The Travelogue: Bearland

The Travelogue: Bearland

‘Don’t drink the water’ is a common  piece of advice given when traveling to developing countries, and I know from personal experience it applies to the Philippines. During my last visit six years ago, my Tita mixed up my water bottle of clean drinking water with one of tap water. The results weren’t pleasant. After emptying my guts in the Mall of Asia bathroom, we went straight home and I did my best not to do the same in the back seat of the taxi.

I would never have expected to be doing the same thing at a ‘luxury’ beach resort near Iloilo city six years later.

After a merry morning of swimming, courtesy of Jen who paid the entry fee for our party of twelve (most of Jen’s family, plus me), we sat in the shade to eat the food she had ordered. I hadn’t been swimming in years, and had forgotten just how much energy it requires, so I was famished. We dug into pizza, fried squid, fries, and chicken. It was the latter, a little red close to the bone, that we think caused some rumblings in our stomachs, and Jen and I back and forth from the pool to the bathroom.
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Other than that, it was a pleasant day. It was my first time visiting a resort and seeing a white-sand beach in the Philippines. During previous trips, mainly been in busy cities, the filthy water of Manila bay being sight of the sea. Bearland seemed appealing enough, though the name puzzled me. At the entrance, a young couple took pictures of themselves in front of a statue of a Polar Bear and two cubs.

The resort comprises a water sports center, tennis & volleyball court, cottages and rooms for overnight stays, a modern-looking conference centre, and two pools, which is what we were chiefly interested in.

After Jen had paid our entrances, we made camp at a table in the shade and rushed to the  water, sweet relief on a sweltering day. Jen had brought the GoPro, and her family enjoyed taking underwater videos and selfies. Even the babies got in, their parents placing them in rubber rings and long-sleeved swimwear to protect from the midday sun. Jen’s tubby nephew beamed as he floated along, splashing the water with his hands. With his pudgy legs, arms, and belly, he almost looked as if he too had been filled with air.

Jen and I went for a wander. The unrelenting sun had baked the stone paths around the pool; going walking barefoot was not an option. A few clouds hung white and weak in the sky, powerless to stop the sunshine. It was too hot to be out in the sun for long, so we darted from one shelter to another. I had been applying sunscreen regularly, but by 1pm, my neck and shoulders were starting to sizzle. Beyond the wall of the resort, a couple of stray dogs walked along the coast, nosing through litter than had washed to shore, calm waves washing their paws. Fishing boats moored on the sand sat roasting in the sun. In front of us, local children dived into the sea from small pier. Further down, outside their coastal homes, a larger group swam to sea and played on a boat, their excited shouts and laughter carried to our ears by a gentle sea breeze.

Behind us, the pool, had emptied somewhat. Jen’s family took cover in the shade, a few women sat at the bar.
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By 2pm, I was feeling fatigued. I hadn’t  been swimming in years, and had forgotten what a physical toll it takes on your body. The heat hadn’t helped, and I was tempted to join the babies and Jen’s Tito in taking a siesta.

By the time we left, at around 4pm, I was shattered. The seven of us – plus three babies – packed into the minivan and head back to the city, Jen’s sister and her boyfriend following along on his motorcycle. We stopped to grab a bite in a small pizza place in a market. Outside it, crates and crates of glass soft-drink bottles, straws poking out their tops, stood waiting for collection. I was still feeling a little queasy, but I hoped the pizza would help to settle my stomach until I got back to the house. It seemed to.

When we did get back, Jen and I trudged up to our humid room and flopped onto the bed. We had left our strength behind; in the chill swimming pool, in the humid air, and in the Bearland bathrooms.
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The Travelogue: Baggage, Lolas, and the Province.

The Travelogue: Baggage, Lolas, and the Province.

It was in the van and away we go, though again, I didn’t know where. Jen was doing an uncharacteristically bad job of keeping me up to date with plans, presumably preoccupied with her family, which I could understand. I knew she was nervous – “I haven’t shown a partner this part of my life” – though she seemed calmer when I reassured her that I was genuinely interested. Still, as not many of her family would, or could, talk to me, due to my inability to speak Hiligaynon and lack of Tagalog, I couldn’t help but feel like an extra piece of baggage, silently tucked into the corner, transported from one location to the next.

