Feb 13, 2012
|Friday morning 5 am (4 am Laos time) I arrived at Manila airport, half asleep from having flown from Bangkok in the middle of the night.
My friend Randy was waiting for me outside the baggage area which was good because it was still dark outside and all I wanted to do was collapse into bed and finish sleeping.
I don't remember much from the ride into town. I do remember coming into Randy's apartment in Makati (upscale area of Manila) because it's absolutely huge! This place is provided by his employer, the US government, and has three bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms and a living/dining room bigger than my entire apartment. I guess the US government is not that broke after all! But I can't complain since I have my own large bedroom and bathroom. The only thing this apartment is lacking is a dishwasher!
On Friday afternoon Randy took me walking around Makati. Unlike the rest of the city, this area, where lots of expats and foreign workers live, is densely packed with high rise buildings (including some very modern glass towers) and upscale shopping malls surrounded by gardens and restaurants. The area is also peppered with a surprising quantity of Starbucks and McDonalds. Unlike in Canada, where Starbucks exists for the undiscerning masses, in Asia, they are a status symbol! Not sure about the MacDonalds. I think they just cater to expats who can't adapt to local food and look for something familiar. Nevertheless, the food here is not all that exotic due to three centuries of Spanish influence and one century under the Americans. Another interesting thing about Makati: every building (even the Starbucks) has a guard with a gun, who doubles as a doorman, opening the doors to the air-conditioned buildings. In some shops and markets, someone often checks the content of bags (for weapons?). I guess this is what happens when a city is shared by both very rich and very poor people.
On Saturday I was taken further afield into what remains of the Spanish colonial area (Intramuros) where we visited Fort Santiago, the Rizal Shrine (Jose Rizal is a local independance hero executed by the Spanish in 1896), a couple of churches, and a large colonial house restored with period furniture (Casa Manila). After all this walking around in the heat, we drove to Chinatown (also called Binondo) across the Pasig river, where we had a late lunch of dim sum in a little Chinese restaurant. There were people eating full meals even at 4:30 pm. I think people in this city like to snack continuously!
Chinatown itself wasn't particularly interesting, consisting of narrow streets clogged with traffic, no sidewalks, lots of overhanging electric cables, and more jewelry stores than food shops. The whole place felt claustrophobic to me so we didn't spend a lot of time there. We visited another church nearby, and then started driving toward a "bus station" (more like a small parking lot with ticket booth) to buy our bus tickets for the 9 hour night bus ride to Banaue on Sunday. Banaue and nearby Batad have 2000-year old rice terraces stacked on hillsides which are famous worldwide. This drive was along roads that Randy was not familiar with, and I was the navigator. So we crossed parts of the "real Manila", traffic-clogged streets lined by ugly non-descript concrete buildings. People wandered between cars trying to sell car ornamenents. Squeegy kids washed people's windshield (without consent as they always do), hoping for a few coins. Basically, the kind of area where I instinctively lock the card doors. Except this was not an "area", this is what most of the city looks like. And apparently, there are much poorer areas (shantytowns). Overall, I can see why Manila is not a popular tourist destination, having almost no sights and lacking urban design (except in Makati with its new shiny and clean shopping malls and restaurants).
On Saturday night, Randy and I had dinner with some friends of his at a restaurant serving Philippino food. This seems to involve a lot of fish and seafood, but simple spices and condiments (soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chili peppers). I had tilapia, deboned and fried (skin included), with an assortment of 4 dipping sauces. I also got a taste of some of the other dishes that people had ordered such as laing (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk) and squid with garlic (see photos).
By the time I went to bed on Saturday night, I could feel a distinctive scratchy feeling in my throat and this degenerated into full blown sore throat by the morning. Shit! A cold! :( Randy was finishing a cold (lots of couching) when I arrived, but as I had been here less than two days, I figured this must have been something I picked up in Laos. I made the immediate decision that the trip to Banaue was out of the question, as it involved a long (9 hours) overnight bus ride which I dreaded even with my full health. That whole trip was going to be rather uncomfortable with basic accommodation and no hot water, possibly cold nights, hiking, and then the return bus 3 days later. I definitely wouldn't be up to it with a cold! When I told Randy, he didn't make a big deal of it (he's seen the rice terraces before) and decided that he would go back to work for the rest of the week while I rested. So here I was, faced with 4 extra days in Manila.
That day (Sunday) was rainy, and while Randy worked out at the gym I went to the pharmacy looking for throat losanges. I also got my morning latte at a nearby Starbucks. Although I always avoid Starbucks at home, it's the only choice here. After lunch we drove back to the bus station and managed to get most of our money refunded for the bus tickets. We lost our first night deposit for the room in Batad, but it was only $10. We also checked out the National Gallery (Philippino paintings) but I got bugged down because I couldn't take my bottle of water through the exhibits, and my throat was really dry and scratchy by then! On top of that, there were some toxic fumes hanging in the air in one of the hallways due to some renovations. We mentioned it. They apologized, but I don't think they really care.
This brings me to something else you can't help noticing here: the locals appear very friendly and always smiling. Even people with the most boring jobs (doorman, parking attendant) give you a "hello" and a smile. Whether this is genuine or not... that's another matter. As well, English seems to be spoken and understood by most people, a far cry from Laos.
Sunday night we ended up having dinner with Bill and Aurora again (Randy' friends) at a different shopping mall. This time the restaurant was a little more expensive so I picked something that sounded interesting and not too pricey: beef tagalog. This turned out to be fast fry steak in soy sauce and calamansi (a small lime). Ha ha. No wonder it was cheap. But it came with an interesting organic red rice (vere earthy taste) and I had a glass of hot lemongrass tea.
So this brings us to today Monday. Randy is working and I'm in his apartment. I had a good night sleep and the sore throat is much better. No sniffles yet... I'm taking Cold-FX (a ginseng "miracle" remedy from Canada) and I hope to have this cold mostly gone by Friday (when we fly to the beach in Boracay). Now I just have to keep myself busy for 4 days...