The Travelogue: Balikbayan pt. 2

The Travelogue: Balikbayan pt. 2

The more I fought sleep, the harder it became to remain awake. I’d raise my head in my seat, only for my head to be bobbing by my shoulder five minutes later. At least my sporadic naps made the flight pass faster.

It was my first trip to Iloilo – my first trip away from Luzon – but for Jen, it was her first visit ‘home’ in over three years. A lot had changed in the interim: she had left behind a toxic relationship, left her family’s home in Kent to live on her own in Bristol, found a full-time job, and of course, met me. Now she was returning with a new boyfriend, nervous about meeting new nephews, about being a Tita, and whether I would have a good time. On the latter, we were both a little anxious.

After over two years of being together, I still hadn’t (and still haven’t, at the time of writing) met Jen’s parents in person. And yet, as we exited Iloilo airport, here was what seemed like the rest of her family in it’s entirety, there to greet us. She may have been nervous before the journey, but I knew all of Jen’s smiles, and she wore her happiest as fifteen others beamed back at her, the homecoming queen, before holding her in an embrace. I stood in the background while she took it all in, a stranger in their midst. Jen introduced me, and curiosity and awkwardness simultaneously entered the group’s eyes. I exchanged quick hellos with her Kuya and his wife, and Jen’s grandparents, before we were shepherded into the mini van, eight of us and three babies, the other half of the group getting into Jen’s Tito’s car.

Half an hour later we entered the city proper, my first taste of Iloilo. The sign at the city border declares it the ‘most liveable city in the Philippines’, and on first look I saw nothing that would disagree with that claim. The streets were wide and largely quiet, the traffic of Manila a distant nightmare. It seemed less busy and less polluted, and being there reminded me of being in Legazpi, another small but lovely city.

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Who knew Jollibee closed so early? The one we tried when we’d reached the city told us they didn’t have any food left. Strange.

We ended up in a small entertainment district called Smallville. As we walked, I stuck near Jenny, who was carrying one of her nephews whilst talking to her sister. It felt a little lonely at the back of the pack, but Jen’s Lolo walked next to me, and did his best to communicate in English, which surprised me, but also reassured me that I wasn’t completely segregated by language.

Our tribe packed into a restaurant; three tables were pushed together to accommodate us. Jen sat at the head of the table, with me on her right, her uncle on her shoulder pointing at items on the menu. Everything was on her tonight: everyone expected a treat from the one from the West, and though she knew her wallet would take a heavy dent, she seemed happy to oblige.

I was famished, and when the food came I didn’t need to be told twice to dig in. Food and energetic words were passed up and down the table. I accepted the food readily, but the words went over my head. Since Hiligaynon is the primary language of the region, it’s nearly impossible for me to understand the banter between Jen’s family members. In Manila, even with my limited knowledge of Tagalog, I’m able to get the gist of a conversation. Here though, I truly felt alien.

Jen was in her element. Her smile beamed between mouthfuls; I could see the delight she enjoyed by being back, and the delight she brought her family. At times she went to the other end of the table to hold crying babies, performing her ‘Tita’ duties like she’d been doing it for years, and though I saw her smile falter slightly when presented with the bill (nearly 4000 pesos/£60), she refused my offers to help and dutifully paid for the table.
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It was nearly 11pm when we reached Jen’s family home in Oton province. Her mother had been reluctant for us to stay there for too long, telling Jen she was embarrassed by the state it was in, with the toilets flush being broken, though on arrival I saw no reason why she should be. That evening, Jen’s Lola also made a comment, which Jen translated for me, about how it was good for me to ‘see how they live’.

“You know how it is, because you’re half-white and live in the West, Filipinos think you live some kind of lavish lifestyle”, Jen told me in private, later that night.

Westernised as I am, I’m not unfamiliar with an old house with a less than reliable toilet, since I live in one. Nor am I unfamiliar with provincial Filipino homes; no stranger to using the tabo for bathing or flushing, or having to collect water from the rain or a well, and drinking water from shops. I had experienced this at my Lola’s in the Bicol provinces, and would experience it again later in the trip. There was no surprise for me, in how the family ‘lived’, and I have always found these facets of Filipino life nostalgic and charming, in their own way. To me, the tabo is a symbol of the little time I spent in the Philippines as a child, the memories that may be genuine or dreamt; too much time has passed to accurately tell. Either way, holding those little plastic pans make me feel more connected to my Filipino heritage.

