Manila and Beyond

Dennis Kawaharada

“Filipino drivers like to make five lanes out of four,” quips the tour guide, as cars, trucks, motorcycles, taxis, buses, and jeepneys challenge our bus for road space on the way from the airport to the financial district of Makati, where our hotel is located. “They follow the eleventh commandment--‘Thou shalt not yield.’ One inch is considered a safe distance.

It’s January, one of the coolest months of the year, and it’s hot—in the upper 80s. And all the traffic creates a dense smog that hangs over the city on windless days and causes the eyes and throat to burn and mucous to coat the back of the throat.

I’m traveling with the Governor of Hawai’i’s tour to commemorate the centennial of the Filipino immigration to Hawai’i. From Manila, the group plans to visit the four provinces from where the immigrants who came work on the plantations originated: Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and Pangasinan on the northwestern side of Luzon; and Cebu, a city and an island 350 miles south of Manila in the region known as the Visayas. (Map of the Trip.)

On the way to the hotel, we pass run-down mid-twentieth century buildings and shanty towns perched above waterways; below the rows of ramshackle huts, the banks are littered with trash. The streets are dense with people, the majority of them young. This Catholic country has one of the highest population growth rates in the world; at 2.3% annually, the population will double in a generation.

Makati is a contrast to much of the rest of the city: steel and glass high rises; upscale shops, restaurants, and shopping malls; walled enclaves of well-kept homes. Condos here include a room for the maid.

Manila is such a sprawling city (actually 13 cities, each with its own mayor), it’s hard to figure out what to do or see, and once you decide, the traffic is so congested, it takes a while to get there and back. On our one free morning, I opt out of the traffic and go on a solo walk around Makati, checking out a three-story handicraft store on Pasay Road, Gloreitta Shopping Mall, and Greenbelt, where there is a museum, a small park, shops and restaurants, and a modern, open air church with bronze statues of a herd of water buffalo.

On the first night, a dinner hosted by the mayor of the city of Mandulayong, just north of Makati, features ox tongue; the entertainment includes folk dances by university students, and a buxom songstress.

The next night we travel north on Roxas Boulevard to a seafood restaurant where Tito Atienza, the Mayor of Manila, hosts a dinner. The mayor has developed a Beach Walk along Manila Bay with food stalls and entertainment stages. He says he was inspired by the beach walk in Waikiki.  Judging from the crowds, his project has been a success, though the locals complain about the grid-lock every night.

On the way to the restaurant we pass a land reclamation project where Imelda oversaw the building of a cultural center. Our guide’s commentary is full of ironies: a Film Center which was supposed to house an event similar to the Cannes Film Festival ended up housing “experimental” (x-rated) films and drag shows. The building is purportedly cursed because part of its roof collapsed during construction and the bodies were never recovered as the project needed to be completed quickly.

Mrs. Marcos also built a “palace” mainly out of coconut lumber for the visit of the Pope John Paul II in 1981; but the Pope declared it ostentatious and chose to stay with the papal ambassador instead. While the Marcos’ were still in power, the Coconut Palace, as it was dubbed housed Imelda’s celebrity guests (Muammar al-Qaddafi, Brooke Shields, George Hamilton).

Today it is a museum, with a coconut plantation, a butterfly garden, an orchidarium, and seven bedrooms displaying regional interior designs and furnishings made of coconut wood and shell inlay. “If there is only one building you see in Manila, see this one because it is built out of indigenous materials,” our guide recommends.

North to Ilocos

It’s a relief to fly out of Manila on day three for Laoag in Ilocos Norte, 250 miles to the north. The weather is cooler here, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less congested. Ilocos Norte is Marcos country. From his power base here, Ferdinand Marcos (of Ilocano, Chinese, and Japanese ancestry) rose to the office of the President of the Philippines in 1965. He was reelected in 1969. Before his second term ended in 1973, he introduced a new constitution that allowed him to stay in office indefinitely and to rule by decree.

Marcos remained in control of the country--and used the office to amass a huge fortune--until he was forced into exile by a bloodless revolution in 1986. He died in Hawai’i in 1989. Subsequently, his body was returned to Ilocos Norte and remains inside a refrigerated crypt. His wife Imelda hopes that one day the family will be allowed to inter her husband at the Cemetery of Heroes in Manila.

