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xEurasia Odyssey

Manila, Puerto Galera and beyond

PHILIPPINES | Friday, 2 December 2022 | Views [140]

outrigger excursion on Muelle Bay

outrigger excursion on Muelle Bay

Manila, Puerto Galera and Beyond

I flew to Manila from Bangkok as I wanted to get to the National Museum of the Philippines to see what they had that might relate to my work on Goddess Studies.  The National Museum of Archeology is in Rizal Park, a large greenspace in the center of the metropolis, across the street from Intramuros, the old walled city.  The museum has a good ethnographic collection and provides a decent introduction to the various ethnic regions of the country, and even though it didn’t have what I was looking for, I found it was worth the trip, especially as I decided at the spur of the moment to head down to Puerto Galera the next day based on what I saw at the museum.

As I still had some time after visiting the galleries, I went into Intramuros to see St. Augustin’s Church, one of the oldest in the city and the Cathedral, that has been renovated a number of times since it was first built in the 1500s. There was a wedding going on while I was at St. Augustin’s, and the nave was appropriately decorated.  It looked like a fabulous place to share one’s vows. The rebuilt Cathedral had a starker feel to it and was also decorated for a wedding that had not yet taken place.  From the Cathedral I walked over to Fort Santiago, which was built in 1571 as a defensive fortress. There are torture chambers one can visit for an additional fee, but I chose not to do that, instead I simply walked around the park-like interior and people watched.  There were a few foreign tourists, but the majority of the people on this Saturday were locals, including a school class that was re-enacting a scene from the 1896-1989 Philippine Revolution vs. the Spanish. There was also a small arts fair going on in one corner. 

After visiting the main sites in Intramuros, I went back to the hotel to collect the presents that I had bought in Nepal and Thailand and wanted to ship back home as they weighed too much for the upcoming flights. This started an unexpected adventure – and not a pleasant one. Normally, when I send packages through an express service, like Fed Ex or DHL, I pay with a credit card and thought I could do so in this city of 13 million people. That was not the case. After the staff at Fed Ex packed the articles in a box, they asked for cash, which of course I did not have. So off I went to the ATM. But the ATM only gives out up to PHP 1000 per day, which is about US $17, and clearly not enough to ship a package. I tried then to find a bank, but as it was Saturday, they were all closed except for Bank D’Oro or BDO, which again only allowed PHP 1000 per day, even at the counter. After attempting to find an ATM in the perhaps largest Mall in Asia, the Mall of Asia, I came up empty handed and had to go back to the shipping place to pick up my box and carry it back to the hotel. After I returned from Puerto Galera and Batangas, I went back to the Mall and found a Western Union where I could change $ to PHP and finally got the box sent off.  That wasn’t the end of the shipping/sending story, though.  As I’m not going to be home in time to send Xmas cards this year, I bought postcards in Krabi to send instead. As I didn’t have time to write them while there, I did so in Manila.  Then came the issue of finding stamps. I asked where I could buy some and the concierge at the hotel then spent a full hour trying to locate someplace where I could purchase postcard stamps. Low and behold it was at the Central Post Office in Intramuros, where I had thought I had to go.  The Post Office wouldn’t take the package, that I hadn’t yet sent, though, as the woman at the counter said it probably wouldn’t arrive for at least three months, and she wouldn’t even guarantee that it would get there at all. It seems that people don’t send things by mail anymore. & fyi, the Post Office in the Philippines doesn’t accept credit cards either. That’s when I went back to the Mall.

Walking through the Mall of Asia during Advent is a surreal experience. It is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and Christmas songs like “Let it Snow” and “It’s Cold Outside” are blaring from the loudspeakers. There may be a recession going on, but one wouldn’t know it by the crowds in the Mall. The place, which is humungous, was packed and the noise-level deafening. At least the stores were doing a good business, though the ones in the Mall were the typical international chains and not local Mom and Pop shops. My impression, which is only that, my impression, from my short time in Manila, is that this culture is a mix of light Asian and heavy American. The electrical cables hang in bundles from their posts in a typical Asian ragtag fashion, but the plugs are American. The food is a mix of Thai, Chinese, distinctly Filipino and North American. The stores are American with a few European highlights, Dior, Zara etc. There is a Jollibee Filipino McDonalds equivalent, that rivals its American competitor, but the streets are lined with other American fast-food chains and the ubiquitous 7-11. The Asian equivalent of Uber, Grab, is alive and well in Manila and elsewhere, yet I found them more expensive than the metered cabs. It is entirely possible that I am misinterpreting what I’m seeing, but I feel like I’m back in L.A., yet in a time warp.  Everything goes slower here; patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s a necessity.

It was time to get out of the city and head back to the sea. I rented a car and drove on the toll road a little over two hours down to Batangas. Left the car at the dock as rental cars aren’t allowed on interisland ferries and took a boat over to Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island.  Puerto Galera is known for its magnificent bay, which is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and for the marine life near the coastline. I stayed in a hotel outside of town right on the rocky shore. It wasn’t possible to swim in front of the hotel as the rocks and coral were too high & water level too low, but it was amazing to look down at the coral from the third-floor dining area and see the seafloor through the crystal-clear water.  The following day, I took an outrigger canoe trip to an undersea cave and a couple of snorkel spots.  The marine life was perhaps even more extensive than it had been in Krabi and the water almost as warm.  There was more evidence of coral bleaching here than there; though, the bleached parts were surrounded by healthy organisms. Schools of fish were in abundance at both sites, as well as giant clams, and at the second stop I saw a small octopus on a rock. I got lucky!

