Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Making the Most of a Last Day in Manila: Intramurros, Chinese Cemetery, Ayala Museum

January 17, 2016
Making the Most of the Last Day in Manila
     I have had a fairly fitful night with an unnecessary intrusion at 2.00 am when someone began shouting outside my door loud enough to wake me up, then knocking it and saying something in a foreign language. I am shaken and alarmed and yell back, "Hello, what is it?" The knocking stops, the person mutters something and leaves. My heart is beating really fast when the phone in my room rings. I wonder if I should pick up the receiver. When I do, it is the guy at Reception apologizing and telling me that I was awoken by mistake and that it was another room and other occupants the party was seeking. I get back to sleep but adrenalin keeps me on tenterhooks 
Brekkie and Off to Mass:
     I awake at 7. 30 am far too early for my own good, not having had adequate sleep. Still, I make it to the Lobby Dining Room for a substantial breakfast of an omlette, fresh fruit and coffee and then ask for a taxi to take me to the Manila Hotel. I am supposed to meet my colleague Jessica at 9. 30 am, but I am a tad too early and roam around the hotel instead, getting money changed from American dollars to Filipino pesos and using the Business Center to charge my phone.
     At 9. 30, I am in the lobby, connecting with Jessica, and then walking towards Intramurros, the old quarter, to get to the Church of San Augustin where we are supposed to attend the 10.00 am Mass. Only when we get there, we find that there is a wedding on. The couple is kneeling at the altar of the 9.00 am Mass and probably because there was a wedding at the 8.00 am Mass as well--I have never seen so many bridal couples in so short a time as in Manila-- the 9.00 am Mass started late. We have arrived just before the Offertory begins and we take our places in the beautifully decorated church. Having reached in time for the most important part of the Mass and having had a chance to take Communion, we do not think it is necessary to start 10.00 am Mass all over again--especially as we find that it is 10.20 and the 10.00 am Mass hasn't yet begun! After Mass, the photographer choreographs all wedding portraits against the backdrop of the altar regardless of the fact that it is well past time for the 10.00 am Mass and the congregation is waiting outside to enter. Were they in the States, the whole bridal party would have been shooed off right after Mass ended! I know that in India IST (Indian Standard Time) has come to mean Indian Stretchable Time; but here in the Philippines, time is infinitely more flexible.
 Walking Around Intramurros with Jessica:
     There is much bustling activity outside the church as wedding parties dominate the plaza. We decide to use our presence in church to stroll around the quarter and take in some of its Spanish ambience. Horse-drawn carriages (called Kalesas) pass by us frequently and add to the atmospheric nature of the quarter. But right past one of the bylanes, we are in a very poverty-stricken area with slums just as in Bombay, street children running around and beggars asking for alms. Manila, like Bombay, is a city of contrasts and through the rest of the day I will discover just how obvious these binaries are.    
Off to the National Museum of the Filipino People by Cycle Rickshaw:
     Yesterday, in the coach when we had passed by the National Museum of the Filipino People, I had thought that I would like to return. Jessica preferred to return to the Manila Hotel to prepare for an Awards Ceremony Luncheon at 12 noon. With about two hours to play with, I find a cycle rickshaw pass by me and I ask the man if he will take me to the National Museum. I know that it ought to cost me no more than 25 to 30 pesos. But he asks me for 100 and since he is an old and very poor man, I agree although I feel guilty throughout the ride that an elderly man is giving me a ride. Still. I try to quell my guilt by focusing on the fact that I have probably contributed to his ability to eat that day and we move on. It is about a 15 minute cycle ride to the museum and he deposits me there as arranged. He pedals the bicycle--I sit in a little cavity at the side--like a side car on a motorbike! It is an odd ride and a very unusual expereince.
     My guide book tells me that I ought to get to this museum to see the excavated Treasures of the San Diego, a 15th century Spanish galleon that went down in Manila Bay, thanks to the idiocy and lack of experience and sea-faring knowledge of its Captain Morga. In war with a Dutch ship, Morga made all the wrong decisions and led his crew to death and his ship to destruction. It lay at the bottom of the ocean until the 1960s when it was pulled up.