It was nearly midnight before we head to bed. We were both worn out; our suitcases lay on the floor, unopened. We lay in our underwear in the second floor bedroom under a blanket of night-time humidity, falling asleep almost instantly.

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35mm Philippines: Cubao & Makati

35mm Philippines: Cubao & Makati

35mm Philippines: April 1st – April 6th 2017

As stifling as the pollution, heat, and humidity are in Manila, I enjoy walking the city’s streets. There’s busyness beyond the likes of my day to day life, and a vibrance, helped by the tropical sun, that is stragenly invigorating, whether it was the local market around the corner from my tita’s, to the streets in the centre of Makati.


My Olympus XA2 is one camera I like to have on me at all times when traveling. It’s small, fast, and inconspicuous, with a sharp 35mm Zuiko lens. It’s my preferred tool for street photography, and for taking general snapshots on the fly. I particularly enjoyed taking tricycles, so I could see more of the area and snap photos out the door.
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Read more in The Travelogue >

The Travelogue: Days in Makati, Meeting Friends, and Surprise Gardens

The Travelogue: Days in Makati, Meeting Friends, and Surprise Gardens

My mother is paranoid talaga. Tita L too. During my last trip to the Philippines my relatives would never let me out unaccompanied. They were paranoid I’d be kidnapped, or stabbed, mugged, or killed by a ghost, who knows? Six years later, their paranoia of my exploring alone remained mostly the same, no matter how old I had become.

I often pointed out to my mother that she wasn’t like this in England. Back there, I come and go as I please, barely even needing to let my family know when I’d be back, unless I needed to be collected; no need to send a text checking in. ‘We’re not in England, though’, she’d tell me. I’d argue that I had been to other countries and explored on my own, most recently Japan, a country whose language I barely understand. ‘This isn’t Japan’, she’d respond. Both responses hinting at her own fear of her native land. I’d tell these things to Jen, and my friends, and they all give similar responses: Filipino mothers always worry too much.

This was why I was glad to be travelling with Jen. Apart from being my partner, she was a shield from (most of) my relatives’ paranoia. They trusted her as she spoke Tagalog, so they believe she’d keep me safe. The best parts of the trip were when it was just us, able to go out, explore, and meet friends, without the burden of our relatives, as we did during our four-day stay in Makati.

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I was ecstatic that I was finally free to explore. Since our hotel was close the central business district, Jen and I mostly walked everywhere. It was still my preferred method of getting about, despite the scorching heat and stifling pollution. The streets of Manila are too interesting to just zip through in a taxi every day.

We visited Commune Cafe+Bar, recommended to us by a friend, on consecutive days, finding the place wholeheartedly pleasant, appreciating its atmosphere and selection of Filipino-grown coffees. During our first visit, after an hour of chatting, journaling, and sipping from iced latte’s served in glasses longer than our heads, Jen peeped out the window, jerked her head up, and quietly exclaimed ‘oh, my God’, her eyes wide in surprise.

“What is it?”, I asked.
“It’s Crissey.
“Who?”

She was a blogger Jen liked, who happened to come into Commune with her friend and sit at the table next to us, causing Jen to go giddy with excitement. For the next hour she would pontificate whether to approach her and say ‘hi’. I had no idea who Chrissy was, but encouraged Jen to try to start a conversation – ‘You won’t get another chance like this’ – but in the end, she was too shy.

A few days later, she sent the blogger a message, and got a response saying she would have loved it if Jen had said hello. Told her.

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We also decided to visit a vegetarian restaurant: Corner Tree Cafe. Before the trip, I had been eating especially healthy, the most balanced and clean my diet had been in years. Jen too. She’d even joined a gym and had been very committed to her workouts and counting calories. That was all left behind in England.

Filipino food is often very greasy. And while I love fried rice, lumpiang shanghai, longganisa, and hot dogs, I wasn’t used to having them first thing in the morning, or three fried meals in a row on any given day. Salads seemed to be an unknown quantity, both in my tita’s house, and in 90% of the country’s restaurants.

