After sanitised stays in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Vince Robbins welcomes the chaos, charisma – and basketball courts – of the Philippines. Join him as he explores Manila, Cebu and Boracay…
As our few days in Singapore came to a close, with no plans ahead of us except a flight home from Taipei in a few weeks, we decided to participate in the Air Asia lottery (cheapest flight out of Singapore + cheapest flight to Taipei = next destination). Growing up in LA I was always surrounded by, and had always loved, my many Philippino friends and their families. Add Manny Pacquiao’s emergence as one of the coolest athletes of the decade and I was sold. We booked our flights to Manila about 6 hours before we would be boarding the plane, and just like that we were off to what we would come to call the Wild West of Asia.
Manila is an odd combination of developed and decrepit. In part it’s a modern city, with lots of sky scrapers and some really pristine upscale areas, but the majority of the city felt dusty and burdened by traffic and smog. Maybe it was the brutal heat that made the air feel heavy and stagnant in the busy streets that were crammed with people, cars, and Jeepneys (re-appropriated military vehicles, often colorfully decorated, used as public transport). The level of poverty was the most apparent that we’d seen since India. It felt like a sort of post-apocalyptic revival of a once-booming metropolis.
Despite the somewhat lack of aesthetic beauty, the Philippines was a welcoming place, and fortunately for us, complete with the best English speaking population we’d experienced thus far. From the taxi drivers, to the restaurant staff at our local haunt (I may or may not have considered marrying one of the waitresses), to the well-armed security guards at the shopping mall. One of the main reasons that the Philippines earned the Wild West of Asia nickname is the prevalence of guns; I’m talking big-ass pump shot guns and metal detectors to get into the local mall – kinda scary until you’re on the inside, then you’re feeling pretty safe. In all seriousness, from what I understand, the gun violence in the Philippines is very high, which is of course problematic. Given, I didn’t seek out the underbelly of Manila, but I didn’t feel particularly unsafe in the city.
As is typical with the “On the Road” series, one afternoon I took a walk of epic proportions around the entire city. My friend Franklin and I set out on the metro rail, which was slightly dated but nonetheless efficient, towards City Hall. We emerged next to the Universidad de Manila with no sense of direction and a couple dozen students staring, pointing, and smiling at us. Manila isn’t as heavily trafficked by tourists as other parts of South East Asia, so we were somewhat the spectacle. We walked passed a huge monument, emblazoned with “KKK” on it…
Soooo… Fortunately, it turns out KKK means something entirely different in the Philippines than it does in America. Who knew? On we went through City Hall and, after somehow wandering down a shady path laden with what seemed like narcotic-addicted individuals, we ended up in Rizal Park which is a really nice open space in the heart of the city. RP (as I like to call it) is where I almost got drafted to the Philippines National Basketball Association. Okay, it was just a pickup game, but at the time I felt like I was liable to join the ranks of Manny P. as the next big Philippino sports hero of our generation. Alright, yeah, fine I was a foot taller than anyone else on the court, but these were highly skilled ball players! And I’m out there draining jumpers, rebounding like a maniac, dishing the ball. I’m talking Wilt Chamberlain type stats with a Michael Jordan game six game winner… But listen, kid, all good things come to an end – even storied Philippino basketball careers. The dream don’t last forever. And that was a long time ago… (Cue sad legendary-sports-career-is-over music).
The Unlikely Beauty of Cebu
Through a mixture of word of mouth and internet research, we landed on the idea that Cebu would be a good place to visit next in the Philippines. Allegedly the area has nice beaches and islands close by, but when we arrived, our stomping grounds in Cebu City far from resembled any kind of tropical destination. The streets of Cebu were crowded and loud, with buildings that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the 1980s. At night, for every neon-lit sign there was a shady looking guy hawking Viagra or a strip club (and let’s just say there were a lot of neon-lit signs). Although I didn’t inquire, I imagine that our hotel, the generously named Elegant Circle Inn, offered hourly rates.
And of course, it’s the Philippnes, so – guns galore. We struck up conversation with the Rambo-armed guard out front of the Elegant Circle, eventually asking him about his gun. “For protecting the guests,” he said. We nodded, casually, and prodded further, “but like, have you actually had to use it?” He took a long drag from his cigarette and nodded bleakly. We caught his drift and slept none the more soundly.
The next day we went out to explore the city, the islands or beaches could wait; I’m an Urban Travel Blogger after all. We knew there was ocean due south so we headed in that direction, taking us to a few streets that had been highlighted on WikiTravel [Ed. which is a commercial company and nothing to do with Wikipedia, just so ya know!]. Now, I’m not sure who wrote the WikiTravel entry on Cebu or when, but we didn’t really come across anything that seemed like a place where outsiders were known (or meant) to visit. As we walked south, the streets grew larger and busier, passing through a huge intersection that looked like Time Square out of a zombie movie. The buildings were ominously darkened with decades of weathering, wiring hanging between buildings like jungle vines. The sidewalks were crammed with vendors, blasting music, and selling trinkets/clothes/electronics that I wouldn’t have taken for free. Interestingly, it was as reminiscent of India as I’ve seen anywhere else.
Eventually we emerged onto a street that was absolutely packed with people buying and selling all kinds of fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, etc. It was clear, by the looks we received, that two American guys over 6-feet tall were not commonplace here. It’s hard to describe how wild this place was. The crowd of people was body to body; guys slowly pulling wooden carts that were hoisted on their backs; crates full of who-knows-what emitting clouds of smoke; vendors circling huge piles of dried seafood; naked children running around playing who-knows-what game. As out of place as I felt, the energy and motion of the place was so powerful that it seemed impossible to interrupt the chaotic rhythm of it all.