    While there aren't many great treasures really in the museum what was interesting to me was a whole lot of information about the Spanish galleon trade from China and the Spice Islands (modern-day Indonesia) through the Philippine islands and on to the West. Through a series of wonderful paintings, this history is well-recorded and since I am designing a course that deals with this theme, I found it especially helpful. Of the treasures themselves, there was a fine collection of jars--gigantic urns really used as ballast when filled with oil and water. These were made in China, Thailand (then known as Siam), and the Philippines. Beautifully assembled together, they make a stunning display. There are also male gold jewelry (belt buckles, for instance) and artifacts and, most interestingly, a real coconut and a large number of real hazelnuts that were removed intact from the wreck. There is also a whole gallery devoted to the blue and white China that was produced in China and that the ship was carrying as part of its cargo. From ginger jars to plates, there were a variety of items and they occupy two whole rooms. The ship's anchor as well as the navigational instruments used to steer the ship on the high seas were also recovered from the wreckage and they are a part of the main exhibits. It is worth getting to this museum only to see this section, especially if one is interested in aspects of Renaissance maritime trade in the Indies.
      I hailed a passing taxi on the street, after spending over an hour in the museum and made my way to Manila Hotel to witness the award-distribution ceremony held during one of the magnificent buffet lunches that have been a part of this conference. Awards were given to the most active chapters of the East-West Center Alumni Associations that are spread all over the world. A few short speeches accompanied this formal part of the event. Lunch was delicious and plentiful, as usual, and while I am sorely tempted by all these goodies, I am dreading the impact on my waistline and cannot wait to get back to normal eating again.
Going on More Sightseeing Adventures:
     During lunch, I happened to be seated with the Filipino contingent--a lovely group of men and women who graduated from the East-West Center in the 1960s and are now prominent citizens of their country and very distinguished at that. They were warmly welcoming of me and were very inclusive during the ceremony. I was able to glean a lot of tourist information from them. Mainly I told them that following the advice of my guide books (Lonely Planet and others), I wanted to get to the Chinese Cemetery and to the Ayala Museum and to get back to my hotel for a shower and a change and then return to Manila Hotel by 6. 30 pm for our last Gala Aloha Dinner and Talent Evening. They marveled at my energy and told me that basically the only way to get there was by taxi and that since it was a Sunday, there was a possibility that I might be able to cover both venues through the afternoon. So off I went. But first I needed to find a taxi.
A Word About Manila's Public Transport:
     So, at this stage, a comment on Manila's Public Transport would be in order. Basically, it is non-existent and neither is it a walking or walkable city. It is vast, sprawling and, like Bombay, runs in a north-south pattern with several scores of miles linking the two portions. Our hotels were in the middle of the city, the Chinese Cemetery was in the north and the Ayala Museum was in an area known as Makati, even further north. There are no buses and a very sporadic light-rail train system that might as well not be there, I'm told.
     Local people pile into a vehicle called a Jeepney--a strange sort of Jeep (which, apparently, is a relic of American occupation of the islands). About 12 people fit into it, six on each side facing each other. I suppose you would need to tell the drive where you wish to go and he finds a route that caters to all his passengers. It would have been an interesting cultural experience to take it, had I a companion. Being alone, I simply did not feel comfortable getting into one. Left with the only choice, I needed to hail a cab. Cabs are very cheap by American standards, but there is this one problem. Once you get into a taxi, you will simply sit there for God Knows how long--for traffic is insane. Luckily, all cabs are air-conditioned. So if you are patient and not in a hurry to get somewhere, taxis kind of work.
     So, a taxi it was for me. Again, luckily, all the drivers speak fairly good English and most of them are honest. They do not try to spin your around just to keep the meter going. I managed to find a taxi through the concierge at the Manila Hotel. He turned out to be a Born Again Christian--so for the duration of a very long ride, I was subject to his attempts at converting me to his faith! Not exactly what I had bargained for! Still, he was taking me towards my destination--so I could endure his spiel. Also, he knew how to get to these tourist venues and he took the shortest routes to get to them.
