they are good omens. Or bad omens -- depending on the impression in question! I'd read to avoid the taxi touts at Manila airport, and my hotel confirmed the advice. They said to make sure I took a metered taxi from the official taxi stand. I brushed past all of the ride solicitations (probably several dozen) to join the long line of people waiting. Every two to three minutes or so, a single, sometimes two, cab would pull up and the line would inch forward. A full 50 minutes I waited, but my frustrations with Manila public transit had only begun. I'd pulled my IPhone maps app up, and entered my hotel. Turns out that it was only 4.6 miles away, which in Manila traffic means, oh, 45 minutes, at least! Seriously! We inched along, changing lanes, tooting horns, merging, re-merging, and in general, getting nowhere fast.
Cannons on one of the town wall batteries
I'd landed in mid-afternoon and thought that I'd be able to get in some sightseeing that day. Wrong! Another feature of Manila is that most sights close by 5 pm. Plus, the rain let loose soon after I arrived. The only thing I did that evening was walk to the local mall which had dozens of restaurants to choose from. I was staying in the Ermita district because it was close to the sights I wanted to see in Manila, but my guidebook said it was a tourist-friendly area with lots of amenities. Except that Lonely Planet forgot to mention the war zone look to the neighborhood, and the thick, overlaying patina of seediness. The Philippines is my 83rd country, so I am no casual traveler. I have to say Manila is the seediest looking city I've visited, beating out Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa. I returned relatively quickly to my poor stepsister of a Best Western hotel that I'd booked on hotels.com.
The next morning was sunny, so I set out with the hope last night's impressions had been soured by the transportation frustrations. It was easy to navigate my way with my guidebook and IPhone maps to the walled city part of the Old Town known as Intramuros. I'd originally planned to stay there instead of Ermita, but a review saying there were no restaurants or services in the area open in the evening dissuaded me. I had to fend off regular and repeated solicitations of a bicycle pedicab tour of Intramuros from the moment I got within a few blocks of it. I walked around a bit before I got my bearings, then headed to the Visitors Center for one of their free maps. The black and white line drawing of the outline was not the most impressive I'd seen, but it did the job.
Fort Santiago in Manila
I began with Fort Santiago, built by the in the 16th/17th century by the Spanish, it is currently undergoing renovation. Sections of are completed and look nice, with access to the battlements, which held batteries of cannons. You can walk a good portion of its walls -- just like with the Old Town itself. Fort Santiago is the tip of the Old Town, guarding the port. After leaving the fort, I found steps leading up to the town walls and walked a little less than a quarter of their circuit. My view from atop confirmed what I'd suspected as I was circling the town looking for the entrance. The green area outside the walls -- likely the former moat -- has been turned into a golf course! I saw pairs of golf carts buzzing along, and groups of golfers teeing up next to blackened stone fortifications. I couldn't decide if it was an ingenious use of city green space or somehow wrong. Nevertheless, it was a way to keep the area surrounding the town walls green and pristine -- a problem Manila obviously suffers in most of the city.
Golfing next to History
I checked out the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church -- the oldest in the Philippines. Manila Cathedral has been rebuilt many times over, the latest following the almost complete leveling of the city in WW II. The cathedral is venerable looking on the outside, but more modern on the inside. Unfortunately, I saw only the outside of San Agustin. I arrived at "siesta time" --when it closed down for an hour and a half at lunch -- a cultural adaption from the Spanish colonizers. I loved its decoration, from the ornate wooden doors to the stone carvings of saints and Chinese temple dogs. I made plans to come back, but Mother Nature would have other ideas.
I continued my way on towards the San Diego gardens, which had access to an interesting section of the town walls. Some were in ruined state, while others were in better shape. I watched as golfers finished off a hole which lay just a handful of yards away, beneath me. I spent awhile exploring the fortifications, then returned and check out the gardens. By this time, I was really sweating in the 90 degree heat and humidity. I needed to cool off in some air conditioning. I remembered the hotel I was planning on staying at in Intramuros had a rooftop bar. I checked my map and walked the short distance there, all but sighing audibly when I entered its air conditioned lobby. Although the bar wasn't open yet, the gracious reception urged me to take the elevator up and check it out. The view was fantastic, and I could easily see myself relaxing in my evenings there. The restaurant was the next floor down, and I checked out its menu and decided to splurge on a pizza and San Miguel Negra. While enjoying the view, the food, and the four star ambience, I decided to cancel my reservation at the Best Western for return stay in Manila, and book the Bayleaf, as it was called. The price was only about $10 more, and I figured it would be worth it. I logged on to hotels.com and took care of it there and then.
While eating lunch, I'd noticed a section of the battlements that was more complete and with numerous cannons. I headed down to investigate. While checking it out, raindrops began to fall. I debated between returning to San Agustin or heading over the Museum of the Philippine People, whose description sounded interesting in my guidebook. In view of the increasing rain, I chose museum, planning to spend an hour or so there, during which time the rain would hopefully stop. And then the Heavens opened up. I pulled on my rain jacket, but my legs were soon soaked to the skin. What's more, drainage had apparently not been discovered in Manila, and I was soon wading through lakes as I navigated my way (poorly) towards the museum. My frustration mounted as each entrance I discovered shooed me on the the "main" one, on the opposite side of the sprawling, gated complex. I finally arrived, dripping, to find the most air conditioned public space I'd encountered, yet.
So poorly did I navigate that I actually ended up at the wrong, but similarly named (and adjacent!) museum. I wanted to see the National Museum of the Philippine people, which is essentially a history museum. I ended up at the National Gallery of the Philippine People -- which is an art gallery, as it sounds. Nothing against art, but History's my passion. I was quite bored as I dripped, cold and damp, through the various rooms looking at painting and sculptures by people I'd never heard of. By the time I was done, the rain had dialed back from Epic Biblical scale to a normal rain. I decided to take a cab back to the hotel to avoid wading through any more lakes, er, streets. However, everyone wants a cab when it rains in Manila, and there are none to be had. Praising Manila every step of the way back to my hotel (okay, maybe not), I returned to dry out my clothes.
Painting of Japanese WW II prison camp scene in the National Gallery
If I thought my frustrations were at an end, I was mistaken. I'd made plans to meet up with Ian -- an Australian history buff and gamer who I've known through the years. He'd picked out a bar 3.7 miles away (according to my iPhone maps app). My hotel said they'd get me a cab, and Ian said to leave at 6:30 pm, and that he'd be there at 7 pm. Guess how long the ride took? Two hours. Yes, to go less than four miles! Apparently, this is normal for Manila. Though I had a great time talking to Ian and his friend Colin, I could not fathom how anyone could live in this and stay sane. Apparently, the subway and train are equally useless (unless you ride when no one else wants). Manila's streets of pedal cabs, motorbikes, motor tricycles, jeepneys (exhaust spewing monstrosities that most citizens use), cabs, trucks, and people hawking wares in the road combine to create the modern world's worst example of an urban Hell that I've encountered. When you must budget an hour to go 4 miles...really?? If the new Philippine president truly wants to better his country in a significant way, he'd fix this monster that urban overcrowding has created. That said, it is amazing how friendly and upbeat most Philippinos remain. My hat is off to them for smiling through what to me was torture. Honestly, I have no intention of returning and spending time in Manila. It is just my opinion, but it was truly the seediest, most broken-down city I've visited to this point.
Have I been unfair to Manila in this blog entry? Let me know yes or no...!