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From Manila

Manila has a reputation for being a bit of a shithole, and I can't say that it's unfounded. It's rotting, crumbling, and loud, with filthy sidewalks and air that tastes like a diesel pizza. Yes, a lot of travelers do poo-poo Manila, and while they're not wrong, per se, I think that the city has a bit of charm if you scratch a bit beneath the surface.

Keep in mind I have only been here for less than ONE DAY.

We arrived late last night, taking the East Asian red eye express from Busan. Immigration and customs were painless, and before we knew it we were in a taxi heading straight for our hotel, which I had booked over the internet. Yes, it is overpriced, at about 40 bucks a night for a very small room with two lumpy beds, but sometimes piece of mind is worth it. I wasn't about to roll into one of Southeast Asia's most notorious cities at 2 a.m. with no confirmed place to stay.

We're staying in the district known as Malate, which is host to a load of hotels, restaurants, and girly bars. It's a bit similiar to the area around Soi Nana in Bangkok, though much smaller and definitely more run down. After checking in, Sam and I wandered the streets, resisting the calls from each bar to come in and see "beautiful laydeee," and instead sat our asses down at an outdoor affair, where we watched the street life while sipping from ridiculously cheap bottles of San Miguel, the local beer.

We woke up today in the late morning and grabbed a breakfast at the Cafe Adriatico, named for the street that makes up the main drag of Malate. While a bit spendy by local standards, I had the pleasure if eating one of the best omelettes of my life, and boosted by caffein and egg power, we got our walk on.

One of the reasons this city is so maligned among travelers is that, aside from getting drunk and banging whores, there's not a whole lot for the tourist to do (within the city center, at least). We spent the day wandering through the walled Spanish old town of Intramuros, taking photos of the streetlife and seeing the lovely cathedral. We managed to make our way into the slummy area of the district as well, walking down streets where we were both subjected to friendly hellos and hard, thug stares. There is a simmering sense of violence here. Most of the people are the friendliest I've encountered in all of Asian, but some of them look at you like a dog does a raw T-bone. After that we visited Fort Santiago, an instillation built by the Spanish and occupied, at different times, by the British, Americans, Japanese, and finally the Philippinos themselves.

This city is a gritty one, to be sure. Many of the building seem encased in tropical mildew; the poverty kicks you in the nuts. Whole families lay on the sidewalks, with pantsless, filthy children pawing in the muck. They've recently built an immaculate golf course next Intramuros, which is full of bloated Aussies and dour Koreans hitting white balls while their eager-to-please Philippino caddies sprint behind. On the other side of the fence lie countless groups of destitute locals, cooking on open fires, passing the days in demoralizing poverty. It is truly obscene, but aren't all golf courses?

I'm not immune from such obscenity myself, coming here as a tourist, throwing my money at bar tabs and breakfasts while people are scraping for rice just down the block. I chuck some change to the random beggar (to give to all would bankrupt me, and does it do any good to begin with?), but am reallly here to satisfy my own curiosities and indulgences...

I've travelled around Asia plenty now and have seen a lot of poor folks, but, aside from Cambodia, the poor of Manila take the cake - and I've just seen a decimal of a fraction. Keep in mind that I have not yet been to India, where they are said to do poverty expertly.

Tomorrow we will jump on a bus and go north to the province of La Union, where we will stay with our friend Keoni, who evidently has a very nice house right on the beach. It's always best to stay with locals for at least part of any journey, so we're as keen as beans, if I may invent a really stupid idiom.


C'mon, mister I have a laptop. Let's see some photos.
I feel guilty sometimes thinking about how long someone else might be able to get by on what I spend on the occasional Really Nice Dinner.
I know what you mean about the poverty kicking you in the nuts, although I think Cebu is more affluent than Manila, based on what you wrote. I didn't get quite the same dog-at-a-T-bone stares you described. Friendly people, for sure. I've decided I like the Philippines, and I want to go back.
I just spent a week in La Union (N. Luzon) and am now in Palawan and yes, I've decided that I too like the Philippines ;)