Fort Ilocandia Resort, where we are booked for two nights, was built by Mrs. Marcos for the wedding of her daughter Imee, who now serves as a congresswoman from Ilocos Norte.

When we arrive, the resort is filled with middle-class Chinese tourists who fly in on charter flights for golfing, horseback-riding, gambling, karaoke, beauty pageants, and water sports (banana boats, jet-skis, etc.).  Signage is in English and Chinese. The Marcoses are present in photos of the family that decorate the hallways. One photo of Imelda highlights a quote: “With God on your side, who can be against you?”

The beach here is long and wide. The sand is brownish, and on the day I walk along it, the ocean is rough, so the seawater is colored by the sand.

Dinner that night is hosted by Ferdinand’s son, “Bong Bong,” who is the governor of the province. (I was told by another “Bong,” that “Bong” or “Bong Bong” is the nickname of a son named after his father.) Entertainers perform traditional folk dances.

Along the coast, the land is rolling farmland, where corn, tobacco, mangos, and rice are grown. At an outdoor dinner on the second night, I meet Dr. Obien, the president of the Philippine Rice Industry Development Foundation. A cool north wind is blowing. He says it’s common for it to be windy at this time of the year, so rice hasn’t been planted yet, as the winds would damage the young crop.

Earlier in the day, the governor’s group went to a ceremony to inaugurate a mango processing plant. The building was still an empty shell, but Dr. Obien says that it will open sometime later this year and will produce both pulp for juices and dried mango for export. I mention that there is already a lot of Cebu-produced dried mango in Hawai’i. “Yes,” he responds, “we are a little behind here.”

On my way to Don Mariano Marcos State University (named after Ferdinand’s father) to meet with the Nursing faculty, we pass the lake and church at Paoay, two noteworthy sights of the province. San Agustin Church was built from 1694 to 1702 and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The massive stone buttresses are designed to prevent it from collapsing during earthquakes. The buttresses are adorned with scrolls and topped by decorative pinnacles. The bell-tower nearby is built out of coral and set away from the church so it wouldn’t damage the church if it collapsed.

At San Nicolas, the group attends a barangay (village) fiesta where traditional crafts are featured: pottery, weaving, leatherwork, ironwork (knives), and furniture making. A water buffalo-powered stone for crushing sugar cane is demonstrated.

That night, American Idol finalist Jasmine Trias, who is with the governor's tour along with her dad, sings and dances for a huge crowd in the city square of Laoag.

Ilocos Sur

Our next stop is Vigan, the main town in the province of Ilocos Sur, about 45 miles south of Laoag. On the way we stop at Port Salomague, from where the last group of sakada (the plantation workers who immigrated to Hawai’i) left in 1946.

A statue erected in their honor is dedicated, with much fanfare.

After the ceremony, we stop for lunch at the Cabugao Beach Resort, where the sand is whiter than at Fort Ilocandia, but the ocean is still windy and rough.

Vigan is an historic town, where buildings date from the eighteenth century and where you can ride a kalesa, or a horse-drawn carriage, down a street lined with antique and handicraft shops. Food vendors are set up near the square; we sample a small delicious sausage made on the spot and cooked over a charcoal fire on skewers.

The accommodations in Vigan are more rustic than those in Makati or Fort Ilocandia. One guest tells us that his toilet has a scoop bucket next to it to refill the toilet tank after he flushes; another says that her toilet is so close to the wall, she can barely sit on it; a third notes that his shower head is positioned half-way up the wall so he has to sit on a stool to bathe; a fourth says his hot water unit is broken.

My room, in Grandpa’s Inn, is decent--the bed is comfortably firm (though the sheet has a dirt stain on it), the toilet refills on its own after flushing, and I can shower standing up (though the water flow is weak). Small multi-colored glass squares adorn the shower room and an ornate lamp is suspended from the ceiling, along with a small TV.

Ilocos Sur is the domain of governor Luis “Chavit” Singson, reputedly the most powerful governor in the Philippines. He has remained in political office for over three decades and was instrumental in getting former President Joseph Estrada impeached on charges of graft. Singson testified that he delivered pay-offs collected from an illegal lottery called jueteng to Estrada.

