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Manila, the Philippines

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At long last I’m back on the road and exploring new parts of the world.  For this trip I’m focusing on two countries I’ve never visited:  the Philippines and Vietnam.  This is my third time in Asia, and these two countries are among the last I have yet to visit on the continent.

My first trip to Asia was in 2002 when I took the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow, Russia, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, then on to Beijing, China.   From there I headed to Shanghai before boarding a ferry to Japan.  My last trip to Asia was in 2004 when I covered Hong Kong,  southern China, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and India.  I had intended to visit Vietnam on that trip, but ended up running out of time, so it has been sitting on the back burner all these years, enticing me to return. . . .

My present journey started in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was the last stand-by passenger admitted on the direct flight to Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, Japan.  Fortunately, I was seated in business-class and greeted with a freshly poured mimosa. I spent the flight enjoying a fillet Mignon and drinking screwdrivers until I passed out in the plush, over-sized seat. The flight ended up being just over 11 hours.

After a relatively short lay-over in Japan, I boarded a flight bound for the capital city of the Philippines:  Manila.  Again I was awarded a seat in business class; however, I was so exhausted I spent the flight sleeping, too tired to reap the benefits of free drinks and pseudo-gourmet meals.  That flight was just over three hours long.

When we landed in Manila, it was around 10:30 at night.  Walking off the plane and onto the ramp I could immediately feel the sweltering, thick, humid air of a torrid summer night.   Although it had been nearly 20 hours since I’d left Salt Lake City,  I also lost 13 hours due to the time change.  This meant I left the U.S. on Wednesday morning and landed in Manila late Thursday night.

After a half-hour cab ride, I arrived at a pension in the Malate district.  Malate is known for being a very colorful and cosmopolitan district of Manila.  It is sometimes referred to as “old Manila” because there have been several newer districts developed, such as Makati, where modern sky-scrapers and hi-rise condominiums abound.  Feeling completely sapped of energy, I retired to my humble room consisting of four walls, a bed and an ancient fan.

The next morning I awoke early and immediately headed to the Vietnam Embassy with the intention of obtaining a visa.  As far as embassies go, I found this one to be quite empty and hassle-free.  The only catch was they wanted 5 business days to process my application.  Thanks to some bad information posted on Lonely Planet’s on-line travel forum, I had been operating under the assumption it would only take one day.  Of course it was a Friday and five business days would end up keeping me in Manila for an entire week.  Luckily they offered an express option for an additional $20 fee that would allow me to pick it up on Tuesday morning. I spent the rest of the day exploring the Malate district where I am staying.

Manila strikes me as a city of great extremes.  It has a pretty terrible reputation, and it’s not difficult to see why.  It’s loud, polluted and overcrowded.  The heat and humidity are oppressive, and the poverty is disarming.  But for all the things that seem to plague the city, there is a lot to see and enjoy here as well.  If you are a person who can take a city for what it is, and have the time and patience to seek out what gems it has to offer, Manila is a pretty cool place.

On the contrasting poverty side of things, I was walking down Adricatio Street on my first day here and was accosted by 8 year-old boys selling packs of cigarettes.  Truthfully, this didn’t really shock me.  However, when they offered me boxes of Viagra and Cialis, even I, the hardened traveler I fancy myself to be, was a bit taken aback.  Poor children selling the latest erectile dysfunction medication is truly a memorable and perplexing image. In a strange way it seems a perfect metaphor for this city, a strange clash of third-world poverty mixed with modern excess.

That night I met a lot of cool travelers at the guest house I’m staying at, aptly named “Friendly’s.” It was a good mix of Canadians, English, Swiss, Chinese, Korean, and even a girl from Singapore.  We all had a great time talking about our travels and enjoying San Miguel lagers at about 50 cents a bottle.  I was still suffering from jet lag that night, so I ended up going to bed early and trying to adjust my body to the 13 hour time difference.

