Tuesday, 10 January 2012


In which I jump out of a moving taxi, get the fear and then get over it.
Starring a little old lady who ducked under my umbrella and a taxi driver who shared his lunch

There’s something about arriving in cities in the middle of the night – it really doesn't warm you to them.  A long and complicated speech from the taxi driver detailing exactly how to avoid getting mugged (do not use your camera), robbed (do not carry anything) or attacked (do not walk after dark) doesn't really settle you down either.  And then arriving at the hotel you've booked to find it is above a bar with blacked out windows and red lighting and is is populated entirely by prostitutes and fat old white men, might come close to pushing you over the edge.  (I think I said: “Oh my god!” when the taxi driver said "This is your hotel")*.  I went to bed smothered in bug repellent (still itching from bed bug incident the night before) with a chair shoved under the door handle only to be woken at 4am by the person in the room next door who was watching TV with the volume turned up so loudly that I could hear every word of the report.  Admittedly it could have been worse. 

Moonlight over Manila

The next morning I had to go straight to the Indian Embassy to sort out a visa for February. This was a fascinating experience.  With no other travellers around to talk to or get advice off I was relying quite heavily on my guide book which said not to use the MRT (an elevated railway) at peak hours.  So I got a taxi.  Well I got two taxis – the first one I had to leap out of while it was still moving as having promised to use the meter, he then refused to turn it on.  They all say they know exactly where to take you but of course they don’t.  We drove around and around with me directing from my Lonely Planet.  Eventually it became clear that the taxi could not get into the area where the Embassy was as it was all fenced off.  I had to get out, go through a security check and sign in and then wait for a transfer in a sort of armoured vehicle with windows cut into the sides where we all signed our names in another book.  We were driven around for ages before being deposited at a building where we all had to leap out and pay for the transfer and get a hand written receipt.  Then we drove around some more before finally being dumped at the embassy where we signed in again.  The way it works is that you go and interrupt the lady at Counter Number 1 and she gives you a number.  Then you sit and wait.  They were currently serving number 8.  I was number 23.  Excellent I thought.  But it quickly became clear that the processing was taking 15-20 minutes per person.  As 12:00 started to approach (their cut off time for applications) I started to panic but thankfully they just carried on. 

St Augustin's Church
With all of that sorted out I set off for Intramuros which is the historic heart of the city containing most of the old colonial buildings and some lovely churches.   On the way there I walked through Rizal Park which is a hodge podge of green areas and some rather bizarre statues and sculptures including a huge relief map of the whole of the Philippines in a sort of pond.  Had my pockets picked by a persistent urchin but all he got was a map that I snatched back before dispatching him with a firm shove.  Then felt rather awful. 

At the entrance to the park there’s an area with a huge number of men all milling around holding various signs.  I’ve since found that they are all unemployed seamen looking for work and ship merchants coming around to recruit.  Apparently it was a very bad idea to walk through there.    

Intramuros is surrounded by a crumbling old city wall and some of the streets and buildings are really beautiful.  Finally got the courage to take out my camera and get some pictures – mainly in the churches which felt like rather safe havens from the chaos outside.  There are just so many people hanging around and you get stared at all the time, possibly aggravated by being blonde.  In one of the churches I found another traveller and stalked her through the cloisters before finally managing to engage her in a conversation. 

Took myself out for the a flash seafood dinner at a restaurant where you pick what you’d like to eat from huge cabinets of fresh fish and prawns all nestled in ice.  A lady follows you around and puts everything you want in plastic bags which are then weighed before disappearing into the kitchen to be cooked to your preference – chilli, garlic, charcoal. 

The next morning it took me a long time to leave the hotel.  For one thing I had to change hotels.  And for another I was still gripped by a fever of terror**.  Eventually made myself do it and after yet more admin organising a trip out to a volcano and flights back and forth to various places, I made myself walk back through Intramuros and into Chinatown.  Chinatown is as described – hectically busy, filthy, but quite fascinating.  The whole area is studded with old churches so I basically used those to sit down in and recheck which direction I was going in and so forth.  