Singson is also known for promoting economic development in his province, which depends mainly on agriculture products such as corn, tobaccos, garlic and onions. He envisions turning the province into “The Goat Center of the Philippines” (goat meat is a favorite) and developing the tiny Port Salomague into a gateway for shipping Ilocos products to China and Taiwan.

At his compound called Baluarte, on a hilltop garden, Singson hosts a dinner for the Hawai’i contingent. At the foot of the hill he has on display some of the animals from his zoo.  There is a tiger chained to the floor, which guests are invited to pet.

It looks tame, but remembering what happened to Roy Horn, I avoid the cat and touch the eight-foot long boa constrictor instead, just to see if it’s real.

An adolescent lion is chained to a pillar nearby; a pair of small monkeys huddle in the branches of a tree surrounded by Filipino guests; ostriches roam in a corral.

On the way up to the garden, we pass a 50-caliber machine gun overlooking the grounds. Singson says there have been several assassination attempts on his life, one involving a grenade.

Featured at the buffet dinner is a whole cow on a spit, roasted over charcoal; entertainment includes filipina hula dancers in cellophane skirts and singers in gold suits.

On the way down from the garden dinner, we notice a room with the name of the President of the Philippines on it: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. One guest notes that the name-plate is hanging from hooks for easy removal.

Early the next morning, the buses roll south to Dagupan, in the province of Pangasinan, a four-hour trip, even with a police escort. Along the route, the mountains are closer to the sea, creating a more varied scenery than the flat coastal lands to the north.

We stop at Santa Maria, the location of Nuestra Señora De La Asuncion Church, which is built on a hill and, like the church at Paoay, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A broad 82-step stone stairway leads up to the Baroque church. The bell-tower here is also located off to the side in case of collapse during an earthquake.


Pangasinan is the most populated province in Luzon, with 2.4 million people. The land is devoted mainly to farming--rice, corn, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Pangasinan is also known for its commercial salt; it’s name means “place where salt is made.” The famous condiment bagoong is also said to have originated in Pangasinan.

That night, Victor Agbayani, the governor of Pangasinan, hosts a dinner at the gubernatorial mansion across from the Provincial Capitol. It starts raining on the way there, the first and last rain we see on this trip in the middle of the dry season. The dinner is outdoors, under a canopy of coconut leaves, so the rain drips through. Luckily, it’s not a heavy rainfall and doesn’t last through the night. The governor graciously passes out umbrellas as gifts.

The governor has his own tale of migration to tell during his speech. His family is from Ilocos. His grandfather went to Manila to find work. He wanted to visit home, but his bus ticket took him only as far as Pangasinan. He decided to settle there. His son, Aguedo, rose to governor of the province. Victor follows in his father’s footsteps.

Both Agbayanis are both known for progressive policies in population control, though he doesn’t bring up this controversial topic in his speech. Elsewhere, he has said that even though he emphasizes natural birth control rather than artificial contraception, he wants to keep his efforts off the radar screen of ultraconservatives opposed to any kind of birth control or family planning.

The province’s growth rate is lower than the national average (1.9 vs. 2.3 percent). The rationale for Agbayani’s support of family planning is simple: “Our budgetary resources are not enough to provide the basic services of our people."

The next morning, breakfast is hosted by Benjamin Lim, Mayor of Dagupan, at the Leisure Coast Resort, located next to a water park. His speech focuses on the fact that the city has made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 2005 for the longest barbecue grill on record (1 kilometer). The grill was used to fry 10,000 pieces of bangus (milkfish) at a festival. The bangus from this province, grown in fishponds, is said to be the tastiest in the Philippines.

After breakfast, we head back to Manila for a flight to Cebu. We finally come upon a six-lane expressway about halfway to the national capital. Even with this expressway, the ride takes about five hours. The next morning we rush off to the airport at seven for an hour and fifteen minute flight to Cebu.

South to Cebu

Cebu, known as the Queen City of the South, is the commercial and tourism hub for the Visayan region, with a population of 3.3 million. We are here for less than a day, including a lunch with the mayor and a dinner with the governor.

