I had never been to the Philippines before, but it was a place that I was always interested in for a few reasons; pretty much all of the foreigners I grew up with were from the Philippines and they all loved basketball. Now when I find myself around Filipinos, despite many of them being in particularly shitty situations, they always seem really upbeat and super-happy all the time. Plus, the country has a pretty interesting history, being one of the only countries in South-East Asia to have fallen to the Spanish:
The arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in Homonhon, Eastern Samar in 1521 marked the beginning of Hispanic colonization. In 1543, Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas in honor of Philip II of Spain. With the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi from Mexico City, in 1565, the first Hispanic settlement in the archipelago was established. The Philippines became part of the Spanish Empire for more than 300 years. This resulted in Roman Catholicism becoming the dominant religion. During this time, Manila became the western hub of the trans-Pacific trade connecting Asia with Acapulco in the Americas using Manila galleons.
I have a few friends who live or have lived in the Philippines, be it Manila or Cebu, none of whom seem like the type of people who would be content roughing it in a dirty, polluted, disorganised place like this for years at a time, but they did and all seemed to enjoy it. Anna has been here several times for work, servicing microscopes in remote villages and attending conferences in the city. On this particular occasion she was the international guest speaker at an eye conference in Manila and the special guest of a medical imaging company. I would just be tagging along for the ride, carrying the bags and acting as security.
There was just one minor problem — I injured my back quite badly on Friday, May 12, a week to the day before we were supposed to leave. I was working from home, as I do every day, and while I was sitting on the couch I turned around to reach for something, pulling a muscle in the lower right-side of my back. That, however, is not the lamest way I’ve hurt myself or even that exact same area; I once pulled the very same muscle when I was sitting on the toilet and pivoted around to wipe. True story. In fact, I had completely forgotten about it, but Anna felt the need to bring the memories flooding back when she heard what I had done this time. Anyway, the week leading up to our trip was agony; I was barely able to walk and going from a prone to standing position was excruciating, but it slowly got easier and wasn’t too bad by the day were set to leave. Let’s see how it would handle a cramped, three-and-a-half hour flight.
Friday, May 19
Anyone who reads this blog would know that we have somewhat of a history of somehow making ourselves late for flights, but maybe this time would be a little different. Anna had finished work early, our flight was at around 7:30pm and we got out to Changi Airport almost two hours early. We checked in, went to the Krisflyer Lounge and ate free food as we waited for our flight. Before long it was time to get going, but then it hit me like a punch to the lower abdomen — I was bloating up and had to take a dump and fast! I’ve also mentioned on more than one occasion that my biggest phobia is having to crap in public toilets, but I wasn’t calling the shots here. I went into the nearest toilet which had two cubicles and only one urinal in working order, as well as a cleaner just sitting in there, texting. Yes, I had a live audience for this one. I put some paper on the surface of the water to soften the blow (what I’ve always referred to as a “Viennetta” for obvious reasons), stuck my fingers in my ears and tried to pretend I was anywhere else doing something different. I was tying to mentally escape my situation by pondering unanswered questions such as what language deaf people think in and how the plural form of “Smurf” should be “Smurves,” when my phone began to ring. It was Anna, but I didn’t particularly feel like having a conversation at the time so I tried to hang up, but accidentally activated Siri. For those reading this who are also not so technologically inclined, Siri is a voice-activated iPhone app, so I had one woman outside the bathroom named Anna trying to tell me it was the final call to board our flight while one called Siri was in the cubicle with me, constantly repeating that she couldn’t understand what I had said, despite me not uttering a word.
I managed to finish what I intended to complete as soon as possible, washed, exited and gave Anna a death-stare before we headed to our terminal and boarded with plenty of time.
We eventually arrived in Manila and, although my back was a little painful from the tiny seat, it had been a pretty easy flight. We had no luggage so after immigration we just waited for a taxi to the Shangri-La in Makati, anticipating the worst while noticing that scrunchies are still a reasonably popular women’s fashion accessory here. But, why were we expecting the worst? Because Manila is famous for its horrendous traffic jams:
In 2006, Forbes magazine ranked Manila the world’s most congested city. According to Waze’s 2015 “Global Driver Satisfaction Index”, Manila is the town with the worst traffic worldwide. Manila is notorious for its frequent traffic jams and high densities. The government has undertaken several projects to alleviate the traffic in the city. Some of the projects include: the construction of a new viaduct or underpass at the intersection of España Boulevard and Lacson Avenue, the construction of the Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3, the proposed LRT Line 2 West Extension Project from Recto Avenue to Tondo or the Port Area, and the expansion and widening of several national and local roads. However, such projects have yet to make any meaningful impact, and the traffic jams and congestion continue unabated.
