Sunday, February 13, 2011

Philippines: Impressions of Manila

(Posing along Manila Bay with some Filipino children.)

When people travel to the Philippines, they often skip the capital city, Manila.  The city has a bad reputation, and some of that is deserved.  But, it also has a rich history and some interesting cultural pockets.  So, we decided that we would start our Philippines trip with two days in Manila.

I found Manila to be both appealing and intimidating.  It is chaotic, there is no doubt about it.   The city is noisy, crowded, and dirty – the whole city could use a power washing.  The traffic is notorious and unrelenting.  From a distance, Manila is a modern city with tall buildings, bright lights and beautiful palm trees lining Roxas Boulevard along Manila Bay.  But, clearly it’s still a developing city that is fighting a poverty visitors won’t be able to ignore.  The small street children with rags for clothing and no shoes will come begging, and your heart will ache.  Shortly after the sun went down we would retire for the night, uncertain if we were safe wandering the city streets alone.

(Eating Mandu stuffed with pork in Chinatown) 

However, all of those things didn’t turn me away from Manila.  It’s just a part of picture.  The neighborhoods have character and the people in them are friendly and charming.  In the neighborhood of Binondo you will find one of the oldest Chinatown’s in the world.  As we visited during the week of Lunar New Year, the streets were packed with vendors selling traditional foods, gifts, and good luck charms.  We ate our way though the neighborhood on a walking tour (Tour: The Big Binondo Food Wok).  Traditional dishes, hand made dumplings, and sweet desserts are found here. 

(Fresh, handmade dumplings in the northern Chinese style)

(Wreaths of limes & pineapples sold for Lunar New Year)

Then, there is Intramurous.  This is the area from which the Spanish ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years.  The walled city with lush greenery, European architecture, cobblestone streets, and beautiful churches is simply lovely.  Eating dinner outside, we were serenaded by the sounds of the Catholic mass across the street.  If you enjoy history, you will enjoy learning about Intramurous.  We joined a walking tour that shed light on the Manila’s history and as an American, we played a big role in that.  (Tour:  If These Walls Could Talk)

(In the "Walled City" outside Fort Santiago)

(San Augustin Church, the oldest in the Philippines dating to 1587)

We also spent several hours in Quiapo, which has an energy and atmosphere that is very unique.  First, we arrived at the large Quiapo church during Sunday mass.  People were literally spilling out a dozen doors onto the sidewalks, as the priest's homily wafted from loud speakers into the streets.  Here, people come to pay homage to the Black Nazarene – a somewhat disquieting statue of Jesus.  The square outside the church is lined with vendors; many selling religious items, others selling healing crystals.  You can sit with a fortune teller or tarot card reader.  What an odd juxtaposition outside a Catholic church!  The square extends and you’ll find street markets throughout the neighborhood.  I would describe Quiapo as pleasantly chaotic.

(Inside Quiapo Church is packed with worshippers)

(People line up to pray before the Black Nazarene)

(The markets outside Quiapo Church)

Manila may not be the Pearl of the Orient any longer, but is still has much to recommend it.  A couple of days immersed in the culture and history of this city is the perfect prelude to some relaxation at one of the Philippine's beautiful beaches.

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