Each blog I write is special to me and the next two posts are particularly poignant. Not only was this my first trip to the Philippines, it was a family adventure which culminated in our eldest son’s wedding. Trixie, the talented and beautiful bride-to-be, was five years old when her family emigrated from Manila to Vancouver and getting to know her roots and heritage was something we were all looking forward to. We would discover the nuances of a warm people who have a distinct and rich heritage. One which most certainly includes a love of music!
Just before Christmas, in the midst of a mass disruption of flights due to snowstorms, my husband, Luke and Trixie, and our middle son Matt, somehow managed to fly from Vancouver to Manila. I had just a quick jaunt from Bangkok and after a month of travelling in Malaysia and Thailand, I was overjoyed to be reunited with my gang. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport was festive. Sparkling Christmas trees, a life-sized nativity scene and a quartet welcomed us arrivals with carols and a warm Mabuhay!
As families joyously reunited, it felt like a mini Christmas ‘miracle’ that five of us had arrived within hours of each other. The services of a personal driver to navigate us out of the city was also a blessing as the first thing that strikes you about Manila is the vastness of the city. With its long stretch of modern high rises silhouetted against Manila Bay, it’s one of the most densely populated inner cities in the world. We’d see much more of it soon, but for now, our driver deftly maneuvered us through the endless flows of traffic.
We’ll be spending Christmas on a little slice of paradise. Leaving the main island of Luzon, home to Manila, we make our way southwest to the island of Mindoro… by van, ferry and bangka. The reality of traveling in the Philippines, with 7,640 islands, is the necessity of internal flights and ferries that requires planning and often ample patience. It means travelling fairly light and accepting that weather delays or cancellations might well interrupt your travel plans.
Yet such delays are also when you chat with locals and see day to day life unfold. Coffee is mostly from a packet and always pre-sweetened and milky. Noodle pots aplenty, for a few pesos… my guys were up to nine total on a three-hour journey! It’s where you learn that you don’t look for a Toilet, but for the CR, the essential Comfort Room! In ferry terminals you might also find organizations such as for blind people, who for a small donation offer shoulder massages or serenade as you wait. And it’s in those delays, you note the polite and the good-natured personalities of Filipinos.
After a four-hour drive to Batangas, then a ferry to Puerto Galera, we arrive on the seventh largest island in the country, Mindoro. Known for its dive sites and sandy white beaches, the province of Oriental Mindoro is steeped with history. Chinese and Southeast Asian traders sailed the waters long before the arrival of the Spaniards; the bay a convenient place to shelter ships, and to store, load and unload trading goods. Puerto Galera means ‘Port of the Galley’ but in 1574, it also became one of the oldest missionary settlements amongst the islands.
Nowadays locals and travellers ply the waters in a bangka and I’m immediately smitten with them. Varying in size, these native watercraft of the Philippines originated from single-outrigger dugout canoes. Picture them as some of the first ocean-voyaging vessels in the world from 3000 to 1500 BCE, allowing the Austronesian Expansion from China and Taiwan, to Southeast Asia and beyond. As we’re bangka‘ed to our resort, we catch the first glimpses of the vibrant colours and the range of the carefully chosen names each owner subscribes to his carrier. It’s also soon evident how logistically and culturally significant they are to these island communities. We jump on and off of them time and time again throughout our travels. We see them being lovingly repaired and repainted. On our boat a father is teaching his son the tricks-of-the-tides… just as one would acquire your learner’s license for a vehicle. And always, a firm hand is offered to escort you onto the pier or the beach as you step down from the bangka.
As our bangka drifts up to our Christmas resort, we’re taken by its shore-side beauty and the simple elegance of the accommodation. Perched hillside, roofs poking out amongst towering palm trees, the villas at Casalay Boutique Villas & Dive are absolutely dreamy. Throughout our four day stay, the staff is welcoming and ensure we feel very much at home. The food is familiar yet infused with Filipino novelties such as pancit and sinigang. We all agree it’s the ideal start to our three week Philippines adventure. One can only leave the resort by bangka, we’re situated between the diving hub of Sabang and the town of Puerto Galera. So we mostly relax, swim, snorkel, day trip and generally give thanks that five out of our seven have managed to arrive on schedule. Trixie feels immediately at home and slips in and out of the Philippine language, formerly known as Tagalog. Speaking the local language comes in handy at one particular ferry terminal snarl and it won’t be the only time we’re thankful to have a ‘local’ on the ground. As seasoned travellers we expect challenges, but we’ve learned to embrace them and add them fondly to our long list of traveller’s stories.