Fortunately, our taxi ride only took 15 minutes, past slums and through high-rise buildings, but that would be the only time we would escape the traffic that easily. By the time we checked into our room it was about 11:30pm, too late to go anywhere, so we pulled up a seat in the hotel’s bar, grabbed a few drinks and gorged ourselves on tapas. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
Saturday, May 20
Anna had a lunch for both of us planned with some image company representatives and a few other doctors, but we woke up with a couple of hours to spare and this as the view from our hotel room:
We decided to grab a coffee and then head down to one of the trillions of shopping malls surrounding our hotel, just for a bit of a look to kill time. We ended up at Greenbelt, an enormous warren of five different malls that somehow merge into one. The section we ended up in was predominantly fast-food stores interspersed with clothing shops. We always knew that Filipinos really look up to and admire the USA, trying to add as many possible elements of American culture into their own, but the junk food is something they probably could have left out. You can look in any direction and it’s just all fast food and franchise restaurants, particularly Jollibee. That shit is everywhere! A little bit of research and it turns out there were 1,100 Jollibee stores worldwide as of December, 2016, of which 950 were in the Philippines. Sure, it is a Filipino franchise, but you need to remember that this isn’t a large country. There are Jollibees across the road from other Jollibees!
On Thursday I had watched the Philippines episode of CNN’s Culinary Journeys to get an idea of what to expect when it comes to local food and the impression that I got was that it isn’t a traditional dish until you add at least a tablespoon of sugar to it, and that’s just the mains. In fact, according to this review of the episode,
Forés then takes CNN down to Negros, the island where she spent her childhood summers amongst the sugar cane fields. She presents how the local cuisine was born out of its sweetest crop creating some of the Philippines’ best desserts, and how its seaside has attracted Latin American flavours.
Before watching that episode, the only traditional Filipino food I knew was balut, a developing chicken or duck embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. Balut was something I was willing to try, but it is generally sold as a street-food and I’m always playing with fire when I eat from a street stall. Balut aside, when you look at the regular diet here it is almost impossible to fathom how not everybody in this country is either obscenely overweight, diabetic, or toothless. Then I stumbled upon this section of the pharmacy (left).
Soon it was time to go back to the hotel so Anna and myself could have lunch with some of the doctors and imaging company representatives that would also be attending the conference that Anna was speaking at the following day. There was a slight misunderstanding about where to meet up, but we eventually got it sorted. Once in the meeting room it was all medical talk, but I must admit that they all had some extremely flattering comments to make both about Anna and her work. Things like that make me feel more than just a little proud.
When it came time to order lunch the menu had mostly burgers and stuff and a small section of traditional Filipino fare, which is what the two of us opted for and it was really good. Anna had a sour seafood soup and I got a local type of barbecue chicken and contrary to what we had been led to believe, neither dish was that sweet. But then coffee came, accompanied by several sugar-encrusted sticks to stir into it. Neither of us usually have sugar in our coffee, but Anna took the “when in Rome” route. Filipinos are just crazy about sugar
Lunch finished and soon we were to meet one of Anna’s old Filipino colleagues, Carlo, one of five Carlos we would encounter over a duration of two-and-a-half days. Carlo was to show us around town, taking us out and about in Manila, but he got caught up in traffic, causing him to meet up with us about 90 minutes later than intended, and this was after already postponing for half-an-hour due to the jam.
We pulled up a seat in the hotel cafe where a traditional Spanish-style band was playing guitars and ukuleles. We ordered another coffee each, this time minus the sugar and chatted while browsing Facebook. With our background soundtrack at the time it seemed quite appropriate that someone had posted this gif (right) on my page.
Carlo soon arrived with his driver, as well as his heavily-pregnant wife and another friend. Our first stop was the dingy, seedy type of dirt-mall that I like, the kind that sells fake goods and secondhand items. This particular one took it one step further by having an entire basement dedicated to gun stores. Other items available in the mall included Star Plan Leppin, an exact knock off of Star Wars lego that was available in almost every shop that sold toys there.
We traveled around to a few other malls, but being perpetually stuck in traffic made it all a little frustrating, especially when the newer ones have the exact same shops as malls in Singapore. With one small exception, that is — All of the shopping malls we attended had at least one of the shops acting as a Catholic church and at any given time there was a service going on in front of a huge crowd. And this was on Saturday!
Eventually we all decided to pull up a seat in a bar and have a drink before dinner, with the obvious exception of Carlo’s wife, all the while overhearing Catholic services that were perpetually going on around us.