“Where are we?”, I asked, as we pulled over to the side of a wide main road.
“We’re visiting my Lola.” The Lola on her father’s side.

We darted across the dusty main road and into a narrow alley of old, (mostly) single-story concrete buildings,with corrugated tin roofs, shaded from the harsh afternoon sun by verdant trees. A group of elderly women stood in a semi-circle, hands together, mouths praying, eyes gazing up at a two-foot tall statue of Christ on a pedestal. We slipped through their group, their chanting undisturbed. ‘Holy week’ was less than a week away.

Neighbourhood kids who were playing outside their houses stared at our group as we passed through, Jen’s blue hair seemingly catching their attention. At the end of the lane, a couple of Jen’s relatives stood outside the house waiting to greet us, some of whom I recognised from the night we arrived. We walked in single file down a narrow alley and into the house, dim in the shade of the tightly packed houses. Jen’s Lola sat on a seat near the door; her metal walking stick stood beside her. Jen sat next to her, and I sat next to Jen who briefly introduced me to her Lola, and I observed proper politeness by ‘blessing’ her – raising the back of her hand to my forehead. Outside, the chanting of the worshippers began to grow closer.

Jen’s Lola made a comment in Hiligaynon about her hair. “What? It’s blue!”, Jen exclaimed through a wide smile. This was about all of the conversation I understood. The family sat in a circle talking excitedly, Jen the centre of attention; I sat to her side, smiling politely and occasionally making awkward eye contact with people I didn’t yet know the names of. In many ways I related to the babies in the room. They didn’t understand what what was being said, either, and were dependent on someone for comfort.

I listened outside. The chanted prayers sounded like they were right outside, then they came to a halt. Moments later, Jen’s cousin brought one of the statues of Christ into the house.

After fifteen minutes of listening to merry chatter, we decided to sit outside. Jen’s Lola needed assistance walking. She was frail, having suffered a stroke, and Jen helped her along while I opened  the doors. Once outside, the three of us sat on a wooden bench, Jen in the middle.

Many of her relatives were gathered one house down, outside her Tita’s sari sari store. The babies ran around, minded by Jen’s brother; her tubby one year old nephew a constant source of noise and energy, his slightly elder cousin more contemplative. Her sister and sister-in-law looked at pirated DVDs in a sari sari across the lane. The local kids up the lane seemed to be having a disagreement, the boys and girls separated, staring and pouting at each other from across the way. I sat next to Jen as she caught up with her Lola, the shade and slight breeze a relief, chilling the sweat on my skin.

Jen’s cousin offered me a piece of Maja Blanca, which I accepted, and she returned from the sari sari with a piece on a paper plate with a plastic fork. It was warm, but still good.

Ten minutes later, a caucasian man in his late forties or early fifties appeared and parked a blue Honda motorcycle a few doors down. The local kids gathered around him, jumping and shouting, their feud seemingly forgotten. He smiled down, and humoured them, before heading inside. I was surprised: a white man living in the provinces is a rare sight. It seemed that he was surprised to see us, too, as when he noticed us upon exiting his house he stood about eight feet away and watched us talking on the bench for a solid minute. Seems like, in some places, whether it’s Filipino or foreigner, I can’t avoid being stared at. I pretended to be listening to Jen and her Lola speak.

