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Trip 2 -- Southeast Asia

Part 2: The Philippines (6 Oct to 10 Oct 1998)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 43 Philippine pesos (PHP)

6 Oct-9 Oct

An expensive welcome; Intramuros; Paul and the Library; a cemetery of luxury; the bamboo organ...

It took me about a half-hour to get robbed in Manila. At least it didn't happen dangerously. As I exited the airport, someone offered me a taxi ride to the center of town for PHP 250. I knew that was a rip-off, and I'm not fond of taxis anyway, so I crossed the highway to the jeepney stop. A jeepney is a shared van that looks like a small jeep. They're brightly painted, crowded, and cheap (indeed, I wasn't charged at all on the first trip). It took only a few minutes before a jeepney came, and it took us to a crowded area. I didn't know exactly where we were, but, hoping we were near the Metrorail (the elevated light-rail line), I walked in the direction of the crowds and asked someone.

It turned out we were in the Baclaran flea market, just a few minutes' walk from the southernmost station of the Metrorail. I had some money in my hand that I figured would be enough for the ride. As I made my way through the crowd, someone pressed into my left shoulder. My instinct was to hurry on, and so I did, and a few seconds later the same thing happened again. I kept moving as quickly as I could.

Crowd control is well-enforced on the Metrorail. Only a certain number of people are allowed to board each train; the rest are held at the turnstiles, and if there are too many at the turnstiles you won't be allowed to even enter the station to buy tokens. I walked up the stairs to the station entrance, where the crowd was waiting to enter. A few minutes later we were let in, and we stood in long but fast-moving queues to buy tokens. I decided that to ensure that the line would keep moving quickly, I'd have a little more money ready in case the fare was higher than I thought.

I'd put the small bills in my money belt furthest from my body; the larger bills were further in. So I took out the outermost bill and was astonished to discover that it was a 500-peso bill. I looked down at the money belt and realized that it had been slashed with a razor blade - the man who had bumped into me earlier evidently had had an accomplice. And this was the one time on the whole trip that I hadn't kept the money belt covered by my backpack while I was walking around.

The token did cost what I thought it would (10 pesos), and after we were held at the turnstiles for a few minutes, we were finally allowed to board a train. I got off at the United Nations station and checked out the Hotel Soriente before settling on the Birdwatcher's Apartelle for PHP 900 per night. Here I had my own upstairs apartment, complete with a kitchen, air conditioning, cable television, and those cute, little green lizards found all over Asia.

I counted my money and discovered the thieves had taken PHP 1740. I kept my money in my wallet for the rest of the trip, and there were no more incidents.

I walked along Mabini Street for a while but didn't find a great-looking restaurant, and I didn't want to venture too far from the hotel until I got my bearings during daylight. A couple of blocks from the hotel was a 7-Eleven, and I got a pork bun, water, and mango juice (the juice became a nightly purchase) and watched CNN for a while before going to sleep.

In the morning I visited the Chinese gardens and the Japanese gardens in Rizal Park. Plants in the Chinese gardens were few but there were many little buildings; the Japanese gardens were prettier but partly under construction. The orchidarium was particularly interesting in Rizal Park.

In Intramuros, the walled fortress built in 1571, I visited Casa Manila, a museum that contains rooms as they would have been furnished in a typical Spanish home. The rooms were nicely presented but they focused too much on clothing. The kitchen was especially interesting, and the caretaker in that room gave me a flower and then we worked on a crossword puzzle together. I tried to visit the 16th-century San Augustin Church as well; it was closed, but the modern Manila Cathedral was open for viewing.

Fort Santiago, strategically the most important part of the fortress, contains Rizal Shrine, a tribute to the hero José Rizal. Once the caretakers got back from lunch and the school kids cleared out, this was an interesting place to see.

I saw a sign advertising "October Is National Statistics Month," and, interested, I walked inside - not realizing it was a government building. I think there might have been an exhibit somewhere, but no one was able to translate the sign for me.

By now the San Augustin Church was open, and there was a lot to see: statues of saints and paintings of Jesus. In the afternoon I took a harbor cruise - it was a good way to get oriented to the city, and the sunset was beautiful. One building that we could see from the cruise might have been on fire, or perhaps they were just tearing it down.

I had a tasty meal in the Harbor View restaurant - bangus (a meaty fish that reminded me of swordfish) in a vinegary sauce. I also tried a Singapore Sling; it contained too much gin for my taste - I learned later that they're a lot better in Singapore.

The guidebook mentioned a piano bar in the Malate (southern) area of Manila, but I couldn't find it, so I ended up at the Library. This was a karaoke-comedy bar, and while I couldn't understand the comedy as it was in Tagalog, the songs made sense. One short, over-enthusiastic guy sang "All By Myself" in a sort of out-of-tune wail, and then he shook the hand of everyone in the audience (about 80 people). I started talking to a few people, one of whom (Paul) knew something about musical theatre. He begged me to let him take me back to my hotel, but that was just a little too forward for me.