Our hosts decide that the city tour will consist of two stops. The first is a view of the city from a Taoist temple in the hills near a development dubbed “Beverly Hills,” built by an American. The homes here are larger and more upscale than those around the city center on the coastal plain.

Our guide tells a string of dirty jokes that have us laughing, in my case, not so much at the stale content, but at his delivery, which is inimitably Filipino. He feigns not to understand his own sexual implications and jokingly accuses us of misinterpreting his words (nut with hole in it … banana … flower … bird … men’s room, etc., etc.). In between the jokes, he tells us that Chinese businessmen come to the temple, dedicated to Lao Tse, to find out whether business ventures will succeed for fail.

Our second stop is the chapel housing the cross of Magellan, which commemorates the landing of Magellan in 1521 during his voyage around the world. Around this spot, the first Christian Filipinos, Rajah Humabon and Queen Juana and about 400 of their followers, were baptized. Some believe that the original cross is encased inside the wooden cross in order to protect the original from worshippers who wanted chips from the cross because it was believe to have miraculous powers. Others think the cross is merely a replica.

Children and adults selling votive candles, religious trinkets, guitars, hats, food and other wares circulate around the chapel and through the marketplace outside the adjacent church of Santo Niño.

Some of the group are emotionally overwhelmed by the pleading of the impoverished children and take refuge back in the bus.

The cross is at the exit of the church of Santo Niño, the Christ Child, where another object of veneration is housed: an image of the Christ Child, purportedly given to Queen Juana by Magellan as a baptismal gift. When the Spaniards returned 40 years later, they set the village on fire in their attack. After the fire subsided, the image was found intact, though its face had been blackened. Its survival was considered miraculous, so like the cross, the image is worshipped for its divine power.

In the courtyard of the church is tiered, stadium-like seating, and the bleachers are packed with worshippers. Many have arrived for the Sinulog, a ten-day festival held in January in honor of the Christ Child. The streets are lined with vendors, including those from the neighboring islands invited over for the festival.

On Saturday there will be a procession of costumed dancers who imitate the current (sulog) of the Pahina River, taking two steps forward, one step back, to the beat of drums. According to one account the original dance was a pagan ritual. The festival culminates in a mardi-gras like Grand Parade and street party on Sunday, with 25,000 dancers and reenactments of the fight between Magellan and the native chief Lapu Lapu.

Not surprisingly, in this country of contradictions created by its colonial heritage, when we arrive at provincial capitol that evening, we find a gilded statue of Lapu Lapu who killed Magellan when the Spaniard landed on the island of Mactan, just offshore from Cebu City.

Armed with a broad-bladed sword, Lapu Lapu remains a symbol of native pride for a country that has been ruled for 300 years by the Spanish, 40 years by the Americans, and 3 years by the Japanese, before becoming a free nation after the end of World War II.

The governor who hosts the dinner that night is Gwen Garcia, the first female governor of the province. A slender, attractive woman, she succeeded her father, Peter Garcia, who is her love, inspiration, and mentor, by winning a hotly contested election in 2004. The presentation at the dinner is the slickest we’ve seen, with a computerized slide show and well-paced speeches interspersed with entertainment by traditionally costumed dancers and singers.

During dinner, a businessman points out that while the rest of the Filipino economy was struggling along in recent years, Cebu was prospering. A local radio host declares that he supports more autonomy for the provinces.

The dinner ends around nine, and I decide to walk back to the Waterfront Hotel, where we are staying. The streets are dark in places, and young people hanging out in groups, but I feel safe here. Of course everything except a scattering of bars and massage parlors is closed, so there’s not much to see.

When I get back to the room, I find a note saying that we need to bring our luggage down to the buses at five a.m. and the buses are leaving for the airport at 6:15. Too bad we won’t be staying on to experience the river dance on Saturday and the parade on Sunday or to look over the trade fair booths with products from the Visayas region.

And there are a myriad of other places in the 7,700 islands of the Philippines that I wouldn’t mind seeing--the white sand beaches of the offshore islands, the underground river system of Palawan, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, the ancient rice terraces of Banaue, the mountain town of Baguio, the river valley of Cagayan.

Like Frost, I kept those roads for another day.