Much was imagined, little was planned when it came travel in the Philippines. Certain aspects of travel were taken for granted this time around; I guess we thought
we’d had things all figured out due to our supposed expertise characterized by six months of previous Asian travel as well as a three week stint in Peru. In truth, our shit was simply not together.
There were things I forgot to pack, essential, obvious things like quick-dry long sleeves and additional t-shirts. Instead, I somehow saw myself having a blast in Manila, clad in dress shoes and dark-washed denim. What was I thinking?
In all honesty, Manila was my least favourite aspect of the Philippines. We originally intended on staying for three days, which got chopped down to two, and in retrospect, one would have been quite enough. It’s scorching hot in an unpleasant, saturating way and very unpleasant when still adjusting to the underestimated effects of jetlag. I’m not hating on Manileños at all; we met countless people who were kind and respectful to us throughout our numerous interactions. It was just a bad feel and a bad time for us when we were there. I think we would have needed a solid stretch of time to adjust and immerse ourselves into this massive city of millions to have really engaged in a positive way.
When we arrived, we got a taxi outside of the airport which took us to the famed Remedios Circle, apparently where a scene from one of the Bourne movies was shot. Nearby, we settled in at Chill Out Guesthouse, a very budget hostel with cramped rooms and shared washrooms. Soon afterward, we headed out to begin taking in the city. We didn’t get far before it started pouring rain, kicking up plenty of gritty filth and dirtying up our sandals, feet, and pants. We took shelter in a small market that also sold piles of exotic fruit, some of our favourites of which happened to be in season, like rambutan and mangosteen. We also got some soursop and this one other fruit I forgot the name of; it looks like a large, green tangerine, kind of tastes like a mangosteen, and has a texture that makes it difficult to separate from the seed that it clings to. Very interesting and delicious, though.
Teresa and I certainly got a lot of funny looks from people in Manila, and everywhere else we went. Teresa’s Vietnamese background and tanned skin pretty much causes everyone from every Southeast Asian country we’ve been to think that she is of local ethnicity. Therefore, everyone spoke to her in Tagalog or whichever dialect is spoken depending on the region we were in. Occasionally, some of the women would react bitterly when she spoke English, claiming she should be speaking her “local language”. When we politely explained that she was a Canadian of Vietnamese heritage, the rudeness and dirty looks weren’t often retracted. It’s an unfortunate aspect of the culture that we dealt with pretty much everywhere in the Philippines that we traveled, but nowhere more so than Manila.
The poverty is very bad in the capital; I’ve never seen more homeless children anywhere in my life. On foot, after passing through a massive park in search of the large Chinatown district, we came to a portside slum that was rampant with poverty.
Before this, a certain area of Jakarta was the worst I’d seen up close. This “barangay” was much worse, or at the very least more extensive in area, and eventually we had to leave because Teresa felt very unsafe. No one was really bothering us, and the looks were no more strange or mirthless than they were anywhere else. I guess it was just a fear associated with preconceived notions of impoverished, foreign districts. Ina later post, I’ll discuss a family from Manila we met in the islands who we became good friends with; they, too, are well aware of how troublesome an area this portside actually is.
Sadly enough, we spent a great deal of time in Robinson’s Place Mall, a massive, A/Ced shopping centre with everything a lost Westerner needs, including a movie theatre, bookstore, seemingly endless department store, and a Starbucks. We went to go see the animated feature Inside Out, and also found some Indonesian kretek cigarettes; not our favourite Djarum 76 brand, but close enough, all things considered. Many businesses, including Robinson’s Place, are guarded by private security armed with pump-action shotguns and automatic assault rifles. In Lima, it was all about the government-run police force; here, private security seemed to have the greatest level of armed presence in the streets. We also got the privilege to witness a sort of mini-parade featuring some local beauty pageant contestants/winners wearing local clothing from a certain part of the Philippines that I’m currently unaware of.
We left Manila in the evening on a ragged overnight bus. My mid-back inflammations decided to act up about half an hour before we boarded, so that was really fun. We were actually lucky, though; with two seats on either side of the aisle, about a dozen patrons were forced to unhinge tiny chairs and sit in the very middle for the bumpy, 13 hour ride.
Apparently, a chunk of the main highway had fallen into the mountains after a recent typhoon had triggered a landslide near the city of Baguio. We were forced to take a detour. The detour also led to a road that had fallen away for the same reason, just outside our first destination, Banaue. We departed the bus in the early morning to walk across the narrow stretch of road that remained intact. On the other side, dozens of jeepneys awaited to shuttle everyone to the centre of town.
After a delicious Filipino breakfast of longaniza sausage, topsilog, rice, eggs, and coffee with an amazing view of the terraced, golden mountains that now surrounded us, we hopped onto a van with two Korean travelers to head up to the even smaller town of Bontoc, two hours away.
Next, we hopped onto another jeepney for the 45 minute trek through the Cordillera Administrative Region of Luzon, where the beautiful mountain town of Sagada awaited. It wasn’t until we got up to the mountains that I really started to enjoy this trip. We’d finally hit a destination that wasn’t just a stop-over or an in between. We’d come to the Northern Philippines to hike, to trek, to earn the beaches of the Visayas that we would be visiting later on in the trip, the main reason we came to the Philippines in the first place.
As it would turn out, Sagada and the nearby villages with Banaue at the centre turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of the entire trip.