The traffic is unbelievable as the streets are choked with Jeepneys – these amazing taxis that have been made out of old second world war jeeps but elongated to take lots of passengers at the back.  They all have a sign on them saying “How is my driving?” -  a surely rhetorical question as their driving is appauling  Each one is individually decorated and named with huge plaques at the front. They have their destinations written down the side and people leap on and off them while they’re moving.  Squeezed between the jeepneys are the pedicycles – either bicycles or motorbikes with side cars  on them – again of every hue and all individualised often with family names on them.  I could have spent hours taking pictures just of the traffic but obviously one is not supposed to take out one's camera!

I also went to Quiapo Church which is famous for its statue of the Black Nazareen and had been host to enormous festival the day before that I would like to have gone to but there were, you know, three million people, and ambulances and police and a helicopter hovering overhead all day.  The surrounding area is full of stalls selling coloured candles and various religious trinkets.  I was wandering up another crazy street when it started to rain and I looked down to find a little old lady beneath my elbow muttering about something.  As I prepared  to give her a whack for trying to rob me I suddenly realised she was asking if she could share my umbrella.  We strolled amiably along for a couple of blocks until it started coming down so hard I stopped under an eve and she continued on waving goodbye. 

The next bit of admin was to go and try and find a bus up north.  Each of the bus companies run different routes and have their own terminals so it’s all rather complicated. I eventually found out which one to go to and got the MRT and then a pedicycle there.  They had stopped running this route and sent me round the corner to another place which had three buses lined up in a row and a very dubious looking counter.  But I got the ticket and the time to come back.  

Having had enough of the proper cultural sites I set off in search of the Marikina Shoe Museum which is home to 749 pairs of Imelda Marcos’s shoes plus an unlikely selection of others worn by various prime ministers and celebrities.  I got the metro as far as I could and then hailed a taxi (with some effort – the MRT line emptied onto a sort of highway).  The driver’s wife and grinning little daughter were in the front seat.  He told me he knew exactly where it was but of course he didn’t.  And his assurances that he was taking me on a short cut only made me more convinced he was taking me the long way.  En route I got a long and detailed history of his family's sufferings and how his evil brother had sold the family home without asking him.  I was of course, obliged to tip heavily, when after stopping several times to ask directions, we arrived. The museum is a largish room just full of shoe cabinets. There is an upstairs mezzanine level with some strange mannequins engaged in various shoe making activities such as gluing and sewing and several samples of shoe textiles on boards (crocodile and one possibly snake) most missing their labels.  It took me about twelve minutes to get round it.  One 10th of the time it had taken to get there.  But worth it I think.  The security guard (they are everywhere and all armed with huge rifles or shot guns) flagged me down a cab which was driven by a very nice man who also got a tip after he offered me up one of his dough ball like snacks.  Delicious.

The MRT back was pretty hectic as it was now rush hour – there was a queue to get into the station and as you get in you have to split into men and women and have your bag checked and your waist patted. Then on the train itself there is a female only carriage at the front which I gratefully leapt into. And just as well because by the time we were back in central Manila it was almost impossible to move.  The lines also don’t really join up, so you have to get off in one place and then wander round the crazy streets avoiding getting mowed down by fascinating vehicles until you stumble upon the other station.  It was with relief that I got back to the potholed pavements of Ermita where the street kids and prostitutes now felt like familiar faces. 

*I've since found out that not only was I staying in the redlight district, but also on the worst street in Manila. So thanks for that recommendation Lonely Planet.  

** In my defence I've yet to meet another traveller who has been to Chinatown and I've only met one who has been to Intramuros and that was with an 'escort' provided by the hostel who insisted they left all their belongings behind.  

More pictures: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150466165816058.369067.532581057&type=1&l=19a906a9ee

1 comment:

  1. Very pleased I'm only reading this now that you are safely back in London!