Outside of the wealthy bubbles where people walk dogs in master planned communities and get massages after dinner, Manila is crowded and smoggy. Battered jeepneys and taxis jostled bumper to bumper, their engines expelling thick bursts of exhaust which coated the street-side food stalls like powdered sugar. Although the taxis offered an oasis of air-conditioned oxygen, there was the gamble of being stranded in the unending rush hour listening to “big radio, Big Radio, BIG RADIO. BIG BIG BIG RADIO!!!!”
Barret and I opted for a colorfully themed jeepney ride instead. We sat on a long bench behind the driver and across from a woman still half clothed after breastfeeding. While everyone warned us about theft and deceitful cab drivers, it seemed as if jeepneys fell outside of this realm. The passenger’s fares honestly flowed down a chain of hands to the driver and vice versa with the change.
It might sound oxymoronic to say I was surprised that the Chinese Cemetery was so quiet, but it isn’t when you consider the neighbors. The Manila North Cemetery, just next door, has a thriving population of several thousand living bodies. Families cook, children play, and a few entrepreneurs even operate businesses from within the mausoleums. So it was interesting that the tombs in the Chinese Cemetery, which resemble small apartments with their running water, AC, rooftop balconies and fenced gardens, would be unoccupied. I guess money does buy privacy, especially in the afterlife.
Intramuros was the original Spanish settlement in the Philippines during the 16th century. Before land reclamation it faced Manila Bay and was fronted by Fort Santiago, which protected it from invading foreigners. The settlement remained intact for several centuries until the battle for the liberation of Manila during WW2. Intramuros was the final stage in the fight against the Japanese- 100,000 Filipinos died in all and only one church remained upright inside the Spanish settlement. We learned this from our guide who cheerfully read all the plaques outside the buildings to us.
Sabang is a small coastal town on the island of Palawan. Little bungalows lined the beach and the buko (coconut) juice was chopped off the palm trees in the morning hour. Aside from the lure of a lazy day, Barret and I wanted to see the underground river which was recently named one of the newest seven natural wonders. We boarded a canoe and paddled into the dark mouth of the cave. The roof was filled with sleeping bats and whenever our flashlights strayed too far from the guide’s itinerary, he herded us back together by pointing out a biblical rock formation.
The beach in El Nido is slim pickings, but the nearby islands are the reason this town north of Sabang is popular. At an eclectic hostel called The Alternative, we booked our island hopping tour. The naturally twisted and curvy ‘found’ wood that was incorporated into the construction lent a slight jungle-y atmosphere. We waited for our boat from a crow’s nest suspended over the beach and drank in the crashing waves with our jasmine tea.
Fifteen past the hour we boarded our bangka (outrigger canoe) and headed across the sapphire water for a small island with a secret cove. The sun was high and the sunscreen thick. After exploring the beach we pulled on snorkel equipment to float above sinister urchins and delicate coral. Being an inexperienced snorkler, I choked on the salty water every time I got too excited about cute fish.
“Look Barretschluush! It’sshish gurgle gurgle NEMO schloop gurgle!”
After swimming into jellyfish, the saltwater stung the wound on my butt cheek. So I was glad to be out of the ocean while lunch was cooking. The water was five shades of blue and the sand the color of gourmet vanilla bean ice cream. When the food was served, the fish was rich and flavorful, the roast succulent, the vegetables fresh, the potato salad creamy and the pineapple sweet and crisp. Paradise has a name and it is Tour A.