I officially arrived to the land of my mother and father’s on January 26th, 2010. It took me 33 years to do it but hey, I made it. While waiting for our bags, seeing my Filipino country-men and hearing the familiar Tagalog accents eerily made me feel like I was back home, living with my parents again. While attempting to make small talk to a gentleman next to me, I quickly re-gained my “English with a Tagalog” accent – something which T finds humorously annoying but for some reason, I “really” think the locals would understand better (no “F’’s or V’s, short sentences).
I struggled to remember what little Tagalog I knew. It didn’t help conversations much when I inadvertently mix in Nepalese and bits of French (go figure?!)
Our home base was at Mayfield Residences (via re-manila.com) in Cainta (off Imelda Ave. and a 5-minute tricycle ride from Santa Lucia/Robinson’s Mall). Aside from being welcomed to bunk-beds while my parents took the master bedroom, the pool was awesome with free WI-FI/Internet access, a basketball court, and 24-hour guard security (I guess we need it?!?).
It was a pretty good location as there is a Makro next door, a Mini Stop convenience store across the street along with a fruit and veg market just inside the Village East community. For all you Jollibee fans, there was even one literally right next to the entrance of the residences.
(Jollibee is virtually EVERYWHERE, you can’t drive even 10 minutes without seeing one on every corner….ahh, the Pancake Sandwiches).
Starting the tour with wet feet
To get our feet wet (literally), we ventured to Villa Escudero Plantations and Resort – a “self-contained working coconut plantation … founded in the 1880s by Don Placido Escudero and his wife Dona Claudia Marasigan”. We had no idea, expectations or researched any reviews about this place other than my dad just saying “Oh, it’s nice, gooood!” (oh dear…). When we arrived, it felt like we were entering a deserted Never Ever Land (it was a slow day) with various signs and walkways designed to herd large crowds to various points around the resort. We jumped on their famous bull-drawn jeepney and was immediately serenaded with native folk songs (cute).
It did look more promising as we explored the area. They had quaint huts and cabanas for longer stay visitors, a large cultural performance venue, a small lake where people can take out traditional bamboo rafts, and eclectically designed swimming pools with a couple of water slides (oh yeah I was so on that).
The Museum/Church, which was really Escudero’s personal collection was really interesting. There was a wide variety of collections that included numerous Christian statues, artefacts from the Spanish colonial period, Rizal revolution memorabilia, and a vast collection of taxidermy specimens (check out the extinct tree climbing coconut-crushing crab, freaky). Finally, the highlight of the resort was the Waterfalls restaurant. Having a delicious buffet lunch with your feet submerged in a river/waterfall was surreal.
Somewhere in the Dipaculao, Aurora province, we met up with my father’s, mother’s side of the family. It was first contact – the meeting of the relatives from the rural homeland. I met cousins (second, third, fourth-removed), grandmothers, aunts, and uncles who knew my grandmother and father while growing up.
(My father left the Philippines when he was in his early 20’s. It’s funny, but now 40+ years later, most of my relatives, including my father, didn’t even recognize each other when we arrived).
There were lots (LOTS) of nieces of nephews around. After their shyness had worn off, it was complete kid-pandemonium – trying to entertain them by telling jokes, performing magic tricks, them teaching us Tagalog, shoulder rides, throwing them around, and many, many photos.
All that, all in one day after an 8 hour drive. Luckily, we escaped to Baler that evening for a much-needed shower and rest.
Some fun in the sun
Our tag-along tour of the homeland with the parents wasn’t done yet but we decided that in between meeting more relatives, we would have some fun before the next family road trip.
We have heard so much about it, my cousins from home have raved about it and so after a couple of days of recharging at home base, we were off to Boracay for 3-days/2-nights.
It was short and sweet, but soon after that we were back in the travelling van again. This time we headed North/West to the Ilocos Sur province to see more relatives, family friends and the properties of my father’s father side.
During this trip, we stayed at my dad’s old high school classmate’s place (Retired General Diomedio P. Villanueva) in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur (a very nice beach front property). Along the way, we also stopped and saw some beautiful places such as Uncle Nilo’s place in Santa Maria (a seductive, secluded, sun-baked white sand beach) and went through (literally) the Historic Town of Vigan.
Some random travel notes in no particular order
We have seen two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Vigan City and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines. Through these sites, you can definitely see the Spanish/Chinese influence in these cities – a “unique fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning”.
2 hours south of Manila, Tagaytay City was a whole new world on it’s own as well. The view of Taal Volcano along with the surrounding lakes, hills, and forests was absolutely breath-taking. After that, we then had access to the member’s only Tagatay Highlands Resort (via the General) which was unbelievable (it felt like “the Whistler of the Philippines”). Finally, I ate the BEST steak lunch ever (a 17 oz. rib eye) at Highlands Steakhouse (my condolences to the servers who were forced to wear the cowboy/cow girl outfits).
Up the hill in Antipolo City had the most spectacular view of Metro Manila, courtesy of Padi’s restaurant (the food was just okay). We also had the chance to attend Sunday mass at Antipolo Church, which was bustling and over flowing with people from all over the area (we just stood outside). Around the church, there were many merchants selling a wide variety of items and snacks (ie. their famous roasted cashew nuts for P50). The day concluded at the Bondoc farm (another relative) where we visited my Uncle Regi and our infamous Tita Mila.
