after several days of beachside relaxing and jungle partying, we were manila-bound. this would be alex’s first visit to the philippines, so i was looking forward to introducing him to the homeland. originally we had planned to travel around the country and explore manila, boracay, the chocolate hills, and the beaches and underground river in palawan, but the heartbreaking devastation that typhoon yolanda left behind – not to mention the earthquake in bohol – turned what would have been a two-week visit into a five-day stay in and around manila.
while most of my extended family is in the US and canada, i have relatives on both sides who i was eager to see and meet. when we landed thursday evening, i was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t be able to find my tita ellen, whom i’d never met before. but there she was, patiently waiting for us at the airport with a handmade sign and a big smile. she and my tito ernie drove us to my lola glory’s house (my great aunt on my mom’s side), and although the traffic was just as bad as we expected, it gave us time to take in the city all dressed up for christmas. on our way there we stopped by aristocrat, one of the oldest restaurant chains in the city, to bring home some of its famous barbeque. alex and i ordered two entrees since each is enough for one person, but the whole order soon skyrocketed to twelve boxes’ worth of food so that we could try a bit of everything! with filipino cuisine you’ll find an array of stews, fried finger foods, rich sauces, and a blend of tangy, sweet, and savory flavors. meat and rice are of course must-haves. and the filipino appetite is voracious to say the least – second, third, and fourth helpings are never frowned upon! so even though we brought home way too much food, it didn’t go to waste because my lola glory’s is a full house, and everyone ended up munching on the leftovers. this unexpected feast was a prime example of filipino hospitality.
the last time i’d been to my lola’s house was during my first visit to manila almost eight years ago. it was still just as i’d remembered it, including the built-in alarm clock (the chicken coop in the backyard is home to roosters that start crowing at the crack of dawn). i showed alex around the library and office on the first level of the house; my lola glory and lolo ed were both doctors and used to see patients there. for over fifty years, lola was a renowned ophthalmologist and a life fellow of several key organizations in both the philippines and the US. she’s the reason my mom and dad met, because she was the head of my dad’s residency program. lola’s always been very passionate about her work and her country, so it was tough seeing her usual spunky self bed-ridden (she’s had a couple of strokes recently). nevertheless, she’s still sharp as a tack and now just a week shy of her 90th birthday, and i’m glad we got to spend time together. she also immediately took a liking to alex and, based on his nice tan and healthy appetite, said he could totally be an honorary filipino!
we spent our first full day in manila with my cousins tos and ace, who graciously offered to give us a tour of the city. we kicked it off by riding a jeepney, a very popular form of transportation in the philippines. jeepneys are basically old leftover jeeps from world war ii. they’re painted in cheerful colors and crazy patterns, and each one has its own name and personality. they tend to get very crowded though and you often end up sitting in traffic, so after we moved a total of three blocks we hopped out and walked up to the MRT (manila’s above-ground train system). this was even more crowded, but also pretty hilarious since all the locals were marveling at alex because he was tall enough to reach the ceiling and steady himself. eventually we made it to intramuros, or the “walled city.” built in the late 16th century by the spanish, this is the oldest district in manila. while much of the area was destroyed during world war II, we were able to walk parts of the old wall, pausing for a snack of kutsinta and yema (delicious sticky rice cakes covered in a custard-y sauce) before making our way to st. augustin church and manila cathedral.
from there we wandered over to fort santiago, one of the oldest fortifications in the city. peering down into the empty overgrown chambers, it was strange knowing that many prisoners were tortured there by the japanese when they occupied the fort during world war II. after the intense heat and humidity wore us down we headed to rizal (luneta) park, then rode a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) back to the house. that night we all proudly wore our yolanda benefit t-shirts to the world bazaar festival, where alex and i were blown away by all the christmas decorations. for dinner, we enjoyed an amazing dampa seafood feast. basically what you do is buy whatever catch you want by the kilo, then head next door to one of the many restaurants and tell them how you’d like it cooked. we ended up getting a well-rounded selection of succulent shrimp, kingfish, oysters, and squid. the result was incredibly fresh and sarap (yummy)! alex and i especially loved the kingfish sinigang (tamarind stew). the night ended with a hilarious drag show at one of the local bars. tos, tita caroline, and i even took turns singing karaoke onstage. It was an epic friday in manila.