We were the only people in the restaurant for the duration of our meal; when we were nearly finished, a white man and his Filipino partner took a table in the centre. This is the kind of place that’d be more popular with expats than the average local, given it’s higher prices and absence of meat. Still, the food was very nice, and it was a respite for our stomachs, a placebo to make them think we were back to eating healthily.

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We visited the Glorietta Malls, one of which is reserved for expensive ‘luxury’ brands such as Gucci and Rolex – not a place I was interested in. It was largely empty, except for staff, security guards and Chinese tourists. I did however, figure they might have a good toilet, maybe even with it’s own toilet tissue since it’s such a ‘luxury’ mall, but I was left disappointed. An escalator was out-of-order as well with no signs it was being repaired. If the malls want to give the high-class appearance they’re striving for, they should at least get the basics down.

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On our last full day in Makati, Jen and I met up with Faye and her partner, Leo, in Commune, then head back to our hotel for a photo shoot. Afterwards, I asked them if they wanted to visit Little Tokyo. To be honest, I had no idea what it was. I’d heard the name and assumed it was like Manila’s Japantown, but after taking a taxi to the other side of Makati, we found it was a collection of restaurants down a small lane, inspired by Japanese architecture, even sporting it’s own torii gate at the entrance. We walked in, and found the courtyard filled with restaurant staff eating lunch. No customers were around. I wondered why the guard had even let us enter given it was clear they were closed.

We decided to walk back to the CBD, and on the way came across a very pleasant surprise. Inside the Legaspi Village area of Makati sits Tsuruki-en (Crane and Turtle), a traditional Japanese garden. Neither Faye or Leo had seen it before, and after quickly Googling it, I found out it had only been opened in February. After passing through a small bamboo-lined path, we were greeted by an ornate rock garden, with stone paths, and a large pond in the centre, a mother and child feeding carp down at the bank. I couldn’t have been happier with the discovery. It was like I had been plucked from the polluted streets of the Philippines and placed back in a serene corner of Japan. A plaque inside the park described it as a symbol of the ‘friendly relations between the Philippines and Japan’, and I hoped that such relations would lead to more interesting developments such as this.

We walked across a stone bridge and through a gazebo, passing sleeping locals making the most of the shade and relative serenity. At the rear was the karesansui (dry landscape garden), and in the centre sat a rock formation in the shape of a turtle (where was the crane?). On the other side, a businessman sat, suit jacket off, eating lunch in the shade of verdant trees, shielded from the high-rise offices looming behind him.

The area was exquisitely neat, and for a moment I could believe that this was a legitimate garden in Japan, but then I noticed a single footprint in the sand and the illusion was shattered.

We ended the day in the CBD. The discovery of Tsuruki-en had put us in the mood for Japanese food, so Leo took us to a restaurant at Ayala Triangle Park. While there, I showed Faye an Instax I’d taken of her and Jen that had been developing in my pocket. It was a cute photo of the two of them holding hands by the bamboo in Tsuruki-en, and Faye seemed to really like it. She slipped in into her wallet, and I could see in the corner of my eye Jen’s face freeze for a second as Jen had really loved the photo. Admittedly, we had only meant to show her the image, not give it away, but neither of us had the heart to tell her and take it back.

We parted ways after the meal. It was lovely to have been able to meet the pair of them, to speak to them face to face rather than online, and we wish them a safe journey back to the other side of the Metro. Jen worried that we should have paid for their meal, since they had come a long way to see us, but I pointed out that we had come from the other side of the world to see them, and Faye had gotten to keep the coveted Instax photo, so I feel it all worked out.

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The four days we spent in Makati was one of the highlights of our trip, but we didn’t have too long to sit and reflect. We checked out of the hotel, head back to my tita’s in Cubao, scrambled to pack our things and then head to the airport. We would be heading to Iloilo. Jen would be heading home.

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(At the time of writing this, Faye and Leo are one day into their new life together as Mr and Mrs Alberto. Congratulations on your wedding guys!)

The Travelogue: Manila Bay, At the Right Time of Day

The Travelogue: Manila Bay, At the Right Time of Day

5:30pm. Right on time. We approached the bay walk as the sun hung low in an orange-tinged sky. On the sea wall, many had already found their perch for the upcoming attraction: sunset. We joined them in sitting on the sun-baked sea wall.

