Sights Of Old Manila
Breakfast at the Manila Hotel was a big buffet with all sorts of offerings to please every nationality of guests.
I will only describe here some of the Philippine veg dishes, because I am not very interested in what they do with cow’s intestines, oxtail or pork.
There was a creamy chocolate rice which was served with whole salted sardines (it tasted about as appealing as it sounds….I took only a tiny taste.)
A better dish was a pastry called “Ube” that had a lovely purple color and was made from purple yams.
It was sprinkled with cheese and was sweet and salty.
There was a tasty array of traditional small cassava and taro cakes made simply from the paste of those roots mixed with salt and sugar.
There were assortments of sticky rice cakes called Suman, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, served with caramelized palm sugar with coconut cream.
Metropolitan Manila covers a very large area, as it is composed of 23 municipalities.
We decided to visit Manila’s old city.
Our walk towards the old city took us through the nearby Rizal Gardens.
The gardens are lined with bronze sculptures of historical figures, mostly freedom fighters and warriors who fought the many nations who have occupied the Philippines through the years, including England, Spain, Japan, and the United States.
Doctor Rizal, who was a poet, a writer, a dentist, an artist and an eye doctor, was executed by a Spanish firing squad in the location where the gardens commemorating his name are now located.
He wrote a novel and inserted into it descriptions of the cruelty and hardship imposed on the Philippine people by their Spanish occupiers.
The gardens are divided into small sections, each gated and with its own entry fee of only a few pennies.
In the Chinese gardens, we did the “walk of wisdom,” which was a short covered path lined with quotes by Confucius carved onto polished stone tablets.
In the Japanese gardens, we saw bamboo that was trimmed to have the shape of trees, and a friendly family was picnicking under the canopy of a huge tree.
They waved and invited us to join them.
There was a warm feeling emanating from them as they all welcomed us in unison.
From the gardens we walked to the old walled city.
Intramuros (Latin for: “within the walls”) is the walled fortified section of old Manila.
It was built in the 1500’s by the Spanish, who occupied the Philippines for three hundred years.
The Spaniards named these seven thousand islands, “the Philippines,” after King Philip II who was the Spanish ruler at that time.
Three hundred years of occupation did not leave the Filipino people speaking any Spanish.
Not a word.
It was a strategy of the Spanish not to teach the islanders any Spanish, so they would not understand their strategies and organize against them.
The Japanese occupation lasted only three years, from 1942-1945, but they killed over 100,000 civilians, mostly women, many of whom were brutally raped and murdered.
The Americans ‘liberated’ the city by bombing most of its buildings and leveling the old city during eight days of round the clock aerial attack.
The Americans demanded that the Spanish sell to them the islands of the Philippines, along with Puerto Rico and Guam.
A deal was struck for a low sum of 20 million dollars.
A year later, in 1946, the United States granted the Philippines its independence, but maintained a military presence in the country for another fifty years.
The Americans did teach the locals to speak English and nowadays, almost everyone understands English.
They might not be able to speak well, since many do not use the language daily, but all understand some and many speak English well.
The Intramuros is a large area measuring 64 hectares, and even though it is possible to do it on foot in a whole day, we decided to take one of the many bike rickshaws whose drivers came waving at us with laminated papers showing on one side the map of Intramuros and on the other side, all the sights they will stop and show us along the way.
We refused many such tour guides as we walked along, including a very low priced offer from a toothless man on a horse and carriage, because I did not like the fact that his skinny horse was foaming at the mouth from lack of water.
I did like one persistent bike driver, who introduced himself as Marlon.
He had a rusty green bike with a passenger seat so small, that our butts barely fitted on it.
Still, we squeezed together, giddy as little children.
Marlon told us about life in Manila.
He told us that things have recently been getting much better.
In previous years, he said that there was much violence and crime in the streets.
Robbers and thieves routinely snatched cameras and bags from tourists, but now there is order and more peace.
Crime must still be a threat in Manila, because at the entrance to our luxury hotel, every person goes through a bag scan and a detector machine, and every arriving taxi and car has to open its trunk so an armed guard, accompanied by a sniffing dog, can check each car.
This older part of the city is very charming, with glorious buildings.
Most were built by the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but some were built later by the British during their brief occupation, from 1762-1764.
The walls of the old city were built by the Spanish.
The threat of invasion by Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese pirates prompted the construction of these high and thick walls and moats, which once encircled this city.
We passed by a row of low arched stone caverns that were used by the Japanese occupiers as prison cells, and have now been converted to bustling cafes, restaurants and juice bars.
The American military left behind their old jeeps.
It was too expensive to return the old jeeps back to the U.S.
Creative local mechanics customized these old green army jeeps and made them into colorful Jeepneys, used as taxis.
One of the things the Spanish left behind is their Catholic faith.
Ninety percent of the people in Manila are Christians, and most of them are devout Catholics.
Divorce is not allowed in the Catholic faith, and is therefore unheard of here.
When a marriage becomes loveless, the couple separate and live separate lives, but they can never get divorced or remarry.
This leads to many unhappy married men taking on mistresses.
It is a very common practice in Manila.
Women outnumber men by three to one here.
Many of the old churches that once dotted the city have been destroyed, either by earthquakes, or by one of the many Typhoons that storm through the islands, or during the many occupations.
The Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church still stand, displaying their ornate and beautiful arched columns and ceilings.
These churches are not treated as if they belong to the church and the clergy, but most definitely as places that belong to the people.
In many other churches that we have visited during our travels, we have noticed that there was a severe demand for silence, a heavy and at time aggressive push for donations, or simply that the church’s doors were closed most of the day, fearing that the public will steal its gold ornaments or that the homeless people will come in to sleep on the pews.