Soon it was time for dinner and Carlo had arranged for us to meet up with some other friends of his at a restaurant called Romulo Café in Bel Air, specialising in traditional Filipino food, however, still no balut. Our host initially asked us if we wanted healthy food to which the pair of us gave a resounding “no!” so Carlo and his friends ordered up a bunch of great stuff from the menu. This place had a common ingredient in almost every dish besides sugar; pork fat. Definitely not Halal, but the food was spectacular. Here are a few pictures from our afternoon and evening out in Manila to that point:
After dinner we headed out for drinks again, this time at Tomatito, a Spanish tapas and cocktail bar. Carlo’s wife needed to go home, but the rest of us went out and it turned out that one of my drinking buddies from Singapore, TJ, was in town. TJ had been asking where in Manila we would be on Saturday night, but we only had wifi in our hotel, however, I managed to log on in Tomatito. It turned out that TJ had just been there and left not long earlier, but we wouldn’t end up crossing paths.
By the time we pulled up a booth in the bar my back was killing me, a combination of being cramped on the flight and jerking from the constant stopping and starting of being in traffic all day, but it was nothing a couple of beers couldn’t fix. Later, another doctor joined us and we were all having fun, but it couldn’t be a big one as Anna had to speak at the conference the next day.
We eventually arrived back at the hotel and it was time to hit the sack. I had a shower and began to brush my teeth when it occured to me that my “toothpaste” had no taste and a completely different consistency to normal, and that is where one of my worst nightmares became a reality — Because I had been essentially immobile on the couch for the past week, I had developed a rash on my butt-cheek, a sort of “athletes ass” if you will, and I was using anti-fungal cream to treat it. It just so happens that that cream came in a tube the same dimensions as a travel-sized toothpaste tube. Yes, I had just brushed my teeth with the anti-fungal cream I had been using on my ass, met with a response of “You’re going to die!” from Anna. Fortunately, I had plenty of Listerine.
Sunday, May 21
Anna was speaking at the conference in the morning so I just hung around in the lobby and read a book until she returned. My back was feeling a lot better and we had planned to venture around Makati on our own, but also try to avoid any form of road transport, including jeepneys, regardless of how cool they look:
Jeepneys are the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. They are known for their crowded seating and kitsch decorations, which have become a ubiquitous symbol of Philippine culture and art. A Sarao jeepney was exhibited at the Philippine pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair as a national image for the Filipinos.
Jeepneys were originally made from U.S. militaryjeeps left over from World War II. The word jeepney may be a portmanteau word – some sources consider it a combination of “jeep” and “jitney”, while other sources say “jeep” and “knee”, because the passengers sit in very close proximity to each other. Most jeepneys are used as public utility vehicles. Some are used as personal vehicles. Jeepneys are used less often for commercial or institutional use.
We saw them everywhere, but I think it would be more than just a bit of a struggle for me to fit inside one so I assumed we’d be walking it, which suited me fine.
Initially, we didn’t have any plans for the day, but when I got up there was an envelope under our door. We had more than just a couple of people recommend that we go to a restaurant called Blackbird so Anna had gone ahead and made reservations for us at 7:30pm, the confirmation was in the envelope. So the plan was to sit downstairs with a coffee and my book and wait for Anna to arrive, which was about and hour or so.
She soon reached the hotel and it was time to hit the street. We walked to an area where Anna had been told there was a flea market, but when we arrived it was just a park full of people, a cafe, and a bunch of fast-food joints including a Jollibee or two. We stood around laughing as a middle-aged man taught a younger guy how to fend off knife attacks while his son sat in the background and played games on his iPhone. It was time for lunch, but there was nothing there that we felt like eating so we walked down to an area we had passed on Saturday night that looked like it had plenty of bars and restaurants. We knew for a fact there was midget oil wrestling so it was definitely worth checking out. As we were walking there, a dodgy-looking guy on the side of the road tried to sell me what I initially thought were packets of cigarettes, yet I couldn’t work out why Anna was shaking her head and giggling. It turns out that they weren’t cigarettes at all, but packets of viagra. Either way, I’m sure Anna could probably still get viagra cheaper than what I could pick it up on the Filipino black market.