The next day I spent walking through as much of Manila as possible.  I headed north from Malate and ended up doing a walking tour of Intramuros.   Intramuros is an ancient and historic section of the city that was once the site of a huge Spanish fort built by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.  Originally erected in 1571, Intramorus  has been invaded by Chinese pirates and fallen under the control of several foreign armies, including the Americans.

That night I contacted a friend who is a local here, named Paolo Lao.  Paolo was born and raised in Manila but recently lived in Salt Lake City for 7 years.  He was a regular at the bar and restaurant that I work at in Salt Lake City, and we have several mutual friends.  He ended up inviting me to have dinner at a friend’s house before we went out for drinks.  Paolo lives in the newly developed Global City district of Manila near Makati.

Although it should have only been a half hour cab ride from Malate to Global City; shortly before I left, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour of biblical proportions ensued.  Within about ten minutes the streets of Malate were flooded with nearly a foot of water. Several cab drivers refused me when I told them I was headed to Global City.  Finally, with the help of a doorman at a swanky hotel, I was able to get a cab driver to agree to take me.  The ride was a harrowing experience and ended up taking over an hour.  Several of the streets downtown ran like rivers.   The taxi died several times and I started thinking I might have to walk, or swim rather, to my dinner appointment.

Finally I arrived at my intended destination: a ritzy, hi-rise condominium complex near Fort Bonifacio.  I was immediately struck by the opulent entry way and the clean-cut doormen who knew where I was heading before I even opened my mouth.  “Good evening sir, you are here to see Mr. Essay. . . . This way please.” I was soon on an elevator headed to the 14th floor. After having walked through some of the poorest parts of the Manila, it was obvious I was about to see how the other half lived.

I soon found myself in the living room of a huge luxury condominium, one of the nicest I’ve ever been in.  Paolo greeted me warmly and introduced me to a group of eight of his friends, all locals of Manila.  We spent the evening having a terrific dinner, talking and watching the World Cup.  All of his friends were incredibly nice, spoke perfect English, and did their best to welcome me to the Philippines.  It was obvious they were part of the upper-crust of the Filipinos.  Mike, the owner of the condo, was a successful business man who had everything from a maid to a chauffeur.  After having spent the last few days in my cramped, budget room, I truly felt I’d gone from vagabond to international socialite.

After several hours of hanging out, we headed to a chic bar.  There we met up with more of Paolo’s friends and danced until nearly 3:00 a.m.  Paolo was a very gracious host, and I can’t thank him enough for the wonderful evening.  I finally took a cab back to my guest-house in Malate and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

I spent the next two days relaxing and exploring more of Manila.  I visited a very cool Chinese graveyard that included giant mausoleums, some of which were two stories high and included full kitchens with running water. Talk about being set-up in the afterlife. . . Who said you can’t take it with you?

I also spent some time in the massive malls of Manila.  There are several here that are some of the largest and nicest I’ve seen anywhere.  There are hundreds of incredible restaurants inside,  featuring cuisine from every corner of the world.  I’ve had some great chicken adobo, a specialty here, as well as some insanely tasty fried chicken.  The Philippine islands are an incredible melting pot of several different cultures, all of which have brought their cuisine here.

This blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning boxing.  Boxing is “huge” in the Philippines, thanks to a man named Manny Pacquiao. In addition to being the current #1 ranked pound-for-pound boxer in the world, he is also my favorite sport celebrity.  His popularity in the Philippines is unmatched, and his face is plastered on countless advertisements and billboards.  He even recently won a seat in congress here. Manila was also the location for one of the greatest boxing matches of all time, “the Thrilla in Manila.”  It was Muhammad Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier.  Having experienced the killer heat and humidity here, I feel a much greater appreciation and insight into what exactly those men had to deal with.  They were not just fighting each other; they were also fighting the elements.

On Tuesday morning I picked up my Vietnam visa and caught a flight to the beautiful island of Boracay.  I am now on what is reported to be the nicest stretch of beach in the Philippines.  I’ll write more from here later.

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