Rizal Park (aka Luneta) was personally nothing spectacular but to the locals (and especially to my parents while growing up) was the place to be in Manila. Intramuros, the “walled city” was definitely worth seeing as well as San Agustin Church, where you can definitely see the Spanish Catholic influence.
For the kids (and especially my Nepali colleague who has never been to an aquarium ever), Manila Ocean Park is just across the street from the Rizal statue and it should be a sight to see once it is fully complete (oh Jeevan had a great time).
Shopping (and lots of it)
Whether it was to load up on travel gear for our next adventure or to just kill some time, there was never a shortage of power shopping centres in Metro Manila.
The SM City Mall brands are popping up everywhere. You can pretty much find anything here, even sections dedicated to everything techy (a.ka. Cyberzone). However, we noticed that high-end items and clothing that we could normally get back home were for some reason more expensive here even after the currency conversion. Digital cameras were almost $100 CDN more expensive and finding “American-size” clothing as they call it was tricky as well.
I had to see the renown SM Mall of Asia and it sure did live up to it’s name as it was simply BIG (it would take a couple of days just to explore the area as well as the park overlooking Manila Bay).
The SM Department stores was our most memorably headaches. You would constantly get bombarded with sales people saying “Morning Ma’am, Morning Sir” every few feet where ever you go. Literally, they were EVERYWHERE – watching and waiting on you. Robinson’s Mall is much better (size and price-wise).
Eastwood City reminded me a bit of Vancouver (think Yale Town). Makati City and the Ayala Malls (Greenbelt and Glorietta) had some really high-end, posh shops (I guess there seems to be a lot of wealthy Filipinos here).
Tiendesitas was an amazing outdoor-style marketplace and by far my favourite shopping experience. It sort of reminds me of Granville Island, without the water of course, but twice as big with Filipino smorgasborg food galore, local arts, crafts, and CHEAP clothes for sale. It was just too bad that we stumbled upon this place towards the end of our trip and after vowing never to step into another shopping mall again (or eat Filipino food).
We never made it to Greenbelt (but by the end I never wanted to see another shopping again), a large flea market full of knock-offs and low quality made goods (so I hear). One of my aunts says it’s a great place because you can bargain for deals on everything. But really… why bargain for crap?
Technical and travel notes…
Getting a SIM card for our mobile phones was really easy. For as low as P40, you can get a talk n’ text SIM card that you can drop-in and use right away. SMART Communications seems to be the popular brand followed by Globe (which also an Internet Service Provider). You can easily get recharge cards from almost anywhere (look for SMART signs saying “Load Dito Na”).
There are many places, even in most shopping malls where you can repair, unlock, or jailbreak your Canada-based mobile phone. I wouldn’t think about buying any electronic goods here unless you have too. Again, I found digital camera’s and laptops are more expensive once you do the currency conversion.
Getting around via local transportation wasn’t as bad as I had originally thought (I don’t know why but I was thinking more “choas”…well, we did just come from Nepal and India). Although taxi’s are cheap and relatively available in busy areas, drivers often ask where you want to go. There have been numerous occasions where our fares have been turned down, especially if it leads them to secluded places or even into unfavourable traffic situations. To avoid headaches, say you will give them an extra tip if they run the meter or bargain for a price that you are comfortable with.
Riding tricycles was definitely fun. Those little vulcanized, metal buggies was such a thrill and are usually cheaper than taxi’s for short, non-highway trips. No meters, just bargain.
The cheapest way to go and probably the most readily available mode of transportation are the iconic jeepneys. Jeepney’s are quite a sight to see as each of them are visually decorated and customised to represent the personality or interests of the drivers (some of the horn sounds are straight out of a retro video arcade game…shoyukaan!!!). On most occasions (my oh my), you can’t help but stop and look at some of their custom designs.
Finally, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system was quite impressive and it was unfortunate that we didn’t use it as much in the beginning. The LRT was fast, clean, not too crowded, convenient from our location, and very inexpensive. The start/end of Line 2 was the Santolan station and in 35 minutes, you can get to the heart of downtown Manila for about P30 (get off at United Nations Ave when you transfer to Line 1.). One interesting note, the first 2 train cars are usually reserved for female passengers only. If you need to continue your journey, you can always catch a cab, jeepney, or tricycle once you leave the station.
To say the least, I was quite moved to see “family” and my distant relatives for whose names I’ve only heard in passing while growing up (I’m still trying to figure out names and whose side belongs to who, etc.). Even seeing where my parents grew up, the old house, the schools they used to go to, the neighbourhoods they lived and their weekend hang outs, made me get to know and understand them a just little bit more.
One of my most memorable moments was peeking inside the many homes that we visited and to my surprise seeing numerous old photos of my parents, my Canadian relatives, and especially wacky photos of us when we were kids (it was pretty freaky, almost shrine-like freaky). To think, our relatives who are half-way around the world were really watching us grow over the years, with every letter and package that my mom had sent.
My heart goes out to my cousins, nieces, nephews, and family friends who I know work very hard and do not have the opportunities that we have back home. Alas, it would even be harder for them today to come live and work in Canada. However, like the Nepali friends and families that I have met, everyone here that I have met seems to be happy, scratch that…they “are” happy and living each day to the fullest as anyone else would.
I had always thought once my parents eventually move on, the connection to relatives and the homeland would inevitably be lost as well. Now, I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve seen and experienced the family history, met some amazing relatives (added 10+ more facebook relatives), and I can proudly say that I feel more “Filipino” now than I have ever felt before.
Marami salamat po!