The next morning I saw the remarkable Chinese cemetery in the northern part of the city. The enormous tombs are unbelievably extravagant, with cooking areas, electricity, television antennas, air conditioning, and mail slots - family members leave notes for each other and have family gatherings there. I had a guide, Rollie (a big Elvis fan), take me around to the more impressive tombs, and we went inside a few. Many had large portraits of the family members opposite their coffins, and the women are buried on the right, because, according to Rollie, "like a good customer, a wife is always right." They were more like temples than like tombs. And all this extravagance was across the street with one of the poorer residential areas of Manila.

Taking Rollie's advice, I took a jeepney south for a half hour to Las Piñas, a town known for its bamboo organ. The organ was built in the early 19th century, and they used bamboo for economic reasons. It's in the San Jose Church. No one was playing it when I got there, but they told me to come back the next morning.

A hearty walk from the church was the jeepney factory. When the concept of jeepneys first came about, they used restored army jeeps. Now they make them largely by hand, each to the specifications of the owner. Most of the factory was in a huge building, and jeepney parts were all over the place.

That night I had a splendid meal in Bistro Remedios, and the best way to describe it is to quite verbatim from the menu:

Pinais na itlog ng isda (fish roe wrapped in banana leaf, seasoned with lemon grass, onion, leeks, ginger, calamansi and broiled)
Adobong palos (freshwater eel stewed in coconut cream, kamias fruit, and finger peppers)
Farmer's secret delights (suman and mango with fresh cream and macapuno topped with grated raw sugar)

I returned to the bamboo organ the next morning, and I not only got to hear it played - they let me try it out myself! It had a sweet, mellow, rich sound. Outside the church, a middle-aged woman asked me for my address so that her son could be my penpal; I never heard from him.

9 Oct
Jeepney, bus, jeepney, and boat: Manila to Lake Taal

The woman helped me get into a jeepney that she said would take me to a bus where I could get to Lake Taal. In Lake Taal there's an island that contains an active volcano, and in the volcano is another lake. It sounded like a fascinating combination.

I found the bus connection easily, and the bus took me to Tagaytay (PHP 20), in view of the lake but still a few kilometers away. An entrepreneur about 17 years old found me and accompanied me in a jeepney to his guest house in Leynes, on the edge of Lake Taal. He was friendly, but it was clear he was in it for the money. From Leynes he charged PHP 1000 for a motorboat and a driver to the volcano island.

9 Oct
Lake Taal

A lake in a crater in a volcano on an island in a lake...

He led me up the side of the volcano - the inhabitants of the island insisted I'd want to do it by horse, but I much preferred to walk. As we approached the top, it started raining, but that didn't stop us. Near the top we could see steam rising through small holes in the volcano and feel the heat.

The view from the top was stunning. Steam rose from the depths of the volcano, and through the steam we could see the small blue lake. Of course there were a few vendors there, selling drinks and trying to stay dry. We stayed a half hour or so.

The walk back down wasn't so easy - the rain had turned muddy, the path was steep, and I had trouble staying upright. My guide, a much more experienced hiker than me, suggested that the best way down was to keep moving quickly.

9 Oct
Boat, car, jeepney, and bus: Lake Taal to Manila
We took the boat back to Leynes, where the guide extracted another PHP 100 to take me to Talisay (there was no other way for me to get from Leynes to a place where I could get public transportation). In Talisay I caught a jeepney to Tagaytay, and then I took the bus back to Manila (PHP 27).
9 Oct-10 Oct

The final meal; meeting the Birdwatcher's owner...

My last Manila dinner was at Patio Mequeni; I had pitichon (dried pork bits - too salty for me), sinigang (vegetable soup with shrimp), and some sort of bony fish. The menu had no prices on it, but the cost was around PHP 648. Then I went back to the Library and had another chat with Paul before walking back to the hotel.

When I checked out of the hotel, I met the owner, a friendly guy, who treated me to a mango juice. Then I took the Metrorail and a jeepney to the airport.

10 Oct
Air: Cathay Pacific #906, Manila to Hong Kong
(10:30; 2h 4m)

10 Oct
Air: Cathay Pacific #751, Hong Kong to Bangkok

When I booked the series of flights on Cathay Pacific, the first connecting flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok had been full, so I was supposed to have a three-hour layover in Hong Kong. Fortunately some space opened up on the earlier flight, so I left earlier. This flight went on to Mumbai and Dubai after Bangkok, so there was a fascinating mix of southeast-Asians, Indians, and Arabs.

Taking the earlier flight meant that I arrived in Bangkok while it was still light out - this made it easier to find a hotel, and I was less worried about a repeat of the Baclaran experience. When I arrived at the Bangkok airport, I hopped on the hour-long train ride to the city. Go on to part 3