Very early on Friday morning we arrived at NAIA Manila International Airport. After getting hardly any sleep at all on our 3.5 hour flight from Singapore (seriously, Cebu Pacific, why don’t you turn the lights off?), we stumbled into the cavernous and semi-deserted terminal and “fell” into line under a large banner that read “No Wang Wang”. Corruption is a big problem in the Philippines, and they apparently want you to know it right from the start. Wang Wang, we later found out, refers to abuse of car-siren privileges or similar status-invoked attempts to circumvent the usual way of life, which involves a lot of traffic. We collected our bags at the baggage claim, but instead of heading outside as one usually does at an airport, at the advice of the Lonely Planet guidebook, we found our way upstairs to the departures level where we found the exit (most entrances and exits in public buildings are one-way only and this is strongly enforced by armed guards) and got into a regular meter taxi ($4.25) for half the price of what it would have cost to just walk outside at baggage claim on the arrivals level.
Our taxi pulled up to the brand new Holiday Inn Makati, and we made our way inside with the help of about 7 staff members, including a bomb-sniffing dog. We were excited to be staying in a fancy new hotel which had opened only two months prior, and had been saving our Holiday Inn points just for this (20k points/night). At 6:30am they didn’t have a room for us yet, so we hung out in the lobby and enjoyed a complimentary coffee. At around 8:30am they let us into our room on the 16th floor and we settled in. Jordan had a nap while Felix played with the new camera and surfed the web. We had made it a point to let the hotel know we were on our honeymoon, and they congratulated us by sending up a delicious, decedent, and decorated chocolate cake which we immediately enjoyed.
Energized by sleep and chocolate, we set out to explore the neighborhood – a huge complex of adjoined high-end shopping malls in the Ayala section of Makati. It felt like we could be in any upper-middle-class American suburb. All the fast-food you could want, international fashion and lots and lots of people. As it turned out, this was back to school weekend, and everyone was out at the mall. Hoping to try some local cuisine, we found the food court where we sampled a tuna and a veggie gyro/pocket ($4). Not sure how local it was, but it was something new to us. Needing a pre-Shabbat pick-me-up we went to Bo’s Coffee (a popular local chain, $4) and hurriedly sipped espresso before heading back to prepare for Shabbat.
Our personal connection to Manila goes back to 1945, when Felix’s grandfather, who was stationed there as a soldier in the US Army, helped to rebuild the Jewish community and found a Jewish youth group. Naturally, we were excited to visit this community so many years later. Thinking we would make it to the JAP (Jewish Association of the Philippines) Synagogue a little faster in a taxi, we called down to the front desk and asked them to find one for us. When we arrived downstairs a few minutes later there was no taxi (there were excuses instead), so we walked out to the main avenue where we eventually found one ($2.50 after negotiation). Traffic in Manila is worse than anywhere we’ve seen, and we’ve lived in LA! It took us 20 minutes to go about 2km, at which point we got out in the midst of the gridlock and walked the last 5 minutes (would have been 30 seconds, except the driver mistakenly took us to the wrong corner). When we reached the gate, the security guards took our IDs and eventually called the Rabbi out right in the middle of the service (to which we were now late) to authorize our entry.
Once inside, the mood and pace changed and we felt the calm of Shabbat. We found our host, Chip, an old friend of Felix’s parents, who had been living and working in Manila for the past 10 months and was celebrating his final Shabbat there. We enjoyed the festive and relaxing Shabbat meal, which was a nice change of pace from the other Shabbat meals on our trip, and appreciated the quality time with Chip. Absolutely stuffed (we’re talking appetizers, soup, salads, two kinds of meat with sides, and dessert), we walked the 25 minutes back to our hotel through a maze of interconnected walkways and air conditioned malls. The next morning we retraced our steps back to the synagogue for services and a lovely Shabbat lunch, with both Israeli and US Ambassadors present as guests of honor. We felt well represented. Back at our hotel, Jordan took a long nap, and Felix went back to the synagogue for the end of Shabbat. Later that evening we met up with Chip for some fro-yo at Greenbelt, the nicest mall in the complex.
Months ago, when planning our trip, we learned of another crazy family connection to the Philippines. Felix’s great aunt and uncle (for whom he is named) sponsored the college education of a young Filipina back in the 1970s. Their daughter, Deena, who now lives in LA with her family (with whom we are very close) still keeps in touch with this “adopted sister”, Felicidad. We promised Deena that we would meet Felicidad and take her to brunch on her behalf. At noon on Sunday, we met Felicidad along with her two sisters and her son. It was a very emotional meeting for Felicidad, who was meeting a member of the family in person for the first time. We were astounded by the magnitude of the impact that the sponsorship had had on her life, and she continuously thanked us and expressed her love and gratitude for us and our family. It was a truly remarkable experience, and although the cultural gap was evident, it was a very rewarding for us. The live Skype call with Deena over dessert was the highlight, although (hey, you know us) the food was pretty good too (Jordan had the French Breakfast of truffle omelet with french pancakes; Felix had the smoked salmon omelet)! After a emotional goodbye with Felicidad and her family, we headed back to our room to pack up and prepare ourselves for that evening’s journey. We took full advantage of our late checkout and just after 4pm, we headed back into the mall to find dinner and pass the time. Dinner was a veggie open faced quesadilla and a veggie burrito ($10) at ArmyNavy, a Filipino fast food chain modeled after an American burrito joint.