In these Intramuros Churches, nobody hushed the people and silence was not observed.
Some prayed out loud and others placed their kids on the sculptures of the saints to take their pictures.
Marlon told us that when the Pope visited Manila recently, all of the Intramuros area was packed with people, and no motorized vehicles nor bikes were allowed.
Most of the sights in the Intramorous have been destroyed and rebuilt a few times.
The old buildings changed hands, becoming hospitals, or the headquarters of the occupiers.
Nowadays, some of the buildings host modern and reputable universities.
Do you know the term, “If Walls Could Talk?”
Houses can tell us fascinating stories.
I once heard a lovely and very poetic narration spoken from the point of view of one such house.
It spoke about how it once was a glorious estate, with rooms filled with playing kids and crying babies, light shining through its windows…
How the smell of good food used to permeate its walls.
Then it became a hospital during the war, an insane asylum, hearing all the cries and pain of its inmates.
It was then taken by the army and used as an army headquarters, and officers slammed its doors and held strategic meetings in its rooms.
Then it was abandoned and neglected.
It spoke about how the roses had dried in its garden, and the once glorious water fountains broke.
Later it was bombed to the ground, only to be resurrected again, and with white painted walls and new glass in its arched windows, it welcomed us into its new life to share with us its story.
At a street stall outside San Agustin Church, we bought Avocado ice cream from a man riding an ice cream bicycle cart.
A friendly group of men encouraged us to try it.
The vendor also had cheese ice cream, and one of the men standing next to us ordered a mix of both ice creams served inside a bread bun; all the men said it was delicious, but we only tasted the avocado ice cream and liked it a lot.
Jules bought a new hat from a vendor wearing many hats, and he gifted his old hat to Marlon, who was delighted with his tip and gift.
Casa Manila is a careful recreation of one of the glorious homes that was originally built during the Spanish occupation by upper class Filipinos, who created glorious homes in which they lived and conducted their merchant trading business.
This upper class was called “The Enlightened” because they brought to the city a refined lifestyle and appreciation of art and craft, poetry and music which was very different from the ways previous generations lived in this city.
I absolutely LOVED this old home with its wide-planked wooden floors, large airy windows, collection of beautiful antiques and hand carved wooden furniture.
It symbolized everything I imagined old Manila to look like in the better times.
The toilet was a wooden bench with an opening under the seat and two ceramic bowls placed under it.
The bench has arm rests designed to fit TWO people sitting side by side.
It was very common for two people to use the toilet at the same time, and often the arm rests had a game board carved into them, so the people could play checkers while waiting for their bowels to move.
In a restaurant downstairs, we had a nice mango juice and rested from the heat.
A friendly lady was roasting a cake on the coals and we decided to try it.
The Bibingka is a rice cake that is traditionally served in the month of December after the morning Church mass.
They make a paste from cooked rice, eggs, sugar and butter, and then place it on a banana leaf and place it on the coals.
They add pieces of salted preserved egg to the mixture, and cover it with another banana leaf and place more coals on the top of it.
After five minutes it is done.
It is served with shredded coconut and grated cheese.
Not as sweet as it sounds, and very good!
When we felt revived, we walked towards the Tsinoy Chinese-Filipino museum.
Along the way we passed by a shanty town full of houses constructed from corrugated iron and found scraps of wood.
Laundry hang in the balconies and naked kids with sun bleached hair played in the streets.
The food vendors on those streets sold an especially unappealing cheap stew of rice boiled with intestines.
Still, it was a colorful and fun street to pass.
The Tsinoy Chinese-Filipino museum claimed that Chinese traders were the very first migrants to reach these islands.
During the ice age, natural land bridges connected the islands of the Philippines with mainland China.
It was said that Chinese started to migrate to the Philippines thousands of years ago, before recorded history.
In Manila, they established the oldest Chinatown in the world.
From Intramuros we went to see this Chinatown.
I was expecting something as interesting as other Chinatowns that I have visited around the world, with ornate Buddhist or Taoist temples, but it was mostly a commercial, busy, smoky part of town.
Even the taxis did not wish to enter this traffic clogged area.
Many of the Chinese married the Filipinos and mixed their faiths, praying to a Virgin Mary which looked like the goddess Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy.
Jules needed new eyeglasses and we came upon a nice optometrist shop with good looking frames.
They promised to examine his vision, cut the lenses and prepare his new glasses in one hour.
The owner of the shop, an elderly Chinese woman with a cane who was born in Manila, told us about her family, her travels, her relatives in Australia and NZ and offered some ideas about what we must see and do.
We decided to go to a tea house while waiting for the glasses to be done.
I was hoping to find a charming authentic tea house, but most places looked like characterless, big Chinese restaurants.
We walked around until we found a tiny dumpling shop.
The place was crowded and small, with a table by the window on which two girls were rolling disks of rice dough with their trained fast fingers and stuffing them with cabbage and pork.
They invited us inside.
We ate steamed veg dumplings and enjoyed this tiny place run by a hard working family.
There was little room to move and they stored huge bales of green onions on the floor under the tables.
Our day was long and hot.
Taxis were hard to get in Chinatown, and walking back to our hotel proved to be unpleasant.
The roads were dark with no street lights and there were no sidewalks on many streets.
I saw hungry dogs eating rubbish and homeless kids sleeping by the roadside.
We did not feel fear.
In fact, a tricycle driver driving by full with his passengers, asked us if we were OK, which reassured me that the Universe would always protect us if we were to get into a sticky situation.
At the first big intersection we hopped on a Tricycle and headed back to our hotel.