Dusk descended; the golden highlights on the verdant trees disappeared, their leaves grew dull. A group of Tita’s came down the lane, laughing loudly together. Jen’s tubby nephew looked tired from running and jumping around. Everyone went inside. We helped her Lola back inside, so we could eat a simple dinner together. She looked happy, but I saw melancholy behind Jen’s eyes, worrying for her Lola’s health and feeling a little guilty that this short visit would be the first and last time in years she’d seen her. “I love spending time with my family,” she had often told me on this trip. And I could see it, though I couldn’t entirely empathise. I can’t remember the last time my sisters and I did something together with our parents, though it’s not something I’d complain about. I did my best to discard my feelings of loneliness, of feeling left out, for her sake. I was happy for her. And even though she was nervous, and a little peeved at some relatives always asking for things, she was enjoying being back, and they enjoyed her.
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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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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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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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The Travelogue: Venice Again? Mall of Asia, and Shopping Frustrations

The Travelogue: Venice Again? Mall of Asia, and Shopping Frustrations

I’d never eaten part of a cow’s intestine before. That was before I tried Kare Kare, a traditional Filipino stew consisting of meat and vegetables in a savoury peanut sauce. Kuya S (I’m still not sure what relation I am to him, though I know it’s not by blood) took us all out for lunch at Max’s and everyone insisted I try Filipino foods I hadn’t before.

“Don’t worry, it’s been boiled many times so there are no germs”, ate M reassured me. “I hope”, she added.

When in Rome, and all that. I tried it, chewing it as best I could for it was slimy on my tongue, and concluded I’d much prefer Kare Kare without part of a cow’s digestive track, and was careful not to put any more on my plate. I also had Tofu Adobong, which I liked very much.

After a pleasant meal and tita L’s insistances that we take photos for Facebook (she’s addicted), the plan was for us to all go to Market Market. Alas, as always with my family, plans can change on a dime, and when all of us, apart from kuya S who had somewhere to be, had piled into two Ubers, Jen and I found out we were being taken to Venice Grand Canal Mall for the second day in a row.

We wandered around for forty-five minutes, taking photos here and there, but we’d seen all we’d wanted to the day before, and there wasn’t all that much to see beyond the initial novelty of the gondolas. When the family had reconvened outside Jollibee, Jen and I decided to head to the Mall of Asia while the others took the babies home. Tita L joined us in the taxi, as she was heading in the same direction to get transport to Atimonan. A short ride later, we alighted, bade her farewell (for now) and ventured into the massive Mall of Asia.

The Philippines loves a big mall. Four of the twenty largest malls in the world reside on the archipelago, MoA sitting at 4th in the country and 11th in the world and covering an area of 406,962 square meters. My village could comfortably fit inside it’s walls. Still, I remember it feeling bigger; when I last visited, in 2011, it was ranked 2nd largest mall in the Philippines, before being knocked down the table by SM Megamall’s 2011 extension and the opening of SM Seaside City Cebu in 2015.

We wandered around, often aimlessly, Jen munching on giga cheese fries from Potato Corner. I was sad to see that a few shops I had planned to revisit had shut and been replaced, most notable Fujifilm, for I didn’t know where else to buy camera film (that wasn’t Instax).
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There are only two facets of Filipino life that genuinely give me culture shock, and it’s not the food, regardless of whether there’s cow intestine or not. One: most public toilets in the country don’t come with toilet paper (and you can’t flush tissue either). And two: the nature of customer service in shops.

Shopping in the Philippines, while great, has certain frustrations. For one thing, even the largest malls, such as MoA and Megamall, have a pitiful number of maps. You’d think buildings that are the size of small towns would provide shoppers with the courtesy of knowing where they are and where they want to go is actually located. That being said, the maps these gigantic malls do have are interactive and very useful, allowing you to search for specific stores and showing you the exact route. But I only found two in the entirety of MoA, and the average mall may contain no maps at all, leaving consumers to wander around aimlessly, though that’s probably what they want.

Then there is the customer service. I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to browse at my leisure and ask for assistance should I require it, but you’re often not given that option. Again, many places are just fine. I find the staff in Smart and Globe stores very helpful, and love Toy Kingdom (the staff in there have to deal so many excitable kids), but venture into a less frequented area of an SM department store and you’ll find a group of six or seven staff members with folded arms and glum expressions, standing around like a gang in an alleyway. Should they hear you approach, their heads will turn in unison to stare, expectant, daring you to enter into their territory. It’s at this point that I usually dart down a sidetrack, but if you’re unfortunate enough to actually need something in the section they occupy, prepare to be surrounded. Their faces will lighten, smiles breaking, while they greet you with ‘Hi, sir. Hi, Ma’am’, before barraging you with options and sizes and designs and prices. I, for one, can’t stand so much attention. Nor can I understand why there needs to be so many staff members in every section; you don’t need seven on suitcases, that’s just a fact.

