I'm a Midwestern girl in constant search of sunshine + sea. I travel solo, work full-time, and sometimes, I write.

Part I: My Manila

Part I: My Manila

I've only scratched the surface of this enigmatic city, but after two separate visits and plenty of time spent with my relatives here, I think I've finally figured out how I feel about Manila -- a city I grew up hearing about but never really understood until now.

I first visited Manila six years ago. It was my first time in Asia and I hadn't traveled alone yet. My dad and I squeezed the trip in at a hectic time: I had just spent two weeks in Colorado with my boyfriend, then left for the Philippines for three weeks, then promptly left to study abroad in Spain for four months. I remember being stressed out about things at home and I was worried about doing the whole long-distance thing with my boyfriend. I was preoccupied, to say the least.

So, I get to Manila. And once I finally open my bleary eyes from the jetlag, I quickly realized that this city does not fit into my preconceived notions based on the stories my dad always told me. It's not even close. I thought my dad grew up with straw huts and dirt roads. Why are there condominiums and malls everywhere?! Mistake #1: Having expectations in the first place.

Then I realized how little I actually knew about the Philippines. Who was this Jose Rizal guy and why do my relatives keep telling me to read his poems? Why is everyone Catholic? What do you mean the Philippines was ruled by a dictator? I hadn't even bothered to pick up a guidebook or search Wikipedia before I left. Mistake #2: Not doing any basic research on the country I was visiting.

And then I just couldn't understand the food, and it didn't help that I was a picky eater at the time. The fish was served whole, everything had pork in it (I was a newfound vegetarian at the time, thankyouverymuch), and the beloved Filipino dessert, halo-halo, looked like a bad mish-mash of purple ice cream and jellybeans. Mistake #3: Being closed-minded to cultural customs, including food.

And the traffic. Dear God, the Manila traffic! That's what I remember most from that first trip. Mistake #4: There is no mistake here. Manila traffic really is that bad.


Needless to say, I left Manila six years ago still totally befuddled by the country. And while I had had the opportunity to meet many of my Filipino relatives, I regret to say that I probably spent most of my time trying to get a wifi connection so I could talk to my boyfriend (I know, I'm cringing at my younger self, too!).

I needed another chance at Manila. Or, rather, I needed Manila to give me another chance.

Thankfully, I was given that opportunity four months into my yearlong journey abroad. When I found out my dad was visiting the Philippines in March, I knew I had to book a flight from Aus to meet him. It ended up being the perfect timing. Plus, six years later, I was a little bit wiser, a little bit more travelled, and a lot more single. So I had nothing but time when it came to exploring Manila again!

Over these past few weeks, everything I've discovered about Manila and about my family here has only made me more grateful to have roots in the Philippines.

Pamilya // Family

First, let's talk family. Well, my family. Because wow, have I got some amazing family members on this side of the world. My dad immigrated to the United States in 1972 and became a US citizen in 1979. His younger brother and two sisters, however, still live in the Philippines. Here is a list of all the awesome things I did not know about my Filipino relatives until this trip:

  • My uncle, Rolly, graduated from Yale with a Master's degree in law. After he already graduated from law school in the Philippines! He was a partner in a prestigious Filipino law firm until he retired, and now he's a consultant and teaches at a university.
  • My aunt, Betty, taught at the University of the Philippines for 41 years as an English and Literature professor (heyy, maybe that's where I got my writing skills from!). She traveled the world on scholarships to hone her writing craft, from Singapore to China to England.
  • My cousin, Reggie, graduated with a master's from the University of Southern California. He's a talented animation artist and works in Manila for a production company.
  • My aunt, Nora (Rolly's wife), studied business administration and economics in college and received her master's degree from Syracuse University. She still works in finance. She is also one of the most fashionable women I know!

