Ask your average visitor to the Philippines – heck, ask your average Filipino native – what their favourite place in the Philippines is and Manila sure wouldn’t feature very high on the list. The capital of the Philippines has a reputation for being a huge, traffic-choked, baking hot metropolis that is a place to arrive in and depart from as quickly as possible.
It’s true that, at first glance, it just seems to be a huge city with soaring gleaming skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls filling some of the neighbourhoods (such as Makati and Fort Banifacio) and grinding shanty-town poverty lining the streets of others, with no real standout sights or genuine cultural fascination to speak of.
OK so there’s no rice terraces or tarsiers here, but if you do persevere there are a few things worth checking out. The Intramunos region has the biggest concentration of sights, such as the old Spanish Fort and Manila Cathedral. The real gem is arguably the American Military Cemetery in the Fort Banifacio area, which is a military cemetery reminiscent of those found in Ypres and the Somme in Europe, and a calming place for quiet reflection amid the urban hubbub of this buzzing metropolis.
So there is stuff to see in Manila for those who make a point of seeking it out. But ultimately, Manila is more about how it operates than what there is to see. And it’s a batsh*t crazy sort of place. To give you some idea of Manila’s sense of discombobulated wackiness, here’s a story to illustrate my point.
A power outage at Manila Airport’s Terminal 3 happened one night I happened to be in the city, meaning that the terminal went in to complete shutdown. Yes, that’s right, a major international airport in what isn’t a ‘third world country’ by any stretch of the imagination doesn’t have a backup power generator.
Chaos subsequently ensued, and it had an impact on the group I was spending a pleasant evening with in at a place called Strumms, as one girl (Maria) was flying out of Manila just as another (Merlina…I just noticed how similar her name is to that of the Philippine capital) was due to land on the night the power was cut.
Maria’s travel plans were in genuine jeopardy: her 4:40am flight to Palawan was in very real danger of being cancelled. So those of us who piled in to Nolan’s – the main man who coordinated the get together – vehicle tried to offer her moral support enroute to the airport…
Another member of our group, Brian, had skipped the Strumms entertainment in order to meet Merlina at the airport, and we collected him near his hotel where he explained that the situation at the airport was so chaotic that there were queues of people stretching out of the building and he couldn’t find Merlina anywhere. He decided that calling on man with the local knowledge Nolan was the best option.
When we arrived at the airport it was getting on for 2am. The roads were full to bursting and the front of the building was exactly as Brian had described.
We dropped Maria off so that was stage one accomplished (and we learnt later that she made it to Palawan), but what of the stranded Merlina? Brian went out on the hunt again, but he disappeared in to the throng. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Nolan stepped in to the fray…assisted by some ingenuity from Merlina.
Among the crazy busy crowds, she managed to find a policeman and borrowed his phone to call Nolan. He was able to track her down; he asked the policeman if he had seen a guy with ‘short shorts, who is balding and wears glasses’. Apparently, this description was sufficient for the policeman to spot the distinctive Brian straight away who was, in the words of Nolan, ‘running around like a headless chicken’.
So all was well that ended well, in the end, but in many ways this felt like a not altogether atypical Manila experience. There was infuriating traffic, crazy shenanigans that had to be resolved via unorthodox methods, and a general sense of things just being all over the place and disorganised…yet we all pulled through and, deep down, you just wouldn’t have it any other way!