I find Manila Bay perfectly encompasses two aspects of life in the Philippines: stunning natural beauty and the busyness of life. Look out to sea and you see serenity, the calming rhythm of the waves sloshing against the shore, the gentle bobbing of distant ships, the gently descending sun. Turn back to the bay walk and you find local children running and shouting along the wall, a mother with sun-loved skin calling after them, three lanes of heavy traffic along Roxas boulevard, local vendors peddling their wares, the occasional motorbike or bicycle speeding along the path. It really is one of my favourite spots in the world.

To the right of where we sat, a large group of local kids stood on the rocks posing for a photo taken by a foreign tourist. A girl and her farther, sat on the salty rocks, looked over to see what the commotion was. A few locals were swimming in the water, despite the DOH issuing a health warning about the waters just a month before. For many, it’s a tradition. Out at sea, a single fisherman sat hunched in his boat, a lonely silhouette.

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We walked further along. Every twenty or thirty yards were small signs advertising massages. These street-masseurs provide shoulder rubs as you watch the sun set, offering Swedish, Shiatsu, and Thai massage styles. One struck a pose and smiled when he saw that Jen had her camera out.

A woman selling buko (coconuts) walked up and down the wall, calling for customers, the green produce balanced in a basket atop her head. A pair of old men sat on the rocks, the light of a fire illuminating them. Every now and then, a Kalesa (horse and carriage) would trot by, dropping people off, the final stop on their tour of Intramuros. They’d got here at the right time.

Every eye along the bay was trained to the horizon. Emerging below a low cloud, the sun dipped its toe into the water. Rays of deep red and orange spilt out across the sea. Like paint from the tip of a dipped brush, it diffused into the water and reflected across the surface. A cruise ship glided towards the setting sun, as if it wanted to follow it to the next world. We watched them close in on the horizon until neither was in sight. It had truly been a magic hour.

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I held Jen’s hand as we walked through twilight. A few couples still lay on the walls holding hands or lying in each others’ laps. I thought of my porch at home, in which hung framed photos my father had taken of my mother along this walk over twenty-five years ago. This place inspires love.
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Along Manila Bay

Along Manila Bay

The Bay walk, along Roxas Boulevard, is simultaneously relaxed and a hive of activity. Local children run, swim, and shout. Street vendors call for customers. Motorbikes, bicycles, and even a horse and cart wend their way along the pavement. All along the sea wall, friends and couples chat happily, the din of heavy traffic ever-present in the background.

But this is not what I remember, two months removed. I remember serenity. Look out to sea and the noise of the world dissipates, and all you hear are gentle waves and the sea breeze. The cacophony of humanity recedes; only beauty touches your senses. That is the power of sunset at Manila Bay.

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All images © W.Austin (willfillstime)
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Read the full story in The Travelogue.

The Travelogue: Intramuros

The Travelogue: Intramuros

I remember watching Manila, Open City, a Filipino movie by celebrated film maker Eddie Romero, that my father had rented on DVD not long after my previous visit to the Philippines. Living in England, it was one of the few times I’d seen the Philippines represented in film – not many Filipino films get distribution here – and I enjoyed it for its battle sequences and as a window into Filipino history. It was a vivid depiction, presented in ‘Luxurious FAMEcolor’, of the battle for, and liberation of, Manila from an occupying Japanese army who was slaughtering civilians within the city during the final stages of World War II. Much of the documentary-like story takes place within Intramuros, and I found myself seeing locales I’d witnessed during my trip.

I don’t remember too much of the film, other than battle scenes, depictions of slaughter and rape, some dodgy dubbing, and a sub-plot where a Japanese officer falls in love with a Filipino nun. But for some reason I remembered the beginning; after a few scenes of ‘present day’ (1968, when it was filmed) Manila the title card flashed up over the image of San Agustin Church. It was here that Jen and I alighted a taxi.

As soon as we’d stepped out we were descended upon by three pedicab tour guides. One, wearing a yellow shirt and his widest smile, pointed vigorously at a laminated piece of paper depicting the various spots around the walled city he could take us too. We politely declined, but he was persistent and walked with us a little before falling back as we declined again. We didn’t have much time, and wanted to explore our own route at our own pace.