Like, literally my mind was blown by all the incredible things my family members have achieved, in the Philippines and in the United States. One of my greatest take-a-ways from this trip was just spending time with my extended family, whether it was around the dinner table, at a performance of Wicked, or sitting in Manila traffic. I also enjoyed seeing my dad spend time with his brothers and sisters, all of whom are in their eighties now (And all are in way better shape than me. I'm kind of kidding but not really).


There was also a very specific moment when I realized how the grit and perseverance of one family can pay dividends for the rest of its generations. My dad's mother was the driving force of his family. He said she always told him, "I cannot give you money, but I can give you an education, and that's what I'm going to do." She pushed all her children to finish school and to go to university. When my dad didn't have money for textbooks, she went from neighbor to neighbor asking for loans or she would pick up another job on the side. When my dad didn't want to go to medical school because he didn't get into his first choice, she made him re-apply. When my dad didn't want to move to the US because he was too nationalistic, she told him the Philippines couldn't give him the same opportunities the US could. All of her children graduated from the University of the Philippines and built prosperous lives for themselves through a lot of hard work.

I realized all of this as I was sitting in a very, very nice restaurant in one of the most expensive hotels in Manila, right before we were going to see the Broadway show Wicked. I realized how my dad's mother probably could have never imagined this life for her children, but that she hoped for it. And how her determination to provide a better life for her children ensured a better life and more educational opportunities for me, almost 100 years later.

Pagkain // Food

Let me just state that Filipino hospitality absolutely revolves around food. And I'm okay with that. Everywhere I looked, there was food to eaten! We would only just finish lunch when it was time for merienda and then it was time for dinner! Pineapple, mangoes, silvanas cookies, coconuts, fried bananas, rice rolls.

Filipino foods may not be as well known as Thai, Vietnamese, or Cambodian food, but they’ve still got their classics like chicken adobo, pancit (rice noodles), lumpia (rice rolls), bibingka (a delicious breakfast sweetcake), and torons (fried banana rolls). This time around, I enjoyed all of the food. And halo-halo? That stuff is good, even if it is a random mix-mix of purple yam, sweet beans, coconut, evaporated milk, and shaved ice.


Wika // Language

"Ohh, half-Filipina! Mestiza! Do you speak Tagalog?!"

At which point I have to look down and say no, then blame my dad for not teaching me (in all fairness, there was no way I was going to learn Tagalog when only one parent spoke the language). My dad insists that I should be able to understand Tagalog because it's supposed to be a mix of Spanish, English, and Filipino, but honestly all I hear is the Filipino part of the language. I had a funny dinner conversation with my aunt and uncle where I tried to learn all the pronouns and simple phrases, but my brain just wants to speak Spanish.

So I basically only know three Tagalog words: Salamat (thank you), Mabuhay (greetings, long live), and Mahal kita (I love you). I just go around saying Salamat to the maids and my aunt's private driver and everyone who holds the door for me, and that's about as far as my language skills go in this case.

Most Filipinos speak English, and my relatives speak excellent English, so there isn't really a language barrier. But when my relatives are around each other or speaking to my dad, they all speak Tagalog and I have no idea what's going on. At the resort in Dumaguete, my family was sitting around speaking Tagalog when they all burst out laughing. I wanted in on the joke so I asked, "What are you all talking about?" My aunt said, "Fruit!" Well, I didn't see how fruit could be funny so I just let them continue on in Tagalog. And I just kept saying Salamat to everyone.

Ang Bansa // The Country

And then there's the Philippines as a whole! And the hospitality of everyone. Everyone is so kind here! Everywhere you look, Filipinos are opening doors for you, helping you cross the street amidst traffic, shooting a huge smile your way, or trying their best to give you directions (even if they don't know themselves).

The Philippines has flown under the Southeast Asia traveling and backpacker radar for wayyy too long. People are only just beginning to see the Philippines for the beautiful gem that it is, and once the tourism really starts to boom here, it's going to boom fast. From the ancient rice terraces in Banaue, the underground caves in Sagada, the sprawling city of Manila, to picture-perfect islands of Palawan, Cebu, and thousands (literally thousands) of other islands, the Philippines cannot be beat when it comes to diversity. People just need to show up!