After the water excursion, I took a tuk tuk tour of the bay area and went to White Beach, which is the most famous in the region as it has a long white sandy beach. The beaches were almost deserted, which surprised me. The only people there were locals or Western men with their local wives/girlfriends. Most of the men sounded like they were either from Australia or the U.S. From White Beach, I headed over to Virgin Beach, on the other side of the bay. It is named for the Virgin Mary, and a statue of her is on a rocky outcrop overlooking the bay.  There is a much larger white statue of the Madonna on Monte Maria that is visible from the ferry during the crossing. Virgin Beach is now in private hands, and there is a PHP 50 fee to go in. It is a quiet peaceful place and well worth the few cents. The last stop of the land tour was to the Waterfalls. I had thought this would entail a hike but was mistaken as the waterfalls are right by the road.  There are a series of cascades on either side of the street and a restaurant below.  Swimming, i.e., wading is possible in some of the lower cascade pools.

Puerto Galera was founded by the Spanish in 1574. They established themselves on the island as an interim before heading on to Manila. Their first island capital was in Lagundian, but it was subject to Moorish raids, so they moved the capital to Puerto Galera. The name comes from the galleons that came from Spain and Mexico. The ships found safe haven in the bay. Among the ships’ cargoes were bags of rice that they unloaded in a warehouse near the wharf.  At least once, and given multiple versions of the story, probably a couple of times, the warehouse caught fire and the rice turned black & ‘black rice’ is said to still be found along the shoreline. Interestingly, when I asked the hotel staff about the history of the region, I was told that the name comes from Black Rice, which is not the case, but does seem to be in local folklore. According to https://www.travelorientalmindoro.ph/Page/History/History-of-Puerto-Galera, the site has been a point of trade since Chinese merchants from Cathay traded with indigenous people for their products in the 10th C. While the Spanish made it their island capital, people were here well before them and had an established pre-Colonial culture. The difference in culture and atmosphere between Manila and Puerto Galera is night and day. The first is modern commercialism, the second an oasis of serene natural beauty. There is also little that is reminiscent of America in Puerto Galera, but rather it seems purely Filipino.

The next day, it was time to head back to the mainland. The interisland ferry this time took an hour and a half as it wasn’t the Montenegro high speed boat.  Another spur of the moment decision, had me heading toward Mabini, to get a view of the bay from the other side. I had booked a hotel through Booking.com as I normally do and set off via the Google directions.  Unfortunately, the hotel was not where it was 'supposed' to be. I couldn't get in touch with them via the phone, but did find a friendly man in a hardware store who kindly informed me that the hotel was on the opposite side of the peninsula in Aniloa. Based on his directions, I finally found the place. I chose the hotel because of the location listed and because they had kayaks available.  As it turned out, it was interesting to see this side of the island, and the kayak was the only way to get into the water, as again, it was so shallow that the coral was popping out. From the kayak, the water was clear enough to see what would have been possible through a snorkel mask. Even close to the shore, the fish were abundant and the coral more intact than in Puerto Galera. Aniloa is known to be a good dive spot and from the view I had on the kayak I can see why.

The following day, I needed to return the car and slowly made my way back to Manila, now on backroads rather than the highway. This added about three hours to the journey, but I figured I'd see more of the countryside this way. 'Countryside' turned out to be a bit of a misnomer, as there were commercial centers throughout the drive. I did happen across the Fantasy World Castle, though. This is an unfinished Disneyland type estate that was started in the early 2000s then the owners didn’t have the money to finish it. It’s pretty bizarre.

When I started out, I'd set Google map directions for Maria de Tierra pilgrimage site by way of Taal City, Lemery and Tagaytay. I intended to stop in Tagaytay to take a boatride on Taal Lake to the world's smallest volcano, but the trails on the volcano were closed as it is still active (it fully erupted last year) and the traffic through town so heavy that I decided to head straight to the church. Well, Google proved wrong again. Where the map said the site should be, was a mechanic's shop.  By this time, I wasn’t going to hassle with any more misleading directions and headed on a backroad toward Manila.  I did want to get a coffee, so stopped at a roadside cafe. This was a good thing, as the Balinsasayaw Restaurant was a treat. It has little individual mosquito netted cabanas with tables so that each group has their own space amid a lush flower-filled rainforest garden. The mango and chicken salad was also the best meal I had had since being in the Philippines. While it may seem silly and wasteful to have rented the car for such relatively little driving, it was the only way to get to Puerto Galera without spending over 24hours travel time. Using public transportation is not convenient in this region. 

My short time in the Philippines was filled with contrasting impressions. I loved the marine life and the lush green hills on Mindoro and was depressed with what I saw in Manila. The noise level in Manila, as in Dhaka is deafening.  In the Philippines, it is perhaps even louder than elsewhere. People talk loudly, musak from loudspeakers blare, and cell phone videos are set on loud so that everyone in the area can hear what one is watching or listening to with no regard for anyone else. It is a cacophony of noise. The good thing is that the drivers don’t use the horn as much as they do in India.

My advice for those traveling to the Philippines – head to the islands, the sea, and the marine life, and bring cash not credit cards. (& don’t forget toilet paper and soap!)





Tags: beaches, islands, snorkeling


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