Christmas day is full of heart warming vignettes; strolling the streets of Puerto Galera, visiting a charitable school, admiring tropical plants along a jungle path to a waterfall. We brave local modes of transportation throughout the day… those iconic sturdy jeepneys and the more precarious motorized trishaws. And we get our first glimpse of what will become one the most endearing hallmarks of Filipino culture. Late afternoon, we arrive at the bustling White Beach for Happy Hour where tourists and locals are understandably soaking up the sun. The weather has been a little cloudy and chilly; it feels fitting that some warmth is bestowed upon us for Christmas day.
As we chat over a round of San Miguels, two waiters keep us entertained. Elmer and ‘Felix’ are amusing and flamboyant. In fact, they’re fabulous and proudly proclaim that they identify as bakla – a person, male at birth, who has adopted a feminine gender expression. By the second round of Migs, Trixie reveals that she’s the daughter of the iconic Joey Albert, one of the Philippines most beloved singers. Seeing the disbelief and giddy delight from these locals is thrilling and it seems that a love ballad is the only way to honour the moment! As they google lyrics to one of Joey’s most classic songs, ‘I Remember The Boy,’ Elmer, who has just regaled us with a flag rendition of his flame juggling skills, proclaims, “It’s a very special moment to meet Ma’am Joey’s daughter, it’s a wonderful day!” As the three devoted fans harmonize and improvise, Trixie now Facetimes her mom back in Vancouver. The three are suddenly serenading Joey with her own song. It’s a joyous scene, one that portends all of the wonderful music we’ll hear throughout the trip.
We bangka it back to the resort in time to change for Christmas dinner and we’re happy to hear that Trixie’s sister and partner are unexpectedly joining us, yes due to one of those tropical flight cancellations. Bit by bit, the Pacis/Wilson group of eleven is arriving in the country in anticipation of the wedding on January 6th. But this evening has a magic all of its own. A gentle breeze drifts through the outdoor dining area and palms gently sway under the glow of a waxing moon. The table is set beautifully as the Christmas lights shimmer throughout the resort, and to our delight, we’re serenaded by a young musical duo. The two sing and play everything from Christmas songs to Kylie Minogue, and we learn that these local celebs perform as far away as Dubai. Late into the second set, like an impromptu karaoke, they invite anyone to come up and sing. Unfortunately, none of us have the voice or the nerve it seems… no, not even the singer’s daughter! Yet one of the guests and then a staff member gladly take the stage and perform a few songs.
“Is this usual, for just anyone to get up and sing during a performance?” I ask Trixie.
“It sure is, you’ll see it everywhere. It’s just that everyone here knows how to sing!”
And so it seems to be the case and just as it was late afternoon, it’s another entertaining musical flourish. Yet there’s more. One of the staff members is a pole dancer in nearby Sabang and at once, a table is his makeshift stage. The guests love it, we all clap madly and I notice that for each performance there’s no judgement, just the joy of spontaneity and freedom of expression. The day seems to encapsulate the love of song and dance of the Filipino people and also the embrace of acceptance. It’s been a memorable Christmas day and we bid the staff a warm thank you and Merry Christmas. As we climb the palm-fringed steps to our villas, music and laughter drifts up towards us and off into the jungle canopy. At breakfast the next morning, the staff tells us that they had a beautiful long evening of singing and laughter; a very Merry Christmas for everyone!
A few days later, we make our way back to Manila. Ayla and Andrew will arrive, making our family of seven complete. Trixie’s parents will arrive after New Year’s where we’ll all meet in El Nido on the island of Palawan for the wedding.
