Coming in to land at Manila, a tiny island shimmers as it seems to be covered in a giant mass of shining shingle. There’s nothing natural about this though; it’s really the multi-coloured rooftops that are packed side by side on this strip of land. Standing out above all the mass housing is a cream-coloured church and its spire. And that sums up the Philippines pretty well: a naturally beautiful area with chronic poverty – where religion stands out above all else.
We were heading to the island of Cebu, which you can fly to direct from Bangkok. We, however, were going via Manila. If you have a connecting flight from Manila, you’ll need to head outside the international terminal, turn left, and take a lift to the third floor of the domestic terminal. If you do need to connect, make sure you have plenty of time. Whatever they tell you in Bangkok, you’ll need to physically collect your checked-in luggage and take it with you to check in again for your domestic flight. There are also departure taxes to be paid for domestic flights (200P) and international ones (750P) so keep loose change with you.
Once in Cebu, taxis can be found right outside the terminal. Fixed price ones run at 475P but we took a meter and it was 300P. Taxis drivers here tend to be pretty honest, though they do develop amnesia when it comes to giving you change. A few also don’t know Cebu that well, so it’s wise to have a pen and paper so you can show them the name of where you’re heading. Elsewhere, honesty and smiles are easy to find. When I went to change money at one shopping mall the woman shook her head and said ‘No. The rate here too low. Go down the road to the next mall, they’ll give you a much better deal.’ And she was right.
In Cebu town, the main draw is Casilica Minore del Santo Nino. On Sundays it appears more like a football crowd has descended on the place of worship, as crowds gather and stand in line to listen to a service that is broadcast in a vast courtyard and inside the church. Men hold dozens of colourful balloons on strings, old women sell bundles of candles that can be burned for good luck and street children walk alongside tourists asking for money. Inside, the church has standing room only as people cram in to listen. At the far end is a statue of the baby Jesus, which locals queue up in a line that snakes around the building in order to touch the glass case that contains the image. Watching so many come and be so in awe of one voice was extraordinary. All raised their hands out wide when a prayer came, all listened to every drop of advice. Just down the road was an even more amazing preacher.
Just along the road, the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral is a whitewashed, impressively large building. Speakers were set up all around the courtyard to relay a wedding that was taking place inside. At first the minister seemed to be giving a standard recital. ‘We stand here today for a special event. This beautiful couple before me, Giselle and the handsome husband-to-be Paulo stand before God. I am speechless.’
Well, not quite. He continued with an address that was akin to the kind of speech you pray your best man doesn’t make at your reception. ‘I asked this couple to write me a note explaining how they fell in love. It was only four lines (and single spaced). It was like a text message! I asked them to write it again. ‘This time they said they were like oil and water. Nobody expected them to be in love. But Paulo grew to like Giselle and came to see her. He followed her, even though Giselle had a boyfriend at that time. But we do not need to go there. ‘So Paulo was like a stalker. When Giselle wouldn’t see him he began drinking. Eventually Giselle agreed to see Paulo and their romance began. They got together and (slight pause) censored. Dot, dot, dot. This is a family occasion, after all.’
Bear in mind that every word of this is now booming across not only the packed congregation of family and friends, but also to complete strangers who are walking past outside, including me. ‘Go and have lots of children and lots of grandchildren! Don’t worry about the RH Bill (the Reproductive Health bill is a government plan to boost birth control availability. A little too much info there, vicar).
He continued: ‘So now we are near the moment of marriage. Remember the wedding ring is the world’s smallest handcuffs. There is never a beginning or an end, they are for eternity.’ Not sure that the connotations of imprisonment and lack of freedom were quite where this should have been going, and by now I was trying hard not to snigger as the reverential crowd outside listened in.
He then asked us to remember some sacred and special words, which I assumed was leading to a Biblical quotation. ‘”My love, there’s only you in my life. The only thing that’s right.” Or we can say “Two hearts, believing in just one mind. Beating together until the end of time.”‘ Genius. Perhaps in the karaoke capital that is the Philippines, it does make more sense to quote Phil and Mariah than the Philemons and Mary after all.
Across from the churches is Carbon Market, a small undercover wholesale place where boxes of oranges from China, Australia and Colombia are shunted around, along with fresh watermelons and mangoes. The surrounding buildings are flaking facades of once mighty structures, but today the balustrades and awnings have gone and just their sad skeletons remain.
A much more attractive place to visit is the Chinese-influenced home known as Yar San Diego. The 8th generation of the same family still sleeps there at weekends, meaning this is more of a living home than a stuffy museum. Dating back to 1675, much of the original structure is still present. The exposed beams in the roof are impressive, as are the ornaments and religious icons that lay dotted about the place. I know all this because of Ariel, a chap who works here in between studying IT and who also reminded me about the 50P entry fee after I’d wandered in through the front door. Today, it’s also hugely popular with pre-wedding photos. During my visit two groups of make-up artists were fretting over two soon-to-be brides. Cebu town is therefore a simple but interesting place to wander for a day or two, and serves as a good introduction to life in the Philippines. After a couple of days you’ll want to move on, and the nearby islands of Bohol and Panglao are where most head.
The law says…
The law says that motorised tricycles in Bohol, Philippines, have to display a religious message on their back of their transport. Among the ones I spotted were ‘Lord, my life is in your hands’, ‘Save me’ and ‘Jesus wept’. Curiously, these were the exact same phrases that entered my head this afternoon as my tricycle tried to defy the laws of physics and squeeze between two oncoming buses.
You say tomato…
One of the advantages of being in the Philippines is that nearly everyone speaks English. The only downside is when it’s not the kind of English you’re used to. When ordering a plate of fried chicken at one restaurant in Bohol, I decided to have an extra drink. My waiter was as enthusiastic as he was ebullient, and bounded over when I raised my hand.
‘Excuse me, could I have a tomato juice?’
‘No, tomato, small red fruit-like thing.’
The waiter was still smiling, but we could both sense we’d reached a linguistic impasse. After a moment’s silence, I realised the problem. Biting the bullet, I attempted the one thing I’d never normally try: an American accent. ‘Toe-may-to?’
‘Ah, toe-may-to! OK’ the waiter beamed. Smiles of relief all round.
A few moments later the chap re-appeared and proudly presented me with my order – a plate of freshly chopped tomatoes. ‘Great, thanks very much’ I said, admitting defeat.