Our extensive complaining (which was totally justified) paid off as the hotel offered to appease us with a free ride to our next destination, the Ohayami Transport bus station for a 10pm bus. Even the driver was shocked by the sketchiness of the “bus station” and ran back to the car to protect Jordan while Felix purchased the tickets ($18 each). The “station” had just enough room to fit 3 buses and a dark, dingy and half outside waiting room. After sitting there for 20 minutes, we couldn’t wait to get on the bus which wasn’t much of an improvement. As the cold air blasted throughout the bus and Jordan began to freeze, Felix saved the day MacGyver style by using electrical tape to block stream of icy air. Seated across the way, we noticed an American couple around our age and enjoyed some friendly conversation. Eventually, we did formal introductions and almost didn’t believe them that their names are Jamie and Jamie – must be confusing! We somehow managed to fall asleep and woke up in time for our 7am arrival in Banaue.
We were excited to spend two days in North Luzon exploring the famous UNESCO World Heritage Ifuago Rice Terraces. The Jamies, we discovered, were planning a similar itinerary, so we decided to team up and enjoy each other’s company as well as the benefit of enhanced bargaining power. While the Jamies ate breakfast at People’s Lodge, we walked up and down the main street in search of accommodations and eventually wound up taking a room at People’s Lodge ($15 / night for a basic room – cockroaches on the house). After a quick a shower, two coffees and our pastries from Tous le Jours in Manila, we were ready to start our day.
The four of us found a jeepney willing to take us round trip to the nearby village of Batad ($25 for the two of us). After an hour ride of twists, turns and steep cliffs, we arrived at the Batad saddle from where we began the hour long hike down to the village. As we turned the corner, we saw the magnificent rice terraces unfold below us along with a sign that proclaimed in Hebrew: “Come! We have malawach here!” Jamie and Jamie decided to spend the night at Hillside Inn in Batad and while they got settled into their room, we took the advice of the sign and enjoyed some surprisingly good malawach with cheese and tomato ($4 with a drink). Rested and fed, we continued down into the rice terraces themselves and appreciated them from up close. We decided to continue further down toward the waterfall which was not as close as we had hoped. After a few wrong turns and stopping to ask the villagers for directions plus unnecessarily scaling a few hills, we were headed the right way. That’s when the thunder started. The skies turned dark and the thunder got louder. Although the waterfall was in sight and the rushing waters was audible, we decided to turn back hoping we wouldn’t get caught in the downpour plus we were nervous about making it back to the saddle to meet our jeepney in time. We parted ways with Jamie and Jamie knowing we’d see them the following day and began our two and a half hour ascent. Twenty minutes later, the skies opened up and the downpour began. We stopped at a shelter/drink stand until the rain subsided and then proceeded to make our way up, up, and up the hill. It was a grueling climb including hundreds of stairs and by the time we reached the top, we were drenched with sweat and thoroughly exhausted. Luckily, when we arrived earlier, Felix had arranged with one of the vendors to place a coconut in the fridge which at this point was just what the doctor ordered – cold, delicious and refreshing. Back in Banaue, exhausted, we returned to People’s Lodge and ate a basic dinner of soup (from a powder), rice with veggies ($3) and ice cream bars ($1) before turning in for the night.
Coffee was the first order of business on Tuesday morning which we enjoyed with some local baked goods (all together $2). Fed and caffeinated, we started the walk up the hill to the Banaue viewpoint. Our bodies reminded us of their hard work the day before and when we passed two French girls who told us it was another hour climb to the top, we gave up and flagged down a passing vehicle. The driver happily drove us up the hill for 50 pesos ($1.25) and totally worth it.
The views from the top were beautiful and provided a slightly different perspective from those we saw in Batad the day before. We relaxed, had a nice conversation with a Swiss couple who was also enjoying the view and found lunch at a local restaurant (rice, veggies and french fries – $3 including a beer) where we worked a little on a blog as we admired the view. We took our time walking back down the hill to Banaue stopping to chat with villagers and be chased by giggling children. When we arrived back in town, we picked up two local varieties of Selecta (Walls/Good Humor/Strauss), coconut – yummy! and queso (think Cheetos flavored ice cream) – disgusting!!! We went back to People’s Lodge to collect our stuff and pass the time until our 7pm bus back to Manila. Jamie and Jamie had just arrived back from Batad and we enjoyed swapping stories of the past day’s adventures.
The bus back to Manila was the nightmare version of the ride there. A screaming baby kept us up throughout the night and we arrived at 4am back at the sketchy street corner where we were greeted by in your face taxi drivers. After saying goodbye to Jamie and Jamie, we took a taxi to the Windham Microtel, down the street from Mall of Asia, whose staff was nice enough to let us hang out in the lobby until the mall opened. We shared an omelet at the Microtel ($4) and at 9am, headed to the mall as it opened. We took advantage of the mall’s free left luggage service where we dropped off our stuff before making a beeline for Starbucks ($6, accompanied by two Krispy Kreme donuts – $2). Wandering around the mall, we stopped at various shops and looked around. One of the interesting things we discovered was that at the department stores in the Philippines, the associates work directly for the brands, not for the stores and must meet weekly quotas. Throughout the service industry in the Philippines, sir/ma’am is appended to the end of almost every sentence. This led to a funny situation where the aggressive saleswoman approached Felix and asked, “Boxers of briefs, Sir?”. Tired of being accosted by salespeople, we sought refuse at an Italian fast food restaurant where we ate the only vegetarian thing on the menu, a veggie lasagna ($5) and a Mocha Oreo peanut butter Blizzard from Dairy Queen ($1). We collected our stuff and took a taxi to the airport for our 3:30pm Zest Air flight to Cebu ($40 each). We were happy to leave Manila behind and were looking forward to seeing other parts of the Philippines which we hoped would be less mall focused and more relaxing.