Our introduction to Manila begins where it should, amongst the historic fortress walls of Intramuros. Oral history suggests that the original Maynila (which translates to where indigo is found) was founded as a Muslim principality as early as the 1250’s with archeological findings suggesting organized human settlements dating around the 1500’s. It evolved into a trading centre with ties to the Sultanate of Brunei and to traders from China during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644.) In 1565, sees the arrival of Martin De Goiti leading an expedition of Spanish colonizers. The ‘Battle of Maynila’ ensued in May of 1570 and by June the next year, conquistadors established a city council and declared the islands a territory of New Spain, as Mexico was then known. The Spanish attained great wealth in their new outpost of Manila, atop the subjugation of the local population. The Acapulco galleon trade transported goods from Europe, Africa and Hispanic America across the Pacific Islands to Southeast Asia and vice versa. Silver, Chinese silk, Indian gems, Malaysian and Indonesian spices, wine and olives all passed through Manila Bay. And as any colonizers would deem necessary, the Spanish built the fortressed enclave of Intramuros. Alongside Mexico City and Madrid, it became one of the world’s original set of global cities.
As a former tour guide/historian, I know that one of the best ways to get to know a city is to treat yourself to a tour. I chose Bamboo Bicycle which couldn’t have given us a better introduction. We meet in the iconic courtyard of a former Chinese merchant’s mansion and before choosing our bikes for the three-hour journey through Intramuros, we hear how incredibly diverse the city was with people from many lands. This inevitably led to a blending of peoples, the mestizos, a people of mixed races… a true melting pot of cultural complexity and ethnic diversity.
As we cycle along the walls and in and out of the grand city gates, the cobbled streets are lively against the backdrop of lush palms, bougainvillea, busy parks and tucked away cafes. As the religious and educational center of the Spanish East Indies, Intramuros boasted the oldest university in Asia and today houses many more. We pass through the original city gates where nearby cannons and bulwarks protected it from not only foreign invaders, but also from perceived threats nearby such as the Chinese community at Binondo, believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world.
The pleasant atmosphere belies the history of the next foreign occupier. Spain surrendered the Philippines to the United States after the Spanish-American War for a price of $20 million. As the American flag was hoisted over Fort Santiago in 1898, a new period commenced. The Manila Hotel is central to that next phase of the city’s and country’s history. Its address of One Rizal Park, reflects this; Jose Rizal was the beloved national hero who became a leader in advocating for political reforms against the Spanish Colonial occupiers. When Rizal was executed by the Spanish in 1896, he wouldn’t know that his country would be purchased just a few years later. His writings however, inspired a revolution not only against the Spanish but the incoming Americans. A mere forty years later, the hotel would then be occupied by the Japanese Army and set on fire during the Battle for Liberation of Manila, the Philippines and the US now united against the Japanese and Spanish Mercenaries. For all of the urban fighting, mass murder and deprivation that occurred, The Manila Hotel seems now to proudly signify a people that finally won its independence on July 4, 1946.
In the tradition of the ‘grand old dame’, the iconic Manila Hotel, is just a few blocks from the old city walls we explored. It prides itself on being the oldest premier hotel in the Philippines and at this time of year it’s simply splendid in its Christmas’s best. The expansive lobby is festooned for the season and is a backdrop for family gatherings and celebrations. It’s an opportunity to see locals dressed in their finery – especially the national formal shirt the barong – and to experience the warmth of family as generations gather. Filipino families are often large as they extend to titos and titas, uncles and aunts, both family or friends who are very much part of the family. As we wait in the lobby to welcome Andrew and Ayla who’ve just arrived, Kumukutikutitap, rings out, enhancing the festive tone. This is Joey Albert’s well-loved Christmas song, it’s lyrical and happy… flickering, bubbling, twinkling stars, gifts and decorations on Christmas trees, a lucky star on top. It’s a fitting song for the happy moment as Andrew and Ayla glide through the revolving doors. I couldn’t be more thankful and excited for the island adventures, and the wedding ahead and the union of our two families.
To be continued in part two…