We wandered around but all there really was to eat was endless junk food and also, inexplicably, a bunch of Korean restaurants, nothing that sold anything we would only be able to find in the Philippines. We sat down in one restaurant but it dawned on us while we were waiting for menus that the ammonia-scent of piss wasn’t going to dissipate any time soon so we moved on. We strolled around for a while until we found the Kite Kebab Bar, which was clean and looked pretty decent so we got ourselves a biryani each, a few beers and an apple shisha and settled in for the afternoon because it looked like it was going to bucket down. A few other sights from Sunday afternoon:
After an early start and some mid-afternoon libations, Anna was starting to fade so we got up and went for a walk, stumbling across a street we wished we had found a couple of hours earlier, a street filled with cafes, restaurants and bars, including Handlebar, a pub that was recommended to me by several people back in Singapore. We had yet another coffee but Anna really needed a nap so we went back to the hotel, vowing we would return after dinner.
After about an hour of snoring and mouth-breathing, Anna seemed somewhat refreshed and ready to tackle the evening so I donned one of my ugliest shirts and we walked to Blackbird for a pretty spectacular dinner. What made the place even cooler is that the restaurant is located in Nielson Tower, once the Philippines first ever commercial airport, one which was inaugurated in 1937, bombed by the Japanese in 1941 and eventually ceased operations in 1948.
As I mentioned, the food was great, but one downside was that there was an absolute deluge of rain while we were eating. It was like looking through a waterfall, but would stop just as quickly as it had come on, only to return again with the same ferocity. After deciding that this might be a continuous pattern and that the rain may not cease for the night, we called a car to bring us back to our hotel so we could slip into something more comfortable and head out for a night at Handlebar.
Handlebar was a great place that played awesome music all night with some really good beers on tap, however, it took Anna a little while to realise we were in a biker bar, as she thought it was named after the type of moustache. Realistically, they kind of go hand-in-hand anyway. It was our last full night in Manila so we decided to make it count, drinking and playing really long games of pool, the result of a combination of:
- Us being terrible at pool and
- Slowly getting plastered.
This was really my type of place so we played several more games of what we refer to as “Feng-shui pool,” which is essentially just a constantly reforming arrangement of colours around the table. We probably would’ve ended up getting really hammered if it weren’t for the fact that each time one of the staff was bringing our drinks over they would get in a conversation with a colleague that would last about 10 minutes at a time, both of them just standing their with some table’s drinks in their hands, chatting, allowing us to sober up again.
It was a really fun night, Anna has had a stressful few weeks so it was great to see her unwind properly, but we also had a flight to catch the next day. Time to go back to our room and make sure I actually use toothpaste the first time.
Monday, May 22
Although our flight back to Singapore was at 4:30pm and we were only 15km from the airport, we were advised to leave the hotel at around 1:30 due to the traffic. We were being driven back by one of the image company representatives and he said that the last time he made the same trip to the airport it took him an hour and 15 minutes, meaning that he was traveling at an average speed of about 12kph.
We had a nice chat with the guy driving and made it to the airport without too much of a delay. The airport was relatively easy as well, but when we got to passport control I saw this:
They have several counters available solely for Filipinos who work overseas. On our embarkation form you could select the usual options for entering the country, ie. ‘Business’, ‘Holiday’, etc., but there was also the option of something to the extent of ‘Overseas Worker Returning Home.’ They are super strict about it, too! A lot of families in Singapore have maids, usually from the Philippines and a lot of workers in other industries in Singapore are Filipino, as well. Anna’s family used to have a helper from the Philippines who moved back and they wanted her to return to Singapore to attend Anna’s brother’s wedding a few years ago, but she wasn’t allowed to leave the country from the Filipino end as she was tagged as having worked overseas and they suspected she was going over again to work illegally. In the end Anna’s dad wrote a letter and it was eventually sorted, but they don’t mess around with this sort of thing.
Anyway, we eventually boarded our flight and made it back to Singapore. I enjoyed our time in Manila, but a lot of people say that would mainly be because we stayed in Makati, a nicer, cleaner part of Manila. Even then it’s not a place I would particularly like to live, it’s just so chaotic and disorganised. If I had to guess, I’d estimate that probably around three-quarters of our time there was spent waiting for something. Whether it was sitting in traffic, staring into space while waiting for someone to take their time to bring a menu or the bill, or just watching as the people serving our food or drinks got into a detailed conversation with a co-worker, we were just constantly waiting for something all the time. Another thing I would struggle to handle would be the food options. Unless you’re a junk food fanatic, you’ll run out of choices pretty quickly. Obviously, if we lived there we would cook at home, but by the time you waited for the cashier at the supermarket to stop texting her friend and then got stuck in yet another traffic jam, your groceries would be out of date and the balut would be laying eggs of its own! On that note, I never managed to stumble across balut, most likely due to where we were staying, but if we come back and I find them I’ll give one a go. Oh, and watch some live midget oil wrestling.