Sunday, December 26, 2010

Manila, Philippines

Map picture

The Philippines
As much as Lisa and I have travelled, it is amazing that until now we have never visited the Philippines. We were very excited about our visit; however it turned out to be somewhat disappointing for several reasons.
For one thing, the ship did not offer any shore excursions for us to choose before we left, and our efforts to arrange a private tour all met without success. I am guessing that the problem was related to the fact that the Philippines is a heavily Catholic country, and our ship would make port the day after Christmas, which was a Sunday to boot. Once we boarded our cruise, we were offered a choice of three short excursions. One of the offered tours would drive to small town to see the “Bamboo Organ” and have lunch of Philippine cuisine at a local restaurant. The second tour was what I call a “spam in a can tour” – which is to drive for several hours, visiting a gift shop and the National Cemetery, or finally we had the choice of a 4 hour walking tour of “Old Manila,” which was described as a visit to Manila’s old colonial city. We selected the walking tour, assuming we would get to see the central part of the city – as it turns out, that is not what we saw at all.
Actually our tour was a walking tour of old Fort Santiago, which was first built by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Over the years, it has been occupied by the Spanish, the British, the Americans, and the Japanese. To quote the brochure which we were given: “After surviving a number of earthquakes, typhoons, fires and wars through the centuries, Fort Santiago took the death blow when the Americans liberated the Philippines from the Japanese in 1945.” So for four hours we walked a burned out shell! The temperature was a balmy 85 degrees and the humidity almost 100%. There was not so much as a breeze blowing. This was not exactly what we thought we were getting.DSC_3327 Now in all honesty, we did get to visit the Manila Cathedral, however since a wedding was in progress, we could only see the outside. We also visited the San Agustin Church, which is the oldest Church in the Philippines, dating from 1571. DSC_3339This structure is a World Heritage Site, however, here again, a wedding was in progress and so we could only see the outside. After an obligatory stop at a souvenir shop, and a 30 minute break at the end of our tour, this was pretty much our introduction to Manila.
Now it is impossible to judge a country or a city on such a short visit, nonetheless simply driving around town does allow some observations about the culture. First, I would note that there was rampant poverty abundantly evident. There were places that reminded me of Mumbai in India. Families living in cardboard boxes and subsisting in appalling conditions were clearly evident. Second, I could not help but note the trash. The previous day was Christmas, and I guess the people filled the public parks for massive celebrations. When we drove through town the trash was everywhere. It looked as if someone had purposely spread a huge container of trash everywhere. The Philippines covers a very large area and has within its borders over 7,000 islands. So I hope to return one day to the Philippines to give it a better view, but for now it is not someplace I am anxious to visit anytime soon.
On a slightly different note, I would observe that the arrival of our ship was a major event for the city for two reasons. First, this was the first time Princess had made a call on the Philippines, and second, since over half of the crew is Philippino, it was a glorious homecoming for many of them. The ship was greeted by a marching band and by a group of musicians who performed all day. Setup by our arrival dock was a large tent which served as a resting station for family and friends of the crew to wait until their loved ones could depart, and there was a large banner welcoming them home. It was amusing to watch the crew depart because they were literally carrying the most incredible of treasures they had accumulated during their travels. Flat screen TVs were the norm – huge units, along with refrigerators, stereo equipment, and almost anything else you can name. Sometimes it would take three people just to lift all the stuff down the ramp to the waiting arms of family. I would bet the ship is much lighter today than before. All day families were touring the ship and there was a general air of festivity about our brief stop. In fact by 11am, the ship was a ghost vessel, with most of the crew having gone ashore.
On leaving Singapore, we travelled for three days at high speed North East across the South China Sea covering almost 800 miles. I never realized that this Sea is the largest body of water in the world after the five oceans, and that it contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, and many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged. For much of our passage, we experienced gale force winds and high seas with overcast skies and occasional rain. After leaving Manila, yesterday the ship has turned north and is moving at full speed enroute to Xiamen, China. Last night saw very bad conditions with howling winds and high seas. It is very difficult to walk around the ship, and since our room is at the very end of the ship it is highly impacted by these conditions. Last night most things on tables fell off during the night, and it is impossible to move about in our room without holding onto something; in fact remaining in the bed is something of a challenge. Conditions are forecast to improve this afternoon, so hopefully our visit tomorrow to China will have good weather.
Lastly I would share with you the fact that I am upholding my tradition of making myself known to the ship’s doctor. Just before leaving town I was started on a new medication, which unfortunately did not sit well with my system. By our second day on board, I was so sick that I was miserable. Fortunately my internist answered my e-mail and told me to stop the medicine and get to the ship’s doctor immediately. Within 20 minutes she had me on a table with an IV that included among other things, morphine. I came away with all kinds of pills, but the good news is that we caught this in time before it could have caused real damage, and I am getting better – so just doing what I seem to always do, being me.
I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and hope you enjoy our travels. I did get a few pictures, and before the day is out I will try to post them online.

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