Exploring the Chinese Cemetery:
     A cemetery, you say? Why? A Chinese one? Why? Why?
    Well, Lonely Planet had extolled the virtues of this one and made it sound like one of the world's most unique experiences. I was game to give it a shot. We reached it in about half an hour and for the payment of 100 pesos, I was allowed inside.
     The Chinese are a very wealthy community in The Philippines--mainly traders and businessmen. They believe in sending their dead off to the next life in style and in creating mausoleums for them that are worthy of their earthly status. So what you see in this place is a little township--almost like a residential suburb inside a gated community with streets running in a neat grid pattern. The family of each deceased person buys a sort of vault--each like a little cottage in a terraced housing project--complete with marble steps leading to ornate wrought iron gates that are decorated with Chinese motifs, lucky lions, curving rectilinear roof lines, urns, flower vases, etc. Some of these vaults are air-conditioned, have basins with hot and cold running water and I am told even flush toilets (in case, the dead get caught short on their way to the next world!) The vaults are interspersed with various houses of worship--Buddhist, Taoist, Christian (there were several chapels). I simply could not believe what I was seeing. Needless to say, I took many pictures and did not linger too long as it was oppressively hot outside my air-conditioned vehicle. The gates of one of the vaults were open and two Chinese women were tending to the raised altar-like graves inside. I asked permission to take pictures of it and they graciously granted it. Inside, I found black and white pictures (probably from the 1950s) of a man and woman on the wall above their altar-mausoleums. The ladies were changing the flowers inside and putting fresh ones with fresh water into ornate vases. I am guessing they were the daughters of the deceased. I found the entire operation very moving indeed and, were I not so uncomfortably hot, I'd have stayed longer to witness their rituals. As it was, I returned to the car and told my driver (who had waited for me while I toured around and took pictures) to take me on to the next venue--the Ayala Museum.
     I was really glad I made the effort to get to the Chinese Cemetery. I do not believe I will see anything like this anywhere else in the world. It was a wonderful lesson in cultural studies--a living museum, if you will, of Chinese customs in the Philippines.
Off to See the Ayala Museum and Exploring Makati:
     Back in the taxi, my driver continued to fight traffic to get me to the next venue I wished to explore--the Ayala Museum. The Ayalas are a noteworthy, billionaire Filipino family--the equivalent of the Rockefellers in the US or the Ambanis in India. They made their money in mall-development and then went into real estate development of commercial property. Manila's newest neighborhoods that go by the names of Greenbelt 1 to Greenbelt 5 are entirely their doing. In the process, they have become wealthy as Croesus and turned towards art collecting and creating a museum to display their collection. The Ayala Museum is the result.
     One of the Ayala family creations is the neighborhood of new Makati--an area that leads you to believe you have left Manila behind and entered London's Canary Wharf, Bombay's Bandra-Kurla Complex or the Hiranandani Estate in Powai or San Francisco's Financial District. This is the other face of the Philippines--one that is lurching towards the mid-21st century at breakneck speed, thanks to Globalization. Naturally, it has created two segments of the population--the fiercely upwardly-mobile that live in high-rise air-conditioned apartment buildings (as do Bombay's nouveau riche) while the poorest have been left far behind, not even daring to step into these upscale neighborhoods. I was really glad I took the time and trouble to come out to Makati--to see for myself the designer stores, the trendy coffee shops and wine bars, the discos and clubs that cater to the young of this city that work by night as call center attendants and spend their days drinking, smoking and blowing up the money they earn working for American corporations as telephone support staff. Meanwhile, in the skyscrapers themselves, multi-national corporations work in glass paned, climate-controlled offices and I did pass by the Peninsula Hotel Manila and the Shangri-La Hotel in this area. These five-star hotels cater directly to the international financial community.
Exploring the Ayala Museum:
     Eventually, I did get to the Ayala Museum and it amazed me that for a private air-conditioned taxi ride that provided a driver that stayed the course with me through my stops for over an hour and a half, I paid no more than US$6! Taxis are an incredible bargain in this city and although we often sat in traffic that actually put me to sleep (I dozed off after my gigantic lunch), we did get to our destination.