But hey, I'm not complaining that there aren't too many backpackers here. It's a nice change from the well-trodden backpacker's path through Southeast Asia. When I was hiking to the hot springs in Batad, I asked my guide how many people had registered the day before at the tourism office (it is mandatory to log your name in a book and pay a small environmental fee). 91 people, she said. That's it. And that's their peak season! That's why I could get such amazing shots of the rice terraces and the waterfalls -- there wasn't anybody crowding my photos! So while I want some of these places to remain off the beaten track, I also want more people to discover that there is more to the Philippines than its islands. And that includes Manila.

Ang Siyudad // The City

So, maybe I made up the dirt huts in my head every time I heard one of my dad's "I walked to school with no shoes" stories, but it's true that Manila was definitely different when he was a school boy. And while I've come to accept Manila for the crazy city that it is, I realized that it's been hard for my dad to see Manila change so drastically from the city he used to know.

When my dad was 5 years old, the population of Manila was 623,000 people.

Today, the population of metro Manila is bursting at the seams with 12.8 million people. Manila is actually a much more densely populated city than Mumbai, Paris, or Tokyo.


The night I caught my bus to Banaue, my dad and his two sisters came to see me off. We hit traffic on the highway, so our private driver took to the backstreets of Manila. All of a sudden, it was like we were in a different Manila; one that is delicately hidden behind the new, glitzy hotels and the crowded shopping malls. This Manila was gritty and dark. The streets were flooded with Jeepneys, children ran in and out of the traffic, dogs barked incessantly. The roads were in disrepair, no one was controlling the traffic, and Jeepney drivers ruled the streets. The streets themselves felt claustrophobic, like the whole city of Manila was pushing up against the car. Shops squeezed side by side each other were made out of tin roofs and wooden boards. Squatters, or "informal settlers" as the government calls them, had set up rudimentary homes on the streets made out of whatever they could find. My dad asked the driver to make sure the doors were locked.

"This is not the Manila I knew. This is not my Manila anymore." He sounded sad. And I could feel his relief as we finally pulled out of those streets and into the bus terminal.

Manila is so multifaceted that I don't blame my dad for being overwhelmed by the city he grew up in. You never know what's around the corner in Manila: towering, luxury condominiums; sari-sari shops squished next to each other; an ubiquitous Starbucks or 7-11; a Jeepney barreling right towards you; a thumping night club with people my age streaming through the doors. I've come to enjoy Manila's surprises, but I think what really got me with this city was learning about its history. Manila has scars, which is kind of to be expected if you were colonized for hundreds of years, lost a fight for your independence, and then got bombed by America. Fair enough. 

For me, Manila is like that kid in high school who really couldn't give a shit if you liked him or not; a "this is who I am; take it or leave it" kind of attitude. Manila knows it has flaws, that it's a tough city to love, but it doesn't shy away from that. I can respect that.

Ultimately, I think Manila is a city that you have to appreciate by learning to love both the good and the bad: the crowded streets, the rich history, the crazy traffic, the huge shopping malls, the Filipino generosity, the impoverished slums, the stunning islands, the questionable corruption. You can't just pick and choose; Manila is unrelenting in what it is offering, and you need time to really get under this city's skin and understand it for what it is. And just like it's capital city, Filipinos are resilient as hell and pick themselves back up after every hardship, every natural disaster, every political scandal. With a smile on their face!

It's going to take many more visits for me to really figure Manila out, much less the country, but I think I've got a good start. If anything, I can say that I have newfound appreciation -- and dare I say it, love -- for this city that had to rebuild itself from the ashes of World War II. This city may no longer be my Dad's Manila, but I'll take it for what it is as my Manila.

This is the first part of a three-part series, which includes Part II: World War II Manila and Part III: My Father's Manila.

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