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It was a similar story in Art Bar, a lovely little art shop and cafe we visited in BGC the day before. The amount of staff on the first floor alone outnumbered customers 2:1. And that was when there were other customers other than our little group; at one point we had the floor to ourselves. The shop seemed vastly overstaffed: barring the man in the cafe, the one of the door, and the one who approached us, very few of them were doing any work. I counted seven people stood behind the till, chatting quietly, staring at us, and one or two were even on their phone. Two of the girls were so bored they started dancing, slowly twirling each other around in time to the coffee shop soundtrack. The shop only opened at the beginning of the year; we’ll have to see how long it lasts since it seems to be paying for a pointless amount of staff.

With such an abundance of staff in shops you’d think service would be pretty zippy, but that is often not the case. At one point I spent fifteen minutes queuing in Watsons to buy tissues. There was only one woman on the till, and as people in front of me were buying prescriptions, it’s understandable there’d be a wait. What wasn’t understandable was that another women, who I presumed to be the supervisor, stood behind the till, and instead of opening another like I expected, simply took the items of those standing in line and places them next to the register before wandering off again. As you can imagine, this caused a little confusion for the woman serving, as she couldn’t work out whose items were whose, and had to ask us customers. It was an exercise in futility.

And then there’s Comic Alley, a shop that I would be absolutely in love with were it not for the irritating staff. I don’t know why, but they are trained to be like leeches, sticking to you relentlessly, offering redundant comments such as ‘dalawang designs, sir’, while you’re literally holding the dalawang designs in your hand. (A game I like to play is to walk in a figure of eight around the store, not looking at anything, just to see how long someone will follow me around.) On this occasion, I was greeted by an energetic girl with a nice smile, who skipped alongside me and clapped loudly along with the anime soundtracks on the speakers. I could barely concentrate on what I was looking at. After a few minutes of clapping in my ear, she tagged in a colleague, but I was about done, and left the One-Punch Man backpack I’d had my eye on on the shelf. If the staff were less cloying, I’d spend so much money in Comic Alley.

I asked friends why the customer service is this way. Jen, who unlike me grew up in the Philippines, seems to find many shop assistants as annoying as I do. “They’re just overenthusiastic about making sales”, she believes. A friend I asked had a different interpretation: “I guess it’s our culture. We’ve always been hospitable, and maybe sometimes we overdo it”, she explained. “I also hate it when they hover around me”. I always thought part of being hospitable was making guests feel comfortable. No one I know in the Philippines, whether relative or friend, seems to find it any less than annoying. (If anyone who is in customer service in the Philippines knows why things are the way they are, please leave a comment, I’m genuinely interested to know).

In many respects, you’ll get a better customer experience in local markets and changi. While stall owners do tend to hover as well, you’re only dealing with one person, and I’ve found they are more helpful and less pushy than their counterparts in the middle-class stores and malls of Manila.
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MoA attracts on average 200,000 people a day, and thought it is vast and spacious, entrances and exits can get congested. We braved the throngs of shoppers across the bridge and down to the bay area, where you can find more restaurants, a Ferris wheel and fun fair rides, and innumerable people sitting along the seawall, waiting for the famed sunsets of Manila bay. The day was overcast and humid; the possibility of a good sunset low, but still the wall was packed for as far as the eye can see in either direction with groups of young people happily chatting while staring out to sea, with no space for newcomers. We retreated back up to the bridge, slightly disappointed, the broken escalator adding a little frustration to the mix. We didn’t need to worry though, the next day we’d set our gaze on the true majesty of a sunset at Manila Bay.
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