     The driver drove away and I hurried to the Main Reception Desk, manned by a crew of very smart young men and women who looked like college undergrads. They honored my Metropolitan Museum ID card and gave me free entry into the museum after telling me that staff of all museums, world-wide, are allowed inside free of charge. I told them that I had about an hour and half to spend in the museum and wondered if they could tell me which highlights I should not miss.
     They directed me immediately to the fourth floor to see the Pre-Colonial Gold Treasures of the Philippines which would have been a great exhibit but for the fact that most of the items were on loan to a museum in New York at the moment--perhaps I will see it when I get back home. The few items that were there were good. Seeing this exhibit was preceded by a ten minute film that explains how these items were made--might have been worth my while if they had all been there.
     The second area they had directed me to was the second floor where the entire history of the Philippines has been depicted in a huge diorama consisting of about 75 windows or vignettes that detail pre-historic times to the present. It was a wonderful introduction to the country and having taken Carlos' tour yesterday, it was like a refresher course, in visual terms, for me. You need a lot more time to do this exhibit justice and I hurried through it and was very pleased to bump into an American couple who were also attending my conference. They too intended to get back by taxi by 5.00 pm and I asked if I could share their cab--to which they readily agreed.
     Before leaving the museum, the three of us stepped into the lovely gardens that hold changing sculptural exhibitions. It reminded me very much of the beautiful gardens of the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles that I had explored last summer. Filled with koi (Chinese goldfish), the pond was a huge drew for children. Meanwhile, the Ayala Museum sits bang in the center of designer stores, coffee shops, etc. and get this, a church! In fact, Mass was going on as we passed by and since the church was very modern with gardens around it, the faithful had spilled out onto the green lawns and were listening to Mass in the midst of worshippers of Mammon. It was all very peculiar indeed.          
Back to my Hotel:
     We had a lovely conversation en route to our hotel. The couple, Richard and Rae, had met at the East-West Center in the 1960s as Grad students. They were both practicing lawyers in Honolulu, Hawai'i, working in their own law firm. They had one son in Los Angeles and had arrived in Manila from Australia where they had attended the wedding of their son's friend. They were very easy conversationalists and we had a sparkling exchange that was a lot of fun. About 40 minutes later, they dropped me off at my hotel before driving off to theirs.
     I raced through a shower and a change and then requested the concierge to get me a taxi to the Manila Hotel. I was there in under ten minutes and hastened off to the Maynila Ballrom for the Grand Finale Gala Dinner of our conference where I had the chance to reunite with many of the new friends I have made over the past three days. I sat with Jessica and Mary and a few other people and had a really enjoyable evening. Needless to say, the buffet dinner once again left me feeling stuffed just looking at it and the talent provided on stage offered a range of abilities--some performers were good and some, well...let us say they earned full marks for lacking stage fright!
    At the end of the evening, after all the Thank-Yous were said, and table prizes were won, there was a lovely 'Aloha Oe' Song sung with all participants holding hands and forming two  huge leis as we sang the words. It was a touching goodbye and then the dancing began and we were all on the floor boogeying!
    It had been an incredible experience and I was very glad that I had juggled so effectively my attendance at some of the main sessions of the conference with exploration of the city and an examination of its most note-worthy monuments and museums. Since I do not believe I will ever return to Manila (although never say never), I was very glad I made the most of every moment in this city. Perhaps one ought to see other parts of the Philippines--its beautiful rural and natural wonders, for instance--but I was not unhappy with what I had seen and the brave attempts I made, despite many transport inconveniences and the unmitigated heat--to see the place.
            On the chartered shuttle coach back to my hotel, I meet a very nice elderly gentleman named Gerald Mullins from Wisconsin who was a career educationist, did his Ph.D. in Asian Studies from the EWC in the 1950 or 60s and has come to the conference with the idea of reuniting with his classmates. He was a very interesting conversationalist and I had a lovely ride back to our hotel together with him.
     Tomorrow, I shall rise at leisure, have breakfast and get ready for my departure to Bombay via Bangkok. 
     Until tomorrow.... 


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