We approached the church. It’s design is angular, all squares and triangles, and unintentionally asymmetrical as the left belfry was damaged in an earthquake and hence removed. The building that stood in front us is actually the third iteration of the church. The first two were built of bamboo and wood, respectively, and succumbed to fires in the 16th century. Construction on the third and current stone structure began in 1586 and was completed in 1607. In the intervening time between it’s completion and the present day, it has survived seven major earthquakes, the ravages of colonialism, and war, the only church left standing in Intramuros after the Japanese occupation. Like the Philippines itself, it has been occupied and ransacked and damaged, but yet it remains, faithful and persistent.

We turned around to find the pedicab driver had followed us and continued to offer his services. We walked past him, Jen politely declining again in Tagalog, yet still he walked with us. We left the church ground and wandered down the road, but looking to our left we found the man had mounted his bicycle and cycled slowly alongside us. Jen, her voice now betraying her annoyance, continued to rebuff him in Tagalog, and after twenty yards turned his pedicab around, shouting a parting shot at Jen that I didn’t understand. She was visibly shook by his harassment, and we sat at a nearby monument to cool down.
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The bronze monument depicted a shrouded woman, weeping over the limp body of a baby, surrounded by deceased or desperate figures. It is dedicated to the “100,000 men, women, children, and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation. Nearby, two Australian tourist were being lead by a guide.

“It was in 1942 that General MacArthur uttered his famous words ‘I shall return'”, he was telling them, explaining MacArthur’s escape to Australia and eventual return to the Philippines where he commanded the United States Army Forces in the Far East in liberating the city.

We didn’t want to double back and run into that pedicab driver again, so we ventured down the busy back streets. They were not as well-maintained as the streets immediately surrounded San Agustin, but were loud with life: children playing basket ball, dogs barking, teens returning from school, and tambay chatting outside small eateries.

We made a right and found ourselves back at the church. The yellow-shirted pedicab driver was back in the car park, talking animatedly at a brown-haired tourist, hopefully being more polite to her than he had to us.

We climbed up steps to the citadel wall. It was around 4pm, the late afternoon sun still bright and oppressive, beating us down with harsh rays while we had nowhere to hide. The brow of my baseball cap became soaked in sweat, and removing it left my eyes naked against light. Finding nothing of note, we doubled back. A few foreign tourists seemed to do the same. Beneath us, members of the municipal golf course cracked balls down the fairway. The golf course is actually the remnants of the moat of the citadel, filled in after the American colonisation. Patches of sun-browned grass stood out on the verdant surface.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were walking in the opposite direction to what I wanted to see: Fort Santiago. The citadel was constructed by Miguel López de Legazpi, the conquistador who first established Spanish settlements in the Philippines, and was completed in 1593, becoming the new capital and the premier stronghold on the islands. It is a site symbolising colonial power, and also death. Many lost their lives within the walls during the Massacre of Manila, and national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal, was imprisoned there before his execution in 1896. A museum dedicated to Rizal now sits within the fort.

I had seen this part of Intramuros during my visit six years ago with my mother, sister, and tita G. I wanted to revisit this with Jen, since it’s the most famous part of the walled city. Alas, it looked like we were running out of time, and we decided it was time to walk over to the bay walk on Roxas Boulevard.
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We walked past a derelict section of the wall, the afternoon sun penetrated the empty stone windows casting spotlights along the road. A ginger cat, young and thin, turned his head to stare at us before darting around a corner. As we passed a junction we heard a horn. We looked to our left, and who should we see but the yellow-shirted pedicab driver cycling towards us, his side car still empty. Was he haunting us? We tried to ignore him. As he came within earshot, he shouted “Akala mo naman ang ganda mo!” (“You think you’re that pretty?!”) at Jen, an irrelevant epithet, before rounding a corner and finally vanishing. He reminded me of a child who throws a tantrum when he can’t get his way.

May his sidecar forever remain empty.

For some reason, all his harassment and insults throughout the day had been aimed at Jen, and I could see that, along with the heat, they had worn her down. “Some Filipinos can’t take no for an answer”, she sighed in frustration.

Our trip to intramruos hadn’t been as successful as I’d hoped. Maybe Manila Bay would lift our spirits. Spoiler alert: it would.
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