the next day, after a delicious home-cooked meal of sinigang and bistek (a filipino take on steak and onions), we headed to quezon city to spend the weekend with relatives on my dad’s side. my cousin janice and her husband albert picked us up, and we went out to dinner with her side of the family. jong, jarrett, and tita ebe all looked great! funny enough, we ended up at aristocrat again but this time tried a few other filipino dishes. afterwards we drove to janice and albert’s place. their street is entirely owned by albert’s family, and all of his relatives live there. even the kids’ school is only one house away. that’s definitely something you don’t see much of in the states!
like friday’s tour of manila, sunday was action-packed with sightseeing. we explored two beautiful natural wonders – pagsanjan falls and taal volcano. it was an early three-hour drive southeast to the province of laguna, and our family friend nikki conti joined us for the day trip (she’s studying medicine at UERM). pagsanjan falls is one of the most famous waterfalls in the philippines, and the best way to experience it is by hopping in a banca (canoe) and shooting the rapids. heavy rainfall the night before meant the water level was too high to make it to the main falls, but our journey through the vividly green pagsanjan gorge was memorable nonetheless. and our guides were ridiculously fit – they pushed our canoe up several rapids while the three of us just sat in the boat awestruck! at the end of the ride was talahib falls, which was breathtaking up close. needless to say it was much quicker going back down the rapids. i bet the return trip was our guides’ favorite part. we spent the rest of the day exploring taal volcano, the second most active volcano in the philippines. from tagaytay ridge we admired the view of the caldera-turned-lake, then braved the hairpin turns down and took a boat to volcano island. nikki and i decided to take in the scenery on horseback. alex was with us in the beginning but for some reason he got the smallest horse, and after almost being bucked off a couple times he decided he’d had enough. volcano island is where all 33 eruptions have been concentrated, and on the way to the crater we saw quite a bit of steam coming up around us. with the sun starting to set, we got incredible views from the top. unfortunately that meant we had to hurry back before it got dark, and since this was my first time riding a horse, trotting down steep, unstable terrain with a 16-year-old handler was a little unnerving. the best (or worst) part of the ride was that she asked for an extra-large tip because she’s a new mother. when i asked her what her child’s name was, she faltered…and eventually blurted out “rose.” hilarious. even so, the trip was definitely worth our while, and we had an amazing time. a huge thank you to janice and especially albert, who did all the driving!
our last day in the philippines was spent eating well (obviously) and getting pampered. my tita ebe treated us to one of the best japanese buffets we’ve ever had. restaurant culture in manila revolves around the malls, which offer myriad options that range from casual to high-end dining. there are tons of malls in the city – some even sit right next to each other, and all have good AC and lots of open space to hang out. many people spend a good chunk of their free time at the mall since the streets are always parking lots and it’s too hot and humid to walk far. after our buffet lunch, i got to show alex around the house where my dad grew up and where tita ebe still calls home! we spent the rest of the day back at my lola glory’s house, where we had sinigang and lechon (roast pig, a filipino staple) for dinner. i also got to try my first (and last) bit of durian, the infamously stinky fruit. it really does smell like old gym socks, and the flavor reminded me more of meat than fruit. that night i treated my cousins tos and ace to massages at a local spa, which turned into a late-night adventure of relaxing and more eating since the spa treatments included a hot buffet. only in manila…
after five jam-packed days of sight-seeing, spending time with my family, and stuffing our faces, it was time to head to hong kong, the last stop on our pretirement tour of asia. i had a fantastic time reuniting with family, and alex enjoyed his first taste of the philippines. we can’t wait to be back soon!
// asia trip to date: 12 flights, 4 trains, 3 buses, 5 boats, 1 road trip, 13 cities, 9 countries