When I told people I was going to the Philippines, many responded: “Be careful” or “Manila isn’t a very good city.” Even before I planned a trip there, I’d heard people say the only reason to fly into Manila was to fly directly (as in, don’t even leave the airport) to one of the report islands (Palawan, Cebu, Boracay).

So obviously I was stressed leading up to our – my Father would be with me – alighting in Manila. I know what you’re thinking: “Erisa! Your Dad – a tall, black, man – is traveling with you, you’ll be fine.” Okay, but he’s old and moves slow and thinks a long time about things. If we get attacked I have a better chance of escaping, but I can’t just leave my Dad! And what if he has a heart attack from the stress of a mugging?!?

Dad said traveling makes him nervous because he doesn’t want to miss his place, but he relaxes after he’s sitting at the gate. I would be content once we were safely back in my apartment in Keelung.

It didn’t help my nerves that a few days before we arrived in Manila, I read the Google review for our Best Western hotel (Dad likes staying in American chain hotels when abroad, but actually Best Western is FRANCHISE) and learned it’s located in the old red light district. Or that the day after we arrived, a friend posted a link on Facebook to a news report of a Taiwanese woman who got drugged and robbed in Manila.

It’s so easy to freak out. It’s so hard to go into a new experience with no negative expectations.

***

The airport had a pick-up/drop-off section where we waited for someone from the medical school Dad would be meeting with to pick us up. A security guard stood at the gate, behind the fence were dozens of people waiting to greet their loved ones. We waited, searching the crowd for this woman in a black blouse and cream pants. Finally, she found us (I guess we stand out more in the crowd than she does) and we headed towards the gate. Several steps away, I realized Dad’s bag was not in his hand. He’s left it on the ground where we’d been waiting. I snapped around and expected it to be gone. Of course it’s gone, I thought, it’s been unattended for ten seconds.

Of course it was not gone.

As we left the gate area, I found my eyes and ears scanning the dimly-lit parking lot. Must be alert. But I tried to make light small talk with the doctor giving us the ride to our hotel. Seeing a Jollibee sign in the distance, I said: “I’m excited to try Jollibee. Did you know they’re expanding in the U.S.”

As we drove through the small, alley-like streets in the vicinity of our hotel, barefoot children ran by, at times obstructing cars with their games. I decided we would not leave our hotel unless it was to go directly into the car waiting to pick us up and take us on our tour or to the airport.

***

It took me quite a while to “loosen up.” It’s so hard to relax a grip that’s been tightened by paranoia.

It reminds me of a passage from Beloved (Morrison, p. 234):

“White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. […] It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spead. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it.”

Perhaps this loosening occurred because we mostly did touristy things, but by touristy things, I mean there were many, mainly Filipino tourists. (We were not on beaches sipping cocktails, where I imagine more of the foreign tourists visit. We visited war memorials and museums, one was even in an elementary school commemorating the site where General King surrendered his forces on the Bataan Peninsula, thus beginning the Bataan Death March. So we did see several American tourists, but they were mostly old, military retirees. More on this in “What I Learned on My Winter Vacation: WWII in the Pacific.”)

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The view from the end of a dock at Corregidor Island, about 30 minutes boat ride from Manila. From 1940-1945 this place was constantly being bombed, first by the Japanese, and then by the Allies as they reclaimed the Philippines.

Anyway, seeing people actually live and not just reading headlines of what’s happening in a place is really helpful for dispelling fear. Obviously. Hey, they’re just like me! I could now see. Long weekend taking a trip out of the city. Getting lunch at a roadside cafe on said trip.

Also, most of the people we interacted with were incredibly nice and helpful! This is probably because most of the people we interacted with worked in the tourism service industry and thus it’s they’re job to be nice. But still. They were genuinely kind.

We had no negative experiences. Probably the closes thing to harassment we experienced was once in a mall in Tacloban – not in the airport, because it seems like in airports around the world this is par-for-the-course – a random man asked us if we needed a ride. (And he was incredibly polite in asking. And I’m sure he was not going to swindle us. Perhaps he would charge more that is standard, but if we’re willing to pay that price, he might as well ask. I would not call this swindling. This is his livelihood.)

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Our hotel in Tacloban. It was right next to a church, which overflowed on Ash Wednesday.

One night in Tacloban (well, it wasn’t night, it was early Ash Wednesday evening. I don’t go out at night in unknown places after Mongolia) we were the only ones eating dinner in this cafe near our hotel (nice, little, comfortable, clean place with the best Filipino food I had in the Philippines; would stay there again if I had any reason to go back to Tacloban; would recommend it to anyone who has any reason to go to Tacloban). These teens came into the cafe and sat down. The server didn’t address them in any way or anything. So that was weird. i noticed a few of them glancing at me and my Dad. Then I caught the server staring at us too. Immediately my overactive imagination pictured the inevitable: my Dad and I passed out face-first in our chicken and rice dinner and being robbed by these teens, or being taken somewhere by the teens, wherein we would be robbed.

This momentary paranoia subsided once I realized the teens were taking turns using the bathroom.

Dad and I explored the shoreline part of Tacloban (many parts were wrecked by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in 2013), walking around and again, it was very pleasant. We got some looks, but no one really approached us besides some kids on break from school. First it was these three little girls. We were walking behind them, and as we passed a church, I looked in, just curious, and I almost ran over the girl. She had stopped to curtsy and cross herself. They asked us where we were from and we asked them where the beach was. “Over there!” The bigger girl pointed across the road. “But it’s very dirty.” The smaller girl just giggled explosively.

Later another group of young girls passed us. As I went into a shop to buy something, they started chatting with my Dad. When I came out, they asked if he was my Dad, and I said yes. “Where is my Mom?” one of them asked. I gave her a confused look. “Where is your Mom? I don’t know.” They all laughed. “No no. Where is your Mom,” she asked. “In America.”

***

One of our tour guides, at the end of our tour, pointed out that we were driving through a bad part of Manila. It was around 7 PM and a lot of people were out just walking around. Sure, I would not want to step out of the car and walk home, but people were just living their lives. I don’t know what I expected. I don’t know why I expected anything different. I guess when all you hear about a place is one thing you forget that there are many many things happening in every place.

***

Students from the medical school my Dad met with took us on a little tour our last full day in the Philippines. We drove through the posh, newer business district, Makati, which looks like any metropolitan city: tall, shiny buildings, wide streets, coffeeshops and cafes, fancy hotels. We drove through the old Spanish-style section of Manila, Intramuros, and had a traditional desert – warm bean pudding with molasses and tapioca balls (very delicious).

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A building in Intramuros.
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Street art in Makati.

There was a lot of driving. And there was MUCH TRAFFIC (I’d say that’s the only legitimate bad thing about Manila: too much traffic). As we had a lot of time in the car, I talked with them about their lives and learned that while the specifics of life are different, the generals are the same. Those who think the world is big and scary have never left their town.

My Dad had been coughing a lot and one of the med students said: “maybe it’s TB.” And I laughed because I thought he was making a joke because who gets TB these days*? Turns out, it’s incredibly prevalent in the Philippines. I proceeded to freak out for the next 24 hours worrying my father and I would get (or had already gotten!) TB.

 

*When I’d taken a global health class in college, we learned about TB/HIV co-infection, but only really read about it in Haiti and Africa, so I didn’t really think about it existing elsewhere.

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