Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A weekend in Manila

When we first started thinking of going to Boracay, one thing I insisted on - I didn't want just a beach vacation, we would have to do at least a couple of days in Manila!! Our Vietnam vacation was just the resort at Nha Trang - and I've always regretted not taking the time to visit Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi! And isn't there always some kind of magic in capital cities - certainly, Manila was no exception!!

Of all the Asian cities we've visited so far, Manila is easily the closest to Mumbai - right at the airport, getting off the plane - from that particular tropical olfactory bouquet of brine, heat and dust to the random crowds in the waiting area - an immediate flashback to India!! We're already very much in our comfort zone as we stepped outside to catch a taxi to our hotel - so when the first taxi agency asked for 1800 pisos (almost $40) to go to the hotel, we kept walking! Sure enough, a little further were pre-paid taxis, and the price dropped to 600 pisos!! That seems reasonable - but as we were pulling away from the kerb, we noticed the city metered cab stop - no doubt, this would have been even cheaper!! Oh well!!

Where's the taxi??

Outside the airport...

As we were driving to the hotel, noticed that a lot of places seemed to be closed - not much traffic on the roads, a generally very subdued atmosphere. The shut-down wasn't because of the imminent arrival of typhoon Maysak - as was reported on a lot of international news channels!! - the real reason was much simpler! It was Good Friday - a part of the Holy Week, which is one of the biggest holidays in the Philippines!! And as our taxi driver very helpfully informed us, almost everything would be closed for the weekend. Really?

We took it easy that first day - a long nap, and then ventured out in the evening to find dinner. There was a TGIF right next to our hotel - actually, our hotel was connected to one of the bigger malls in Manila, the Robinson Galleria, which was closed on Friday - the TGIF, was of course, closed too - and Manasi could not get over the irony of a TGIF being closed on Friday!! We decided to take a walk around the neighborhood, it was a very pleasant evening - and then stop to eat when we found a good place - the concierge did warn us that it would be hard to find a restaurant that was open, but decided to take our chances!

Ortigas Avenue

They weren't kidding when they said everything would be closed - we walked block after block of deserted streets - only a few fast food joints were serving food. It was a tossup between Pizza Hut, Shakey's Pizza and Yellow Cab Pizza - when we decided to check out a place called Army Navy - the name a nod to the long influence of US culture on the Philippines. Mostly a burger place, but they also had vegetarian burritos on the menu - jackpot! Since it was such a night, we decided to sit on the patio - Manasi and I waited for our food while Ajey walked over to a neighboring 7-11 to grab a beer.

That's when we noticed the kittens - first a couple, then almost an entire pack. They sat at our feet, looking up with hungry eyes, and while it was cute at first - we hurried inside when a really bold one decided to jump up on a chair to investigate. I couldn't stop thinking of Sunny, and barely tasted my meal - although Ajey and Manasi both assured me that the burrito was really, really tasty. And I couldn't bear to just walk away. Long story short, ended up buying couple of cans of tuna and feeding the stray kittens on the street. Wish I could take them all home with me!

Day 2 in Manila was for serious sight-seeing - time explore the Spanish heritage in the Philippines!! Took a cab to Old Manila, or Intramuros - literally meaning 'within the walls' - this walled part of the city was the headquarters for the Spanish, and the walls were obviously fortifications!! The former military headquarters, Fort Santiago, is also located within these walls, and so is the Manila Cathedral, which is one of the most important Catholic churches here. Right outside the Cathedral is the Plaza de Roma, with a statue of Carlos IV of Spain, dating back to the early 19th century.

Manila Cathedral and Plaza de Roma

Right outside the entrance gate to Fort Santiago, we were able to put our Shanghai-honed bargaining skills to good use and bought 2 very pretty hats - which were a godsend during our entire vacation!! Much of the fort is in ruins - but once inside the fort, there are beautifully landscaped gardens, with fountains and benches, and even a small play area for younger kids! Loved the old cannon and the crumbling brick of the ivy-covered buildings - it was a really, really hot day though - would have been so much more pleasant to come here in the evening!! Also, other than a really over-priced souvenir shop, nothing else was open - so many restaurants, all closed!! We had to settle for an ice-cream sundae for lunch!!

The hats!!

Main gate to Fort Santiago

Beautiful gardens...

...and old ruins!

Next stop, Quinta Market - mainly a street market for tourists - we weren't really planning on shopping much, but it's so much fun to walk around these markets, looking for unexpected bargains. How did we get there - well that's the interesting part! Since we landed in Manila, we had been observing this unique mode of public transport - the jeepneys. Brightly colored, each one with a very unique decoration theme, these eye-catching jeepneys were originally created from US military jeeps left over from WWII. They run on definite routes and at fixed tariff - however, the destinations are not always very clear to casual tourists like us, we did have to ask around a bit before we could figure out which one to take!!

The Quinta market wasn't really anything special - from the kitschy to the shiny - SM Mall next on the list. This mall has the distinction of being the 2nd or 3rd largest mall in the Philippines, all that mattered to us at that point - the mall had a California Pizza kitchen!! A pitcher of mojitos and a spinach-artichoke dip left us deliciously refreshed - browsing through the huge National Bookstore later was the perfect icing!! It is such a treat to see a well-stocked bookstore - the smell of new books, the crisp pages, all those stories waiting to be read - if there is heaven, this is it!!

Last evening in Manila - we still hadn't been to the mall next to our hotel - and we were really glad to go somewhere really close!! First thing as we walked in - a row of massage chairs - 10 minutes for 10piso - too good to pass up on, especially after a long day of walking in the sun!! Was good while it lasted, did leave me a little dizzy and disoriented!! Another surprising find - Krispy Kreme Donuts - yum, yum, yum!!! Dessert before dinner? - always!! And when we walked into one of the department stores, another surprise - an entire shelf of Caterpillar brand shoes!!

Sit back, relax!

Robinsons Galleria

Donut selfie!


I do have to say a word about the food - of course, we never try any street food anywhere - but in Manila, even in regular restaurants, it was a bit of a challenge to find vegetarian food. Could be because so many places were closed - at least our hotel had a good restaurant!! The must-try street food is supposed to be balut - a boiled duck egg - what's so special about that? Well, the egg has an almost fully grown duck embryo inside - it is boiled just before it is ready to hatch - and is eaten feathers, brittle bones and all - all I can say is, I'm so glad to be a vegetarian!!

Headed to airport next morning - this time we paid only 350 piso from the hotel!! And the most delicious lunch so far - Army Navy burritos, Krispy Kreme and Jamba Juice - right at the departure terminal!! 4 days in Boracay coming up - that will be another post though!! Signing off with this beautiful image from Krispy Kreme!

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