We continued through the crowds and eventually came to what seemed to be the entrance to some sort of quasi-residential alleyway. Little kids, optionally clothed, were everywhere, running and kicking things and laughing and pointing in swarms around us. A group of teenagers were crowded around a rickety make-shift basketball hoop and insisted that I, “Slam dunk! Slam dunk! NBA!” Well shucks, I thought. I guess my glory days of Manila weren’t that far behind me – so I obliged. We continued into the alley, eventually forced to walk hunched-over, ducking and dodging into this shanty-town community. Nothing looked structurally stable or planned: tarps were slung overhead, a combination of mud and damp concrete beneath our feet, walls that were hastily-constructed, with doors and windows essentially non-existent. We passed old men playing chess on a tiny table. Two ancient arcade games and an outdated computer sat glowing and unattended outside a few makeshift shop fronts, while their keepers casually watched us with friendly confusion and an occasional “hello!” And more children. Children everywhere. I’d never been anywhere like it.
Just at the point when we had forgotten what we set out to see, there it was: we emerged at the end of the alley, onto a rickety dock on the ocean, under a freeway overpass. Far from the ocean front we had expected to see, but so much more beautiful than we could have hoped. We were all but attacked by a group of kids who spoke impressive English and questioned us like we were aliens. Once they realized I had a camera, the picture taking session was hard to put a stop to. One of their mothers invited us across a wooden bridge, through a living room that was stilted over the water, where two old Philippino men stared at a glowing television, which led onto the concrete base under the overpass (which you had to leap onto). This concrete slab, shaded by a mass of freeway overhead, was an unlikely candidate for, but undoubtedly was, one of the most beautiful and serene places I’d been on this trip.
Part of me romanticized their situation and lifestyle. None of them spent their days boxed inside some cage of an office, away from their families. It seemed so nice. Just then an older, stumbling-bumbling man hobbled past, and the mother told us that he was her brother, and he was always drunk. I looked back at their shack of a house, and wasn’t sure what to feel. Guilt and embarrassment for all that I have? Envy for what they have? I mostly felt appreciation and gratitude for their warm hospitality. I don’t have the answers to the greater societal disparities that I was attempting to calculate in my head, but I can say we all had some happiness together, and that was good.
Borracho and Braided in Boracay
After the smog and grime of Manila and Cebu, when we learned that Boracay was voted The World’s Best Island by Travel and Leisure in 2012, it sounded like the exact right change of pace. We hopped a flight on a little propeller plane out of Cebu and as soon as we were on the little motorboat from the mainland to the tiny small island of Boracay we were elated to be in tropical paradise.
The only drawback to Boracay is that it’s absolutely teeming with tourists, but that’s exactly what we were, so we arrived in the spirit of communal enjoyment. If you’re looking for a secluded, remote island experience, there are probably better destinations. Interestingly though, the majority of the tourists are actually Philippino; celebrating university graduations, honeymoons, or family vacations. The touristiness feels a little less established than say Hawaii or Ibiza or even Bali – I suppose because Boracay, and the Philippines in general, is a little more out of the way of the traveler circuit.
When you arrive at the dock, a 15 minute motor-rickshaw ride takes you to the main White Beach, which is divided into Stations 1, 2, and 3. Regardless of where you decide to stay along or near this stretch, you can’t really miss out; it quickly becomes clear why Boracay is so renowned. The bone-white sand that extends so flawlessly into the glassy water looks like it’s out of one of those novelty beach snow globes; the sparkling, pilot-light blue horizon is dotted with little sailboats, and even the umbrellas are just damn perfect (like the little novelty ones in Mai Tai’s). We started off with a quick swim, which quickly turned into a few beers at a beach-side bar, which (don’t ask me how) quickly turned into me getting my hair braided into rubber band cornrows that made me look like some sort of reptilian comic book villain. I think my public explanation was, “I lost a bet,” but in actuality, I’m pretty sure my friend Franklin just offered to pay for it and I said, “why not?”
And, of course, as is routine, a few beers and cornrows quickly turns into all-you-can-eat Philippino BBQ, which, followed by a fire-throwing show, obviously leads right into the 15-Shot-Challenge at Cocomangas Bar on the beach, because all the Philippino University graduates are doing it, and because the Canadian bartender is totally a cool guy – Matt, or Mark, or Phil, or Todd or something… What a guy! – which at first you decide to go half and half on with your buddy, but end up ordering another round, so that you’ve each put down 15 of those noxious shooters, mostly because you want to get the novelty basketball jersey that says “15 shots and still standing!” which you will immediately wear to the dance party on the beach that everyone’s going to, which, of course, always leads to night swimming, and everyone knows that after night swimming you have to eat ridiculously greasy food, but it won’t be until 6 in the morning when you get home that you realize you lost your shoes at the beach party, and your entire bed is filled with sand, and there’s zero chance you’re getting up in three hours to utilize the tennis courts you reserved at 9am (with a non-refundable deposit). That’s just what usually happens… In Boracay… Right?
For more of Vince’s adventures “On The Road” check out his previous posts, such as his first time visiting Mumbai, his day trip from Delhi to the legendary Taj Mahal, and his breakfast on the boats of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, to name but a few.